Ask An Expert

Six experts offer advice on how to approach your dissertation

Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD

Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD

APA president-elect, and professor and vice chair for faculty development in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine

"Don't ever let anything professional take over your life, not even your dissertation. Even a workaholic like me recognizes that at the end of the day, I am less productive and the quality of my work suffers if I don't take care of myself.

"So I structure into my calendar time with family and friends, ballet classes, going to arts and sporting events, and relaxing time at the spa. Think about what matters most in your life and integrate that into your life while ‘dissertating.' Burnout never gets a dissertation done. And remember, the best dissertation is a done dissertation."

John C. Norcross, PhD

John C. Norcross, PhD

Psychology professor, University of Scranton

"A dissertation is designed to be an intense, immersive research experience in producing an original contribution. Intense, but not overwhelming! Here are five tips to get you over the dissertation mountain:

  • Break the seemingly impossibly large research tasks into smaller chunks, taking them one at a time, step by step
  • Work with your dissertation advisor to develop a schedule of weekly goals and regular follow-up appointments.
  • Consider joining or starting a dissertation support group. The empathy, advice and sustenance frequently prove invaluable.
  • Begin to balance your work and life now. It is an indispensable skill throughout your career; the dissertation serves as a template for how you will juggle effectively for decades.
  • Enjoy the immersion (instead of cursing it) and recognize the contribution you are making.

Let's be candid: Many dissertations are love-hate relationships."

J. Bruce Overmier, PhD

J. Bruce Overmier, PhD

Psychology professor at the University of Minnesota

"Your dissertation is very important to your (and your family's) future. After all you have invested so far, you cannot afford to fail. It does merit a central place in your thinking and efforts.

"But, it is not more important than your family. Moreover, unless you take some planned time away from the dissertation work, you cannot keep a scholarly perspective on it or communicate to others about it effectively.

"Remind yourself that unless you publish it, fewer than half a dozen people will ever read it (Ouch!). Intense — but balanced — focus is the key."

Isaac Prilleltensky, PhD

Isaac Prilleltensky, PhD

Dean and professor, University of Miami

"First, do not panic. This is such a common problem that the DSM-6 is going to have a new condition called ‘dissertitis ruminatorica.' You are not alone. Let me give you a preview of the treatment for this condition:

  1. Make sure you have a clear outline of all sections before you write a single word.
  2. Make sure all members of your dissertation committee agree on the scope of the dissertation.
  3. Make sure members of your committee are sane.
  4. Designate writing times and stick to them.
  5. Have a deadline for completing various sections.
  6. Stick to your deadlines.
  7. Repeat as needed."

Robert J. Sternberg, PhD

Robert J. Sternberg, PhD

President, University of Wyoming

"So your dissertation is taking over your life? I've been there and done that. Here's how to manage it.

  • Cut it down to size. Grad students sometimes want to shake up the world with their dissertations. There will be plenty of time for that later. If the dissertation is too grand or even grandiose, talk to your advisor and committee about reducing its scope.
  • Start writing with the easiest part, and work your way up to harder parts. I was able to start writing only when I began with what I knew.
  • Don't sweat. It will end!"

Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD

Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD

Professor emeritus of psychology, Stanford University

"For most professional psychologists who survive their many professional obligations by becoming workaholics, I encourage them to ‘get a life' — beyond the narrow confines of their profession.

"For advanced graduate students enmeshed in doing their dissertations, my encouragement is to ‘get a dissertation' — to get it done, to get it right, to make it significant, to put in whatever time and effort are necessary in order to make this milestone in your career something you will cherish. But the key to happiness combined with success is to learn how to achieve the right temporal balance between a workable future focus blended with a joy-filled present hedonism.

"Just do it — but with fun and friends!"

Further resources

  • "Dissertations and Theses from Start to Finish: Psychology And Related Fields," by John D. Cone and Sharon Foster, PsyD (APA, 2006).
  • "Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All!: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on With Your Life," by Allison B. Miller, PhD (APA, 2008).