Cover Story

Can't get motivated to work on your dissertation? Feeling like the PhD or PsyD you've been dreaming about may become "ABD"-all-but-dissertation-instead? You're not alone. Thousands of graduate students struggle with the dissertation process-evidenced by hundreds of dissertation support groups held on campuses nationwide and the fact that business for "dissertation coaches" is booming.

Top reasons students wrestle with the task include the demands of the internship, an ineffective work schedule, an unfocused topic and frustration with adviser feedback (see Eyeing the finish line). But tackling small tasks every day and better communicating with advisers, among other strategies, can give students the boost they need to finish, say recent doctorates and faculty advisers.

"See roadblocks as a normal part of your dissertation," advises Alison Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist turned dissertation coach who has helped more than 50 students complete their dissertations. She and others share these tips on how to make a smooth journey from ABD to degree.


To stay motivated, find a dissertation topic you're passionate and curious about instead of one you think will impress your adviser or revolutionize the field, says Marcus Patterson, a doctoral student and former APAGS chair who recently co-wrote a chapter on writing the dissertation in "The Pocket Mentor: An Expert Guide to a Career in Psychology" (Plenum/Kluwer, 2003). In it, he and his co-authors cite research showing that students who search for the perfect topic endanger their chances of completing the degree. "If you try to get grandiose, you're setting your sights too high to even get started," Patterson says.

Develop a clear, focused topic by bouncing ideas off faculty and other students and reading completed dissertations, suggest Miller and other recent graduates.


Find the right adviser so that you receive good feedback instead of frustration, says Laura Wright, PhD, who earned her doctorate in 2000 from Florida State University. She advises students to find out how much time potential advisers spend mentoring and advising.

In choosing her own adviser, Wright even sat in on a defense a candidate was chairing.

"For me, the personality of an adviser was almost more important than the perfect match interest-wise," she says. "I wanted an adviser that I could look to as a mentor...not as an adversary that wanted to make my process filled with obstacles."

Already picked an adviser and not connecting? Improve the relationship by scheduling weekly meetings, following through on deadlines and simply asking for support, says Miller. Attaching a cover letter to drafts that includes specific questions and concerns can improve the quality and relevance of the feedback students receive and ultimately help them develop better working relationships with their advisors, she says.


Collapse the dissertation into small tasks that have a beginning and an end, such as "Read Jones and Smith article on social support," not open-ended tasks, such as "Read about social support theories," suggests Miller. Such a system worked for adviser Melanie Domenech-Rodriguez, PhD, an assistant professor at Utah State University who defended in 1999. "Sometimes the list got so detailed that, in making it, I'd actually write whatever it was that I needed to write," she says.

Even working on the dissertation for just two minutes each day-e-mailing a question to a committee member or updating the reference list-"results in having what you need to be productive in a bigger chunk of time later on," says Shane Lopez, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas.

He also advises students to pad their dissertation timelines. "Everything takes longer than you think," says Lopez. "Plan for what you think [a task] is going to take and then add half of that on top-if you think a task will take 10 hours, plan for 15."


Plan to finish your dissertation, or at least your proposal, before going on to internship, say many students. A 2000 study on interns' dissertation status and progress, published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (PPRP) (Vol. 31, No. 3), found that 61 percent of students who started their internship without a formal dissertation proposal meeting still hadn't scheduled that meeting by the year's end, and only 7 percent had actually finished their dissertations. Why the lack of progress? Many students log up to 60 hours of intense clinical work each week-not the ideal time to tackle intense writing and research.

"I wish someone had told me to stay an extra year to finish the dissertation before going on to internship-that would have been much better for my mental health," says Domenech-Rodriguez. "Internship and dissertation can both be very intense, and having them at the same time increases the probability of doing both things badly."

Lopez, one of the PPRP study's researchers, advises his students to at least propose before internship, because students who did so fared the best in his study. Can't finish in time? Take advantage of writing time many internship sites offer students for their dissertation-varying from a few hours to a day each week depending on the site, says Lopez, who adds, "Don't schedule that time for Friday afternoon."


Tap support from family, friends and fellow students and create accountability, advise recent doctorates. "More than any other single factor, having a 'study-buddy' enabled me to complete the dissertation," says recent doctorate Ben Weinstein, PhD, of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass. "It is different to make a commitment to yourself and someone else than to make the same commitment only to yourself."

Wright sought support from fellow interns at the University of California, Davis, who met once a week to set goals, share frustrations and celebrate milestones, such as finished chapters. "As psychologists, we know that having support going through a difficult time is helpful, and dissertations are no different," she says. Students can also find support and advice online at sites such as, an online dissertation discussion and support group, and the "All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide" at, a free, monthly online newsletter on dissertation strategies edited by psychologist Ben Dean, PhD.

Finally, reward yourself when you clear major hurdles, says Domenech Rodriguez, who passes along a professor's advice that she now shares with students: "The best dissertation is a done dissertation," she says.