The Dissertation Workshop

Dealing with Discouragement and Writer's Block
Getting Organized
Getting the Support
You Need
Workshops and Consultations


Sorting Out Sources of Discouragement
and Difficulty Working

Some of the psychological forces at work when you are struggling with your dissertation are relatively easy to address. Others are much harder to deal with. Difficulties can be divided artificially into four categories, but remember: one problem doesn't preclude another.

Let's look at the four categories, beginning with the problems that are the mildest and easiest to change and ending with those that are most ingrained and difficult.

I. Relatively Mild Difficulties

Some students have a fairly good set of skills for getting work done, particularly in the old system with proper support. They didn't write papers only at the last minute, reluctantly, but sometimes actually enjoyed the work, being motivated to do it. They are comfortable with the direction that they are heading and are not ambivalent about getting the degree. Sometimes these students simply aren't able to work for one of the following two reasons:

1. There is some organizational problem in the project that they haven't identified as a problem, and they have confused it with a work block or with a motivational issue. The stuckness can feel like depression. But it can be readily alleviated, particularly if it is resolved early on. If this is you, rather than stay stuck, sit down and write a description of the problem. Maybe it is simply that you are finding it hard to choose between including such and such an idea in you dissertation or excluding it. The first step toward resolving the conflict is to identify it as a problem. The next step is to brainstorm solutions to the problem either on your own or with someone else. One friend was stuck with how to approach a particular chapter. Rather than stay stuck, first he recognized that he had a problem with what he was attempting to write, not that there was something wrong with him for not being able to write it. Next, he was able to feel that it was not a sign of weakness to ask his advisor for help. Much to his surprise, his advisor said, "you could drop the chapter altogether, no body else would know that you had intended to include it." This process and the advice he received are worth remembering.

2. The student has somehow gotten into a vicious circle with his or her work. Such students constantly plan to do more than they can do, are extremely self-critical and make working on the dissertation more and more a negative experience. They feel ashamed, hurt, or angry every time they have to force themselves to the task. The prospect of working on the dissertation becomes unbearable, they avoid the task, and they disparage themselves further. These are students who by and large worked well with external deadlines that spurred them through the task to the next one. If this is you, create a regimen, which allows the process to give you positive feedback. Develop a work habit that starts out with very small commitments. For example, promise yourself that you will work for 20 minutes a day, three days a week starting at a preset time, to be rescheduled if necessary.

II. External Problems

Then there are the students whose capacity to work is compromised by external circumstances. These range from problems having to do with the university, (difficulties with your advisor or funding) to problems in one's personal life. The solution to any problem usually begins with your taking time to be honest about the nature of the problem. Write about it. Objectify it. Step back from it. If you can't find a solution, ask others for help. As Barbara Sher, author of several books on pursuing a life you wish for, frequently notes most people can't resist helping you solve a problem. Here is a limited list of potential external problems:

You have problems with the situation

  • You don't match well with your advisor. Your advisor is somehow undermining you in subtle or not so subtle ways. Perhaps your advisor leaves and is replaced by another who has no interest in your topic and no commitment to seeing you through the process. Or your advisor keeps suggesting a different way to do the project than you want. In that case, you must entertain the possibility of switching advisors or turning to someone else for guidance.

  • You discover someone else is working on the same topic and you have to choose something else.

  • You have a good idea, but there isn't anyone interested in or capable of sponsoring your work.

  • You are doing work that is directly related to your sponsor's research and something in the larger project is holding up your project.

  • Your advisor simply is too preoccupied to meet with you.

You have other external problems, of more personal nature

  • Life throws you a curve ball: you break up with a lover, a parent is ill or dies, you have to find another apartment. You have children, and obligations to meet. Accept that you can't control everything and that when such things happen you have to cut back on your expectations. Otherwise, you will get depressed for not meeting them.

III. Core conflicts that are activated by the conscious and unconscious meaning of the dissertation

You may have core issues with the dissertation because the process involves deeper meanings that generate conflicts within you. These may include issues of loyalty, self-image, fear of failure, or fear of success, among others. They include "core negative beliefs" as described by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist's Way (p30). If it is hard for you to embrace an image of yourself as successful, it will be hard for you to work on something which may give you evidence that you are competent to succeed. If you fear that engaging with life means being taken down the river of life towards death; if you fear discovering that what you can do with your life is finite; if you fear giving up the safety that attends the image of enormous potential for the humbling experience of a small achievement-then the dissertation becomes a much more challenging endeavor, filled with paralyzing ambivalence.

Those fears run deep and often serve to sabotage a student. For example, students who have suffered a loss, or have a sibling who is impaired or dead, often feel guilt over being successful or competent, a fear of making others feel worse about themselves. Students who are the first in their families to be earning a degree may feel that they are also going to lose their connection with their past, not be welcomed home. Identifying with one parent or another. Completing the dissertation may be experienced as identifying with one parent while letting go of an identification with the other one. Some of these conflicts are described in the book Procrastination by Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen. These are all powerful and deep issues. You may be able to ride through the challenge by tying yourself to the desk or tolerating nightmares or resorting to therapy. But these problems are not so easy to work through. The Focusing technique we describe later can help.

IV. A core problem which is not induced by the dissertation

You may be seriously depressed for reasons not directly related to the dissertation. You may simply be prone to depression, which may be triggered or made worse by a loss. Or you may have other problems. You need to sort out whether that is the case. In any case, long periods of feeling sad, discouraged, inferior, worthless, guilty, indecisive, resentful, angry, unmotivated, unattractive or unable to experience pleasure-these are signs that you need to consider therapy and/or medication. At the very least seek a consultation with a psychiatrist or a psychologist. You can be susceptible to depression and still write-look at the powerful description of depression by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression. But you can't do the writing when you are seriously depressed.

Dealing With the Undertow of Negative Feelings






The Dissertation Workshop
Fred Stern, Ph.D. and Lois Feldman, Ph.D
Phone: 212-874-4530


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