Been in Grad School Longer than Expected? This Blog is for YOU

June 20, 2023


Have you been in graduate school longer than you expected? Maybe your program typically takes five years, but you’re in year six – or year ten, and you haven’t started writing your dissertation. Maybe you’ve stalled out somewhere, and you’re wondering whether to continue? Or maybe you really want to keep going, but you’re getting discouraged, seeing people from your program finishing and starting their jobs, and you’re thinking – this should be me. But it isn’t me. Will it ever be?

That doubt creeps in and you start to question – well – everything. As you see more and more people you know finish, especially those who entered your program well after you did, you begin to think you’ve failed somehow, or that maybe you are just not cut out to do this kind of work. And to make matters worse, your nonacademic family and friends keep asking you “are you still in graduate school?” or “when are you going to finish your dissertation or thesis?” or “why is it taking you so long?”

Are you just so over it?


You are not the only one in graduate school longer than expected. In fact, according to Ilana Kowarski (2019), “the median time for individuals to earn their degree was 7.1 years” in the humanities. And that number is an average. It is not uncommon for PhD programs in the humanities to take eight or more years, and it is also not uncommon for students not to finish their degrees. As Travis Bland notes (2020), almost half of PhD students never finish.

While those statistics may seem sobering, the good news is that you can still finish. You can become one of the half of doctoral students who do finish – even if you are no longer sure you can.


But before we go into how you can get back on track and finish, it’s important to first ask yourself why it’s important to finish.

Remember why finishing matters (or once mattered). What are your reasons for finishing? Are the reasons the same as they were before? (It’s okay if they aren’t). If not, can you think of new reasons to finish? Even if just to close out this chapter of your life? Whether you finish or not is up to you. It is okay to decide not to finish if you think that the cost of finishing is greater than the cost of leaving it alone and walking away. I always think that if you’re at all close to finishing it is best to go ahead and wrap things up, but the answer is different for everyone. Sometimes there is a sunk cost fallacy where we think that we have invested so much time into something that we must see it through. Often that is the case, but there are circumstances where it may be advantageous to cut your losses. Only you can decide. And, if it’s too overwhelming to decide, you can decide not to decide, although if you do that, then you may want to bookmark this page for later, because likely, the question will continue to haunt you until you’ve decided one way or the other.


If you do decide to continue, it’s important to take a realistic and compassionate look at where you are. Take note of all the challenges and stressors (big and small, internal, and external) that have impacted your journey. List out all the stressful events that happened while you were in graduate school. Don’t forget to include all the time you may have spent waiting for feedback from faculty and delays you experienced due to issues in your program or university that have been beyond your control. Once you have them in front of you, think about how challenging each one of those factors was and what you would say to someone in your situation. Think about the compassionate response you would give to that person. Would you berate them for taking so long, given everything they’ve been through? Probably not, right? We’re often kinder to others than we are to ourselves.


As you are holding compassionate space for yourself, also be wary of comparing your journey to that of others. Remember that graduate students operate in a variety of contexts. Other students may not have gone through the same challenges you’ve gone through or have the same ongoing responsibilities. They may be at different stages of life where they have more time and energy to focus on their graduate work. They have different access to resources, different research projects, varying levels of faculty support, different life circumstances, etc.

Also, every project is different. Your dissertation may just be more complex than others and take more time. Maybe you have more interviews, for example, and therefore far more material to code and synthesize. All of this matters. It’s one reason why programs do not necessarily give deadlines or projected dates of completion – because there are far too many factors and variables at play to predict when someone will finish. So cut yourself some slack, because it may just be that the scope of your dissertation is greater than the scope of someone else’s.


Remember the trail of work you have accomplished. It is so easy to forget, under-appreciate, and dismiss what you have already accomplished. But if you are close to defending a defense proposal or if you have finished comprehensive exams or qualifiers and are starting your literature review, you have already done so much work. Have you finished your coursework? That’s huge.

Wherever you are on the journey, look back and see how far you’ve come. Remember when you were just a first-year student in undergrad. Think about how far you came in your undergraduate years. Think about how much progress you made in one, two, or three years, and visualize yourself making the same kind of progress in the next few months or the next year. You can do this. If you are at this point, you have the skillset. Promise!


It is very easy to compensate for how long it is taking to finish your dissertation or thesis by doing things like collecting more data, adding another chapter, or trying to perfect your writing. You may feel like you need to compensate for the extra time it has taken by doing something extra or above and beyond. You may want to do something special as a way of explaining the years to your committee and peers and as a way to justify it for yourself, but you do not need to do this. Now, more than ever, it’s important that you just get it done.

A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A done dissertation is a good dissertation. Repeat that mantra over and over again. Print it out and put it on your wall. Write it on a whiteboard, save it to your phone. Do whatever you can to avoid trying to write the impossible perfect dissertation as a way of justifying the length of time you’ve taken.


As you resume the journey, think of it as getting back on a train you’ve stepped off. You don’t need to race to catch the other train. You don’t need to get on a jet and catch up to your peers. You just need to finish. And you need to believe you can finish. Try to clear your mind of all the “but if I’d” and “if only” and “I wish” and “this should have” and focus on the now.

It is now. And you can do this. You can do it in the here and now. Only you can continue your journey, and you can only complete it in the way you can.


Finally, if you are too afraid to get started or just need help reconnecting with the work, you may want to seek help to re-engage with it. You can talk to a trusted and non-judgmental friend or find a therapist who specializes in helping academics in their journeys. Or you can work with a dissertation coach, who is not a therapist, but trained to listen and help you figure out your next steps.

You can also join a coworking community like The Academic Writing Space, where you will find many like-minded individuals, people who care about the completion of long term projects and hold compassionate space for each other and themselves. The important thing is to find someone or a group of people who will not judge you for how long you have been on your journey but will receive you as and how you are.

You can do this. You’ve started this journey. Now. Let’s finish it.