5 Things I Should Have Done Earlier to Finish My Ph.D.

I began my Ph.D. with a big idea. I can’t even remember what that idea was. Regardless, it was amazing and fantastic! Which is why I don’t remember what it was. I completed my dissertation in the Fall of 2012 and defended in the Spring of 2013. The end product wasn’t exactly what I had planned and I basically wrote the entire thing in those few months.

I learned mostly what I would have done differently to make the process work more quickly, and more efficiently in my favor. Some of this is advice I received early on but failed to heed. Some of these are little bits that helped me solely out of necessity. The outcome is that I was able to completely rework the first three chapters, collect data, and write the rest of the dissertation – in one semester. Hope these help!

Skim through the tables of contents of dissertations from my program of study. I was thinking about inventing some new wheel or widget with my project. Very little is new in the world of academia. What is novel is usually a different angle on the same object. Those dissertations that go on for awards or get immediate book deals are not the norm. It all depends on your goal. Did I want to complete the degree for my professional career or did I want to shoot for a tenure track position? I wanted the professional goal. Once I accepted that I simplified my crazy mind and followed the same structure other dissertations in my program used. There is nothing wrong or unfair about this. I used a standard style. This was easier for my committee and was easier for me in the long run.

Read other dissertations in your field, especially those related in some way to your problem statement. These are both your peers and competition in the academic arena. If you are seeking tenure-track it is a cutthroat competition. There are likely people who write on certain things far better than you. Get humble enough early so that you can get your own argument laser-focused. Never be dismissive in your critiques of others’ work because these are likely your peers. Be respectful. This is a dialogue and your job is to share your unique contribution to it. Your work is part of a conversation much bigger than you. With humility as a corrective to confidence the process can be more constructive and fun. Yes…this can be fun if you want it to be.

Write often even if it sucks and won’t be part of your dissertation. I have pages of content that I did not use. I simply wrote. Just putting things down on the page gave me an object to work with rather than some abstract, shapeless thoughts jumping around like, well, squirrels in my mind. Once I put ideas on the page I found I had good content to include and ideas that were much clearer than I had previously thought. Jumping into writing is important and is an instant cure for writer’s block.

Listen to your committee and be open-minded and willing to make revisions. Then make those revisions reasonably quickly. Remember that your committee is a small group of faculty who are the gatekeepers to your entrance as a scholar into their field. What they pass is important to their own professional life as their names will be attached to your dissertation on the second page. Your work is also reflective of the institution granting the degree. Just do as they ask and seek clarification if you are not sure. Elect a committee that can make solid comments on your work and that will be responsive. I had a great committee but I chose a great committee. That choice is your political groundwork. Make a good choice and taking their advice will come almost naturally.

Be a human being. I mean this. People need to eat and sleep. People need to laugh and love. We need air and exercise. Without forcing yourself to do these basic requirements for human survival your work will suck, your mind will be less sharp, and you will be miserable. The more human you are in this process the happier you will be. Rather than go for that fifth cup of coffee, cigarette, and burrito, make a smoothie, go for a bike ride, take in a movie, go for a hike. The more human you are in the process the more human your writing will be.

I wish I had done these things from the beginning. My problem is that I don’t think of these practices until I have to practice them. Start early and get some structure around your work with these ideas. This experience may be more fun that you thought it could. The difference between fun and misery is a choice.

What ideas and advice would you give a stressed out doctoral student?

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