Sixth-year counseling psychology student Shannon Bowles used to be the sort who always turned in her papers early and studied every day-not just the night before an exam. But when it came time to start her dissertation, Bowles, who is at West Virginia University, didn't write a word of introduction before heading off to internship, and now she has only has a year left to finish the entire thing.

"I could have graduated much sooner….Now I am ABD [all but dissertation] and absolutely have to face it," says Bowles.

Bowles attributes her sudden-onset procrastination to general academic burnout-not an uncommon experience for people who have been in school for about 25 years, says Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a procrastination researcher at DePaul University in Chicago and editor of an APA book on the subject (see further reading). Fear of failure-and having a significant piece of intellectual work evaluated harshly-can also weigh down students as they try to clear this final academic hurdle, he notes.

"Some procrastinators would rather have people think they lacked effort rather than that they lacked ability," Ferrari says.

Building structure

But while there are many reasons to delay working on a dissertation, most students manage to pull it off. According to a meta-analysis in the book "In Pursuit of the PhD" (Princeton University Press, 1992), about 80 percent of those who make it to ABD status do end up getting their doctorates. These students get there by learning to motivate themselves and structure time wisely, says Sheri Fluellen, a third-year counseling psychology student at Oklahoma State University.

"No one else is kicking me in the butt to write my dissertation," she says. "It is all on me. And the ability to discipline myself to do it is a skill that I can use to do anything in life."

Students and procrastination researchers offer some tips for honing that skill.

  • Set goals. The dissertation is a procrastination magnet because it's a huge project that you have a long time to complete, says Tara Kuther, PhD, a psychology professor and adviser at Western Connecticut State University. "That lack of structure seems to be where the problem arises," she observes.

So students must make their own structure, she says. For example, Kuther asks her advisees to set small, daily goals, such as taking notes on a set of related articles. Checking items off a daily task list can help you stay motivated, she notes, and also ensures that you are always making progress.

  • Make time to write. Graduate students have many demands on their time-jobs, classes, family-so they need to set aside specific times to write their dissertation, says Fluellen, who works as a graduate assistant and adviser to six master's-degree students. To make time for her dissertation, Fluellen blocks out three days a week to work on it, and she schedules meetings with her advisees on nondissertation days.

  • Find your office. Students should take note of where they pound out the pages, and where they feel distracted or unmotivated, says Ferrari. Some work best at home, while others may find the siren song of a neglected cleaning project or pet too hard to resist.

"It's so much more enjoyable to pet my cat than work on my dissertation," says Fluellen, who heads to her university office to write.

  • Spot secret procrastination. Bowles spent months collecting every article and book chapter remotely related to her dissertation topic, only to find that she had far too much information to sort through and pull together into a literature review. Other students may spend days perfecting their formatting or trying out different font styles. If you find that you are treading water, you may want to work with your adviser to set broad aims, says Simon Moon, PhD, a psychology professor and procrastination researcher at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Such weekly or monthly goals could be to get a grasp on a new area of research or to finish data analysis, he says.

While delay tactics are minor roadblocks for most students, for other students such behaviors have serious cognitive underpinnings, notes Ferrari. Students with a crippling fear of failure or a belief they will never succeed in the real world should seek counseling, he notes.

  • Pull together a support network. Writing a dissertation is a solitary task, but you don't have to go it alone, says Fluellen, who found she started making real progress on her dissertation when she scheduled weekly meetings with her adviser. "I know if I have to go to my meeting without having anything new done, I will get a disapproving look-it has been a big motivator," Fluellen says.

Students can also seek support from other students, says Ferrari, who runs summer writing support groups for his advisees. Each week, his students share what they have written with others in the group, which encourages steady progress and improves the quality of their writing, he says.

Reward yourself

Setting goals and getting work done is important, but take time to celebrate small victories, says Kuther. When Kuther worked on her own dissertation, she would reward herself by playing the video game "Asteroids" after she had met each daily writing goal.

"By the time I had finished writing my dissertation, I had well over a million points," she says.

Bowles stays motivated by keeping her ultimate reward in mind. To this end, she has written "Dr. Shannon Bowles" on post-it notes and stuck them throughout her house. She also made herself a T-shirt that says "ABD," which she will pack away as soon as she finishes her dissertation.

"It helps to remind me of my desire to turn ABD into PhD," she says.

Further Reading

  • Dittmann, M. (2005). Starting the dissertation. gradPSYCH, 3, 20–21.

  • Ferrari, J.R. (2001). Getting things done on time: Conquering procrastination. In C.R. Snyder (Ed.), Coping with stress: Effective people and processes (pp. 30–46). New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Fiore, N. (2003). Overcoming Procrastination. New York: MJF Books.

  • Schouwenburg, H.C., Lay, C.H., Pychyl, T.A., & Ferrari, J.R. (Eds.). (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.