The Final Semester
Eric Anthony Grollman offers advice on the last push by a graduate student to finish a dissertation -- and to move on.
Around this time last year, I had accepted the job offer with University of Richmond, took a very much needed break over the holidays, and returned to grad school at Indiana University ready to wrap things up for my Ph.D. Since I had not made a great deal of progress on my dissertation while on the job market, simply “wrapping things up” entailed starting, finishing, and defending my dissertation. And then moving. Yep.
Throughout the semester, I found myself thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?!” So, I share this advice for graduate students who will finish their dissertations this semester and move to begin a new job --or to look for one -- over/after the summer.
“Oh my gosh, the job market is so stressful.” It certainly was. But there was one thing I found substantially more stressful: the semester after, when I actually finished my dissertation.
So, to work in a timely manner, you should (yes, strong words!) take note of your university’s deadlines for filing a dissertation and graduating. It is your responsibility to figure out what your university requires and by what date. At least at my graduate institution, there were complex instructions — certain things were due on certain days if you finished in May, or had to be formatted in certain ways if submitting your dissertation electronically.
A second suggestion is to create a work schedule. Finishing will take a great deal of discipline. I set for myself 12-hour work days, but taking the evenings and weekends off was non-negotiable. So I had my butt in my home office chair at 6 a.m., to start working. I strongly recommend eliminating or at least temporarily suspending any other professional activities. Drop out of committees, suspend community service, put co-authored projects on hold, and stop publishing. If you can afford to (I know, I know — that’s why I said "if"), get out of teaching this semester. You have one job this semester: to finish a dissertation — one that four or five experts will be willing to sign their name to as sufficient for a doctorate. I will touch more on that later, but I want to emphasize that you need to minimize other distractions.
Another strategy that helped me was to create an outline of analyses that I would run, including supplemental analyses, to minimize data exploration. And I created an outline of what I would write in each literature review to minimize brainstorming before I had to write, and exploring existing literature. Of course, this was not a perfect strategy. But I could afford to revise models, or even change how certain variables were measured, and look up more references for a literature review, because I went in with most of these parts already decided. Yes, the strategy to determine my analyses in advance may not work for qualitative or other methodological approaches; however, if you can, do some of the analytical preparation and work in advance!
Decide up front what will be the best way to work, including editing what you are writing. I found warming up mentally each morning was easiest if I continued to work on one empirical chapter at a time. I started with the chapter that was closest to completion — the one for which I had already results because I used it as my job talk. Once that one was finished, I sent it to my chair for feedback. The unspoken agreement was that he had to approve a chapter before any other committee member could see it. But, as the semester unfolded, I would have to wait a very long time to receive feedback from other committee members. So I decided to seek out fellow students’ feedback — some because they do similar work, and others could comb my writing for clarity and grammatical errors. While I awaited feedback for one chapter, I moved on to the next. I left writing the conclusion for last, and drew heavily from my dissertation proposal for the introductory chapter.
I have heard of others who join a writing group, something that proves particularly useful at this last, hyper-independent stage. I considered the idea. But I thought about reading pages and pages of another student’s dissertation-in-progress — I did not have the time or energy. This stage proved to be the most selfish and self-serving. I asked others to read my work and provide feedback, but I could not offer anything in return. But, once they reach that stage in future years, I can finally offer help in return. I suspect a writing group can help if you have already established one. I would advise against starting anything new at this point.
I strongly recommend isolating yourself to finish. Fortunately/unfortunately, the department automatically backs away from you. But other students may not know to leave you be. If you can, work at home or the library. But you have to counterbalance this self-imposed isolation by taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. If you do not have friends or colleagues checking up on you, reach out to someone. Go out every once in a while. Leave the house every other day. Go for walks. Have some regularly scheduled time that is a non-negotiable break (you know, like “weekends”), and take part or all of spring break off. Seriously! Your brain will need to recharge.
A Note On a “Done Dissertation”
The most helpful advice I received to finish my dissertation was that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” While my committee expressed concern that one year to finish grad school and secure a job was not enough time to write a “great” dissertation, I scoffed because it would sit on a shelf alongside everyone else’s good, but completed dissertation. And when the time finally came just to write the darn thing, perfection as the primary goal gave way to completion. If you have not heard this before, know that finishing does not mean by your standards (per se), by a journal editor’s or book publisher’s standards, or even your discipline’s standards. You are finished with your dissertation when your dissertation committee has decided it is finished; they are the sole gatekeepers whom you must satisfy at this stage. If they say to add something you do not agree with, add it — you can quickly remove it when you go to publish from your dissertation research. (Or, if it’s a secondary committee member, ask your chair if she thinks you need to add it. If yes, than do so and eliminate it post-dissertation.)
Hopefully, you will publish something from your dissertation research later on. So I want to suggest that having something a little more than a “done dissertation” may prove beneficial down the road. I pushed back against my committee’s suggestion to produce a traditional, seamless dissertation, instead opting for an overarching introduction and conclusion, but otherwise distinct empirical chapters. I followed what some call the “three paper/chapter model,” meaning each chapter was written as a distinct, self-contained manuscript. At the start of my new job, I was able to send these chapters out with very little editing. If all that I had were empirical chapters that reviewed results with little front end and conclusion, it would have taken much more time to extract these as distinct manuscripts. Fortunately, my committee came around to the idea, as it was not the department’s norm. If they do not allow you to take this approach, do as much as you can to make the chapters distinct to minimize work later on. By today’s high standards for productivity, you cannot afford to waste time writing a magnum opus of a dissertation that does not easily translate into a book or a set of published articles!
Your committee, department, and/or university may have a set amount of time to send your committee your final draft before you defend. I have heard two weeks is minimal, so I aimed for one month to be generous. This is the first (or second) and last time you will have four or five experts sitting before to give feedback to improve your work and set your future research agenda. You definitely want to give them enough time, considering their busy schedules, to thoroughly read your 200- to 500-page “baby.” For me, the one-month window coincided with how far in advance I had to announce my upcoming dissertation defense. Also, if I were behind schedule, I would still be giving my committee a generous three-week window.
Be sure to have factored in time to actually proofread your work! And create a plan for printing and delivering your dissertation to each committee member in advance. Having a mini panic attack at the local Kinko’s as you try to get copies to your committee before the department closes at 4 p.m., and being told, “That’s $170″ to print five copies, is not fun.
During the time leading up to your dissertation defense, I advise one of two things. Leave this time to take care of the tedious formatting that your university requires for filed dissertations. Or, if you have already done this, work on a project you have neglected over the semester, only returning to your dissertation the day before your defense. Do not revise the content of your dissertation during this time! After your (successful!) defense, you will have tons of changes to make before you can file your dissertation with the college — and, your chair may want to approve the final document, too. Give yourself this time to take a bit of a break, at least to do mindless things or turn your attention to other projects.
I had family fly in for graduation in early May, including a family dinner. But it did not feel “real” just yet because I had not even defended my dissertation yet. By the time I filed and moved for my new job, I was ready to move on — or so I thought. I declined my mother’s repeated request to have a big family celebration. I was one of few in the family to get a master’s degree, and the first to get a Ph.D. on her side of the family (and one of very few on my father’s side, too). “I don’t need all of this fuss about me; we already celebrated,” I insisted. But, in finding no fanfare for this major achievement as I started my new job, it became clear that I had not properly celebrated. A few weeks in, saying, “You know, I’m proud of myself” out loud brought out an ugly cry that let me know I needed to do something to celebrate. This is trickier than college, which ends with graduation and a graduation party with family and/or friends, because graduation precedes actually finishing your dissertation and having your degree conferred by the college. So make sure you celebrate at some point, if not every point!
Leave yourself enough time to properly move. Set a deadline to file your dissertation and wrap up any other loose ends, and then turn your attention fully to moving. And, once moved, give yourself time to explore your new home. Sure, you should make an effort to hit the ground running at your new job. But you will benefit from having roots settled when the semester picks up. Get a driver’s license, update mailing addresses, register to vote, find a new doctor and dentist — all of those things that become annoyances later on when you are very busy!
Once you do officially start your new job, which I recommend comes a couple of weeks (even a month or so) before the semester starts, take the time to prep your courses and get research moving. Your first semester will be a busy, stressful time of adjustment. If you start getting your ducks in a row early, you can coast a bit when the semester starts to overwhelm you. By the latter half of the semester, you will thank yourself for your late summer productivity.
Please read this! Of all of the things I wish I had known going into the final semester of graduate school, the most regrettable was not thinking ahead financially. Your meager stipend or fellowship will likely run out by the end of this semester, and then you will have no income until September or even October. That means living and moving on zero income over the summer! As much as you can, try to save beginning today! Hopefully, you negotiated with your new job for some sort of compensation for moving. If not, ask about it immediately. I suppose there are many things you will not know, but the financial crunch at this stage seems too pressing of an issue to (unintentionally) keep quiet.
So, here are the deadlines you will either need to set, self-impose, or for which to account in your scheduling:
- How long you will give yourself to write, revise, and complete each chapter.
- When to factor in soliciting and incorporating feedback from your chair, other committee members, and/or friends and other colleagues.
- How far in advance you need to apply for graduation, book travel and hotel for visiting family and friends, and rent or purchase graduation regalia.
- Allowing yourself enough time to coordinate each committee member’s schedule. Keep in mind that some professors leave on the first flight after their last class of the spring semester!
- How far in advance you must provide your committee with the final draft of your dissertation for your defense
- How far in advance you must officially announce your dissertation defense.
- Time to go through the detailed instructions for properly formatting your dissertation before filing.
- How far in advance you must file your dissertation, and if there are special circumstances.
- Time to house-hunt and then move.
- Time to properly recover, relax, and recharge before beginning your new job
And, the expenses — some (or all!) of which come right out of your own pocket:
- Typical living expenses.
- Graduation regalia, transportation and lodging for visiting family, graduation dinner.
- Printing drafts of your dissertation (unless you can print for free on campus).
- Submitting, binding, and printing your final dissertation.
- Transportation and lodging for a house-hunting trip, if you make one before moving.
- Rental truck, boxes, storage, and other costs associated with moving.
- Security deposit, first month’s rent, and any other initial expenses once you have moved (e.g., turning on power, groceries, driver’s license).
- Essay on keys to finishing a dissertation
- Essay on how to reach the Ph.D. dissertation finish line
- Surviving the Dissertation: Tips from Someone Who Mostly Has
- Essay on how to finish a dissertation in two years
- Essay on how to tell if grad students are ready for a full academic job search
- Essay offering advice on defending dissertations and theses
- Dealing With the Committee
- Essay on strategies for speedy progression through a doctoral program
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