I filed my dissertation in August 2019 from UC Berkeley, in an Environmental Sciences program. At the time, I was less than a month away from moving to a different country and starting a postdoc. The dissertation-writing process was scary, fun, sad, exciting, stressful, and everything in between. Although I had seen lots of suggestions out there for how to, “increase your writing productivity” or “improve your academic writing skills”, I never saw anything that reflected my experience about how challenging and just plain weird it is to be writing up that final dissertation document and finishing up a graduate degree. I decided to write this little survival guide for others looking for some advice. Or maybe you just need reassurance that it’s ok to hate your dissertation sometimes.
Of course, every program, university, and specific discipline is different, so not all of this will apply to everyone. This is also intensely personal, and what works for me may not work for you. I have roughly divided the guide between concrete suggestions for writing and tips for dealing with some of the intense emotions and isolation that can crop up in the final writing stages. If you have specific tips that worked for you, let me know! I’d especially like to hear from people in other fields and write a follow-up with crowdsourced suggestions.
Aim to have a good dissertation. It will be great in due time.
This is based on a quote that I’ve seen (I’ve been unable to find the original source), that says something like, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither”. During my writing process, this became almost like a mantra, “I will have a good dissertation. I will have a good dissertation.” Sure, my plan is to someday have a “great” dissertation, once all the chapters are published. But that had no bearing on my ability to get a degree. Your dissertation does not reflect on your worth as a scholar or person. It isn’t the magnum opus of your career. The only purpose it serves is to get your degree. Remind yourself of that as often as necessary. You won’t even have to look at the detestable document ever again once it’s done (you will likely detest it by the end). You just have to finish it and get it approved.
Get familiar with dissertation requirements and set aside time for boring stuff
There’s a broad category of non-writing stuff that you’ll need to do before you can have a “good” (done) dissertation. For example: figure out administrative deadlines for filing and pick a deadline. Also, talk to your committee members and figure out their preferred expectations and timelines to give you feedback. On the most detailed level, there will be specific formatting requirements that will take a lot of time to get right. Tables of contents, title pages, and tables of figures (the most useless section imaginable) come to mind. Consider formatting your dissertation document first, before adding any content. The more of this kind of stuff you get out of the way, the better. However, if you’re like me and love to use formatting as a procrastination activity, consider using some of these tasks as ways to break up the monotony of writing.
Start writing early (but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t)
The more material you have when you start the “last big push”, the better off you’ll be. In an ideal world, you may have multiple chapters already published that you can essentially copy and paste into your dissertation. You may not. That’s fine too. Think about pulling in material from grant applications (great for abstracts and summaries), presentations that you’ve given about your research, even papers written as coursework as background. You may want to consider using a system to track your time, so that you develop a realistic sense of how long it takes you to complete writing tasks. This type of early planning will pay off when it gets closer to the deadline.
Embrace changes of scenery, literally and metaphorically
When I was finishing my dissertation, my friend and I decided to be “writing buddies”. We met up every afternoon, got coffee, and sat somewhere together to write for a few hours. With multiple campus libraries to choose from, we tried them all and then argued over which one was the best. We made friends with the librarians, got access to “secret” study rooms, and even found a fantastic room full of maps and globes where I wrote most of Chapter 3. We also wrote in coffee shops, outdoor areas, and grad student lounges. This helped our productivity and also helped us experience campus in a way that we never had before. In short, it was wonderful.
Looking back, I realize that this is not a realistic scenario for most people currently elbow-deep in dissertations. The world looks different now and most of us don’t see very far past our own front doors most days. However, I think there are still ways that you can change your scenery in subtle ways to have a similar effect of shaking things up. Try writing in another room, outside, or on the other side of the table than you normally do. Maybe listen to different music, eat some new snacks, or sit in a different chair. The writing process can be long and daunting, so breaking it up even in small ways can help it feel less grueling.
Reach out to your people
This is the first and most important of the non-writing suggestions. As academics, we end up doing much of our work alone. This is magnified in the context of a dissertation. You must complete a lengthy document and every word must be written by you. For some people, I imagine that being cloistered in an isolated chamber can be a productive writing environment. I thought that would be the case for myself, but it was not. Very early on in the process, my stress levels began to mount. I began to doubt myself, my scholarship, and whether I would ever be able to finish in time.
Although these feelings never really went away, the biggest thing that helped was to reach out to other people. I reached out to friends who were in the same stage in writing process as I was. In these chats over coffee or beer, I could be truly honest and say, “I feel like my dissertation is terrible and my committee thinks I’m dumb and I want to drop out.” or, “I finished that really hard chapter and it feels so wonderful!” I was feeling a lot of big emotions and it was validating to hear that my feelings were common. I also reached out to friends who were slightly later in the process who could help me see the light at the end of the tunnel. I reached out to family and non-academic friends too. I would thank all of these people for listening and tell them how much it meant to me. For me, getting out of a solitary mindset was absolutely crucial. It made me feel like part of a community rather than an isolated scholar, toiling in solitude.
Stop comparing yourself to others
Some people will have longer dissertations than you. Some people will have twice as many chapters, or have prettier figures, or have more of it already published. Agonizing over this will not improve your dissertation or make it get done any faster. You likely already know this, but actually internalizing this can be very hard. Focusing on having a “good” and not “perfect” dissertation can really help with this. It is a great equalizer. Did your friend Dr. PerfectDissertation write 1000 pages, publish the whole thing in their second year, and use gold leaf on their title page? Fantastic. Their dissertation was completed, and therefore “good”. How about your other friend, Dr. IffyDissertation, whose dissertation was only 40 pages long and smeared with ketchup? If it got them their degree, it was also a “good” dissertation. Yours will be “good” as well, and that’s all that matters right now.
Be kind to yourself
This can take many forms. For me, being kind to myself meant that I did most of my writing in the afternoons and avoided working on weekends when I could. It meant that I treated myself to little luxuries like fancy coffee drinks and favorite lunches more often than usual. I also took time to have fun. It’s easy to fall into the trap of, “I need to spend every waking hour writing or it won’t get done!”. However, once I challenged that idea and took more and longer breaks, I found an increase in productivity. I went to concerts, spent time with friends, and relished those times when I could feel like “a normal person”.
I would also challenge you to make the process fun. Despite the difficult parts, I also now look back fondly on so many of the touching, special, or just plain strange memories I made. There were the delicious weekly Mexican dinners with Ashton, the almost tearful goodbye to the barista who made my daily cappuccinos, and that ridiculous time Leeann’s citation management software decided that a publication on bird bone was authored by, “THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE REPUBLIC OF ZIMBABWE”. Take time to appreciate these little things, because they will stay with you a long time.
It’s going to feel weird sometimes
The dissertation writing process can be challenging in ways that I didn’t expect. It came with a lot of tough emotional ups and downs. However, for every moment of, “I’m a fraud and everything is terrible,” there were an equal number of moments that just felt…off. A big one that comes to mind is the first time my lab planned an organizational meeting that I wasn’t invited to. Looking back, it was generous of my labmates to let me spend my time on dissertation writing and not on administrative minutiae. But after being the senior graduate student for years, involved in every aspect of the lab, it felt profoundly unsettling and even a bit isolating.
I was also surprised by how strange the feedback process was. I got less feedback on my writing from my committee than I expected. When you’ve spent weeks on end focusing entirely on your writing, this can feel deflating. It can feel like, “Wow, I guess I could just turn in anything I want, and no one cares.” In truth, my committee did in fact care a great deal about my scholarship. However, they also knew that giving extensive feedback would get in the way of my “good” (done) dissertation, and that they could give more useful feedback once I was getting ready to publish my chapters. On some level, you just need to expect and embrace the weirdness of the process. Expressing these feelings out loud to another person can help put things into context and make you feel less alone.
Take some time to reflect
You are most likely reaching the end of your formal education. For me, it was 30 years almost to the day from when I enrolled in Huntington Woods Lutheran Pre-School to when I filed my dissertation. It’s useful to think back a little on the process. A powerful way to do this is in crafting your acknowledgements section. Mine ended up being a mini chapter. I thanked the many people who helped with my dissertation, but also those who provided support over the many years of my educational career. I thanked teachers, family members, friends and many others. Many of them will never read it. Some of them are no longer living. It was a truly profound moment to look at the completed acknowledgements and realize how many “villagers” it truly took to raise my dissertation “child”.
I also took some time to reflect on my dissertation topic itself. Like it or not, I was now the world’s number one expert in that field. I whined and complained about not wanting to write a conclusion to my dissertation. I was exhausted after writing all the chapters and just wanted to be done. A very wise friend encouraged me to do it anyway, “I found mine to be really fun. You get to spout off on whatever you feel like are the important limitations and future directions of the field.” After begrudgingly starting my conclusion, I realized that she was right. Not only was it pretty easy to write, it was actually fun! Even though it felt at the time like a truly unhinged rant, I recently went back to read it again. You know what? I think I actually kind of knew what I was talking about. I would encourage you to do the same if you have the opportunity. You may surprise yourself.
After all, you’re about to complete an achievement so monumental that it will literally change your name! Start celebrating early and make sure to acknowledge little victories along the way. Maybe if you finish a chapter, you should take a day off. The process can be grueling and draining – remember to congratulate yourself for how far you’ve come!
Even though you’re probably exhausted by the end, think about ways formally acknowledging your graduation. If you’re in a program that requires a dissertation defense, some of the celebration will be baked into the process. Even so, think about ways to make it extra special. Do you have family or non-academic friends you can invite to your talk? If you won’t be having a defense for whatever reason, think about other ways to celebrate. On the day that my dissertation-buddy and I filed our dissertations, we got dressed up and took photos of each other around campus – the coffee shops we went to, the libraries where we did our writing, and landmarks around campus. We even posed with some truly bewildered earth science librarians (keepers of the awesome globe room). It was goofy and awkward, and one of my best memories of graduate school.
Even annoying formal celebrations can be worthwhile! If you hate attending graduation ceremonies (and most people do), consider participating in a smaller department or college-level ceremony rather than a university-wide one. There’s something special about getting that ceremonial hood placed on your shoulders by your advisor that feels different from earlier-stage graduation ceremonies.
I hope that my tips and experiences gave you a useful perspective on the wild ride of finishing a dissertation. The process is a lot of things, but it doesn’t have to be terrible. If I were to provide any parting wisdom, it would be this: your dissertation will be good, and you are going to graduate. I promise.