One decade as ABD. Ten years in an academic wormhole. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, more than half of humanities doctoral students remain ABD for years, stymied by the daunting task of completing the dissertation.
The average PhD completion rate across disciplines is low, with approximately 57 percent of students finishing in ten years. However, earning a terminal degree in the humanities proves even more time-consuming as roughly 49 percent finish in the same time period. This discouraging statistic stems from an assortment of hindrances, including: financial difficulties, the timeliness of qualitative writing, family responsibilities, absent advisors, writer’s block, etc.
A more positive—yet nevertheless challenging—obstacle is starting a job while still needing to complete the dissertation. Although occurring with less frequency, some sport history students may find themselves in an academic job as an ABD. When I applied for a position at Lynchburg College, I had barely finished comps and just defended my dissertation proposal. Fortunately, I was hired as an ABD. Yet, it was also made explicitly clear that I had one year to turn those “all but” letters into a terminal degree. While this was a more pleasant hurdle to overcome than unemployment, the situation still presented difficulties and stresses. Here is advice I accrued during the process that helped me successfully dissertate while on the job.
Know Your Timeframe
As I sat in the dean’s office for my on-campus interview, she looked over my CV and asked when I intended to finish my dissertation. Feigning confidence and smiling brightly, I said “hopefully next spring.” She informed me that if I planned to work at Lynchburg College for more than one year, it would be in my best interest to do more than just hope for a spring completion. While she explained this more matter-of-factly than harshly, all I heard was “finish your dissertation or you will be fired.” I have since been assured me that my apocalyptic interpretation was not correct. Nevertheless, it became my mantra: “finish or be fired.”
Having a definite end date—not necessarily one that ends in your termination—will help keep you on track in the writing process. Speak with your advisor, dean, and department chair to determine an absolute timeframe. The more concrete, the better. Knowing you have until a specific day to complete the dissertation . . . or else . . . is likely to increase your motivation.
Setup Daily Writing “Chunks”
The first year in an academic position is a significant change from graduate school. New responsibilities in advising, committee work, and teaching can be overwhelming and time consuming. Therefore, it is important to find chunks of time during the week that are dedicated solely to writing. These blocks should be uninterrupted by students, colleagues, and meetings. Some suggest closing the office door or leaving campus to find quiet. My advice is to start early in the morning as college students—and some professors—tend to not surface until later in the day.
Write Every Day
When I was a graduate student, one of my professors invited a preeminent academic to our class to discuss the writing process. This renowned scholar, and author of several award-winning books, summed up his advice in three words: “write every day.” Accordingly, writing is like working out: it is easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. Maintaining a daily writing regiment will thus help you stay in “writing shape.”
Furthermore, he advised us to learn to write in small time chunks. While having hours of uninterrupted time for writing is ideal, it is more often a luxury than a reality. Therefore, he promoted writing in smaller intervals. For example, if you have twenty minutes to spare before a meeting, craft a few sentences. Have ten minutes before class? Edit a paragraph.
To be honest, I balked when I first heard this advice. This could never work for me, I thought; I needed hours to marinate my ideas and perfect my word choices. However, I quickly realized the impracticability of having hours of undisturbed time to write. The small-interval-writing may not be perfect, but it will help move you toward the goal of finishing.
Cap Your Prep Time
This advice comes into play when you do not want to write, hate your dissertation, and start considering a new occupation. If in this mindset, it is likely you will find any semi-productive task to evade writing. Preparing for teaching offers a good distraction. More than once I spent hours planning a single class, actively avoiding writing. For example, when prepping for a lecture on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I spent two hours locating images to complement the content. The first twenty images of Nazi propaganda I found simply would not suffice. By spending over four hours on the lecture, I feigned productivity when in actuality I was dodging my dissertation. As my advisor adeptly noted, one can spend an infinite amount of time preparing lecture. Hence, you must cap the time.
In The Effective, Efficient Professor: Teaching Scholarship and Service, Phillip C. Wankat provides a wealth of information for new faculty. In terms of lecture preparation, he suggests that professors should aim for two hours of prep for a one hour lecture. Moreover, over preparing is a common mistake of new faculty. Therefore, if the Berlin lecture should only take two hours to plan, stop after two hours.
Establish Deadlines, Preferably with an Advisor
At this point in your academic career, you presumably have an advisor, and hopefully a good one. I was very fortunate to have a fantastic (and pragmatic) mentor who kept me on task. Before I departed for Lynchburg College, we established hard deadlines. She expected a chapter a month, no exceptions. Even though I was hundreds of miles away in Virginia, I feared not meeting this target. Establishing concrete deadlines with someone you respect—someone you do not want to let down—will help you complete the project.
Hand-in-hand with the hard deadlines, keeping in consistent contact with your advisor is helpful. Also before leaving for Virginia, my advisor informed me that we would communicate on a bi-weekly basis. Furthermore, we would do this through whichever technology I found most uncomfortable. Fortunately FaceTime was not a popular communication medium at the time. We decided I would call her every-other-Monday to check in and report my progress. Because I did not want to disappoint her over the phone, I worked to ensure I always had something to relay.
Maintain Contact with the Graduate Program
If you are paying tuition while working, see if you can enroll in courses other than independent studies. One of my tech savvy committee members generously agreed to allow me to participate in a writing seminar from afar. Every Thursday I skyped into the class and she projected my face onto the screen. It was a somewhat awkward experience, albeit a useful one.
“The Best Dissertation is a Done Dissertation”
The dissertation is not your life’s work. Nor should it be. Know that you will not read every related piece of secondary literature, comb through every archive, or interview every historical actor. This is ok. Plus, it is what the book is for.
Completing a dissertation, regardless of location or occupation, is a difficult task. Hopefully using some of the aforementioned techniques can help you move toward finishing.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She finished her dissertation in 2013 while on the job. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.