Your Ph.D. Dissertation

“The straight line, a respectable optical illusion which ruins many a man.” – Victor Hugo 

It’s embedded in many of us: Never Give Up. Nobody likes a quitter, after all. But the reality is that our lives consist of a series of choices and experiences that involve both “sticking with” and “giving up”. These may include decisions around projects, jobs, relationships, habits and places. Often, it’s only in retrospect that we can evaluate the result of decisions made and the pathways taken..or not. For some of us, dissertation completion may be one choice that deserves a hard look.  

As a dissertation coach, my goal is to help doctoral and masters students get back on track and successfully complete their dissertations. As part of that process, I whole-heartedly encourage my coaching clients to stay the course so that they can achieve their often life-long goal of graduation. And most do. 

But what if you’ve been slogging away at your dissertation for what seems like ad infinitum and the finish line seems to be fading into the far-off horizon? Tried all sorts of approaches to continuing with the project but still coming up empty? It may be time to ask the big question: Is completing your dissertation truly what you want to do or is it time to throw in the academic towel and move on?

It may be time to seriously reconsider the Ph.D. pursuit if:

Your dissertation is severely impacting other areas of your life…with no end in sight. 

It’s common for graduate students to find that the doctoral journey has a major impact on relationships, health, finances and work. This is not surprising as it requires sustained effort and attention over years, during which time most individuals experience multiple life changes. Ask yourself: Am I ready to take steps to get back on track? How can I make changes in order to reduce the negative impact on my health/family/finances/significant other? Is this dissertation process keeping me from reaching other important goals in my life? What matters most to me? 

Your dissertation topic has become something you would rather avoid at all costs.

As a doctoral student, you will go through phases of not being excited about your topic; that’s completely normal. But if you chronically experience a deep sense of existential dread every time you sit down to the computer, there may be a bigger problem afoot. It may imply the need for a pivot to a new or related topic. Or it may mean you’re just not engaged in the dissertation process on a fundamental level. Only you can figure that out. Ask yourself: What is it about my topic and research that lacks interest for me? With my end-goal in sight, can I generate enough enthusiasm just to get to the finish line? If I could change my dissertation topic today, would I? Is it the topic that’s the issue or the dissertation process as a whole? (If it’s longstanding procrastination that’s the issue, check out this article.)

Your reasons for starting the Ph.D. program have substantially changed.

At the beginning of the program, you likely were in a different place in your life. Others may have encouraged you to keep moving forward academically – and you complied even though it wasn’t your only choice. You may have thought the Big D in front of your name would change everything. (Hint: It’s a definite plus but will not  necessarily change everything.) There may be other dreams and goals that you find yourself fantasizing about. Ask yourself: Does completing the degree still fit into my current career and life plans? Are there other major projects that I truly want to take on instead that are more meaningful now? What is the impact of staying in or quitting the program at this stage? 

Your dissertation is a long term substitute for…

As a dissertation coach, I’ve met a few individuals who have become perpetual students, at the detriment of development in other areas of their lives. In particular, graduate students who have never experienced life outside of academia may sometimes fit into this category. Pursuing a Ph.D. is a truly worthy goal, but not if it eliminates other meaningful human pursuits over the long term, like quality relationships, health and general contentment. Ask yourself: How can I continue with my Ph.D. while developing other areas of my life that are important to me? Have I been avoiding xxxxx in the pursuit of my degree? Have I quit other projects in the past and if so, do I have any regrets?

Anything worth accomplishing takes grit and perseverance. (Read this!) It’s absolutely normal to experience challenges and question the process along the way. However, if you find yourself repeatedly thinking about giving up on your dissertation, don’t resist your feelings. Explore them instead by asking: What are the roots? Can the issues be addressed? How? Do I need to look at other options? What resources can I utilize to help me understand why I am feeling this way? (This is where a university counselor or dissertation coach may be able to help sort out your feelings and help forge a path forward!)