by Tamara L. Brown, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Psychology; University of Kentucky; & Owner of Dissertation Coaching Services (www.thedisscoach.com)
Most students find writing the dissertation to be the most daunting aspect of graduate school. When it comes to the dissertation, they feel overwhelmed and ill equipped, they doubt their abilities, and many give up before finishing. So challenging is the dissertation, that some have estimated that as many as 50% of graduate students are ABD (“all but dissertation”), which means students leave graduate school having met all requirements except the dissertation. But it does not have to be this way!
Based on my many years of experience or working with doctoral students, I have discovered that there are some very common pitfalls and misconceptions about the dissertation that cut across nearly all graduate students and block their dissertation progress. The good news is that these problems are all fixable! Due to space limitations, in the rest of this blog, I briefly highlight 3 problems students frequently encounter and provide tips on overcoming them. For more detailed information on these and other common problems and tips, or for individualized assistance, contact me (email@example.com).
Problem 1: “I’m too busy to write.” Graduate students are notoriously busy! In addition to working on their dissertations, students in the PhD clinical psychology program where I teach also have to juggle taking classes, studying, teaching classes, seeing clients, conducting other research, writing journal articles, preparing conference presentations, and their personal interests and responsibilities. It’s a tall order; who has time to write! Actually there is more time than you might think. Graduate students (like everyone else) waste a lot of time that could be spent writing. Some time wasters are obvious such as time spent on facebook or checking email. But some time wasters are not as obvious. Examples given by graduate students I talked to are time spent organizing articles, organizing one’s workspace, and preparing to write. Getting organized is important, but spending too much time on it leaves very little, if any, time for actual writing. A solution is to first create a daily grid and keep track of how you spend your time so that you become aware of what your time wasters are and how much time you waste. Next, get rid of the obvious time wasters such as email and facebook by making their use contingent upon meeting your writing goals. Get rid of the subtle time wasters by scheduling organization time into your calendar as separate from your scheduled writing time. This ensures you devote adequate time to organizing, but when it’s time to write, organizing ends. If you lapse into your favorite time wasters when you are supposed to be writing, stop yourself! Remember that you have other places in your schedule for those activities so carefully guard your writing time and only do writing during writing time.
Problem 2: Many graduate students mistakenly believe that they cannot begin writing until they are able to have an extended period (say 2 hours) of uninterrupted time to devote to writing. Since they rarely have such large blocks of time in their schedules, the result is that weeks (and months) go by and students never begin writing, believing that they did not have enough time. Research shows that those who write in shorter spurts of time are more productive than those who write in binges and they tend to find writing more enjoyable. The solution is to change your thinking and start writing in 30-minute blocks of time. Why 30 minutes? Because most people can find 30-minute blocks in their schedules. Decide in advance which specific section of your project you will work on so that when the time for writing comes, you can get started right away (rather than spending your 30-minute writing time getting organized). Write as much as you can and when the time is up, stop writing. If you write for 30 minutes every day, by the end of a week, you will have spent 3 hours writing! If you wait for a 3-hour block of time to appear in your schedule, by the end of a week, you will have spent 0 hours writing!
Problem 3: Mismanagement of negative emotions. Working on the dissertation is often associated with negative thoughts (e.g., “I am incompetent,” “they made a mistake admitting me into this program”) and negative emotions (e.g., fear, anxiety). These thoughts and feelings, if not managed properly, feed on one another and result in behaviors that are self-sabotaging. Take procrastination as an example. I had a student with lots of negative thoughts and emotions associated with his dissertation that would overwhelm him every time he tried to work on it, so rather than work on his dissertation he would over commit to other activities (e.g., teaching, taking on more clients, household chores). These activities allowed him to avoid his fears and insecurities while still feeling like he was busy doing important work that had to get done. While procrastination provides temporary relief from unwanted thoughts and feelings, the problem is these avoidance tactics prevent students from making progress on their dissertations, and that lack of progress fuels even more negative thoughts and feelings which lead to more procrastination; a vicious cycle. A solution is to recognize how your behaviors, especially those that interfere with your dissertation, are influenced by your thoughts and feelings. Applying principles of cognitive and cognitive-behavioral theory are helpful in this regard.
These are just 3 of the most common pitfalls graduate students experience while trying to complete their dissertations. There are others that are common and some that are unique to particular situations. Regardless of the problem you are having, the solution is to get active in figuring out the problem and what to do about it. If you have tried to do that and it is not working, there are other options such as seeking the assistance of a dissertation coach. Dissertation coaches can be particularly helpful if you have spent an inordinate amount of time spinning your wheels on your dissertation rather than making real progress, if your dissertation chairperson is not providing the guidance and support you need, or if you are at the beginning of your dissertation and you want someone to help you get set up for the road ahead. A dissertation coach can help you devise strategies and step-by-step plans to keep you making steady progress.