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Advice from Graduate Students To Graduate Students on Finishing Your Dissertation
by Yalidy Matos
Graduate school can be an extremely isolating and lonely experience for many students. It is hard to make time to join social organizations, or for anything other than courses or your dissertation, thus, adding to the isolation and loneliness of it. However, one of the main factors that has helped me is the support from other graduate students. Their friendship and advice has been instrumental to my success in graduate school.
Writing a dissertation can be a daunting and overwhelming experience. It can very easily overwhelm you to the point where you feel immobile; you’re not sure where or how to start. The following is some advice from women graduate students who are either working on or have successfully finished the dissertation.
First, remember that “You can’t eat an elephant in one bite.” Writing a dissertation is a process, it needs to be taken one step at a time. Many of the graduate students emphasize pre-planning, outlining chapters, daily scheduling and writing, weekly goals, and making a dissertation calendar as some of the most important ways they were able to write and ultimately finish their dissertation. Setting feasible weekly goals such as “draft literature review section,” or “edit introduction to chapter x,” are both feasible weekly goals. Each goal focuses on a section of the dissertation, not the entire dissertation or even an entire chapter. Feasible weekly goals allow you to actually meet those goals and reward yourself for it. Another bit of advice from graduate students is to reward yourself for completing a milestone and/or your weekly goal. One of the graduate students, for example, treated herself to a movie when she finished a weekly goal. You are your own cheerleader and advocate!
On that note, get rid of any “negative energy” and speak positively about your dissertation. Getting rid of negative energy can mean many things. Negative energy can come from others, but it can also come from your inner critic. If you have other graduate students who are always speaking negatively about you or your work, make an attempt not to have conversations with them. Always do so politely and professionally. As graduate students we should be able to choose not to have any kind of negativity around us; it hinders our own progress and work. It is the case, however, that we can be our own worst critic. Find a way to release negative energy (exercise, yoga, meditation, counseling, graduate student support groups), and surround yourself with people that cheer you on and love and support you and your work. On a related note, make use of university resources. If your university offers counseling services or graduate student support groups, join! There is no shame in wanting a supportive group of people to talk to and with which to share experiences. Additionally, if your university or department does not offer these types of services, then take the initiative and create a dissertation workshop/group where you only have supportive positive graduate students. Such a group can serve many purposes; it can be a writing group or more of a support group.
Finally, seeking positive energy includes having a supportive dissertation committee. The dissertation process is already difficult and time-consuming; you want your committee to be supportive of you and your work. Committees are not set in stone until you turn in your paperwork to graduate to the graduate school. Seek mentorship from other faculty members with whom you feel comfortable. At the end of the day your dissertation committee should be a group of people who believe in you and push you to be and do better. The relationships with your committee members will not always result in happiness (dissertations are hard work, after all), but they should always be a relationship marked by professionalism and guided support.
Thank you to the following faculty and students who generously contributed tips and advice to this essay: Devyn Gillette, PhD, Post-Doctoral Researcher, UNC-Chapel Hill; Danielle Olden, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Utah, Department of History; Desiree Vega, PhD, NCSP, Assistant Professor, Texas State University, School Psychology Program; Delia Fernandez, PhD Candidate, Ohio State University, Department of History; Gisell Jeter, PhD Candidate, Ohio State University, Department of History; Tiffany Lewis, Graduate Student, Ohio State University, Arts Administration Education & Policy.
Suggested Additional Resources:
Single, Peg Boyle. 2020. Demystifying Dissertation Writing. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Miller, Allison B. 2009. Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All!: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on With Your Life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Evans, David., and Paul Gruba. 2002. How to Write a Better Thesis. Australia: Melbourne University Press.
Get a Life, PhD at http://getalifephd.blogspot.com
The Thesis Whisperer at http://thesiswhisperer.com
Yalidy Matos is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at The Ohio State University. Her dissertation focuses on the dynamics driving public opinion on U.S. immigration policy. Matos is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Yalidy! Unfortunately, I had a very negative experience in my doctoral program because I couldn’t find the supportive community mentioned here. While most of my grad student colleagues were working-class PoC, the competitive nature of academia eventually poisoned the group. Because of minimal department funding and lack of funding in general for students of color and even little attention from our professors, we students played the game, believing that we had to fight/one-up each other for these resources.
I really hate this part of graduate school and academia in general.
I wonder what it would mean to begin to really “decolonize the university” through decolonial practices amongst our colleagues … such as not competing for the resources they (the university) hold over our heads.
Dear CW Santana, you are welcome, and thank you for reading! I am sorry to hear about your negative experience, it seems that without the competitive nature of your program, things may have gone more smoothly. One piece of advice is to find support outside of your own department or program, this way you are not competing with them since you don’t belong to the same program. You bring up an a great question about what “decolonizing the university” would look like. I think we all have some part to play in that, especially how we let competitiveness affect our relationship with others. It seems to me it is most imaginable as a bottom-up strategy that starts with graduate students, and their role as colleagues, but also as mentors for upcoming graduate students. I hope you are doing better! All the best, Yalidy
Graduate student Monica Miller published an essay in the Chronicle last week, too, on the challenges of graduate school, where she reminds students to remember that graduate school is about challenging yourself to learn new things and in news ways. There’s a lot packed into 5 or 6 years! She suggests that some anxiety is part of the process, but she also seems to suggest that faculty not push students to be “not grad students” too soon. Here’s the link: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/357-throwing-like-a-girl-acting-like-a-grad-student?cid=megamenu
This website is really helpful for me thank you author.
Getting rid of negative energy is kind of hard especially when you missed out on planning part and started writing dissertation too late. And i can vouch for what I just said simply because I was on of those students who think a year is a long period of time and you start postponing everything for the next day until you realize time has passed in an instance, you haven’t done a thing, your supervisor is freaking out (if he cares enough to freak out about your paper), and there is a month before the submission day. That is crazy and avoid negative thinking in such time is quite impossible especially when you come to realizing that everything you have worked for four years is going to vanish into thin air simply because you were too lazy I’d say to start doing the preparation part in time. And I guess in such a situation there are two ways out either to Ask MetaFilter or DissertationWriter for help. Well, kidding. The best way out is just to calm yourself down by simply taking a break and doing the things you love the most. This way you’ll get a second wind.