Dissertation blues? You’re not alone

Many graduate students find that their thesis or dissertation is the greatest barrier preventing them from getting their degree. Meagan Timney hopes to help students by providing them with useful strategies.

“The first time I thought about writing my dissertation I burst into tears,” Timney admits. “I had to learn to think about writing it in manageable chunks,”

Timney is an English literature PhD candidate at Dalhousie who hopes to defend her dissertation next July. In the meantime, she is turning her knowledge into tips for other students.

“I am by no means an expert at this,” Timney says. “The writing is tough but I hope I can give you strategies that will make the process a bit easier.”

On Wednesday, she led a discussion group at the Killam Library called Write and Ready: Strategies for Finishing your Dissertation. The discussion was part of a series of lunch-and-learn events about education-related topics.

Meagan Timney hopes that she can help graduate students by creating discussion about problems with their dissertations. (Photo: Alexandra Davis)

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Meagan Timney hopes that she can help graduate students by creating discussion about problems with their dissertations. (Photo: Alexandra Davis)

Helpful tips for dissertation writing

  • Work during the time of day you know you work best
  • Take time to plan out your week
  • Celebrate your accomplishments
  • Visualize the finished product
  • Keep a notebook with you at all times
  • Start a pact with a fellow dissertation writer


  • Phineshed - a forum for graduate students to discuss their progress and encourage each other 
  • StatCan - figures about graduate program demographics and enrolment levels 

Timney offered tips that focused on the areas grad students struggle with most, including time management and finding motivation. More than 30 master’s and PhD students attended. Some of them have encountered stumbling blocks in getting started, some are struggling with actually writing their thesis and others are looking for help to complete and refine their points.

Statistics suggest that many Canadian graduate students have difficulties when it comes to completing a graduate degree. Although enrolment levels for doctorate programs rose as much as 8.1 per cent per year from 2001 to 2005, an increasingly lower percentage of students actually received a PhD. In fact in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 4,200 students received a doctoral degree in Canada, compared with 4,000 in 1998.

During Wednesday’s discussion group, students were encouraged to participate and share their experiences. Some students described how they find motivation.

“I started out because I was in an important field that I wanted to learn more about,” says biological engineering PhD candidate Andy Vanderzaag. “I went through a period of boredom (with my dissertation) but now I feel like I’m ready to move on to career opportunities. That’s my current motivation.”

Others offered advice and strategies that they have found helpful.

“I try to keep myself off the Internet,” one student says. 

“I write down everything useful I think about, so I feel like I’ve produced something,” explains another.

Timney says that long-term planning and scheduling are important, but students should make sure they are realistic with the goals they set for themselves.

“I was really bad at being self-aware when I started this,” she says. “I was constantly redrafting my schedule. You have to give yourself room to juggle with your dates, and also be aware of how long it takes you to write.”

She also suggests that students break up their time into manageable chunks and plan what they’ll work on for 15 minutes or so, as they are more likely to get distracted if they set aside larger blocks of time.

Timney hopes students will be able to learn from her experiences. She thinks that bringing graduate students together will remind everyone that they are not alone, and that there are other people dealing with similar challenges.

“I wanted people who are struggling to get together and share their experiences because this can be such a lonely process,” she says. “The nature of the struggle may be different from one person to the next, but we all face challenges no matter what the discipline.”

Writing a dissertation will always be a long and challenging process. Timney just hopes students will remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I know the stage you’re at in terms of dealing with this big monster,” she tells the group. “But you can get started and you can finish!”

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