6 Things I Learned While Finishing My Dissertation

Do you ever look back on your grad school journey and wonder how the heck you made it so far? Well, now that I’ve successfully defended my dissertation, that’s where I’m at.

I’m not sure how I made it through the last seven years. I do, however, have a better sense of what it took to finish the dissertation. In this post, I am sharing 6 things I learned in the last few months of writing my dissertation.

Black woman with curly black hair and wearing a black turtleneck and sweater sitting in front of an open laptop

1. It’s time to make The Dissertation Document

If you’re anything like me, your experience of writing your thesis has been almost entirely made up of writing bits and pieces in separate documents. Well, if you’re in the last year or two of your degree, I am here to tell you something.

It’s time to put everything into a single document.

I made the transition from working in Scrivener to working in a single document on Microsoft Word about a year ago and never went back. To make things a little less overwhelming I made all my chapter titles headings. This way, the chapters I wasn’t actively working on could be collapsed and hidden.

2. Figure out your formatting

At this stage, this might look like simply seeking out the formatting guidelines provided by your institution. Or it could look like doing that and finding a couple of example theses issued by your institution in the last few years, so you can see what the format looks like in action.

It could also look a little more involved, like applying the formatting to your thesis document (see step 1).

Honestly, up to about a week before I sent the final draft of my dissertation to my committee, the only formatting I had bothered with was formatting my footnotes and bibliography.

If I could go back, I would have done things a little differently. I would have figured out how the heck to add roman numeral page numbers to my front matter (not as easy as it seems!). Or I would have started compiling a running list of my figures. You know, stuff like that.

3. Not every piece of feedback matters *right now*

This is something that my dissertation chair told me about her own feedback. And it was something that I had to keep reminding myself right to the end.

Don’t get me wrong – your committee’s feedback absolutely does matter. To a point. It’s really up to you to be discerning in those final months and weeks before submitting the final draft. Which brings me to…

4. It’s *your* dissertation

It’s natural to want to feel validated by your mentors and committee members. I absolutely took every single comment that was made on my dissertation to heart, whether it was good or “what does this even mean?”

But at the end of the day, it’s your dissertation. It’s your vision, and it should live up to a standard that you set for it, not one that is imposed upon it by someone else.

Your committee members might have strong opinions about how something should be conveyed, or about what examples you should discuss. But ultimately you get to decide which comments and revisions deserve your time and effort.

I received my last round of feedback – on my entire dissertation as a whole – about a month before I sent the final version to my committee. I decided to do as much as I could, but ultimately I didn’t have time to do everything.

And that’s okay.

5. You’re going to have to read the whole thing

I have always dreaded reading what I’ve written.

I don’t think I had read a chapter I had written all the way through until I read through my entire dissertation the week before submitting it. And I’ve been working on this thing for years.

But here’s a hard truth – if you’re anything like me, you need to know that it has to happen whether you like doing it or not.

A few things helped me get through it:

  1. Break up the reading into smaller chunks. I allotted a week to getting it all done, so I split up my reading (roughly) into a chapter a day. You can make your chunks smaller – such as reading a section or specific number of pages a day – if you have more time. Whatever you do, make sure you do it in the order it is presented so that you can keep track of the bigger picture and how your arguments flow (or catch when they don’t).
  2. I found an excellent playlist. I am willing to admit that the thing that got me through the final push of finishing revisions of my dissertation was the This is Bad Bunny Spotify playlist.
  3. My mom got me a walking pad. When I asked for one of these for Christmas, I was immediately skeptical of my choices. I only asked for it because I had been influenced to do so (thanks, social media!), and wondered if the hype would wear off once I actually acquired one. But it has really turned out to be a blessing and a boon for my productivity!

Those are just the things that helped me. Find what works for you, make a note of it, and leverage it on both good days and days when you really do not want to work on your thesis.

6. Keep track of your revisions

My final piece of advice is a small thing – keeping track of the changes you make. I did this for a lot of the revisions I did prior to submitting my final draft, not just in the final stretch.

This can be as simple as turning on track changes in your Word document. What I found more visually helpful, though, was using a different color (usually red or purple) when I revised my text.

But what’s the point?

It really boils down to the fact that I have about 100 versions of my dissertation on my computer. Two things help me differentiate between them: date created and colorful blocks of text where I’ve made substantial changes.

Of course, you are obligated to do all or none of these things. I was just feeling particularly reflective of my experience and wanted to share what I learned with you as I prepare to defend my dissertation.


What has helped motivate you to write on hard days?

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