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The PhD-Doctor: The Modular Dissertation


By popular demand, Next Wave is pleased to present the first part of Herman Lelieveldt's series in English. The PhD-Doctor, which offers PhD students hands-on advice on how to handle the hurdles and challenges of your PhD project, is based on excerpts from his book Promoveren--Een wegwijzer voor de beginnend wetenschapper. You can also read this article in Dutch.

Writing a dissertation is such a daunting task that many PhD students do not dare to really face up to it and instead keep pushing the work further ahead of them. At the start of your project it seems as if there is an infinite amount of time to get the work done, but after a year and a half most of you will be confronted with a nagging nervousness having discovered that so much still needs to be done in so little time. In this contribution I will provide some tools that will help you to get your dissertation finished in a timely manner.

Taking a modular approach

To get a grip on your research project, it is wise to take a modular approach. Modules are clearly identifiable, intermediary tasks which have to be completed in order to finish your dissertation. Examples include outlining the research problem, making an inventory of theoretical perspectives, designing new models, and collecting, analyzing, or interpreting data.

The research, therefore, will have to be broken down into several modules that will serve as the stepping stones to your final destination: the manuscript. Instead of getting scared of the BOOK that needs to be finished, these intermediate goals are much more manageable targets on which to focus.

Ideally the results of these different tasks will be written down, for the simple reason that the dissertation itself will also be a written product. What's more, such written reports really force you to spell out the argument as fully and strongly as possible, and, eventually, make it easy for other people to look at your work and criticize it.

The most concrete example of the modular approach is the dissertation that consists of a number of--published or accepted--articles, and an introductory and concluding chapter. In science and medicine this is the standard approach, while economists, psychologists, and sociologists are more and more adopting this way of writing the dissertation. Other disciplines tend to disqualify such an easy-looking collection of articles because in their eyes it does not constitute the real book that a dissertation should be. But this is a bit unfair, because these modular dissertations are often the result of very well structured and well thought out research projects. And this is something that every dissertation should be founded upon.

Time planning

Having identified the modules of your project, it is of course essential to schedule them with the help of a time plan. You should not strive for a railroad-like timetable, but aim for a loose, but nevertheless concrete, plan that clearly outlines the modules.

Box 1 lists the items that should be included in such planning. As you can see it not only includes all the activities that are related to the dissertation (fieldwork, manuscript writing, rewriting, conferences), but also a host of other activities that will have to be undertaken in those years, such as teaching, administrative duties, and taking courses. Expect all of these things--except your holidays--to take longer than you originally hoped for, so don't schedule them too tightly.

Items for your planning:

  • Writing/outlining the research problem

  • Training: skills courses

  • Teaching

  • Appointments with your (daily) supervisor and dissertation committee

  • Data collection/fieldwork

  • Analyzing data/reporting measurements

  • Writing papers/chapters/articles

  • Rewriting papers/chapters/articles

  • Congresses

  • Drafting and rewriting the manuscript

  • Finding a publisher/lay out

  • Administrative duties

  • Holidays

  • The unexpected!

In Figure 1 all these activities are placed on a time scale. Now you can not only see how much time each activity will take, but also how many of them coincide. This will certainly help you to find the right mix of activities for each period. At the start of the project, it is a good idea to supplement your often long and lonely days while you are getting acquainted with the theoretical perspectives of your research. Take a couple of courses that will improve your knowledge of the field or your research skills (time management, specific techniques for data collection or analysis).

Further down the road it becomes more important to create stretches of time that do not distract you from manuscript or article writing. So, if possible make sure that you are done with teaching duties at least a year before the manuscript has to be delivered. Also be aware that the key to a good dissertation is rewriting, so make sure that there is ample time to do this, otherwise you will end up with what essentially constitutes a first draft.

Figure 1. Time scale

For the short term you need, of course, a more specific plan that helps you keep track of daily activities, including appointments with supervisors and others, which you preferably integrate in your calendar. This makes it easier to block out certain mornings or afternoons for 'vulnerable' activities such as writing, reading, or thinking. Make sure that there is always enough time to recover and recharge your batteries, so never plan activities during the weekend (unless there is a conference you need to attend). Otherwise weekends spent working will usually be followed by one or more working days that are spent unproductively because you did not rest enough. Moreover, do not forget to take a holiday for two or three adjacent weeks every year, because otherwise serious burnout might lie ahead.