Backing Up Your Dissertation

Sir Edmund Leach (1910-1989) was an anthropologist best known not only for the topic of his dissertation, but also how he wrote it. While he was conducting fieldwork in Burma, World War II broke out, and he lost all his fieldnotes—an anthropologist’s main source of data—due to military action. So he went on to write his dissertation on Burma’s political system without his fieldnotes! He received his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1947.

So while this story illustrates that it is possible to write your dissertation and complete your degree if you’ve lost all your research data, it is certainly not recommended! You should not only think about what you will write, but also how you will back up your work. As a 21st century scholar, you have more options for backing up your work than Sir Edmund Leach had!

Here are three principles for backing up your work:

Back up your work in three separate places
In the digital age, making multiple copies of your data is entirely possible. This option makes it easy to back up your research materials in more than one place. A photographer friend of mine always had three copies of her work—her SD card or computer, an external hard-drive, and a cloud-based platform. You can follow suit with your own data and writing.

Consider a cloud-based backup system as one of your backup options
The best backup solution is automatic, easy, frequent, and redundant. It is even better if a backup solution allows you to access your data from anywhere. Cloud-based backup systems meet all of these criteria.

​People are often afraid of using cloud-based systems because they think it won’t actually save their data. But if you’re working in a place prone to natural disasters like earthquakes or fires (Southern California anyone?), then your physical data, or even external hard drive, won’t be that helpful to you under a pile of rubble. A cloud-based back up means you won’t have to dig through debris to retrieve your data! Cloud-based platforms that can backup your work include the following:


Think about data security

Managing who can access your data is especially important in regards to digital backups. If your research involves human subjects, and your data includes identifying or sensitive information about people, then you will want to store it in a way that protects confidentiality. Your computer or external hard-drive should be password protected, but also consider password protecting the folders or files themselves. Sometimes the way you organize your data can mitigate risks—e.g. store identifying information separate from an individual’s name. The IRB will ask how you plan to secure your data, so be sure to talk to your dissertation chair about options that will work for your research situation.

Backing up your work does not have to be tedious or time consuming. Rather, this practice can ensure that you always have access to your data and in-progress work. As a bonus, backing up your work allows you to avoid panics, lost work, and other setbacks and frustrations that come with losing your data!

I wrote my dissertation in Microsoft Word and backed it up using Dropbox. I chose Dropbox because it was free and easy to use – anything that I saved in its folder was automatically saved on a cloud server. This came in very handy when my computer died mid-dissertation – I had set Microsoft to save an automatic backup to Dropbox every minute, so I didn’t lose any work and all it took to get started again was a trip to the Apple Store and reinstalling Dropbox. – Basil Considine

My advisor told me that he used to keep a copy of his dissertation in the freezer so it would be safe in case of a fire! Luckily, we have much better options today. I used Google Drive, which lets you store up to 15GB of data for free and access it from anywhere. You can download Drive to your computer so that every time you save, it is on your hard drive and in the cloud. I also paid for Mozy, which does automatic backups of your whole hard drive as often as you want. And you can access your files from anywhere, even earlier versions. – Rebecca Cantor

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