Stop Dissertation Perfectionism in its Tracks

February 14, 2019

Perfectionism is a very common obstacle to productivity among graduate students. Perfectionism is generally defined as maintaining standards that are unrealistically high and impossible to attain. Some students impose excessively high standards for their writing that are unrealistic and unattainable. For example, many students believe they should be able to write a first draft that is ready to be reviewed by their advisor. Other students believe that their dissertation chairperson, committee members, or other academics hold extremely high standards for their work that must be met to avoid disapproval. In response to their excessive standards or those they believe are being imposed by others, perfectionistic students often struggle to maintain their motivation and productivity. The pressure of living up to unrealistic standards can actually diminish the eagerness and desire to work because the emphasis on performing well is so great.

The Pursuit of Perfection

When it comes to carrying out a dissertation, many students believe that if they are perfect and do not make any mistakes, they can be in control and protect themselves from seeming or being flawed. If you pursue perfection, it is likely to be your way of ensuring that you avoid exposing your perceived inadequacies. The pursuit of perfection may also be a way for you to maintain a sense of control and quell the uncertainty and anxiety inherent in the dissertation process. Seeking perfection, however, is an elusive goal that only gives you the illusion of control. No matter how many beautifully crafted sentences you write or how well you analyze and interpret your findings or argue your central thesis, you will likely still be able to find flaws with your work (and so will others). In life, we cannot protect others from seeing that we are not perfect (and in real life people rarely expect you to be perfect). Nor can we avoid seeing our own fallible nature. It is virtually impossible to write a dissertation that is above criticism. In fact, striving to conduct and write a perfect dissertation would likely require such great effort that other parts of your life (e.g., health, well-being, and relationships) would suffer. Writing a perfect dissertation will not lead to redemption where all concerns and feelings of inadequacy are permanently banished from your life. You will just earn a PhD and believe that your next endeavor needs to be even more perfect.

It is important to keep in mind that faculty members will almost certainly suggest that you make some changes or encourage you to think about your work in different ways (especially when you are developing a dissertation proposal). Receiving feedback and being asked to modify your work is a normal part of the dissertation process. You would be better off expecting feedback, rather than striving for perfection. Remember, you have the capacity to handle feedback, even if it feels like criticism when you receive it. Paradoxically, striving for perfection can be like sentencing yourself to always underperforming, to always being insufficient and never being able to measure up to what are actually unrealistic and unreasonable expectations and standards. Most perfectionists would not expect of others what they expect of themselves (although there are some perfectionists who have excessive standards for others). Yet if you are a perfectionist, you likely pursue this goal to the exclusion of reason and the advice of others.

When it comes to writing, perfectionism has a particularly potent and negative effect on students ability to build momentum and write productively. If your aim is perfection (especially when writing a first draft), you block your ability to let ideas flow and build momentum. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird  (1994) described perfectionism as “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft” (p. 28). I have witnessed countless students struggling to write a first draft stifled by the pursuit of perfection.

Shut Down Excess “Writing Programs”

Here is an analogy to put the impact of perfection on writing into perspective. Think about your experiences working with computers. You have probably had the experience of using a computer when you had a large number of software programs open simultaneously. Perhaps the computer started running slowly, you had to reboot the system because it was freezing up, or it crashed and shut down entirely. Something similar happens to your ability to build and sustain momentum when you write. Writing a dissertation is, by definition an involved, complex task. If we stick with the computer program analogy, we could describe writing a dissertation as involving many types of writing programs. Often when you run too many writing programs, you start writing in a slow and halting manner, you freeze up and shut down, moving into procrastination and avoidance mode. Examples of common writing programs you may be using when you write are:

    • Determine what I want to say about specific existing research or particular theories
    • Transform research materials including primary and secondary sources into my own words
    • Make sure I don’t plagiarize
    • Clearly explain existing theories, concepts, and/or existing research findings
    • Synthesize my own ideas with previous research
    • Cite my references
    • Write well-formed, intelligent-sounding sentences
    • Use correct spelling and grammar
    • Be creative in how I express ideas
    • Create good transition between sentences, paragraphs, and chapter sections
    • Cite enough research to build a case for my study
    • Clearly articulate the purpose of my study
    • Make sure my argument is strong
    • Make sure my writing is well organized
    • Worry about what faculty will think, whether I will pass my defense, or if I will be able to get a job.

Imagine sitting down to write with many of these writing programs running simultaneously. That is a lot of strain on your system. You may come to dread writing, putting it off as long as possible or struggle to develop and maintain momentum. Perfectionists usually try to write with all or far too many writing programs open at once. They often hope that if they can just write the first draft perfectly enough, they will not have to go back and edit anything or be seen as incompetent or inadequate. Yet writing, especially academic writing is challenging. You will need to write and revise your work over time. Striving for perfection especially in the early stages of writing is a surefire way to shut down your system.

Anytime writing is not going well, examine the expectations you have of yourself. Are you making excessive demands? Are you expecting too much for a first draft? Do you believe that you should be able to write prolifically, sailing through paragraphs without stopping? Do you believe that other people write with ease and that only incompetent or inadequate people struggle? Are you using a particular writing program at the wrong time in the writing process such as worrying about transitions and grammar or what your committee will think of your work when you write your first draft?

The guideline I give most students is to begin writing a first draft with only a few writing program open at a time. For example, if you are writing a literature review the first and second programs you may want to open are the determine what I want to say about specific existing research or particular theories and clearly explain existing theories, concepts, and/or existing research findings programs. Third, you may want to open the make sure I don’t plagiarize and cite my references program. Resist the temptation to use the what will my advisor think program at this point. Go back after the basic content is down and improve the draft using various writing programs as needed. Get feedback from others when you are stuck (this is a very important and often neglected writing program). Keep writing, even if your first few drafts are not very good. Be willing to make a mess. A mess gives you something to clean up and improve. If you keep writing and revising your work and seek input from others when appropriate, your writing will improve over time.

Let Go

Letting go of perfectionism requires replacing excessive demands with more reasonable preferences, wishes, and wants. Letting go of perfectionism ultimately means that you need to find a way to trust that your writing and your dissertation are evolving over time. Your work in any given day may not seem satisfactory but if you hang in there, keep writing, revising, and integrating the input of others (e.g., your advisor and committee members), you will eventually have a product of sufficient quality to earn a doctoral degree. It may be a messier road than you might like but a messier road may be a quicker and actually less painful road than a perfectly paved one.