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Become Your “Dissertation CEO” and Finish Faster:  Twelve Things You Need to Do Now | Issue 245

Summary: Get unstuck by becoming your "Dissertation CEO": Twelve strategies that boost your leadership, organization, and writing process for success. 

Estimated time: 5 minutes

"The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution. ~ Bertrand Russell


By Eva Ross, Ed.D., C.M.C., and Jan Bavea, M.A., C.M.C., P.C.C.

You sit down in front of the computer and your mind is totally blank. You have a headache, coffee is not helping. You find yourself awake in the "wee small hours" fearing that your PhD is a million miles away and you are afraid it's never going to happen. You suspect that you just don't have what it takes. You have a feeling of overwhelm as well as panic—deadlines loom, yet you just can't write.

Does any of the above resonate with you? Do you feel the odd bit of anxiety, dread, overwhelm, frustration, or any or all of the above? In our experience, these are fairly normal occurrences for dissertation folk.

Surprise—You're the Boss!

The entrepreneurial metaphor can be a highly effective reframe strategy for doctoral candidates. We find our ABD clients who see themselves as the CEO (or "Chief Everything Officer") of their dissertation project find more commitment and energy for getting that dissertation out the door. Getting up to speed as CEO, whether in academia or business, usually requires some on-the-job learning.

New entrepreneurs, writes expert Michael Gerber, often learn the hard way that running a profitable business involves more than making pies or fixing broken pipes. While overemphasizing their technical skills, they overlook the infrastructure required for success. A successful enterprise, whether in business or academia, needs a visionary leader and an operations manager as well as the technician who creates the product or provides the service.

As a doctoral student, your obvious role is the technical one, to create the end product, namely, your dissertation. Success, however, demands that you also focus on leadership and management aspects of the project. When these dimensions lack appropriate balance, you find yourself stuck.


Here are proven strategies to promote the balance and momentum you need to get unstuck and keep moving.


How to Lead with Vision and Passion


You provided the initiative—and you need to fuel the momentum all the way to the finish line. Here's how.

1. Keep your vision. Ever feel like it's all fuzzy, like your writing is going in all directions? If you do not know where you are going, you are not likely to get there. A good leader knows the path forward. Keep your study purpose and research questions where you can see them and refer to them daily.

2. Keep the passion. When you are caught up in it all, it's easy to fall into the "I should" mentality rather than "I want to." Remember why you started this whole endeavor. Stay connected with your deepest reasons for doing this, e.g., by posting it prominently.

3. Visualize the end point. Imagine finally finishing the writing, successfully defending your dissertation, and then being awarded your doctoral degree. How does it feel? When you need energy, remember that feeling—and then get back to figuring out how to get there.


Become Your Ideal Boss—and Employee


The interesting thing about being a "dissertation CEO" is that you must act as both supervisor and employee. In other words, you must manage yourself, your project, and your time by using effective strategies such as these:

4. Create a dissertation project timeline spreadsheet. Document the main steps you will need to complete on your dissertation path. Working backward from your planned graduation will give you a clear and realistic picture of what is involved.

5. Set doable short-term goals. You eat an elephant with small bites, so chunk tasks into specific, achievable actions. Rather than listing "write chapter," note "Write two-page introduction with focus on three to five key points." When your brain registers a task as too large, it detours to something easier to accomplish, like answering e-mail messages.

6. Treat your dissertation writing time as non-negotiable. Treat your writing time as if you were in a meeting at work. Would you interrupt the meeting to respond to a text message or surf the Web? Not likely, if you want to stay employed. Keep your cell phone turned off and avoid social media while in your "meeting." Set boundaries around interruptions by others as you would in an office by making it clear when you are available.

7. Be a good steward of your energy. Invest your limited amount of physical, emotional, and psychological energy wisely. Remember to exercise, get enough sleep, meditation, and practicing gratitude and self-compassion.

8. Be your own best friend. People stay more engaged at work when they have a best friend. When your inner critic invades, step back and think about how you would respond as if this were your good friend. Odds are you would be a lot kinder than you are with yourself. As Kristin Neff points out, self-compassion is a form of self-care, not self-pity.



Now Write with Skill and Confidence

With a clear vision and a workable plan, you can now get down to writing. Try these tested strategies that will keep the words flowing:

9. Devise a repeatable writing process. Whether you use mind maps, outlines, zero drafts, or other means, find a process that you can use chapter after chapter. Plan each chapter with a clear thesis and topic points that build your argument. Consult dissertation writing manuals and writing centers for assistance for questions about structure, content, and mechanics.

10. Leverage supportive writing resources. Discuss your work with your supervisor, mentor, or colleague. For more accountability, consider a writing buddy or group or get a coach.

11. Manage your e-files. Consider folders called Current, Historical, and Background to keep relevant files handy. Save early versions of your dissertation. Above all, have a reliable back-up plan for all your files.

12. Reward yourself! Set a small writing target. When you achieve it, reward yourself with a short walk or a coffee break. You thereby honor your best efforts while building motivation for more good work.

Along the way, watch for small improvements in your ability to lead, manage, and execute your dissertation. By the time you defend your proposal, you will have mastered not only a scholarly topic but also project management--a feat that contributes to your marketability and success inside or outside of academia.






Eva Ross, Ed.D., C.M.C. An academic and life coach based in the Great Lakes and Ontario, Canada areas, Dr. Ross is devoted to helping doctoral candidates and those with ADHD conquer the inner and outer obstacles to reaching their degrees. Her coaching invites clients to clear their emotional static, allowing them to move toward greater clarity and purpose in achieving important goals and a greater sense of well-being. Contact her at

Jan Bavea, M.Ed. (Educational Guidance & Counselling), G.D.P.S., C.M.C., knows how easy it is to become derailed by all the other facets of life that show up at the worst possible time. She helps her clients maximize their top strengths to get the dissertation done. She knows about juggling career, family and health issues, ADHD, and other organizational challenges.


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.

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

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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