Interview with a Dissertation Writer: Mary Tomkins

Mary Tomkins completed her Doctor of Philosophy in social and health psychology through the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston. Her dissertation is titled “Incorporating Religiousness into a Brief Alcohol Intervention.” Dr. Tomkins is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the area of social and health psychology.

How long did you spend writing your dissertation?

I proposed my dissertation on May 24th, 2019, and defended it on July 29th, 2020. So, including data collection and analysis, it took me about 14 months to complete. That calculation does not include how long it took me to write my proposal, which ended up being most of my first two chapters. My proposal was largely informed by previous projects, though, so it did not take very long to complete.

How long was your dissertation?

Including references and tables and figures, it came out to about 49 pages. Without references and tables and figures, it was about 28 pages.

How did you manage revisions for your project? How many revisions did you do? What help did you get?

I had my mom and Dr. Felton (of Morgan and Felton consulting) proofread each section for me and tell me if what I was saying made sense. That was about style/grammar. Then I also sent each section to my advisor for content approval/edits. During my committee defense, they gave me edits and revisions that had to be made before they approved the final submission.

How did you set up your time and space to write? In other words, when and where did you write best?

Since the bulk of my writing was done after the lockdown order was issued (everything before that was running the experiment), I mostly only wrote at home at my desk. But I found that putting in headphones, putting on a hoodie with the hood up, and eating sunflower seeds helped me focus. The headphones and hood helped me put blinders on, literally, so that I was less easily distracted by external factors, and the sunflower seeds gave part of my brain something to do without using up cognitive resources I needed for generating content. I still use these tricks when I want to focus on writing, especially if there’s a looming deadline.

What advice would you give to other dissertation writers?

You have to make writing a priority. Given our busy lives and how we’re pulled in many different directions, if you don’t make it a priority it won’t ever happen. There will always be something else you can do; there are always productive procrastination tasks waiting. You have to block off calendar time that is just for writing and treat it like it’s a meeting with someone important. And set aside time every day, even if it’s only thirty minutes a day. Thirty minutes is enough time that you can put something on the paper, but if you’re overwhelmed you don’t have to do too much at once. On the other hand, if you do get started on that thirty minutes and then find you’re on a roll, it will be much easier to keep going. With something as big as a dissertation, it can feel intimidating to even start writing, and committing to a little bit of progress every day is much less intimidating. It also helped me to have an accountability partner and a shared habit tracker, so if I didn’t write each day I knew he knew. 

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