Why Do so Many People Have Trouble with the Dissertation?
Why is the dissertation a problem for so many students?
When you get to the dissertation stage, you face a significant shift in the structure of your educational environment. Unless you recognize how that environment has changed and understand what new competencies are being asked of you, you may get stuck. For at least two decades you have proceeded through courses doing the assigned worked more or less by the assigned deadline. Now you are tackling a much larger assignment. Gone are the short-term deadlines. Gone is the well-defined chunk of work that can be completed in two weeks. Gone is the support that comes from belonging to a group of students who meet in classes. Gone is the end of the semester, when the work is done or put aside and you can start afresh with new classes and new professors and new hope and energy.
Pause for a moment. Are you the kind of person who usually got work done only under the pressure of a deadline? If yes, how will you get yourself to complete work when there isn't an imposed deadline? Will you be like the student who said to her advisor, "You have to set a deadline for me with a serious consequence that will make me finish. You must tell me that unless I finish doing the dissertation by April 10th, you will cease being my advisor, and you must mean it"?
Or will you be like the student who keeps struggling with it, keeps asking the advisor to write letters to the dean requesting an extension on the final institutional deadline, keeps paying tuition?
Or, more happily, will you find a new style of working, one in which you accept responsibility for setting your own research and writing goals, laying out your own reasonable chunks of work, and establishing your own deadlines to complete them by? Instead of working madly for a few days here and there, will you structure things so you can work on the dissertation for a more steady paced three hours every day?
And what will you do about support? Are you going to isolate yourself increasingly from other students? Are you going to avoid your professor and other students because it's unbearably embarrassing to report how little progress you have made? Or will you find (or organize) some sort of dissertation support group and meet regularly with your advisor?
The dissertation process also demands a deep sense of commitment. It is most likely a larger project than any you have faced before, requiring that you live with a topic and an advisor often for at least a couple of years. How do you handle commitments like that? Do you have trouble committing to a topic when writing, often changing subjects even in the last day or two as you are writing? What about selecting a professor to work with and then forming a good work relationship? Are you good at things like that?
How well do you work in situations where there are double messages? The university and its representatives are telling you that this is your chance to do independent research, to do something that really interests you. But you are also getting the message that you need to get your topic "approved," that you must "defend" what you wrote and that you must "submit" it in partial fulfillment of the degree. On the one hand, they promise you autonomy; on the other, they tell you not to stray too far afield. If you have any issues about dependence and independence, any lingering resentments towards authority figures, then expect those to be exacerbated by the mixed messages and to make the task that much harder.
The dissertation and its defense move you more than any other single thing along the path of your career. Intimately tied to your completion of the degree, the dissertation carries many potential meanings. Did you have trouble finishing your last papers for college? Do you worry about leaving an institution and facing an uncertain job market? If so, then the dissertation will likely carry additional meanings that can consciously and unconsciously serve to derail you.
And there is one final challenge. To write the dissertation, you have to believe in yourself in so many ways, but one in particular: You must believe that you can handle the responsibility. It is one thing to borrow money or to take time away from earning money in order to take classes. Someone else-namely the professor-is largely responsible for whether time in class well spent. But if you make time for the dissertation, if you work part time instead of full time, or borrow money in order to work on the dissertation full time, then you have to shoulder the responsibility all alone. Will you turn down the adjunct teaching job, which gives immediate gratification and clear external challenges and instead face the daunting task of articulating and supporting your thesis?
Starting the Dissertation Process