21 Hard Truths about Doing a Dissertation: What No One Tells You | Issue 250
Summary: Doing a dissertation leads to learning the unexpected—about academia, about life, about yourself. We offer you a heads up on 21 hard truths so you don't have to find out everything the hard way.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes (that will save you untold anguish later)
By Gayle Scroggs, Ph. D.
Are you feeling dismayed by the twists and turns on the road to your Ph.D.?
You can spare yourself needless mystification and anxiety by learning from those who have already been through the process. Here are 21 things you need to know that the graduate catalogue and faculty advisors won't tell you.
1. THE DISSERTATION JOURNEY WILL BE LONGER AND BUMPIER THAN YOU EXPECTED.
As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman discovered, humans usually vastly underestimate the time it takes to complete a project.
We find it easier to imagine the best-case scenario rather than the most likely one. We easily forget that life always happens on our way to a goal: crises arise, illness strikes, breakups happen, etc. We also usually neglect budgeting for mundane tasks, from responding to email to paying the bills. Figure most things will take at least twice as long as you first imagined.
2. YOU MUST CREATE YOUR OWN ROADMAP.
No roadmap or GPS exists for dissertation success; each journey is unique. While you may consult others, it is up to you to find your own path. Take time to chart your route in advance: identify milestones, likely obstacles, and strategies for overcoming them. Visibly track your progress for maximum effect. [Thank you, Dr. Eva Ross, for this one.]
3. YOU ALREADY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO FINISH YOUR DOCTORATE.
If you have been admitted to a doctoral program, experienced academics deemed you fit for the journey. No one expects you to possess all the expertise or skills at the start line; you are expected to develop them en route to the finish line. Learning to cultivate abilities and resources shows maturity, not inferiority. Replace any impostor syndrome assumptions with new mottos that allow you to make mistakes, access support, and shorten your To Do list.
4. YOUR DISSERTATION WILL NEVER BE PERFECT.
Your dissertation is your first major work, not your magnum opus. It's your opportunity to learn how to be an independent scholar. Most dissertations only need to be good enough to be accepted by your dissertation committee. If your career path requires it to become a published book, raise the writing quality bar to "excellent, but not perfect" and expect to do additional editing according to the book publisher's recommendations. Replacing perfectionism with a productive frame of mind is a necessity.
5. YOUR HABITS WILL MAKE YOU OR BREAK YOU.
Your habits will determine how fast you finish and how much you enjoy the journey. With established routines for productivity and health, you will travel smoother and faster. Irregular patterns of sleeping, working, and self-care will impair your performance and well-being. It's not too late: Cultivate good habits now using proven willpower principles. You will never regret it.
6. SELF-COMPASSION MOTIVATES BETTER THAN SELF-CRITICISM.
Lashing yourself for underperforming is self-sabotage that wastes valuable energy. Memorize this mantra: You don't have to believe everything you think. That goes double for your inner critic's nasty intrusions. Be as kind to you as you would be to others. Self-compassion-which you should not mistake for self-pity or self-indulgence-offers comforting and greater resilience. Be your own best friend by practicing self-compassion.
7. YOU ARE NOT YOUR DISSERTATION.
Never ever equate your self-worth with your dissertation. A dissertation is just a product. It is not your being. You are always enough just as you are. (Psychologist Carl Rogers and children's TV program host Fred Rogers both agreed on this!) Success will never cure a lack of self-worth, but therapy can help.
8. COMPARING YOURSELF TO YOUR PEERS HURTS MORE THAN IT HELPS.
Trying to keep up with someone whose goals, obligations, and resources differ from yours drags you down. Instead, lift your sails by enlisting peer support. Start a writing group or get a dissertation buddy.
9. YOU CAN'T HAVE IT ALL RIGHT NOW.
Saying "yes" to your dissertation means saying "no" to nearly everything else. Confirm your commitment by writing down why having a doctorate matters enough to defer or dismiss other potential worthy goals. Post this to be reminded daily of your big Why. Meanwhile, keep deferred items in files marked "later" or "someday/maybe" to review after you finish your degree.
10. WAITING FOR YOUR MUSE OR THE RIGHT MOOD KEEPS YOU STUCK IN ABD LAND.
Successful writers never wait for inspiration or until they feel like writing. They make a habit of writing every day—and eventually the muse and mood appear. Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable in the pursuit of your goal. Get out of your comfort zone by embracing the struggle as evidence of personal and professional growth. Commit yourself to developing a strong writing habit.
11. FOCUS (NOT INTELLIGENCE) IS YOUR BIGGEST ASSET.
If you were accepted into a doctoral program, you are already smart enough to finish. The real challenge is keeping the momentum. How will you maintain your focus in a distraction-filled world? Saying "yes" to your dissertation while saying "no" to interruptions, social media, and other temptations will make all the difference. Augment your ability to sustain your attention through practicing mindfulness and good self-care.
12. YOUR ENVIRONMENT MAY BE HOLDING YOU BACK.
Studies demonstrate that clutter and other distractions diminish focusing ability. Eliminate stimuli that compete for your priceless attention by optimizing your work space. Take an honest look at where you usually write—does it really facilitate your best work? Do you need better lighting? A more comfortable chair? Do you need to subtract something? What would make you relish working there? Experiment with other venues and pick the one where you get the most done.
13. YOUR CHARACTER INFORMS THE DISSERTATION PROCESS.
The good news: Bringing your best self to your work facilitates both performance and fulfillment. You already possess character strengths that can be nurtured and leveraged to help you get unstuck and keep moving. From gratitude to kindness, leadership to prudence, your authentic qualities let you shine, so harness them. They can also trip you up when overused, so stay mindful.
14. FEEDBACK IS YOUR FRIEND.
Rewrites are part and parcel of the dissertation process. Improve your writing skills and manuscript quality through others' feedback. Caveat: Most faculty, lacking training in the art of feedback, usually do unto their students what was done unto them. To get improved feedback, ask for advice on specific elements of your draft. Accept all feedback as a gift: Harvest the gold nuggets and let the rest go. When the criticism stings, whine a bit, move on, and remind yourself to be more helpful when it is your turn.
15. YOUR ADVISOR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND OR PARENT.
While the best advisors offer helpful guidance and encouragement, their role does not include cheerleading or nagging. As mentors, they have some investment in your success, however it is not their responsibility to make you do the work. Accept the adult role early for a great relationship with your advisor and yourself.
16. YOU ARE THE BOSS.
You are the CEO of your dissertation. As the leader, you are responsible for maintaining the vision and forward movement. Not sure how to lead your enterprise? Attend a dissertation boot camp, read a dissertation guide, or hire a dissertation coach. Confer with peers. It is not your advisor's job to teach you how to lead your project, although many will generously respond with tips if asked.
17. YOU WILL NEVER "FIND" THE TIME—YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE TIME.
Your best intellectual and creative thinking requires deep work which can only occur when you give yourself large blocks of time. Don't just tweak your schedule—hack it with an ax to carve out significant chunks and entire days dedicated to your goal. Dissertation dilettantes never finish. Creating a daily schedule and committing to follow it is the single best move you can make.
18. THIRTY MINUTES IS LONGER THAN YOU THINK.
Even short bursts of time can be productive. A handy list of mini-tasks lets you leverage small breaks and waiting time. Why fritter it away on social media or Words with Friends? Challenge yourself to see how much you can accomplish, e.g., find a reference or jot down ideas for your discussion section. Exploit untethered minutes by taking a walk outside, meditating, starting a load of laundry, or calling your mother. After all, you can't kill time without injuring your future.
19. TODAY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN TOMORROW.
Do you give your Future Self short shrift? We find it easy to leave the dishes in the sink when we fail to identify with the person who has to face them in the morning. . . or when we delude ourselves that we will have more time tomorrow than we do today. Consider your Present Self and Future Self a dissertation team—and respect your teammate by doing your part today. No one wants to be partnered with a slacker—so give your Future Self a reason to thank you by doing all you can today.
20. YOUR DIPLOMA DOES NOT COME WITH A JOB OFFER.
Earning your doctorate will not guarantee career success. You still must leverage your degree via a thoughtful job search. As faculty positions grow scarce, you should amplify your search to other realms, e.g., government, business, nonprofits, or other academic roles. Seek advice as needed from well-informed sources (which most likely eliminates your faculty advisor).
21. FINISHING A DISSERTATION WILL NOT BRING LASTING HAPPINESS.
Take a look around your department for evidence: Are you surrounded by joyfully beaming academics? Getting your diploma may bring you temporary satisfaction, as does any major achievement—but the thrill will wear off only to be replaced by new goals (e.g., publications, promotions, and pay raises). Sustainable happiness more often emerges from warm, close relationships. Bottom line: Plan on gaining some fulfillment from your work, but be sure not to neglect your most important relationships now and in the future.
Want someone in your corner to help you finish your dissertation faster while you develop great habits and useful insights? Complete this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach. At MentorCoach, we've helped thousands of ABDs just like you finish and flourish on the dissertation journey for over twenty years.
YOUR OWN COACH
If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.
GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG.
An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources essencecoaching.com.
BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (www.MentorCoach.com), a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.
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