Getting Started, Surviving, and Completing Your Dissertation or Capstone: Moving Beyond the 'ABD' Status

By Brian Hunter, M.A.

Have you ever found yourself spending a Saturday or any day doing everything else you can think of except working on your dissertation?

Many, if not most, graduate students have a difficult time getting started, persevering, and finishing the dissertation process. You are not alone! There are many obvious reasons for delay such as the dissertation process is new, getting access to the articles and your major professor, time pressures, financial pressures and learning new skills/techniques such as sampling methods or the dreaded statistics. You are not alone in these challenges, but the single biggest obstacle is to dissertation process and completion is in your mind. Yes, the biggest problem actually lies with you.


What makes getting started and continuing the dissertation process seem so difficult?

First, your dissertation does involve far more research than you probably have ever done before.

Remember, by the time you begin your dissertation, you have already written many essays, reports, and conference presentations. A dissertation is really a compilation of seminar papers that are linked through conceptual unity. That means you have already done most or all of the work in many classes and the objective is to bring all that work together into one unified dissertation. So, the work is not unfamiliar to you. So, you may be asking yourself why does it seem so difficult again. Well, completing the dissertation process is largely based on overcoming the difficulties through perseverance. In other words, do not up and keep trying! This may seem and perhaps it since challenges still come up that stop your resolve and perseverance to move forward.

Why do I feel so many different things when it comes to writing my dissertation?

Emotional responses to the challenges in the dissertation process can vary such as feelings of anxiety, being overwhelmed, feeling burned out and frustrated. Frustration! Frustration! Frustration! There are also many extreme highs and severe lows in the process that can make you feel like you are on a roller coaster. Guess what? All these responses are normal! Experiencing emotions while doing anything is normal! Very few, if any, people engage in any professional or educational activity devoid of emotion. So, emotional responses only become a problem when it stops you from progressing and persevering in the dissertation process.


How do I survive?

This is the 20 million dollar question or 100 million, given inflation, but there are actually many things you can proactively do to survive. The first thing is to look at what is stopping you and getting you stuck in the process. what are the barriers and obstacles you like interactions with certain professors or committee members, revisions, major changes, perceived negative feedback delays? These perceived obstacles can be turned around in avenues.

Let us begin by taking a look at how to use and view your department chair or advisor. These chairs or advisors are your primary contact in the dissertation process, so all news of your progress, regress, success, or immediate failure comes directly from them. This can create strong emotions around meeting with and using your advisor regularly and appropriately. Remember, do not hate the messenger!!! You should seek out your advisor’s candidness, critique, expertise, and trust as these are invaluable to your educational and professional development. Try to build cooperation, mutual respect, openness trust. This sounds easy, but we all have different personalities and dispositions.


Your advisor is not in an adversarial role with you by trying to make the dissertation process difficult. Instead, they for you in achieving your academic success. You cannot control what your advisor does or how they behave, but you can take a look at how you are responding to them and the dissertation process. For example, when difficult news arrives from your advisor, committee, or research site there are many common responses form students:

  • · Moping and pouting about it for a week;
  • · Being distressed, angry and offended;
  • · Immediate responding with irate and ill-conceived replies;
  • · Taking a deep breath;
  • · Recognizing the value of academic critique;
  • · Calmly review changes and deficiencies in a cooperative manner;
  • · Maintaining emotional control.


How do you respond?

Your response to the news and progress on your dissertation not only impacts but also impacts your future progress and the people with whom you are working.

Further paths to take to survival are networking with other doctoral students. Going through this process with other students helps to give you a perspective as well as support on your situation. You can also gain invaluable advice and experience in dealing with advisors and committees from students further along in the dissertation process.


How do I stay motivated and finish?

Given my experience working with students who have completed the dissertation process, I have seen some common patterns to staying motivated. These are some of my suggestions:

  • Distill your dissertation down to one sentence. This should be the purpose of the paper. Say this sentence to yourself each day that you are working on the paper or are trying to get started working. Post it on your computer or phone screen saver!
  • Keep writing, even when you feel stuck. When I wrote this type of paper I would continue to write by telling myself in the text what was needed, like a list of things to get for the paper or by jumping to the next section. Continuing writing would keep my mind flowing and staying on task. Going to other sections of the paper allowed me to continue to make progress.
  • Do random thoughts about your life keep popping in your head? go grocery shopping, I have to get my oil changed, what about that wedding, there a hurricane coming this way and so on. Write them down on a notepad or into a word document as a list of things to remember or do when you are done writing that day. These thoughts and pressures can pull you away from writing and there you are again doing everything, but your dissertation!
  • No one ever wrote a dissertation in one day. Give yourself realistic deadlines and understand that there may be setbacks. Expect the process to take a year to two years or possibly longer. Everyone is in different circumstances. Very few people get to write a dissertation full time and not work or take care of others such as significant others, spouses children.


I have one final recommendation. No matter where you are in the dissertation process, you can benefit greatly by reaching out and contacting a professional consultant. There are many consultants, like myself, who specialize in working with you on learning how to write an introduction, understand a literature review, teach APA formatting, teach scientific writing, tutor research methods and the dreaded statistics! Contact one of us today!