Mara R. Revkin
Disclaimer: I am sharing below a few lessons I learned the hard way when I decided to finish my dissertation a year earlier than planned in 2019 with only seven weeks until the deadline (not nearly as much time as I would have liked) so that I could accept a research-only postdoc and live in Iraq for a unique year-long opportunity that would not have been possible with departmental teaching requirements, and could not be postponed. There are lots of professional and personal reasons why you might want or need to finish your dissertation early and/or under non-ideal conditions—especially during a global pandemic and recession. Everyone is unique and I’m a strong believer in soliciting a wide range of advice and opinions. These are some strategies that worked for me and I hope that they can be helpful for others, but please disregard anything that isn’t relevant or helpful for you!
Lately, I have been talking to a lot of PhD students whose dissertation plans were disrupted by COVID-19 as they approach what is probably the worst academic job market in history. If you are writing a dissertation in these uncertain and difficult times, it probably won’t be the dissertation of your dreams that you would write in a perfect world with unlimited time and resources. If you had planned fieldwork and travel for data collection, it could be another year or more until it is safe to do so—particularly in developing countries where vaccine distribution will be slower.
Some people will be willing and able to wait until it is possible to write the Dream Dissertation post-COVID-19, but there are lots of good reasons why you might want to finish on-schedule or even earlier than planned with the Harsh Reality Dissertation that will still be more than good enough to get you a PhD, including:
Everyone’s situation is unique and finishing a dissertation on-time or early during a pandemic may be impossible or strategically unwise for many people, so consult with mentors and advisors who have your best interests in mind. But do be wary of people who will encourage you to take one more year (which may turn into two more years) to make your dissertation more "excellent" or more [insert superlative].
For anyone who is trying to finish early under non-ideal circumstances, I wrote down a few lessons I learned in 2019 when I decided to finish my dissertation a year earlier than planned—with only seven weeks until the deadline—so that I could accept a research-only postdoc and live in Iraq for a unique year-long opportunity that would not have been possible with departmental teaching requirements, and could not be postponed. I had already written a lot by then, but seven weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to do and say everything I had wanted to. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I hacked together many tables and figures in Word using Computer Modern font to try to create the optical illusion of LaTeX and ggplot when my code was not working and I had simply run out of time. It did not look good. My dissertation did not earn any fancy prizes. But it was good enough for a PhD, which is what I needed at the time to move forward in my career (and life).
2019 was a very different pre-pandemic time, but I was writing under some difficult circumstances—in Iraq, away from my usual support network, while already working on a new and unrelated project—that I think give me some insight into challenges that current PhD students have been facing in 2020-2021.
1. Set a hard deadline and don’t look back.
There are very few “real” deadlines in academia that truly cannot be extended, but your dissertation submission is one of them (at most universities). Although scary, real deadlines are actually quite liberating because you really will be done—ready or not—on that day and can move on with your life. There will always be an emergency exit button if you truly run out of time and need to postpone submission until next semester/year, but you should try to forget that this is an option. If you truly commit to a hard deadline and work accordingly, as you get closer to that date, you really won’t want to prolong this period of your life and will feel increasingly motivated to finish (at least that was my experience). When making a schedule, plan for the worst. Assume that you might need to take some time off for sickness or a family emergency (but hopefully not) and try to budget a few more days than you think you will need for each task.
2. Divide your dissertation into (1) necessary fundamentals and (2) the wish-list of all of the other nice things you would do if you had unlimited time and resources.
Consult with your committee and agree on the fundamental components of your dissertation that are necessary to meet your department’s expectations. Make a list of these bare-minimum building blocks. Then you can make a wish-list of all of the nice but non-essential extensions and improvements that you would like to do if and only if you have time: more robustness checks, appendix tables, data visualizations, etc. I recommend working through each of the necessary fundamental building blocks of the dissertation (whether chapters or articles) as efficiently as you can to protect yourself from running out of time before eventually circling back to your wish list for each chapter/article. This will also enable you to circulate completed draft chapters or articles to advisors as you finish them and move onto the next one. In my experience, if you start working on things from your wish list before finishing the strictly necessary components of the dissertation, there is a real danger of falling into a hole playing with different color palettes for figures or doing more and more robustness checks. Be wary of these holes because it is very easy to lose days of time that you need to save for the next chapter/article in order to stay on schedule. Resist the temptations of the wish-list and return to the list of the bare-minimum building blocks that your dissertation needs in order to pass.
3. Give yourself permission to protect your time and energy in the final months and weeks of writing.
Academia relies on a significant amount of uncompensated labor and service, and it is particularly difficult for junior and under-represented scholars to push back on these demands. Others may disagree, but I think that the final months of dissertation-writing is one of the few times in your academic career when you are allowed to be fiercely protective of your time and energy—which requires saying no to almost everything—and your colleagues will (mostly) be understanding. As someone who normally feels a lot of guilt and FOMO about declining requests or opportunities, this was not easy, but I adopted a polite hard-no policy for any referee reports, events, or new projects (if postponing or joining the project later isn’t an option) that would require work before the dissertation deadline. If you are normally very generous with your time and energy, saying no may feel selfish, but it’s not—as long as you are doing your fair share of referee reports and other service in normal non-dissertating times. Declining invitations to join exciting projects or events is hard, but there will be endless opportunities to say yes again after you get your PhD and the opportunities will only get better. Your future self will probably thank your former self for protecting the time you will need for the next big thing.
4. Do not cut corners on sleep. Burnout is probably the #1 threat to your dissertation (and more importantly, your health).
The pressure to work very long hours under time pressure is strong, especially as the deadline gets closer. This has been said so many times before, but I’ve learned the hard way that it really is true: Dissertations are made of years of slow and steady work that can’t be sustained if you don’t protect your physical and mental health. If you have been fortunate not to experience serious physical or mental health challenges as a PhD student, sleep deprivation can take you there incredibly fast. Many people experience some level of temporary burnout after completing dissertations, but cutting corners on sleep puts you at serious risk for burnout before the deadline, which is not only bad for your health but will also make it more difficult to finish.
Everyone has different sleep needs, but personally I have found that getting less than 6 hours of good sleep for more than a few days in a row takes a significant toll on the quality of my work (and health). I really need at least 7 hours of sleep—consistently—to do my best work. Even during the most stressful final days of my dissertation-writing, I never attempted anything close to an all-nighter because the mistakes I make when sleep-deprived and the physical and mental fatigue that lingers for 2-3 days after just aren’t worth it to me. What I did do was adjust my sleep schedule, going to sleep as early as possible, to make the most of the part of the day that I consider my “golden hours” for writing: 6 a.m. (and often earlier) – 10 a.m. Iraqi sunrises like this (see below) made it easy. It’s important to take breaks with people who help you stay grounded and activities that take your mind off the dissertation, especially in the evenings when you need to wind down for sleep. For me, this was running, coloring books (because anything involving screens, words, or numbers felt like a sensory attack), and regularly borrowing my friends’ cats.
5. Your dissertation is not a now-or-never referendum on the last 5-6 years of your life that encapsulates your value as a person and your future potential.
The dissertation is the capstone of a difficult and momentous achievement that you should be proud of and celebrate, but keep in mind that it reflects the work you were able to do at a particular time and place in your life (such as during a pandemic) with the limited resources that were available to you as a PhD student. Forgive yourself for inevitable imperfections, mistakes, typos, and not doing everything you would be able to in your perfect-world Dream Dissertation. Harsh Reality Dissertations still get PhDs, and PhDs get jobs—whether you want to stay in academia or not.
PhD students are workers, but they are also apprentices being trained for eventual careers as certified research professionals. A lot of intellectual and emotional labor will go into your dissertation, but at the end of the day, it’s a pass-fail test for getting a PhD, which is the credential that you need to move beyond the apprenticeship stage of your career to whatever is next. If you take a job outside of academia in one of the many other sectors where PhDs are highly valued, I hope you do work that brings you joy! Celebrate the great achievement of finishing your dissertation with the knowledge that you are unlikely to need to revisit it again unless you choose to.
If you stay in academia, it is very likely that your next job (whether a postdoc, tenure-track, or other position) will provide more compensation and open doors to new resources, opportunities, and collaborations that will make your research better. Your dissertation is the capstone project of an apprenticeship that can only be as good as the limited time and resources that were available to you. It is a first step that demonstrates your competence to do more and better projects in the future. Remember that very few people other than your committee, family members, and maybe a handful of scholars who are intensely committed to your particular sub-sub-sub-field will want to read your raw dissertation. Most people will only read the components that you may choose to improve and refine for publication as articles or a book. You can even make it impossible for anyone to read your dissertation for up to two years while you are working on these articles and books by requesting an embargo from ProQuest.
In the final weeks of my dissertation, I remember feeling like this document was a referendum on whether I had done enough with the last five years of my life, to be decided by my department on a terrifying day of reckoning. I also worried that the dissertation was my now-or-never last chance for me to make sense of everything I had learned over the last several years (and was still learning right up until the deadline). But I have since realized that there really are no "last chances" for knowledge production because our work is always cumulative and incomplete, building on the limitations and mistakes of previous research. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly my life stopped revolving around the dissertation as soon as I submitted, and how quickly I was ready to start thinking about new projects—after a healthy amount of time off, of course.
Thanks for reading, I hope some of this was helpful!
Non-peer-reviewed thoughts on life and work in academia