So You Want to Finish Your Dissertation?

How to Get Your Dissertation Rolling

Doctoral programs end with a dissertation but almost half of students who do the coursework never finish the dissertation.

Why do you want to complete a dissertation?

I wonder sometimes if students entering the process ever really ponder this question. Why is it important to know your reasons? Simply put, the more motivated you are, the more likely you are to make the sacrifices needed to succeed. Reasons like, “my friend decided to do her doctorate so I thought I would, too” or “everyone expects me to do it” often lead to failure. As I have said before, a doctoral degree is something very few will ever achieve. According to the U.S. Census Report (2015), roughly 3% of the population had an advanced degree (applied or doctorate). Further, only about half of those who seek an advanced degree will achieve it:

ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” a description of a student who has finished coursework and passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend the doctoral thesis. Today, the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate (that is, someone’s status a decade after they begin) is 55– 64 percent in STEM, 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities. - via Slate Magazine

At the dissertation stage, you are using all of the knowledge and skills gained from previous coursework to develop a research proposal that will then be used to conduct your research.

You are becoming a scholar. Once the research is done, you will report the findings and explain how your research has added to the existing body of knowledge.

Most students focus on the wrong things when deciding whether to enter a doctoral program. They look mainly at academic ability. While that is one consideration, there are other not so obvious ones.

The top seven list includes time management problems, supervisor/mentor conflicts, no clear focus for your dissertation, burnout, writing problems, loss of interest, and a feeling of isolation.

Finishing a doctoral program is stressful! You are isolated, spending lots of time by yourself researching and writing, working on a topic few around you will understand, and maybe working with a committee you rarely meet. It can exhaust you both physically and mentally.

Do You Still Want to Do This??

Before you go off the deep end and quit, think about these things. You’ve made it this far in life without quitting. If you are reading this, you are someone who has had some academic success already. This is just a new challenge and if you want it, you can have it. Is it difficult? Well, yeah! That’s why less than 3% of the entire population have a doctoral degree. Just be willing to get it done. There are apps out there to help you with organization, research, and writing. That’s why I wrote a book about computer hardware and applications. Been there, am doing that, so read the book! Don’t know how to write? Get help from your university services! Get a tutor! Get an editor! These are all things some of the best writers do on a regular basis. That’s why they are successful!

Once you know what you have, you get a better idea of what you need.

  • What do you see that would make your work move more smoothly?
  • How will you address the seven dissertation-stoppers mentioned earlier? If you can do that, you drastically increase your chances for success.
  • Do you have the time necessary to do the work? Whether doing an online or traditional graduate program, there are time limits. Most universities will only allow 7 years to complete your doctoral program. Note that includes both coursework and dissertation. Time management can be accomplished by using some kind of scheduling and task management system. I discuss that in my book.
  • Writing problems can also be remedied by using some grammar and style checking apps, getting a tutor, or possibly getting an editor (you are spending lots of money on this; a few more dollars are worth a lot if you succeed).
  • Do you have any support from those others in your life? One thing I noticed at our last graduation was how many successful candidates gave credit to their significant others—partners and family members—for helping them succeed. If you are fortunate to have support, cherish it. Talk to your family and let them know what you will need to do to succeed. Make sure you plan time each week with them but be clear about your time commitment to the doctoral work.
  • Lots of the other issues center around a good working relationship with your mentor and committee. Your committee wants you to succeed. Besides being a good thing for you, it makes them look good, too! Talk to them. If you are working with someone who doesn’t seem to be on your side, fire them and get someone else! YES, you can fire your mentor but first be sure she/he is not good for you. This happens sometimes—personality conflicts or other disagreements—so don’t stress over it. Before taking that step be sure it is not something else.

New dissertation students often must adjust to the volumes of feedback from both mentor and committee. Don’t confuse a critique of your work with a personality conflict. You will do hundreds of revisions during the dissertation phase. That’s the way it works for any scholar.

All the articles you research and use in your dissertation had multiple reviews from other scholars before being published.

Start at the beginning!

The beginning is the place where you have a long talk with yourself and make sure this is something that you really want to do.

Do you have a passion for this work?

You may have some personal experience with the problem at the heart of your dissertation but being passionate does not mean being biased. Instead, it is a strong desire to learn more about why or how a problem exists. Passion for your work is what keeps you going when you are revising a chapter for the nth time. It is what keeps you going when you become stressed from not being able to write what you want to say. Once you decide this is something you must do, learn about what will be required during the entire program. Use the information provided in the program guidelines to develop your own realistic plan.

Plan! Plan! Plan!

Plan backward from the end to make sure everything can be done in the available amount of time. Send your plan to your mentor/supervisor to make sure it is realistic and then make adjustments as needed. Remember that this is just a plan and can be modified to finish sooner. There are so, so many things that you must do. You are now a doctoral student and a project planner. You decide how much time you spend on each part of the plan and what you can do in advance to be ready for each step you will need. One of the greatest problems students must overcome is to shake the regular course mentality. The dissertation is NOT a regular set of courses with weekly assignments. If you don’t plan for yourself, you will quickly be overcome with things that you need to do and sadly, things you should have done earlier. It is critical that you do this plan and not depend solely on the guidelines in the university documents. While helpful, you still must go through the planning process to understand what you will need to do to finish. As you can see, there are many overlapping parts of this plan. It will also vary by university and department but the idea is the same.

Use the available resources from the university, your mentor, the library, and the internet. If you don’t know how to do something, learn how or get someone to show you. You are expected to initiate all of this. No one will tell you what to do and when to do it outside of the dissertation guidelines. Be thankful for whatever help you get.

Read, Read, Read.

Read and take notes on everything. Put those notes where you can easily find them for future reference. Much of my dissertation was done before I had access to really good file management applications so that meant lots of paper documents and a filing system to get to all of them when I needed to. By the end of my dissertation, I had four or five 4-inch binders full of key articles and also, a two-drawer lateral file cabinet FULL of additional materials. Now, there are excellent apps to keep everything filed electronically so you can access it all from any computer or smart device AND search for keywords.

Other things you should do:

  • Keep all those documents where you can find them later for ideas you had at the time and may have forgotten.
  • Scan through published dissertations that have topics and research designs similar to yours. See how others did it.
  • Attend one or two dissertation defenses. They are almost always open to other students and can be both informative and inspirational.
  • Read my book!

"I Will Never Finish This!!"

I can guarantee you will at some point in this journey feel discouraged and hopeless. It just happens. Almost all successful doctoral candidates could tell you stories about anxiety attacks or moments when they were sure they would never finish. I am one of those stories.  I vividly recall my panic attack at 4 a.m., two months before my defense. I awoke in a cold sweat, convinced I would never finish. Yes, it was an irrational fear but it was shockingly real at the time. I kept telling myself it was just my imagination and gave myself several pep talks. The horrible feeling went away and I finished with a wonderful defense. Our minds play tricks on us when we are under lots of stress and knowing that in advance makes it easier to cope.

You can finish this!