Jim’s Secret for Getting His PhD in Less than 4 years
Before he even started graduate school, Jim knew he would finish his Dissertation in 4 years or less.
The reason was simple: He won a fellowship for 4 years, and his advisor had no additional funding. He either finished his PhD by the time his fellowship ended or he would have wasted 4 years of his life.
He still had a social life and got engaged to his girlfriend during graduate school, but he put all irrelevant tasks on the back burner or eliminated them completely.
What set Jim apart from other students was his mindset.
Unlike 99% of the population, Jim did not start his day by reading email.
Jim experienced setbacks and dead-end projects just like his peers, but he stayed so focused on his 4 year timeline, that he always found a way to meet (and even exceed) his milestones.
He still answered his email in a timely manner, but he made sure that he addressed all the high priority tasks early in the day.
If I had to summarize Jim’s secret it would be this: Jim was proactive, while most graduate students are reactive.
This strategy might sound too simplistic, but it is what helped Jim to complete his dissertation in less than 4 years, while the average length of time to earn a PhD in his department was 6-7 years!
In addition to finishing his Dissertation efficiently, Jim published several papers in high impact journals.
Thus, his proactive attitude not only helped him to finish his dissertation sooner, but his research was high quality too.
What distinguishes a proactive person from a and reactive one, and why does it make such a big difference?
In summary, a reactive person spends most of their time responding to the demands of their environment, pleasing other people and putting out fires, which can lead to little or no progress on their own personal or professional goals.
When you begin your day by checking email, you are essentially prioritizing other people’s agendas, at the expense of your own work.
You respond to their questions, send them necessary information, and do a myriad of little favors for them before you know what you need to do to make progress on your own goals.
A proactive person makes their goals a priority, including their work, their health, their family and their other personal relationships.
Being proactive does not mean that you are selfish – on the contrary.
In Jim’s case, his proactive work schedule made it possible for him to make consistent progress on his Dissertation, go home at a reasonable time, spend quality time with his fiancee and visit his parents on 3-day weekends.
When you are proactive, you make it a priority to show up for yourself first, so you can show up for others and give them the support they need.
When you make other people’s agendas a priority, you might be under the illusion that you are selfless and others will appreciate you more.
However, most reactive people, a.k.a. “Everyone’s Happy Helpers”, give so much of their time and energy to others, that they fall behind on their own milestones, and end up being resentful and frustrated. Not a great way to show up for your your loved ones who depend on you for emotional and financial support, right?
I have interviewed successful PhDs in both academia and industry, and I learned that Jim’s “secret” is no secret. Students who finish their Dissertations in record time are usually not geniuses – they simply have different work habits from their peers.
Being proactive, and taking ownership of your research is the #1 strategy that helps students finish their dissertation.
Whether you have are just starting graduate school, are mid-way through, or have been in there for many years and can’t wait to move on with your life, this simple shift in your mindset can boost your productivity faster than you think.
You Know You Are Reactive When You Feel Like You “Should” Be More Productive
Ellie was a PhD student in Physiology and she contacted me for coaching because she felt like she was not making enough progress on her Dissertation. “I feel like I should be more productive, but I just don’t know how to do it,” she said.
I then asked her “How do you define more productive? What would you need to do differently in order to be satisfied with your progress?”
There was a little silence, and then she replied,
“I am not sure what I need to do to be more productive, but right now I feel so overwhelmed by all the things that I need to that I just end up spending my afternoons on social media and browsing articles not related to my thesis.”
Ellie described her typical daily schedule as coming into lab around 9 am, checking email, setting up her experiments for the day, and then collecting data in the late afternoon. She spent a good portion of her day putting fires, either in her own work or helping others, but she did not know whether any of the data she was collecting would make it into a manuscript or her thesis.
Ellie had a lot of data, but it was so disorganized, that she was reluctant to calling a committee meeting because she did not know how to present and interpret her findings.
Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by her Dissertation, Ellie beat herself up daily.
Her feelings of guilt led to procrastination and several hours a day on social media at work.
Ellie knew she “should” be working harder, but she had no idea where to start.
Ellie’s story is very similar to the other students I worked with.
Graduate school is an unstructured environment, and you need to set your own goals if you ever want to finish your Dissertation.
You might fall behind on your research and experience frustration and chronic stress.
You might even hear an annoying little voice inside your head that keeps repeating “You “should” be working harder, or else you will NEVER graduate.” It is time to toss out this broken record, and take charge of your thesis and future. All it takes is a subtle shift in your mindset.
Shifting from Reactive to Proactive and Feeling Great About It
Changing from a reactive person to proactive one while working on your Dissertation is uncomfortable in the beginning and takes a leap of faith.
If others are used to you responding quickly to emails and demands, they might start to view you as being selfish for starting to say “No” to their requests.
You might even lose some “friends” in the process. If that’s the case, they were not friends to begin with, and you will probably be better off surrounding yourself with more positive and supportive people.
Make a Commitment
If your friendly little voice inside your head starts making you feel guilty for starting to say “No” to others, simply remind it that you are becoming more proactive so that you can show up for the important people in your life (e.g. family, advisor, thesis committee) with more energy and creativity, and help them achieve their goals too.
Decide your Long Term Goals
Once you have made this commitment, you need to decide what your long term goals are. Ellie wanted to publish a paper in 1 year and graduate in 2 years.
Jim’s goals was to get his PhD in 4 years or less, and as the years progressed he kept this firm deadline embedded in his mind.
Define a Meaningful Purpose
A long-term goal, such as “I want to finish my PhD in 2 years,” is only meaningful is you have a purpose that is very motivating for you. I cannot tell you what your purpose needs to be. I can tell you that a purpose that comes from a place of positive energy (e.g. I can’t wait to graduate, so I can get a job and provide for my family financially) will be more powerful than a purpose that is based on anger (e.g. I can’t wait to leave this place).
- Get an academic position because you are passionate about research,
- Find a job in industry so you can help to develop products to improve people’s lives,
- Advance your career so you can provide for your family, or
- Finish your thesis so you can finally move in with your husband who has already started his job in another state.
Whether your purpose is based on professional goals or personal goals, the more positive emotion you have associated with it, the more motivated you will be to follow through on your plans.
What differentiated Ellie from Jim (besides their daily work habits) was that Jim had a very clearly defined purpose for finishing his Dissertation and Ellie did not.
Jim was passionate about his research, and knew he wanted to continue in his field. He was motivated to get his PhD so he could get a job, a real paycheck, get married and start a family.
Why bother coming to work, getting a PhD, if you want to change fields altogether? Finally Ellie realized that no matter what direction she chose to pursue after graduation, she wanted to have the confidence in herself that she had the perseverance to finish everything she started.
Visualizing her finished PhD thesis bound in shiny black cover, gave Ellie the momentum she needed to start taking action towards her long-term goals of writing her paper and completing her research.
Shift to a Proactive Lifestyle and See your Productivity Soar
Once you have a clear goal and an uplifting purpose, you can start shifting to a proactive lifestyle.
Habits (e.g. checking email/social media frequently), are tough to break, and your shift might not happen overnight. Ellie knew that in order to get her thesis on track, she needed to meet with her advisor and get clarity on the questions her thesis was asking. She organized her data (a task that took multiple weeks), and developed a new research plan with the support of her committee.
A few months later Ellie had enough data for a poster at a conference.
A vision, a purpose, and a plan are necessary for success but your Dissertation will only come together if you take action: collecting and organizing data, reaching to others for help, and writing reports and manuscripts.
During her shift to being more proactive, Ellie did not spend more hours at work. She simply changed her priorities.
Email and social media will always be there waiting for you.
But inspiration for a paper, a new study, or a novel way of analyzing your data is fleeting. If you don’t take action daily, you are losing opportunities that might never return.
One of the reasons that being proactive becomes easier with time, is that the less reactive you are, the fewer demands other people put on you.
If you respond to every email in 5 minutes, guess what? The other person will send you another email that you need to respond to – so by being reactive you are actually creating more work for yourself! A strategy that works for many students is to check emails just a few times during day, rather than being constantly online.
You might find that you will get through your email much quicker if you only look at your inbox only every few hours.
Due to extenuating circumstances in graduate school, I only had 20 days between my final thesis committee meeting and my thesis defense.
During these 20 days I had to pull together a 150 page Dissertation and prepare 50 slides for my defense.
Initially I thought this was impossible, but I was able to succeed, because I began every morning by focusing on the highest priority tasks. I still responded to email every day, but I only spent the minimal amount of time necessary on “recreational” computer use.
Eventually, the people who really care about you will understand that in order to help them, you need to complete your own work, and take care of your own health, and you cannot be available to them 24/7.
In fact, as you become more productive and successful, others will have more respect for you and your time, and your Dissertation will come together.
To close, I would like to share a quote from Jim Rohn, one of America’s greatest personal development experts:
“Either you run the day or the day runs you.”
Make your choice and watch progress on your Dissertation soar.