It’s hard to pinpoint the single moment when a dissertation project is officially finished. It could be during your defense, when you and your advisors decide that what you’ve written is a dissertation, and everyone agrees to sign off on it. It could also be when you submit what you've written to your university repository, or when you send in your final paperwork. And at any of these points, how can you know for sure that the object being defended, approved, and signed doesn’t need any additions or changes? The project has to end sometime, but how do you know when?
This question is especially familiar to anyone who has made a digital object. Not bound by material constraints, creators of websites and applications often have a hard time deciding when to stop tinkering—when to say that they’ve done enough. Making a digital dissertation (four written chapters with four associated digital artifacts) made me aware of the similarity between the two processes early in my own project, and I initially wondered how I would ever know when I was finished with anything I was making and writing. As it turned out, the fact that I was negotiating two potentially open-ended processes actually helped me to avoid the problem entirely.
Because my prospectus proposed a dissertation project that included building digital artifacts, I created a detailed project plan from the beginning to demonstrate to my humanities-oriented committee that I was prepared for the challenge. I created milestones for my writing and building, and I also worked from the start to narrow the conceptual problems explored in each chapter to a few specific questions. Even though the particulars of the project and its execution evolved over time, I had a clear roadmap for what each chapter and its associated artifact was attempting to do and show. When I diverged sharply from my original plan on a few occasions, I knew exactly where and why I wanted to go a different direction. Surprisingly, I also noticed that when I boiled each chapter down to a very few distinct goals, my exploration became more expansive. Having my work bounded and scoped allowed me to innovate creatively within the constraints I identified because I was not slowed down by baggy goals. I think the answer to the question “how do you know when your project is finished?” is simple, if you’ve done the work in advance to put a narrow point on your undertaking. A project is finished when you’ve done what you set out to do (and it's not necessarily procrastinating to spend a long time planning before you start).