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7 Proven Ways to Survive Your Dissertation | Issue 185

Summary & Contents


Discover science-backed ways to bounce back and move forward on your dissertation—and have some fun this holiday.


1. Editor's Note: The Donkey in the Well—A Resilience Fable for ABDs


2. Words from the Wise: Quotations to Inspire Your Resilience


3. Feature Article: 7 Proven Ways to Survive Your Dissertation

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One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway. It just wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey.


He invited all of his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement, he quieted down.


A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer's neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he continued to shake it off and take another step up. Everyone was astounded when the donkey finally stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!


In graduate school as in life, some dirt is bound to fall your way, as in the above parable. Let those mishaps become stepping stones by mastering the art of resilience. Take a look at the seven cutting-edge, proven strategies in our feature article by my colleague, Dr. Donna Goodin.


Wishing you hope and peace,

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






"A good half of the art of living is resilience." — Alain de Botton


"If we don't allow ourselves to experience joy and love, we will definitely miss out on filling our reservoir with what we need when. . . . hard things happen." — Brené Brown


"Defeat does not come when we lose, but when we give up on trying to succeed." — Zim Barnes


"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." — Nelson Mandela


"Resilience is not a commodity you are born with, waiting silently on tap. It is self-manufactured painstakingly over time by working through your problems and never giving up, even in the face of difficulty or failure." — Lorii Myers


"When your back is against the wall, you will find it is a good place to push off." — Jeffrey Fry




FEATURE ARTICLE: Seven Proven Ways to Survive Your Dissertation and Build Your ABD Resilience


By Donna Goodin, Ph.D.


How do these complaints resonate with your dissertation experience to date?


  • My best never seems good enough. No matter how hard I work, my drafts always come back with countless corrections.


    I have no life. I never have time for myself or my family or friends.


    This is never going to end. I'm going to be writing this when I'm eighty.


    My data didn't produce the results I had counted on. My dissertation's going to be terrible!

  • I'm so tired. Will I ever get a real night's sleep again?

Dissertations rank as the ultimate academic marathon, and the toll can devastate you. To reach the finish line, you need to cope with various stressors, both familiar and novel, e.g.:


  • competing demands of school, family, life, and/or work

  • endless critiques of your work

  • the loss of regular positive reinforcement of good grades and other feedback

  • the absence of structure, e.g., clear deadlines

To survive the long haul from your proposal submission through your final defense, you will need resilience—that's what psychologists call the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences.


As the American Psychological Association explains, resilience is not an all-or-none trait, but "involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone." If you are faltering on your dissertation journey, take heart. The new science of well-being also provides strategies to keep your resilience tank full.


Resilience and the Growth Mindset: Beyond Bouncing Back


Resilience can be much more than simply bouncing back to your prior normal state. It can also serve as "a special talent for converting life's setbacks into future successes," asserts esteemed Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, Ph.D.


In other words, resilience allows you to take your difficulties and use them to generate growth. For example, rather than just getting over the sting of criticism, you can use committee feedback on your drafts as an impetus to improve your writing. Even better, let it inspire you to finish and even spin off articles or a book.


To do this, explains Dweck, you need to cultivate a "growth mindset"—a perspective that sees room to learn and grow from challenging experiences. With a fixed mindset, on the other hand, one is likely to view negative feedback as a sign of permanent incompetence.


A fixed mindset represents a major handicap in academia and elsewhere by perpetuating the myth that abilities are fixed early and are resistant to change. You can recognize it through limiting self-talk, e.g., "I am terrible at stats," or "Writing is difficult for me." Notice the sense of immutable hopelessness in these responses? Instead of energizing you, a fixed mindset can add unnecessary stress and anxiety to your dissertation process.


With the kinder, gentler growth mindset perspective, you give yourself room to learn and grow from difficult or negative experiences: "Stats challenge me—and I'm going to learn all I need to know to finish my research." "The more I write, the easier it will become for me." Instead of assuming that criticism proves that you are inept, you can choose to feel lucky that you have professors who are committed to doing their job of helping you develop your ability to create a good dissertation.


By adopting a growth mindset, you can develop your abilities well beyond your currently imagined limits, Dweck contends. Which kind of mindset do you currently have? Take Dweck's quiz here and find out.


Whether viewed as a "bounce-back" ability or as a growth mindset, resilience lacks a handy "On" button for you to access at will. As with any skill, resilience must be cultivated over time.


To help you get started, here are seven strategies culled from science-backed strategies that I find work especially well for ABD clients. Each one can increase your resilience and help you through the tough times you are likely to face en route to being hooded.


1. Maintain perspective. It can be so easy to get caught up with feelings of overwhelm. When those feelings threaten to take over, it's a great time to take a short break. If you have to extend your timetable or have to handle a family emergency, for example, look at the big picture. Take three deep breaths. Leave the room for a few minutes. Clear your head and calm your mind, so that you can approach your current situation in a way that is centered and healthy.


2. Spend time daily with things that nourish you. Play catch with your child or fetch with your dog, dig in the garden, enjoy quality time at meals with family or friends—whatever works for you. As you know, if you insist on driving your car without stopping to fill the tank, eventually the engine will quit. Cars can't run without fuel, and neither can you, so consider time outs a necessity, not a luxury. If you feel short on time, put your writing on hold and savor a 15-minute walk, a long hot shower, or even a cup of your favorite tea.


3. Make time to laugh. The power of laughter is truly amazing. It can draw you out of even the deepest worry, and it doesn't have to take much time. Read a comic or watch a cute kitten or puppy video. Check in often with your friend who seems to effortlessly keep others in stitches. Humor is a sure-fire way to keep stress from getting the better of you.


4. Focus on wants, not fears. With such a long journey, keeping in mind the destination is critical. I recommend keeping in sight an image or symbol of your long-term goal, i.e., a faculty position, a better job, or the pride of "Dr." before your name. Focusing on your goal--and the intervening steps--will energize you; focusing on your fears will likely paralyze you.


5. Remember that "this too shall pass." Your stint as a doctoral student will come to an end one day. Right now the task may seem endless, but one day your dissertation struggles will be a distant matter. When you move on to new challenges, you might find yourself remembering these days fondly.


6. Be mindful of your feelings and gentle with yourself. Perhaps your advisor said something that hit you hard, or your child interrupted your writing to ask you to play. When jolted, instead of overreacting, pause. Take a deep breath and acknowledge your feeling. Then, without any judgment, let it go. Holding on to feelings of anger, hurt, guilt, or self-deprecation will only wear you down. 


7. Develop a good support system. The dissertation road can feel lonely, so take time to connect with others. A good support system contains as many of these elements as possible: family members who provide moral and logistical support, a few close confidantes with whom you can be real, and some academic peers with whom you can share experiences and progress. For ideal support, find a writing group or academic buddy who can offer feedback and accountability. A dissertation coach can also provide support and accountability, especially for isolated students.


Will becoming more resilient mean that you will waltz through your dissertation feeling like a million bucks all the time? No, but it will buffer you during the toughest times and promote your thriving all the way to the finish line. . . and beyond.



Recommend Resources for Resilience

The Road to Resilience. The American Psychological Association's Help Center overview of research on the nature of resilience and how to build it.


Dweck, Carol. S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Try the free version of this website for activities and games based on vanguard research by leading psychologists and neuroscientists for training your brain and building skills for resilience, happiness, and more. There's even an app for your phone or tablet.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donna Goodin, Ph.D. has a long-held passion for helping students achieve their highest academic and personal potential. As an academic coach for both graduate and undergraduate students, she brings a wide range of experiences to her coaching, including serving as a Spanish language faculty member, as a counselor, and as a psychotherapist in student support services. Earning her Ph.D. later in life, she knows first-hand the unique challenges that often face nontraditional graduate students. She received her Ph.D. in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Michigan State University and her Master's degree in Mental Health Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Visit her website at

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.


Dr. Scroggs is an executive, life and dissertation coach in the greater Chesapeake Bay area. She has helped hundreds of students and clients overcome procrastination, self-doubts, and other internal and external blocks in order to find the motivation and flow necessary to reach their academic, professional, and personal goals. Contact Dr. Scroggs with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at Enjoy additional free resources at



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