Finishing Your Thesis When You Believe You Can’t
When it comes to finishing your thesis, the last couple of months (or years) are a mental challenge of persistence and commitment:
“How do I force myself to write, when I can’t stand looking at my thesis anymore?”
“I feel so guilty dragging my whole family down with this thesis writing, and I don’t even know when I’ll be done.”
“No matter how much I do, there is always more. Will this EVER end?”
I have seen this cycle hundreds of times.
You start working on your thesis, pick up momentum, make progress, and then you hit a dead-end, or open a can of worms.
Something that was supposed to take 2 days, takes 2 weeks or 1 month.
You feel guilty, maybe even ashamed.
You want to give up, but you are too far along to throw all this time and money away.
So you sit down and start working, and you feel like you are on track until (for one reason or another), you fall off the wagon.
This cycle can happen 10, 20 or 50 times
The bad news is that each time you go through the cycle you get more frustrated, angry, bitter, resentful, and doubtful that will ever graduate.
You can’t even imagine what your life would be like without worrying about your thesis.
So, what’s the good news?
The good news is that you have what it takes to finish your thesis.
Once you recognize that you are in this cycle you can break the habits that feed the cycle.
You can be one of these students too.
The only thing standing between you and finishing your thesis is your self-confidence.
That’s right: it’s not just about your time or your thesis supervisor or your thesis committee.
When you have self-confidence and know beyond the shadow of any doubt that you have what it takes to finish your thesis, you can leap over obstacles.
“But, how I can be confident when I am way behind?,” you may be asking.
Here is something you may not have known:
Your self-confidence has nothing to do with how successful you are.
They may think that they just got “lucky” when their papers were accepted, and they tremble at the thought of presenting their work at their next committee meeting.
On the other hand, there are students who have encountered every obstacle you can think of: dead-end projects, change of supervisor (if their previous supervisor moved), limited funding, family commitments, personal challenges, but they are still confident that they will find a way to finish their thesis.
Who decides how confident you are?
You can be confident no matter what.
Your self-confidence does not have to be shaken up after realizing that you messed up (again) or that you just lost 6 months of work.
I know, because this happened to me.
I was supervising an undergraduate student, and after we had been collecting data for 6 months we realized that the labels on bottles used in the experiments had been switched.
Six months of work…literally down the drain.
I expected my supervisor to be very disappointed in me for not noticing this earlier, and wasting so many lab resources.
Instead, he put his hand on my shoulder and said:
“Dora, have you seen the sign on my door that says: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity? Now you know why it’s there. You just learned one of the most valuable lessons about mentoring others.”
On a scale of 0 to 10, my self-confidence went from a 0 to a 20 in that instant.
There was no way to save the data we had generated previously, but I could change the way I mentored students.
Needless to day, my undergrad student felt very guilty too, but we rewrote the protocol to minimize the chances of mistakes in the future.
In fact, after this experience, we developed a deeper level of trust, which helped us to turn the data we generated later on into one of the chapters in my thesis (and a publication).
Without it, you will feel like a victim.
With it, you will become unstoppable, and you thesis will be DONE too.
5 Steps that Will Inevitably Lead to a Finishing Your Thesis
Step #1: Get a crystal clear vision of what is expected from you
It is impossible to hit a target that you don’t have, yet that is what many grad students try to do.
They plan on graduating in 6 or 12 months, but when I ask them what they need to do to finish their thesis they reply something like:
“I am not entirely sure…” or “I haven’t brought it up with my committee…”
I get it.
But isn’t the uncertainty of your future more intimidating?
How can you plan on finishing your thesis if you don’t know what to do?
By definition, research is uncertain, and the requirements for your thesis will change as you collect and analyze data.
However, you can only adjust your trajectory when you are in motion.
You cannot make adjustments if you are standing still.
You need a vision, a starting point, that will help you to pick up momentum in your thesis.
What if you thesis supervisor or committee is evasive, and you cannot get a clear answer?
Then, go to step 2 below.
Step #2: Don’t take “not now” for an answer from your thesis supervisor or committee
It is never too early to get clear on the requirements for finishing your thesis.
I worked with several students who, for personal or financial reasons, had to finish their thesis in 4 years in a department where the average time to graduate was 6-7 years.
How could these students finish their thesis so “quickly”?
They weren’t smarter, nor did they work longer hours than their peers.
What set them apart from other students was a sense of urgency, because they had a firm deadline for their thesis.
These students started thinking about the requirements for their thesis in their first year.
They didn’t take “not now” for an answer if their supervisor was too busy to meet with them.
They were persistent starting on day 1, and got clear on the requirements even as they had to make adjustments along the way.
While I did not have a similar sense of urgency, I had to apply this principle in my last semester as well.
I had three very busy professors in my committee and there was literally only 1 hour during the entire month of April when they could all meet for my final committee meeting.
They gave me the green light to defend, but then I needed their signatures on my thesis so I could submit it officially.
It took me several weeks of persistent follow-ups (by email, phone, and in person), until I got all three signatures – just a few days before the final deadline!
I couldn’t take “not now” for an answer if they were too busy.
I needed a signature from each one of them so I wouldn’t need to stay in school for an extra semester.
But, keep in mind that it is also in their interest that you do good work and produce publishable research.
Also remember that being persistent does not mean that you have to be rude.
You can be “politely persistent” until they give you the answer, feedback or mentoring you need.
Or, if you already have all the help you need, you are ready for step 3.
Step #3: Rise and grind daily
I wish there was a nicer way of saying this, but there isn’t.
There is no substitute for taking action daily.
If you working full-time or if you have a family, then working on your thesis daily may seem impossible.
I work with students who have multiple jobs, or several kids, yet they found a way to work on their thesis everyday.
They didn’t necessarily work on it for hours, but they made a commitment to work on it at least a little bit every single day.
So, what is a “little bit” of time that you need to commit to your thesis daily?
It depends – the closer you are to finishing it, the more time you need to spend on it.
However, there is something magical about devoting at least 15 minutes a day to your thesis.
No matter how busy you are you can always find 15 minutes somewhere during your day.
It may be first thing in the morning, during your lunch hour at work, or in the evening (instead of TV or social media).
Why 15 minutes?
Spending only 15 minutes a day on your thesis will probably not get you very far in the long run.
Most students with jobs or families spent at least 15 minutes a day on their thesis during the week, and then a longer block of time on the weekend.
So, what’s the point of these short work sessions during the week (5 x 15 minutes is barely more than 1 hour)?
The point of daily commitment is continuity.
Continuity helps you to pick up where you left off, so that you don’t have to spend 15-30 minutes trying to figure out what you are supposed to be doing.
When you spend at least a little time on your thesis every day, you get more creative, more ideas, and more insights that will help you to resolve problems that may have seemed impossible before.
Step #4 Focus on results, no “to-do”s
Do you feel like you are being pulled in 47 different directions each week?
Most grad students (and people in general), operate from a to-do list.
They write down all the work and non-related things that “should” do, but they give little thought to the tangible result they want to see.
When you let a “to-do” list run your life, you will always feel exhausted, and playing catch up.
In fact, the more to-do’s you cross off your list, the more to-do’s you realize you need to get done.
As long as you live your life by a to-do list, you can’t win, no matter how efficient you are.
It’s time to try something new.
For example, instead of writing in your calendar “Work on slides for committee meeting”, write “Create an outstanding presentation for committee meeting to show them that my data is solid, and I am ready to move onto the next phase of my research.”
Then, you can list the actions necessary to achieve that result.
An action plan with a well-defined goal for finishing your thesis is much more motivating than a random list of chores.
With a results-oriented action plan you will be able to prioritize better and take the actions that will help you to make the most progress in your thesis.
Step #5 Soak up the energy you need from a support group
The number one complaint of grad students is that they feel isolated and lost their motivation to do work.
In college there are support groups in the form of study groups, office hours, and the residential community.
In graduate school many student do not have any type of support.
First-year students usually start out with enthusiasm, but due to lack of accountability they lose track of time and fall behind on their milestones.
In contrast, the students who did join a support group thought that being part of a community was one of the best ways to keep themselves motivated.
There is no shame in getting support, whether it is academic or emotional support to help you focus on finishing your thesis.
Don’t take my word for it.
The more people you “worry” with, the more perspectives you get and the smaller your problems seem.
When you live in your own head you can blow a minor issue out of proportion.
Suddenly, taking off two days from work because you didn’t feel well may seem like a huge setback until you hear from others that what you are going through is normal for a graduate student.
There will be times when you feel so burnt out that you will not want to work for weeks.
Or, you may start doubting the point of grad school when you don’t know what you’ll do afterwards.
Without a context, these situations can rob you of your self-confidence and your motivation.
How could you be motivated when you identify yourself as “lazy” and think there is no point in finishing your thesis anyway?
You can sort out these sticky situations by sharing with others, especially graduate students who are going through similar experiences, and feel better about your experience in grad school.
So if you are wondering how to get motivated to write a thesis, when you would rather do anything else, a support group with other graduate students is one of the best resources.
Just knowing that you are not the only one going through these tribulations, can already take most of the pressure off that has been keeping you from being motivated to work on your thesis.
No one writes their thesis alone. Get support. You have what it takes to finish your thesis.