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- Hey Kelly I just help you out
January 8, 2009, 6:18 pm
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Re: Hey Kelly I just help you out
What this handout is about
Graduate school pundits often cite 50% or more as the attrition rate
for ABD students. Why? This handout will not only answer this
question, but also give you good, practical advice on starting,
drafting, and completing your dissertation.
Reasons for ABD inertia=97the nature of the beast
Why don't doctoral candidates manage to get rolling on the
dissertation any sooner, or KEEP rolling once they get started? Partly
because the dissertation is a completely new experience that is much
larger and more independent than your previous academic work.
1. Writing a dissertation is a completely new experience.
To this point, being a graduate student has been, more or less, an
extension of your earlier life as a student. Many people, in fact, go
to graduate school because they have always been "good at school," and
want to continue with something that brings them success and self-
confidence. The reading assignments, labs, papers, and tests you have
been assigned as a graduate student may not have been so different
from your undergraduate course work. The dissertation, on the other
hand, is a new kind of academic project, unlike anything else you've
done. It is the academic project that marks your transition from
student to scholar.
2. Writing a dissertation is not only new, it's also a very large,
very independent project.
Writing a dissertation is a lot like writing a book. It is, by
definition, a self-directed process. There are usually no weekly
deadlines from professors, no regular discussions with classmates, no
reading assignments, no one telling you what to do=97you are on your
own, writing something longer than you've ever written, and doing it
without a net. This independence can make the process seem very
3. The dissertation marks the transition from student to scholar and
is stressful as a result.
When you embark on this large, independent project, you may begin
to ask yourself questions about your future in academia. After all,
the dissertation is the beginning of the end of a graduate career.
When you finish your dissertation, you have to change your life pretty
dramatically =97you may go on the job market, begin work as an
independent scholar, develop classes, move out of a community that you
have grown to love, and so on. You may also feel like your
dissertation will begin to define your professional identity. You may
feel like your research interests, your theoretical influences, and
your skill as a writer may all be evaluated by this first piece of
serious scholarship. Whether any of these points are true or not, you
may find yourself questioning your commitment to your chosen
profession or topic and unable to begin the dissertation.
So what can you do if you are questioning your commitments?
If you find yourself questioning your commitment to your dissertation
or a career in academia, consider these tactics:
=95 Do some soul-searching.
This may be a time to ask yourself what the Ph.D. means to you and
whether you really want to continue. Remember that what it means to
you and what it means to your partner, family, or friends may be very
different. You might make a list of all the reasons you want to get
the Ph.D. and all the reasons you would rather not. You might try free-
writing about your topic and the reasons it inspires you. You might
plan out your life's possible courses for the next 2, 5, 10, or 20
years if you do and if you don't proceed with the degree. Through all
this, ask yourself "What will make me happy? And why?"
=95 Seek help from other sources of advice.
If you are too close to your own graduate school anxieties to
think critically about them, visit campus resources that can help you
sort out your thinking on this difficult and important issue. Your
advisor or colleagues in your department may be able to help you if
you have a good relationship with them. Other graduate students,
especially those who are about to finish or have finished, may be
particularly helpful. University counseling services may prove helpful
as well. They regularly talk with students about just this issue.
=95 Remember that there is no shame in not pursuing this advanced
Many, many people lead happy, fulfilling lives, build lucrative
and rewarding careers, make important contributions to knowledge,
share interesting ideas with others, and generally get along just fine
without three letters after their names. Deciding not to continue with
a Ph.D. does not mean that you have "quit" or that others who remain
in the program are smarter, more driven, or more virtuous than you
are. It also does not mean that you have wasted the time and money
that you invested in the degree up to the ABD stage. It may simply
mean that after considering your own personal motivations and goals,
you decided this career choice wasn't for you=97and that you plan to use
the skills you honed as a graduate student in other ways that are more
suited to you.
So what if you decide that the dissertation is for you? The good news!
You will build skills in writing your dissertation that you will use
throughout your career.
The dissertation is not a one-shot deal. Unlike the elaborate
study strategies you developed in order to pass your comprehensive
exams, writing the dissertation will enable you to start developing a
set of valuable research and writing skills. Thinking analytically,
synthesizing complicated information, writing well, and organizing
your time will all serve you well regardless of the career you begin.
If you choose a career in academia, the systems of support, research
strategies, work schedules, and writing techniques that help you do
the dissertation will help you write books, articles and lectures for
many years to come.
The document itself may become an important part of your early career.
If you take some care in developing your dissertation, the
document can be transformed, after graduation, into a book or series
of articles that can help launch your academic career. Unlike earlier
course papers that just received a grade and were then shuttled off to
a filing cabinet or trash bin, your dissertation can be used and
revised for years to come. On the other hand, it can be an end as
well as a beginning=97you don't have to develop the dissertation beyond
the completion of the degree if you don't want to. If you're sick of
the topic, you can focus on just finishing it for the degree, and then
move on to other projects.
With all that good news, what's the problem?
Sometimes, even if you appreciate the differences between the
dissertation and previous work and know that you really want to
complete the degree, you may still have trouble. Why? Both external
and internal stresses can cause the dissertation process to be more
difficult than it has to be.
Your topic, your advisor, and your committee: making them work for you
By the time you've reached this stage, you have probably already
defended a dissertation proposal, chosen an advisor, and begun working
with a committee. Sometimes, however, those three elements can prove
to be major external sources of frustration. So how can you manage
them to help yourself be as productive as possible?
1. Managing your topic.
* Remember that your topic is not carved in stone. A lot of people
change their topics as they work, paring down certain parts of the
project or adding others. While you want to keep your advisor and
committee informed about major changes in your focus, in most
disciplines you do not have to follow strictly the research and
writing plan that you suggested in your dissertation proposal. In
fact, most people don't.
* Think about variables that could be cut down and how changes
would affect the length, depth, breadth, and scholarly value of your
study. Could you cut one or two experiments, case studies, regions,
years, theorists, or chapters and still make a valuable contribution
or, even more simply, just finish?
* Talk to your advisor about any changes you might make. He or she
may be quite sympathetic to your desire to shorten an unwieldy project
and may offer suggestions.
* Look at other dissertations from your department to get a sense
of what kind of topic produces an acceptable dissertation=97you may find
that it's not the kind of magnum opus you were imagining but that you
can work on a much smaller, more compact topic instead.
2. Managing your advisor.
* At this stage in your graduate career, you should expect to
assume some independence. By the time you finish your project, you
will know more about your subject than your committee does. The
student/teacher relationship you have with your advisor will
necessarily change as you take this big step toward becoming his/her
* Talk with your advisor about how the two of you should work
during the dissertation process. You might ask questions like: How
often should I be in contact with you about my progress? Do you prefer
to see whole drafts of chapters, relatively polished drafts, or are
you happy to see smaller chunks of less-well-formed writing? If I give
you a draft of a chapter on Monday, what do you think the turn-around
time would be? Do you want to see the chapters in the order I write
them, or in the order they'll wind up?
* Tell your advisor what kind of feedback would be most helpful to
you. Sometimes an advisor can be giving unhelpful or discouraging
feedback without realizing it. Letting him or her know, very
specifically, what kinds of responses will be helpful to you at
different stages of the writing process can help your advisor know how
to help you.
* Keep your advisor informed. Advisors can be most helpful if they
know what you are working on, what problems you are experiencing, and
what progress you have made. A weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meeting
or progress report can prove helpful.
* Talk to other students who have the same advisor. You may find
that they have developed strategies for working with your advisor that
could help you communicate more effectively with him or her.
* If you have recurring problems communicating with your advisor,
you can make a change. You could change advisors completely, but a
less dramatic option might be to find another committee member who
might be willing to serve as a "secondary advisor" and give you the
kinds of feedback and support that you may need.
3. Managing your committee.
You may assemble your committee for the proposal defense, and then
never see them until the final dissertation defense. That may work
fine for you, or you may decide that you would prefer more frequent
* Talk with your advisor about how committees usually work with
doctoral candidates in your department.
* Ask the members of your committee whether they would prefer to
see drafts of your chapters individually, or wait to see the final
* Keep in regular contact with your committee, even if they don't
want to see your work until it has been approved by your advisor. Let
them know about fellowships you receive, fruitful research excursions,
the directions your thinking is taking, and the plans you have for
completion. In short, keep them aware that you are working hard and
* It doesn't hurt to talk to your committee when you're
floundering either. Too often, we only talk to our professors when
we're making progress and hide from them the rest of the time. If you
share your frustrations or setbacks with a knowledgeable committee
member, he or she might offer some very helpful suggestions for
overcoming the obstacles you face=97after all, your committee members
have all written major research projects before, and have probably
solved similar problems in their own work.
* It=92s important not to get too hung up on how your committee does
(or doesn=92t) relate to you. Ultimately, you have to go forward no
matter what they do.
"Too busy to work": exhaustion, money, and time management
Even when you are dedicated to your dissertation and have no problems
with your topic, advisor or committee, you can have trouble getting
your dissertation written. Simple exhaustion, financial stresses, and
family responsibilities can seem to conspire to keep you from doing
the work that you need to do. While you can't do anything about many
of these stresses =97the rent needs to be paid, and the Grad School
still wants you to know two foreign languages, for examples=97you can
change the way that you deal with these external concerns and minimize
their impact on your psyche and productivity.
1. Seek help with the exhaustion.
Often, graduate students juggle many personal and professional
responsibilities while working on their dissertations. You may be
teaching an undergraduate course, working a second job to make ends
meet, seeking child care, writing conference papers, serving on
committees, and more. All of these activities and worries can leave
you feeling exhausted. Sometimes, finding time to exercise, meditate,
or participate in relaxation programs (yoga, stretching, massage
therapy, and so on) can help you cope with tiredness better, even if
those things do little to alleviate the work load. The Student
Recreation Center and Rams Head gyms offer several exercise classes
that may prove useful and relaxing. Good nutrition can also go a long
way toward improving your sense of well-being.
2. Seek external sources of funding.
A fellowship, grant or scholarship can provide enough financial
cushion that you can quit at least one job, and perhaps even find full
funding for a year. The Graduate School offers funding workshops and a
GrantSource library that can help you identify potential sources of
funding. Full fellowships or grants, though, can be a mixed blessing.
Often, having one part-time job or other commitment while researching
or writing can help you structure your day, get to campus early in the
morning, and so on. Without that structure, the day can slip by pretty
quickly. With a whole year ahead of you with nothing to work on but
the dissertation, there's a tendency to feel like you can put off the
dissertation for a day, a week, or more=97there's no sense of urgency.
So while fellowships can be tremendously helpful, they also require
great discipline to prove effective.
3. Work on time management.
Effective time management can be another way to alleviate some of
the external stresses of graduate school. Here are a few strategies:
* Plan each day. Block out the 30 minutes, hour, 3 hours, or
whatever that you want to work on the dissertation.
* Choose a scheduling strategy that works for you. Some people
like to schedule their daily dissertation work in terms of hours and
minutes worked, and others in terms of "problems solved" or "pages
written." Figure out which works best for you.
* Find a calendar, chart or other scheduling device that you like.
Some dissertation advice books offer elaborate scheduling mechanisms
that require you to keep calendars of the entire year, of each month,
of each week, and of each day (broken down by hour). This might be
overdoing it, but find some sort of daily, weekly or monthly planner
that makes sense to you and use it. Refer to it each morning to get a
sense of what you plan to do each day.
* Stick to your schedule. If you write down that you will work on
grading exams only until 2 P.M. and then turn to your dissertation, do
it! Sometimes just setting that schedule can make you more efficient
at grading (since you know you have only a set amount of time in which
to get a lot of it done) and also ensure that you leave room in your
life for the dissertation.
* When planning your long-range goals, work backwards from
commencement. When do you need to turn in the dissertation to the
Graduate School? To do that, when would you need to defend? To do
that, when would you need to get it to the committee? Get specific=97
don=92t use "this semester" as a deadline, use a specific date.
* Don't let immediate concerns take over the time you want to
devote to this important long-term project. It's easy to let the
dissertation (with no regular or immediate deadline) sit on the shelf
because something with a more concrete deadline (a presentation to
someone's class on a specific date, for example) seems to be looming
large. Plan for those events in advance, and don't let them eat up all
of your dissertation time.
* Learn to say "No." Don't accept every invitation to give a guest
lecture, present at a graduate student forum, or attend a conference.
Similarly, try not to agree to drive every needy friend to the
airport, watch every neighbor's cat while they're away, and meet
everyone you know at the Daily Grind at their convenience. If you find
you can work steadily on your dissertation while doing some of these
activities, by all means do them=97but don't be "guilt tripped" into
doing favors you don't have time to do.
* If you are having trouble learning to say no or learning to
budget time for your dissertation, try dividing your workload into
"urgent tasks" (things that have impending deadlines) and "important
tasks" (things that are important to you, but don't have immediate
deadlines). Make sure that your important task (writing the
dissertation) isn't overwhelmed by things that are unimportant, but
urgent. Organize so that you save time for what's important and
minimize the possibility of urgent items consuming your attention.
* Finally, when all else fails, try the strategy of working on
your dissertation for five minutes a day. Surely you can find five
minutes in between classes, after you brush your teeth, or while you
wait for dinner to cook, right? Sometimes the biggest hurdle to time
management isn't finding big blocks of time in which to work=97it's
simply starting to work in the available time. Once you work for five
minutes (really work=97no computer solitaire), you may find that another
five minutes wouldn't be so bad. Getting in the habit of working on
the dissertation every day, even for a short period of time, can be an
important time management strategy. As a side benefit, you may find
that daily contact with your dissertation keeps it on your mind and
enables ideas to percolate all day. If you're keeping in daily touch
with the ideas in your dissertation, you may discover that while
waiting in line at the bank or standing at the bus stop, you come up
with new ideas and think through problems, and make your work go much
more smoothly in the long run.
* Think about this process as an opportunity to build self-trust.
When you make a promise to yourself that you will work for five
minutes or an hour, keep it. Become someone you can count on.
Work smart: planning to work when, where, and how you work best
When scheduling your dissertation time, think about when, where and
how you work best. By giving some thought to these details, you can
ensure that the hours you schedule for dissertation work are
1. Work on your dissertation during times that you are most
Do you write well in the morning, or are you too sleepy to do
academic work? Can you work in the evening after a 9-5 day, or do you
really need a break? Do you like to read/research on the same day that
you write and, if so, do you prefer to write first and then turn to
other sources, or the reverse? Once you determine the hours that are
most productive for you (you may need to experiment at first), try to
schedule those hours for dissertation work. If at all possible, plan
your work schedule, errands and chores so that you reserve your
productive hours for the dissertation. Directors of Graduate Studies
and other employers may be pretty sympathetic to this desire to
schedule your best hours for your dissertation=97after all, the
dissertation is your reason for being here and should be your number
2. Work on your dissertation in a space where you can be productive.
Figure out where you work well and plan to be there during your
dissertation work hours. Do you get more done on campus or at home?
There's no sense in planning to work at home two days a week if you
wind up watching Oprah every time you try to work at your kitchen
table. Similarly, if you do your best work in your home study, try to
avoid planning your days so that you are stuck on campus all day every
day, without access to your best work space.
* Carrels work well for some people because they limit distractions
=97but others find them intolerably quiet and austere. Figure out
whether or not one might work for you.
* If your work space is at home, make every effort to remove it
from your bedroom. Many people don't sleep well if their work space
and their sleep space are in the same room=97their anxieties about their
work can prevent them from getting to sleep quickly and having a
* Wherever you work, make sure you have good lighting, a
comfortable, "healthy" chair, a sturdy desk, and whatever wrist-rests,
mousepads, and so on you need to keep you posture and health in good
order. The University Health and Safety office offers guidelines for
healthy computer work.
* If you get "stuck," try a change of scene. Take a book you've
been meaning to read to a coffee house, to one of the campus
libraries, to a park bench, etc.
3. Figure out how you work best, and try to work that way.
* Develop rituals of work that might help you get more done.
Lighting incense, brewing a pot of a particular kind of tea, pulling
out a favorite pen, and other ritualistic behaviors can signal your
brain that "it is time to get down to business."
* Critically think about your work methods=97not only about what you
like to do, but also what actually helps you be productive. You may
LOVE to listen to your favorite band while you write, for example, but
if you wind up playing air guitar half the time instead of writing, it
isn't a strategy worth keeping.
* Decorate your work space for productivity. Some people find that
having pictures of family and friends on their desk helps=97sort of a
silent "cheering section"=97while others find that a photo of Mom and
Dad just makes them homesick or dredges up fears of inadequacy. Some
people work well with neutral colors around them, and others prefer
bright colors that perk up the space. Some people like to put
inspirational quotations in their workspace or encouraging notes from
friends and family. You might try reconfiguring your work space to
find a d=E9cor that helps you be productive.
* The point is, figure out what works and DO THAT. If something
seems to keep you from working, GET RID OF IT. And once you have the
"ritual that works," do it as often as you can when you write.
Educational theorists have described "state-dependent learning," which
essentially means that the conditions under which one learns something
are the conditions under which the individual is most likely to be
able to remember and use that information. So working in a consistent
setting can help you not only get great work done in discrete sessions
but also pull together ideas from past work and use them
4. Don't let the fact that you know when, where and how you work best
prevent you from working in other times, places, and ways.
Of course, while it's ideal to plan your days to enable you to
spend your most productive work time in your most productive work
space working in your most productive method, you can't always do
that. So practice working elsewhere, and at other times. Being away
from your favorite fountain pen is not an excuse not to write! Neither
is losing your lucky rabbit's foot, having to work on campus, or
having to schedule something during your "work time." Try to be
flexible, and don't use your rituals as excuses.
Graduate school regulations
Graduate students sometimes report that they feel bogged down by
departmental requirements, graduate school regulations, and other bits
of bureaucracy. Here are a few tips to keep you sane:
* Investigate graduation requirements early and plan a meeting
with your department's graduate secretary or Director of Graduate
Studies (DGS) to make sure you are making appropriate progress toward
* Keep a list or calendar of all the departmental and graduate
school regulations and requirements and dates. Check things off as you
complete them, and write down upcoming deadlines.
* Keep good records. If you are granted any exceptions to
departmental or University rules or if you do anything unusual to
fulfill a particular requirement, make sure that you get a letter
stating that you have fulfilled the given requirement in writing and
keep a copy of it. You never know when your current DGS might leave
the position or retire. The next person to hold the job may not know
about your exception and may not be willing to uphold it without
* Make sure, if you are using human subjects in your dissertation
research, that you have followed all of the Graduate School
regulations for your work. The human subjects paperwork can be quite
time consuming and it is, of course, very important that it be done
* A final tip: follow the rules for margins, fonts, table formats,
and so on in early drafts. It is much easier to write your
dissertation with all the formatting correct than to have to reformat
several computer files at the last minute.
Internal stresses that cause problems for dissertation writers
Some sources of graduate student stress are not external=97instead, they
come from within. Competition with other students, feelings of
inadequacy, and plain ol' procrastination can all slow you down.
Competition is rampant among graduate students. Departments often
hold meetings in which graduate students are ranked in order to
determine who should be given funding or teaching appointments.
Scholarships pick and choose the "best and the brightest," and
seminars can turn into arenas where students vie to make the smartest,
most insightful comment in front of the professor. This competition
can lead to a cut-throat atmosphere that encourages hostility and
fears of inadequacy and also inhibits much-needed personal support. If
you=92ve reached the ABD stage, you=92ve probably seen some of this action
already. But what can you do if you feel that competition within your
department is hindering your ability to get work done?
* Remember that you are not in competition with the students in
your department. Your only competition is more than likely with the
graduate students at other universities who will be applying for jobs
in your field at the same time you are. So you have NOTHING to fear
from the other people in your department. After all, the people you go
to grad school with will be the people who recommend you for tenure
one day, review your book favorably, or greet you with a warm smile at
your field's annual conference.
* Realistically, even the grad students at other schools aren't
really your "competition"=97rather, they are your colleagues. After all,
if two people are writing dissertations on political theory in the
civil rights movement, they may be in initial competition for jobs,
but once they get jobs, they will be far more likely to work in a
collegial way. They may present papers at the same conferences, be
asked to review one another's work, edit journals together, and so on.
Thinking of them as "the enemy" will do little to foster a positive
spirit of academic professionalism.
* If you are having problems with competition in your department,
you can try to transform the sense of competition into one of
cooperation. Try working on some collaborative projects with students
in your department (like co-authoring a conference paper with a
student doing similar research). Or form a writing and support group=97
the Writing Center can help you do that. Sometimes the idea of "we're
all in this together" can override the idea of "they're all out to get
* Remember, if you ever feel inadequate or like you "don't measure
up," that almost everyone feels that way at some point or another.
Many graduate students report feeling like a fraud at some time during
(or through most of!) their graduate careers. Talking with one another
may help you realize that the anxieties you have are shared by all, so
there's no reason to feel threatened by those who seem to be making
more progress . Deep down, they're as scared as you are.
* It may be helpful to find a person who is AHEAD of you in the
process (maybe a friend who has defended) to serve as support and to
urge you to keep moving. It may also prove beneficial to help a
student who is further behind in the program than you are, say,
someone who hasn't taken comps. Gathering wisdom from those who have
gone before and passing it along to those who are coming up can foster
a marvelous spirit of collegiality in a department and help everyone
get more and better work done.
* If all else fails, and the competitive atmosphere among other
students continues to cause you undue anxiety, don't hang out in your
department much. Come by to see your advisor. Stay in close contact
with your committee. Meet bright, generous people in other
departments. Let the Writing Center help you start an
interdisciplinary writing group. Go to conferences and meet
interesting supportive people on other campuses who will e-mail with
you and share your joys, rather than trampling on them. Don't let
anyone else, in short, slow you down!
The procrastination monster
People procrastinate for a lot of reasons, some of which you already
know. The key to beating procrastination, though, seems to be figuring
out why you are procrastinating, so that you can develop strategies
for stopping it. Good books and websites on the subject can help (see
bibliography), and UNC resources are available to help with
procrastination, writer's block and other internal dissertation
problems. The University Counseling and Wellness Services sometimes
sponsors a dissertation support group, for example, that allows
students to meet with a counselor in groups to work through
Getting down to business: tips for writing consistently
Things to write when you don't want to write
Okay, so you've figured out what you can do to manage the external
stresses in your life, and you've done your best to fight your
procrastination demons and do battle with feeling that you're not
worthy. You've got your workspace set up and time scheduled and you
sit down to write and...nothing. Not a word is coming to you. Here=92s
what to write when you don't feel like writing:
* Make a list of all the little things you need to do for a given
section of the dissertation, no matter how small. Write down
everything that you need to do to get it out the door. Then when you
don't feel like tackling something big, like relating a key point in
your argument to the relevant literature, you can insist that you do
something else, like photocopying an article you've been meaning to
consult or checking your citations. You don't have to do everything on
the list during the time you've allotted for dissertation work, but
tell yourself that you DO have to do SOMETHING. You'll be surprised
that the habit of getting something (no matter how small) done on the
dissertation every day can be addicting.
* When you don't feel like writing, do "big picture" stuff that
the graduate school needs you to do. Reformat margins, work on
bibliography, and all that.
* Work on your acknowledgements. Remember all the people who have
helped you and the great ideas they've helped you develop. You may
feel more like working afterward.
* Write a part of your dissertation as a letter (or e-mail) to a
good friend who would care. Sometimes setting aside the academic prose
and just writing it to a buddy can be liberating and help you get the
ideas out there. You can make it sound smart later.
* Free-write about why you're stuck, and perhaps even about how
sick and tired you are of your dissertation/advisor/committee/etc.
Venting can sometimes get you past the emotions of writer's block and
move you toward creative solutions.
Boosts to keep you going
So let's say you DO feel like writing. How do you go about it in
a consistent way?
* First, leave your work out where you can see it and work on it
conveniently. If it's out of sight, it's out of mind. However, if you
leave the next book you need to read on your desk, it's much more
likely that you'll read it. Similarly, if you leave the chapter you
need to edit out, and don't have to dig through the filing cabinet to
find it, chances are it will get edited more quickly.
* If you're really feeling disorganized, clean your workspace. A
clear desk and an organized set of notes can go a long way toward
clearing your head and getting you back on track. Don't make the
office-cleaning-ritual your number one choice for procrastination,
* Don't be afraid to work in "the wrong order." Some people like
to work on one chapter at a time=97the first chapter first, then the
next chapter, and then the next until they are done. That's the model
that a lot of us have for writing, but not everyone works like that.
Some people find that they have to write up big ideas first, and then
see how they fit together. Some people write chapter 5 before they
write chapter 4. Some people do lots and lots of freewriting. The way
to write a dissertation is the way that gets pages produced. If that
means breaking the "rules," then break them.
* Give yourself permission to write the junkiest dissertation ever
floated past an unwitting committee. That can be very liberating and
help you get pages produced so that you can then edit them later. Get
something on paper and then worry about making it perfect.
* Remember, when you feel anxious about the quality of your work,
that dissertations aren't master works. They are your FIRST TRY at
this, and no one's is really all that good, frankly. (Want proof?
Order your advisor's dissertation from interlibrary loan.)
* Be reasonable. A lot of people beat themselves up with
expectations to work 10 or 12 hours a day=97many people recommend a max.
of 4 or 5 hours. You simply can't write productively all day long, and
trying will just burn you out. Schedule in breaks and time for
procrastination. Your brain needs a rest every now and then=97better to
schedule one than to have your brain mutiny on you and take one
* Find the people in your department who are serious workers and
emulate them. If you don't know who they are (often, they come to
campus much earlier and leave much later than the rest of us, making
them elusive indeed!), ask your advisor. He or she can probably tell
you who they are. Ask them to share their tips for working
consistently with you, and try out their advice.
* Similarly, find the non-workers in your department (they're
easier to find=97check the Daily Grind), and try NOT to emulate them. It
can be easy to fall into a sort of fraternity/sorority of alleged
dissertation writers who are bound by the mantra, "I'm not getting any
work done." You certainly won't get any work done if you hang out with
* Write your dissertation in single-space. When you need a boost,
double space it and be impressed with how many pages you=92ve written!
Then add the page numbers=97it=92s even longer!
* As you print out chapter drafts, bibliographies, and such, put
them in a notebook with dividers for each section. You=92ll see the
notebook get thicker and thicker as the semester goes along, and it
will encourage you to keep working.
* Finally, quit while you=92re ahead. Sometimes it helps to STOP for
the day when you're on a roll. If you've got a great idea that you're
developing and you know where you want to go next, write "Next, I want
to introduce x, y, and z and explain how they're related=97they all have
the same characteristics of 1 and 2, and that clinches my theory of
Q." Then save the file and turn off the computer, or put down the
notepad. When you come back tomorrow, you will already know what to
say nextmdash;and all that will be left is to say it. Hopefully, the
momentum will carry you forward.
Feedback, rewards, and punishments as motivators
Many people use rewards, feedback, and punishments as motivators
in the dissertation process.
* A writing group, your advisor, trusted friends, and loving
family members can all give you feedback that can be a motivator. When
you are looking for motivational feedback, choose people to ask who
you know will give you the sort of feedback you need to keep you
going. Grandmothers are great at telling you you're brilliant, for
* And tell them what kind of feedback you want. It's okay to tell
a reader, "I know this is rough, but I just want to make sure that you
can understand my main argument." Then when they come back and say,
"Yes, I understood," you can feel great!
* Give yourself rewards along the way. When you meet a deadline,
have coffee with a friend, rent a movie, buy yourself an ice cream,
write a letter to a friend, or do something else that will make you
feel good about your accomplishment. Having a tangible reward, however
small, can provide some added motivation to get work done.
* Some people schedule daily motivational rewards. If they really
love to do the crossword, get a cappuccino, or watch a particular show
every day, they tell themselves they can't do that thing until they
have done the allotted amount of dissertation work.
* Punishments can also work. Some people find it useful to say,
"If I don't get this done by that date, then I can't do ________."
Feeling like a professional
One of the most important parts of becoming a scholar is feeling like
one. The transition from student to scholar is a huge mental step
toward completion. Here are a few tips that can help:
* Some people find it helpful to think about the dissertation as a
* Attend conferences and read broadly in your field.
* Deliver papers on your research (if writing up papers for
conferences helps, rather than hinders, your progress on the
* Start conversations with scholars at other schools who do
similar work, and engage in exciting, intellectual conversations.
Guest lecture in a friend's classes.
* Dress the part.
* Essentially, do things that help you feel like you have a
legitimate place in academia. Some people find that if they pretend to
be something they don't think they are for long enough, that they
become it without even realizing they have done so.
It may sound silly, but a major part of the dissertation writing a
dissertation is simply having the will to write it=97making yourself do
it, even when you don't want to. The dissertation is a marathon, not a
sprint, and it will take endurance, determination, and perseverance.
Developing and sustaining the will to complete a complicated, long-
term project is a habit that will serve you well in other areas of
Take time to laugh at the process and at yourself. Make up a Top 10
lists of "rejected" dissertation titles. Figure out who would play
whom in the movie version of your dissertation (or of your
dissertation defense)! Come up with "dissertation proverbs" that will
help you survive. Here is a list of some we've heard:
* "P" stands for Ph.D.
* A good dissertation is a done dissertation.
* What do you call a grad student who barely squeaks a lousy
dissertation past her committee? Doctor.
* You ain't painting a masterpiece.
* It's not the last word on the topic; it's the first word.
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this
handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the
handout's topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find
the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as
a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match
the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting
citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.
Books on dissertation writing, procrastination, and graduate school:
Becker, Howard S. with a chapter by Pamela Richards. Writing for
Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or
Article. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986).
While Becker=92s book is geared toward social scientists, writers in
other disciplines will probably find it useful. Becker draws on his
experience as a sociologist and as the leader of a course on writing
for graduate student. He focuses on the process of writing, from
developing a writing persona, to getting started, to editing. His
chapter on "Getting it Out the Door" may prove especially helpful to
graduate students. His tone is generally humorous, but some may tire
of the sociological examples he uses.
Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A
Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. (New
York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998).
Joan Bolker, a clinical psychologist and writing counselor, does not,
in fact, tell you how to write your dissertation in only fifteen
minutes a day. She does, however, explain how starting with fifteen
minutes of work each day might lead to a habit of work that will lead
to the successful completion of a dissertation. Her psychological
training is particularly beneficial in the sections of the book where
she describes the many underlying reasons behind graduate students=92
inability to do consistent work. She offers suggestions for handling
all sorts of roadblocks. Some of her recommendations are long-range,
large-scale changes like cultivating a "writing addiction." Others are
short-term, quick fix solutions, like making a list of all the things
you want to jump up and do while writing (like cleaning the oven,
paying the bills, edging the lawn, etc.), promising yourself that you
can do them when you have completed your allotted amount of work for
the day. "You=92ll be amazed," she promises "how much less attractive
the items on your list look once you=92ve finished your writing that
day." (pg. 90) Some may find her suggestions to take out additional
loans or hire help with cleaning or child-care unrealistic, given
their finances and the job market, but on the whole she offers useful
Burka, Jane M. and Lenora M. Yuen. Procrastination: Why You Do It,
What to Do About It, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company,
Psychologists Burka and Yuen divide their book into two parts
=97"Understanding Procrastination" and "Overcoming Procrastination."
They describe the different habits of procrastination and the reasons
behind them in the first section, focusing on fear of success, fear of
failure, fear of losing autonomy, fear of separation, and fear of
attachment. They also describe how people become procrastinators. In
the second section, they offer concrete advice for resolving problems
with procrastination and explain how to set goals, schedule, improve
timing, set up support, and so on. The book offers great insight into
a very common problem. For the second section of the book to be
useful, you must read the first part of the book. [May not be in UNC
Libraries; available on the Writing Center bookshelf]
Fitzpatrick, Jacqueline, Jan Secrist, and Debra J. Wright. Secrets for
a Successful Dissertation, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications,
Written in an inviting, often humorous style, this book deals with the
mechanics of writing a dissertation (how the process works, how to
organize literature reviews, and so on) as well as the more intangible
aspects, such as the development of support groups and personal
organizational strategies. The book includes a number of short and
helpful checklists and "top secrets" set off from the main text for
easy reference. The appendix provides a list of action words to
introduce quotes, a list of suggested items for inclusion in a
research proposal, a statistical decision tree, a list of general
action verbs, and an impressive annotated bibliography of books on
writing, research, confidence, public speaking, computers, and more.
The authors=92 backgrounds are in education and counseling.
Mauch James E., and Jack W. Birch. Guide to the Successful Thesis and
Dissertation: Conception to Publication, (New York: Marcel Dekker,
The authors offer a no-nonsense approach to planning your project,
conducting research, writing, working with your committee, defending
the dissertation, and developing it further. The book includes a
number of charts, forms, and checklists to help you along the way. The
book seems geared toward the dissertation writer who knows what he or
she wants to do, and just needs some solid advice on form, planning,
and strategy to move them in the right direction. If you know what you
need to do and how you ought to do it, but just can=92t seem to get
moving, this book might not prove as useful as some of the more
"touchy feely" titles on this list.
Peters, Robert L. Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student=92s Guide
to Earning a Master=92s or Ph.D., (New York: The Noonday Press, 1997).
Peters covers graduate school from deciding to go in the first place
to completing the degree, offering valuable advice at every step along
the way. (Skip the section on whether or not you should go to graduate
school if you=92re feeling down=97it includes some depressing, if
accurate, assessments of the job market.) Of particular interest to
the dissertation writer are the chapters entitled The Doctorate:
History and Hurdles, Managing Yourself, Choosing and Managing Your
Thesis Committee, The Thesis Topic: Finding It, The Thesis Proposal,
The Thesis: Writing It, The Thesis Defense, Dealing with Stress and
Depression, The Social Milieu and Swimming with the Mainstream:
Returning Students, Women, Minorities, and Foreign Students. The book
is based on interviews with graduate students, faculty members and
counselors, and the real-life experience of the interviewees is
particularly helpful. Peters offers a friendly and encouraging style,
sound and realistic advice=97and a sizable dose of humor.
Sternberg, David. How to Complete and Survive Your Doctoral
Dissertation, (New York: St. Martin=92s Griffin, 1981).
A sociologist and advisor to many graduate students, Sternberg focuses
on moving the student from ABD to Ph.D. His chapters explore topic
selection, filing systems, proposal-writing, research, writing,
committee relations, "the Dissertation Dumps," the defense, and the
post-defense uses of the dissertation. Sternberg does strike somewhat
of a balance between the "buck up" school that says "Just write the
thing and quite whining" and the sympathetic school that is inclined
to tell you "it=92s okay," hold your hand, and validate your feelings.
On the whole, his suggestions tend to center around developing a plan
for completion and adhering to it despite doubts, rather than
exploring the doubts themselves in great depth. Some of his advice may
seem dated. For example, in discussing sexism, he writes "deep-rooted
sexism is still a fact of graduate university structure and hierarchy"
that can be "exploited by a woman." He concludes that the "feminist
ABD has to suspend her struggle for that ongoing cause during the two
years of the dissertation struggle." (p. 150)
Advice on Research and Writing:
Lots of links on writing, public speaking, dissertation management,
burnout, and more.
Advice for the Ph.D.-Lorn:
Focused on math and computer science, this web page from Georgia Tech
includes helpful links for all graduate students, including general
links on success in graduate school, links pertaining to women's
success in computer science (and for women graduate students,
generally), "The Unwritten Milestones for the Ph.D." and other useful
How to be a Good Graduate Student DesJardins, Marie:
This essay talks about several phases of the graduate experience,
including the dissertation. She discusses some helpful hints for
staying motivated and doing consistent work.
Preparing Future Faculty:
This page, a joint project of the American Association of Colleges and
Universities, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the Pew Charitable
Trusts, explains the Preparing Future Faculty Programs and includes
links and suggestions that may help graduate students and their
advisors think constructively about the process of graduate education
as a step toward faculty responsibilities.
Back to Dissertation Basics:
A reprint from ASGS (the Association for the Support of Graduate
Students), this article talks about the skills required for the
completion of a doctoral dissertation. The homepage for ASGS
http://www.asgs.org/index.htm offers other links and an archive of
articles and advice.
Kjell Erik Rudestam, Ph.D. and Rae Newton, Ph.D., authors of Surviving
Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process.
The ABD Survival Guide Newsletter:
Information about the ABD Survival Guide newsletter (which is free)
and other services from E-Coach (many of which are not free).
What this handout is about
Reasons for ABD inertia
Questioning your commitments?
Your topic, advisor, and committee
Exhaustion, money, and time management
Graduate School regulations
The procrastination monster
Tips for writing consistently
Feeling like a professional
Other UNC Handouts
Writing the Paper
Evaluating Print Sources
Reading to Write
Using the Library
Citation, Style, and Sentence-Level Concerns
Editing and Proofreading
Fragments and Run-ons
Should I Use"I"?
Specific Writing Assignments
Scientific Research Reports
Writing for Specific Fields
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire
handout (just click print) and attribute the source: The Writing
Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
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