Dissertation Finish Line

Lori A. Flores offers tips for getting the thing done.

April 10, 2015

I received my Ph.D. almost four years ago, but I vividly remember the anxieties I felt at this time of year as I struggled to make it to my dissertation finish line. March had turned into April, my dissertation was due June 1, and going on the job market during my final year of grad school had taxed my mind, body and spirit. If -- like many people say -- the dissertation is a marathon, I was on mile 24 and ready to collapse. My exhaustion was so apparent that my adviser, my biggest and most confident champion, was worriedly checking in with me over email to see if I had gotten my writing mojo back.

Reflecting on what I did to get myself through that final push, here are 10 pieces of practical advice I would give to any in a similar position (some of these are targeted to dissertators in the humanities, but hopefully many will resonate for all fields).

1. Budget some time for last-minute tasks.

You have probably reached this point by making yourself a dissertation calendar or work schedule with all of your important deadlines. In working backward from your dissertation due date, budget a few extra days for technicalities. If you have not already begun formatting your dissertation according to departmental or institutional regulations, look up their rules. Correct your margins, create your table of contents and appendix pages, and clean up footnotes or endnotes. If you are using images and illustrations from an archive or another source, secure permissions that you need in order to use them. Obtaining these permissions, as I continue to find out, can be a lengthy and costly process. If you are using interviews or other subject data, make sure all consent forms are on file.

2. Seek out (the right) sources of inspiration and feedback.

If you are feeling uninspired, you may need to change up your routine or scenery. If you have been logging many work hours but making limited progress, perhaps going back to reading may help get the thoughts flowing again. Are there any recent books or articles relating to your topic that were published while you were burrowed away writing or analyzing your data? Is there a colleague who would like to switch drafts of a chapter with you to get your feedback in exchange for the same? Sometimes we need a break from our own words and dissertation language and can benefit from immersing ourselves in the words of others.

If you find that you cannot get into a flow anymore working in your usual spot, why not give yourself a change of scenery by trying to work in a quiet outdoor spot, a different café or even a hotel? (More about that idea later!) The novelty of a new workspace might kick your brain into a different, exploratory gear.

3. Saying no is necessary.

While venues for presenting your research and feedback from others are valuable along the dissertation journey, it is important to say no to some of these opportunities in the final phases of writing. You may want to politely decline offers to organize a workshop or talk, or participate in one, because these things might be distracting and disorienting rather than a truly beneficial use of your time. Focus on the feedback you are receiving from your committee members, and save other types of feedback for whatever the dissertation may turn out to be in its next phase of existence (a journal article, a conference paper, a book or something else).

If others at your institution are demanding your time in ways you feel you cannot provide, you should feel right to say no. It was actually very empowering to reply to various requests, “I need to focus on completing my dissertation right now and unfortunately cannot be involved in/devote my time to this event.” Any reasonable person will accept and respect this explanation.

4. Don’t neglect your physical health.

Many others have stressed this (lately, in “Treat Yo Self Well”) but it can’t be said enough: do not neglect your physical well-being, because it is so deeply connected with your mental well-being. Don’t skip that yoga class, morning run or hike with friends. Physical activity boosts endorphins and the oxygen to your brain, reduces stress, increases alertness, and gives you the energy to get back to work. If you think you don’t have time to exercise, think about this: it's better to schedule an hour of exercise into your everyday routine than to lose precious days due to stress or illness. Other health-related advice: get enough sleep, drink enough water and get up from your computer often to stretch your limbs and rest your eyes (having experienced a recent eye problem, I can tell you that putting too much strain on your eyes is not fun!). Finally, carving out some time for the people important to you -- partner, children, parents, friends -- is essential. Don’t let the final stages of dissertation writing make you a complete social hermit.

5. Budget some money for last-minute escapes.

So, this might sound crazy, but I finished a sizable chunk of my dissertation in a strange hotel room. I was tired of working at home and around campus, so I booked an affordable room at a hotel by the coast. I bought groceries to stock my room’s mini fridge and shut myself in there for three days, disabling the internet and locking the TV in its cabinet. My reward, I told myself, would be using the hotel’s hot tub at the end of the workday. With none of my usual possessions and targets for procrastination around me (“I should really organize my fridge/closet/medicine cabinet…”) I finished two chapters in three days. To my bemusement, one of my committee members wrote back that it was some of her favorite work from me. Of course, this kind of drastic escape is not for everybody -- I had the luxury of being single and free of other responsibilities at the time -- but for those who can swing it, it just might be worth it. There are smaller escapes, too. Budget some money for a babysitter, a massage, a matinee or some takeout food when you need a little something to get you through to the end.

6. In times of writer’s block, turn to your acknowledgments.

Whenever I felt that the words were not flowing, I always opened my acknowledgments file on my computer. Drafting that part of the dissertation, even for a few minutes, reminded me of the many people -- friends, family, colleagues, mentors -- who helped and supported me during my years of graduate school. I didn’t want to let all of those people down. Writing those acknowledgments was a form of positive visualization; I would finish, and I would not let them down. Moreover, in writing kind words about others, it put me in a more grateful frame of mind and reminded me to be kinder to myself and more optimistic that I had the stamina to complete the dissertation on time.

7. This is no time for perfectionism.

The only good dissertation -- say it with me -- is a done dissertation. Many of us have this idea in our heads that the dissertation will be this grand opus that perfectly encapsulates all the knowledge we have acquired in graduate school. That thought can keep us researching, writing and obsessing over words and paragraphs for years. While the dissertation will certainly be an impressive, original display of your engagement with a topic, it will not be able to demonstrate everything you know or learned. Take a good look at the signature page of your dissertation, which reads, “This dissertation is adequate and fulfills the requirements…” While it is infuriating -- all I needed was an adequate dissertation? Why didn’t anyone tell me! -- it brings you back to reality. Your dissertation does not have to be perfect. It has to be good enough for your committee, for now, for this stage of your intellectual development, for your degree and a diploma in your hand.

8. There is a point where the dissertation ends and the next phase begins.

I did not put everything in my dissertation that I planned to and finally understood what others meant when they told me, “Save it for the book.” Whether or not you’re in a field that requires a book for tenure, the dissertation is not the end of a conversation. You may go on to publish part or all of it, you might go on to teach some of it, you might present a chapter at a conference, or a student may email you a question about it one day. Try to be at peace with the information that did not make it into the dissertation, and try to look forward to your dissertation’s next life or iteration, along with your own. In addition, if your readers are willing to offer it, ask them to divide their feedback into “immediate” and “future” (some will do this in the defense). That way, you will still receive valuable comments, but also the reassurance that they do not expect you to respond to all of their critiques by dissertation due date.

9. On a related note, corral your committee.

Depending on how many people are on your committee, and where they are located -- whether they are all at your institution or scattered around the country -- it is important to be proactive about creating a schedule with them to help you complete the final steps. Getting feedback on final chapter drafts, gathering signatures and scheduling and preparing for a defense are all things that you have foremost on your mind, but it is your responsibility to get them to priority level in all of your committee members’ minds. Make their job easier by laying out a clear schedule, reminding them of your meetings and deadlines, and taking into account their own teaching and travel schedules.

10. Have someone waiting for you at the finish line.

Submitting the dissertation, particularly if you’re doing it electronically, can be anticlimactic. You spend hours at a printing shop, or hours poring over a PDF, and then with one handover or one click on a registrar’s website, it’s done. Academe, I sometimes joke, has a way of making us feel like we can’t spend too much time celebrating anything. On to the next thing: the job, the book, the next project. But this is a huge deal! You deserve to celebrate, and you deserve to have someone or many someones cheering you on as you cross that finish line. Ask a friend or family member to be with you -- personally, virtually, spiritually -- when you reach that milestone. In that moment, I was lucky to have someone witness that little click on the registrar’s website and then take me out for pizza and beer. The air seemed fresher that night. The next morning, the sunshine seemed brighter and life was a little bit sweeter. To all you dissertators out there, I wish you that same feeling.


Lori A. Flores is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Her book on Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants and the California farmworker movement is forthcoming from Yale University Press (fall 2015).



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