The following was written by Dr. Jayme Cisco:
How many horror stories have you heard about PhD students getting lost in the dissertation stage for years? This might even describe your experience if you are currently ABD.
I found myself in this position after blazing through my PhD coursework in record speed. I defended my comprehensive exams the month before our son’s birth. I erroneously assumed that his nap time would be productive work time, and that I could continue my rapid pace to graduation. I was wrong, and you can read more about my PhD-while-parenting experience.
My first two years of the ABD stage consisted of false starts and failed projects. In my discipline (Cultural Anthropology), the data collection stage is typically very time consuming and requires extended time abroad. While I would have loved to go abroad, I had a newborn and a husband with a full-time job that couldn’t travel. So I opted to work with a new faculty member in a different department who said he would allow me access to data from a large project that he used for his own dissertation. This seemed like a wonderful time saver, so I agreed and became his research assistant. After 18 months of incredible stress and difficulty, this faculty member continued to require revision after revision with no end in sight. Despite my highly published advisor’s approval of the work, he refused to put his own “stamp of approval” on it. It was a hard decision, but I decided to abandon this never-ending cycle with him and start my own project.
Starting fresh after 2 years of ABD status was a frightening (and depressing!) prospect. But my tumultuous journey taught me a valuable secret that I am happy to share with you now.
Here’s the secret: Your committee works for you, so plan their time.
This phrase was actually advice that my husband’s advisor gave him about managing a dissertation committee. His words: “They work for you. If it’s not working out with a particular member, fire and replace them.” Now admittedly, there are many times that our committees are inflexible – if you are in a small department, if one of your committee members is viewed as the expert in your area, etc. But often, there is some flexibility in who you put on your committee, and you can justify who you choose with some skilled argumentation. When forming your committee, consider how this person interacts with other faculty (think politics and power plays here), how quickly they typically provide feedback, and find out about their reputation if you can from other students. My husband and I both had to replace committee members who were not working out well.
So here’s what I did to complete my dissertation in one academic year, from data collection to defense (and my husband did the same in just 7 months, while working full-time!)
1. I drafted a detailed timeline of the year for myself and my committee members. This included deadlines for data collection and analysis, draft completion, feedback from my committee on each chapter, and time for revision. I distributed this prior to beginning the project.
2. I asked my committee to read through the schedule, determine if they felt it was feasible (on my end), and if they could meet the deadlines for feedback. Then I asked them to commit to it. I was very honest about my need to graduate on time. I (diplomatically) informed them that I would have no hard feelings if they couldn’t agree to the timeline, but that I would need to find new committee members if it was not possible for them. No one disagreed, but this upfront request for commitment allowed me to be able to keep everyone on track many times throughout the year (including keeping members from having me go down unnecessary rabbit holes).
3. The schedule I created consisted of overlapping tasks, which allowed me to always have something to work on, even if I was waiting on faculty to get me feedback on other chapters. For example, one week I would have a deadline to finish a chapter and send it out for feedback. The following week I would work on a given section of another chapter draft while waiting for feedback. The week after that, I would work on revisions from the previous chapter. And on and on it went.
4. When I didn’t hear from faculty on schedule, I would send a gentle email reminder for feedback, or remind them when I sent them the next draft. In this way, I was able to (for the most part) keep everyone on track as the year progressed.
5. Throughout the year, I sent the committee detailed progress reports. I asked for their approval of chapter outlines before drafting them, updated them on data collection or analysis progress, etc. This made them aware that I was keeping up my end of the bargain and adhering to the timeline, and reminded them of what work I needed from them in the coming weeks or months. Thanks to this process, I never had a faculty member say that they couldn’t get feedback to me on time because they were surprised to hear from me.
Be proactive and use that timeline.
The most essential aspect of this process is to be proactive. No one cares about your graduation timeline as much as you do. I once had a faculty member tell me, “Well, if this doesn’t work out, you could just graduate the next semester.” As if time, money, and added stress were no big deal!
Like most PhD students who get lost in the ABD stage, I was surprised to learn that no one would create this timeline for me. No one would tell me exactly what to do and when to do it. No one was as interested in my completion as I was. So before you even begin your dissertation, create a detailed timeline, including all stages of data collection, data analysis, and deadlines for writing and revisions. Include the deadlines set by your department and/or university for defending dissertations, applying for graduation, etc. Your faculty may not even be aware of these deadlines, so do not rely on them to keep you on track.
Ultimately, your dissertation (and your entire graduate school career) is YOURS. Consider yourself your own boss, and your job is to manage a committee that you are leading. While there will be inevitable hiccups, political or status games, and delays, you will be much more likely to complete in a timeframe that satisfies you if you have a mindset of control from the very beginning.
If this was helpful and you would like a timeline template to start with, let us know below! We’ll send it to you right away.
And if you want to learn more about how to thrive in your program and finish faster, join us in our online course, The Grad Academy Online.