I was hoping to finish my dissertation last year and graduate in May. But it’s August, I’m heading back for another year on campus and I’m nowhere near finishing the dissertation. The sad part is that it’s not the research that is holding up my progress (it is mostly complete) and it’s not my committee (they are supportive and want me to finish). The problem is that I’m not writing. I’m starting to think that I may never finish and will end up another A.B.D. But I do want to finish my dissertation! And yet I’m not making any progress. I need help beyond your usual suggestion to start a daily writing habit (I tried that and it didn’t work). I am so glad to hear that you are resolved to complete your dissertation, recognize that what you’re doing isn’t working and are open to new experiments for the upcoming academic year.
There’s an important reason that nearly half of graduate students who start doctoral programs don’t finish — they never complete their dissertations. That means you’re not the only person who has struggled while A.B.D. Over the past year, I’ve worked with more than 400 dissertation writers, and I’ve seen over and over again that isolation, perfectionism and procrastination are the three biggest threats to completion. So that leaves us with a very simple issue. In other words, how can you design your work time to ensure that you have everything you need to complete your dissertation this year? Only you can answer these questions, but I would like to share a few insights and gentle suggestions. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, so I’ll be brief. You cannot binge write a dissertation over a weekend, over a weeklong writing retreat or even if you hide in a cave for a month.
High-quality work takes time to produce. We know that the most productive academic writers don’t write in large uninterrupted blocks of time; they write every day (Monday through Friday) in small increments. So let me make two important distinctions. The second distinction that’s important is about the expectation versus the reality of what constitutes writing. Many graduate students I’ve worked with imagine that writing means producing perfect prose on the first draft. I have observed students spend 30 minutes writing, revising, deleting and rewriting a single sentence. If that’s how you are spending your daily writing time, I understand why you might conclude that it doesn’t work. Instead, consider that drafting and revising are two separate stages of the writing process. Those initial drafts are where you work out your existing ideas and generate new ones. For that reason, much of what you write is for you, for your own thought process, and may never be shared with your committee or make it to the final draft. This is why we often say “writing is thinking! If you’re like the majority of dissertation writers I’ve worked with, your initial attempts at daily writing fail.
Because you experience a repeating and self-defeating pattern that looks like this: you set aside time in your calendar for dissertation writing and you fully intend to write during that scheduled time. Then when the time comes, you experience a subtle but powerful urge to do anything but write. It’s such a strong and seemingly harmless impulse (“Let me just answer one quick email!”) that you follow the urge where it leads you, whether it be email, Facebook, teaching prep, more reading or a snack. Pretty soon your writing time is over and you haven’t written a single word. You promise yourself that you’ll do better tomorrow, but the next day comes and goes with the same result. After a week, you decide the whole daily writing thing doesn’t really work for someone like you. I call this daily struggle “the battle of the moment.” It’s the moment that it’s time to start writing — the hardest moment to move through — and if you can just get going you’ll be fine. It’s truly a battle between your future self and your resistance. One of you will win and one of you will lose.