Graduate school pundits often cite 50% or more as the attrition rate for ABD students (those who have completed All the requirements of their programs But the Dissertation). Why? This handout will not only answer this question, but also give you good, practical advice on starting, drafting, and completing your dissertation.
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.
If you find yourself questioning your commitment to your dissertation or a career in academia, consider these tactics:
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.
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?
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 —the rent needs to be paid, and the Grad School still wants you to know two foreign languages, for examples—you can change the way that you deal with these external concerns and minimize their impact on your psyche and productivity.
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 productive.
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:
Some sources of graduate student stress are not external—instead, they come from within. Competition with other students, feelings of inadequacy, and plain ol’ procrastination can all slow you down.
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 dissertation problems.
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:
It may sound silly, but a major part of the dissertation writing a dissertation is simply having the will to write it—making 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 life.
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:
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.
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’s 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’ 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’ll be amazed,” she promises “how much less attractive the items on your list look once you’ve 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 advice.
Burka, Jane M. and Lenora M. Yuen. Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1983).
Psychologists Burka and Yuen divide their book into two parts—”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, 1998).
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’ 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, Inc., 1983).
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’t 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’s Guide to Earning a Master’s 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’re feeling down—it 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—and a sizable dose of humor.
Sternberg, David. How to Complete and Survive Your Doctoral Dissertation, (New York: St. Martin’s 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’s 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 links.
How to be a Good Graduate Student DesJardins, Marie: http://www.cs.indiana.edu/how.2b/how.2b.html
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).
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