About a month or two into the dissertation things change for many people. Classes were fun, regimented and you knew what to do. The new information in the textbooks and class discussions set your imagination on fire. Problems were your meat and they had better bow to your intellect. Someday soon you would walk down that hallway at work and folks would say “Good morning Dr. Thomas.”
Fast forward to now and what has happened? OK some of you do not want to go any further with this so just bear with me while I talk about those other people that need a little help (but not you). Go ahead and read more so maybe you can help a struggling Ph. D. bound friend. Let’s look at some facts.
First of all every one of those folks who failed to earn the Ph. D. were just as smart as you. Let that sink in for a minute. They were just like you and had brains and ability beyond the norm. A mental trick you may pull is saying that they were not quite as skilled, intelligent or lucky as you. Your mind will try to put them into a different category and give you an assurance that you are much more wonderful. Wrong! Over and over I have heard bewildered successful docs tell me that they were amazed that they graduated since so many of those who did not in their group were much greater in skill or intellect. Many times I felt like a grasshopper surrounded by giants especially in the statistics/research classes. Yet I was one of only a few in our group that did graduate. The other two graduates were very smart and I was back in the pack, to be honest pretty far back in the pack.
So we start with you realizing you are no different and that means you have to figure out what landmine they stepped on and make sure that you do not. Do not blind yourself to the truth that a lot of folks just as gifted as you wiped out. Grounding yourself this way helps you to open your eyes and look at the actual situation. Then you test each hypothesis and figure out what works and what does not for you to succeed. Otherwise you cloud your thinking and figure you will succeed just because of who you are. Remember a lot of other folks felt that same way and they did not graduate.
Once you understand all of this then you want someone to give you a list of the five things to avoid so you can succeed. That does not work since each person has different weak areas. Some folks are perfectionists who load so much upon themselves that they literally wear out. They start out fast and look awesome but a doctorate is so complex that they end up buried in plans, data, complex presentations and back up plans for their back up plans. The disorganized that always managed to pull it off at the last minute cannot find things and misplace so much they drop out. The self-important suddenly realize they have no one around to impress and they shrivel up from a lack of constant admiration from those around them. Constant rejections and rewrites of dissertation chapters also does not help.
Folks stray away from family and friends and that weakens resolve and support. Reinforcement drops and doctoral students can become a bit bitter. Huge sums of money are borrowed or diverted from other family members so that has its own side effects. Many former doctoral students talked about how secretly angry they were at friends or family member who came home from work and relaxed, watched TV or had time for shopping and fun stuff. You choose to work for the doctorate but as it grinds on everyone else sort of moves on without you.
So the skills you may need to master are in these areas not in advanced statistics, chemistry or mathematics. You realize other very qualified folks failed at this and you begin to watch your own responses and feelings. When something pops up from one of the areas above then you use that overly large brain of yours to analyze it and to put solutions in place. Fix these weaknesses and let your intellectual skills do their thing and get you through the degree program.
The dissertation process may seem so hard because outside of education variables are bringing you down and slowing you down. It is like being part of a 40 mile hike and deciding that you are going to ignore that large piece of gravel you can feel in your shoe because you have more important things to do. I am asking you to watch out for pieces of gravel in your life that suddenly pop up and to deal with them. If your spouse is not talking to you much or giving you angry looks then deal with it. Solve the problem and don’t just apologize, figure out what is not working. If you are exhausted and after 4 months of writing your dissertation have 3 rooms full of boxed material and two full hard drives, that is a problem. Step back from your degree and look at your life as a whole. Figure out what is out of whack and what needs to be fixed. This may help you to avoid some of the pitfalls that took place for other doctoral students.
Mind your goals,
Dr. Randy Parker
National Doctoral Student Association