Don’t Let Procrastination Kill Your Dissertation – 14 Cures

ABD. – it’s an acronym that only doctoral students will know. It stands for “All but Dissertation.” In other words, students complete approximately 80 credit hours of graduate coursework and then fail to write their dissertations. Unfortunately, there is no “ABD” degree. There is only that Ph.D., which comes once the dissertation is completed and approved. And some statistics show that, of the 50% of students who do not complete Ph.D. programs, well over half do not because their dissertations were never completed.


This stat is pretty disturbing. Considering the time and money spent getting through a doctoral program, it is hard to believe that students just “up and quit” with only that last major project. Yet they do. And among the reasons for this amount of attrition are the following:

  • Not enough support from faculty/advisor
  • A disconnect with the academic community once coursework is finished and the student is on his/her own for that dissertation – it’s lonely
  • Taking full-time employment and beginning/having a family that precludes having sufficient structured time to work on a dissertation

But by far, the biggest impediment to finishing that dissertation is the big “P” word – procrastination. And if this is you, then you need to find some cures as soon as possible. Here are ____ you should try.

1. Get Your Research Question Refined ASAP

You may have determined your general topic area, and that’s a good thing. However, there is this pause that often occurs between that general topic and actually refining it down to that single research question you intend to explore. The longer you wait to do this, the more unsure you become about that topic. It’s so easy to say, “I am still thinking about it.” If you are struggling, then do some more reading until something piques your interest or discuss it with your advisor. Just make certain that the research question is one that you have a passion for – if you pick something based only on someone else’s suggestion, you will not be excited. Lack of excited leads to procrastination.

2. Get That Proposal to Your Committee

Here’s why this is important. Crafting the proposal will help you gather your thoughts and solidify what you intend to do your research. The faster you can get that in the better. But, at the same time, do not rush and produce a document that is incomplete. There are very specific elements to a proposal, so follow those department guidelines. The problem with proposals is that they are often not approved the first time through – this is discouraging, and can cause procrastination. Rather than engaging in a self-pity party, get some help. You may not be able to just say, “write my dissertation proposal,” to someone else, you can get some professional help from one who has solid experience in proposal writing.

3. Break Down That Literature Review

This can be the most tedious part of the entire project. And it can be frustrating. You may review a lot of abstracts and pull up research that you believe will be a great fit. Once you have gotten into the piece, though, you find that it is not really relevant enough. Back to the drawing board, you go. Trying to run marathon literature review sessions over long hours and many days will burn you out, and procrastination will set in. To avoid this, break it up. Alternate literature review days with other work on the project. You have your research design and instruments, and you can do both the review and your research activities in conjunction with one another. This will give you enough variety to keep you from tiring of the literature search.

4. Hold Yourself Accountable

One of the best things you can do to avoid procrastination is to gather a group of dissertation writers together and agree to meet on a regular basis. Share exactly what each of you will have competed in the next meeting. There is a psychological aspect to this – you have committed to something, and you will not want to “disappoint” those to whom you have made the commitment.

5. Write Every Day

When you look at the long haul, you see that it is normal for a dissertation to take about 12-18 months to complete. With such a long-time frame, it is easy to spend time on other daily obligations and tasks with shorter deadlines and to tell yourself that you have “plenty of time” for your dissertation – maybe next week, maybe over Christmas break, and so on. This is a formula for non-completion. And the worst of all of it? Most institutions will give seven years for completion before they “terminate” a candidate. If you commit to writing every day if only for 45 minutes, you will develop a habit that results in ultimate completion within that 12-18-month timeline.

6. Stop Looking at the Big Picture

One of the reasons that ABD students give for never finishing their dissertations is that it just seems so overwhelming. Yes, it is, if you only look at the big picture. Instead, break it down. What tasks will you complete this next week? Focus only on those and stop thinking about next month or how you will complete your statistical analysis. That’s in the future, and you are working in the “now.”

7. Set Up a Reward System

Once you have your tasks broken down into week-long chunks, and once you have made those weekly commitments to your fellow dissertation writers, figure out what you will do to reward yourself when you reach those interim goals. A weekend road trip, a night out with friends or partner, that new video game you have been coveting – all of these things can serve as motivators to stay on track.

8. Set Regular Meetings with Your Advisor

It’s embarrassing to go to a meeting unprepared. If you set regular meetings with your advisor and must report on your progress, you will work harder to ensure that you have progress to report. Your advisor can help you set deadlines and benchmarks.

9. Identify Your Support System and Enlist Them

You have friends and family members who want to see you finish your project. Enlist a few of them to contact you often to check on your progress. And when you are in the throes of procrastination, contact them for a pep talk. Just talking out your frustration or lack of motivation can help you psychologically.

10. Identify Your Productive Time

Everyone’s biological “clock” is different. At what time of day or night are you most productive? Once you have identified this, then set your daily writing time during those hours. You will get more done.

11. Know Your Optimum Environment

If you have been in school for many years, and obviously you have been, you know your best working environment. Set up that environment for work on your dissertation. Do you need music? Do you need it warmer than usual? Do you need to snack while working? Maybe a coffee shop away from home is better for you. Get into that environment every day that you write.

12. Get Up and Move



If you find yourself unable to focus, it’s easy to just sit and daydream your time away. This is a prime culprit of procrastination. Instead, get up and move in some way. Take a walk, put on some music and dance; cook something; clean your workspace.

All of these things will provide mental breaks that allow you to re-focus when you get back to your workspace.

13. Lose the perfectionism

This is a common psychological tactic of procrastinators. They insist that what they write must be perfect and so they put off writing. Make a conscious decision that what you write does not have to be perfect – it just has to be workable. Sections of dissertations will be re-written several times anyway, so just write and worry about the “perfect” grammar and structure later.

14. Use Self-Talk

There is value in self-encouragement. One thing you might try is this: “Lots of others have faced their dissertations and have finished them – people who are not as skilled as I am. If they can do it, so can I.”


Make no mistake about it. Dissertations are tough to work. No one goes through producing one without agony, anxiety, frustration, and discouragement. But there are “highs” in the process too. Focus on those “highs,” use these 13 tactics, and you will ultimately finish it. It’s the difference between completing a lot of coursework with no big reward (that degree) and completing that one final project, walking down that graduation aisle, and having a piece of parchment that demonstrates your knowledge, expertise, and commitment.

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