It’s the End of the Semester. Is Your Dissertation Buried Under a Mountain of Grading?

May 10, 2024

BY KATHRYN PETERSON, PHD

It’s that time of year again. Papers are due, finals loom, and your dissertation is . . . somewhere. Maybe it’s a file in your One Drive or a folder in your Google drive. Maybe it’s on your laptop. Maybe the hard copy version of your last chapter is sitting somewhere under a mountain of printed out articles, waiting for you to revise it according to your advisor’s comments. Wherever it is, unless you’re in the process of finishing and defending, it’s most likely not at the forefront of your mind. And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay if your dissertation isn’t getting the TLC it deserves right now.

Let’s face it, the end of the semester is a chaotic vortex. Grading, office hours, existential dread about finals week – it’s all so much. Prioritizing your immediate responsibilities is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of sanity!

Now, before you resign yourself to a few weeks of semester-chaos-induced despair, let’s get real about what you can accomplish. Here’s the thing: expecting yourself to churn out dissertation chapters while drowning in grading is a recipe for burnout. So, take a deep breath, and let’s reset your expectations for the next few weeks.

What CAN you do?

Decide, don’t slide. Decide whether or not you are going to work on your dissertation at all during this time, or if it is better to knock the other items you have to do off the list. Both approaches have pros and cons. It can be good to touch the dissertation a little bit while you’re in the throes of finishing the semester, but if that’s not possible right now, it’s better to acknowledge that and make a game plan for getting back into the dissertation after you submit grades or finish writing those final papers.

If you decide to go that route, it’s best to choose a date to return to your research. Decide on that date, put it in your calendar, and put a reminder for a couple of days before so that it doesn’t slip up on you. You may want to choose a day other than a Monday, so that it feels less pressured. It doesn’t really matter what day you choose as long as it is a day that feels doable and isn’t too far in the future.

What if you DO want to work on the dissertation?

This is the time to focus on a minimal viable product and aim for small, maintainable goals. Adjust your standards. Instead of aiming for a full chapter, set a goal for a specific section or a focused literature review, and aim to get a very drafty draft out of it. Or, if you are in revision mode, choose a few revision tasks and focus on those. Don’t try to make too many revisions at once. Bite-sized tasks are more achievable and less daunting during this hectic time.

Schedule sprints. Block out dedicated dissertation time, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day. Treat this time like a sacred ritual – silence notifications, stash away distractions, and get down to business.

Identify Small Tasks and “Mindless” Tasks that can be done quickly and/or when you are doing other things. Maybe there are aspects of your research that don’t require that much focus. This end of the semester period can be a good time to work on those. Maybe you can put on music and write captions on images or make charts or graphs instead of engaging in the mentally intense work of drafting. Or, if you like writing and hate making images, do the reverse. Find whatever is low hanging fruit for you, and pick that fruit.

Don’t be afraid to delegate! Can a research assistant help with data entry or formatting? Can you outsource time-consuming tasks like transcription? Delegating frees up your mental space for the more strategic aspects of your dissertation.

Setting Yourself Up for Summer Success

Schedule a dissertation kick-off day. Once the semester madness subsides, dedicate a day to planning your summer research. Review progress, set realistic goals, and block out focused writing time in your calendar. You can make it fun, too. Get yummy snacks and beverages and even crayons and colorful markers. Use whatever helps make your research and writing feel less like a chore and more like a space where you can retreat and indulge your curiosity and creativity.

Find your accountability buddy. Pair up with another dissertation warrior and check in regularly. Sharing your goals and struggles can keep you motivated and focused. If you think you may need specialized help, you can also check out our team at The Dissertation Coach. We are ready to guide you and celebrate you.

Reward yourself! Completing dissertation milestones deserves celebration. Plan small rewards for reaching your goals – a fancy coffee, a day at the beach, a hike in the mountains, a guilt-free afternoon spent reading for pleasure, or even that new pair of workout shoes you’ve been eyeing (because let’s be honest, this process may involve a lot of pacing!).

Remember, the dissertation marathon is a long game.

Don’t get discouraged by a slow start during the end of semester crunch. By managing your expectations, prioritizing your tasks, and setting yourself up for success, you’ll be well on your way to a productive and dissertation-driven summer. Now, go forth and conquer that mountain of grading. Your dissertation awaits.