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Stranded on Dissertation Highway? Leverage Our 7 Strategies to Blast through Changes and Challenges | Issue 264

Summary: Don't let surprises strand you on the dissertation highway—leverage seven positive psychology strategies to speed you to your doctoral destination. 
Reading time: Five minutes that will save you hours, days, even weeks of sitting stuck on the shoulder when change hits.


By Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, PCC, CMC

We've all faced many changes in our lives—in relationships, living conditions, family, and finances. Right now you are facing a huge but less common major change: moving from a structured student life to the uncharted territory of an ABD. 

As a grad student, your life was organized externally by classes, assignments, and exams with built-in deadlines. You were surrounded by other students facing the same challenges. Now you are all alone, entering a new realm. You must build your own structure for the journey ahead.

Meeting this challenge involves navigating the transition that leads to becoming an independent scholar. And that's just one of the changes you may experience on your quest for a doctorate. 

Other possibilities include getting a new advisor, starting a new job, making a big move, beginning a new relationship, having a child, etc.

How will you face these challenges and thrive?

"We cannot change anything until we accept it." ~ Carl Jung  |  Tweet this


"But I liked things the way they were!"


Typically, we welcome some changes and rebel against others. As life's path twists and turns, will you continue the marathon toward dissertation completion or run the other way? You get to choose how you respond. 

World renowned for his work on change, William Bridges, Ph.D., offers a perspective that can help you get necessary traction whether the change is imposed or invited. 

Change, Bridges emphasizes, refers to the external circumstances. They may be due to our choices or uncontrollable circumstances. 

Transition, in contrast, refers to the inner psychological process we go through as we adjust to the new situation. Transitions call for awareness, emotional receptivity, and a plan to deal with the situation. 

"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."

~ Maya Angelou  |  Tweet this


What You Can Expect During Transitions

Understanding where you are in the transition process can help you navigate it better. In his classic book, Managing Transitions, Bridges describes these three stages: 

The Ending: In this initial phase, one must let go of the old situation. Your task here is to acknowledge and deal with the end, loss, or shift. 

The Transition (or In-Between Time): This second phase is the wilderness between the old reality of what was and the new beginning. At this time you may experience many feelings, such as disorientation, sadness, confusion, distress, or even relief. 

The New Beginning: The third and final phase involves making the change work for you. You complete the transition by embracing the new way. 

Once a change occurs, the transition begins. However, everyone goes through the process of adjusting to it at their own pace. How can you assure that you will thrive as you move through and beyond it? 

First, review your beliefs about your capacities to change as they will impact your progress in academia and throughout your life. Do you think you can grow to meet tough challenges—or do you feel stuck, constrained by your current abilities and traits? 

Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., shows that your beliefs in this area influence outcomes across many life dimensions


We tend toward one of two mindsets, she found. With a growth mindset, we realize that our abilities can be developed and learned—that with effort we can develop our potential. 

On the other hand, with a fixed mindset, we believe our potential is fixed, and we are stuck with what we see as our deficiencies.

Your mindset dramatically impacts how successfully you adapt to changes. With a growth mindset, you can surmount obstacles by responding in strategic—and even transformative—ways.  |  Tweet this

Transition Better with Positive Psychology Tools

Don't flounder when change hits—harness the power of these tips based on positive psychology research. 

1. Notice the changes you are experiencing. Does it feel daunting to adjust to the role of independent scholar? Did discovering your dissertation chair is planning to retire soon shake you? Give yourself permission to observe and feel your emotions. 

2. Cultivate your support network. As you travel the rugged road toward completing your dissertation, engage with people in your network. Cultivate a network of mutual support with other ABDs. Share your feelings, thoughts, and reactions with people you trust. Surround yourself with positive influencers, i.e., people who can support you during challenging times. 

3. Develop a growth mindset. Take Dweck's free quiz to see where you are now, and choose to develop your growth mindset. Start noticing how you speak to yourself. If you hear a fixed mindset voice, shift to a growth mindset. Instead of "I can't," or "I don't know," motivate yourself by saying, "I can learn how," "I can find out." 

4. For added energy and insight, leverage your natural assets to transition. Take the free VIA Strengths Survey to identify your top strengths. For example, if perspective is one of your top strengths, look at the big picture and figure out where this change fits on your path toward graduation. If hope is a top strength, imagine some of the hidden benefits of the change. Positive psychology dissertation coaching can give you a big boost with this. 

5. Set SMART goals to move forward. Write down your list of deliverables that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Then identify the concrete action steps to achieve them. 

Examples: "I want to find a position by June" "I will finish my dissertation this calendar year." 

6. Take action. Roll up your sleeves to make the change work. Decide in advance when and how you will take action by creating an "if-then plan." This links your action step to particular circumstances or a specific time. By pre-committing yourself to a course of action, you will spend less time spinning your wheels at critical moments. 


Examples: "If it is Wednesday 3 p.m., I will check the Chronicle and other resources for openings." "If it is Saturday morning, I will write for four hours, with regular breaks." "If I feel stuck, I'll call Steve for encouragement and ideas."

7. Remember your sense of humor throughout the doctoral journey. Laughter can be an effective ally to soothe tension and reduce stress. How can you engage your sense of humor as you adjust to changes, i.e., getting married or becoming a parent? As Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, "Smile, breathe and go slowly."

Everyone is bound to hit bumps in the road on the doctoral journey. Instead of getting sidelined by the challenge of change, you can implement the above strategies to grow personally and propel you forward! 

"You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no results." ~ Mahatma Gandhi  |  Tweet this




Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, PCC, CMC, is a Professional Certified Coach, psychologist, educator, and keynote speaker. She earned her clinical psychology doctorate from Illinois School of Professional Psychology and a human resource development master's from National-Louis University. Ilene helps people live their best lives by bringing mind, body, and spirit into flow with their strengths, callings, and potential. Ilene inspires people to find fresh perspectives and access their full capacities as creative, resourceful, whole persons. A regular contributor to the ABD Survival Guide, she also blogs for Psychology Today and offers free resources here. Email Ilene 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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