So You’re Not Going to Finish Your Dissertation This Semester?

March 15, 2024

BY KATHRYN PETERSON, PHD

It’s okay. Take a deep breath. Let it out.

Anyone who has ever written a dissertation has been there. We’ve all at some point stared down the ever-looming deadline of the dissertation, feeling the weight of those uncompleted chapters and the dread of the oral defence. You might be feeling a mix of emotions: disappointment, frustration, maybe even a flicker of panic. But before you spiral into self-flagellation, let’s hit the pause button. Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan, especially in the unpredictable world of academia, and it’s not always even your fault.

There is a lot about the dissertation process that is not in your control. You can’t control if you suddenly lost access to your data and had to shift the direction of your research. You can’t control if an experiment didn’t turn out the way you expected or if the writing process is just taking longer than you anticipated. And sometimes life just happens. We get sick, our partner gets a job in a new city, or someone close to us dies. A PhD takes a lot of time — and it’s unrealistic to expect that that time will pass without at least one personal crisis or major life event. Add that to the fact that we’re still coming out of a pandemic, and it becomes important to acknowledge that there are systemic challenges and global contexts that have slowed many of us.

Here’s the thing: a delay doesn’t have to derail your entire journey. It can be an opportunity to reassess, refocus, and emerge even stronger. Instead of dwelling on the missed deadline, let’s explore some productive ways to move forward:

Accept The Missed Deadline and Give Yourself a Chance to Grieve

Denial is tempting, but it won’t help. If you’re in a situation where there is just no way you’re going to be done, panicking and trying to rush to finish may actually be the worst possible move. It’s better to be honest with yourself and accept that for whatever reason, this deadline did not work. Maybe something happened to prevent you from finishing. Maybe it wasn’t realistic in the first place. Either way, it’s important to accept reality rather than fighting it, and to give yourself a little space to grieve. You really wanted to finish this semester, and it’s not happening. It’s okay. When you’re on the other side, you won’t care as much about this. But right now, it feels icky, and that’s okay too.

Communicate with Your Advisor About the Situation

Talk to your advisor about the situation. Open communication is key to navigating this bump in the road. If you are far enough along that you were thinking of defending this semester, you may also need to communicate with your committee members. Most likely, unless you are up against departmental time constraints, your advisor and committee will be happy to work with you.

It’s pretty common for doctoral students to miss deadlines and to delay defenses and graduations. It’s difficult to know how long a task will take, and often the deadlines suggested by the department or university are unrealistic, even akin to magical thinking, especially for those who work full time outside of the program and/or have families. You will not be the first or the last person to ask for more time.

When you talk with your advisor, be careful of being apologetic. It’s much better to be factual and say “I’m looking at what I need to do and I just don’t think I can make it this semester. Here’s my plan for finishing next semester.” By focusing on the positive and the forward movement, you give the committee less time to think about what didn’t happen and shift the conversation to what will happen.

Identify What Caused You To Miss The Deadline

What factors contributed to the delay? Was it unexpected challenges, difficulty with time management, or a shift in your research direction? Did life get in the way? Recognizing the root cause helps you develop solutions. If you experienced a health crisis or a major life change, you may want to give yourself grace and compassion, while at the same time thinking about how you might respond differently if something similar comes up in the future. We don’t necessarily want to plan for a catastrophe, but having a “just in case” plan can help you adjust more easily if something else happens.

Revisit Your Timeline, Adding Space To Your Schedule

Adjust your deadlines realistically. Talk to your advisor about creating a revised timeline that factors in the delay and allows for manageable milestones. If possible, think about the time you will need to finish and then double it. We often overestimate what we can do in a given timeframe, because it’s difficult to wrap our heads around the scope of a long project like a dissertation. By building in some cushion time or wiggle room, you can set yourself up for meeting your deadlines and allow for those life emergencies that might get in the way.

Prioritize and Refocus

What are the most critical tasks you need to complete? Can you list them all? Or at least list the ones that will get you to the next milestone? It will feel less daunting if you break down your dissertation into smaller, achievable goals and focus on tackling them one by one. For example, let’s say you’re updating your literature review and drafting and developing your findings chapter. Write “update literature review” as a header and then make a bulleted list of the things that you need to do to get that literature review in a state someone can read and review it. Write “draft findings chapter” as another header and do the same.

You may need to choose one over the other to focus on for the next week or two. Or you can make a plan to do the heavier lifting — which is likely the new writing — at your best writing time, while scheduling a couple of other sessions during the week for the literature review tasks. The idea though is to break things down so that you can take the next steps towards finishing your dissertation. That movement will help you gain momentum and get back your confidence so that you are not completely deflated and so that you won’t be in the same position next semester.

Seek Support From Those Who Have Been There

Don’t go it alone. Talk to your advisor, fellow graduate students, or even a therapist who has familiarity with the dissertation process. Having a supportive network can make a world of difference.

Remember, this setback doesn’t define you or your potential. It’s simply a redirection. By acknowledging the delay, taking responsibility, and adjusting your approach, you can still achieve your academic goals. So, take a deep breath, dust yourself off, and get ready to tackle your dissertation with renewed focus and determination. You’ve got this!