Going through the Last Semester and Procrastination



Vasilis Pavlopoulos
Washington State University


Anastasia Vishnevskaya

Anastasia Vishnevskaya
Washington State University

Procrastination is a common problem faced by many students during their academic journey. However, the issue becomes particularly acute for PhD students in their final year, as they approach the deadline for submission of their dissertation. Despite being aware of the gravity of the situation, many PhD students procrastinate and struggle to complete their work in a timely and efficient manner. In this article, we will explore the reasons behind procrastination among PhD students, its impact on their academic performances, and strategies to overcome the issue.

Reasons behind Procrastination

Procrastination is a complex issue, and its underlying reasons can vary from person to person. Some common factors that contribute to procrastination among PhD students are:

  1. Emotional Overload: The final year of a PhD program can be overwhelming, with a significant amount of work to be completed in a limited amount of time. This can make it difficult for students to know where to start or how to stay motivated. Where does it lead? Depression, low energy, and pessimism. Interestingly, pessimism and negative feelings are not the only ones that lead to procrastination. According to an experimental investigation by Sigall et al. (2000), extremely optimistic participants are more likely to procrastinate in initiating an aversive task. An examination of their expectations indicates that they thought they could delay and still finish the task before the deadline. Henceforth, positive or negative emotional overload can lead to procrastination.
  2. Fear of Failure: The fear of failure is connected to both low self-efficacy and self-esteem (Judge and Bono, 2001). PhD students may fear that their dissertation will not be good enough and compare themselves with the success stories of their peers. This fear of failure can be paralyzing and prevent students from making progress. In particular, individuals who hold irrational beliefs may experience a lack of confidence in their abilities (that is low self-efficacy) and may also believe that any failure to meet expected standards is a reflection of their personal worth (which is low self-esteem).
  3. Lack of Structure: PhD students have a lot of freedom in how they manage their time, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Without clear guidance, it can be challenging to maintain focus and make progress. It has been shown by Steel (2007) that PhD students who have lack of structure and clear set of goals tend to work hard only during the time close to the deadlines. Steel and König (2006) suggest that a clear goal setting (e.g., a calendar with clear deadlines or anything else that helps the goals to be clear) may effectively increase work effort.
  4. Burnout: PhD students often work for long hours, and they can become burned out and exhausted. This can lead to a lack of motivation, energy, and increased stress. Steel (2007) argues that this type of procrastination is under the spectrum of “Neuroticism”. Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions such as worrying, trait anxiety, or negative affect. Some studies show that academic procrastination can be a stress-coping technique, though not desirable (e.g., Valenzuela et al., 2020). Therefore, students that experience a lot of stress are more likely to procrastinate.
  5. Perfectionism: Some scholars suggest that personality traits can be among efficient predictors of procrastinating behavior(e.g., Nazari et al., 2021). Many PhD students hold themselves to very high standards, which can lead to an excessive focus on the minutiae of their research. This can result in spending too much time on insignificant details. Although perfectionists do not appear to unduly delay initiating tasks, they may still delay completing them as they strive to meet their own onerous standards (Çapan, 2010). 

Impact of Procrastination

This discussion might have triggered your interest in learning about the implications of this phenomenon. Some of us might have already correlated ourselves with the general categories of the reasons for procrastination, but for all of us, it is important to understand the magnitude of the impact that procrastination has on PhD Students, both in terms of their academic performance and their mental health. Some consequences of procrastination include: 

  1. Delayed Graduation: Procrastination can lead to missed deadlines and delayed graduation. While some students voluntarily choose to postpone their graduation to protect their mental health, for others, a delayed graduation can be more stressful and even demoralize them (Ho et al., 2020).
  2. Poor Quality Work: When PhD students procrastinate, they may rush to complete their work just prior to the deadline, which results in poor quality (Sims, 2014).
  3. Stress and Anxiety: Procrastination can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety, which can have a negative impact on students’ mental health (Chee et al., 2021). It is crucial for PhD students to prioritize their mental health and well-being. Untreated mental health problems can lead to academic burnout, decreased motivation, and impaired cognitive function; all of which can hinder a student’s ability to complete their doctoral pro- gram successfully.
  4. Impaired Productivity: When PhD students procrastinate, they waste a lot of time and energy, which can impair their overall productivity (Schmidt and Hansson, 2018). Impaired productivity is not only related to in- complete or poor-quality work; but more importantly, it may lead to missed opportunities for networking, research, and other academic pursuits. In other words, procrastination could potentially lead to delays in important tasks, which could result in wasted time and lost opportunities.

Strategies to Overcome Procrastination

The impacts of procrastination are considerable and it bears the question: how do we overcome our tendency towards procrastination? In this section, we will discuss several useful tips to overcome procrastination. Hopefully, some of them will be useful in helping you develop a strategic treatment to reduce or even relieve its negative consequences. 

  1. Break Tasks into Smaller Pieces: Rather than trying to tackle a large project all at once, break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This can make the task feel less overwhelming and help maintain motivation. There are many techniques one can follow. Make a list of all the tasks that need to be completed, and then break each task down into smaller steps. This will help you to see the progress you are making and give you a sense of accomplishment as you complete each step. Another compliment technique is the Pomodoro technique (Cirillo, 2018). This technique involves breaking down the work into 25-minute intervals, followed by a 5-minute break. After four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break. This helps to break up the work into smaller, more manageable pieces. Use the 5-minute rule. If a task can be completed in five minutes or less, do it immediately. This will help you reduce the number of small tasks that may build up and become overwhelming if left unattended. Focus on one task at a time; trying to multitask can lead to procrastination and reduced productivity. Instead, focus on one task at a time and give it your full attention until it is completed. 
  2. Set Realistic Goals: Set realistic goals for each day, and track progress towards those goals. This can help to maintain focus and provide a sense of accomplishment. In other words, set “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART)" goals for each task (Robins, 2014). This will help to clarify what needs to be done and create a sense of urgency to complete the task. The strategy works through what is referred to as the “achievement motivation". The term depicts the drive/desire to accomplish goals or attain success, and it can be influenced by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivation concerns the internal desire to engage in an activity be- cause it is inherently enjoyable, interesting, or fulfilling. When individuals are intrinsically motivated, they tend to experience less procrastination because they find the task itself to be engaging and rewarding. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to external factors that motivate individuals to engage in a task, such as rewards or recognition. While extrinsic motivation can also be effective in reducing procrastination, it may not be as sustainable as intrinsic motivation because the external rewards can eventually lose their appeal. 
  3. Create a Schedule: Create a schedule for each day, with specific times set aside for work, exercise, relaxation, and other activities. Stick to the schedule as much as possible, and adjust it as needed. To do this follow these steps: identify the activities, determine the priorities, allocate time, stick to the plan, review, and revise. A clear understanding of your capabilities and strengths helps you in develop an achievable schedule. Try to create a schedule and see how it works. If it does not work as expected, identify the bottleneck and update accordingly. You will learn more about what the best system is for you as time continues. 
  4. Use Positive Self-Talk: Use positive self-talk to motivate your- self! Positive self-talk involves using positive language and affirmations to encourage oneself to take action. For example, in- stead of saying "I can’t do this," a PhD student may say "I am capable of completing this task. I will do my best. I am sure there is a way." By rephrasing negative thoughts into positive ones, students can boost their confidence and motivation, which can help to prevent procrastination (Voge, 2010). 


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