5 Strategies for Surviving and Thriving During Your Dissertation

Having just completed the process, Ramon B. Goings shares what he wished he'd known when he started.

November 25, 2015

A little less than a month ago, I successfully defended my dissertation, which explored the academic and social experiences of high-achieving black males attending a historically black college and university. After taking a well-needed break to reflect on my dissertation journey, I decided to write this article to provide readers with some advice that I wish I’d had at the beginning of the process. Through my experience, I discovered five basic strategies that I’d like to share with other graduate students.

1. From the start, choose a topic that you care about. I understand this may sound obvious, but completing a dissertation is certainly a process, and you will experience instances when that process moves slower than you’d like. For instance, I expected to reach certain milestones (e.g., defending my dissertation proposal) by certain dates, but I usually hit them weeks or months later. Had I not chosen a topic that I cared about, I could easily have lost interest in my research.

Thus, as you prepare to select a dissertation topic, remind yourself that you will spend hours thinking, writing and talking about it and that it is crucial that the subject be personal to you. The adage goes, “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” I would amend that to say, “The best dissertation is a dissertation written by an author who enjoys his or her work.”

2. Take ownership of what you can control but be patient during the wait time.

Right after defending my dissertation proposal, I attended a church service, and the minister explained to the congregation that while we have control over what happens in our lives, we will often need to be comfortable in the wait time. You will find -- if you have not already -- that the dissertation process is filled with wait times, such as waiting patiently for feedback from your dissertation chair on your latest draft.

Because you cannot control such situations as you progress through the dissertation process, take ownership of what you can -- such as writing a compelling document and setting and meeting deadlines -- and become comfortable with the waiting. I have found during such a time you can learn a lot about yourself and begin to truly appreciate the dissertation process.

For instance, I learned that I worked best when I juggled multiple research projects (discussed in more detail in item three, below). In addition, because I had a supportive group of peers going through the dissertation process with me, I learned that having a social network of scholars was crucial -- not only to ensuring that I finished my dissertation writing but also that I remained patient during the wait time.

3. Develop a second writing project to work on while writing your dissertation (especially if you seek a faculty position). It can be easy for graduate students to become consumed by the dissertation. Your classmates constantly ask where you are in the process, and even family members begin raising the question, “So when will you become Dr. _____?” It is understandable to feel pressured and to become frustrated.

During those times when you hit a roadblock, having a second project to work on can give you well-needed distance and perspective. You can remain productive and develop your research agenda, as well as gain new insights if your second project involves an extension of your dissertation research.

Moreover, to be competitive for a tenure-track position in today’s higher education landscape, it’s always good for a graduate student to leave a doctoral program with several scholarly publications. Consequently, while writing my dissertation, I worked on multiple projects to develop a strong CV. That way, if I wanted to explore faculty or postdoc opportunities after graduation, I would have a competitive résumé.

4. Become confident in imperfection as a writer. Gaining this understanding was a major turning point in my development as a scholar. When I first began to conceptualize my dissertation, I was a little unsure of my ability to take on such a daunting task. As a result, I sometimes found it hard to write sentences because I was looking for the perfect one.

But I have learned that I cannot seek perfection in the first draft. During the instances where I could not find the perfect words to start my sentences, one strategy I tried was to write and then highlight the following sentence in my document: “This is the first sentence, and I will revise later.” I then proceeded to write my thoughts for that paragraph. By the time I came back around to writing the first sentence, I’d covered a lot of ground in the dissertation and the sentence came easier, as well.

5. Become a creature of habit and write every day. At the start of writing my dissertation, I read The Black Academic’s Guide to Earning Tenure -- Without Losing Your Soul by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy. The authors recommend that, to be productive as a writer, you should write at least 30 minutes each day.

For graduate students like me who work full time and/or have families, it may seem impossible to carve out that amount of time to write. I decided to try writing 15 minutes a day instead. While I found that to be beneficial, I always left each writing session having just gotten into a writing groove. In the end, 30 minutes became enough time to write without feeling as if I were sitting at the computer for a long time.

To implement this plan, you should first determine your ideal thinking and writing time. Once you understand when you work best, schedule your 30-minute session each day at the same time. In addition, during each session, record how many words you have written and what section of your dissertation you’ve worked on. You will be surprised at how much you can accomplish by the end of the week.

While I have provided five strategies for surviving and thriving while developing your dissertation, I understand that there are certainly more suggestions for ensuring success. I hope that, using the comment feature below and engaging in dialogue via the comment section or Twitter (@ramongoings) and Facebook (hashtag #MyDocStory), we can share strategies to help doctoral students through the dissertation process.


Ramon B. Goings is the program coordinator for the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


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