I recently attended the Ph.D. Candidacy reception at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), where Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, III — president of the university — gave a speech on the characteristics of people who successfully achieve their Ph.D. Here are the characteristics he pinpointed, and my own comments about how they can help you succeed.
After you are finished the required coursework and qualifying exams, you have more freedom to set your own goals, determine your daily schedule, and follow any interesting ideas. Do you have the maturity to continue your research when no one is looking over your shoulder?
Dr. Hrabowski emphasized that a strong commitment to finishing your degree is of the utmost importance. At TA-DA!™ , we wholeheartedly agree! In fact, we believe it is mandatory to make a daily commitment to finishing your degree, and that you must complete at least one task every day towards that end. You must also demonstrate your commitment by setting goals, establishing timelines and deadlines, and creating lists that break down every goal into smaller, more manageable tasks. TA-DA!™ provides you with tips, techniques, and strategies to keep yourself motivated to keep working toward a goal without day-to-day encouragement from your advisor. Demonstrate your commitment today by accessing our online TADA!™ Certificate. Print it out and use it as a daily reminder of your commitment to earn that Ph.D. The TADA!™ system really works!
If you’re like most students, you struggle with confidence from time to time, but it’s important to believe in yourself if you are going to complete your degree. By the time you begin writing a thesis or dissertation, you should have already completed a large number of written and other substantial projects … so if your confidence begins to sag, draw on the past work you’ve done to help boost that self-esteem. Simply rereading previous class papers will remind you of the work you are capable of doing! Reflect back to other past successes, as well, such as earning admittance to graduate school, passing your qualifying exams, or even reaching candidacy. All of these have served as the building blocks to prepare you for this current challenge.
Visualization is another useful strategy: visualize yourself accomplishing your goal, and affirm your ability to do so. To achieve it, you must believe it! Visualize the rewards you will give yourself when you complete your degree … when you complete your defense … when you hand in your first full draft to your Committee.
In fact, a key strategy to keep you moving and working through your dissertation is to use rewards (and punishments!) as motivation. For example:
Celebrate major accomplishments! When you meet a deadline or achieve a significant accomplishment, reward yourself with something you enjoy, such as shopping or having coffee with a friend, reading a non-academic book, renting a movie, enjoying an ice cream or emailing a friend. Granting yourself a tangible reward, however small, can provide additional motivation to get the work done.
Schedule daily motivational rewards. Don’t allow yourself to enjoy any of those small luxuries until you’ve completed your daily allotment of dissertation work. For example, I wrote my dissertation during the NBA finals. I wouldn’t allow myself to watch the game unless I had accomplished my daily goals. This enabled me to write with purpose throughout the day, and watch the game each evening without a sense of guilt.
You must be genuinely intrigued by the research questions you have posed, and excited to find the answers to those questions. Let’s face it: if you’re not enthusiastic about the material, how do you expect anyone else to be? Moreover, it will be impossible to remain motivated if you’re not completely engaged by your subject matter. Be sure to select a topic in which you have a high interest and that will sustain you throughout the writing phase. Even then, expect to be sick and tired of your research at some point along the line! And also prepare yourself for disappointments; sometimes all your research will do is show that things are not going to work out as you had expected … but take comfort in the fact that there is still value in knowing what works and what doesn’t. Remember: research is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the journey!!!
Even with a highly competent plan, you are still likely to become tired, discouraged, distracted or otherwise “de-motivated” at some point (or points!) of your journey. That’s why it’s important to have what I call a “resilience plan” … also known as “Plan B.” Planning in advance how you will counter the appearance of such negative emotions can mean the difference between failure and success.
“Plan B” should also consider the obstacles you may face in the pursuit of your plan. What will you do if your research project stalls or the results are not what you expected? What if your advisor takes a sabbatical? What if your funding falls through? What if you fail your preliminary exam?
Having a “Plan B” enables you to prepare for these types of situations rather than be ambushed or surprised by them. A “Plan B” will help you work within your limitations, rather than waiting and hoping for everything to become perfect (again). You can fall back on “Plan B” rather than quitting or admitting defeat; that is what will keep you working steadily, even when you have lost your way or can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Plan out what you will do when you become discouraged or run into an obstacle: If __________ happens, I will do ______________________ to overcome it.
Having a “Plan B” will help provide you with the resiliency you need to succeed.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” One of the reasons clichés are so pervasive is because they are actually true! If you have a failure or disappointment or two, just pick yourself up and try again! Affirm to yourself that you will finish your degree no matter stumbling blocks you encounter along the way. If you don’t pass your qualifying exams the first time, take them again. If your advisor leaves the university, find a new one. If you run out of funding, get a student loan. Being persistent will give you the flexibility you need to achieve your goal.
Recently I have been doing a 90-day at home boot-camp-like workout routine called P90X. Each daily workout is tough; the workout coach says, “do your best and forget the rest.” I have been able to complete my 90 days with a similar TA-DA mindset “it doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to get done.” 90 days later I have lost some inches and have moved on to another workout routine.
Similarly, you should expect that pursuing a PhD requires an intense intellectual effort and it is going to be tough; less than one percent of the population attains the degree. To each obstacle that you encounter you should say “bring it” because you expect it.
Are you curious enough to search for answers even when no one, including your advisor, knows the precise questions — without getting frustrated? To complete a PhD a natural curiosity is necessary. Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Never lose a holy curiosity.” Curiosity is what will help you to pose the most interesting questions, and to seek out the answers to those questions. The more questions you ask, the stronger your research will become. A healthy curiosity will also expand the depth and scope of your research, because as you ask and answer each new question, even more questions and ideas will arise. Curiosity will also help you to uncover new ideas and possibilities that you might not have thought about or recognized before … and that will help to keep you excited and motivated about your work. The result? A successful project.
You may have a general idea of what the answers are to the research questions you have posed, but it’s important to keep an open mind to whatever results may appear. You must remain open to all possibilities, including the possibility that your initial beliefs may turn out to be false. Stay open-minded as you critically examine all of your results. Remember that research is a cumulative process! Your research would not be necessary if you already knew the answer; after all, you can’t “solve” a problem that has already been explained!
Your success in graduate school and beyond depends a great deal upon your ability to build and maintain interpersonal relationships with your adviser, committee members, fellow students, and administrative staff. To do so, it may be necessary to step beyond your social comfort zone. Treat graduate school as a place to practice socializing and networking outside your racial and ethnic group. Introduce yourself to people you don’t know. Assert yourself in the classroom. Engage discussions. Be seen and heard! Organize a study group for the midterm or final (and do it on the first day of class, not right before the exam!). When you get to know people on a personal level, you may find that you have more in common that you realize!
It’s important to know what’s going on outside the classroom, as well! Which faculty member didn’t get tenure? (Was it your advisor?!?) Who’s going on sabbatical next year? Which faculty member is thinking about leaving? Who just secured a million dollar grant? Choosing the right dissertation advisor, securing funding, and participating in key high-visibility project work can all be the happy results of immersing yourself in department culture and knowing the answers to these type of questions. Since no one person — not even your advisor — has access to all information and resources in your department, networking with a wide variety of people provides you with multiple avenues to get the information and resources you need to get things done. Strong networking skills will serve you well in the future, as well!
WILLINGNESS TO SEEK ADVICE
Of course, some of the most helpful advice you can receive by far is our TA-DA!™ online resource tool. This online resource is designed to guide you step-by-step through the entire process of finishing your thesis or dissertation, and to help keep you motivated along the way. The tips and guidelines included in the TA-DA!™ will make the process much, much easier … including the writing phase. It also provides tools to help you overcome procrastination, frustration and any other obstacles you may face. Most importantly, TA-DA!™ will show you how to organize and plan your time and actions so that you complete at least one task every day … and that’s what it will take to make sure you finally get finished. Our motto is “A Good Dissertation is a Done Dissertation.” Remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be done
But don’t stop there! Seek advice from every source you can find! Of course, one of the most important sources is your advisor. One of the most important elements of finding the optimal advisor for you is choosing someone whose interests and working style blend and balance effectively with you. Get a feel for the interests and style of a potential mentor by inquiring among other graduate students, particularly current and former students of professors. If the option is available to you, complete a rotation in his or her lab; this will familiarize you with his/her work style and personality, as well as the areas in which he/she shows a keen interest
In addition, we recommend finding a “coach” in addition to an advisor. There is a considerable difference between these two roles. An advisor is, first and foremost, an academician 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. Coaches focus on a holistic — not strictly an 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 academic and emotional 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. Using this scenario, 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 also have the opportunity to work with students in different disciplines from all over the world. The group setting also provides built-in peer support.
WILLINGNESS TO TAKE ADVICE
In order to succeed in the academic arena, you simply can’t have “thin skin”; you must be able to handle criticism. Throughout your academic career, you will receive a large amount of critical feedback; rather than being “insulted” by this criticism, view it as constructive advice that will make you and your research stronger. Most people who complete their degree know how to handle critical feedback, and welcome it on a regular basis. In fact, they seek it out it from their advisor, committee members, editor and friends; because they know it will make their final product better. Ask advice and critiques from discussants at conferences and other experts in the field. Submit journal articles, and take the feedback you receive to heart: consider it “gold” from experts in your field, which will make your research better and more publishable.
KNOWING HOW TO SET PRIORITIES
One of the biggest misconceptions about finishing a thesis or dissertation is the belief that writing is the key component to completion. The real key to finishing is effective time management. This is particularly true given the fact that, for most students, writing the document must be completed in tandem with numerous other important tasks, such as preparing for the job market; moving to or starting a new job; preparing for graduation; or working a full-time job. If time-management is not your forte, let TA-DA!™ help you manage, structure, and organize your time to maximize your efforts.
To help better manage your time, enlist your network of friends and family to assist you with completing tasks that don’t require your intellectual capital. Most loved ones are more than willing to be supportive if they only know what they can do to help. In response to my request, for example, my friend flew out to Wisconsin to help me pack up my house while I worked on my dissertation. He also got up at 2:30 a.m. to help me format tables, make copies, and drive me to Kinko’s, because my exhausted brain was simply too numb to be able to complete those simple tasks. The result was a definite “win-win”: he got the satisfaction of getting to share time with me and truly help out a friend, while I got the help I needed to complete the tasks at hand.
Congrats to those who finished their Proposals, Master's and PhD using the Dissertation House and TADA OnLine Challenges.
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Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.
About the Author: As a single mother, professor
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a
PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation.
She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool
on CD—TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn
more, contact us.
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