Writing a Dissertation During a Pandemic: A Blog

March 30, 2021 - Dianey Leal, Amanda Flores, Christian Ramirez

This article originally appeared in The Blog of the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs. https://jcshesa.wordpress.com/2021/03/29/writing-a-dissertation-during-a-pandemic/

The dissertation process is no easy task, and it can feel even more daunting as we collectively experience the effects of a global pandemic, multilayered natural disasters, a divisive election, and a civil rights uprising the likes we have not seen since the middle of the 20th century.  When the pandemic hit in early 2020, all three of us were in different stages in our dissertation journeys. Dr. Ramirez was a doctoral candidate analyzing his dissertation data and writing his final chapters, Amanda was preparing to defend her dissertation proposal, and Dianey was just getting started on her first three chapters. The pandemic not only abruptly forced us to adjust to remote learning and working, but it also forced each of us to relocate about three to four times as we searched for work, shelter, and/or access to resources and family support. In each of these moves, we adjusted to new environments, responsibilities, and distractions—all while writing a dissertation.

On February 24, the Chicano/Latino Studies Program at Michigan State University invited us to participate on a panel to reflect on our different perspectives, challenges, and strategies as we navigated the dissertation journey. During the panel, we shared our personal stories and hoped that this space would provide a sense of community for us and others who were also writing their dissertations or would be starting on this journey soon. Although we chose to not record the panel (given the nature of the topic and our desire to be honest and transparent about our challenges), we also understood how important this conversation was for so many and decided to share our perspectives through this blog.

The Dissertation Journey: Consejos [Advice]

This blog is a compilation of consejos (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994) that have been passed on to us as we have navigated and continue to navigate our doctoral programs. We recognize that our consejos are tied to our unique identities and personal needs, and thus our consejos may not resonate with the personal circumstances of all students. However, we hope, at the very minimum, that these consejos signal that we are not alone in this dissertation journey.

Below, we divided our consejos into three main sections to account for students who may be at different stages along their journey. Still, we recognize that the dissertation process is not rigid and best described as complex, nonlinear, and multilayer—therefore, many of the consejos in specific sections can be applied in other stages of your own dissertation journey.

Proposal Preparation and Defense

  • Refer to published dissertations on your topic to help you get started. For many students getting started on their dissertation proposal can feel quite overwhelming. If you are in this situation, consider reviewing published dissertations on your topic, especially those that have been published by your institution. This not only helps you get familiar with your institution’s formatting requirements, but also provides you with a better sense of what a dissertation looks like. When reviewing published dissertations, start by looking at the table of contents—specifically, review how authors have organized and structured their main chapters and everything in between. Looking at how authors have structured their ideas and arguments can help you get started on your own dissertation outline! After reviewing the table of contents, briefly explore the literature review of the dissertation, noting any citations you may find interesting. Then look up these citations in the dissertation reference list and begin to develop your own literature review database!
  • Create a flexible, writing plan. Planning ahead during a pandemic may feel pointless but having a flexible and manageable writing timeline can help you make progress in the long run. When creating a timeline ensure it is inclusive of when you plan to submit drafts and when your dissertation chair will be expected to provide you feedback. Make sure to check-in with your dissertation chair first to ensure your writing timeline aligns with their availability and expectations. Please keep in mind that you may need to adjust and revise your plan depending on your progress and life circumstances (e.g., personal days, sick days, moving out days, travel, etc.) and your chair’s availability. There is no right or wrong way to create a plan—mainly, you want to make sure that your plan is manageable, flexible, and realistic. Here are two examples of a writing timeline (a PDF and Word version are included). 
  • Meet with your dissertation chair before the defense date. Before your scheduled defense date, meet with your dissertation chair to discuss expectations and what the process will look like the day of the defense. During this meeting, you may want to discuss points such as what the overall structure of the defense will look like (including who will welcome all committee members and how long the defense will be scheduled for), what your presentation components must include, and how long your presentation will need to be to ensure ample time for committee questions and feedback. Other possible points of discussion may include: how to respond if you don’t understand a committee member’s question, what you will need to do if your committee asks for major revisions, and what you are expected to do after defending your proposal. Accounting for these expectations and understanding the process beforehand allows for a smoother defense.
  • Write a memo. After your defense, write a memo documenting any changes/recommendations that you and your committee discussed and agreed on during the defense. You may share this memo with your committee via email to ensure all their recommendations were clearly captured. This is a great way to keep yourself organized and all parties involved in this process accountable as well.
  • Remember, this is a proposal and not your findings or final product. Do not feel pressured to present a finished dissertation however tempting that may seem. Propose your plan of action and move forward from there. The purpose of your proposal defense is to present and justify the need for your study and to discuss how you will go about conducting it. Your committee’s role, in this regard, is to ensure your plan of research holds merit and that you are prepared to conduct this research in a scholarly manner. They are there to not only evaluate your proposal but also to offer feedback and suggestions on how to make your study and timeline stronger and better.

Collecting and Analyzing Data

  • Do not attach yourself to your timeline. While we operate on many timelines, the data collection and data analysis timeline will more than likely change. You want to establish important benchmarks and areas of flexibility within your timeline to account for the unexpected, such as the changing nature of the pandemic.
  • Familiarize yourself with as many virtual tools as possible. Whether your study is qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods, more than likely your university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) will require you to conduct as much research as possible virtually. If you are doing a qualitative study that involves interviews, for example, update your zoom settings to ensure you have the most up to date features, such as transcription! Zoom transcription may save you from having to pay for a transcription service. Also, explore how to use digital archives if your work consists of collecting and analyzing archives. Last, if your work uses tenets of participatory action research, seek out tools that help you facilitate community and action work. Some tools you may want to consider include Google Jamboard and the tools included in Zoom such as polls, breakout rooms, and whiteboard.
  • Keep your dissertation chair in the loop. Given the many disruptions associated with the pandemic, it is likely that you may run into issues and challenges that make data collection difficult. If you are in this situation, seek the advice and guidance of your dissertation chair—they may have knowledge and experience on how to help you navigate these hurdles. Do not wait to update them on major changes to your recruitment and/or data collection process. In many instances, major changes may require you to revise your IRB, so it will be important to keep them updated on your process. Remember that it is your chair’s responsibility to support you when hurdles arise.
  • Remain focused on who your research serves. Many of us began to do research to create more equitable spaces for BIPOC in higher education. It is important that we remind ourselves of the larger impact of our work for our communities. It is likely that research participants are feeling similar forms of anxiety and ambiguity brought on by the pandemic.  When recruiting participants and/or collecting data, ensure an ethics of care that respects their lived realities, humanity, and context.

Getting to the Finish Line

  • Develop writing practices or habits, such as the Pomodoro method. Getting to the finish line includes a lot of writing, and sometimes, we can be our worst critic when it comes to our own writing process and style. The Pomodoro method  is a practice that can help you get through large writing sections without being too hard on yourself. The method has four 25-minute cycles with 5-minute breaks in between. You can set your own timer or find a YouTube video of your liking to hold you accountable to the break.
  • Write, Reflect, and/or Rest. The idea of writing every single day is a consejo given to many of us, but, for many, writing every day is not a realistic task. Use your writing plan to guide and track your writing progress, but also remember that there are other ways to make progress on your dissertation beyond writing. You can, for example, read an article about your dissertation topic and reflect on how it relates to your dissertation; revise your outline to ensure it is up-to-date with your dissertation headings; work on references; talk through your ideas with a peer or partner; or simply rest!
  • Practice before your defense. Give yourself enough time to prepare the slides for your presentation (at least one month before) and then email your PowerPoint slides (or notes) to your dissertation chair for feedback. After you get their feedback and make revisions, set up a time to practice your defense with your dissertation chair to ensure you are hitting all the important components of your presentation. You may also want to practice with other colleagues or peers to ensure your talk is the appropriate length—this is also a great way for you to get comfortable with the presentation format and with presenting in front of others (whether that be virtually or in-person). When practicing in front of others, make note of the kind of questions they are asking. Some of these questions may come up again during your actual defense and you want to ensure you are prepared to answer them.

Recommendations for Institutions and Programs to Help Students Dissertating 

Institutions have had to make major adjustments in their day-to-day procedures throughout the pandemic. Likewise, many students, especially those who are first-generation doctoral students, have also had to (re)learn  and (re)navigate unfamiliar spaces. What follows are recommendations intended for university programs. As graduate students, these are some of the additional support mechanisms we may require in order to successfully reach our professional goals. Given the pandemic, these mechanisms can be offered online through a virtual format.

  • Offer a Dissertation Support Group. This group can be divided into smaller groups for a period of time (e.g., 6-weeks, once a month, or biweekly) to provide doctoral students with a supportive, structured (or loosely structured) environment that helps them move along their dissertation journey. Among some of the topics that can be covered include, for example: tips on staying motivated, strategies on time management, and coping with burnout. Here is an example of Michigan State University’s Dissertation Support Group.
  • Offer a Dissertation Writing Retreat Series. This series can provide dissertating doctoral students a space to work individually in a quiet, collegial atmosphere and helps create opportunities for peer accountability to help each other stay on track. Here is an example of Brown University’s Writing Retreat.
  • Offer Dissertation Writing Workshops. These workshops can be tailored for students in various stages of their dissertation journey (e.g., writing the literature review, tips on getting organized, an introduction to using citation programs, and writing results and discussion). These workshops will serve to demystify the dissertation and give students a space to learn with and write in the company of their peers. Here is an example of UC San Diego’s Dissertation Writer’s Workshop.
  • Offer a Panel Series of Students Dissertating. Invite doctoral students to share their perspectives, challenges, and strategies on writing their dissertations. For many students, it can be beneficial to hear how others are navigating their dissertation in a pandemic (and under other general circumstances as well). Consider also having breakout rooms (if done virtually) to build community and trust. Panel topics can include, for example: writing a dissertation during a pandemic while navigating parenthood; writing a dissertation during a pandemic while juggling work, family, and other responsibilities; writing a dissertation while navigating the job market.

Final Thoughts

A recurrent question that was asked to us at the panel was: How do you find motivation to write a dissertation during a pandemic? This question is one we have asked ourselves since starting this journey. Below we offer our reflections on what keeps us motivated.

Amanda: Whenever I find myself struggling to connect my thoughts or putting the pen to paper, I always go back to that social media post when I announced my admission into the PhD program. The post reminds me of the community who is rallying me to complete this degree, and most importantly, it reminds me of my family. Many say that your dissertation topic should not be personal, but for me—it is. During the pandemic, I have had the privilege of writing components of my dissertation while sharing space with my family. In essence, the pandemic helped me stay grounded in my purpose by placing me with my family while I write. So, if you are a social media user like myself, consider reviewing your posts about your PhD announcement and think about the village who is backing you up! And, reach out to those folks, get your pep talk, and put your pen to paper!

Christian: First, if you’ve reached ABD status you are almost at the finish line. Find confidence in that! Second, you have a community that wants to see you reach your goals. Reach out to them as needed. Third, I found myself reading fiction at the beginning of the pandemic. As a social scientist, fiction reorganized my thinking and ultimately helped with my own writing process especially when I found myself “stuck.” Trust yourself! This is your own personal dissertation journey, and you know what is best for you.

 Dianey: My entire dissertation journey has felt like a constant state of negotiation, which has been both emotionally and mentally draining. To find motivation, I have given myself time and space to grieve the loss of what I thought would be my dream project. As I navigate this liminal middle ground, I continue to ask myself “…to whom do I write for and for what purpose?” My answers remind me that my work is personal and meaningful and that I am fortunate to get to do research on a topic that I care about in a region that shaped my upbringing and laid the foundation for my success. If you are struggling to find motivation, ask yourself: to whom do I write for and for what purpose? Why is this important to me and why does this matter? 


We would like to thank Dr. María Isabel Ayala, Director of the Chicano/Latino Studies Program and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University,  for inviting us to share our dissertation journeys with others. This blog was a direct result of our experience in participating in that panel, and we remain grateful for having had the virtual space to share our consejos and learn from one another.

We would also like to thank Dr. Gloria Crisp, Professor at Oregon State University, and Dr. Vanessa Sansone, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, for sharing a similar template of the literature review database with current and former students. We remain grateful for this invaluable resource aimed at helping students organize their literature review.

Author Bios

Dianey Leal: Dianey Leal is a first-generation, college migrant student proudly raised in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. She is currently a doctoral candidate earning a dual major in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Learning (HALE) and Chicano/Latino Studies (CLS) programs at Michigan State University. For her dissertation, Dianey is using a critical narrative approach to understand the experiences and perceptions of Latinx/a/o students as they plan and prepare for a postsecondary education. Dianey’s work is focused on the policies and practices related to college access and high school-to-college transition among minoritized student populations.

Amanda Flores: Amanda is a doctoral candidate in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program with a graduate certificate in Chicano/Latino Studies. Her hometown is Sullivan City, TX, located in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and she identifies as a first-generation college student, migrant farmworker and a social class straddler. Her research uses participatory action research methodology to explore the cultural and familial influences on financial practices among migrant farmworking college students.

Christian Ramirez: Dr. Christian V. Ramirez is a recent graduate of the Chicano/Latino Studies Program and Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. At a young age his parents immigrated from Saltillo, Mexico to the gulf coast city of Corpus Christi, TX. He is a first-generation graduate with plans to serve as a faculty mentor for other first-generation students of color. His academic focus engages the cultural exchange between Indigenous and African peoples in 17th century Veracruz, Mexico, colonialism, and rebellions against structures of domination. His political work is centered on the liberation of BIPOC through decolonial pedagogies and decolonial praxis. Dismantling white-supremacy is also at the forefront of his life’s work.


Authors’ Note: Amanda and Dr. Ramirez contributed equally to the development of this blog and have chosen to share second authorship, listed alphabetically by last name.


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