When I began working at the Graduate College, I had just taken my final exam and was revising my dissertation. This task coupled with working full-time ended up being much more stressful than I could have imagined. Little did I know that Coble Hall is full of talented individuals who knew first-hand the struggles of completing a thesis and were happy to share their stories and advice. Here’s some of the feedback that they gave me:
Set expectations upfront and find a mentor that will hold you accountable
Matt Abbott—M.A. in English at Iowa State University (’08)
When Matt finished his coursework and began embarking on his thesis, he suddenly found himself in uncharted territory. Unlike previous semesters when he was regularly attending classes, there was no structure to his routine and he needed to get a polished draft to his adviser. To cope, Matt drew a schedule with manageable goals and deadlines to keep him on track. The task (which he at first thought of as a “looming monstrosity”) suddenly felt lighter, and it only took him about 40 days to complete the project. If you are experiencing similar issues, consider creating a syllabus (complete with deadlines) for your thesis, and meet with your adviser to go over your plan.
Alexis Thompson—PhD in Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (’08)
As a theoretical chemist, Alexis spent a lot of time collecting and analyzing data. Putting the results into prose, however, was a challenge. She found that the best thing to do is to just sit down and write. You can always go back and revise or clarify your ideas. If you want to talk about something, but don’t know what to say, just add a filler like “More stuff about that later.” Alexis also made sure to have multiple projects to work on. That way, if she hit a roadblock with one, she could work on another for a while.
Seek opportunities to connect with others
Karen Ruhleder—PhD in Informatics and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine (’91)
Researching and writing can be an isolating process, which is something Karen knew all too well. There were only two people in her program! To beat the dissertation-research blues, Karen branched out to other areas on campus by taking classes in other departments and she even took up new hobbies, including sailing and DJing. She encourages students to look for opportunities on campus and in the community to become involved and network. Meeting others can introduce you to new perspectives and give you a little break from your work.
Avoid “shame spirals” by setting small goals and…
Derek Attig—PhD in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (’14)
Derek’s biggest challenge was getting sucked into what he calls “shame spirals,” which follow this pattern:
1. Hit a roadblock with work
2. Take a few days off from working
3. Feel guilty for taking time off from work
4. Try to work again but have a harder time
5. Even more unproductivity and guilt
To bypass “shame spirals,” Derek would set small weekly goals that are easily attainable—such as write a paragraph or skim a book. That way, you can feel good about reaching your goal. And if you happen to do more work, that’s an added bonus!
…keep the Graduate College formatting guidelines in mind
Derek also recommends looking at the Graduate College Thesis Format Requirements early in the thesis process to avoid having to reformat your document at the last minute. In addition to the formatting requirements, the Thesis Office website has templates to help you format your title page and sample thesis pages.
Know when to let go
Charlotte Bauer—PhD in Art History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (’07)
One of the most important (yet most difficult) parts of the thesis process is letting go. Up until the very end, Charlotte was still emptying shelves at the library and trying to cram as many facts, connections, and ideas into the document as possible, even if the information was just in footnotes. Though she removed many of them later, writing the footnotes was therapeutic to Charlotte. If you are having trouble letting go, you could collect your ideas in a notebook or a Word document. The important thing to remember is that your research is an ongoing process—you don’t have to do everything now. Save your ideas and explore them again later, after you have deposited.
Writing a thesis can be a stressful and isolating experience, so chatting with others with similar experiences can help you face your own struggles. It is also a good reminder that you are not alone in having these feelings. Have a conversation with others! You could try getting a group together from your department for pizza, reaching out to an alum from your program, or meeting your adviser for coffee. Talking with others and hearing about their experiences can help you gain confidence and make the final push toward depositing your document.
Emily Wuchner is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.