By Holly Ann Garnett

Congratulations! You’ve passed your comprehensive exams and you’ve defended your dissertation proposal. You spent the last 2-3 years working towards this milestone, but now what? Here are some tips and trips for newly-minted ABDs.

  • Build yourself some structure

Being ABD can be disorienting for many graduate students, as you may lack any sense of routine that you had while still doing coursework. My best advice is to now consider your dissertation your job. Give yourself a regular ‘work day’ and take at least one day ‘off’ a week rather than going 24/7. Try to find a regular ‘non-academic’ activity to help add some structure to your week, whether that is a regular yoga class or board games club. These activities help with productivity since it provides a routine and opportunities for socialization.

Regarding structuring the progress of your dissertation itself, many academics give themselves conferences as deadlines to complete a paper. Having clear goals (that can’t easily be moved) provides the motivation to write. I also used (and still use) a white-board as a visual way to remind myself of the status and deadlines for milestones on my dissertation.

  • The training isn’t over

We sometimes think that once our comprehensive exams are over we never have to sit in a class (at least one we aren’t teaching) ever again. But one of the best things I did, once I was ABD (which I really ought to have done even sooner) was attend a summer methods programme. I was back in class 5 days a week that summer, but it was worth every minute. Figure out what skills you will need to successfully complete your dissertation and find a summer school that will help you learn those skills. It will actually save you time down the road if you invest in learning the proper techniques and methods now.

You should also start taking advantage of professional development workshops now if you haven’t already. In particular, I would encourage you to take at least one pedagogical workshop per semester if they are offered at your university. The skills I developed at workshops on topics like universal design for learning, and understanding discrimination in the university-setting were crucial to developing my approach to teaching. These concepts were invaluable to writing (and putting in practice) my teaching philosophy (more about teaching portfolios here).

  • Your dissertation isn’t the only act in town

While your primary goal is to write your dissertation, you should also be thinking about finding collaborations outside of your university’s network.  When it comes time to apply for jobs, hiring committees want to see that you are able to do more than just your dissertation.

There are a few ways you can approach this. The first way is to find a project at your university that you can take some sort of leadership role in. You may already be an RA for your supervisor or another faculty member, but it is worthwhile to ask if there are any projects on the horizon that you can take enough of an active role in to become a co-author or even lead author.

In my experience, the turning point for seeing my career as more than just my dissertation was doing a research fellowship abroad at the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney. Being outside of my normal community pushed me to build new relationships and develop new projects, particularly with faculty members outside of my supervisory committee. Some of my most impressive achievements during my PhD – including a co-chairing a conference section and publishing an edited book – emerged from the collaborations from my time in Sydney. However, always run ‘side projects’ by your supervisor first and take their advice if you are veering too far form the main goal of finishing your dissertation.

  • Start networking now

Networking is powerful in all fields, including academia (read Jacob Muirhead’s article about how to network here). It will give you the power of knowledge about the dynamics of your field, open the door to future collaborations or invitations to conferences, or even get you the inside scoop on jobs coming up.

I found the best way to network as a graduate student was to attend seminars run by my research centre. I wish I had went to more earlier on and been less afraid to introduce myself to the visiting researchers. Nearing the end of my PhD, I made a goal to attend one talk per month minimum. Some months this proved difficult, but the experience of listening to experienced researchers and getting my name on their radar was invaluable, and definitely worth the short break from my writing schedule.

Another way to network is to schedule coffee meetings during academic conferences. I tried to schedule at least two, with researchers I admired (whether that be for their presentation skills, novel research projects, or public profile) at every conference. I would prepare a short elevator pitch on what I was working on and have a few specific questions to ask. As long as you don’t abuse the generosity of their time, most researchers were happy to take a few minutes out of their schedule to meet with me.


These tips are some of the best decisions I made during graduate school but be sure to ask around to get a sense of the best things to do at your university or in your field. Most recent graduates are more than happy to share their advice and experiences. All you have to do is ask!


Dr. Holly Ann Garnett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada. She completed her PhD in Political Science at McGill University in 2017.