In 2007, I made a rather quick decision to enroll in a PhD program. This had been something I had been thinking about for some time, but one day, I just decided to DO IT. Rather than thinking about it, I enrolled! The one thing that continued to hold me back….keep me from enrolling….was the fear of writing a dissertation. I remember my mother telling me that due to her fear of writing a dissertation, she never pursued her PhD. Rather than allowing my fear to continue to prevent me from pursuing my PhD, I decided to use it as motivation. I knew that I was capable, and I could do it. In September 2007, I started my course work. Although, I was still worried about writing a dissertation, I believed that doors would open, as I needed them to, which would provide access to the tools and resources that I needed to be successful and complete my program. I would take one step at a time, until all the pieces came together, and I had a finished product. And that is exactly what I did!
So….today, I want to share some advice and personal experiences about my experience in hopes of encouraging or helping someone else who is somewhere in the process of earning a doctoral degree.
5 Tips for Completing Your Dissertation
1. Schedule Time. By the time I completed my dissertation, I had two children who were under the age of 5 and a elementary school aged child at home. I gave birth to two of the three while completing my course work and the dissertation – some would say I like a challenge, others would say I was completely crazy – there is a little bit of truth in both of those statements.
I would often find myself sitting amongst the chaos in my house thinking how in the world am I going to meet my next deadline. I need to find a quiet space to read and write. This is definitely not the place! My house was far from quiet. I’m the type of learner that requires complete silence in order to really digest what I’m reading in research articles and other resources. I would go into the garage and sit in my car with the dome light on to read. It often took a half an hour or more before my family would realize it and come looking for me. This was one of my many hiding places.
My husband was great about allowing me to go into my office, shut the door, and work for 5 -7 hours without being interrupted. Every interruption costs you time, 23 minutes and 15 seconds to be exact. For this reason, he would take the kids out of the house or would entertain them in another part of the house and they would leave me alone; however, when the time that I set aside to work that day was up, I stopped. I closed up shop, and I did not go back to work on it until the next day. I had to balance the time I spent working and the time I spent with my family. We were all making sacrifices, I could not ask them to make any more!
2. Get up early or go to bed later. Unfortunately, I found that sleep was something that had to often be sacrificed in order to find time to work. I am not a night owl; therefore, I would get up early, before the rest of my house. When my kids were really young, this was easy. I would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to feed and change them, and then I would settle them back into bed. Then, I would make a pot of coffee and head in to my office to work. The early morning hours were the most productive for me. Perhaps, the coffee should get the credit for that!
3. Marathon Not a Sprint. Tenacity, persistence, endurance, grit, stamina, perseverance – these are all words that you need to embrace through this process. When people tell you that a dissertation is a marathon, not a spring, they are not lying. Get ready to WAIT. You will rush through edits and submit them only to wait for weeks before you receive feedback from your chair or committee members with additional edits you need to make. During the period of time, while you are waiting, consider what else you can be working on. It is important to develop a routine and schedule and stick to it. If you stop working for 10 days while you await feedback, it is often hard to reestablish the routine of writing. You should be writing, revising, editing, etc. daily if your schedule permits. Great advice that I was given was to touch your dissertation every day. Even if it is only for a few minutes. Get into the habit of working on it daily.
4. Be prepared! Idle time was wasted time. Every spare minute that I had during the day, I tried to prepare for and take full advantage of. I printed out journal article and tucked them into my purse with a stash of pencils and highlighters. While I waited in the car pick-up line at my son’s school or sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office (I was pregnant twice during this process), I spent the time waiting reading my articles and taking notes. Once I move further along in the process, I would print out pages or chapters of my dissertation and take them with me so that I could edit my work. I always had something with me to work on. Journal articles, highlighters, and pencils became like a security blanket. I would have a bit of anxiety if I left the house and did not have them with me. Preparation also includes organization. Often times, it seemed like the same advice that was being given in a previous revision was now being taken away in a current revision. I was being asked to remove information, and then in the next revision, I was being asked to put the information back in. I learned to save all of my revisions. I actually kept a file for all of my deletions and used this file as I wrote the final chapter of my dissertation.
5. Plan for Setbacks. I am a planner. I NEED to plan ahead. I would make checklists and timelines and set goals. However, I did not plan for the setbacks that inevitably occur in life. I wish someone would have told me to plan for setbacks. You will hurry up and make requested changes and edits only to have to wait for feedback. (There is a lot of hurry up and then wait that occurs.) There will also be unexpected and unforeseen circumstances that happen. Life will continue, and there are times when you will have to turn your focus to your health, your family, your friends, or other responsibilities and temporarily away from your dissertation. Expect these setbacks! This will help you to set appropriate, realistic expectations and roll with the punches.