Student Notebook

To Avoid “ABD,” Follow Steps 1, 2, and 3: How to Complete Your Dissertation Before a Clinical Internship

Finishing your dissertation before you leave for your internship has many benefits. First, there is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you have successfully jumped through the biggest hoop of your graduate career. Second, it frees up your time so that you can take advantage of the interesting opportunities available to you on the internship. Third, everyone (colleagues, internship interviewers, prospective employers) will ask you about the status of your dissertation and it feels really good to be able to say “finished, done, defended, and submitted!” Lastly, a completed dissertation can really give you a leg up when applying for postdoctoral fellowships or other positions. I have experienced these advantages first hand; I was lucky enough to have an efficient advisor, a helpful committee, and supportive friends and family who made it possible for me to defend my dissertation a few weeks before leaving for my internship. Based on my experience and the advice I have received over the last few years, here are some tips to help you be in the same position when you leave for your internship.

Step 1: Pick a topic
This might seem obvious, but picking a topic that you are genuinely interested in will make things much easier (Schlechter, 2006). And while it certainly helps to have a supervisor who is equally enthusiastic about the topic, don’t limit yourself or rule out any ideas before talking to your advisor about what he or she can and cannot provide competent supervision in. You may want to keep a list of research ideas (LeVine, 2004) that you add to whenever genius strikes (or whenever an article, conference, etc., gets your wheels turning). Peruse this list often, probe the literature to help refine, add, or omit ideas, and let the cream rise to the top.

When you start to flush out the details of your project, do not get carried away. The dissertation may be the capstone of your intellectual apprenticeship, but it is not the magnum opus of your career. Over-ambitious projects and unrealistic perfectionism can be immobilizing, so aim to produce a solid, well written, original contribution to the field, rather than the definitive work on your topic (LeVine, 2004).

Carefully consider how different sampling techniques and data collection strategies will impact your quality of life for the next several months. If your procedures must be high-tech, time-consuming, or complicated, be sure that you have good reasons as to why alternative, simpler methods are inappropriate. You will need to be able to defend your choices to your committee anyway, so seriously considering the options is beneficial. Also, remember that your proposal is a contract with your committee (LeVine, 2004), so do not make promises you cannot keep.

Step 2: Do the study
Before launching your project forward, recruit some reliable, efficient people to help. A few stellar research assistants can make the difference between having a meagre social life and none at all. If your dissertation is complex, outsource portions to people (e.g., statistics instructor, secondary advisors) who can help you with different aspects of your project.

Once you get to the data collection stage, you may be tempted to sit back, relax, and watch that pretty data roll in. But this is no time to putter around; there are a ton of things that you can be working on: figure out any special formatting requirements for the final submitted copy; polish your intro and methods section; create an outline for the rest of your dissertation with all the main headings you’ll need; write the title pages, table of contents, figure lists, appendices, and your acknowledgments section; and get all your data tables set up and ready to be filled in. These tasks can take much longer that you might think, so it’s best to get them done early, rather than be forced to scramble in the days before you submit.

Step 3: Write it up
First, review a copy of a good dissertation so you have a concrete example of the structure you are aiming for. Create a writing timeline (Smith, 2004), working backwards from your defense date (budget in reviewing time for your committee) and set up deadlines with your advisor to help keep you on track. By reducing the tendency to procrastinate, a calendar system that includes short and long-term goals can decrease the pressure associated with deadlines, allowing you to focus on developing your ideas (Peters, 1997). Try to be diligent about making time for uninterrupted writing at whatever time of the day or night works best for you. Only tackle one chapter at a time; if you worry about the entire thing, your anxiety may hinder you (Zerubavel, 1999). Allow the chapter structure and your intermediate writing goals/deadlines to break the otherwise daunting task into manageable chunks.

Next, imagine a client who perceives everything to be such a formidable task that they can not get started on anything. Given your clinical expertise, I would assume that you would not tell this client to keep waiting until inspiration strikes, to give himself an extra year to reach their goals, or to give up. Instead, you might explore the cognitions (e.g. “It has to be perfect”) that are interfering with his ability to move forward effectively. Alternately, you might try to build the discrepancy between his lack of action and professed goals and values. In addition, you would likely help the client to schedule specific, uninterrupted times dedicated to working on target goals. Either way, the idea is to help him get started. To progress steadily with your dissertation, try using these techniques on yourself. In the end, it comes down to the old Nike wisdom: just do it.

Articulate the main highlights of your project to others, often. Telling others about your dissertation can help you to clarify your ideas and garner social support. Further, communicating your research to colleagues is valuable practice for job interviews and networking. Lastly, when others inquire on your progress, cognitive dissonance will help exhort you from any unintended idling.

When writing a typical research manuscript, it is important to be concise and selective in sharing only the most pertinent data. In contrast, unless you tend to be long-winded or you write at the speed of molasses, the dissertation involves much less restraint. We have all heard horrific tales of losing months of work. To avoid becoming the next sob story, save updated versions of your dissertation often and in multiple locations. As you approach your defense date, apportion out parts of your dissertation to trusted proofreaders. In truth, anyone with eyes may be helpful; you have been staring at this paper for so long, you might not even notice if your own name were spelled incorrectly.

Now that you are finished, harness some positive reinforcement and reward yourself for all your hard work. Do not forget to practice your empathizing skills with all your colleagues who will still be collecting data. ♦


LeVine, J.S. (2005). Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation. Learner Associates. Retrieved December 27th, 2007, from

Peters, R.L. (1997). Getting what you came for: The smart student’s guide to earning a Master’s of Ph.D. (Rev. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Schlechter, M.J. (2006, October). Passion and Strategy: Necessary Ingredients for Choosing a Thesis Topic. The Observer, 19 (10). Retrieved December 27th, 2007, from

Smith, S. (2004, January) Choosing a Dissertation Topic. The Observer, 17 (1). Retrieved December 27th, 2007, from

Zerubavel, E. (1999, October). How To Finish Your Dissertation. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved December 28th, 2007, from

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