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Harness the Proven Ingredient for Dissertation Success—And It’s Not What You Think | Issue 235

Feel like giving up on your dissertation? Harness the proven ingredient for success that will be your game changer. (Est. reading time 5 minutes)

By Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD

"In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm. . . . in the real world all rests on perseverance."

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"I am ready to give up."

"I can't do it."

"This is too hard."

Does that sound like the little voice inside your head when you look at your dissertation?

If so, you need the secret ingredient guaranteed to steer your thesis boat away from rocky cliffs and back into sailing on deep blue water.

Earning your doctoral degree, as with other big goals, requires more than mere talent and learning. You have to stick with your work even when the going gets tough. You must expend effort even when progress is not immediately obvious. What makes this possible?

The secret ingredient, says U Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., is grit—her word for a combination of passion and perseverance. "Our potential is one thing, but what we do with it is quite another," she has concluded.

The term grit may trigger images of gravel or sand between your teeth, as happens with eating steamed clams, or maybe a feisty tough guy in the movies, e.g., John Wayne. However, psychological grit is much more, as Duckworth explains in her New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Grit turns out to be the game-changer. It's the personal element that generates the stick-to-itiveness needed to achieve long term goals.

"We were made to persist. . . that's how we find out who we are." ~ Tobias Wolff

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with the problem longer." ~ Albert Einstein


Grit: Your Key Dissertation Success Factor

Research by Duckworth and her colleagues shows that those who have grit are more likely to succeed in a variety of venues.

Studying more than 1200 West Point cadets, they found grittiness a remarkably reliable predictor for those who finish the rigorous program. Remarkably, the critical factor turned out to be grit rather than leadership experience, SAT scores, high school rank, or athleticism.

In their National Spelling Bee study, they isolated the single factor that determined whether kids advanced in the competition—and it was grit, not verbal proficiency. Successful competitors had devoted significantly more effort in the form of hours of studying and competing in spelling competitions.

You can make grit your antidote for dissertation doldrums. And here's the best news: you can grow grittiness with simple research-backed strategies.

"There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure." ~ Colin Powell


Ready to Get Grittier? Here's How

How gritty are you now? Take the Grit Scale free on Duckworth's website here:

If you are not satisfied with your current grit level, take heart. You've learned esoteric facts in your discipline. You've mastered apps your parents never heard of. You learned how to shop and cook. You've learned zillions of things that facilitate the good life—and now you can learn to be grittier. Duckworth offers insights and tips to guide you:

Renew your passion. You've chosen your dissertation topic, now invest in it. To sustain perseverance, gritty people activate interests again and again. Revive your interest—remind yourself why your topic and work matter. Spend time with those who encourage you. Talk about your work with others. Find ways to stay engaged with the material and your goals.

Practice deliberately and daily. "Deliberate practice" drives continuous improvement, asserts renowned performance researcher Anders Ericsson, Ph.D. Unlike the mindless repetition that may occur in ordinary practice, deliberate practice requires a clear focus on improving performance. First define your specific goals and then cultivate a daily routine for total engagement as you work. It is crucial to assess key weakness—with others' feedback as necessary—to determine next steps for further improvement. For your dissertation, how can you use your committee's comments to identify those areas for special attention?

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

~ Steven King

Identify your purpose. How will your work benefit others? Articulating a purpose beyond your own small self will lift your interest to a higher level. "What ripens passion," Duckworth explains, "is the conviction that your work matters." For example, a waiter can choose to view serving food as an opportunity to make a positive difference in each customer's day. Whether or not your dissertation becomes a magnum opus, your doctoral degree empowers you to impact the world in ways you may not yet have dreamed.

Nurture hope. Approach negative feedback and failures as opportunities to grow, focusing less on performance and more on process. As goals psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson urges, don't aim to "be good"—instead aim to "get better." Practice talking to yourself as you would to a dear friend, with kindness and compassion. Also, reach out to others who can help, e.g., mentors or coaches. When you don't let negative thoughts impede you, you are more likely to cross the finish line.

"The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-it-iveness, and common sense."

~ Thomas Edison


Start Cultivating Dissertation Grit

How will you grow your own grittiness? Create your own grit action plan based on the above four dimensions of practice, passion, purpose, and hope.

Who will you talk to about your dissertation research? Why does your work matter? How can you identify areas for deliberate practice? What steps can you take to make dissertating a daily habit?

Journal about how your work (including your greater skills and wisdom) will benefit others—from your family, students, clients, readers, society, the discipline, etc.

Finally, acknowledge that developing grit comes through intentional practice. Watch for signs of improvement and celebrate them. Pat yourself on the back for cultivating a habit of mind that will reap rewards both now and later.

"Success isn't always about greatness. It's about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come." ~ Dwayne Johnson


Learn More about Grit

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Also see her Ted talk with the same title here.

Halvorson, Heidi Grant. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals

Miller, Caroline Adams Miller. Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose \

Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, MS, ACC, CMC is a life and leadership coach, psychologist, and educator. Ilene is committed to empowerment through learning, personal/professional development, and integrative well-being. She sees coaching, training, and writing as offering a lens through which people can gain fresh perspectives, ask important professional and personal questions, and access strengths, skills, and possibilities. Email Ilene at and read more at


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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