Beginning your dissertation project is like signing up for a marathon. And for many, it’s a mid-life journey that includes additional challenges like managing full-time careers and parenting.

Trust me, I get it. I understand the unique challenges faced by mature students because I started my PhD after 15 years as a higher education administrator and faculty member. Many of my clients are also returning to graduate school in the middle of their careers. The reality is that starting a dissertation at any point in one’s life is a major commitment of time and effort, particularly in the midst of work, family and life challenges.

Below are micro-goals for 2024 that can help you progress through your dissertation at a pace that’s reasonable and manageable.

Define Your Problem Statement and Key Research Questions

The best way to kick off your project is to hone in on your problem statement and research questions. What truly piques your interest? is there an issue or problem you have discovered through your work that you want to explore further? (Hint: For many of my clients, the best projects are closely related to their work and own professional experience.)

What is a gap in the scholarship in your topic area that your project can potentially fill? Is there a topic idea that motivates you enough to persevere through this all-encompassing process? (I have a fabulous problem statement development template that I provide to my clients that pulls out the key elements needed to do this!)

Take time to brainstorm and refine your focus. A clearly defined problem statement and research questions set the stage for a well-aligned dissertation journey. Then comes the task of deciding on a research design and theoretical framework – with the goal of putting together a project that is interesting, efficient and, above all, do-able!

Draft Your Proposal Outline – In Bullet-Point Form

Build out a rough outline for your dissertation proposal. The standard proposal usually includes three chapters (Introductory chapter, literature review and methodology), but this may vary depending on your subject area and program requirements. Name and identify key sections, such as the aforementioned problem statement, key research questions, significance, positionality statement, key lit review themes, methodology, etc. Consider which type of research design is best aligned with your research topic. (Check out this seminal chapter on the main types of qualitative research.) 

Briefly outline sub-sections within these key parts of your proposal. Think broad strokes at this point. Check out other completed dissertations in your subject area (ideally from your program) to get a sense of structure, sequencing and content development.

Build Out Your Literature Review 

Time to do a deep-dive into your literature review. Break it down into smaller sections, focusing on one or two sources at a time. This task will not be linear and the key is to organize material effectively as you go along. This involves locating and reading articles, taking notes and drafting sections. Your literature review should critically present the scholarship in the “landscape” of your topic area. Most students organize their reviews thematically, in a narrative style, but there are other ways of developing this. See this excellent article on the types of literature reviews.

Schedule Dedicated Writing Time 

Amid your busy schedule, carve out some dedicated writing time, even if it´s an hour a day. Block off specific hours (or half hours) each week, whether it’s early mornings, late nights or weekend mornings. Consistency is more important than the amount of time for each work session. The key is to move forward in a regular way, regardless of the pace.

Treat these “dates with your dissertation” as non-negotiable, just like any other important commitment in your life. Gradually, you will develop momentum and confidence if you stay in action mode. Ignore your inner gremlin – the one that insists on (unattainable) perfectionism and tells you are not talented enough to finish this project. You are and you will!

Seek Feedback on Your Proposal

Share your proposal draft with your supervisor, peers or even a dissertation coach like myself. (Regular meetings with your main supervisor are critical to your success.) Remember that ongoing constructive feedback is truly invaluable, helping you refine your ideas and ensuring you’re on the right path.

Establish a Support System

Surround yourself with people who understand the challenges you face and are truly interested in your success. Join online groups and communities, connect with fellow students or consider hiring a dissertation coach at this phase.  Having a quality support network is a game-changer.

Bonus Goal: Celebrate Small Wins!

Don’t forget to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small.

Completing an outline of your dissertation, meeting a writing goal or receiving positive feedback—all these victories deserve acknowledgment. Without it, we can run on an empty tank without even knowing it. Take the time to give back to yourself whether that means a special meal, a weekend getaway or just a leisurely day off.

Final words…

To circle back…yes, the journey to completing your dissertation is quite similar to a marathon and definitely far from a sprint. By breaking down the PhD process into manageable micro-goals, you’ll make steady progress. The old adage holds true: slow and steady eventually wins the race.