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Ph.D. students: How to finish your dissertation and enjoy your time writing it

It is that time of the year. The time when Ph.D. applications are due, when the stress of putting together a good proposal, writing a convincing cover letter, and polishing that old CV are all at the top of the list for many of my master students. When answering questions about what being a Ph.D. student really implies, I come to think about all the people that begin their doctorates in earnest but never finish. I do not personally know so many, but statistics say that about 37% of students who begin a Ph.D. never actually obtain the diploma.

It is not surprising that so many decide that this kind of career does not suit them. Regardless of the discipline, it appears that one things Ph.D. across the world share is a deep dissatisfaction with the way they are treated. Besides disgruntlement, there are few other factors that come into play when quitting or finishing a Ph.D. is on the agenda, of which the most important two are money and mentors. I would like to add to the list one other element, namely support from other sources than the advisors/mentors.

Advisors are essential in the process of designing and producing the academic content of the Ph.D. as well as during the networking and publishing phases. However, they are not always the most appropriate source of emotional support and provider of “technical” advice (on how to write, how to organize information, how to sort it, etc.). This is where the professional support from outside the department comes into play.

Departments would benefit from hiring external consultants (external to the department or even external to the university) that would provide two types of services: 1) psychological support and 2) research and writing advice.

Psychological support

At some moment during the writing process doubt, insecurity and the desire to throw everything into the dustbin are all common occurrences. How to address these issues? How to find the strength to carry on? How to not cave in under the immense stress and pressure that departments, advisors and perhaps family or social environment exert upon the Ph.D. student? How to deal with writer’s block, or with experiments that fail? Competent psychological guiding can help extract one from the dark hole of despair and give extra impulses and motivation when they are most needed. Through dialogue and the learning of stress relief techniques, psychology comes to the rescue. Lifting morale, increasing confidence, controlling stress: these three steps can really affect Ph.D. student’s state of mind and guide her/him through difficult times.

Research and writing advice

On the second point, even more concrete techniques can be communicated and taught to improve the writing process. I do not believe that one method or technique fits all styles, but becoming more aware of one’s own way of approaching research and writing is an important first step. For example, monitoring how much time is dedicated to writing on the thesis during a regular week can unveil those “time sucking activities” responsible for low productivity. Once these bad habits are identified, one can replace them with tried and tested procedures. Among them:

●        Schedule writing as a regular activity in your calendar, alongside teaching and administration (and gym passes!)

●        Divide writing time in manageable slots (some argue that even 15 minutes a day are enough)

●        During the writing sessions cut off any telephone and internet contact, using software (e.g. Freedom, Think, or Isolator)

●        Write something every working day, so that your brain is primed for the subject of your thesis.

●        Take time off during weekends or when friends’ and family’s schedule fit best so that your social life does not melt into thin air. Weekend breaks from writing may even improve your work!

●        Join a group of people in the same position as you. One example is the Shut Up and Write initiative, but I am sure there are others out there.

●        Take a class or workshop about software that can help you systematize or organize your data/references/article library. Technology is here to help, don’t ignore it!


I am convinced that if such help as I discuss above would be readily available for Ph.D. students across campuses, the drop-out rate of doctoral students would be drastically reduced. Moreover, doing the research and writing the thesis would be transformed from a burden to a much more enjoyable activity.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to deal with Ph.D. drop-out?

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

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