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ABD? What Next?

ABD is that lonely and frustrating place between completing your graduate coursework and graduation. The only thing that stands between you and your degree is your thesis or dissertation. You need to get the ball rolling.

Making a Plan and Staying Motivated

“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it.” —

Author unknown

I woke up this morning pumped to begin writing an article about “motivation” for this newsletter. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm waned when I discovered that my car had been towed. The thought of having to pay $250 to get it back didn’t make me feel like lifting my pom poms and shouting, “Rah Rah!” … and it definitely didn’t motivate me to write. On a positive note, however, my problem ultimately helped me to write the article, because it occurred to me that sharing my story with graduate students was pertinent. After all, this type of setback is typical for graduate students; most of us frequently find ourselves having to write our thesis or dissertation in the midst of many distractions.

Dissertation Survival

Writing a thesis or dissertation can be a lonely and difficult process. Some students approach this large, unstructured project by white knuckling it all the way to the end. This approach, however, can’t be sustained over a long period of time. And since cutting out all distractions is simply not possible, it’s much better to plan your thesis around your life, rather than the other way around. The TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished™program was created to help you do exactly that, and to develop a realistic plan to assist you in reaching your goal.

Similarly, the mission of this TADA! FinishLine newsletter is to help guide you step-by-step through the entire process, and to keep you motivated along the way. I believe you’ll find that our tips and guidelines will help make the process much, much easier, including the writing phase!

If you’re having difficulty taking the first step – or if you’ve just taken your first step – I encourage you to read the January, 2005 edition of this newsletter. Read that entire issue and fill out the commitment form included in it. After that, follow the guidelines listed below to prevent procrastination, to stay focused, and to reach your ultimate goal of completing your thesis or dissertation!

Find a “Coach”

There is a considerable difference between an advisor and a thesis or dissertation coach. An advisor is, first and foremost, an academic with considerable responsibilities that do not involve you. A thesis or dissertation coach, on the other hand, is paid to focus on you and help you finish your degree by listening to all of your concerns … academic or other.

Thesis/dissertation coaches focus on a holistic – not strictly academic -- approach to finishing your degree. In person or on the phone, they can discuss your project on an individual basis in absolute confidence, and also serve as a sounding board for stress relief. They can offer both emotional and academic support to help you complete important tasks, as well as provide the tools you need to achieve your goals, which enable you to accomplish more with less effort. Coaches can help you get organized, and regularly track your progress to ensure that you stay on top of tasks. Their goal is to work in every possible way to help you write your thesis/dissertation, finish it, and get it published.

“Group Coaching” is also valuable. One coach can provide counsel to several students over the phone (via a bridge line). Everyone involved agrees to confidentiality, and the group is configured to guarantee that no one in the group will be in competition with another. The advantage of this approach is that you can accomplish more in less time, and can have the opportunity to work with students in different disciplines from all over the world. The group setting also provides built-in peer support.

Make a Commitment to Work Every Day

Clearly, writing a thesis or dissertation takes a significant amount of time and effort. It is not something that can be accomplished easily or quickly. As such, it’s critical to keep the momentum going by making a commitment to work on the project every day. On some days, your commitment might be as little as 12 minutes; on other days, you may log hours working on your project. The point is that every day you need to take sometime and take some action.

Each morning, you should start your day by asking, “What action can I take today to move my thesis or dissertation forward?” Make a checklist of small items that must be addressed or completed in order to make forward progress, and refer to it often. Resolve yourself to work on one of those items each and every day. No task is too small, and no item – such as “creating the cover page” – is too insignificant. Keep in mind that every action will move you closer to your goal.

Get the maximum benefit out of your efforts by incorporating the rituals and routines that result in your most effective writing. For example, if you are more productive in a clean workspace, be sure to dedicate the last 30 minutes of your daily schedule to straightening up. If you work better after you’ve indulged in a good cup of coffee from your favorite mug or in your favorite T-shirt, by all means keep these items handy. This is not the time to start a new routine!!!

End every day by writing a list of “to do” items for the following day.

Start Dancing, Even If You Don’t Hear the Music

The beginning of the thesis/dissertation process can be absolutely daunting. The project is so immense that many students simply don’t know where or how to begin. Some wait around hoping to be struck by divine or other inspiration. Others are simply overwhelmed or paralyzed by fear.

Moreover, this type of phenomenon isn’t limited to just beginning the process. Many of us face the same type of frightening “beginning” each time we sit down to write!

Renowned motivator Ralph Marston advises, “When you can't see how you will get it all done, the thing to do is to do what you can. Even when it's difficult to imagine getting the job finished, the thing to do is to take the first step.”

Whatever the reason, there are a number of strategies to help overcome this type of “writer’s block.” Whenever you’re “stuck,” try using one or more of these strategies to get you writing.

Make your point out loud. Call a friend or use a tape recorder. Talking your way through something helps provide clarity, especially if you’re having difficulty coalescing an argument.

Separate the section on which you are currently working from the rest of the document. Not only does this make the task seem smaller and less intimidating, it frequently produces a stronger document, because the section can stand on its own.

Make a list of ideas you want to include in the next paragraph. Even this simple task can help clarify your thoughts and provide you with the words to begin.

Consider saving the introduction, conclusion and transitional paragraphs for the last, not the first, phase. These are frequently among the most difficult sections to write, and may flow more easily with the rest of the document already under your belt.

Remind yourself that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. First-draft writing should be viewed as taking small, imperfect steps. You can perfect it later! The goal of a first draft is simply to get your next thoughts on paper.

When you’re really stuck and feeling down, read some of your earlier papers. They can remind you of the work you are capable of doing, and the fact that you really can write well!

Keep a daily journal. Strange as it may sound, sometimes writing about why you can’t write helps dissolve anxiety and clears your mind. The physical exercise of writing can actually help you to keep on writing! In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julie Cameron reinforces the importance of writing a minimum of three pages in a journal each morning. The book also offers a unique set of 12 weekly activities to help ease you out of a creative slump.

Focus on the Small Things

One approach to completing a long, unstructured project is to break it down into manageable parts. In some disciplines, for example, professors suggest that students should think of the dissertation as a series of three journal articles on a related topic. With that mindset, the student can focus on writing one “article” at a time. When all of the articles are written, the student can join the pieces together with summary chapters at the beginning and end.

After writing and defending my dissertation proposal, I used this strategy to finish my first “real” chapter. I wrote a paper for submission review in response to a national conference’s “call for papers,” and used the pending deadline as motivation to stay focused. My paper was accepted for presentation, and my chapter was done! Later, I was able to polish that same conference presentation into an effective job market presentation.

Surround Yourself with Positive People

When you first entered your graduate program, you most likely started off with a number of others who were pursuing the same goal. Over time, many of those peers may have graduated, given up, or changed their goals. Others may have kept the same pace as you, and may currently be in the same place that you are.

It’s important to stay connected to at least a small number of people who are also serious about completing their degree. The collective momentum will help you when your energy starts to diminish.

When my friend, Jane, announced that she had finished her first chapter and was moving on to the next, I and another friend, Debbie, hitched our cabooses to her train and decided that we were going to finish, as well. We began methodically working together to do so…. not by editing each other’s work but by offering support in a variety of other ways. We informally coordinated our work schedules, working separately in our respective offices, asked and answered quick methodological questions, offered rides home in the wee hours of the morning, and kept one another abreast of our weekly accomplishments. All of these activities helped us fuel one another to work and finish our projects.

Jane also encouraged us to participate in the graduation ceremonies to help visualize what it would feel like when we were finished. (While many universities have strict guidelines about when a grad student can participate in the cap and gown ceremony, Wisconsin-Madison allows those who are “All but Done/Dissertation (ABD)” to participate in the graduation ceremony and finish the dissertation afterward.) Taking steps like these can be quite emotionally charging, and helpful in keeping yourself motivated.

This article was written by Dr. Carter for FinishLine, the monthly newsletter of TA-DA!™

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