The biggest lesson I learned while I was a doctoral student? Find out what motivates you. Here are 6 “motivators” I stuck on signs over my desk when I was in the throes of my doctoral dissertation:
photo credit: Flickr user alex:
#1: The best dissertation is a done dissertation
So many people in my graduate cohort spent endless hours and endless angst searching for the perfect research question, the perfect theory, the perfect sources for their lit review, and the perfect turn of phrase guaranteed to take their masterpiece to a level sure to earn them a place in academic history. That wasn’t me. I picked a topic I found interesting; came up with an appropriate research question, backed into a serviceable theory, got decent sources for the lit review, and finished in a reasonable amount of time. Did I set the bar too low? Is there a doctor in the house? By all means, get help from a good dissertation editor or dissertation editing service if you need it.
#2: Do something every day
Starting a dissertation is like starting an exercise program. The experts say that three to four times a week is fine. What these same experts don’t tell you is that the people who “stick with” an exercise program exercise every day. It may be just 10 or 15 minutes but if you do it every day it becomes a lifelong habit—one you’ll have long after the three-times-a week-folks are trying to offload their treadmill on Craig’s list or looking for another juice bar so they don’t run into their personal trainer who believes they have the slowest healing hamstring pull on record. Do the same with a dissertation—do something every day. Some days all you can do is read a short article; some days even that’s too much and you settle for an online search for articles on one of your sub-sub categories. The group in my cohort who did something every day finished their (our) dissertations first.
#3: Just say “no”
I remember asking a friend in the cohort before ours to have coffee. She said she was saying “no” to everything until she finished her dissertation. She was only doing what she absolutely had to do—everything else would have to wait. I was frankly a little miffed, that is until I began my own dissertation and realized I needed to do the same thing if I was ever going to finish what I started referring to as “that damn dissertation.” Forget multi-tasking, forget even uni-tasking if there is such a thing. A dissertation takes 24/7 focus—it’s that big a beast. Again, the people in my cohort who finished first, in fact finished at all, learned how to say “no.”
#4: Stay healthy
It doesn’t seem like a dissertation should be so physically demanding but it is. It sometimes seems to suck the very life out of you. The only way to stay sane is to take the very time you don’t have and make sure you exercise daily (or twice a day if you need a break), eat right, get enough sleep, and try not to rely on what one cohort member referred to as “better living through chemistry.”
#5: Cut yourself some slack
I had a dissertation schedule. I’m a schedule kind of gal. Unfortunately, dissertations aren’t always schedulable. (I think I spent so much time with words ending in ology and istic—ontology, epistemology, methodology, statistic, positivistic—that I’ve created a whole new vocabulary just to rebel.) Perhaps my most important motivator was “cut yourself some slack.” Some days, weeks even, it’s just too hard. Life gets away from you. The people and things you’ve been ignoring for so long need your attention. You can’t remember if you had lunch, made lunch, went out for lunch, or if you had lunch for breakfast because you can’t remember what day or time it is. Cut yourself some slack.
#6: Better dead than ABD
Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh but for me that’s what it came down to. I didn’t think I could live with myself (nor did I think anyone else could live with me!) if I put in all that time and money and anxiety and sacrifice only to stop short of the finish line. Equally important is that I felt I would be letting down the very people who supported and tolerated me if I didn’t finish. Besides, after a certain amount of time, ABD is worse than never starting. Show me someone ABD more than three or four years after comps and I’ll show you someone with a long-list of excuses targeted at whoever is asking—even when they’re not asking! That ABD should have found herself a dissertation editing company to help out.
First, a confession. I thought writing a dissertation would be, if not a piece of cake, at least a manageable project—one that would fit into tidy buckets similar to the large marketing projects I had done countless times over the years. The other reason I thought it would be easy was because I’m a good writer. I’ve got a master’s in journalism and 20+ years of writing experience. Add to that the fact that I’m organized, disciplined, creative, motivated, and focused.
So what happened? Following my defense and my committee saying, “Congratulations, Doctor,” I had a mini meltdown. Nothing major like going on a major spending spree or taking an exotic vacation (which I deserved but couldn’t afford with all those graduate school loans), or even staying in bed for a week. Instead, as friends and family report, I was pretty testy, crabby, short, and a few other choice words people were afraid to use around me at the time. One friend suggested I talk to other recent doctors from my doctoral program cohort group to see how they managed what I was by now referring to as “post dissertation stress disorder” or PDSD. The same friend thought this information might be helpful for the next cohort who was just beginning the dissertation process.
Get professional help.
This was a common theme. Not the psychiatric kind although that was also suggested. Four people in the cohort used professional dissertation editors and proofreaders. There were probably more but these are the ones I know about. And there were even more who wish they had gotten help but for some reason didn’t. (I’m one of those but more about that later.)
ESL editing. One guy got pre-editing and editing help because he speaks English as a second language and felt he needed an editor to, as he put it, “smooth out the bumps.” He used an editor for the proposal and the dissertation and a proofreader for the final review before it was turned over to the committee.
APA 6th. Another guy used a dissertation proofreader whose claim to fame was that she knew APA 5th and 6th –and probably dozens of other style manuals–by heart. He said this gave him the time to focus on the content instead of “where the commas and periods went and how a citation differs when you have two, or three, or four, or seven (what’s that about?) or more authors.” Truth be told, I think he was a little “creeped out” by her attention to detail, especially when she’d put in a comment about seriation in section 3.04 of APA 6th and he was positive she didn’t have to look it up. And this from a guy who was the first in our cohort to understand all the “ology” and “istic”—epistemology, etymology (or is that bugs?), ontology, phenomenology, heuristic, positivistic, interpretivistic, masochistic (that one was mine)—words that are part of any doctoral program.
Stroke prevention. One woman was looking for a combination of editing and proofreading and polish. She, like many others, said “you get so close to it [the dissertation] you can’t see the forest for the trees.” She added, “I’d look through yet another version of my literature review and see sentences where I just stopped writing or ended a sentence mid-word. It looked like I had a stroke.”
Saving friendships. I was one of those doctoral candidates who said I was going to have family and friends look at different versions and provide feedback and edits. My rationale was that they’d be happy to help because “the sooner I finish the sooner I stop whining about not being finished and how hard it is and how I never have time to see anyone or do anything or….” But, as one wise friend put it, “Is it really worth it? If I ask a friend to read my dissertation, he or she might ask me to read theirs.” Another friend suggested that asking a friend to read your dissertation was an unfair thing to ask of anybody. I mean, just because we thought our dissertation topic was a true spell-binder and that copies would be flying off the shelves when we finished it, didn’t mean that others would have quite the same passion for the topic that we had. Better to use a professional dissertation editing service and save our friends and family for other distasteful (her word, not mine) tasks like “moving a piano or cleaning a storm drain.” That hurt!
So…it’s been 18 months (and three days and six hours and …) since I officially became a doctor. If I had it to do over again—which I never would and that explains why they call it a terminal degree—I would have opted for getting professional help. The dissertation editing help, not the therapeutic treatment of PDSD. Now if I could only get rid of that pesky eye twitch.