How to Finish Your Dissertation: A Recent Defender's Advice

Originally published April 26, 2018.

OK folks, here it is: Ken's Big Fat Post on Finishing Your Dissertation.

I successfully completed my dissertation about a month ago, and I'll graduate with my Ph.D. in a week. While the experience is fresh (scalding hot, really), I thought I'd try to offer whatever help I can to those still trying to get to the grad school finish line.

This guide is directed at those still early on in the dissertation process, although some of this will be helpful to anyone, regardless how far you have to go.

And a little pre-advice context: I am finishing a three-year Ph.D. program in journalism at Ohio University, and I study journalism history.

First, the big takeaways:

Eight tips for finishing your dissertation on time

  1. Picking a good adviser is everything. The people who said "it matters who you learn from, not where you learn" were right. Finding the right adviser is essential. If you haven't started a program yet, go to where the best adviser is, even if that means taking a lower stipend or living somewhere you don't really want to live (it's not like I've always dreamed of living in Ohio, after all). If you're already in a program, fight for a good adviser. This is the one thing you absolutely cannot settle on.
  2. Know what you want to do for your dissertation as soon into your Ph.D. program as possible. I'm not saying you need to have a prospectus finished when you walk in the door or even know your research questions. But I know a lot of people who got off to a slow start because they showed up with no vision of what they wanted to do in their dissertation. When I started my program, I knew I wanted to write a history of Colorado journalism. Knowing that was never going to fly (it's waaaaay too broad), I planned to negotiate with my adviser down to a history of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. We worked that down further in my first semester to the competition between those two papers, a much narrower topic. If I'd come in with no general vision what I wanted to do, I cannot imagine how I would have finished in three years.
  3. Learn how to manage your time effectively. I never did. Instead (like any good journalist) I allowed my deadline to progressively pressure me into getting my shit together. I got little done my first year except learning the literature, although I did manage to write a couple of abortive chapters that were later cannibalized. I found time to do most of my research my second year. Research got serious my last summer, and I did nothing from August until March but write. It worked for me. But I think I would have been better off following a more rigid time management system like the [Pomodoro Technique](INSERT)INSRTLNK. I would have been able to spend more time with my wife and infant daughter had I done so. But, in the end, do whatever works.
  4. Adopt a scalable data management system. I started collecting research materials in hard copy—I took photographs of archival materials, printed them out, and organized them. I'm a tactile person, and I like having things in my hands. This worked for the first three chapters of my nine-chapter dissertation. I spent about $120 on copies and filled one drawer of a super-big filing cabinet with paperwork. Then I hit a data-rich portion of research. Had I printed everything out, it would have easily cost over $500 and filled two giant, 200-pound filing cabinets. I cut my losses with a year to go and shifted everything toward a digital workflow at the expense of a lot of time, energy, and a bit of cash. Most of that probably only makes sense to historical researchers, but the bottom line for everyone is think big, organizationally speaking, from the very beginning.
  5. Don't do any research until you have a tightly focused research objective. By my calculations, I wasted a few hundred dollars and a dozen or so days of my life collecting data that wound up having little bearing on my dissertation. That's because I dove in before I had formulated clear research questions. Some exploratory research is necessary for any project, but be conservative with your time until you have a crystal-clear picture of what you aim to answer with your disseration.
  6. Plan not to take any classes or teach anything new during your last two semesters. I didn't take anything my last fall or spring, and the courses I taught each semester I had already taught before. Thank god. On a separate note, never, unless you absolutely, 100 percent need the cash, teach an extra class as a grad student. It could easily push your completion date back a semester or more. I taught an extra in my second year, and it almost killed me.
  7. Be ready for some—ahem—bodily changes. I put on 10 pounds between August and December. That makes sense, because the only part of my body that moved during that time was my fingers. If you have a fitness regiment, hold on tight to it. If you don't, now isn't the time to put one in place. Just be mentally prepared for the consequences of sitting on your ass for six months.
  8. Make your dissertation (only) as good as time allows. You may have heard the saying that "the only good dissertation is a finished one." One hundred percent true. Look, the only reason you got to this point in life is because you're something of a perfectionist. You do good work—great work most of the time. By all means, make your dissertation as good as it can possibly be. But not at the expense of finishing it on time. We could always do a bit more and make something better. But the dissertation is only the first iteration of your work on whatever topic you're researching. There can be books, journal articles, conference papers, informal talks, blog posts, and all sorts of things that stem from the massive, unappealing blob that is your dissertation. Do you know who likes reading dissertations? No one, because it's not a fun way to ingest research. So treat your dissertation as a rough draft, or a content hub, or whatever you want to call it, and know that your best work on the topic will be a refined version of your dissertation, not the dissertation itself.

Understanding the Dissertation Process

OK, now into the nitty-gritty. Here's what the dissertation process looks like in theory:

  1. Do your coursework
  2. Come up with dissertation topic
  3. Find an adviser with interest in your topic
  4. Form a committee
  5. Take your comps and write lit review based on them
  6. Write a proposal based on your lit review
  7. Do your research
  8. Write your dissertation
  9. Defend
  10. Profit???

Here's what my experience actually was:

  1. Have a topic
  2. Go where the advisor you want to work with is
  3. Start doing research and write as you go
  4. Finish your research
  5. At some point, form a committee and take comps
  6. Turn the lit review you already wrote into a proposal
  7. Write the rest of the dissertation
  8. Edit to the point of existential crisis
  9. Take your defense for granted

A couple of those points deserve elaboration:

  • I was only able to wait as long as I did to form my committee because I chose an adviser who I trusted. I knew (because we talked about it) that he would tell me if my research was running off the rails, and I knew he would help me put together a well-intending, expert committee.
  • Getting from the third draft to the final draft took weeks of revision. I was finding so many petty mistakes that I was worried A) that I was working on drafts from long ago or B) I was straight-up losing my mind. It took a ton of time, mental energy, and self-patience. Budget accordingly.
  • I wasn't scared going into my defense because I had literally spent three years studying for it. I trusted my adviser to have recommended a good committee and to have provided sufficient guidance in the past three years for me to succeed.


Ken Ward