Okay, "Finish dissertation in one week" is probably not the most realistic item to put on your to-do list, but that's the kind of hyperbole it takes to get you to look. However, can you get your dissertation finished in a semester? Absolutely. Lots of people do it. Accelerated programs are built around it. Of course, lots of people spend 5, 6, 7 years working on their dissertation, or giving up before the end, because the whole process becomes overwhelming. But with careful planning, smart organization, and motivation, you don't have to be one of those people. You can finish your dissertation in as little as a few weeks – and it may not even take any all-nighters.
DISCLAIMER: This advice isn't going to apply to everyone in every PhD program in every discipline – obvi. The hard sciences, for instance, require a lot of very involved, hands-on laboratory or field research that can't and won't stick to a tight schedule (nature tends to be that way). That may be the case in some social sciences as well (humans aren't always that cooperative either). But for most professional doctorates like a doctor of business administration, an educational leadership doctorate, or a doctor of social work, you can take these suggestions to the bank (where they will not exchange them for money).
Alternately, you could skip the whole thing and enroll in a no-dissertation PhD program. That's an option in a lot of fields, but most of the same advice will apply for your culminating project. No-dissertation doesn't mean you don't have to do anything.
But you didn't come here for disclaimers; you can here to learn how to finish a dissertation in a week. And for that, you need to take a step back and take a realistic look at what a dissertation is, what it does, and why you're doing it.
What is the Point of a Dissertation?
Understanding how to finish a dissertation in a week (or, at the most, three or four months) comes down to understanding the real purpose of a dissertation on a purely pragmatic level. While dissertations and doctoral theses vary – quite a lot, in fact – from discipline to discipline, school to school, and even advisor to advisor, the short answer is this: a dissertation is a long, sustained report on original research, submitted and defended to complete a doctoral degree.
In other words, it's no different from what you've been doing since freshman comp, except that it's longer, and the stakes are a little higher. And remember: the stakes are real. Odds are, you're paying for this PhD (unless you're one of those fortunate people getting their employer to pay, or you're working on a fully-funded PhD). Every semester you spend writing your dissertation is a semester you're paying for credit hours – although, granted, it's holding back your loan repayments for a little while longer.
Please, if you want to finish your thesis or finish your dissertation in a month, two months, or a semester, wipe all those romantic notions of the scholarly life out of your mind – they won't get the job done. Instead, think about you're trying to accomplish when you finish your dissertation. You want to:
- Make a contribution to your field
- Convince your committee that you are ready to be an independent professional
- Get the darn thing done
Of these, "Make a contribution to your field" is the idealistic answer, "Convince your committee" is the professional answer, and "Get the darn thing done" is the practical answer. They're all equally important, but as you get down to the wire, you move pretty quickly from the idealistic to the practical – and sometimes, the other two suffer under the pressure to get the darn thing done. This guide is about planning ahead so that you can do all three without a.) taking forever to finish your thesis or dissertation, or b.) rushing through and making a hash of the thing that gets it rejected by your committee.
4 Steps to Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation
It comes down to two main rules: START EARLY and PLAN AHEAD. Here are the steps to carry out, but fair warning – you've got to start pretty close to the beginning to make this happen.
1. Use Your Coursework
It's astonishing that students can get to the PhD level and not learn how to work smarter instead of harder. It takes some planning, but it's entirely possible, in any PhD program, to make sure all or most of your courses contribute to your dissertation. How do you do that? The first step is to start the program with at least a vague idea of what you want to study for your dissertation. You don't have to have the hypothesis, or know exactly what you're going to argue, but you can know some key points. For instance, if you're in a psychology PhD, maybe you know you want to study children with autism; if you're in a marketing doctorate, maybe you know you'll want to study marketing to Latinos.
Make that your topic in every class you take. Obviously, there are classes you will take that don't directly relate to your dissertation topic, but your assignments will usually not be strictly prescribed; you can work it so that the research you do for your assignments in every class can also pull double duty as dissertation research. In other words, treat your PhD program like a buffalo – no part of the animal should go to waste. It's also perfectly acceptable to revise the papers you write for a course into a chapter, or a portion of a chapter, in your dissertation.
NOTE: A lot of PhD programs, especially accelerated formats, have worked this concept directly into the design of their curriculum, and hype it as a selling point in their marketing. Just because it's not explicitly said, there's no reason you can't do it in any other program, though. Any strategy to finish your thesis or dissertation on time, short of paying someone else to do it, should fly.
2. Set Reasonable Goals
Notice that the list of things to accomplish above doesn't include "Know everything," "Solve all the world's problems," or "Make Einstein look like an underachiever." A common reason PhD students end up taking too long on their dissertation is because they bite off more than they can chew. Be realistic about what your dissertation is going to accomplish. Certainly, there have been dissertations that redefined their subject, transformed their discipline, and changed the playing field for everything that came after. That happens maybe once in a generation. Is yours going to be the one? If you're reading this guide, probably not.
There's a reason that almost every PhD dissertation ever written has a disclaimer section discussing what the study did not cover, and what could be covered in the future – nobody can do it all in one shot. What you can do is make a smart, well-researched contribution to your field of study; so early in the process, narrow down your goals (and your topic) to something clear and achievable. Can your dissertation solve the food desert crisis? No. But if you're writing a dissertation for a Doctor of Public Policy program, your research could indicate how food insecurity can be approached in one particular community.
3. Don't Get Bogged Down in Reading
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to getting your dissertation finished is the literature review. The literature review – the section that surveys what has been written about your topic by previous researchers – is a crucial part of the dissertation in almost every discipline, and all too often PhD students get caught up in the reading. It's understandable that you might think that you need to read everything that's ever been written on your topic, but that's one of the things that keep people banging out their dissertation in Year 7.
When you're planning your lit review, keep in mind what the literature review is for – to give context for what you're doing as a researcher and scholar. Sure, you want to prove to your committee that you know everything, but ultimately, what matters is how it relates to your own original work. Pick the books and articles you'll read for your literature review carefully; if it's not immediately clear how you can relate them to your dissertation, don't waste your time, no matter how interesting or influential. You'll never finish your thesis or dissertation that way. The dissertation is original research, not a book report – the more time you spend reading, the less you're spending writing.
4. Write, Dammit!
Sorry to come at you so hard, but far and away the biggest problem for students trying to get their dissertation written is actually doing the writing. The idea is formed, the research is done, the materials are all there, and then you slowly go blind staring at a blank screen. It might be out of control perfectionism; it might be crushing anxiety; it might be an overabundance of responsibilities. But whatever the cause, the result is the same – you're not writing.
Here's the thing: the first word doesn't have to be perfect. Neither does the second. Neither does the third, the fourth, or the 80,000th. What it has to be, is there, and it has to be connected to the word after it and the word before it, and if you're in the latter stages of a PhD program, you've been doing that for a very long time. A dissertation is an endurance sport, and just like running a marathon, it all comes down to the training; once you're prepared, it's just putting one foot in front of the other until it's done. If you're wondering how to finish a dissertation in a week, that's it – write. If you've set it up well from the beginning, you'll already be able to see the way to the finish line.