It became clear to me very fast why he was totally lost and sinking out of sight on dissertation completion. He had done quite well completing his classes. He had specific instructions from each professor on what to read and write. He knew what chapters to study for his examinations. Now writing the thesis he was lost. He had no starting point and no end point in mind. He could blab on and on about the chemical reactions and science stuff that made my head swim. But he could not explain to me in a few sentences what the heck he was trying to do and how he would measure it.
He was a great technician and would be very impressive working under someone but not as a leader trying to discover something new. He was not going to move science forward, create new processes or procedures. He was not going to measure new relationships or solve new problems. He would do well following a well-travelled mapped out route.
Doctoral folks are first arrival folks who think outside of the box (at least in their area of expertise). You use that big brain to look around and wonder why things work the way that they do. You explore how to make things do what others have not been able to make them do before. A good doctoral person can work his/her magic in the hard sciences and the softer sciences. Some will go on to build businesses, enrich companies and maybe even help a lot of folks that they will never meet.
But to get to this point you have to have goals. Ugh, you say he is talking about the dammed goals again. That is because goal making for most of us sucks, I mean the process really sucks. You sit there and think and it seems unnatural. You have to make your own map and that is boring, you want to jump in and do things. But a good doc does not use other folk’s maps, he or she has to chart out a new course and move forward. You can use prior researchers work as your starting point but you must design your own.
Your committee will give you guidance but it can go three different ways at the same time and they may not have a clear idea of where you want to go because you are not sure. If you are not sure where you are going or what you want to do next, then you are not giving them the feedback they need to help you. Yes it all comes back to you….sorry.
So how do you come up with goals that keep you moving forward? An easy method was discussed by Brian Tracy in several of his motivational books. Brian started as a high school dropout and went back and got his diploma. Later he finished college and his books are in 36 languages and he has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in training and motivational materials.
He suggests that a person write out ten goals on a plain sheet of paper each day. I think you could do it even with 5 goals a day. Each day you get up and write out the 5 most important goals to you. When I do it I get a mixture of short term and long term goals and they change from day to day. The first two weeks I wrote out the same 10 goals that I thought were important to me but now they jump all over the place. Some are long term goals that I need to remind myself about every couple of days and others are short term goals that I need to do today.
For you, this means every day you get up and grab a blank sheet of paper and write out 5 goals and as the days go by your mind begins to work for you. Instead of avoiding goals you start to think in terms of goals and how to achieve them. You knock off the “for today” goals and think about the ones for later this week. You try to avoid the ones that pop into your mind that you do not want to complete. These are the ones like set up another meeting with your doctoral committee or go to the library and get more research on a particularly hard topic. But each time these unpleasant goals pop up they become easier to approach. You habituate towards them and they become less emotional for many folks.
The hard goals will pop in from time to time and prepare you for things you would rather put off. But the daily goal procedure keeps you moving forward. It expands your thinking and it is a painless way to ponder the future. It is great to cross off a goal or two each day and it starts a self-reinforcing loop.
This simple daily goals process (DGP) will stop you from freezing up or getting lost. When the winds of academia try to blow you off course, the goals will help you focus. When the demands of family, work or having fun pull you away from your academic work, the daily goal process will help you to focus on long and short term goals.
The daily goals process is not quite the same as your long term or step by step formal dissertation goals. But it is a nice way to keep you on task and not running from your daily academic work. Sometimes layering in these simple techniques will take some of the pressure of the whole doctoral process from your shoulders. Several successful doctoral folks used this technique. I hope that it helps you as well.
Mind your goals,
Dr. Randy Parker
National Doctoral Student Association