Ten Strategies for Finishing Your Thesis or Dissertation (On Time!)

Photo by Krzysztof Maksimiuk on Unsplash

In last week’s post, I shared about my own experience writing a 165-page dissertation in graduate school, and talked about some of the common pitfalls students face when jumping this huge academic hurdle. It’s such a stressful, anxiety-provoking, long-term challenge, and everyone responds to the pressure in different ways. In fact, many people…don’t finish their theses or dissertations altogether.

It’s sad (and scary) but true. I have heard horror stories of students who got kicked out of their programs because they took too long to finish. And I know people who never completed their thesis/dissertation at all, even when it was the very last thing standing in the way of getting their degree.  

I never want you to have to go through this.

Which is why in today’s post, I am sharing the top ten strategies that helped me finish my own dissertation on schedule. I truly believe that you can do this, and I want you to succeed!

Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.


Strategy #1: Do a mindfulness meditation before sitting down to work

Cultivating a mindfulness practice while completing a thesis or dissertation can be hugely beneficial. Mindfulness can help us feel less harried, rushed, panicked and reactive – and more present, alert, grounded and focused instead. Doing a brief mindfulness meditation before you sit down to write, research, read, or take notes can change the way you show up and move through the writing process. You can learn more about the definition and benefits of mindfulness here. 

Interested but not sure where to start? Not to worry, because I’ve created a FREE guided mindfulness meditation for you (i.e. someone who is working on their thesis or dissertation). This eight minute meditation can help to slow you down, get grounded, and have you showing up with presence and intention for the work you need to get started on today. And it’s free!

Click here to have the Mindfulness Meditation for Writing Your Thesis or Dissertation sent to your inbox.

Strategy #2: Work with a dissertation chair who matches your productivity style

This is one of the early choices you can make that will set you up for longer-term success. Before you even consider choosing a dissertation/thesis chair, take some time to reflect on your own about the times you have managed to be productive in the past. For example, I work well with lots of small deadlines, and my number one goal for my dissertation was to finish on time. You may like a certain professor’s personality and have great rapport, but that doesn’t mean they are going to give you the type of guidance you need to finish your project. Ask yourself: Do I work best when someone provides me with basic guidelines and lets me take the lead from there? Do I need a chair who stays on top of me and isn’t afraid to apply pressure when needed? 

At my graduate school, we had the opportunity to interview and meet with all the prospective dissertation chairs, then submit our top three choices. Whether your school sets this up for you, or you take this step on your own, make sure to ask prospective chairs about how they like to work. When my dissertation chair told me: “I’m focused on getting students to that finish line with consistent deadlines and progress” I knew I was in the right place. 

Strategy #3: Treat it just like any other paper

I am not saying you shouldn’t take this project seriously – it is serious! But don’t get caught up in the hype, hysteria and mythology that tends to surround The Thesis or The Dissertation. Early on, one of my classmates said to me: “People tend to psych themselves out about this project, but at the end of the day, it’s just another school paper.” When I found myself stressed out, overwhelmed, or blowing the dissertation out of proportion in my head, I remembered what she said, and it helped me keep things in perspective.

Additionally, don’t try to save the world with your thesis or dissertation. Don’t tell yourself this paper is going to change the course of your life or career, make you famous, end world hunger and put a stop to war. If it does, that’s just frosting on the cake! But most likely, your thesis or dissertation is just going to be another volume on the shelf at your school’s library that maybe a few people will ever open. That may sound depressing to some of you, but it’s also liberating to recognize that this one project isn’t going to make or break your entire life. 

Strategy #4: Trick yourself into writing

This is one of my favorite techniques. If you’re paralyzed with anxiety, having trouble getting started, thinking about how “big” this is and how you don’t see any end in sight, try telling yourself you are only going to sit at the computer for 30 minutes, working on one thesis-or-dissertation-related task. Set a timer and know that when it goes off, you are done for the day. Completely. Done. 

What tended to happen when I used this technique was that once I got to the 30 minute mark, I had started to hit my “groove” and…I didn’t want to stop. My brain had acclimated to the work, and I’d built up just enough momentum to keep going. So I would reset my timer and go another round. And another. Sometimes I would sit down to work for only 30 minutes and end up working for a few hours. Newton’s Law of Inertia says that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. If you can “trick” yourself into getting into some small motion, inertia tends to take over. I finished the bulk of my dissertation using this technique. 

Some of you may only need to set that timer for 15 minutes, and some will do better with 45 minutes to an hour. The amount of time that works best will be different for each of you, so experiment with different quantities. 

Strategy #5: Use your favorite positive reinforcement while you work 

Whistle While You Work. A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down. These songs are famous, enduring classics because they speak the truth. If you make your working environment more just a little more palatable, enjoyable, or – dare I say it –  fun? You will be more likely to stick with the task at hand for a longer period of time.

Don’t ask me why, but there was something about chewing Trident Tropical Twist Sugar Free gum while blasting Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA on repeat that kept me going during many a dissertation work-session. For you, it may be a different tasty treat, song, aromatherapy, a certain picture on the wall above your work space, a grounding object, or something else. Choose something that works for you. 

PS: Party in the USA still gets me into an energized and productive mindset to this day, and I’m not embarrassed to admit it! 

Strategy #6: Little Acorns

If you haven’t heard the song Little Acorns by The White Stripes, go and have a listen now, because it’s going to be your anthem. This song reminds us of the power of breaking big tasks into little pieces and checking them off your list, one at a time. A common problem I see with the thesis or dissertation is paralysis caused by overwhelm. If you try to run face-first into this huge task, you will only wind up with…a smashed face. And nobody likes a smashed faced. 

Instead, try to slide into the work you have to do. For example, my dissertation chair had us do Literature Logs in preparation for writing our Literature Reviews. We compiled all the articles we were going to use in our Literature Review sections, and created “cheat sheets” for each of them, including the name of article, author(s), location, summary, notes, etc. In the beginning, she had us complete around five literature logs per week. Once we’d finished about twenty to twenty-five Lit Logs, we started working them into first drafts of our Literature Reviews. After a semester of these steady and consistent little acorns, I had completed an entire draft of my Introduction and Lit Review, and was ready to move on to my Methods section. 

Strategy #7: Set up a buddy system

I had a friend from grad school and we were kindred, introverted, anxious spirits. During the second year of our program (which by all accounts was the most difficult), we would get together at the coffee shop at Borders (remember those?) and study together for hours. 

Like choosing a dissertation chair that matches your productivity style, it helps to find a study buddy who meshes with you. You don’t want to choose someone who will, despite their best intentions, drive you to distraction. You need to be able to work productively alongside one another and not get too caught up in comparison, commiseration or unhealthy competition. 

Your study buddy doesn’t even need to be in your same type of program – in fact, it could be helpful in some respects to choose someone who is pursuing a different track, so you are less tempted to fall prey to comparison or competition of any kind. The key here is to provide and receive accountability for staying on top of your individual goals.  

Strategy #8: Motivate yourself with little (and big) rewards

This one is pretty straightforward:

Set a writing goal for one day. Use Tips #4 , #5 & #9 (the latter if you dare) to help yourself meet said goal. But before you even sit down to work, figure out a reward you will give yourself after you’ve triumphed for the day. Examples of Little Rewards may include things like dinner with a friend, your favorite dessert, watching a movie or a show you love, buying yourself a small, inexpensive gift. 

Big Rewards are for the milestones, such as completing your proposal orals, defending your dissertation/thesis, or even…turning in your dissertation or thesis because it’s DONE! Of course, you will have to decide what a “big reward” looks like for you. 

Strategy #9: Self-apply a diabolically evil behavioral intervention 

Although I haven’t used this intervention myself (yet), I can’t imagine it wouldn’t produce some results. This one is not one for the faint of heart, so you might want to pull out this strategy if you’re really having trouble getting moving. Follow these steps:

  1. Think of your most abhorred, despised political figure, cause or candidate. 
  2. Now, get an envelope and address it to their fundraising or donation headquarters. Put a stamp on the envelope and include your return address. 
  3. For every day you don’t meet your goal in terms of time spent actively working on your dissertation/thesis, put $10 in the envelope. 
  4. At the end of the month, seal and mail the envelope, money included.  
  5. Begin again on the first of next month. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

I told you it was diabolical!

If $10 doesn’t feel like enough to have some skin in the game (we are talking about broke grad and college students here), make it $20. Or $50. Or whatever number makes you cringe. 

If this intervention works and your envelope is empty by the end of the month, give yourself a huge pat on the back – you were able to channel your negative feelings into something positive and productive! You could always celebrate by taking some of the money you might have sent to the political figure/campaign/cause in question and donating it to a cause you love and believe in. 

Or, you know, just put it in savings. 

Strategy #10: When It’s Time, Throw Some Money at the Problem and Get Rid of It

Now, I am not talking about paying someone to write your dissertation for you, although I do understand how that would be tempting! 

There were various points during the completion of my own dissertation when I would have been stuck for quite awhile if I had not decided to spend some money and bring in some help. 

What do I mean? Although I have taken statistics three times in my academic life (AP Stats in high school, Stats in college, and Stats in grad school), I hate math and I did not trust my abilities strongly enough to run the numbers on the data I had collected for my dissertation. I could have tried to “figure it out” on the fly and probably driven myself bonkers in the process, but instead I hired some advanced graduate students in my program to help me out. They crunched my numbers, got me the information I needed, and I was able to piece together the rest. 

Then came the part where I had to rewrite my entire dissertation in APA format after I’d defended it. I’d done my best to stick to APA format up to that point, but I’m not someone who is great with a ton of nitty gritty details. Fortunately, my colleague connected me with an amazing editor who was able to clean up and format my entire dissertation quickly and at an affordable price.   

You may want to go to the administration at your school to see if they have a list of people who can help you with things like statistics and editing. Or you can search the database on the Association for Support of Graduate Students (ASGS). This site is an incredible resource!


So there you have it! I hope these ten strategies are helpful for you. They certainly helped me a lot, but everyone is different, so let me know some of the strategies that have worked for you in the comments. 

Remember that no matter how demoralized, scared, anxious you may feel right now, I believe that you can do this. In the not-too-distant-future, your dissertation or thesis will be in the rear-view mirror of your life, and you’ll be able to think to yourself: “Remember when I had to do that? So glad it’s behind me!”

Don’t forget to download the free guided meditation!

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© 2022 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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