A manageable, stress-free approach to finishing your dissertation
By Ann van der Merwe
Published August 24, 2011
As a graduate school professor who holds a Ph.D., I can say with certainty that missing coursework is rarely the cause of an unfinished doctoral degree; it is almost always an incomplete dissertation.
This mammoth piece of research is also the reason many students who earn their advanced degrees end up spending far more time – often several years – in graduate school than they had originally planned. These trends are not difficult to explain; writing a book-length piece of original research is a difficult if not daunting task.
Still, this document does not need to stand in the way of the degree you desire. If you keep the following tips in mind as you begin and continue your work, you will be more likely to finish.
1. Pursue a topic about which you are truly passionate
Finishing your dissertation begins at the beginning with your choice of topic. As a friend of mine told me when he was completing his Ph.D., you are going to spend a LOT of time immersed in it. So, it needs to spark something more than idle curiosity in you. It should make you want to spend hours reading about it. It should inspire you to travel great distances to study it or to interview experts about it. It should be something that, at least at the beginning, does more than interest you; it should excite you.
Why is this so important? It’s because you are your best motivator, and you will need a high level of motivation to complete something as work-intensive and time-consuming as a dissertation. To be sure, encouragement from others is a huge help; seek it out as much as you can, whether from faculty, family or friends. Ultimately, though, you are the one who has to live with and complete this project. Research and writing are largely solitary endeavors, and so it is essential that you have a genuine desire to do the work.
2. Recognize research challenges early
As you begin exploring possible topics, consider any and all challenges that may be involved in writing about them. For instance:
- Do you need a substantial amount of additional coursework or foundational research before you can delve into your specific area?
- Will your research require extended travel, and how will you pay for it?
- Will you be able to access the documents, people, or other resources you need?
If you find too many obstacles standing in your way early in your research, you may want to consider modifying or changing your direction. At the very least, you will want to determine if these obstacles can be overcome in the length of time you plan to devote to your graduate studies. It’s important to remember, you can always return to a topic later in your career when the same challenges might be less of a burden.
Of course, this tip should be carefully balanced with the first. If you are truly passionate about Topic A, you might do well to continue pursuing it even if it poses some substantial yet manageable challenges. A young woman in my graduate program was exceptionally driven to write her dissertation on a topic that required extensive language study, a lengthy research trip abroad and a waiting period before she could access some essential archives. As a result, it took her a bit longer than she would have liked to complete it, but she was still able to do so without unreasonable delays because she recognized the challenges early in her process, made accommodation for them and pushed herself to finish once she had overcome the obstacles.
3. Thoughtfully consider how you spend your time
Graduate school is ripe with opportunities for learning, and you should engage in as many opportunities as you can. By the time you begin work on your dissertation, however, be aware that everything you choose to do in addition to your research and writing has the potential to slow down your progress. If you elect to take extra courses, for example, you may find yourself falling behind. Of course, only you can do the benefit-cost analysis; if the additional study will help your dissertation research, than by all means, do it. If it is not immediately pertinent to your topic and more likely to be a distraction, though, you might be better off focusing your time.
It is equally important to develop some degree of work-life balance while you are researching and writing. This is one more reason why extra coursework might not be the best option while you are dissertating; it is too similar. Instead, balance your time with things that really take you away from the coursework like volunteering and spending time with family and friends.
4. Work regularly
Dissertating every day may not be conducive to all schedules, but leaving it alone for much longer than a week at a time – with exceptions for planned vacations, personal emergencies, and such – will inevitably delay your progress. This is not to say that your weekly progress should always be the same. You might create a detailed outline and notes for an entire chapter one week, and construct only one or two good paragraphs the next. To be sure, variation in your productivity is precisely why regular work is so essential; it helps account for the inevitable times in which you will struggle.
How you schedule your time will, of course, depend on your creative personality and your other commitments. I typically did my dissertation work early in the day and left other tasks for later, but I have known several people whose brains functioned better on precisely the opposite schedule. Also, you may find that research and writing require different kinds of scheduling. You may want or need larger blocks of time to do the research – half-days or full days – yet find shorter snippets of an hour or two at a time more conducive to writing.
5. Accept some degree of imperfection
You should spend a fair amount of time revising your dissertation. You should ask your adviser for input on both content and style, and you should do so at various stages of your writing process. You should also employ others to help you, especially with proofreading, whether that means asking a friend or family member to read it or paying a copy editor to do. Once you have produced a solid piece of writing, however, you will need to determine when it is time to stop revising and consider the work complete. In short, you need to accept that your dissertation will never be perfect. There simply is no such thing.
Of course, people vary widely in their level of perfectionism. Some graduate students will not push themselves hard enough; others will spend additional months and even years revising a piece that, while perhaps improved, was actually very good in a previous version. Some advisers see the dissertation as a significant yet early product for a young scholar, and they encourage completion once any major problems are addressed; others seek a higher level of achievement at this stage, and they may never stop offering suggestions for improvement. So, you will have to find a balance between your own satisfaction, that of your adviser, and that of the other faculty members on your committee.
In the end, keep in mind that your dissertation is just that – yours. Ultimately, you are not writing it for anyone else; you are writing it for your benefit. You should strive to make a contribution to your field with it, but you should also recognize that your subsequent work is more likely to do so. Instead, embrace your dissertation as the tremendous learning experience that it can be, complete it, and move forward in your chosen career path.
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Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.