6 Motivational Tactics for Writing Dissertations

The biggest lesson I learned while I was a doctoral student? Find out what motivates you. Here are 6 “motivators” I stuck on signs over my desk when I was in the throes of my doctoral dissertation:

Dissertation Advice photo credit: Flickr user alex:

#1: The best dissertation is a done dissertation

So many people in my graduate cohort spent endless hours and endless angst searching for the perfect research question, the perfect theory, the perfect sources for their lit review, and the perfect turn of phrase guaranteed to take their masterpiece to a level sure to earn them a place in academic history. That wasn’t me. I picked a topic I found interesting; came up with an appropriate research question, backed into a serviceable theory, got decent sources for the lit review, and finished in a reasonable amount of time. Did I set the bar too low? Is there a doctor in the house? By all means, get help from a good dissertation editor or dissertation editing service if you need it.

#2: Do something every day

Starting a dissertation is like starting an exercise program. The experts say that three to four times a week is fine. What these same experts don’t tell you is that the people who “stick with” an exercise program exercise every day. It may be just 10 or 15 minutes but if you do it every day it becomes a lifelong habit—one you’ll have long after the three-times-a week-folks are trying to offload their treadmill on Craig’s list or looking for another juice bar so they don’t run into their personal trainer who believes they have the slowest healing hamstring pull on record. Do the same with a dissertation—do something every day. Some days all you can do is read a short article; some days even that’s too much and you settle for an online search for articles on one of your sub-sub categories. The group in my cohort who did something every day finished their (our) dissertations first.

#3: Just say “no”

I remember asking a friend in the cohort before ours to have coffee. She said she was saying “no” to everything until she finished her dissertation. She was only doing what she absolutely had to do—everything else would have to wait. I was frankly a little miffed, that is until I began my own dissertation and realized I needed to do the same thing if I was ever going to finish what I started referring to as “that damn dissertation.” Forget multi-tasking, forget even uni-tasking if there is such a thing. A dissertation takes 24/7 focus—it’s that big a beast. Again, the people in my cohort who finished first, in fact finished at all, learned how to say “no.”

#4: Stay healthy

It doesn’t seem like a dissertation should be so physically demanding but it is. It sometimes seems to suck the very life out of you. The only way to stay sane is to take the very time you don’t have and make sure you exercise daily (or twice a day if you need a break), eat right, get enough sleep, and try not to rely on what one cohort member referred to as “better living through chemistry.”

#5: Cut yourself some slack

I had a dissertation schedule. I’m a schedule kind of gal. Unfortunately, dissertations aren’t always schedulable. (I think I spent so much time with words ending in ology and istic—ontology, epistemology, methodology, statistic, positivistic—that I’ve created a whole new vocabulary just to rebel.) Perhaps my most important motivator was “cut yourself some slack.” Some days, weeks even, it’s just too hard. Life gets away from you. The people and things you’ve been ignoring for so long need your attention. You can’t remember if you had lunch, made lunch, went out for lunch, or if you had lunch for breakfast because you can’t remember what day or time it is. Cut yourself some slack.

#6: Better dead than ABD

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh but for me that’s what it came down to. I didn’t think I could live with myself (nor did I think anyone else could live with me!) if I put in all that time and money and anxiety and sacrifice only to stop short of the finish line. Equally important is that I felt I would be letting down the very people who supported and tolerated me if I didn’t finish. Besides, after a certain amount of time, ABD is worse than never starting. Show me someone ABD more than three or four years after comps and I’ll show you someone with a long-list of excuses targeted at whoever is asking—even when they’re not asking! That ABD should have found herself a dissertation editing company to help out.