Throughout my time as doctoral student, there is one piece of advice that I keep hearing that is both reassuring and troubling to me — “the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.” At face value, I interpret that as advice to not overthink every decision I make about my dissertation, to let go of trying to achieve perfection and to do my best to get it done. While I agree with all of this, I can’t help but wonder “what does that say about the way we approach our work?”
The dissertation is the major milestone that represents my ability to contribute to the field and demonstrates my command of the discipline. To me, this piece of work symbolizes the preparation I received from my program, mentors and systems of support that encouraged me to pursue this goal. While I recognize that striving for perfection can lead to failure, I often feel as though this piece of advice can undermine the care and purpose of the work I intend to do.
My dissertation will focus on the experiences of first-generation, Latinx students at Hispanic-Serving Institutions transitioning into doctoral programs. My positionality—a first-generation, Latinx student in a doctoral program—has helped me relate to the challenges these students encounter as they apply to graduate school. However, I’ve also noticed how different our experiences have been because of our institutional contexts, upbringing and access to information.
I care deeply about this work, and it is not something I can just rush through to get done. I know the advice is usually given light-heartedly and that no one is suggesting for me to sacrifice the quality in order to finish. However, the mindset of “I just need to get this done” can inadvertently affect the way I approach the work.
The participants of my study are more than just that. I appreciate the vulnerability they exhibit when being interviewed and feel that it is my duty to represent their stories and lived experiences in ways that empower them and provide insight to others on our shared responsibility to cultivate environments where all students can thrive.
If I am producing papers for the sake of production and meeting the expectations of what a “successful scholar” should do then this piece of advice is definitely worth living by. While I know the dissertation process includes periodic reviews of my progress from my adviser and committee where I can expect to receive critical and thorough feedback, I believe it is a disservice to the purpose of my study if I haphazardly record my thoughts on the topic and rely on others to catch ways to make my work better. I should aim to submit work I am confident in while recognizing that I may need to do a lot more work to improve it. I should be proud of my progress and excited to share it with everyone involved instead of hopeful that it is acceptable to be deemed complete.
I see the merit in attempting to resolve the stress graduate students may feel when thinking about their dissertation. Rationally speaking, the dissertation is the last step of the doctoral process and it can be daunting. “The best dissertation is a finished dissertation,” is meant to remind graduate students to keep writing and get it done. Do not aspire for perfection and overthink every aspect of this one study. Learning is a life-long process and we will continue to develop our knowledge well beyond earning this terminal degree. However, I do think this experience has a significant influence on the way we approach our work and caution all to use this advice to make progress on your dissertation, but do not let it shape the way you approach all your work.
Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle