How to Help Your Doctoral Student Complete Their Dissertation
Ah, the dissertation! The seemingly never-ending last step to degree completion that puts the terminal into terminal degree. Four years ago when my husband decided to pursue his doctorate I gave him a strict deadline: 2.5 years of classes and 1 year of dissertation work. For some this can go on for years. For us one year has been more than enough. The writing, the late nights, the literature, the research, the writing, the late nights, the statistics, the weekends, the holidays, the writing, the late nights, the procrastination, the mental blocks, the writing, the late nights, the distractions, the edits; all of it has been at times more than we thought we could bear.
But this week, today actually, the final edit gets turned in and we--I mean he--are/is done! I am breathing a big sigh of relief and feel like after all this hard work I have learned something that I too must share: How to help your doctoral student complete their dissertation. I have adapted my thoughts from this article for academic advisors.
First, Make Them Write
For a while there in November, December, January (heck until 2 weeks ago!) I was thinking it wasn’t going to happen. He was gone all the time and the list of dissertation to-do’s was getting longer instead of shorter. The research kept getting rearranged and new statistical methods being applied. He was talking to a lot of people but he wasn’t writing.
Kerry Ann Rockquemore advises “For a wide range of reasons, the hardest thing for doctoral students to do is the one thing that will actually lead to a completed dissertation: sit their butt down and write!”
My strategy for making him write has evolved over the course of the dissertation. At first it was important for me to give him time to write. He needed the hours to get in the right frame of mind, to get stuff down, and to stay in that flow as long as possible. I was very careful to not give “curfews” on him or schedule events that would press him for time. If he was writing I wanted to make sure he could continue writing. This worked great for the first couple chapters; that is, until the fun of writing a dissertation wore off.
The next strategy I used was asking for a report on his progress: a simple “how’s it going and where you at?” Followed up every week or so with an offer to do proof-reading. It was a gentle friendly offer of help that also supplied proof of progress for me and a feeling of responsibility to produce for him. This really kept the ball rolling, until it didn’t.
A couple weeks ago he hit a wall. A really big wall. The whole thing was written in penultimate draft form but needed to be gone through with a fine tooth comb; all the chapters finally put together in one and made to be a concise and cohesive whole. That is when I pulled out all the stops and sat by his side. Yes, really. It is hard and overwhelming to look at what you’ve been doing for the past year and perfect it right down to the last subheading, space, and percent; so I sat by his side and looked through his reference books and google searched every last detail. At first it made him uncomfortable and a little self conscious but within the hour that had melted away. The other day I overheard him bragging to a co-worker about how much I had helped him straighten out his statistics.
Perhaps you can think of a few strategies that may work better for you? Ultimately if you want to help your partner finish their dissertation, first, make them write.
Then Eliminate Distractions
As I already mentioned writing takes time. To allow your partner to get the most out of their time help them to eliminate distractions. You can do this by not putting extra demands on their time nor allowing others to put extra demands on them. You can also do this by taking things off your partner’s plate, figuratively and literally.
For us we had a lot of distractions come up in the last month. The car broke down. There were extra demands at work. There were some family scheduling issues that needed ironing out. I made phone calls for him and took over a church service project for him. I enlisted the help of friends to get kids to their scheduled activities. I insisted on taking him to work and picking him up so he didn’t have to worry about fixing his car. I packed him lunches and brought him dinner and snacks so he didn’t have to leave for food.
Distractions can also come in the way of a need for exercise or time away from the project. We planned together for family time that was active play. He decided to turn off his messaging and email alerts while he was “dissertating” and he avoided working on the dissertation in places and at times of day where distraction was inevitable, like at home and in the early afternoon.
Eliminating or lessening distractions is essential in helping your significant other finish their dissertation. What distractions can you help your partner overcome?
And Then Get to Work With Them
You can’t formulate their hypothesis, do their research or create their tables and figures but there’s plenty you can do. Familiarize yourself with their field of study so you can be a worthwhile and easily accessible sounding board. Learn to speed read. Freshen up on your APA (or whatever format style they use) and stats. Be available as a resource for them. They aren’t sure if Figure 1 is supposed to be italicized? Find out for them (it is). They need to know the proper abbreviation for mean? Find out for them (M). They need to know when to use % vs percent? Find out for them (2% vs two percent)! They don’t have time to look up that little piddly junk. They’ve got bigger things to think about, yet those little things still must be taken care of. You can do that for them.
Working alongside my husband this past week has actually turned out to be a really fun project. I brought snacks, we’d turn on music, we worked both together and separately proof-reading and finalizing his work. We debated the relevance of some of the findings and played with ideas for future research together. He felt supported and good about his work and I felt like he was grateful I was helping him stay on track.
Helping your partner with the piddly details of their dissertation helps keep them on track and feel supported in their work. What kind of dissertation help would your significant other appreciate from you?
We will be celebrating tonight though we know his work is not actually done yet. Next up is defending the dissertation and that is still a couple weeks out. I’m sure we will have some more late nights in preparation. I will continue being a support to him encouraging him, clearing distractions and working alongside him where I can. I hope these tips will help you and your doctoral student and if you have other ideas you’d like to share I’d love to hear them!