The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide™ focuses on ways to help its readers more readily overcome the roadblocks that often seem to stand in the way of completing the dissertation. It is read throughout the world.

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Devoted to providing practical strategies for completing your Doctoral Dissertation.™
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INSIDE THIS ISSUE - September 25, 2008

1. A Note from the Editor

2. The Journey Before You: 29 Steps, 1078 Hours
by Dr. Sonja K. Foss and Dr. William Waters

3. Inspirational Quotes

September 25, 2008

A Note from the Editor

Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

The longest journey begins with a single step.

No doubt you are familiar with this ancient Chinese proverb, and perhaps you have already taken the first step and beyond on your long journey toward the doctorate. If so, you may be wondering exactly how many steps remain. Well, this issue brings a very encouraging answer!

Not only do our guest writers enumerate the number of steps in the journey; they break it down for you into the number of hours! Don't miss "The Journey before You: 29 Steps, 1078 Hours" by Dr. Sonja K. Foss and Dr. William Waters.

And follow up with this issue's Inspirational Quotes. Ben Franklin's advice is especially appropriate for anyone beginning the proverbial longest journey: "Keep in the sunlight. Do not anticipate trouble or worry about what may never happen."

The journey may be proverbial, but your destination is real. Have a great trip!


The Journey Before You: 29 Steps, 1078 Hours
by Dr. Sonja K. Foss and Dr. William Waters

One of the pieces of advice many people will give you about writing your dissertation is to turn the project into a series of small, concrete steps.

The first place to do that is in conceptualizing the basic processes of the dissertation. There are 29 of them. Already, the dissertation seems more manageable, doesn't it? There are just 29 steps.

Many people believe that the 29 steps required to complete a dissertation have to take a long time--that there's no way to cover the route quickly. Typical estimates range from one to five years following your exams, with two to three years the most common. We strongly disagree.

We believe most students can complete dissertations within nine months or less, even while they are working in half-time positions. Yes, you heard correctly: Nine months from start to finish, including everything, starting with figuring out your topic all the way through defending.

We don't pretend that everyone can complete a dissertation in nine months. Your particular project may require that you take more time to do some of the 29 steps. If you have additional steps that you have to do along the way, those will add time, too. But remember that you get to make choices about the kind of project you do for your dissertation.

If you make choices that add steps or that add to the length of any of these steps, you are extending the time it takes to cover the route. And, of course, if certain processes take you less than the allotted time, you can complete your dissertation in less than nine months.

A word to the wise: To complete your dissertation in nine months, you have to spend the hours doing the actual work of the dissertation--focused work that actually moves you forward. You have to spend time sitting down and writing. You can't be doing work that doesn't contribute to the dissertation--things like cleaning out your kitchen cupboards or reading e-mail. Our timetable will work only if you are making good use of the hours you put in.


Here's our suggested timetable for covering the route. We've put it in hours because that makes the processes ones you can do when you have even an hour here and there, and not something you need large blocks of time to do. Put in the hours, and you'll get a dissertation.

•Step 1. Engaging in a conceptual conversation: This step is the heart of the planning process for your dissertation. This is a conversation in which you (and, ideally, your advisor) map out the pre-proposal for your dissertation. Time: 10 hours

• Step 2. Creating the dissertation pre-proposal: In this step, you make the key decisions about your dissertation--research question, categories of your literature review, data, methods of collecting and analyzing your data, significance of your study, and what your chapters will be. Time: 5 hours

• Step 3: Approval of the pre-proposal by your advisor: Here's where you talk through your pre-proposal with your advisor, modifying it as necessary. You want to end this conversation with agreement on the elements of your pre-proposal. Time: 2 hours

• Step 4. Collecting the literature: You collect the literature relevant to your project, which you mapped out in your pre-proposal. Time: 40 hours

• Step 5. Coding the literature: Review and code your literature. Time: 60 hours

• Step 6. Writing the literature review: Create a conceptual schema for the literature review and write the review. Time: 40 hours

• Step 7. Writing the proposal: Write the proposal using your pre-proposal as your guide. Time: 30 hours

• Step 8. Review of the proposal by your advisor: Your advisor reads and suggests revisions to your proposal. Time: 40 hours (Of course, you are doing other work to move your dissertation along during this time.)

• Step 9. Revising the proposal: Revise your proposal in line with your advisor's suggestions. The revisions should not be major because the proposal follows the pre-proposal your advisor approved earlier. Time: 10 hours

• Step 10. Defending the proposal: If your department requires a defense of your proposal, defend it before your advisor and members of your committee. Time: 120 hours or 3 weeks (This isn't all time on task but allows time for committee members to read the proposal.)

• Step 11. Obtaining human subjects approval: Obtaining the approval to collect your data from your university's human subjects review committee. Time: Add hours if this step is required for your study

• Step 12. Collecting the data: Collect your data. Time: 150 hours

• Step 13. Transforming the data to codable form: Transcribe your interviews or run your statistics or do whatever is required to get your data in a form you can work with and analyze. Time: Add between 40 and 120 hours if this step is required for your study

• Step 14. Coding the data: Code your data based on your research question. Time: 40 hours

• Step 15. Developing a schema to explain the data: Develop an explanatory schema that explains and captures in an insightful and coherent way the major pieces of your data. Time: 10 hours

• Step 16. Writing a sample analysis: Write a sample section of your analysis--something along the lines of five pages--so that your advisor can take a look at it and tell you if there are any problems with your approach. You want to know before you've written up a whole chapter or chapters in that same way. Time: 5 hours

• Step 17. Review by your advisor of the sample analysis: Your advisor reviews and provides feedback on your sample analysis. Time: 2 hours

• Step 18. Writing the findings chapter or chapters: Write your findings or analysis chapter(s) featuring your explanatory schema. Time: 40 hours per chapter (for example, if three chapters, 120 hours)

• Step 19. Writing the final chapter: Write the final chapter of your dissertation--the discussion or conclusion chapter. Time: 20 hours

• Step 20. Transforming the proposal into a chapter or chapters and preparing the front matter: Revise your proposal to turn it into your first chapter or your first three chapters, depending on the format you are using for your dissertation. Also prepare your abstract, table of contents, acknowledgments, and lists of figures and tables. Time: 5 hours

• Step 21. Editing the chapters: Editing all of your chapters for substance and form. Time: 80 hours

• Step 22. Review of the dissertation by your advisor: Your advisor reads the dissertation and makes suggestions for revision. Time: 80 hours (Of course, you are doing other work during this time, such as formatting the manuscript.)

• Step 23. Revising the dissertation: Following your advisor's suggestions, revise the dissertation. Time: 40 hours

• Step 24. Approval of the dissertation by the graduate school: At many universities, the format of your final draft is reviewed by someone in the graduate school. Time: 40 hours (This process varies greatly from university to university, so check what is involved at yours--you may not need this much time.)

• Step 25. Making final formatting revisions: Make any formatting changes required by the graduate school. Time: 5 hours

• Step 26. Review of the dissertation by your committee members: After your advisor has approved your dissertation, distribute the dissertation to the other members of your committee and give them two weeks to read it. Time: 80 hours

• Step 27. Defending the dissertation: If an oral defense is required at your university, defend the dissertation. Time: 2 hours

• Step 28. Revising the dissertation: Complete any revisions your committee wants you to make. Time: 40 hours

• Step 29. Submitting the dissertation: Submit the dissertation either electronically or in hard copy, whichever your graduate school requires. Time: 2 hours

Total hours required is 1078. If you are working 40 hours a week on your dissertation, that translates into 27 weeks or 6 ½ months.

Let's frame this another way: The average person watches about 20 hours of television a week. At a minimum, you could finish your dissertation in one year if you write when everyone else you know is watching TV.

Our timetable doesn't include the time for human subjects approval or putting your data into codable form, so add time if you'll need to do either of those. These are the cases when your dissertation is likely to take closer to nine rather than six months.

Yes, despite what we said at the beginning, we actually think most people can finish in a little over six months, but we thought telling you that earlier might have been hard for you to believe. But now we're ready to acknowledge what we really think: A high-quality dissertation can be done in six to seven months. In fact, we know it can because we've seen many students do exactly that.

Yeah, But . . .

After reviewing the 29 steps, you might be thinking to yourself that the dissertation process we have outlined is too simple and that we have trivialized what should be a complex, sophisticated intellectual endeavor. As an academic, you've been rewarded for being intellectually savvy, critiquing ideas, and thinking deeply. You might be inclined to dismiss our 29 steps just because they aren't complex or sophisticated. But we've seen the steps succeed time and again precisely because they aren't complex.

We encourage you to save your complex thinking for your data analysis and to give the steps a try.

You also might be thinking that if we only knew the unique circumstances that you are experiencing, we'd have to adjust our timeframe of 1078 hours. Because you are unique, you think, what has worked for hundreds of other students simply won't work for you.

That might be, but we doubt it. We're asking you to suspend your assumptions about your unique difficulties temporarily and to give our processes a chance. We're pretty confident about how well they work, but you won't have the opportunity to experience success with them if you don't give them a try.

Dissertation Checklist

____ Step 1. Engaging in a conceptual conversation
____ Step 2. Creating the dissertation pre-proposal
____ Step 3: Approval of the pre-proposal by your advisor
____ Step 4. Collecting the literature
____ Step 5. Coding the literature
____ Step 6. Writing the literature review
____ Step 7. Writing the proposal
____ Step 8. Review of the proposal by your advisor
____ Step 9. Revising the proposal
____ Step 10. Defending the proposal
____ Step 11. Obtaining human subjects approval
____ Step 12. Collecting the data
____ Step 13. Transforming the data to codable form
____ Step 14. Coding the data
____ Step 15. Developing a schema to explain the data
____ Step 16. Writing a sample analysis
____ Step 17. Review by your advisor of the sample analysis
____ Step 18. Writing the findings chapter or chapters
____ Step 19. Writing the final chapter
____ Step 20. Transforming the proposal into a chapter or chapters and preparing the front matter
____ Step 21. Editing the chapters
____ Step 22. Review of the dissertation by your advisor
____ Step 23. Revising the dissertation
____ Step 24. Approval of the dissertation by the graduate school
____ Step 25. Making final formatting revisions
____ Step 26. Review of the dissertation by your committee members
____ Step 27. Defending the dissertation
____ Step 28. Revising the dissertation
____ Step 29. Submitting the dissertation

About Dr. Sonja K. Foss and Dr. William Waters
Sonja and William are the authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), in which travel is used as a metaphor for completing the dissertation or thesis. The 29 steps they discuss here come from the second chapter of the book. Sonja is a professor in the Communication Department at the University of Colorado Denver, and William is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Houston. They can be reached at or

Inspirational Quotes

Barbara Hoffman
Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.

E.M. Gray
The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don't like to do. They don't like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.

Frank Lloyd Wright
I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.

Benjamin Franklin
Keep in the sunlight. Do not anticipate trouble or worry about what may never happen.


Tracy Steen, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist and dissertation coach in Philadelphia, PA. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Steen draws on her research background in positive psychology in her coaching work with writers, helping them to remove internal obstacles so they can find more engagement and flow in their work. You can contact Dr. Steen with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at You can also visit her website at

Dr. NANCY WHICHARD, Contributor, ABDSG; Director, MentorCoach Academic and Writing Coaching Programs
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC, is a dissertation and career coach. She has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from 40 major American universities and from many Western European and Canadian universities, as well. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland and for two decades was on the English and Literature faculties at George Washington University and American University. A recovering academic, Nancy knows the importance of politics and diplomacy in negotiating the dissertation experience. You can contact Nancy about coaching at and sign up for her Smart Tips for Writers e-newsletter at Also, read her blog at

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BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished helping professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You might wish to subscribe to the free eMentorCoach News. Finally you may also wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny. They all love coaching from the beach!


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