How to Finish Your Dissertation

Kerry Ann Rockquemore gives advice for getting past the three biggest obstacles to completion.

August 3, 2016
iStock/Alexei Nabarro

Dear Kerry Ann,

I was hoping to finish my dissertation last year and graduate in May. But it’s August, I’m heading back for another year on campus and I’m nowhere near finishing the dissertation. The sad part is that it’s not the research that is holding up my progress (it is mostly complete) and it’s not my committee (they are supportive and want me to finish). The problem is that I’m not writing. I’m starting to think that I may never finish and will end up another A.B.D. who fades out of the program.

But I do want to finish my dissertation! And yet I’m not making any progress. I need help beyond your usual suggestion to start a daily writing habit (I tried that and it didn’t work).


Need Help Finishing

Dear Need Help,

I am so glad to hear that you are resolved to complete your dissertation, recognize that what you’re doing isn’t working and are open to new experiments for the upcoming academic year.

There’s an important reason that nearly half of graduate students who start doctoral programs don’t finish -- they never complete their dissertations. That means you’re not the only person who has struggled while A.B.D. Over the past year, I’ve worked with more than 400 dissertation writers, and I’ve seen over and over again that isolation, perfectionism and procrastination are the three biggest threats to completion.

So that leaves us with a very simple issue. If you have only one way to finish your dissertation (write it) and you know the three challenges you need to overcome to do the writing (isolation, perfectionism and procrastination), then the key question is: How can you create an environment and support systems this year that will enable you to write on a regular basis? In other words, how can you design your work time to ensure that you have everything you need to complete your dissertation this year? Only you can answer these questions, but I would like to share a few insights and gentle suggestions.

Get Real About Daily Writing

I know I sound like a broken record on this point, so I’ll be brief. You cannot binge write a dissertation over a weekend, over a weeklong writing retreat or even if you hide in a cave for a month. High-quality work takes time to produce. We know that the most productive academic writers don’t write in large uninterrupted blocks of time; they write every day (Monday through Friday) in small increments.

I also realize that it seems like everyone these days is telling dissertation writers to “write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day” or that “you should try 25-minute pomodoros.” And as you’ve noted, I regularly advise people to write for at least 30 minutes per day. In response, graduate students tell me “that’s pie in the sky,” “it’s impossible to write a dissertation in 15 minutes a day“ or (my personal favorite) “Bolker really meant 15 hours a day -- the publisher made a mistake and never fixed it, sending an entire generation of graduate students into a tailspin of self-loathing and misery.”

So let me make two important distinctions. First and foremost, when I encourage you to write at least 30 minutes per day, the most important part of that phrase is “at least.” It doesn’t mean that you’re going to complete your dissertation in one semester by writing for only 30 minutes per day. It’s advice given to people like you, who are not writing at all. In fact, it literally means start with 30 minutes a day, boo. When you’ve got that locked down, work your way up to longer periods of writing.

The second distinction that’s important is about the expectation versus the reality of what constitutes writing. Many graduate students I’ve worked with imagine that writing means producing perfect prose on the first draft. I have observed students spend 30 minutes writing, revising, deleting and rewriting a single sentence. If that’s how you are spending your daily writing time, I understand why you might conclude that it doesn’t work.

Instead, consider that drafting and revising are two separate stages of the writing process. Those initial drafts are where you work out your existing ideas and generate new ones. For that reason, much of what you write is for you, for your own thought process, and may never be shared with your committee or make it to the final draft. This is why we often say “writing is thinking!”

Win the Battle of the Moment

If you’re like the majority of dissertation writers I’ve worked with, your initial attempts at daily writing fail. Why? Because you experience a repeating and self-defeating pattern that looks like this: you set aside time in your calendar for dissertation writing and you fully intend to write during that scheduled time. Then when the time comes, you experience a subtle but powerful urge to do anything but write. It’s such a strong and seemingly harmless impulse (“Let me just answer one quick email!”) that you follow the urge where it leads you, whether it be email, Facebook, teaching prep, more reading or a snack. Pretty soon your writing time is over and you haven’t written a single word. You promise yourself that you’ll do better tomorrow, but the next day comes and goes with the same result. After a week, you decide the whole daily writing thing doesn’t really work for someone like you.

I call this daily struggle “the battle of the moment.” It’s the moment that it’s time to start writing -- the hardest moment to move through -- and if you can just get going you’ll be fine. It’s truly a battle between your future self and your resistance. One of you will win and one of you will lose. In other words, either your future will win and you’ll start writing your dissertation or your resistance will win and you’ll end up arguing with somebody on Facebook about the presidential election.

The best way to win the battle of the moment is to first understand that it’s normal for your resistance to show up every day when it’s time to write. I encourage you to become aware of it and accept it for what it is. Then set a timer for a small block of writing. (Even 10 minutes will get you through the moment.) The goal is to win the moment each day. Once you can stack up enough daily wins, you’ll see that you’re making progress on your dissertation.

And it’s important to know that your resistance is strongest when you’re alone because it festers in isolation. But that also means that your resistance is weakest in the presence of other active daily writers. For that reason, I strongly encourage you to consider what type of writing support you can create for yourself this year. Be creative! Dissertation writers use many different types of support structures to overcome resistance: write on-sites, writing buddies, accountability groups, dissertation boot camp, Facebook groups, writing retreats and 14-day writing challenges, to name just a few.

Learn to Analyze Why You’re Not Writing and Design Work-Arounds

If you’ve tried daily writing in the past but were unable to maintain it, then ask yourself why? What exactly kept you from the single most important activity that will allow you to complete the dissertation, finish your degree and move on with your professional life? What happened (be as specific as possible) when you sat down to write?

For most dissertation writers, the inability to develop and maintain a daily writing practice is due to one of three things: 1) technical errors, 2) psychological obstacles or 3) external realities. While I’ve written about those in detail elsewhere, let me provide a quick dissertation-specific overview so that you can diagnose why you’re not writing and then design a quick and effective work-around.

Technical Errors: Dissertation writers often struggle to establish a daily writing practice due to several technical errors. That simply means that you’re missing a skill or technique. As soon as you identify the error, the work-around is clear. Here are the most common technical errors I’ve observed in working with dissertation writers and a corresponding work-around:

  • You haven’t set aside a specific time to write. (A work-around is to designate time in your calendar for dissertation writing.)
  • You have been setting aside the wrong time for writing. (A work-around is experimenting with writing first thing in the morning.)
  • You struggle to get started writing each day. (A work-around is to develop a writing ritual.)
  • You have no idea how much time tasks take and keep grossly underestimating how long it takes to do them. (A work-around is to use a timer to collect data on how long it takes you to complete various writing tasks.)
  • You don’t have any way to measure progress because you just have “write dissertation” as your daily writing goal. (A work-around is to set SMART goals.)
  • You feel overwhelmed because you can’t figure out what you have to do. (A work-around is to make a dissertation plan that lays out the steps for completing each chapter.)
  • You keep writing and revising the same sentence. (A work-around is to try Write or Die to permanently separate the drafting stage from the revising stage.)

Psychological Obstacles: Technical errors can be fixed with changes in your writing habits, but psychological obstacles often underlie dissertation writers’ inability to write daily. The most common I’ve observed are impostor syndrome, perfectionism, disempowerment, inner critics on steroids, fear of failure and/or success and a lack of clarity about your future goals. Regrettably, a quick tip, trick or hack will not eliminate psychological obstacles, but we can loosen their grip by increasing our awareness of their existence, reframing them and experimenting with behavioral changes.

External Realities: Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not recognize that sometimes the inability to maintain a daily writing practice results from an external reality that is beyond your control. The truth is that life events occur that directly impact the amount of energy we have to write. For example, you have a baby, someone dies, you or someone you love becomes ill and you have unexpected recovery/caregiving, you get divorced, etc. These situations can’t be “fixed,” so they require patience, compassion toward yourself, adjusted expectations and the willingness to explicitly ask for the kind of support you need.

Change Your Peer Group

In my experience, people who don’t finish their dissertations have one of two problems with the people they surround themselves with: 1) they don’t have anyone who is actively writing a dissertation in their daily life (i.e., they remove themselves entirely from contact with other dissertation writers) or 2) they surround themselves with dissertation writers who are not writing and spend their time complaining about their advisers, their campus, the oppressive nature of graduate education and/or the abysmal state of the job market.

To state the painfully obvious, neither self-isolating nor surrounding yourself with negative peers will help you develop a consistent daily writing habit. What you need most is a positive community that supports you through the ups and downs of writing a dissertation and celebrates your successes every step of the way. Every small win builds momentum, and seeing other people succeed makes it seem possible for you, too. It’s sharing the daily grind while making personal progress that reduces the isolation, perfectionism and procrastination that got you to this point.

I hope it’s clear from these suggestions that finishing your dissertation is a realistic possibility. It won’t happen if you keep on doing the things that have kept you unproductive. But if you’re willing to get serious about writing, get into a relationship with your resistance and join a positive community of writers, you will quickly start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

P.S. I love your questions, so keep posting them on my Facebook page or email me at


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