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Roadblocks to Doctoral Success

It’s that time of year. Students are scrambling to defend their dissertations so that they can graduate on time. Some students are almost done, printing their dissertations on 100% rag cotton paper. Others, unfortunately, are desperately writing their last chapter, hoping to get it to their committee with enough time for a thorough read. I work with both types of students and everyone in between. Since I became a faculty member in 2000, I have chaired over 35 dissertations. I have learned a lot about what gets a student to completion and what doesn’t.

As someone who cherishes my relationships with students, I often write about how to succeed in graduate school. Today, however, I would like to point out the things students do to block their own success. I should start by saying that I think that we as professors can also block students success, and that just because I’m looking at what students do, doesn’t let us off the hook.

Over the years, I have noticed that some students are their own worst enemies when it comes to success. All too often, students don’t believe in their own intellectual abilities. Perhaps faculty members have failed to communicate a belief in these students. However, more often than not, I find that students are held back by past experiences and messages given to them about their intellect. When I encounter such students, I spend time convincing them that they know more than they think and indeed have become experts on their topic.

Some students look for ways to give up—weekly, even daily. I’m not sure why this happens. Perhaps they are afraid of their own success. I’ve had students write to me week after week telling me that they can’t complete the dissertation. I write back telling them to keep working, keep writing, and that I have absolutely no intention of giving up on them.

Other students tell me they have writers block and they’ll never be able to finish. I tell these students to do other things when they have writers block—such as editing, putting together the reference list, reading more literature, and writing acknowledgments. Sometimes taking a break from academic writing and doing something mundane is a good idea.

Some students are perfectionists and become immobilized when they get fixated on a particular issue. Sometimes that “issue” is having the most up-to-date literature review (can’t stop reading) or obsessing over an interview question or making a paragraph perfect. I tell these students that a dissertation is just that—a dissertation—it’s not a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It’s never going to be perfect because nothing is perfect. I also work to get these students focused by simplifying the process as much as possible. Sometimes I do this with a quick outline, but I have also asked students to write a paragraph while sitting in front of me. Having to write in front of me, free of distractions, gets them focused, plus they also receive feedback immediately, which can be motivating.

Still other students tell me that they don’t have time to finish—that “life” is getting in the way. I remind these students about how much they wanted to learn and explore their topic of choice and how deserving they are of the time to do this. I try to bring them back to their reasons for earning a doctoral degree in the first place. I also show them ways to better manage their time by helping them better manage the research and writing process.

Lastly, I have students who worry that because they took so long to finish they have disappointed people, including me and their committee members. I tell these students that not finishing is the only disappointment. I have found that people finish at their own pace even with prodding from me.

Although I’d prefer that all of my students finish their doctoral degrees in 4-6 years, some do not and the best thing I can do is be in constant contact with them to ensure they succeed. A little straight talk, tough love, and support goes a long way toward student success.

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