Ask Your Guru: organizing a dissertation

Organizing a Dissertation


I am currently working on my doctorate in Clinical Counseling. I will
also be working toward getting licensure as a Licensed Professional
Counselor. I will be taking a variety of comprehensive exams. I feel total unorganized. I have piles of papers from my classes because I
will need them to study from for my exams and for reference on my
dissertation (which I have not started yet). Is there an organization
program for me?
I’d appreciate any words of wisdom.
Terri B.


First, congratulations on working for your doctorate. That is a wonderful goal! There is not an organizational program per se, but I know I can help you get things organized so that your studying for licensing exams, reference materials and writing of your dissertation are as organized and stress free as possible. It’s hard to get started when you feel overwhelmed and unorganized, but you can do it.

Organize by Class/Subject

You probably have these items from each class that you kept and want to use for your studying and for your dissertation:
Papers you’ve written
Study sheets
Sample questions
Reference materials
Group Projects

If this is correct, perhaps all you need is to go back to your class papers and organize them by these categories. Or, if one class covered several types of categories (child psychology, criminal psychology, etc) then you may want to first separate your papers into these sub-categories if you believe they will be easier for you to quickly reference them.

Once you decide what categories fit with your area of study and you have separated your class papers – you are half way there! Now, you may prefer to organize by what is important to your dissertation so your categories may be totally different than these expamples- and you can and it will still work for you! You will have your foundation organized.

Now you just need to decide how to house it all.

Finding a Home for Papers

There are many ways to house your class papers and study materials. If you want them in one place and will access them in that place, then set up a file system. If you want your papers portable, then a binder system will probably be best. Folders are great, but they don’t hold much and it’s really terrible if you drop them and all your work falls out! Using Bank Boxes or file storage boxes is portable, but if they get wet, your papers could get ruined, so if you want to use file folder, get file cabinets!

If you decide to use binders, you can have a binder for each class or each subject with class or category breakdown within that binder. In other words, if you have 3 classes in child psychology, you may want all your notes from all these classes together in one area. So you would end up with one binder for Child Psychology with tabs like: Notes, Reference, Exams, Study Guides, Papers & Exams, etc. Then all your reference material on the subject will be in one area under the Reverence tab, all your notes will be under the Notes tab, etc. If you prefer to have them organized by actual class, same tabs would apply.

You can always go even one step further and use removable tabs to mark areas of specific interest under each tab (you can call out specific items that you will need, like reference material from one author or one type of counseling, etc.). You can also make an index for the front of the binder with what exactly you have in the binder so you can scan and find what you want quickly. Be sure to make a spine too so you can see where the binder is on your shelf or desk.

If you prefer a file system, use the binder breakdown as your start. So you will have one area of your files for Child Psychology and files for Child Psychology Notes, Reference, etc. and within those files you can add tabs for specific authors, etc.


Since you also have specific tests coming up to get licensed, I suggest you get that organized too. Just create a file or binder with what will be covered on the exam, a calendar showing when the exam will take place, and back track to today to see how much time you seriously have to study. If you can access sample questions and answers, materials for study from the licensing board, include that in the binder or your file area. Once you know the areas that will be covered on the test, schedule in time to study for each section; intensestudy for each section. Check them off your list as you study for them and any areas you find difficult, make note. You can always go back and study those areas just before the exam so they will be fresh and you will be comfortable with the topic. You will be able to access your notes since you have them organized, but studying in an organized manner will help you when you take the exams.

Writing Your Dissertation

Once you are organized with your papers and you know your testing schedule, you should be a little less stressed and able to focus better. Disorganization and clutter can be exhausting and a huge distraction. I can’t tell you how to write your dissertation, just to schedule time to write it. Start with an outline of what you want to cover, and then commit to it like a professional writer. A professional commits to writing 6 pages per day. That’s a full time job. If you don’t have that much time, decide what you will commit to and you will get it done!

The hardest part is just to get started, so start with just one area and build from there. You kow you can do it or you would not have started on this wonderful path! Good luck and let us know if you need any help along the way!