When it comes to writing a dissertation, graduate students are forewarned about the challenges of procrastination, motivation, and sheer endurance required to approach the task. Simply thinking about writing a dissertation can sometimes trigger negative thoughts and lead to avoidance.

But do not fear!

Having awareness of these obstacles is the best way of overcoming them. Being cognizant of the pitfalls can help you plan ahead and be ready for the trials that await you.

Based on my own personal experience as a doctoral student, the following secrets are some of the ways I have been able to meet deadlines and prepare for my final defense.

1. Start Early — Don’t Wait to Take the First Step

In some ways, the hardest part of the dissertation process may be the initial step. For each person, this step is different depending on the set-up of your school’s dissertation course.

The first step can sometimes include meeting with a professor, choosing a dissertation topic, or simply opening up and saving a word document titled “Dissertation.”

Regardless of your first step, gather some courage and take it! The sooner you start your dissertation process in the beginning of your doctoral education, the more motivated you will be to take the next step and aim to defend on time.

Starting the dissertation writing process early in your school career comes with other advantages too. It will allow you to focus on finishing up important aspects of your paper such as the literature review prior to having to face important milestones such as external practicum sites, comprehensive examinations, attending conferences, or other critical markers of your program.

2. Take Baby Steps

When you finally take the first step, it is important to remind yourself that the next steps in this process will be similar to the initial one. If you think of each step as being as simple as opening up a document and naming it, then you can approach dissertation writing as a series of baby steps.

Remember to keep things slow and gradual; don’t worry about the next step until the current step has been incorporated into your daily schedule.

For instance, if you’re aiming to set up an hour of dissertation work a day on a weekly basis, don’t introduce a new scheduling element until you have fully and successfully implemented this daily goal in your routine.

3. Find an Accountability Partner

One of the most effective strategies for any life change is seeking an accountability partner.

This has perhaps been, for me, the most successful strategy in meeting deadlines and achieving each step of the dissertation writing process. Luckily, my school has structured the course of our dissertation task to be completed in groups of individuals working on a similar topic.

This way, we have the advantage of relying on our team members to keep us accountable in meeting similar goals, deadlines and working on the same timeline.

If your school is not set up in a similar manner, consider finding an accountability partner that ideally has a similar topic as your dissertation; however, any peer, mentor, or friend you trust to keep you accountable for your work will truly have an impact on helping you meet your goals one at a time.

4. Set Realistic Goals

Let’s face it: We have incredibly high expectations of what we can accomplish as doctoral students.

At times, this can really help serve us to remain motivated and meet our goals. But it is also important to realize that when we set unrealistic goals, we often fall short of those expectations, which then potentially leads us to burnout.

That’s why setting short-term, attainable goals that suit your daily life schedule is extremely important. One way of succeeding at setting appropriate goals is having awareness of what you are capable of achieving. While others may be working at their own pace, it is important to establish your own pace and realize that smaller, short-term goals may be more accurate for you and help you get closer to meeting your deadlines.

5. Anticipate Challenges

Unknown hurdles may come up at any point of your dissertation writing process. Some of these challenges may or may not be in your control and it is important to have a Plan B.

With the challenges that may be in your control, consider what these may be.

Are you perhaps taking on too much? Are you setting unrealistic goals that are prohibiting you from achieving them?

Remember to stay calm with each challenge and consider your options. You may not always have the ideal options in front of you, but make the best of what you have and keep going.

6. Ask for Help!

The task of writing a dissertation does not necessarily have to be a solitary undertaking. In fact, when working on a project that is as immense as a dissertation, questions inevitably come up related to the logistics of your study, the appropriate next steps and, occasionally, the dead ends that require a Plan B.

As doctoral students, we are expected to ask our questions, obtain feedback, and look up to our mentors for guidance and support.

Depending on how frequently you have access to a mentor, accountability partner, or dissertation chairperson, one way of keeping track of your questions is writing them down as they come up through each phase of your dissertation process. This way, you will be prepared during your next scheduled dissertation meeting and get your questions answered.

7. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Dissertation writing can take a toll on your mental, emotional and even physical endurance; thus, it is important to be kind to yourself and not beat yourself up when you don’t meet an expected goal.

Remember that writing a dissertation is not a sprint, but rather a marathon requiring lots of support, endurance and self-care. If you find that you did not meet a goal or deadline, revisit the challenges that you were confronted with (i.e., setting unrealistic goals, having too many things on your plate, etc.) and find ways of problem solving. In the long run, this is more effective and much more productive than putting yourself down.

Remind yourself to stay positive and review other parts of your life where you faced challenges and overcame them.

Interested in reading what Dr. Varvaryan has to say about what comes after your dissertation? Check out her article on Planning Ahead for Your Postdoc Year

Annie Varvaryan, PsyD