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Moving Beyond ABD: Six Strategies for Surviving a Dissertation

Updated: May 3, 2020

After several years of very expensive doctoral coursework, you have made it! You’ve passed those comprehensive exams or finished that capstone project and now you’re ready to start on your dissertation. You’ve been thinking about this moment for years and it’s finally here -- no longer are you just a student of others’ work or a buried byline on a professor’s article, now you’re ready to author your own study and carve out your own space in the halls of research.

Unfortunately, as soon as you cross the threshold from “doc student” to “all but dissertation” or ABD, the elation can be quickly replaced with dread. Suddenly, it starts to feel very lonely and those guideposts that kept you moving during your coursework are no longer there. This is a matter of you and your own motivation to get things done.

For some of us, that pressure is crippling. Factor in that many graduate students are also full-time employees and have a whole host of other adult responsibilities (e.g. children, caregiving, student loan payments and other bills, teaching) and the pressure to get a dissertation finished can become paralyzing. For these reasons and others, nearly 50 percent of doctoral students do not graduate, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Avoid being one of those who doesn’t make it. Look to these six strategies to maintain your sanity and finish your dissertation well before that seven year window expires.

Find peers and institute a calendar of mutual accountability.

You’ve got your original research idea and you’re ready, but you’re also on your own now. Hopefully, your institution offers cohort models or other dissertation support networks so you have colleagues to rely on who are going through the same thing. If no formal structures exist, create your own. Seek out peers who are in a similar phase of their dissertations. Ask everyone what their goals are and figure out the types of hangouts that are best for the group. For some, it’s as simple as a group chat and an email chain, while for others it’s marathon study dates or “blow off steam with wine/beer/tv/pizza/etc.” nights. It’s healing and supportive to have a group of colleagues to celebrate and commiserate with. Our loved ones love us, but they don’t necessarily understand what it means to be battling a dissertation. Friends who “get it” are invaluable and can help you maintain perspective throughout the process. For our loved ones who may not have gone through a dissertation, remember that they have to live with you through the process. Be kind to them!

Establish “dissertation hygiene” routines and stick to them.

Once you reach the dissertation phase, it starts to bleed into every aspect of your life. You dream about your data, you perseverate on what your committee will say, and you feel crushing guilt every time you turn on the television or fire up a podcast that is not dissertation-related. Since many of us intend to get our dissertations done as quickly and as efficiently as possible, it feels like every moment of the day that is not spent sleeping should be spent writing. Living this way, especially over a long period of time, can quickly lead to burnout. Avoid this self-flagellation by creating a dissertation hygiene routine.

Dissertation hygiene means establishing healthy routines that keep your dissertation in its lane and prevent it from veering into other parts of your life. Figure when you are most productive (First thing in the morning? Late at night?) and what kinds of things help you focus (Good playlists? Noise canceling headphones? Comfortable chair? Clean work space?). Carve out your work space, your work routine, and work incentives (very important), and your calendar, then stick to it. Perhaps you’re most productive sitting at a back cubby of the library on Sunday mornings. If that’s the case, make that “your time” and communicate as much to your family, cohabitants, or anyone else who may be trying to get a hold of you. If you can make this routine work and Sunday is your writing day, then give yourself a break for watching Netflix on Saturday. Dissertation hygiene is as much about protecting your personal life (read: sanity) as it is about accomplishing those writing goals.

Use organizational tools to set short-term and long-term goals.

While the dissertation is an exciting prospect, it can be overwhelming to think about where to start writing. It is also easy to lose your way in the process and become sidetracked down any number of rabbit holes (How many more citations do I need for my literature review? Do my findings make sense? Am I saying anything original?). Use a calendar - perhaps a shared calendar you can use with the dissertation support group you started - to backwards map the process. That is, if you want to defend your final draft by May, you probably need to get a final draft in to your committee by April, which means you should target having Chapter 5 written by the end of March, etc. etc. Once you have the big events mapped, set small, measurable, attainable goals for each writing session. Take care to chart your accomplishments every time you work on your dissertation. A calendar is a great place to journal this. There will be days when you feel like you have done nothing and it is important to remind yourself that you have actually accomplished quite a bit.

Follow your university’s guidelines and committee’s instructions.

Remember these wise words: “the best dissertation is a done dissertation!” Most likely you are passionate about your topic and sensitive about your work, and you might even get the urge to do the colloquial “most.” Don’t add any unnecessary stress. Make sure you understand your university’s requirements. Download the checklists, templates, and other guides and follow them closely. Also, foster a positive relationship with your dissertation committee. They are there to help you navigate this process. Although it may feel like your committee is requiring never-ending revisions, follow their advice, and seek clarification before you embark on a task which could result in even more time and effort. Meet with them regularly, and consult with your academic advisor or program director if you encounter problems along the way. Remember, the goal is to finish. This is just the beginning of your research journey. You will have plenty of opportunities to create scholarly masterpieces. For now, however, stick to the requirements, communicate with your committee often, and graduate as soon as possible.

Work with your employer to develop a temporary “dissertation-friendly” schedule.

All employers and employment situations are different, but with creativity and self-advocacy you may be able to work with your employer to create a work schedule that makes space for your dissertation. Perhaps you can adjust your schedule to work four ten-hour days, for example, and then use the fifth work day as a writing day. Perhaps you can get keycard access to use your office as a quiet space on the weekends. Maybe you can pre-schedule a few days of leave every month to use as writing days. Depending on where you work, and especially if your supervisors are people who have gone through this process themselves, employers may be willing to flex to accommodate your schedule. If you are lucky enough to work somewhere in your field with colleagues who are interested in your research, you may also position yourself for talks about possible collaboration opportunities like presentations at professional conferences or co-authored articles generated from the dissertation.

Be kind to yourself.

The most important survival strategy is to be kind to yourself. You are writing a dissertation and that is one of the hardest things to do at the highest level of academia. At some point during the process you will get overwhelmed and discouraged. Prepare for those times by implementing a lot of self-care. Take stock of the (cheap) things that bring you the most joy and work them into your life. Does this mean more yoga? More wine? More trips to the gym? More time watching tv? For many of us, the dissertation process can be painful and traumatic. This may be a good time to think about enlisting the support of a good counselor or whatever self-care remedies are most effective for you. When you do start to feel discouraged, remember that you can do this; you’ve come a long way already; and even a tiny step is still a step. Be good to yourself!


About the Authors

Bridget Humphries is a dissertation survivor who has worked in public school systems, universities, and private consulting firms. Her research interests are risk and resilience, special education, and social justice. She is passionate about urban education and closing the opportunity gap.

Fatimah Pierce is a consultant, coach, and speaker with expertise in organizational, career, and program development. Her research interests are equity and inclusion in the workplace, mentoring and leadership, and social justice. She is passionate about helping minority women excel personally and professionally.


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