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The Home Stretch

Reflections from the final stages of the dissertation process.


March 29, 2016

Wendy Robinson is a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University. You can connect with her on Twitter @wendyrmonkey.




As I write this, I am four days away from my dissertation defense. A year’s worth of writing and research sits on my desk, held together with a giant binder clip. The final draft of my dissertation has been sent to my committee, so there is nothing more I can do to the stack of papers in front of me. Other than practicing my presentation again, there is actually nothing else I can do right now to prepare for defense.


I have nothing to do. I get to read a book for fun, with no guilt. How strange.


I set my defense date several months ago and since then have had periods of intense work and intense sloth. It has felt like I was either writing my brains out or not writing at all as I waited for feedback from my advisor. In my dissertation, I use the context of liminality to help describe my findings. Liminality refers to the experience of being “betwixt and between” two distinct states and I’m finding that framework helps not only explain my research but also my experience of being a grad student in the home stretch of the dissertation.


On the one hand, the end is in sight. If all goes well next week, I’m looking at my first summer in years where my reading list is something other than a fat stack of articles.  Soon, I can start spending Saturdays at the park with my kids, instead of hiding in the library. I am so close. On the other hand, I’m still practicing for my defense presentation and keenly aware that I may still have work to do on my dissertation after my defense, depending on how many revisions my committee requires. I still find myself scanning databases for relevant articles I might have missed somehow. I’m almost there… but not yet.


I’ve learned a few things in the last few months that might be helpful to other doctoral students as they enter the home stretch:


1. Plan out the time you need, and then double it: Whether it is formatting your final draft or putting the polish on your findings section, everything seemed to take me longer than I expected. I had more seriously late nights in my last few months than I did at any other point in my grad school experience.


2. Accept that you might become rather superstitious: Several friends have already asked me when my graduation party will be or have jokingly referred to me as “Dr. Robinson.” I quickly squash these conversations and declare “No jinxing!” even though I don’t actually believe in jinxes. Probably. But better safe than sorry.


3. Get ready for all the feelings: When I hit “send” on my final draft and sent it to my committee, I promptly burst into tears. It was a moment of pride and relief and about 12 other emotions. I’m not a crier by nature, but this felt like a huge moment in my life. Now that I have less than a week until I defend, I feel a constantly shifting mixture of fear and excitement. I suspect I’m going to feel emotionally hungover once it is done.


4. Give yourself some days off: After I sent my final draft out, I turned off my computer and picked up a book. I spent the next three days lost in someone else’s world and didn’t touch my dissertation. I needed some emotional distance before I could look at it again. When I picked it back up, I was pleasantly surprised at how coherent it seemed – almost like I know what I’m talking about. Imagine that.


5. Savor the acknowledgements section: The very last thing I wrote for my dissertation was the dedication and acknowledgements section. Taking the time to think about all the people who helped me and provided emotional support along the way was really important to me and it felt like a fitting end to this very individual journey. And, let’s be honest, it was the easiest section of all to write!


Writing a dissertation is, in many ways, both a marathon and a sprint. There are days of intense work and weeks of idling away time. But, if you stick with it, the finish line will eventually appear.


How did you get through the last few months as a grad student?

[Photo courtesy of Wendy Robinson]


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