Around this time last year, I had accepted the job offer with University of Richmond, took a very much needed break over the holidays, and returned to grad school at Indiana University ready to wrap things up for my Ph.D. Since I had not made a great deal of progress on my dissertation while on the job market, simply “wrapping things up” entailed starting, finishing, and defending my dissertation. And then moving. Yep.
Throughout the semester, I found myself thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?!” So, I share this advice for graduate students who will finish their dissertations this semester and move to begin a new job -or to look for one - over/after the summer.
“Oh my gosh, the job market is so stressful.” It certainly was. But there was one thing I found substantially more stressful: the semester after, when I actually finished my dissertation.
So, to work in a timely manner, you should (yes, strong words!) take note of your university’s deadlines for filing a dissertation and graduating. It is your responsibility to figure out what your university requires and by what date. At least at my graduate institution, there were complex instructions — certain things were due on certain days if you finished in May, or had to be formatted in certain ways if submitting your dissertation electronically.
A second suggestion is to create a work schedule. Finishing will take a great deal of discipline. I set for myself 12-hour work days, but taking the evenings and weekends off was non-negotiable. So I had my butt in my home office chair at 6 a.m., to start working. I strongly recommend eliminating or at least temporarily suspending any other professional activities. Drop out of committees, suspend community service, put co-authored projects on hold, and stop publishing. If you can afford to (I know, I know — that’s why I said "if"), get out of teaching this semester. You have one job this semester: to finish a dissertation — one that four or five experts will be willing to sign their name to as sufficient for a doctorate. I will touch more on that later, but I want to emphasize that you need to minimize other distractions.
Another strategy that helped me was to create an outline of analyses that I would run, including supplemental analyses, to minimize data exploration. And I created an outline of what I would write in each literature review to minimize brainstorming before I had to write, and exploring existing literature. Of course, this was not a perfect strategy. But I could afford to revise models, or even change how certain variables were measured, and look up more references for a literature review, because I went in with most of these parts already decided. Yes, the strategy to determine my analyses in advance may not work for qualitative or other methodological approaches; however, if you can, do some of the analytical preparation and work in advance!
Decide up front what will be the best way to work, including editing what you are writing. I found warming up mentally each morning was easiest if I continued to work on one empirical chapter at a time. I started with the chapter that was closest to completion — the one for which I had already results because I used it as my job talk. Once that one was finished, I sent it to my chair for feedback. The unspoken agreement was that he had to approve a chapter before any other committee member could see it. But, as the semester unfolded, I would have to wait a very long time to receive feedback from other committee members. So I decided to seek out fellow students’ feedback — some because they do similar work, and others could comb my writing for clarity and grammatical errors. While I awaited feedback for one chapter, I moved on to the next. I left writing the conclusion for last, and drew heavily from my dissertation proposal for the introductory chapter.
I have heard of others who join a writing group, something that proves particularly useful at this last, hyper-independent stage. I considered the idea. But I thought about reading pages and pages of another student’s dissertation-in-progress — I did not have the time or energy. This stage proved to be the most selfish and self-serving. I asked others to read my work and provide feedback, but I could not offer anything in return. But, once they reach that stage in future years, I can finally offer help in return. I suspect a writing group can help if you have already established one. I would advise against starting anything new at this point.