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Dr. Stephanie Hedge is a permanent author at GradHacker and was, until recently, a graduate student in the Department of English at Ball State University.  You can follow her on twitter at @slhedge.

Last week, I successfully defended my dissertation. (Yay!) It’s a huge milestone, and I am exhausted and happy and proud. But my degree isn’t quite finished yet. As much as I would like to just bask in good feelings and watch some cartoons, there are a number of tiny details to finish, from submitting the final dissertation to signing the right forms.

The defense—or the final big completion stage of any major project—can loom large: it’s a tangible goal that can overwhelm your view, taking not only your time and attention, but also acting as a roadblock. In the weeks running up to the defense date, I often found myself saying “Yeah, totally, I’ll do that after I’ve defended.”

And now it’s after, and I’m running around trying to figure out everything that needs to get done. This post provides tips for what to do after the defense, or as you approach the final steps of your degree.

Plan ahead, and do things weeks in advance when you can.

At the completion of any big project, there are often lots of papers to sign, people to notify, and forms to fill out. Try to find out what these forms are as far in advance when you can. If you need a signature page for your dissertation, for example, find out the rules in your college for formatting, and draft the page as soon as you can to save you time and effort down the road. In addition to the details about the project itself, think about what happens when your degree is finished. If you are getting ready to graduate, for example, think about whether or not you are planning to walk. If you are, do you want the fancy hat? Do you want tailor made robes? These items need to be specially ordered months in advance, so plan ahead as early as you can.

Think about things like: putting together any additional materials (like appendices, acknowledgement pages, and abstracts), rules for submitting your documents, paperwork for completing your degree, publishing and copyright options for your project, hardcopy vs. digital copy submission and documentation, final cut-off dates for submissions, your departmental standard for formatting and citation, graduation requirements, and sending thank you cards to committee members.

Pay attention to the little rules as you go.

The final, official submission of my dissertation required specific formatting rules, all of which were annoying to throw together in a single frantic sitting. If you can, find out details like formatting requirements ahead of time. Even if you don’t make the specific changes as you write (for example, I refused to double space until all of my edits were completed), knowing what they are ahead of time can help you troubleshoot problems in advance. The little rules apply to things beyond writing, as well: if you’re thinking about graduation, find out how many corners people in your college usually get on their fancy hat (tam).

Importantly, stay on top of the little things. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture, but you don’t want to stumble at the end if you haven’t been keeping up with your references page (like me...). Don’t wait until the day before everything is due to figure out the rules.

Stay organized.

Dates, rules, and paper trails can be hard to keep track of, so find a method that works for you so you don’t have to remember everything on your own. I used a yellow legal pad, Evernote, and Wunderlist to keep track of everything for me, clearing up valuable brain space to keep writing away. Whatever system works for you, digital listkeepers, analog sticky notes, or dates carved into your desk, make sure you write down the important details.

Ask a million questions.

For me, the single most important person during the run up to my defense, and the frantic submission period afterwards, was our graduate administrative assistant (thanks Shawna!). She knew everything, and anything she didn’t know, she could tell me who to ask. There were days when I camped in her office and peppered her with questions, sometimes the same ones over and over, to make sure I really understood what I was doing, and I never would have finished anything without her. It's important to make friends with the people in your department who understand the administrative rules, particularly as your director or chair may be unfamiliar with the specific paperwork once it leaves their hands. Don’t be afraid to ask any and all questions.

It also might be a good idea to find someone who has been through this process before. Contact a recent grad and ask questions. Someone who has recently done it may have insider knowledge not available to other people—for example, they may know things like "Bill in the Grad School is really slow, make sure you give him extra time to sign things". Ask if you can see copies of some of their paperwork or formatting to ensure that you are following the guidelines.


It’s okay to take some time to bask in good feelings. The rules, loose ends, and paperwork can wait until you’ve had a beer, after all.

Are you finishing a degree, or have you recently finished? Share your advice in the comments below.

[Image by flickr user jayneandd and used under a creative commons license]

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