Advice For The Final Semester Of Grad School

Around this time last year, I had accepted the job offer with University of Richmond, took a very much needed break over the holidays, and returned ready to wrap things up for my PhD.  Since I had not made a great deal of progress on my dissertation while on the job market, simply “wrapping things up” entailed starting, finishing, and defending my dissertation.  And, then moving.  Yep.

Oh, there were many things I thought “why didn’t anyone tell me?!”  So, I write this post of advice to graduate students who will finish their dissertations this semester and move to begin a new job over/after the summer.  I do not speak as an authority, certainly never having mentored graduate students; but, my own experience may offer something!  I have in mind those finishing up PhDs and then beginning a tenure-track position, or some other position in academia that entails teaching and research.  But, others may find this post useful, as well.

Preparing

“Oh my gosh, the job market is soo stressful.”  It certainly was.  But, there was one thing I found substantially more stressful: the semester after, when you actually work on your dissertation.  And, the reason why you never hear anyone say that?  Those students are probably isolated at home or in their campus office having very little interaction with the real world.  And, then they seem to quietly disappear, moving on to their new jobs.  I say this only from my own experiences: this last semester will be the most isolating, stressful, self-directed, underwhelming, and require the greatest level of discipline thus far in your career (maybe even life).

Yes, I said what you think I said above.  You probably will actually be starting your dissertation once the dust of the job market settles.  I mean here the actual analyses and writing.  (You have already defended the proposal, or done even more by now.)  Ideally, you are finishing up by early summer.  But, that does not account for the time you should give your committee to read your final draft before your dissertation defense.  And, that does not account for last minute editing before that.  And, that does not account for the time it takes to implement the very specific, tedious formatting that your university requires for submitted dissertations.

So, to work in a timely manner, you should (yes, strong words!) take note of your university’s deadlines for filing a dissertation and graduating.  (This includes booking a hotel room for family who will attend graduation early, especially if you are at a big university in a small town!  Also, renting/buying a cap and gown for graduation.)  This stage is where the training wheels really come off.  It is your responsibility to figure out what your university requires and by what date.  At least at my graduate institution, there were complex instructions — certain things were due on certain days if you finished in May, or had to be formatted in certain ways if submitting your dissertation electronically.

A second suggestion is to create a work schedule.  As I said, finishing will take a great deal of discipline.  I set for myself 12-hour work days, but taking the evenings and weekends off were non-negotiable.  So, I had my butt in my home office chair at 6am getting to work.  I strongly recommend eliminating or at least temporarily suspending any other professional activities.  Drop out of committees, suspend community service, put co-authored projects on hold, and stop publishing.  If you can afford to (I know, I know — that’s why I said ‘if’), get out of teaching this semester.  You have one job this semester: to finish a dissertation — one that 4-5 experts will be willing to sign their name to as sufficient for a doctorate.  I will touch more on that later; but, I want to emphasize you need to minimize other distractions as much as possible.

Another strategy that helped me was to create an outline of analyses I would run, including supplemental analyses, to minimize data exploration.  And, create an outline of what I would write in each literature review to minimize brainstorming before I had to write, and exploring existing literature.  Of course, this was not a perfect strategy.  But, I could afford to revise models, or even change how certain variables were measured, and look up more references for a literature review, because I went in with most of these parts already decided.  Yes, the strategy to determine my analyses in advance may not work for qualitative or other methodological approaches; however you can, do some of the analytical preparation and work in advance!

You should also set aside time to decide when you will move for your new job, and to search for houses/apartments.  I strongly recommend finishing up everything related to graduate school and then moving.  And, as best as you can, finish before your job starts!  Some universities or departments may place you on some sort of probation or temporary status if your degree has not been conferred by your university by a certain date (make sure you know this date!).  If they don’t do this formally, you may be treated informally this way if you continue to finish your dissertation after you have started your new job.  Give yourself a reasonable amount of time, maybe a little at a time each week, to house-hunt.  And, I recommend actually making a trip to your new location before you move to get a feel of the town, preliminarily explore, and force a short mental break in the midst of dissertating.  Ideally, you negotiated for compensation from your new job to house-hunt, maybe even connected with a realtor or another service; if not, I suggest asking if there are funds for this.

Working

Decide up front what will be the best way to work, including editing.  I found warming up mentally each morning was easiest if I continued to work on one empirical chapter at a time.  I started with the chapter that was closest to completion — the one for which I had results because I used it as my job talk.  Once that one was finished, I sent it to my chair for feedback.  The unspoken agreement was that he had to approve, in his capacity as my chair, a chapter before any other committee member could see it.  But, as the semester unfolded, I would have to wait a very long time to receive feedback from other committee members.  So, I decided to seek out fellow students’ feedback — some because they do similar work, and others could comb my writing for clarity and grammatical errors.  And, while I awaited feedback for one chapter, I moved on to the next.  I left writing the conclusion for last, and drew heavily from my dissertation proposal for the introductory chapter.

I have heard of others who join a writing group, something that proves particularly useful at this last, hyper-independent stage.  I flirted with the idea.  But, I thought about reading pages and pages of another student’s dissertation-in-progress — I did not have the time or energy.  This stage proved to be the most selfish and self-serving.  I asked others to read my work and provide feedback, but I could not offer anything in return.  But, once they reach that stage in future years, I can finally offer in return.  I suspect a writing group can help if you have already established one.  I would advise against starting anything new at this point.

I strongly recommend isolating yourself to finish.  Fortunately/unfortunately, the department automatically backs away.  But, other students may not know to leave you be.  If you can, work at home or the library.  BUT!  You have to counterbalance this self-imposed isolation with taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.  If you do not have friends or colleagues checking up on you, reach out to someone.  Go out every once in a while.  Leave the house every other day.  Go for walks.  Have some regularly schedule time that is a non-negotiable break (you know, like “weekends”), and take part or all of spring break off.  Seriously!  Your brain will need to recharge.

Although I suggest cutting off all other professional obligations, it may help to have some other mental stimuli.  There were days that my brain felt like mush.  And, I found sitting in isolation in my apartment, looking at Stata output and folders full of articles — all in the name of social science — ironic and a tad depressing.  And, the constant self-censorship required for academic writing — “race discrimination” not “racism” — was exhausting, and threatened to impede my writing.  So, I continued to blog, an outlet in which I was not constrained.  Others have recommended blogging as a way to prevent writer’s block during the dissertation writing stage.  I know well the professional risks, and some simply are not comfortable blogging, so any kind of writing may suffice — private journaling, poetry, spoken word, sending thank you letters, etc.  You may find it useful to attend one campus event or talk, or even one per month, to ensure that you 1) interact with other humans, 2) are forced to shower, 3) are forced to walk, 4) are forced to breathe fresh air and see sunlight, and 5) are seen by others so that there is proof you are still alive.

A Note On A “Done Dissertation”

The most helpful advice I received to finish my dissertation was that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.”  So, as my committee expressed concern that one year to finish and secure a job was not enough time to write a “great” dissertation, I scoffed because it would sit on a shelf along side everyone else’s good, but completed dissertation.  And, when the time finally came just to write the damn thing, perfection as the primary goal gave way to completion.  And, if you have not heard this before, know that finishing does not mean by your standards (per se), by a journal editor’s or book publisher’s standards, or even your discipline’s standards.  You are finished with your dissertation when your dissertation committee has decided it is finished; they are the sole gatekeepers whom you must satisfy at this stage.  If they say to add something you do not agree with, add it — you can quickly remove it when you go to publish from your dissertation research.  (Or, if it’s a secondary committee member, ask your chair if she thinks you need to add it.  If yes, than do so and eliminate it post-dissertation.)

Hopefully, you will publish something from your dissertation research later on.  So, I want to suggest that having something a little more than a “done dissertation” may prove beneficial down the road.  I pushed back against my committee’s suggestion to produce a traditional, seamless dissertation, instead opting for an overarching introduction and conclusion, but otherwise distinct empirical chapters.  I followed what some call the “three paper/chapter model.”  At the start of my new job, I was able to send these chapters out with very little editing.  If all I had was empirical chapters that reviewed results with little front end and conclusion, it would take more time to extract these as distinct manuscripts.  Fortunately, my committee came around to the idea, as it was not the department’s norm.  If they do not allow you to take this approach, do as much as you can to make the chapters distinct to minimize work later on.  By today’s high standards for productivity, you cannot afford to waste time writing a magnus opus of a dissertation that does not easily translate into a book or a set of published articles!

Finishing

Your committee, department, and/or university may have a set amount of time to send your committee your final draft before you defend.  I have heard 2 weeks is minimal, so I aimed for one month to be generous.  This is the first (or second) and last time you will have 4-5 experts sitting before to give feedback to improve your work and set your future research agenda.  You definitely want to give them enough time, considering their busy schedules, to thoroughly read your 200-500 page “baby.”  For me, the one-month window coincided with how far in advance I had to announce my upcoming defense.  Also, if I were behind schedule, I would still be giving my committee a generous 3-week window.

Be sure to have factored in time to actually proofread your work!  And, create a plan for printing and delivering your dissertation to each committee member in advance.  Having a mini panic attack at the local Kinko’s as you try to get copies to your committee before the department closes at 4pm, and being told “that’s $170” to print 5 copies, is not fun.

During the time leading up to your defense, I advise one of two things.  Leave this time to take care of the tedious formatting that your university requires for filed dissertations.  Or, if you have already done this, work on a project you have neglected over the semester, only returning to your dissertation the day before your defense.  Do not revise the content of your dissertation during this time!  After your (successful!) defense, you will have tons of changes to make before you can file your dissertation with the college — and, your chair may want to approve the final document, too.  Give yourself this time to take a bit of a break, at least to do mindless things or turn your attention to other projects.

Me - Looking Up

Looking Ahead

One of the greatest achievements of your career (and your life!) will end in the most anticlimactic, underwhelming way.  You go from securing a job (woohoo!), to finishing a draft of your dissertation (almost there!), to graduating (symbolic, at best!), to successfully defending (“Doctor” finally, but not really!), to submitting your dissertation to the college.  Three months later you get your diploma.  And, a month or two after that, you get copies of your dissertation, if you purchase them.  When you are officially, officially done, it seems your milestone is already old news.  I strongly recommend celebrating each and every step of finishing.

I had family come out for graduation in early May, including a family dinner.  But, it did not feel “real” just yet because I had not even defended yet.  By the time I filed and moved for my new job, I was ready to move on — or so I thought.  I declined my mother’s repeated request to have a big family celebration — I was one of few to get a master’s degree, and the first to get a PhD on her side of the family (and, one of very few on my father’s side, too).  “I don’t need all of this fuss about me; we already celebrated,” I insisted.  But, in finding no fanfare for this major achievement as I started my new job, it became clear that I had not properly celebrated.  A few weeks in, saying “you know, I’m proud of myself” out loud brought out an ugly cry that let me know I needed to do something to celebrate.  This is trickier than college, which ends with graduation and a graduation party with family and/or friends, because graduation precedes actually finishing your dissertation and having your degree conferred by the college.  So, make sure you celebrate at some point, if not every point!

Leave yourself enough time to properly move.  Set a deadline to file your dissertation and wrap up any other loose ends, and then turn your attention fully to moving.  And, once moved, give yourself time to explore your new home.  Sure, you should make an effort to hit the ground running at your new job.  But, you will benefit from having roots settled when the semester picks up.  Get a driver’s license, update mailing addresses, register to vote, find a new doctor and dentist — all of those things that become annoyances later on when you are very busy!  And, frankly, it is okay to take some time off to recharge your battery before starting the new job.  If your field typically holds conferences over the summer, it may be fine to take a year off.  (I went, but partially regretted it because of the costs, and I was too exhausted to network properly, and I had not yet shifted into “professor” mode — so I felt I wasted the time there.)

Once you do officially start your new job, which I recommend comes a couple of weeks (even a month or so) before the semester starts, take the time to prep your courses and get research moving.  Your first semester will be a busy, stressful time of adjustment.  If you start getting your “ducks in a row” early, you can coast a bit when the semester starts to overwhelm you.  By the latter half of the semester, you will thank yourself for your late summer productivity.

Please read this!  Of all of the things I wish I had known going into the final semester of graduate school, the most regrettable was not thinking ahead financially.  Your meager stipend or fellowship will likely run out by the end of this semester, and then you will have no income until September or even October.  That means living and moving on zero income over the summer!  As much as you can, try to save beginning today!  Hopefully, you negotiated with your new job for some sort of compensation for moving.  If not, ask about it immediately.  I suppose there are many things you will not know, but the financial crunch at this stage seems too pressing of an issue to (unintentionally) keep quiet.

Recap

So, here are the deadlines you will either need to set, self-impose, or for which to account in your scheduling:

  • How long you will give yourself to write, revise, and complete each chapter
  • When to factor in soliciting and incorporating feedback from your chair, other committee members and/or friends and other colleagues
  • How far in advance you need to apply for graduation, book travel and hotel for visiting family and friends, and rent or purchase graduation regalia
  • Allowing yourself enough time to coordinate each committee member’s schedule.  Keep in mind some leave on the first flight after their last class of the spring semester!
  • How far in advance you must provide your committee with the final draft of your dissertation for your defense
  • How far in advance you must officially announce your dissertation defense
  • Time to go through the detailed instructions for properly formatting your dissertation before filing
  • How far in advance you must file your dissertation, and if there are special circumstances
  • Time to house-hunt and then move
  • Time to properly recover, relax, and recharge before beginning your new job

And, the expenses — some (or all!) of which come right out of your own pocket:

  • Typical living expenses
  • Graduation regalia, transportation and lodging for visiting family, graduation dinner
  • Printing drafts of your dissertation (unless you print them on campus)
  • Submitting, binding, and printing your final dissertation
  • Transportation and lodging for a house-hunting trip, if you make one before moving
  • Rental truck, boxes, storage, and other costs associated with moving
  • Security deposit, first month’s rent, and any other initial expenses once you have moved (e.g., turning on power, groceries, driver’s license)

Others’ Advice

As I often do, I conclude with others’ advice and perspectives in recognizing that I can only speak for myself.

5 thoughts on “Advice For The Final Semester Of Grad School

  1. This is all so true. Excellent and important post.

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  2. Great advice. Sharing this with my cohort.

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  3. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | Underestimated

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