Strategies to Successfully Finish Your Dissertation
by Alison Miller, Ph.D. 1. Develop and maintain a healthy relationship to your dissertation
  1. Be aware of and manage negative beliefs that contribute to feelings of inadequacy & procrastination.
    1. Graduate students often have negative thoughts such as, “I am not smart enough,” “I don’t have what it takes to do a dissertation,” “I am a fraud,” “The faculty made a mistake accepting me into this program,” “I am lazy,” or other thoughts about being inadequate in some way. Negative thoughts lead to a poor relationship to your dissertation and fuel procrastination.
    2. Remember that it is a normal part of being a graduate student to feel inadequate at times. All human beings have negative thoughts about themselves. Doing a dissertation is, by definition, a very challenging intellectual task that will elicit feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.
    3. Learn to challenge negative thoughts. Ask yourself if they are really true? What evidence is there that they are not true? Learn to stop taking your negative thoughts so seriously. Just because you have a negative thought about yourself does not mean it is true!
  2. Create structure to break down your dissertation into small, specific pieces.


  3. It is important to find a way to stop relating to your dissertation as one, large entity (because that leads to feeling overwhelmed and inadequate). Use the timeline and action list structure (see attached handouts) as one possible way to alter your relationship to your dissertation.
    1. A timeline consists of breaking down your dissertation into major milestones over time. A milestone is a large chunk of your dissertation (e.g., a chapter, writing a section of your literature review, completing data collection, establishing a dissertation committee, obtaining IRB approval). See the attached examples of dissertation milestones. In any given week or month, you are working towards a set of milestones instead of working on your DISSERTATION as one, large entity. Make sure that your timeline is realistic. It can be challenging but it must also be realistic.
    2. If possible, share your timeline with your advisor to get his or her support and feedback on whether it is realistic.
    3. If you get off track from your timeline, REVISE IT! A timeline that is not based in reality will undermine you and contribute to avoidance and procrastination. Most people need to revise their timeline many times throughout the process of doing a dissertation.
    4. Once you’ve created a timeline, the next step is to make an action list each week where you break your milestones down into small, specific actions. An action should have a clear, specific beginning and an end.
    5. An action such as “read about social support theories” is not a specific action. It is vague and open-ended. But read Jones & Smith (1999) article on social support is a clear, specific action with a beginning and an end.
    6. If at any time, you get off track from your action list, REVISE IT!

    2.Create accountability

    1. Have someone else hold you accountable for what you say you are going to do


    2. This strategy can have a significant impact on the progress you make
      1. Ask a peer or friend (preferably not your spouse or significant other) to hold you accountable for what you say you are going to do. It is much easier to keep your word and do the actions on your action list if you’ve made a commitment to another person.
      2. Recognize that there may be times during the dissertation process when you need more accountability than others.
      3. Maintain weekly contact with someone else who is willing to hold you accountable for making progress.

    3.Elicit the support you need from others

    1. Social support


      1. Doing a dissertation is challenging and at times stressful. Having emotional support from friends and family can help you cope more effectively. Don’t be afraid to ask for the support you need.
    2. Instrumental support


      1. Ask for the intellectual support you need from your advisor, other faculty/chairpersons, peers, and colleagues. Many graduate students believe that they must do their dissertation alone and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Yet, talking through the inevitable intellectual roadblocks in the dissertation process can help you maintain momentum, overcome roadblocks, and do better quality work. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid. You aren’t asking someone else to do your dissertation for you. Rather, you are asking for the support you need to do your best intellectual work.
      2. There are times during the dissertation process where you may need extra help with household chores, childcare, or other aspects of daily life. Ask for the help you need from friends and significant others.

    4. Engage in a regular practice of self-care

    1. Self-care is extremely important when you are in graduate school. You need and deserve to engage in pleasurable activities to restore yourself and sustain motivation. Give yourself permission to do things that you enjoy and find pleasurable. Self-care does not have to be elaborate and take a lot of time. Simple activities like taking a short walk, listening to music you enjoy, or even doing deep breathing are all acts of self-care.
    2. Avoid falling into the trap of telling yourself that you’ll take good care of yourself once you finish your dissertation. Stop putting your life on hold. ;
    3. The more that you use the timeline and action plan structure, the easier it will be to develop the ability to set aside time to take care of yourself.


    Example of a Dissertation Timeline (for a dissertation in clinical psychology)*

    June 24, 2002
    1) Research questions and measures given to advisor

    July 1, 2002
    1) IRB process and potential committee members discussed with advisor
    2) Feedback on research questions from advisor obtained
    3) Draft of model to be tested created

    July 15, 2002
    1) Literature review (reading) complete on maternal depression
    2) Participants and measures section of method written&

    August 1, 2002
    1) Section written on relationship between maternal depression & childhood/adolescent depression
    2) Committee established

    August 8, 2002
    1) Literature on developmental trajectories of depression in adolescents read

    August 20, 2002
    1) Section of development of depression in adolescents complete
    2) Study purpose and model revised and FINALIZED3) Meeting set up next week with stats person to review my ideas for analyses

    August 27, 2002
    1) Section of parenting (psych and behavioral control) written
    2) Internship interest letters written & sent out- determine more detailed list of sites
    3) Meeting with stats person from committee held4) Timeline Revised/Refined as needed

    September 4, 2002
    1) Section written on development of sexual behavior in adolescence
    2) Have read about structural equation modeling/regression models to determine what type of analyses are most appropriate for research questions
    3) Ideas for analysis on paper sketched out on paper
    4) Outline for peer influence and HIV risk/sexual risk-taking complete

    September 12, 2002
    1) Section written on relationship between depression and sexual risk-taking (in adolescence and/or adults)
    2) Another meeting with stats person held
    3) Full draft of participants, measures and procedure complete4) Meeting held with Advisor to review proposed analyses

    September 19, 2002
    1) Draft of section on peer factors and HIV risk written
    2) Introduction integrated, complete
    3) Intro and methods sent to Advisor

    October 1, 2002
    1) Proposed analyses section written and sent to Advisor
    2) Feedback received from Advisor
    3) First draft of internship essays complete
    4) All requests for letters of recommendation for internship made to faculty/supervisors

    October 10, 2002
    1) Feedback from Advisor etc. integrated
    2) Entire draft given to Advisor
    3) Feedback obtained on internship essays

    October 20, 2002
    1) Feedback received from Advisor etc.
    2) Tables, figures, references checked and finalized
    3) Internship essays revised and complete

    October 25th, 2002
    1) Internship applications complete and sent out for those with 11/1 deadline

    November 2, 2002
    1) Remaining internship applications complete and sent out for 11/15 deadline

    November 10, 2002
    1) Final feedback from Advisor integrated
    2) Proposal distributed to committee

    November 24, 2002
    Proposal defended!

    December 15th
    1) IRB forms submitted to university

    January 30th 2003
    1) Created dataset for my analyses (i.e., pulled out all of my relevant variables)
    2) Appropriate statistical program (e.g., Amos, LisRel) purchased
    3) IRB approved

    February 28th
    1) Descriptive analyses complete and written up

    March 28th
    1) First set of model analyses complete

    April 28th
    1) First pass of all analyses entirely complete
    2) Timeline Revised/Refined if necessary

    May 30th
    1) Draft of results section written
    2) Results section given to Advisor for feedback

    June 15th
    1) Outline for discussion complete

    July 1st
    1) Feedback received from Advisor on results section

    July15th
    1) Draft of discussion complete
    2) Revisions made to results
    3) Revised results and draft of discussion given to Advisor again

    August 1st
    1) Feedback received from Advisor on discussion section

    August 23rd
    1) Revisions made to discussion
    2) Any additional revisions made to results
    3) Revised discussion sent to Advisor

    September 8th
    1) Feedback received from Advisor on discussion

    October 8th1
    1) Revisions/additions made to introduction
    2) Revisions/feedback integrated into discussion
    3) Entire dissertation given to Advisor for final feedback

    November 1st
    1) Feedback received from Advisor on entire draft

    November 15th
    1) Any final revisions to entire document made
    2) Dissertation distributed to committee members for review before defense meeting

    December 4th, 2003
    Dissertation Defended!