Twenty Reasons Smart ABDs Don't Finish | Issue 259
Summary: Your school smarts alone won't carry you to the finish line. Hone your "successful intelligence" to finish your doctorate.
Estimated Reading Time: Five minutes that you will recoup today with these tested tips.
By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC, Diane Dreher, PhD, CMC, and Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, PCC
Half of doctoral students never finish—but not for lack of intelligence. While external factors can play a role for many, other ABDs unwittingly get in their own way.
Relying on your book smarts alone will not guarantee success, argues renowned Cornell psychologist Robert Sternberg, Ph.D., author of Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.
Although we tend to equate intelligence with academic performance, he urges us to look at it from a bigger perspective, namely that of human adaptability. Human intelligence evolved to help us function in life. As such, it includes the ability to formulate problems and actively seek solutions.
What you really need, Sternberg explains in Intelligence Applied, is "successful intelligence," since mere academic ability won't get you far. Not in graduate school and not in life.
"Smart" people usually sabotage their own success through inadequate self-regulation and emotional intelligence, as revealed in his list of twenty reasons for such failure.
Doctoral students, as very smart people, are not immune to the issues Sternberg identifies. As experienced dissertation coaches, we've seen these factors plague ABDs who become mired in despair.
Review below Steinberg's twenty reasons you might fail. Consider which ones are holding you back from finishing your dissertation—and then experiment with these proven recommendations for overcoming them and get moving again.
1. LACK OF MOTIVATION.
While external motivation may work in the short run, internal motivation gives you staying power. Journal about why finishing your dissertation matters. Be sure to discuss your personal values and long-term goals around completing your doctorate.
2. LACK OF IMPULSE CONTROL.
Habitually succumbing to temptations will keep you in ABD land forever. Schedule your writing time, and then practice saying "no" or "later" to your impulse to check your email, fix brownies, help a friend, clean up your desk, etc. It gets easier with practice.
3. LACK OF PERSEVERANCE.
Expect roadblocks, and when you hit one, don't give up. Instead, take a mindful breath and dig deeper. If you are stuck, consider what internal or external resources could aid you. Set aside specific hours for writing and stick to it, tracking your writing streak for added motivation. Reread #1 to re-inspire you.
4. USING THE WRONG ABILITIES.
When you write your first drafts, you must turn off your internal editor. Trying to improve your prose while trying to generate shuts down your inner author. Resist the impulse to keep researching the literature when you already have plenty to rely on for good writing.
5. INABILITY TO TRANSLATE THOUGHT INTO ACTION.
Reading and thinking serve as preparatory steps for the successfully intelligent. Only writing will result in a finished dissertation, a degree, and a job. Write from the start. Taking good notes as you review the literature facilitates getting words on a page later.
6. LACK OF PRODUCT ORIENTATION.
Don't get lost in the process, e.g., reading every article or book on your subject. The goal is to complete your dissertation project and deliver it to your committee and others interested in your research. A done dissertation beats a perfect dissertation every time.
7. INABILITY TO COMPLETE TASKS.
Don't let performance anxiety deter you from finishing each chapter and sending it to your dissertation chair. Acknowledge your emotions—but let your values determine your behavior. Keep writing if you want to finish in this lifetime.
8. FAILURE TO INITIATE.
Goal setting without goal implementation is worthless—but getting started can be hard. Now that you've decided to get your doctorate, write down four benefits of completing one. Next identify the obstacles that stand between you and graduation day. Finally, create an "if-then" plan to conquer each of them. Examples: "If I am unsure of how to analyze my data, then I will ask for help from my committee or a stat consultant." "If I have finished breakfast, I will start writing for two hours." "If I am feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work, I will identify just one small step and get going on it."
9. FEAR OF FAILURE.
It's true that if you never submit your work, you will never get negative feedback. Or your degree. Adopt a growth mindset by reframing feedback as suggestions for improving your academic skills. After all, graduate students are supposed to be learning.
Are you waiting for your muse or the right mood? Wishing your advisor would give you hard deadlines to pressure you into working? Then it's time to take adult responsibility. Write down three advantages you will lose by putting it off. Set a short-term objective and focus on accomplishing it: "I will finish one section of the literature review by Tuesday."
11. MISATTRIBUTION OF BLAME.
Do you always blame yourself? Or do you prefer to blame others? Here's the truth: Blaming and shaming waste your time, drain your energy, and don't get the job done. Ask yourself, "What can I do to move forward now?" Practice talking to yourself as you would to a friend facing a challenge if you want to improve your ability to cope with the tough times, advises researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
12. EXCESSIVE SELF-PITY.
If you spend more time feeling sorry for yourself than directing your efforts to overcoming your challenges, you are dooming yourself to failure. Self-pity is a luxury you cannot afford. The next time you start feeling sorry for yourself, review your values in #1, envision yourself with doctorate in hand--and then ask yourself, "What is one small step I can take now to get there?"
13. EXCESSIVE DEPENDENCY.
If you catch yourself feeling powerless and overly dependent upon your dissertation advisor or others, then cultivate what Carol Dweck, Ph.D., calls "growth mindset." Realize that you are here to learn and grow. You develop your abilities by practicing them and learning from mistakes as well as success. No one else can do your growing for you.
14. WALLOWING IN PERSONAL DIFFICULTIES.
Many people spend years working on their doctoral degree, during which you can expect major joys and sorrows. Take the time you need to deal with such life events--but beware of letting them become a permanent impediment to success. Suffering is a part of life but it does not need to define it.
15. LACK OF CONCENTRATION.
With the growth in smart devices and social media, who can focus anymore? To do "deep work," you need to reserve large blocks of distraction-free time, says Cal Newport, Ph.D., author of Deep Work. Begin by turning off your phone and closing the door. Set an alarm for 30 minutes (or more) and gradually increase the time. Make this a game and take pride in watching your attention span increase and your dissertation move forward.
16. SPREADING ONESELF TOO THIN OR TOO THICK.
You can only honor four or five priorities at a time: your dissertation, your well-being, and a couple others. Time is finite, so saying "yes" to one thing implicitly means saying "no" to others. The key to success is setting your top priorities and each day then scheduling them on your calendar. This may mean deleting, delaying, delegating, or minimizing some of your lower priority activities until you finish the dissertation. That's how it works.
17. INABILITY TO DELAY GRATIFICATION.
Do you put off dissertating to go for low-hanging fruit, e.g., organizing your desk or doing too many favors for others? Any worthy goal takes time. Divide your larger tasks into smaller parts and tackle them one at time. Marking small wins with small treats boosts the long-term motivation you will require to get the job done.
18. INABILITY TO SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES.
Don't get lost in the weeds. Get your first draft written. If while writing you think of a detail you need to look up, make a note and keep on writing. Get the larger picture sketched out first and then fill in the details.
19. LACK OF BALANCE BETWEEN CRITICAL, ANALYTICAL THINKING AND CREATIVE, SYNTHETIC THINKING.
Figure out what kind of thinking is expected of you in each situation. Coming up with a dissertation topic, fashioning your literature statement, or writing your discussion section require different cognitive modes. You need to know when to shift into these different gears. Ask yourself, is this time to analyze the data or time to reflect, review, and come up with creative insights about the implications?
20. TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH SELF-CONFIDENCE.
Self-doubt and arrogance both cripple your ability finish your dissertation. Immunize yourself with a healthy approach, namely a growth mindset. Be open to learning from your successes and mistakes rather than taking them as a final judgment. Cultivating a growth mindset allows you to develop your abilities and your humility, says Dweck.
When you expand your view of intelligence beyond mere scholastic abilities to include adaptive behaviors, you set yourself up for lifetime of accomplishment. Not only will you finish your dissertation, but you will also discover the will and the way to succeed at all of your endeavors.
P.S. Discover how you could benefit from a personal dissertation coach to develop your "successful intelligence." Click here for a free complimentary consultation. We want to help you finish and enjoy the journey!
Dweck, Carol. Carol Dweck Revisits the "growth mindset"
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Neff, Kristin, and Germer, Christopher. The transformative effects of mindful self-compassion
Newport, Cal. Deep Work
Sternberg, Robert. Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Three experienced dissertation coaches enjoyed collaborating on this article. You can find out more about each one (and access great free resources) by clicking on their websites:
Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., ABDSG Editor, EssenceCoaching.com
Diane Drehere, Ph.D., C.M.C., ABDSG Contributor, northstarpersonalcoaching.com
Ilene Berns-Zare, Psy.D., P.C.C., ABDSG Contributor, ileneberns-zare.com
YOUR OWN COACH
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.
GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG.
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 (www.MentorCoach.com), 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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