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How I Finished My PhD: #ShutUpAndWrite

This is likely the second-most obvious, and probably the most common, "how to finish your dissertation" type of blog. Of course, the fact remains: you need your written dissertation to graduate. But, there is one other fact that many often neglect: every minute you spend on your dissertation IS progress towards the finish line. Let's unpack this part first, and then I'll share how to #ShutUpAndWrite (practically).

Opportunity to work with students from across the globe

In year one of my dissertation program, I had the opportunity to work with a student from Taiwan (pictured above) on a dataset featuring satellite observations of Earth's ionosphere. He shared some of his files with me; in turn, I spent a few weeks working with him and helping on his project. I developed a few writeups and developed some computer scripts for reading and processing the data. Of course, I hoped this would help me (at this point, I was still drafting my dissertation proposal and needed ideas). Ultimately, I never used this work for my proposal, which really seemed like a waste of time.


Four years later, during the summer of 2019, I switched the direction of my final project for my dissertation. The project leveraged globally averaged parameters from the ionosphere to do a comparison of physics-based model results and observation-based model results. However, I really wanted to include a data source directly from observations as a validation of the model results. Guess what! I still had both the dataset the Taiwanese student shared with me, and the computer scripts I used to read, analyze, and plot the data. I also had the write-ups I did to describe the data (four years later—wow!).



Snippet from my last project for my dissertation. What you'll see are lines and colors. But what I see is the culmination of four years of work.

Here it is (above). Don't worry about the technical details; all you need to know is the black line (the data from the Taiwanese student) goes with the blue line (the data based on observations), and that the red line is shaped like the others. What I really want you to know about this simple image: behind this image, is more than four years of effort, many re-writes, a LOT of tears, and plenty of prayer. This project, initially a discarded effort, ended up contributing to the most significant piece of my dissertation, and it helped me to complete my degree. #SN The relationship I forged with this student exposed me to some other features of the ionosphere that I was able to reference during a job interview I had a year after graduating (I landed the job too! Romans 8:28).

What's the point? Every minute you spend on your dissertation counts as progress. Yes, even your failures. Obviously, the polished sentences (or paragraphs) you craft after many hours of writing are good because they stay in your final document. However, the drafts, the unfinished ideas, and the failed ideas count too! It isn't possible for me to have the foresight to know that the work I did back then would be critical to finishing a project four years later. Any time you spend writing your dissertation should be viewed as valuable and as an investment into your future. Why waste that time, complaining to yourself about your work? Or fighting with your advisor to acknowledge you (mine certainly wasn't available to listen)? Remember, your sacrifice of time is not in vain! #ShutUpAndWrite.

How does one #ShutUpAndWrite? I found that my best work came from dedicating small chunks of time at regular intervals. The "I'll lock myself in for the weekend" or the "gonna pull an all-nighter" methods, though ambitious, simply weren't effective. They caused me to be too error-prone. I found that I spent more time gathering information, processing it and trying to figure out how to fit it into my own narrative and less time actually writing. Recently, I went back to read my "final" dissertation proposal document (I pulled several all-nighters to pump that one out). Looking at it now: It was GARBAGE. The document was riddled with errors, was not coherent, and did not make a clear story (thank God, I was able to present on it well at the proposal defense). The same goes for some of my earlier drafts of papers and chapters.

Instead, I found that setting an achievable goal, like "300 words per day," worked really well. First, this was easily achievable for me (and I HATE writing). Even if it meant deleting text that I no longer cared for or re-stating what I already had, 300 words was a great goal. Staying motivated to write was pretty easy. Often, I found myself exceeding that goal.




Soon enough, any location became an "office space"—my church, Grace Covenant Church, included. During that summer, I turned the backstage A/V storage room into my own little dissertation office (no kidding!). Between services, I'd head back there and write. I'm thankful that my church supported me. They also were aware of my simple, achievable goal, of 300 words per day. They'd often walk in on me, wish me well, and go about their day. Speaking of support, I also shared this goal with my closest friends. I'd get mid-day texts with the hashtag #300Words, just to make sure that I was on track. It was an easy goal to attain and an easy goal to verify. Pick your goals wisely!

The other thing about having a daily goal is, it kept my mind fresh and focused on my topic. Your dissertation topic really should be something you think about daily, meaning you are genuinely interested in the topic. You should be regularly conversing about your topic with colleagues, constantly reading the latest research papers on the topic, and constantly writing on the topic. As I was processing data, reading articles, or discussing my work with my committee members, I could easily go back to my dissertation and immediately see how it would fit. Everything clicked because my mind was always focused on my dissertation topic. Why? Because I spent time working on it, at regular intervals (and NOT just talking about it). #ShutUpAndWrite.

Anyways, I hope this helps you on your own journey, whether it is for your dissertation, term project, technical paper for work, or your own blog! What goal are you trying to achieve? Can you break that goal into smaller goals that are achievable, measurable, and easy to verify?

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