Create and Leverage your Success Team: Dissertation Success Strategies

In 2008, I faced one of the hardest decisions of my doctoral student life. It was how to change the perception of myself as someone who WOULD FINISH my dissertation. As many of you know, over 70% of doc students who succeed to ABD status fall behind and eventually drop out. The goal of this series is to host an honest conversation about the strategies that work or best practices for completing a doctoral dissertation from those who have earned doctorates.  These success strategies take different forms based on the type of student, the type of research project and more complex systemic barriers that occur. As a woman of color who studied in a competitive research environment, my success strategies might seem like overkill to some readers. However, I also use this series to introduce you to other success stories from diverse academic fields. 

The four main categories discussed in this series are support strategies, mindset strategies, environmental strategies and project administration strategies.  To be clear, other more technical strategies exist that are discipline specific, but those are not suited for this type of forum. These strategies are better handled through individual consultations based on professional expertise. Please reach out to me for help identifying resources for an individual concerns.

Let’s Begin: Support Strategies

One of the things that surprised me the most after I finished my doctorate was how many students had hired professional support during their dissertation. Some institutions have professional coaches on staff for doctoral students working on their dissertations which makes sense because many times your Dissertation Chair and the committee members are overwhelmed with their own research and publication demands. Therefore, the first strategy is to overcome the mistaken belief that you must do everything by yourself. Building what many coaches call a “success team” can be a helpful way to think about your strengths and challenges and align yourself in advance with the social capital to pull you through the journey before you feel sandbagged.

 Who should be on your Success Team?

The formal members of your team include the obvious, but I won’t focus on your committee here. They include your Dissertation Chairperson or Director and the members of your dissertation committee. Hopefully, you have selected members that work well together, and that share the unified goal of seeing you become a competent scholar and contributor to an intellectual field of study they care about. Each committee is unique in terms of its temperament and its working style. More has been written about selecting a good dissertation committee elsewhere. It is vitally important that you meet with your committee members individually before selecting them and verify who works together well and who does not. When I am approached by a doctoral student, I am very transparent about both my pedagogy and specific expectations such as response times.  Unfortunately, not all faculty members share their policies even if they exist.

Another important source of support are mentors, allies, consultants and professional coaches. Many of these folks will be internal to the university, and your department or college likely has a website with information about policies, timelines, and available resources. These resources include workshops, support groups, writing retreats, statisticians and notices about grant funding opportunities or specialized methodological training, etc.  Even if these resources are not available at your academic institution, these resources are plentiful online, and you should be sure to sign up for email notification with your professional association and other dissertation support programs (hint: like Pursue Higher Dreams) for these notifications. Your local city may also have networking groups for doctoral students to find accountability and peer support. Many coffee shops have posted meeting notices with details about writing groups. If you live in or near a college community, these groups are sure to have students working on master’s theses or dissertations. 

Remember that no group is going to be perfect but writing in isolation is likely to cause overwhelm and feelings of doom from time to time. One of my most productive writing seasons (the dissertation proposal) was when I joined a writing group sponsored by the Women’s Studies department for graduate students. While no one in the group understood my empirical research project in psychology, the fellowship and the accountability were wonderful. I am still in touch via social media one of the faculty sponsors of the that event. They met monthly in her home, and the food was divine (need I say more). However, what I gained most was being in the company of scholars who asked me tough questions about my writing (and note taking) processes that were instrumental in improving the clarity of my proposal.

Instrumental and Familial Support

Familial support may also be critical to your support team. This is the one area where I excelled during dissertation writing because I co-parented two young children. Anytime a friend or neighbor would ask how to help, I had a list of options. I hired a great sitter who came two nights a week who helped my son with homework and supervised chores. I also had many good friends that shared casseroles and crock pot meals with us from time to time. I created a carpool routine with other working moms so that my kids could still socialize with their friends who had more “normal” schedules and routines. If you don’t have a family to worry about, consider that you still need to clean, cook and transport yourself and maybe a pet or significant other. At the end of my dissertation, I attended a productivity workshop at the Public Library and learned about batching and chunking which still frames how I think about completing monthly tasks. Whatever is not delegated or hired out, should be completed in batches so that it is done monthly or weekly. If it’s a task you MUST do (and this is more about giving up control or money), then by all means do it as infrequently as possible.  In closing, the dissertation journey correctly planned is a single year of your life. Invest in the processes that will make the journey pleasant or tolerable. Otherwise, you may have to invest in paying for an extra year to finish. Many of us have student loans for the “extra” year we paid tuition when the funding clock ran out. Your self-care during the dissertation journey is paramount. You cannot become a productive scholar in a state of perpetual doom and overwhelm.  

You cannot become a productive scholar in a state of

perpetual doom and overwhelm.

In future posts, we will examine other crippling and limiting beliefs. For now, reflect on whether you are suffering under the belief system: “I must do everything myself.” If so, let’s talk. For the month of February, I have only 3 openings for 30-minute discovery calls to work with new clients any topic related to finishing your thesis or dissertation on schedule. 

This article was originally published on my Linked IN profile on January 13, 2020.