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Procrastination and Advanced Academic Writers

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The dissertation can make procrastinators out of non-procrastinators and drive chronic procrastinators to despair: it can feel completely overwhelming.


The posting below looks at the role procrastination plays in dissertation writing.  It is from Chapter 10 From Avoidance to Action, by Lisa Russell-Pinson and Haadi Jafarian in the book Learning from the Lived Experiences of Graduate Student Writers, edited by Shannon Madden, Michelle Eodice, Kristen T. Edwards, and Alexandria Lockett. Published by Utah State University Press, An imprint of University Press of Colorado, 245 Century Circle, Suite 202, Louisville, Colorado 80027. Copyright 2020 by University Press of Colorado. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Procrastination and Advanced Academic Writers


In order to complete their dissertations, doctoral-level writers must exert “an extraordinary amount of personal responsibility, commitment, time, cognitive effort, and motivation” while engaging in “a high-stakes, complex academic task that is often very different from anything that has been done before” (Kelley and Salisbury-Glennon 2016, 88; see also Dinkins and Sorrell 2014; Jalongo and Saracho 2016; Pauley 2004). This demanding backdrop can induce procrastination in dissertation writers. As Carol Straforini (2015) explains,

The dissertation can make procrastinators out of non-procrastinators and drive chronic procrastinators to despair: it can feel completely overwhelming. It must be an original contribution to the field. It is far too big a project to do at the last minute. The relevant time unit for completion is not weeks or months but years. It has no set beginning or end. There is no precise moment when one must start and no exact deadline for when one must finish. Faculty do not always regularly monitor its progress. Given these factors, what more fertile ground for procrastination? (298)

Procrastination is popularly attributed to laziness, a lack of will power, or an inability to manage one’s time effectively. However, researchers examining procrastination note the complexity of the behavior, which typically stems from cognitive, social-cultural, and/or emotional roots. For example, Martha Kelley and Jill Salisbury-Glennon (2016) examined the role of self-regulation, “an active process in which learners analyze tasks, set goals and then attempt to monitor and regulate their cognition, motivation, and behavior in support of these goals,” (89) among dissertation writers and found an inverse relationship between levels of self-regulated learning and time to dissertation completion (Jalongo and Saracho 2016; also see Wolters, Won, and Hussain 2017 for a full discussion of academic time management); in other words, the ABD students in their study who exhibited low levels of self-regulated learning experienced longer times to dissertation completion. Sometimes doctoral candidates from sociocultural backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in graduate-level programs may experience “work inhibitions” related to the dissertation and be “stuck because of fears of leaving important others behind” (Straforini 2015, 304). Dissertation students can also experience intense emotional challenges rooted in past experiences, current circumstances, and/or future anxieties that can grind their progress to a halt. One difficulty many writers confront in the dissertation writing process is a problematic relationship with their advisors (Casanave 2014,2016; Hwang, Bennett, and Beauchemin 2014; Paltridge and Woodrow2012; Russell-Pinson and Harris 2019; Simpson 2016; Straforini 2015; Wang and Li 2011). As Straforini (2015) notes, “Countless students struggle desperately with their advisors, at times staging a kind of strike for better working conditions, slowing down or stopping progress” on their dissertations in the process (301).

   In her review of the literature on procrastination and its relationship to advanced academic writing, Cecile Badenhorst (2010) concludes that  procrastination is due to a need to


• protect writers from critical feedback or negative outcomes, as might be the case when someone puts off submitting a conference proposal for fear of harsh peer reviews;


• [a]void tasks that are

       * [c]ognitively difficult, such as when a student does

          not understand how to effectively synthesize and critique

          the literature in order to make a convincing and    

          relevant argument;


       * [l]oathsome, such as when a student finds editing 

          their writing an odious task yet knows submitting an 

          unpolished text is unacceptable;


       * [i]mposed by someone else, such as when an advisor 

          requires the incorporation of a theory into the dissertation the student 

          does not find directly relevant to the dissertation topic. (65–66)


Badenhorst (2010) also notes that even academic writers who normally do not procrastinate may find themselves doing just that during the dissertation stage due to (1) the enormity of the project and the corresponding lack of “appropriate guidelines, feedback mechanisms or support,” and/or (2) the high-stakes nature of the dissertation and the possibility that the writers might “be found unworthy. ” (71, 72)


In addition to the heavy cost to the students’ time to degree completion, procrastination has been shown to lead to an increase in health problems and sleep disorders, a rise in stress and guilt, and a decrease in subjective well-being among college students (Krause and Freund 2016; Marais et al. 2018). Thus, writers who procrastinate often find this practice can have wide-reaching negative effects on many aspects of their lives.



Badenhorst, Cecile. 2010. Productive Writing:Becoming a Prolific Academic Writer. Pretoria:  Van Schaik. 

Casanave, Christine Pearson. 2019. “Performing Expertise in Doctoral Dissertations:  Thoughts on a Fundamental Dilemma Facing Doctoral Students and Their Supervisors.” Journal of Second Language Writing 43: 57–62. 

Dinkins, Christine Sorrell, and Jeanne Merkle Sorrell. 2016. Our Dissertations, Ourselves:  Shared Stories of Women’s Dissertation Journeys. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Graduate Assembly. 2014. Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report. http://ga . 

Hinsdale, Mary Jo. 2015. Mutuality, Mystery, and Mentorship in Higher Education. Rotterdam:  Sense. 

Hwang, Bong, Robert Bennett, and James Beauchemin. 2014. “International Students’ Utilization of Counseling Services.” College Student Journal 48 (3): 347–354. 

Inman, Arpana G., and Michael E. Silverstein. 2003. “Dissertation Support Group: To Dissertate or Not Is the Question.” Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 17 (3): 59–69. 

Jalongo, Mary Renck, and Olivia N. Saracho. 2016. Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools That Support Scholars’ Success. New York: Springer. 


Kelley, Martha J. M., and Jill D. Salisbury-Glennon.

2016. “The Role of Self-regulation in Doctoral

Students’ Status of All but Dissertation (ABD).”

Innovative Higher Education 41 (1): 87–100. 


Krause, Kathrin, and Alexandra M. Freund. 2016. “It’s

in the Means: Process Focus Helps against

Procrastination in the Academic Context.” Motivation

and Emotion 40 (3):  422–437. 


Marais, Gabriel A. B., Rebecca Shankland, Pascale

Haag, Robin Fiault, and Bridget Juniper. 2018. “A Survey and a Positive Psychology Intervention on[EH11]

French PhD Student Well-being.” International

Journal of Doctoral Studies 3: 109–138. 


Paltridge, Brian, and Linda Woodrow. 2012. “Thesis

and Dissertation Writing: Moving   Beyond the Text.”

In Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign

Language: Issues and Challenges Facing ESL/EFL

Academic Writers in Higher Education Contexts, edited

by Ramona Tang, 88–104. London: Continuum Books. 


Pauley, David. 2004. “Group Therapy for Dissertation-Writers: The Right Modality for a Struggling Population.” Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 18 (4): 25–43. 


Straforini, Carol Morrison. 2015. “Dissertation as Life Chapter: Managing Emotions, Relationships, and Time.” Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 29 (4): 296–313. 


Wolters, Christopher A., Sungjun Won, and Maryam

Hussain. 2017. “Examining the Relations of Time

Management and Procrastination within a Model of

Self-Regulated Learning.” Metacognition and

Learning 12 (3): 381–399.