4 Surefire Tactics to Power Through the “All but Dissertation” Phase.

I have always found the label ABD—that is, all but dissertation —a bit ironic. It suggests that you are nearly finished. Just one more thing to scratch off the list!

But that one thing is a doozy. It will require more time and effort than any of your graduate school courses. And it is a different kind of work as well—a kind of work that some people find they are just not cut out for. So don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re all but dissertation at the outset. Instead, recognize that you have a big dilemma: figuring out how to transition from consumer to producer of ideas.

Here are few tips to help you transition.

Avoid the “identify-a-topic” trap during the all but dissertation phase.

If you have approached your graduate coursework appropriately, you have already identified a literature you can contribute to and you have read all of the major works—and most of the minor works, certainly everything published in the last ten years—in that area. If you haven’t, now is the time. Give yourself a month to catch up.

One month. That’s it. (Ok, it might take longer. But you should not even acknowledge the prospect that it might take longer.) Why? Because the identify-a-topic stage is a trap that keeps too many students in the all but dissertation phase for too long. It feels so much like that old, familiar coursework that some ABDs just stay there, in academic limbo, forever. They read and read and read without ever getting on to writing. And when you are ABD, writing is the only thing that matters.

Start writing. Now.

If you were training for a marathon (You are not. You are ABD. Get back to work!), you would probably want to stretch a bit before heading out for that first one-mile training run. But you would not spend hours on end stretching, day after day, thinking about how one day you’ll be ready to run. So don’t spend months reading, thinking about how one day you’ll be ready to write.

In fact, here is a simple rule to help you transition from reading to writing: if you read it, write about it. It doesn’t have to be much. Perhaps it is a one paragraph summary; or, an outline of the argument, with a few lines about how it relates to what you want to work on. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be written.

Writing about what you are reading helps in two ways. First, you’ll start to see that some of the things you are reading aren’t actually all that relevant to the dissertation you want to write. Figure out what it is about those papers that makes them useless for your ends and stop reading papers like that. The sooner, the better. Second, you’ll be able to recycle some of this text later when you are reviewing the literature or citing an idea in the only writing that really matters for an ABD, your dissertation.

Structure your ideas.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the literature—or, better yet, while you are familiarizing yourself with the literature—start outlining your dissertation. What’s the argument you want to make? What are the sequence of points you need to make in order for that argument to be persuasive? The more scaffolding you can build, the better. For some papers, I build an outline all the way down to the paragraph level. That might seem excessive. But it makes writing much easier.

Structuring your argument is helpful for at least four reasons.

First, a well structured argument is much easier for a reader to follow.

If your committee understands your argument, they will be in a better position to provide high-quality feedback. If your argument is not well structured and they cannot really figure out what you are trying to do in the work, they will be limited in the extent to which they can help. Likewise, an editor is much less likely to publish an article that is difficult to follow. So develop a clear, deliberate structure at the outset and you will save yourself a lot of time down the road.

Second, it enables you to rework your argument before you have spent a lot of time fussing over the prose.

If you end up cutting much of section 2, subsection 3, it won’t matter that you chose the perfect word or phrase to make that point. You’ll have to rewrite all of that anyway.

Likewise, it gives you the ability to drop in a few bullet points for ideas when you have them rather than when you are working on that part of the dissertation and those good ideas have passed. Again, you don’t need to write out full paragraphs. You can just scratch out the idea. This allows you to work on multiple parts of the work concurrently.

Third, structuring your work is like designing a plan of attack.

Some days you will wake up not really sure what to do to move your dissertation one step closer to completion. Rather than floundering for much of the morning while thinking about your dissertation as a whole, you can just look at your structure and zoom in on one small part. You will think: I have an argument scratched out in section 1, subsection 2. I can build that part out today.

And, just like that, you are writing. Actual words. Some of which will end up in your dissertation. Achievement unlocked.

Finally, a solid structure is probably the best defense against writer’s block.

It happens. You’ve been working on section 3, subsection 3 all afternoon and then, BAM! You’re stuck. You are not really sure what to do. You could knock off early or fritter the rest of the day away, like someone who will be ABD indefinitely is inclined to do. Or, you could recognize that you are only stuck on section 3, subsection 3 and there is a lot of work to be done elsewhere in your dissertation—like section 3 subsection 1. And, just like that, you are writing again. Good work! Looks like you will finish this thing someday after all.

Track your time.

You got to the office at 8:00 a.m. You didn’t leave until 7:00 p.m. You feel a little tired. So, naturally, you think of yourself as a hard worker. But what about that two-hour lunch break? Or the hour you spent talking shop by the water cooler? And the few-minutes-at-a-time dozen-times-a-day you spent checking Facebook or Twitter. Those times are conveniently washed away from your memory.

Protect yourself against self-deception.

It is easy to engage in self deception—to think that we are working harder than we are. And it is easy to get distracted in an office environment. To protect yourself against both, I recommend logging your time.

Brian Albrecht, a PhD student in economics at the University of Minnesota, has persuaded me to start using a program called Toggl. It takes just a few minutes to set up. You log what you are doing—Dissertation: Chapter 1, Twitter, Reading: Curse of Cash, etc.—while you are doing it. (I am currently 46 minutes into this blog post!) Then you can see a breakdown of your day or week. If you log your time diligently, there will be no doubts about how much time you are spending on actual, productive work.

I have found that, in addition to letting me see how much time I am spending on various tasks, simply knowing that I log my time makes me feel worse about wasting time. My water cooler conversations have gotten shorter because, in the back of my mind, I am thinking: this time will not be logged as productive time. So a bit more time gets channeled toward pushing my papers forward.

Just show up to work.

I am just going to come out and say it: most academics are kind of lazy. If you are putting in a solid 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, you will finish your dissertation in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t mistake the flexibility of the job as a reason to treat it as anything less than a job. Clock in. Clock out. And watch the dissertation go from a few words to a finished product.

Don’t confuse inputs for outputs.

Tracking your time is useful. But don’t slip into thinking about your dissertation in terms of time. Time is an input into your dissertation. With enough quality time spent writing, you will finish your dissertation. However, your goal is not to spend a lot of time writing the dissertation. Your goal is to finish the dissertation. And the metric of whether or not you are succeeding is not how much time you have spent on the dissertation, but rather the progress you have made towards completing the dissertation. So track your inputs to make sure you are actually doing what you say you are doing. But set your goals and measure your progress in terms of output.

Here are some examples of input versus output:

  • Six hours of reading for your dissertation: That’s six hours of inputs, zero pages output. You are no closer to your goal of going from ABD to PhD.
  • Three hours of writing three pages of your dissertation: That’s three hours of inputs, three pages of output. You are three pages (minus some editing) closer to your goal.
  • One hour of writing three pages of your dissertation: That’s one hour of inputs, three pages of output. You are three pages (minus some editing) closer to your goal.

Note that, in the first example, you have made no progress. None. Zero. Zilch. You did a lot of work and have nothing to show for it. No one is going to give you a gold star for time spent working.

Similarly, your output is the same in examples two and three. No one cares that you spent three times as many hours in the second scenario. They only care about output.

Reward yourself for making genuine progress.

Since output is all that matters, make sure your time is time well spent. Set goals in terms of production. Don’t think: I will work for one more hour before taking a break. Think: I will write 1000 more words before taking a break. Don’t think: Today was a good day, I spent 7 hours working on my dissertation. Think: Today was a good day because I edited all of Section 1 and drafted up most of Section 3. Remember the end goal: finish the dissertation. Think of your inputs in terms of that goal, not in terms of themselves.

Conclusion

It isn’t easy to transition from being a consumer of ideas to a producer of ideas. But it is necessary if you are to one day shed the all but dissertation label for the much more marketable PhD. Figure out what you want to write about. Outline your argument. Manage your time. And make progress towards completing your dissertation. If you can do those things, you will turn a big dilemma into an all but dissertation.

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