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A Done Dissertation Isn’t The Best Dissertation

Prioritizing research quality over speed.

December 6, 2015

Wendy Robinson is a doctoral student at Iowa State University. You kind find her wasting time on Twitter at @wendyrmonkey.




It is Thanksgiving and my house is strangely quiet. There are no sounds of my children running around the house, no popping of a turkey in the oven, no excited play-by-play of football announcers.


It is Thanksgiving and I am all alone. My husband has taken the kids to our family celebration two states away, giving me the twin gifts of quiet and time so I can work on my dissertation.


I spread my research around the dining room table and warm up my writing muscles by running a chi square on one of my data points. Satisfyingly, the answer comes back as I expected it to. I write and sip Diet Coke and the day turns from morning to the gray of early evening. Two friends, both with PhDs already in hand, stop by and drop off plates of turkey and mashed potatoes. They ask how the writing is going, but don’t linger. They can tell I’m in the zone.


As I eat my stuffing, I can’t help but think about all the ways in which writing a dissertation is different than I expected. I’ve always been a strong and fast writer. I like research and I love my dissertation topic. I knew a dissertation was a big project but I think I wildly underestimated how long writing it would take me.


I’ve been at it for nearly a year and I’m not finished. I’m not even sure how close I am to finished.  While this isn’t an unusual timeline in my program, where many students are part-time and working as college administrators, I was perhaps overconfident about my writing speed. I was so sure I would be done by this point. I think about how, when I was lamenting that the process was more time consuming than I expected, a fellow student chirped the cliché that has started to make my teeth clench: “the best dissertation is a done dissertation!”


I’ve now officially heard that line from my advisor, most of my faculty members, my boss, and countless other academic types. And I get that they mean it to be encouraging and to remind me that at some point you HAVE to stop adding another article to your lit review or tweaking your tables or obsessing over whether it is perfect or not. I get that “done” is better than “perfectionist spiral that lasted seven years” but a part of me can’t help but bristle every time I hear that line.


Because, here’s the thing: I’m giving up a lot to write my dissertation. Money. Time with my family. Sleep. My sanity on the bad days. Time spent on other research, other writing projects. Doing things for fun and not feeling guilty about it. But I do it and I try to do it well because, perhaps this is hubris, I believe my topic is important. I believe that if I do what I mean to with my dissertation, I really will be filling in a gap in the literature. I believe that my work may actually make a difference in my field.


Which…isn’t that the point of doing a dissertation in the first place? Not just to finish something but to have made a contribution, to advance knowledge? If that is the case, why does there seem to be this quickness to tell doctoral students that “done is best”? I’d argue that done is better than ABD, but shouldn’t we be encouraging students to aim a little higher than just “done”?


I suspect that part of the reason so many people fall back on the “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” (or the even more depressing “done is better than good” line I recently heard) is that it can be hard for the people who care about you or are waiting for you to finish to tell the difference between perfectionism run amok versus procrastination/total avoidance versus time spent thoughtfully writing. The cliche might be helpful for the first two scenarios, but it feels grating for the third.


So, what do you do when well-meaning advice starts driving you crazy? First, I would suggest that you need to have a sense of security in your process and your timeline. Not only that, you need to make sure you are effectively communicating with your advisor about the progress you are making and any deadlines you’ve set for yourself. You also need to accept that writing a dissertation is an inherently difficult process and you WILL face frustrations, set-backs, and maybe even some missed deadlines. Be willing to live in the discomfort and don’t let the pursuit of just finishing get in the way of creating something you’ll be proud of and can use as a well developed springboard for future research.


This week my family is home and I am back to working on my little desk in the attic, with head phones in to block out the noise of Yo Gabba Gabba coming from the TV. I’m deep in the weeds of chapter 4 and am answering my research questions in both expected (It is so satisfying when the thing you thought might be important IS actually important) and surprising ways. So I’m going to keep working and when I’m finished, this thing is going to be better than just done.


Do you think the “best dissertation is a done dissertation” is good advice? Comment here or let’s meet over at Twitter on the #donedissertation thread.


Image by Flickr User Dom Pates and used under Creative Commons license]


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