At the start of this year I made the tough decision to phase out my dissertation coaching services. While I really enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with clients—and I worked with and learned from some awesome people—it wasn’t sustainable for my business in the long-term, especially as my editing services have become more focused on projects that require longer periods of my attention. Although I will no longer be coaching, I still care about helping people finish their degrees so I want to share this useful planning exercise for any PhD student who is ABD: a Dissertation Audit.
Many of the requests I received for dissertation coaching came from PhD students who had been away from their program or project for several months or more due to illness, family, or work related issues. The majority of my clients found restarting the thesis process overwhelming and just weren’t sure how to get back into their work. Across the board, most PhD students severely underestimate the time it takes to write a thesis, which makes it stressful and disheartening when they miss their original anticipated deadline. Since everyone has different demands on their attention, energy and available work hours, I developed a series of questions (below) to assess the state of the existing project and identify all the resources they had available (and the ones they still needed) in order to create a reasonable and achievable timeline for completion.
The first and most important question to ask is: “Do I want to complete my dissertation (and why)?” If your answer is yes, then go through this list of questions to reaffirm your decision to proceed and figure out the kind of time and resource committment that will be required to meet your goal of completion. Keep in mind that these categories overlap (e.g., the time you have available to complete your dissertation may be dependent on when your funding runs out).
- How much of the thesis have you already drafted?
- How much of the existing writing can be kept?
- How much still needs to be written?
- Do you have feedback for revisions from your supervisor and committee? How long will it take to revise your existing chapters based on the feedback?
- Do you have a detailed outline for the entire thesis? If yes, is the outline still relevant and achievable? If no, then take the time to create an outline, start by listing (by paragraph or by subtopic) all the elements in each chapter of your current draft(s).
- Which texts have you read? Are they still relevant to your project?
- What texts still need to be read/consulted?
- If you still need to continue researching, make a list of all the books and articles you need from library. How long will it take for you to read the books? Are there materials that must be requested from another institution (and require additional time to process)?
- Is there a firm institutional deadline that you must meet (before funding ends or before you need to re-enroll and pay additional tuition)?
- How much time do you have available to research and write (by the day, by the week)? Be honest with your limits and add extra time for unexpected delays and life stuff (e.g., if you think it will take 10 days to update your research resources, give yourself 13 or more days when you make your timeline).
- Have you discussed a timeline for completion with your supervisor and committee? Are there dates when they will be unavailable (at a conference or on sabbatical)?
- How long does it take for your supervisor and/or committee members to read and give feedback on drafts? Make sure you set clear expectations with them. You need to have your supervisor and committee on board with your timeline!
Supervisor and Committee
- What kind of support and time is available from your supervisor? Set up an in-person meeting with them to discuss expectations and your proposed timeline for completion. Request (at minimum) monthly progress check-ins in person or over phone/email.
- What kind of support and time is available from your committee members? Discuss with your supervisor about when to contact your committee members for feedback on drafts. How long will committee members have to respond?
- What are the institutional deadlines for funding and tuition costs (per semester)? Figure out the cost to remain in your program for at least one year past your ideal date of completion.
- How much personal savings are available to you? What are your financial supports outside of PhD funding?
- How much are supplemental materials and services necessary for the completion of the dissertation (e.g., childcare, copyediting, coaching, cost of paper for printing of thesis, interlibrary loan charges, etc.)?
Other Supports and Commitments
- Do you have familial commitments that require accommodation while working on the thesis (childcare, eldercare, spousal support, etc.)? What are your arrangements for dealing with these commitments?
- Does your family support your thesis efforts? Do they give you the necessary time to focus on your project? Discuss boundaries and expectations for a quiet work space with the members of your household.
- Are you working part- or full-time as you complete your dissertation? Is your employer supportive of your efforts? Can they allow you time away (if requested) to focus on the completion of your project?
- Do you require academic coaching or editing services? Have you discussed these options with your supervisor? Determine the cost of those supplementary services and set aside the necessary time to accommodate them.
- Are there any other resources that you require to finish your dissertation? Remember that making time for self-care (physical and mental) is important!