“…doubts I willever complete my dissertation.”

Anthony is a Ph.D student at the end of his fourth year of study. He has established himself as a student leader: brilliant, articulate, and popular. In fact, Anthony’s fellow students and his advisor have high expectations of Anthony. He seems destined to “do great things” and “go places.” He has completed his graduate coursework with ease and his advisor is confident he will sail through his prospectus and complete his dissertation just as effortlessly. However, as we will see, things are not going as well as everyone thinks: Anthony has a problem.

He has reached the stage to begin writing his dissertation and is experiencing difficulties. He cannot seem to make progress. In fact, he has missed two appointments to spend Saturdays with his classmates at the library, doing research. He explains to his roommate that recently he is always preoccupied with other things. His roommate is perplexed. He has always thought Anthony could handle anything and that he is not easily distracted. His roommate is convinced there is more to Anthony’s problem. He decides to have a serious talk with Anthony.

After much probing, Anthony admits his problem has little to do with his preoccupation with other things and more to do with his own fears about “the dreaded dissertation.” He indicates he may have misunderstood the nature of research; that he always thought, naively, that he could do research without much reflection. Now he is discovering that research is more tedious, painfully slower, and requires more time and energy that he had previously thought. He laments the thought of having to compile, read, tabulate, and synthesize data for the writing of his dissertation only to perhaps start the process all over again “if my committee does not approve my topic.” He explains to his roommate that he has tried to “get around this block in my head” and has spent sleepless nights “going over and over” in his mind whether all “this …this time and energy were worth the effort.” He has tried to “put a good face on it,” but he doubts he will ever complete the dissertation, even if his advisor is sure that he can. His roommate looks at Anthony’s despondent face and suddenly it clicks. He knows exactly what the problem is.

What is Anthony’s problem and how should he handle it?

I was Anthony. I moved away from campus and took a full-time job prior to completing the dissertation. I had to have an income and did not want to take more student loans. I stalled for several years before finishing. Here is what helped me. 1) Staying in closer contact (email & phone) with my major professor; (2) Negotiating with my supervisor to take Wed to write (3) Enlisting the help of my partner to write every Sat for at least 6 hours (she brought me coffee, food, etc, and reminded me about my desire to finish by the deadline whenever I wanted to blow off this work); (4) I told friends that I would not be available on weekends except for birthdays etc. and enlisted their support to ask me about my progress; (5) I broke the writing tasks into smaller sections and focused on completion of one section at a time. There really is no easy way to write…it comes one word at a time.

– Former Doctoral Student, UGA (graduated Dec. 2008)

Anthony needs to sit down with his advisor and work out an action plan that is broken up into small parts so he can see if things are progressing in increments. Then, if he needs to change things, he should discover this early on.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Anthony will best overcome his fear of the “dreaded dissertation” by just delving in and writing something. As far as not knowing what to write, Anthony should have a heart-to-heart discussion with his advisor about this dilemma. Given that Anthony is in his fourth year, I will assume he has passed his comprehensve exams. If I were Anthony’s advisor, I would suggest he use his comprehensive exams to help reflect on a possible dissertation topic. Beyond that, Anthony should just start writing what he knows, reflect on his passions, commit to spending at least 15 minutes per day writing, and watch as a topic emerges.

– Doctoral Candidate, UGA

Anthony is definitely strong in one aspect of his life, but has some self-confidence issues in another. Everyone hears stories about the dreaded “dissertation” and, personally, I think it horrible how people have constructed our understanding of this. I am only a second-year doctoral student, and would recommend Anthony sits down with his advisor about three possible courses of action (something he probably should have done going into his second, not fourth year). Having a writing journal/notebook is very useful in the doctoral journey; something you can reflect, elaborate, broaden, and focus on. He can use the information he has gathered over the years of coursework to develop his “niche” and dissertation. I think this is relevant to any graduate student.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Anthony needs to write a little bit each day and to work on it a little bit each day. Students who get stalled tend not to do this. If a student spends 4 hours writing each day, they will soon see progress. The problem is trying to work on it on Saturdays only (or so it seems from the problem statement). I recommend doing this 6 days a week, taking one off to relax. The advisor should ask to see the progress that is made bi-weekly.

– Professor, UGA

Perhaps breaking down the steps would make the process less daunting. Also clarifying the topic with committee and getting sufficient advising should alleviate the concern that the work would have been completely restarted.

I would ask about the process – as a roommate, I probably would have more information, but I am not sure that there is enough in this vignette to do more than in the previous paragraph.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

This is actually a fairly common problem. Doing original, creative research is not like doing course work, and people who excel in the one do not necessarily excel in the other. The first thing Anthony needs to do is to stop being so hard on himself and recognize that his dissertation is going to be a lot of slow work. The second thing to do is to talk to his major professor. Anthony may be surprised to discover how common his problem is, and his major professor will be able to suggest some strategies for breaking the research into manageable pieces. There is no stage at which a researcher can be certain that her work will be successful. Research is not for everyone with talent. Many people need more immediate indications of success. This is hardly a mark of failure of the graduate program. Anthony needed time to come to know himself. Still, this dimension of research should be made clear to entering graduate students as well as to those contemplating graduate work. People sometimes lose sight of the fact that the PhD degree is preparation for doing creative research.

– Professor, UGA

Anthony needs to write a 3-5 page purpose statement/mini-prospectus that he can go over with his professor. That way he will know what his professor thinks about the feasibility of his project, such as whether his data he plans to collect will match his theoretical perspective. In our department, we have to apply for outside grants to fund our research, and this is a powerful motivator to plan out all the theory, methods, data analysis, and significance well in advance of actually doing the research. His department may want to require a dissertation prospectus that must be approved by his committee, which is a condition in our department of being admitted to candidacy level.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

There are three things that have helped me to make progress. 1) I began making more rapid progress after I finished my coursework and other obligations. This opened up my weekdays for working on my dissertation. I found it difficult to remember where I was when I only worked on the document once a week. I also find it very difficult to do anything that resembles office work on the weekend without an impending deadline. 2) I found that setting up artificial deadlines is helpful. I set up monthly meetings with my advisor to review my progress and get guidance. While I can rationalize limited progress on my own, a sense of guilt drives me to reach the goals that my advisor and I set together. 3) I set up some office space in an area that is provided for all of the graduate assistants in my department. I have to go to that space to write. It is super boring in here, so there are fewer distracters. So, I still seem to procrastinate quite a bit, but the three things I mentioned above have resulted in steady progress.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Copyright The University of Georgia, CGS Project


This project was made possible by a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools, with generous support from Pfizer Inc., and the Ford Foundation.

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