Editor’s Note: While this article is directed primarily to graduate students working on their dissertations, its tools and pointers can apply to any other goal or project that you may be working on or dreaming of – whether you are a student or not. If you read it with your own goal or project in mind, you will be able to “translate” the techniques and tools to assist you in your situation.
You may be one of the many graduate students, on campus or online, who juggles family, work, and school. Your academic struggles are intensified by the intellectual, psychological, and personal stresses of such multiple responsibilities and social and emotional isolation.
If you are in the throes of writing a dissertation, sneaking up on one, or contemplating a doctoral program where one is required, this article may help you handle often ignored but crucial nonacademic issues—interpersonal, emotional, and spiritual—that can trip you up. If you are working on another creative project, your troubles can be very similar.
Sharing What I've Learned and Observed
My mission in this article is to share with you what I’ve learned and observed as a longtime coach of graduate students and writer of creative projects:
- to bolster, hearten, and inspire you as you struggle, especially in many other-than-academic areas,
- to help you give it your best and succeed in less time and with less stress,
- to develop your gifts and self-confidence, and
- to help you gain greater pleasure in the entire process so you can finally be truly proud of your accomplishment and use it to achieve your life’s dream.
Techniques, tools, and tough questions
to ease the trek for yourself and everyone around you:
1. How Is This Degree or Project Part of My Life’s Dream?
You will work on your dissertation or other project with greater consistency and less flagging fervor if you respond to this question first: How is this work part of my life’s dream?
Answer this question in writing, as fully as you can. No fear, no shame, no self-deprecating “I know this dream is ridiculous!” Keep returning to your answer, and add and change it until you’re satisfied that it represents how you really feel.
Get The Latest From InnerSelf
Read your statement over once a day, preferably at the same time. The more you refine the connection between your life dream and your goal (your doctorate, novel, painting, symphony . . . ), the more fuel you’ll have for the rough journey and the more strength you’ll have to keep going.
2. Use Your Inner Mentor
Your Inner Mentor (IM), also called your Inner Guide, Self, Voice, Spirit, Higher Power, Soul, Guidance System, intuition, even your heart or gut, has more power than your chair, the dean of your school, an editor, curator, conductor, and even the guy who issues your parking pass.
Your IM is an invaluable aid. If you think you don’t have it, you've already experienced it: when "something" doesn't feel right about a certain person or event, when "a little voice" tells you to turn right instead of left, when the "right words" suddenly trumpet in your brain as you greet your mother for the first time in six months.
As you learn to use your IM more consciously, as in meditation, you’ll see that it guides you to right decisions and actions. In your dissertation, your IM will help you arrive at your perfect topic, the one that excites you even when you feel buried in other scholars’ previous research. In your creative project, your IM will help you decide on the approach, the material to include, the next (scary) steps. With practice and results, you’ll use your IM for your dissertation and creative quandaries and for everything else in your life.
3. Sticking With It: Temptations and Tonics
In the midst of listening to your IM, continuing your writing and creating, and wrestling into submission all that information you’ve collected, with your countless other duties and responsibilities, you may be tempted to suspend your dissertation or project. You may believe your reasons are unassailable, like these classics I’ve heard from students:
- My family needs my attention.
- A break of a few months will clear my head.
- I’m going on that 6-week dissertation/how to write-draw-compose seminar on the cruise ship “Nowhere.” Then I’ll really know how to continue.
- I’ll just clean out my study, the spare room, the garage, attic, and storage shed. Then I’ll find anything I need right away.
- Listen, you’ve got to live too . . . .
Whatever your excuse, I mean reason, my advice is this: Don’t stop. Use your IM to crawl along. Do what’s in front of you. Start with the easy stuff, like transferring chapter titles and subheads from your university dissertation manual or setting up files for the chapters of your novel. It’s all gotta get done anyway. Just keep going. Even fifteen minutes a day will help. I repeat: DON’T STOP!
4. Orient the Important Others in Your Life
With the dissertation, as you may have noticed, your life changes mightily. You hole up in the library after work, eat on the run, retreat to your study all day Sunday, always look distracted, and never really listen when a family member talks. With other projects, if you’re really serious, your life changes too: you hole up in your study or studio or disappear to your favorite haunt as many hours as you can get away. You always look distracted, scribble notes constantly on the pad or iPad fastened to your hip to capture all the gems of brilliant inspiration, and never really listen when a family member talks.
Your family members are most affected, and they most affect your progress.
The best strategy, I’ve found and counseled, is this: a two-pronged early intervention, in person.
Strategy One: Educate Them
Sit your important family members down and tell them (nicely) they’re not the only ones who will be sacrificing time together, money, moments of satisfaction, and the luxury of trivial arguments. If they have academic degrees themselves, rouse their memories of their own travails. Then pounce: inform them the dissertation is at least five times worse. For your other creative projects, the strategy is similar. Your educational “capital,” though, is your absolute soul need to complete your project. If they are at all creative or have had similar aspirations, they will understand.
For all projects, sketch out, vividly, and with specifics, the kind of time (alone) and attention (undisturbed) you need, especially with your many other duties. Ask them not to hold it against you.
Strategy Two: Bribe Them
If you’re writing a dissertation, tell them that something good awaits after all the sacrifices: your better job, promotions, prestige, more business, new business, their resumed degree program, more family time, and mo’ money. If you’re working on another project, tell them you can’t promise total success in the world’s terms, but you can promise that you’ll be easier to live with, will have more vitality and enthusiasm for life, and may even want breaks in which you’re eager to take the dog to the vet or put the storm windows up.
In both cases, make promises for the future, AD (After Degree) or AP (After Project): special dates, extended visits, vacations together, your helping them with their special projects. Now watch them smile—and cooperate.
5. Make Peace and Time With Your Employer
Apply the same principles as with your family: Orient early, educate, bribe (in a good way):
- Arrange an in-person meeting (no phone, emails, texts, Skype, video conferences).
- Express gratitude for the meeting.
- Describe your program or project.
- Describe how your degree or project will benefit the company.
- Share your progress.
- Explain what you need, and ask (released time, compact schedule).
- Assure your boss you will not neglect your job.
- Negotiate and compromise.
- Thank thank thank.
6. Who Can You Work With, and How Do You Know?
Your dissertation chair (also referred to as advisor, primary advisor, research supervisor, or mentor) seems to hold your entire future in their briefcase and inbox. The chair is more powerful than Zeus in a thunderous rage or a spouse delivering the silent treatment. And with good reason; the chair can help speed your dissertation through (if that's not an oxymoron) or delay you for years. So you want the right match. If only there were a ChairMatch.com!
Similarly, with your creative project: that all-powerful editor, v.p. of publishing, or producer seems untouchable and unreachable. Often, for entry into the field, you must deal with the individual with the title. So be it. Swallow hard and forge ahead.
To forewarn you, information is available from many sources: cohort members, previous advisees, current advisees, new doctors, faculty bios, the sly student grapevine. For creative projects, ask others in the field or business, mine industry newspapers, investigate Twitter.
Gather Plenty of Information
When people respond to your questions about potential chairs or the powers for your project, observe their downturned lips, muffled sighs, and changes of subject. These are all danger signals, whatever their praising words.
Ask Questions About the Chair(or Person in Charge)
Ask questions of all of these people about their experiences with this individual (you can use the same procedures for those creative Powers). Does the professor have the time for you? Similar research interests? Respond to your emails and calls? Make himself or herself available for meetings? Critique and return your drafts relatively quickly? Reasonably “hard” in critiques (too easy is no favor)? Encourage and support you? Act professionally? Fight for you with other committee members?
Ask Yourself Questions—and Listen
Your own questions to yourself and answers are equally, and vitally, important. Here are some from other graduate students and creatives:
- What positive feedback have I gotten about this person from others?
- Do the positive outweigh the negatives?
- What is most important to me about this individual? Knowledge, support, guidance, space, security?
- How important to me is this person’s status—tenure, publications, editorships, connections, credits, work with other stellar names?
- How do I feel about this individual?
After all the factual input, that last question is the most important. Suspend your intellect (the only time I’ll advise this). Listen to your IM. It tickles us in many ways (sinking feeling, nausea, black mood, headache, elation, excitement, joy) and is never wrong. Acknowledge your emotions about this person, even if they seem to defy logic (“But he’s head of the Committee on Dissertation Disasters!”). Your IM and emotions will guide you to your best chair.
7. Dancing With the Committee
Write down statements about how you want your chair and committee or creative team to act and how you want to act and be perceived. For example, both you and the committee are friendly and professional, open yet perceptive of personal issues that should not be shared, primarily interested in your topic, and focused on making your work the best it can be.
More: You maintain your self-respect without arrogance. You acknowledge their greater expertise without groveling. And you are as considerate of your chair and committee or creative team as you desire them to be of you (the Golden Rule of Committee Gamesmanship).
Keep reading and affirming your statements. The right chair and committee members or creative team or organization will be attracted to you.
8. Support: You've Got More Friends Than You Think
In addition to your committee, you will need others in the university environment at different times. You may not realize how many are available, or need all in the list below, but keep them in mind:
- Fellow students
- Learning center tutors
- Computer techs
- Statisticians and researchers
- Secretaries (especially of the chair and committee)
- Coaches and editors
- Former course professors
For creative projects, think of those in and out of your immediate circle: friends, professional colleagues, teachers, coaches, even big names.
Realize that all of these people want to help. They feel good helping you and showing off their knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. Express your thanks and admiration generously and sincerely.
Picture the perfect university or industry friends you will need, and know you are being directed (IM rides again) to the right ones. You can even create affirmations for each category. For a librarian, for example: “I now draw to me the best librarian in the university system, who loves helping students, has access to all university and outside resources, and shows me the mysteries of digital life beyond the card catalog.” For a copyeditor: “I now attract the perfect, knowledgeable, conscientious, caring copyeditor who understands what I am saying and like me wants to produce the best novel possible.”
9. Am I Really Almost Done?
This advice is especially for dissertation writers; for your creative projects, apply the principles to any parallel requirements. They may be more or less complex, or take more or less time, but the key is consciousness and fulfillment of all the requirements.
For your dissertation, once you’ve conferred with everyone you need to and jumped through all of the hoops, even with a few stumbles (we all take them), you want to complete your dissertation and university attendance with a sense of satisfaction. This completion takes forethought and planning. And you want to exit gracefully so you tuck away good memories (and stories) about your doctoral program experience. So...
Master the red tape. Follow your university dissertation formats—precisely. File all forms—on time. Stay aware of deadlines and meet them. Enlist administrative help if you need to (secretaries know everything).
Prepare. If your university requires a final defense of the dissertation, prepare for it thoroughly, and don’t take it for granted. The defense experience will stick in your mind emblazoned like a stunning or dreadful tattoo.
Read and study your dissertation (you’re the expert). Pore over your university manual for defense guidelines and follow them. Do your fancy PowerPoint. Rehearse (family members can come in handy). Have your clothes cleaned the day before. Take a shower the day of.
- My defense goes perfectly.
- All the committee members are on my side.
- I know everything I need to know, instantly.
- I am divinely directed.
- I see myself writing my dissertation easily, effortlessly, intelligently, speedily, joyfully, and lovingly to perfect completion.
See yourself poised and confident, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from your PowerPoint, and graciously receiving the committee's congratulations and accepting their hearty handshakes at the end. You have become an academic colleague!
Once the dust settles and you’ve tucked away your PowerPoint and made room on your bookshelf for a bound copy of your dissertation, it’s time for your graduation. GO! You will not be sorry.
Make sure friends and relatives have tickets, directions, hotel rooms. Practice your answers to their well-meaning questions: “So what are you going to do with your degree in animal art?” (One answer, and don’t look too smug: "The metropolitan zoo has instituted a graphics wing, and I've applied for a consultancy.")
10. Waking to Your Dream
In the hard rocks (and knocks) of academia or artistic creation, you’ve gone from a few scrawny branches struggling through to full flower! Take it all in, and take a break. After your well-earned break (not too long), and to combat PDD (Post-Dissertation Depression) or PFDD (Post-Final Draft Depression), ask yourself again: How is this work part of my Life Dream?
- Envision your future. Enunciate your goals.
- Plan your payoffs: teaching, scholarly or mainstream publications, consulting, exhibiting, performing, extreme quilting.
- Reenter your family’s atmosphere (gently).
- Reflect gratefully on all you have learned in many areas . . . .
And be grateful and give thanks for your diligence, consistency, dedication, wisdom, and humility. You have followed your heart’s desire and completed with dignity and joy your dissertation or creative project.
©2015 by Noelle Sterne, Ph.D.
About the Author
Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor. She publishes writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and fiction in print, online periodicals, and blog sites. Her book Trust Your Life contains examples from her academic editorial practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Her book for doctoral candidates has a forthright spiritual component and deals with often overlooked or ignored but crucial aspects that can seriously prolong their agony: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (September 2015). Excerpts from this book continue to be published in academic magazines and blogs. Visit Noelle's website: www.trustyourlifenow.com