Happy New Year, Dissertators!

As a dissertation coach, I see firsthand the backlash of negative feelings graduate students experience when they don’t complete their stated goals. This self-blame often stymies them even more, creating a negative ripple effect that can last for weeks, and sometimes longer. Many of my clients come to me initially because they are locked into a continual cycle of procrastination, avoidance and guilt – affecting not only their dissertation process, but their esteem, relationships and careers.

We have the best of intentions when creating resolutions for the new year but we often forget about their nasty potential shadow effects: shame and self-recrimination. And secretly, we know the reason why – resolutions can often be overly lofty or unrealistic. Worse, we can create goals for the wrong reasons (think societal or family approval, for example). This means our subconscious is often working against us from the start. Who wants to constantly wrestle with the insidious enemy from within?

What is sad is that my clients often don’t see what I see: a determined, intelligent person intent on moving their life forward, regardless of the limited timeline they’ve imposed on themselves. Part of my role is helping them understand that opportunities open up and confidence increases simply by engaging in the process of writing a dissertation, not just finishing it.

Moving into action, regardless of speed, is what reduces anxiety, builds momentum, produces words on the page and eventually gets that baby delivered. (Yes, the metaphor of the gestating baby that is long overdue for delivery really works here!)

In my dissertation coaching practice, I work with students to help them set goals that are motivating and that can actually be achieved. The following ideas keep their plans manageable and achievable.

Create goals grounded in reality – not resolutions.
A “resolution” is a heavy, weighted word, akin to a vow, whereas a “goal” can be flexible and approachable. An empowering goal also requires specific steps to achieve while a resolution is often more focused on the end product. So, don’t resolve to complete your dissertation by the end of the year – make it a goal with a tiered, flexible plan instead.

Define strategic, but open goals.
Most graduate students I work with have exceedingly busy lives. They may not factor in life changes like a job transition, birth of a child or health issue. When you create an intention with some breathing room, you can relax into the process instead of feeling the constant heat of a fixed end point. While setting a deadline for your dissertation, be realistic. Revisit and tweak frequently. Integrate your current life constraints and don’t forget to include self-care. (More than just a buzzword, consistent self-care ensures your quality of life isn’t compromised as you tackle your mission.) Most importantly, give yourself credit for moving forward at any pace. It’s the small decisions made every day to devote some time (even 20 minutes) on your project that get it done.

Work toward micro goals.
Many of the students I work with perform optimally when taking a “one bite at a time” approach. If they think about the bigger picture and how much remains yet to be completed, they become overwhelmed and under productive. Some students work best by treating each chapter (or each subsection) as its own mini-dissertation. Others work well simply by dealing with one paragraph at a time. You want to keep the broader view in mind, but truly focus on what is in front of you.

Accept resistance, take action and find joy in your project whenever possible.
A joyless goal will never be a motivator. I can’t tell you how many students choose a dissertation topic simply because it’s a “hot topic” or because they think it will be faster to complete. Your interest and passion about the topic is critical to its completion. If the overall project no longer inspires you, figure out aspects of it that still interest you and lean into those.

A word about resistance to engaging in your dissertation, particularly if you’ve been AWOL for a while…
Resistance is going to come up. It’s normal and everyone experiences it. Completing a dissertation is emotionally, cognitively and physically challenging. You’ve devoted years of effort toward this goal and it’s going to be evaluated by the best in your field. Of course, it brings up fear and anxiety – which then translates into resistance. The key is to acknowledge the resistance, feel it fully and MOVE FORWARD INTO DISSERTATION MODE ANYWAY. No amount of discussing it, ruminating over it or waiting for the “ideal time” will make your resistance disappear and your dissertation get written.


Get support. We are not islands.
When accomplishing goals, recruiting support can make the difference between success and failure. Why? Because shared accountability is much more powerful than going it alone.

It’s easy to blow off going to the gym but harder to avoid if you made plans to go with a friend. When it comes to finishing your dissertation, it truly is a community effort – which is why a committee is formed and an advisor assigned to you. Stay in regular contact with your supervisor; get together with student peers via zoom to discuss challenges and progress; bribe your family members to read sections of your written work and give you feedback. Utilize whatever support is available to you. A dissertation coach (like moi) can also provide multi-tiered levels of support so you don’t have to go it alone.

With these ideas in mind, you can break the cycle of dreaded dissertation avoidance. Step into your project fully, keep moving forward, stay positive, be kind to yourself, write…and then write some more. You can do this.