Revive your hope and build your self-confidence in 7 minutes | Issue 211

Editor's Note: On Your Dissertation Path, Will You Choose Fear—or Hope?


"Why are you predicting disaster? You could just as easily predict triumph."

I realized my colleague spoke the truth: In the midst of a major crisis, I could retreat in fear. Or I could move forward with hope.

You have the same choice when you hit a crisis or challenge on your path to your doctorate. When things seem to fall apart, you can throw your hands up in surrender. Or you can call on hope and act to turn things in your favor. 

We all have the capacity for hope. It's that ineffable human quality that motivates us to prevail in spite of everything. Hope means expecting the best in the future—and working to achieve it. It means believing that the future holds promise. No wonder so many studies place hope in the top five character strengths associated with life satisfaction, along with gratitude, love, zest, and curiosity. 

Are you finding hope in short supply? Then dig into this month's feature by my esteemed colleague, Diane Dreher, Ph.D., professor and coach. Soak up her personal dissertation hope story, and then experiment with her cutting-edge tips for reviving your hope and energy. Take heed and you'll reach that goal of a doctoral degree in due time and in good shape.

With hopes for your success and well-being,





Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.

Words from the Wise (and Hopeful)

"Hope is a waking dream." - Aristotle

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." - Albert Einstein

"When the world says 'Give up,' hope whispers 'Try it one more time.'" - Anon.

"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." - Desmond Tutu

"It always seems impossible until it is done." - Nelson Mandela

"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come." - Anne Lamott

Conquer Dissertation Overwhelm with Three Powerful Strategies from Hope Psychology

By Diane Dreher, Ph.D.


When I began grad school at UCLA, getting my Ph.D. felt like climbing some formidable mountain.

The other grad students seemed to know more than I did. Many already had their Master's degrees. Facing the looming doctoral mountain, I felt confused and overwhelmed about how to proceed. I realized that if I was going to reach the summit, what I needed most was hope.

What is hope? According to psychologist Rick Snyder, hopeful thinking involves three things:

  • Goals: Having objectives that bring meaning to our lives. I know where I want to go.

  • Agency: Believing that we can take the necessary actions and persevere in the face of obstacles to achieve these goals. I have the abilities needed to get there.

  • Pathways: Finding different ways to achieve our goals. I can figure out how to get there.

In short, the equation for success is Goals + Agency + Pathways, or GAP. This powerful combination helps us achieve our goals, bridging the GAP between where we are and where we'd like to be.

My goal was clear enough: Get that Ph.D. Most of you reading this have the same ultimate goal, i.e., a doctoral degree, but you will also need pathways and agency to fuel you to success.


Finding Pathways to the Goal

After working my way through college as a first generation college student, I knew how to work hard, so I could credit myself with some measure of agency. What I really lacked was a good pathway.

My classmate Stephen had a Master's degree and a clear idea of the path ahead. Not only was his father a distinguished professor, but Stephen had actually met some of the researchers we were studying, correcting me when I mispronounced their names. And in our first semester, he was already working on his dissertation.

Without Stephen's advantages, how in the world would I be able to figure things out on my own?

For the first exam, I decided I needed help. So I invited my classmates to my apartment for a study group. We shared insights, passed the exam, and developed strong, supportive friendships. Suddenly, I was not alone. Watching my successful colleagues write their dissertations, one step at a time, I learned valuable pathways skills and used them to write my dissertation.


You Need to Believe You Can Get There

You might be surprised to discover that Stephen never finished. He clearly had pathways, but apparently he lacked sufficient agency—that belief that he had what it takes to reach the goal. Perhaps his external bravado masked a ferocious inner critic. Perhaps he had what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "fixed mindset," too busy defending his reputation to learn from new challenges.

Unlike Stephen, you can move from a fixed mindset to a "growth mindset," overcoming obstacles to complete your dissertation by building your hope skills, which, like our muscles, can be strengthened by practice. You can learn to hush your inner critic .

Using the tips below, you can begin now to build your own hope skills by strengthening your goals, agency, and pathways, as my own experience and research have shown.



How to Work with Goals and Mini-Goals

Ultimately, you want to finish the dissertation. Since this goal is too big to tackle all at once, make it manageable.

  • Break it into smaller subgoals: separate research tasks, separate chapters.

  • Then take one small step at a time.


How to Build Your Agency Factor


Do you feel overwhelmed? Inadequate? Try these various tactics to strengthen your agency.

  • Remember a past challenge you overcame, and the skills you used. What skills can you use now?

  • Be kind to yourself. Maintain your energy by getting enough sleep, healthy food, and exercise.

  • Think of someone you admire. What can you learn from how this person deals with challenges?

  • Meet with like-minded friends, encourage each other, and celebrate each other's progress.

  • Tell yourself, "I can do this."

  • When you find yourself worrying or putting yourself down, STOP, take a deep breath and return to the present moment.

  • See the process as a game, asking, "What can I learn from this?"


How to Create the Pathways to Your Doctorate

Are you confused like I was, blocked by obstacles? Do you feel thrown off course when you face a setback?

  • If you're feeling stuck because there's a tool, skill, or information you don't have, what can you do to get it? Check the Internet, read a book, take a class, or ask someone who knows.

  • Ask for help when you need it. This is not a sign of weakness, but a valuable hope skill, multiplying your effectiveness.

  • Anticipate roadblocks. Plan backups and alternate routes. Ask, "What can I do if this step doesn't work out?"



Then build positive momentum with this exercise my colleague Dave Feldman and I used in our positive psychology study:

  • Write down your goal: "I will finish the dissertation by _____ (date)."

  • Beneath your goal, write down 3 steps to get you there.

  • Beneath each step, write down one obstacle that could come up.

  • Beneath each obstacle, write down one way you would overcome it.


Finally, put the power of mental imagery to work. Close your eyes and visualize yourself taking each step, confronting and overcoming each obstacle, then finishing your dissertation. Take a deep breath and feel the sense of accomplishment. Dave and I found that using this simple technique helped people develop stronger hope skills and make significant progress toward their goals.

As you work on your dissertation, you will experience victories and setbacks—that's all part of the journey. But building your hope skills will keep you moving forward to get your Ph.D. and beyond.



Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759

Snyder, C. R. (1994). Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There . New York, NY: Simon & Schuster



ABOUT THE AUTHOR (photo above)

A positive psychology, writing, and ABD coach in the San Francisco Bay area, Dr. Diane Dreher, Ph.D., M.A., is the author of six self-help books, a college professor and a researcher in positive psychology who enjoys helping doctoral candidates overcome roadblocks, finish the dissertation, and flourish. Contact her at




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 resource 

She also speaks fluent Spanish and delights in new exotic Scrabble words as she savors life in the Chesapeake Bay area, California, and Argentina.


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 (, 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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