For both undergraduates and postgraduates, a dissertation is an important piece of academic research and writing. A large research project often has many moving parts from managing information, meetings, and data to completing a lengthy write-up with drafts and edits. Although this can feel daunting, getting ahead with effective planning and organisation will make this process easier. By implementing project management techniques and tools, you can define a research and writing workflow that allows you to work systematically. This will enable you to engage in critical thinking and deep work, rather than worrying about organisation and deadlines.
To get prepared, you can do two things: First, start your preliminary readings and research to define a topic and methodology. You can do this in summer or during the first few weeks of university but the sooner, the better. This gives you time to discuss things with your supervisor, and really choose a topic of interest. Second, begin preparing the tools and techniques you’ll be using for your research and writing workflow. You can use the preliminary research phase to test these out, and see what works for you.
Below, we’ll cover three key aspects to consider when managing your dissertation, alongside some digital tools for planning, research and writing.
The 3 Categories of Dissertation Planning
Project Management and Planning
Your dissertation is a project that requires both long and short-term planning. For long-term planning, roadmaps are useful to break your work down into sections, chapters or stages. This will give you a clear outline of the steps you need to work through to complete your dissertation in a timely manner.
Most likely, your roadmap will be a mixture of the stages in your research project and the sections of your write-up. For example, stage 1 might be defined as preliminary research and proposal writing. While stage 3 might be completing your literature review, while collecting data.
This roadmap can be supplemented by a timeline of deadlines, this is when those stages or chapters need to be completed by. Your timeline will inform your short-term plans, and define the tasks that need completing on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This approach, using a roadmap and timeline, allows you to capture all the moving parts of your dissertation, and focus on small sub-sections at a time. A clear plan can make it easy to manage setbacks, such as data collection issues, or needing more time for editing.
Whether you use a notebook, or digital tool, it’s ideal to have a dedicated research space for taking general notes. This might include meeting notes from supervision, important information from informational dissertation lectures, or key reminders, ideas and thoughts. It can be your go-to place for miscellaneous to-do lists, or to map out your thought processes. It’s good to have something on hand that is easy to access, and keeps your notes together in one place.
Beyond this, you’ll also need a dedicated space or system for literature and research notes. These notes are important for avoiding plagiarism, communicating your ideas, and connecting key findings together. A proper system or space can make it easier to manage this information, and find the appropriate reference material when writing. Within this system, you might also include templates or checklists, for example, a list of critical reading questions to work through when assessing a paper.
It’s important to consider how you plan to organise your literature, important documents, and written work. Note-taking is a part of this, however, this goes a step further to carefully organise all aspects of your dissertation. For example, it’s ideal to keep track of your literature searches, the papers you’ve read, and their citations but also, your reading progress. Being able to keep track of how many passes a paper has been through, how relevant it is, or where it fits within your themes, or ideas, will provide a good foundation for writing a well-thought out dissertation.
Likewise, editing is an important part of the write-up process. You’ll have multiple drafts, revisions and feedback to consider. It’s good to have some way of keeping track of all this, to ensure all changes and edits have been completed. You might also have checklists or procedures to follow when collecting data, or working through your research. A good information management process can reduce stress, making everything easy to access and keep track of, which then allows you to focus on getting the actual work complete.
Digital Project Management and Research Tools for Dissertation Planning
Trello is a project management tool that uses boards, lists and cards to help you manage all your tasks. In a board, you can create lists, and place cards within these lists. Cards contain a range of information such as notes, checklists, and due dates. Cards and lists can be used to implement a digital kanban board system, allowing you to move cards into a ‘to-do’, ‘in progress’ or ‘complete’ list. This gives a visual representation of your progress.
This is a flexible, easy to use and versatile tool that can help with project management of your dissertation. For example, cards and lists can be used to track your literature, each card can represent a paper and lists could be 1st pass, 2nd pass, or be divided into themes. Likewise, you can use this approach to organise the various chapters or stages of your dissertation, and break down tasks in a visual way. Students have used Trello to manage academic literature reviews, daily life as an academic, and collaborate with their supervisors for feedback and revisions on their write-up.
Notion is an all-in-one note-taking and project management tool that is highly customisable. Using content blocks, pages, and databases, this tool allows you to build a workspace tailored to your needs. Databases are a key feature of Notion, this function allows you to organise and define pages using a range of properties such as tags, dates, numbers, categories and more. This database can then be displayed in a multitude of ways using different views, and filters.
For example, you can create a table with each entry being a page of meeting notes with your supervisor, you can assign a date, person, and tags to each page. You can then filter this information by date, or view it in a board format. Likewise, you can use the calendar to add deadlines, within these deadlines, you can expand the page to add information, and switch to ‘timeline’ view. This is perfect for implementing project management techniques when planning your dissertation.
Although this may sound complicated, there are many templates and resources to get you started. Notion is an ideal tool for covering all three aspects of dissertation planning from project and information management to note-taking of all kinds. Students have used Notion for literature reviews, thesis writing, long-term PhD planning, thesis management, and academic writing. The best part, these students not only share their systems, but have also created free templates to help you build your own system for research.
Asana is a project management and to-do list tool that uses boards, lists, timelines and calendars. If you’re someone who prefers using lists to organise your life and projects, Asana is ideal for you. You can use this tool to manage deadlines, reading progress, or break down your work into projects and sub-tasks. Asana can integrate with your calendar, which is perfect if you already use other calendar tools for organisation. If something like Notion is too overwhelming, using a mixture of tools with different purposes can be a more comfortable approach.
Genei is an AI-powered research tool for note-taking and literature management. Your research and reading material can be imported, and organised using projects and folders. For each file, genei produces an AI-powered summary, document outline, keyword list and overview. This tool also extracts key information such as tables, figures, and all the references mentioned. You can read through documents 70% faster but also, collect related articles by clicking on the items in the reference list. Genei can generate citations, and be used alongside other popular reference management tools, such as Zotero and Mendeley.
This tool is ideal for navigating information management and literature notes for your dissertation. You can compile notes across single documents or folders of documents using the AI-generated summaries. These notes remain linked to their original source, which removes the need for you to keep track of this information. If you find it hard to reword content, there’s also summarising and paraphrasing tools to help get you started. Genei is a great tool to use alongside project management solutions, such as Trello and Asana, and note-taking tools like Notion. You can define an efficient research and writing workflow using these range of tools, and make it easier to stay on top of your dissertation.