Tips for Starting Your Thesis or Dissertation
By Jodie Nicotra, Department of English and Amy Ross, UI Writing Center
1. Establish a clear structure. With your advisor,
- clarify a good question (one that matches with your interests but is also relevant and marketable);
- establish clear guidelines re: the process and what will be expected of you;
- establish a timeline with due dates (for proposal, chapter drafts, complete
final draft, defense date, etc.);
- decide what role the other members of your committee will play in the
2. It’s a good idea to turn in a proposal early in the process to clarify what you
plan to do in the project and make sure that everyone is on board with it ahead
of time (see other side for typical proposal structure and tips for writing). After
you discuss the proposal with your advisor, you can then send it to the other
members of your committee. It’s a good idea to set up a meeting time where all
of you can discuss it.
1. See example proposal structure on other side.
2. It’s a good idea to do a literature review as part of the proposal (and, of course,
for science dissertations/theses this will be part of the document itself). While you have obviously
learned from seminars, coursework, and lab work, this is probably your first major foray into the field.
Doing a literature review will give you a better sense of the relevant questions or conversations within
the field. Literature reviews also, generally speaking, help you to establish a better question for your
3. Framing an appropriate question (one that’s significant, answerable, and relevant to the field) and
deciding on sites to examine is the most important part of the pre-work.
1. Divide up large tasks into more manageable ones. Commit yourself to working on your project
(especially the writing part) for at least fifteen minutes every day to prevent procrastination and to
keep the project moving.*
2. Talk with your advisor about reading chapter drafts: earlier intervention often saves you and her/him a
lot of work down the line (I recommend having due dates for chapter drafts).
3. If your advisor has more than one student working on a dissertation or thesis, a dissertation/thesis
group might be a good idea. Meet once every three weeks to collectively review somebody’s draft.
4. Make sure that your advisor sees a final draft well before your defense date so that you have time for
For more on this, see:
Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1998)
Eviatar Zerubavel, The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999).
Peter Elbow, Writing with Power 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Anne Lamotte, Bird by Bird (New York: Random House, 1994).