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10 Top Insider Tips for Mastering the Hidden Dissertation Curriculum | Issue 280

Summary: What no one ever told you about how to avoid delays and dropping out.

Reading time: Six minutes that will give you calm energy to move ahead with confidence.


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Writing a dissertation is akin to baptism by fire, claims author Jack Hampton. 

If you've ever experienced worries or paralysis on dissertation street, you might agree. No one warns you about rampant overwhelm and attrition in doctoral programs—or how to avoid it. 

If you are struggling to finish your dissertation, the hidden curriculum in doctoral programs most likely caught you by surprise. 

The real secret to finishing a dissertation cannot be found in a library or a laboratory. Instead you discover it as you learn strategies for managing your time, moods, and energy. 

In short, the key to a done dissertation is honing your self-discipline to a level you didn't need in high school or college because you got by on your smarts. 


Careful observation reveals that truly successful scholars don't just finish their dissertation. Along the way they also establish powerful, healthy habits that convert goals into achievements. 

Don't reinvent the wheel. Prolific writers and productivity researchers agree on the best practices—ones that resonate with what I've learned from fourteen years of coaching ABD students to success. 


1. Don't wait for your muse. 

Successful writers don't wait for inspiration or the right mood—they finish their writing projects by honoring their goal. That means calendarizing D-time just as you would appointments with your advisor or dentist. For extra punch, give it a compelling label, e.g., "For my success" or "Be kind to future me!" or whatever calls to you. Get started, keep at it, and your mind will eventually follow suit. When you become present to the writing, the words will come. 

"Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic." ~ Stephen King 


2. Lower the barrier to starting. 

Make it easier to start writing than to fritter away your valuable time. Reducing uncertainty about where to start lowers the risk that seeds of doubt will germinate. Skip the temptation to clean off your desk by getting everything ready the night before. Keep your sequenced task list posted to avoid the merry-go-round of indecision: "Should I edit the Intro? Or write Chapter 5?" If a blank page induces terror, leave your Word document open with the last sentence of the day half finished, or include a note about where to start. 

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started." ~ Mark Twain 


3. Commit yourself to a fixed start time. 

Don't focus on the deadline—focus on the start time, i.e., focus on the "do date" not the "due date." This creates an open loop that your brain works to close by reminding you to follow through. Research shows you are twice as likely to do it if you've said when you'll get going. Remember how your "inner nag" kept reminding you that you had an impending call to your advisor? And it stopped after you made the call? That's how it works. 

"Don't wait. The time will never be just right." ~ Napoleon Hill 


4. Minimize all distractions.

Turning off your smart phone or web connection does not go nearly far enough. Mindfully assess other distractions in your environs. Every time you toggle your attention, you lose. (Family photos, dirty dishes, and the latest New Yorker are among my nemeses, which is why I am writing this from St. Michael's Blue Crab coffee shop.) 

"There's no such thing as multitasking, just multifailing." ~ Peter Brookman 


5. Maximize "nudgers."

The opposite of a distractor, a nudger can be anything that helps keep you on track. Make your writing space attractive. Place your most inspiring book nearby. Post a calendar and put a star each day that you meet your quota. Get a writing buddy—or ask a friend or coach to expect your latest page at day's end. Pin up a photo of the exotic vacation you will visit after graduation—but take it down if you start daydreaming about being there. What works for you? 

"When you feel like quitting, think about what got you started." ~ Anonymous 


6. Discover your best process.

What works for your advisor or best friend might not work for you. Does drawing a mind map get your thoughts flowing? Have you tried free writing or outlining? Do you work better with music or silence? There is no one right way to write, as Helen Sword's investigation of prolific academic writers demonstrates.


"Be yourself. Everyone else is almost taken." ~ Oscar Wilde 


7. Don't skip the rewards. 

Minimizing your achievements is false humility and will thwart your progress. It is not self-indulgent to give yourself a pat on the back or accept one when you reach small goals or big milestones. Remembering and expecting rewards inclines your mind to keep going when the going gets tough. Find 155 reward ideas, including free ones, here. Be sure to choose rewards that support rather than undermine your other goals such as saving money or losing weight. 

"Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less often." ~ C. S. Lewis 


8. Protect your tortoise. 

Write first; edit later. It seems our creative mind acts like a shy tortoise; it needs freedom to roam without the threat of imminent attack from a predatory mind poised to doubt, delete, and dismiss. Your writing creature will only emerge when you give it a safe space, says Monty Python's John Cleese

"It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly." ~ C. J. Cherryh 


9. Expect your inner critic—but don't give it the wheel. 

Count on your inner critic or sloth to show up right when forward movement is possible. However, you have the power to keep the encounter brief. Here's how: Meet it head on by jotting down its assertions, e.g., "This is total crap." Next, disempower it by adding a preface, e.g., "I am having the thought again that this is total crap." Lastly, let go of the thought as you commit yourself to acting in your long-term best interest. Remember, thoughts are not facts. And as Susan David reminds us, "Emotions are data, not directives." While you cannot choose which ones arise, you do get to choose how to respond. 

"You don't have to believe everything you think." ~ Contemporary bumper sticker. 


10. Remember: Habits trump willpower.

Cultivate a sustainable routine. Doing so trains your brain and others to accept that "if it is between 9 am and noon, Adam is writing and cannot be disturbed." Precommitment conserves critical mental energy needed to think and resist temptations. Furthermore, sharing your expectations with others can minimize conflicts and misunderstandings. 

"We are always developing habits. The real question is which ones." ~ Coach Gayle 


Following these recommendations reaps at least two important benefits—the joy of your sought-after doctoral degree and the deep satisfaction of enhanced self-management. Over time, the return on your investment for both will continue to compound. Finally, your self-confidence will soar because you know you can trust yourself to follow through on your commitments. 

In the end, it is up to you to choose to master this implicit doctoral-level curriculum. Don't expect your professors to impose it. That's not their job. 

P.S. If you sense you would benefit from professional help in cultivating your writing and self-management habits, don't hesitate to call on a dissertation coach. That's what we are here for. Click here for a free consultation. 



Davis, Josh. Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Sword, Helen. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write.

YouTube: Question of Practicing: Joy Boys Video (2 minutes) with a child's simple wisdom: What you practice, you will get good at.

Above photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA



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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