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Want to Finish? Make Your Dissertation Your Priority

As you probably already know, writing a dissertation is different from anything you’ve ever done. This undertaking requires you to adjust, if not radically change, your lifestyle. If you ever really want to complete the dissertation, and in a timely manner (if that isn’t an oxymoron), you need to rethink your priorities.

You may have been used to putting family first (possibly after your full-time job). But rethink this priority. Heartless and psychologically suspect as this statement may sound, you can make it up to your family in many other ways—later (that’s another article). Or you may say “yes” to all kinds of non-school activities. Learn to say “not now” (also another article).

At this point in your graduate school life, you’re supposed to make the dissertation your major priority. In my longtime dissertation coaching of struggling doctoral candidates and dissertation writers, I’ve learned several techniques and related perspectives that will nudge you into making your dissertation a priority.

Talk With Other Students

Contact other students at or near your stage. Compare notes, choices, and concerns. Just talking about yours will bolster, strengthen, and clarify your convictions. You may even help your colleagues reorder their own priorities toward finishing.

My client Gregory enlisted the aid of a cohort member who had already had her proposal approved and was, he assumed, sailing along on her data collection. When they spoke, Nancy admitted she’d had a very hard time getting to her data collection. “I kept saying ‘Sure’ to too many activities—with my family, friends, neighbors, community—instead of concentrating on my data collection.” Gregory was astounded. “How did you get out of it all?” he asked. Nancy replied, “I realized my dissertation survival was at stake. So, with difficulty, I learned to say no.”

Look at What You’re Doing

If your downfall isn’t activities with others, you may have other habits you hardly recognize as dissertation demolishers. If you work out religiously seven days a week (granted, a noble pursuit), examine your time. Instead of hitting the gym daily, you can still sculpt your six-pack in four days a week.

If you’re obsessed with TV and give yourself the (excellent) rationale that your brain needs regular sitcom airings, learn to use the mysterious tv recorder and prerecord the shows you can’t live without. Then ration them and reward yourself after a dissertation session, like eating chocolate truffles.

If you’re committed to lengthy daily exchanges of juicy confidences or incessant texts with a best friend, instead plan on three times a week and limit the time of each confessional. An upside to fewer meetings: you’ll have that much more to commiserate about.

You may be thinking, Oh, an hour here or there doesn’t matter much. Maybe not, but I’ve found, as many other people have who are serious about their major projects, that even an hour can leak into more and, worse, upset one’s work momentum. I’m not talking about conscious and reasonable breaks for balance (essential, and another article), but rather the spontaneous, avoidant use or misuse of your time without rethinking your priorities or keeping your new ones in mind.

Recently, browsing an article in a writing magazine (okay, I should have been working on my major priority), I discovered a highly pertinent and too-true reply from the English master Charles Dickens to his lady love. He explained why he felt he couldn’t accept what seemed like her innocent invitation. Maybe you’ve heard similar inviting words from relatives or friends who try to inveigle you into coming out to play:

“It is only half an hour”—“it is only an afternoon”—“it is only an evening”
people say to me over and over again—but they don’t know that
it is impossible to command oneself sometimes to any stipulated and
set disposal of five minutes—or that the mere consciousness of an
engagement will sometimes worry a whole day. These are the penalties
paid for writing books [and dissertations]. Whoever is devoted to an Art [or
degree] must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and find his recompense in it. (In Gail Godwin, “Tips on Getting Unstuck,” The Writer, January 2008, Vol. 121, issue 1, p. 34)

Like Dickens, as you become more devoted to your work, and you will find your recompense.

Find the Holes in Your Schedule

Once you face those time-eating habits and turn from them, you’re ready for the next step. It will help you see how you can apply all that saved time to your dissertation. Even if you’ve cut down your time in the ways suggested above, you may still have family responsibilities, household chores, and inviolate volunteering at the farmer’s market asparagus table. How will you ever get more time?

I’m not going to recite that usual time platitude: “We all have the same amount of
X seconds, minutes, hours.” Probably meant as help, this statement has always depressed me, as if it’s a reprimand, especially when I’m facing down a 114-item not-yet-done list.

Instead, I point you to two techniques I use with clients (and myself) who (a) feel they have no time for the dissertation, and (b) go into full panic because they agonize about feeling they have too little time.

First, take a big calendar book or sheets of letter-sized pages. I like the weekly calendar books, with a single week over two pages divided into hourly segments when the book is open (paper or virtual). Mark in or draw big lines through your absolute necessities (job, kids’ pick-ups, weekly gas-fillings, your-turn-for-dishes-night, teeth-cleaning appointments, absolutely necessary tv). Then look at the unmarked spaces. These are the times you have for the dissertation.

Even if they seem paltry, whatever those time segments are, use them. Evenings after the kids are bathed or the crucial football game? Early mornings (not my preference, for sure)? Weekends? Then on your calendar sheets, fill in your dissertation-devoted time. It will mount up.

Consistency is the key habit to cultivate. On the other hand, if you exclaim, “Wow! I have more time than I thought!” you may be tempted to schedule your dissertation for every single moment not devoted to your job or other necessities. Don’t. You’re also entitled to reasonable breaks.

And listen to yourself. Some of us are no good at 5:00 a.m., an hour before getting ready for work. Some of us fade completely after 9:00 p.m. If you’re like this, avoid these times, even though a colleague has told you she gets so much done at 1:00 in the morning. You’re different; honor yourself. Make no rash promises to yourself that you know you won’t be able to keep. You’ll just feel bad when you don’t meet them.

You do see, though, that 7:00 p.m. could work, for two hours at least three nights a week, and Saturday and Sunday mornings. So, on your calendar, in these spaces write or type in big letters DISSERTATION. These spaces are your appointments with yourself, as sacrosanct as your regular oil change.

As you get more into the dissertation, add specifics right in the calendar. If your topic is play therapy, in the Wednesday night space, for example, you could add “Search literature for previous studies on children overattached to their teddies.” In the Saturday morning space, add “Write two intro paragraphs on origins of play therapy with stuffed pets.”

The second technique follows from this suggestion: Make a master list of the tasks you see in front of you. This list is not meant to overwhelm but rather allow you to schedule successive tasks in reasonable timeallocations (and shows you the list isn’t endless).

In the example above, you could put down the following:

  1. Search library databases for studies on children overattached to their teddies.
  2. Make PDFs of these and put them in a file.
  3. Start a reference list for them (imperative!).
  4. Ask Gertie the play therapist about her experiences with children and stuffed animals and books/articles/conferences she knows about.
  5. Write a rough draft of introduction.

This list, and your eventual additions, will help you see what to do and in what sequence. And you’ll have the supreme pleasure of checking each item off.

Keep Your Promises to Yourself

Recognize that your promises to yourself are just as important and serious, if not more, than those you make to others. By now you’ve written your promises on your calendar in the allocated times to work on to your dissertation. And I hope you’ve staked out a special place for dissertation headquarters—study, sunroom, half the bedroom, all of the dining room table. A designated special place makes it much easier to leave everything a mess and start where you last left off.

Some days, though, when you enter your sanctuary and sit down at your session, you just can’t face analyzing another article or foraying into the writing. The remedy? Do something, anything that has to do with your dissertation and will advance it, even if it seems trivial.

You could, for example, start or continue your reference list or bibliography. Edit it according to the university required style manual. Draft a letter to the creator of a survey you discovered that would be perfect for your study and ask for permission to use it. Look up the template for an informed consent on your university website. Anything.

If you’re condemning yourself for choosing rote or easy tasks during these sessions, use this faultless rationale: Yes, but all these things have to be done sometime. You’ll be able to creep up later on the hard stuff. And you’re keeping your promises—to yourself, unlike a client of mine.
Florence put it graphically: “I’m paying the university dissertation fee every semester to sit home and watch television.” I walked Florence through the calendar technique and the Do anything corollary. She was off.

Another client suffered from a long block that likely had its source in perfectionism. Lincoln was brilliant, had a fellowship to an Ivy League graduate program, and was studying the political ramifications of eighteenth-century French literature. At a New Year’s party, he took me into the study he shared with his wife and showed me his desk littered with papers, articles, scribbled notes, and books. He confided that he’d made many falsestarts and tried many time management techniques, yet couldn’t get over his block.

Knowing what a star Lincoln was, I sensed he was feeling extraordinarily pressured by his eager chair and department members. I said, “Linc, you don’t have to write the Great American Dissertation. Just start with something, anything.”

A week later Lincoln called. “You freed me,” he said. “I’m writing like crazy.” In five months he finished, a record time for a dissertation (as you may know), and that year he was awarded the departmental prize for the best dissertation.

Practice Positive Statements

don’t have to write the Great American Dissertation either. Just keep your promises to yourself to do a little, easy or hard, at regular times. Forgive yourself when you fall short, and get back on the horse. Positive, intentional statements like these may help:

  • I deserve to keep my promises to myself.
  • I have the mental fortitude and character to keep my promises to myself.
  • I listen to myself to know how I best work.
  • I know what to do at every turn.
  • I overcome any seeming block and just keep going.

You do deserve to finish and write your dissertation. As you work steadily, keeping your promises to yourself, little by little you’ll reach the goal. Just make your dissertation your priority.

© 2023 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at