In It to Win It

One of the perks of a past administrative position I held was a recurring opportunity to meet with learners who were just beginning the dissertation process. The doctoral candidates I addressed were about to discover first-hand that writing a dissertation requires a sustained and solitary effort, unlike anything that had been required of them by the programs of study they had completed to that point.

After introducing myself and exchanging pleasantries with large groups of such individuals, at some point in my remarks I typically shared with them the following observation: “Nobody–not even your mama–really cares if you ever finish your dissertation.”

My observation generally was received with good-natured smiles and a few laughs. And it served as a launching pad for a brief commentary on the crucial roles that self-motivation and perseverance play in the dissertation process. That commentary went something like this.

Think Himalayan trek, rather than a walk in the park. Yes, there are guides to assist you along the way and keep you on the right path, but the task of completing the journey is not something you can delegate. In other words, I will help you, but I will not do it for you. However, I do indeed want you to succeed.

After all, it’s nice to share in the success of others, but beyond that, the fewer ABDs (All But Dissertation) on the streets, the safer we all are. You see, one of my theories is that sometimes the frustration that ABDs experience, due to not completing the dissertation, festers and mutates into hostilities that manifest themselves as road rage. Now that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not completing the dissertation phase of their doctoral programs is a big miss that can stay with people for years.

In fact, I remember being surprised to hear an acquaintance lament that missed milestone in her life–some 30 years after the window of opportunity had closed for her. She’s an accomplished professional, who also has a full personal life. However, she still voices strong regrets about the ABD title that she picked up along the way. That wasn’t part of her plan.

So how can you stack the deck in your favor, when it comes to finishing the dissertation? Here, I offer three points that are so simple that they sometimes are overlooked.

  • For starters, choose a topic that you have a strong and abiding interest in. Yes, the topic needs to be “do-able,” but your own interest in the topic needs to trump the predicted ease of the study–because it is your interest in the topic that will sustain you when you hit bumps in the road.
  • Second, carve out the time to devote to your dissertation work and stick to the schedule. Yes, easy to say and much more difficult to do. However, assuming you’re a busy professional who also aspires to have a personal life, if you don’t get things on your calendar, they aren’t likely to get your attention.
  • Finally, break the work into specific sub-goals and assign yourself due dates. Then you’ll have items you can cross off your list of things to do. That’s one small way of noting your progress.

And if you need to be accountable to someone outside of yourself, ask a colleague or significant other to keep you honest. Maybe even your mama would be willing to help keep you on track!

Network Coordinator

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