Writing Your Doctoral Dissertation
“So, what do you do?” I asked the young blond woman sitting next to me at dinner at a networking event.
“I am a researcher at a biotech startup in Cambridge. I have been working there for 2 years and I love it. I started after I got my Masters.”
“I decided not to get a PhD. It was probably the right decision for me,” she added with a slight roll in her eyes.
“What do you do? Do you work at a company nearby” she asked curiously.
There was an awkward silence, but I took a deep breath and as confidently as I could I replied “I am actually just finishing up my PhD and looking for jobs.”
I forced a smile, wondering how convincing I sounded.
Half of it was true.
I was looking for a job.
But, was I “just finishing up” my doctoral dissertation?
After 5 years, my experimental results were inconclusive, and none of them were publishable.
I had every reason to doubt I would finish my doctoral dissertation, and after this networking event I wondered why I didn’t leave with a Masters degree 3 years earlier.
Working more hours didn’t lead to better results, only more stress.
In fact, by the beginning of my sixth year I had a severe inflammatory condition in my arms that limited my time at the computer to -1-2 hours a day.
This led to even more self-doubt, stress, and more pain.
My physical pain and mental anguish had snowballed.
I felt completely stuck, and had a full-blown case of the “academic blues.”
How could I “not quit” when so many odds were stacked against me?
There was so much I couldn’t do.
I couldn’t work more hours or run more experiments like my peers.
“Maybe I should just leave with a Masters, like the woman I met at the networking event,” I thought.
But, it would look kind of awkward on my resume to have nothing to show for all of these years of work.
Then, one morning I had a flashback to my last semester in college, before I started grad school.
I had been accepted to three graduate school programs, all of them prestigious.
My undergraduate supervisor told me to envision my life after I got my PhD, and choose the graduate program that fit that life best.
As long as I could remember, I wanted to work in a life sciences lab and help develop better medicines to save lives.
When I recalled this flashback, I felt the sense of pride that I hadn’t quit yet, and I could still be a PhD-level researcher, doing impactful work.
I had made several wrong decisions (e.g. working over-time, all the time) that brought me to this place, where I felt stuck, but I still had a chance.
I decided to think about what I could do, instead of my limitations.
While I could only type 1-2 hours a day, I could do something every day to move my doctoral dissertation forward.
I could meet with my supervisor, plan experiments, read papers, organize data, reanalyze data, and write my methodology, results section…
The list kept getting longer.
It was true that I could no longer go to 12 h workdays but I could still do quite a bit.
Each day I focused on what I could do and how I would feel when the thesis was finally over.
I would feel relieved that my friends and relatives are going to stop asking me “So, when will you be done?”
I could apply to jobs with confidence, and get a PhD-level salary.
At that time, this was all a dream.
I hadn’t written a single word of my thesis yet.
But everything changed once I changed my perspective on what I could do.
You may feel that all the odds are stacked against you.
Perhaps when you start making progress there will be chaos in other areas of your life.
It can be incredibly frustrating to take one step forward and three steps back.
You may already be emotionally exhausted from trying to get up after being knocked down each time.
This may sound surprising, but “getting back up after being knocked down” is part of your training.
If everything went according to plan and there weren’t any twists how would you get the training you needed to become an independent researcher and leader?
No matter where you end up, as a PhD you will be expected to become a leader, navigate twists and turns, and show others the way.
Disclaimer: The information in this article about the academic blues is based on my personal experience and opinion and is not substitute for medical advice. Please seek help from a health professional if you experience any symptoms associated with depression or anxiety.
5 Steps to Beat the Academic Blues and Finish Your Doctoral Dissertation
I felt alone when I struggled with the academic blues.
It was only after I graduated that I realized how many other graduate students experienced the academic blues, anxiety or depression in the process of finishing their doctoral dissertation.
In 2005, a study a study at the University of California at Berkeley found that more than half of the graduate students felt depressed a significant amount of the time, and 10 percent had contemplated suicide.
Ten years later, the university repeated the study and it too showed a very high incidence of depression among graduate students.
In 2014, the New York Times reported that most university counseling services do not provide sufficient support for graduate students suffering from anxiety and depression.
Most students are surprised by the lack of structure in graduate school.
Once you complete your courses, you may only have a few deadlines several months in the future.
Thesis supervisors are also very busy and, unless they are micro-managers, they probably let you manage the progress on your project.
How can you stay motivated when there is so little feedback on your performance?
The uncertainty, lack of support, isolation, combined with an ultra-competitive environments can feel daunting for even the brightest students.
The following 5 steps will help you to stay motivated, avoid overwhelm, and develop a structure to help you finish your doctoral dissertation.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to follow these steps now.
If you are already experiencing the academic blues, these steps will help you get out of the downward spiral.
Otherwise, these steps will help you to recognize the signs of the academic blues, and help you take a proactive approach to prevent negative consequences on your health and performance.
Step #1: Check in with yourself
Staying motivated and bouncing back from setbacks to keep your doctoral dissertation on track takes courage and energy.
Lots of energy.
You can’t expect to have a high level of stamina if you are lacking sleep, running on an empty tank (or junky food), and feeling stiff from sitting all day.
I can already hear you saying…
“But I don’t have time to sleep, make healthy meals, or exercise. I can maybe do one of those, but all of them?”
You are right.
You may not be able to do them all every day, but set up a routine where you get sufficient sleep, good food, and some exercise every week.
If “something doesn’t feel right” check in with yourself.
What is tiring you out so much or how are you not taking care of yourself?
It may be that you are doing everything you can to support your health, but you are still not feeling like the best version of yourself.
Perhaps you are experiencing stress due a personal relationship or from the pressure in your environment.
Once you identify the real reason(s) something doesn’t feel right, it will be easier to cope with your situation.
But first, you need to have to courage to look inside yourself and be completely honest.
If you are feeling the blues, it is probably not just about graduate school.
What is “being in grad school” holding you back from?
Is it holding you back from providing for your family? Moving on with your life? Starting a family? What is it really about?
And now that you know what is really eating you, let’s talk about how to get unstuck…
Step #2: Identify the next step (even if it’s a nanostep)
Seriously…what’s a nano-step?
It’s not a real word, but this is what comes to mind when I think about getting momentum after feeling stuck for a long time (like months or years).
A nano-step after being stuck with writing your doctoral dissertation for 2 years, could be to open the document and look at it for a minute.
It has be related to what you need to accomplish, but it should be so small that you could do it in less than 5 minutes.
If it’s organizing data, it would be to locate where all of the folders are.
If you feel stuck because your supervisor is a clam (i.e. he/she doesn’t tell you what your thesis project is supposed to be, or how to continue it), your nanostep could be to send an email to schedule a meeting with them or a committee member who can support you.
Opening up a file, locating folders, sending an email to inquire about availability are all nano-steps that probably take 60 seconds.
What they all have in common is that they give you momentum.
Momentum does not need to be big. It just needs to be in the right direction.
When you feel stuck, identify the smallest step that you need to take towards a goal.
Step #3: Give yourself peace of mind
The scary thing about setbacks in grad school is that they never really go away.
It seems like once you overcome one (e.g. now you have a plan that you discussed with your supervisor),your computer crashes and you lost a lot the latest version of your doctoral dissertation.
Unpleasant as these things are, you cannot avoid them completely.
Some of them will happen. Not all, but some.
You may not lose your writing (because you had enough foresight to back it up daily), but perhaps you get injured and need to take time off from your job, and you are losing income.
There are an infinite number of what-if’s and the purpose of this step is not to give you more stress, but to give you a peace of mind.
Have an emergency fund, have automated backups, and establish a support group to be there for you should a disaster strike.
How did you bounce back from setbacks in the past?
What were some of the greatest challenges in your life and how were you able to move forward despite having to deal with them.
In every challenge there is an opportunity. You may not see it right away. You may not see it for a long time. But it’s there.
Once you remember how you overcame setbacks in the past this will help you to cope with setbacks now, take proactive steps and give yourself peace of mind.
Step #4:Know the big picture
One of the things that really helps students get excited about their research again is understanding the impact of their doctoral dissertation.
What is the big picture? What difference will your thesis make or what difference will you make when you finish your thesis?
How will your higher degree affect your career opportunities? Your finances? Your relationships? Your health?
Visualize at least one positive change in your life “on the other side of your thesis” and feel yourself get pulled towards it.
The big picture can be about your research or the big picture of your life.
Networking events either professional or personal can be great resources to talk about the big picture impact of your work.
In fact, talking to friends and family members about your research can be more powerful than talking to professionals, because it will help you break down the implications of your work into simple terms.
Discussing your work with others will also help you realize that you have accomplished a lot more than you thought, and that can be an instant motivator.
Step #5: Remind yourself of the truth
It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like a victim, powerless.
This may be the result of a story that you have unconsciously soaked up in the academic environment about not being “smart enough” to finish your doctoral dissertation.
But think about it… who worked hard to get high enough grades to get into grad school?
Who had the courage to apply to grad school and invest in themselves?
Who took the initiative to choose a better career?
That’s right, it was all you.
You took the actions.
Not your parents, or significant other, who may have been very supportive along the way.
You got yourself as far as you are now.
Look at all you have accomplished, not just in grad school, but in all areas of your life.
You may be blown away at how many people’s lives you have already impacted, in your family, your community, and your school.
The more you recognize how many obstacles you have already overcome to get to where you are, the easier it will be to see challenges from a more positive perspective that will help you to stay motivated.
When it comes to staying motivated in graduate school, what is the #1 challenge that you are facing?
Please share in the comments below and Dora will respond to you directly.
To attain a doctoral degree, every Ph.D. student needs to navigate the dissertation-writing process. Writing from A to B: A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies demystifies this process. The author, Dr. Keith Hjortshoj, has drawn upon his many years of experience with Cornell’s renowned John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines to craft this invaluable manual, which provides clear and cogent insights to lead you through each phase.
Through the generosity of a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools, I am delighted to make Writing from A to B: A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies available. You will find this guide to be indispensible to each stage of your dissertation, from conceptualization to final revision.
Download Writing from A to B (PDF).
As you enter this important phase of your graduate education, remember that you have the support of your special committee, your field, and the Graduate School. Cornell has many resources to assist our students in reaching their degree goals, and we urge you to communicate regularly with your advisors so that they can help you move forward and access whatever support services you may need to complete your Ph.D.
We wish you the very best for your dissertation work, and we look forward to the conferral of your doctoral degree.
Barbara A. Knuth
Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School