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8 Red Flags that Could Kill Your Doctoral Dream | Issue 303

Summary: Are you in danger of not finishing your dissertation? Know the red flags and take action now.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes that just might save your doctoral dream.


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

You might be on the road to dropping out of graduate school without realizing it. Do you know the warning signs? 

Nearly half of doctoral students never complete the degree requirements—and that number is even higher for women, minority students, and online students, according to reports.

To keep from adding to the sad statistics, read over the 8 red flags below. These signal you are entering the Danger Zone of degree noncompletion. Think of these signs as you would warning lights on the dashboard of your car. Doing nothing easily leads to a crisis that leaves you stranded. But taking timely, appropriate action gets you back on the road safely on route to your destination. 

Do any of these red flags apply to your situation? Circle your answers. 

1. I have lost my motivation for working on my dissertation. YES/NO 

2. My time management skills are weak. YES/NO

3. I feel like an impostor and/or a failure. YES/NO

4. My advisor does not support me. YES/NO

5. I get distracted easily and/or can't focus. YES/NO

6. I don't know what to do next. YES/NO

7. My other obligations get in the way of writing my dissertation. YES/NO 

8. I have trouble with academic writing. YES/NO

If you answered YES to even one of these, make an action plan to get unstuck. Otherwise, you are in danger of a downward spiral that eventually leads you to drop out or to time out. The more items you checked, the graver the situation is and the sooner you should act.

Successful doctoral candidates are admired and hired because a completed dissertation represents a monumental achievement, one requiring exceptional discipline and steady progress. You must surmount not only the expected challenges but also others that creep in along the way. When you successfully defend your dissertation, you've demonstrated grit as well as intellectual ability. 

When your dissertation progress starts grinding to a standstill, consider it a wake-up call. It's time to prioritize reengagement before it's too late. 

What is one small thing you could do now to move forward? Rinse and repeat to capitalize on the momentum. Consult highly rated dissertation guides, e.g., The Dissertation Journey, for a detailed, user-friendly blueprint. Find a dissertation buddy or join a writing group for accountability and support. 

You could benefit from a dissertation coach.

Many doctoral candidates move ahead faster and more confidently with a coach that can help them resolve blocks that have been holding them back. My own clients have overcome all kinds of dissertation hurdles—impostor syndrome, time management, focus and distraction issues, dissertation anxiety and avoidance, writer's block, low motivation, advisor issues, and more. (Click here for my valuable free e-book, Nine Strategies that Get My Clients Across the Finish Line.) 


Before hiring a coach, due diligence is recommended as not all coaches are created equal. Good dissertation coaches will hold a credential from the International Coach Federation. Better ones will also have experience in academic coaching. Finally, the best ones will have all the above plus a mastery of science-based positive psychology principles to foster your well-being on the road to success. 

A positive psychology dissertation coach can be your secret weapon for ramping up progress and building sustainable success habits. Those who try it recommend it as a worthwhile investment that facilitates academic and career success. 

If you were admitted to a doctoral program, you almost surely have the right stuff. If you watch for red flags and take corrective measures quickly, you will get to the finish line. We'll be rooting for you.

Want someone in your corner? Request a free consultation from an ICF credentialed positive psychology dissertation coach. Start using science-based strategies that will take you to the PhD finish line and beyond! For Dr. Scroggs's free e-book of proven strategies for overcoming dissertation hurdles, click here.



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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