I was back to square one in the beginning of my sixth year in graduate school.
After a 2 hour discussion, my three committee members concluded that about 80% of the data I had generated up to that point was not suitable for my thesis.
Several of my cell cultures had been contaminated with yeast which compromised my results.
I had to come up with a new project that generated enough data by the end of that year in order to graduate before my funding ran out.
The problem was that each of my committee members had different suggestions for my thesis.
I felt like I was being pulled in three different directions, and if I committed to one path, I would disappoint the other two professors.
With three almost unrelated options to choose from, I was stuck with “analysis paralysis.”
I thought about starting three different projects in parallel and see which one had the most promising results, but I didn’t think I could handle it.
I had been struggling for two years with an inflammatory condition in my arms, brought on by long hours of typing and labwork, as well as stress from the pressure in graduate school.
In order to prevent permanent damage to the tendons in my arms, I had to limit my work-time to 4 hours at the computer.
How could I start and finish a new project in less than a year with such a time constraint?
I started to question whether I should have gone to grad school in the first place, but I couldn’t imagine telling my family that I had quit after they had sacrificed so much so I could go to graduate school in the US.
My heart also sank at the thought of having to look for Bachelor’s level positions after I had invested so much time in graduate school.
Using my medical condition as an “excuse” sounded embarrassing, since other students with severe medical handicaps had found a way to finish graduate school.
If I didn’t even try, I would walk away from five years of work (which didn’t produce publishable results, but it did give me valuable hands-on research experience) and I would have to live with the shame of being a quitter.
I made a commitment to give my thesis a final try and push through whatever came my way that year.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, because I would need to wage a daily battle against my self-doubt and the physical limitations from my medical condition.
As I sat down to read my notes from my last committee meeting, I realized that my medical condition wasn’t the primary factor holding me back.
The root of my stress and anxiety was my lack of focus and lack confidence to fully commit to my research.
Until that point my highest priority was to please everyone else, including my friends, family members, coworkers, and committee members.
I was being pulled in not just three directions by my three committee members, but probably in fifteen different ways by all of my (mostly) self-imposed obligations and expectations.
It was time to change my strategy, and get my education, thesis, career and life in order, so I could finally finish graduate school.
Get It All Out of Your Head
It is very difficult to get organized and stay focused when you feel like you are being pulled in a zillion different directions.
If you don’t know exactly what you need to do get on top of goals in your work or personal life, it will feel like your thoughts are going around in an endless loop inside your head.
You may feel exhausted at the end of the day, and wonder where your time went.
After I realized how many different I was pulled in, I wrote down everything that was taking up my time and energy: my work, group meetings, physical therapy for my arms, all the student groups I volunteered for, all the house chores, errands, career planning workshops, time with friends and doctor’s appointments.
Once I finished the first draft of the list (I say first draft because it kept growing ) I was astounded and relieved at the same time.
No wonder I couldn’t focus on my thesis, when my attention was divided among so many different commitments.
Some of the commitments were non-negotiable: I had to eat, exercise and do my laundry.
Making a list of your “stressors” gives you power.
You cannot take action (at least not effectively) unless you know exactly what you have committed to.
As long as the commitments are inside your head, it will not be clear what you need to do about them and how much time each commitment will take.
Once you have a list of everything that demands your attention, your challenges become actionable (think of it as your “stress log”).
Now you can actually brainstorm about ways to deal with your to-do’s: do them yourself in the most efficient way possible, outsource/delegate to someone else, or just simply delete them.
My major challenge in my sixth year was that I had to find a research project that could turn into a thesis in less than a year.
In my “stress log” I wrote down all my personal commitments and the decisions I had to make based on my committee’s suggestions in order to pick a research project that was realistic.
First, I “purged” all the activities that were optional (including some hobbies which I returned to after I finished grad school) to open up time and energy to work on my thesis.
I also reduced time on email, and scheduled time for all my personal commitments so I could get them done efficiently (set aside an hour a day for email, phone calls, errands and another hour for house chores.)
Finally, I set up a work schedule and committed to two hours a day to review the literature before my next meeting with my supervisor, so I could write a proposal of what I thought would be the best thesis topic.
Even though my thesis topic evolved over the course of the year based on my results and recent literature, my commitment to structure my time and stay focused on my research helped me to satisfy my committee’s requirements and defend before the graduation deadline (with a few days to spare to make final revisions on my thesis.)
You Only Need to Know the Next Step
Uncertainty can be your greatest enemy or your best friend.
If you are used to the college lifestyle or a regular job where the requirements for success were clearly spelled, the uncertainty of graduate school can be very frustrating.
It is nearly impossible to lay out an exact roadmap to a finished thesis.
You need to do research in order to define your research topic and to carry out the studies (experimental or literature-based) to complete your thesis.
Uncertainty can be paralyzing.
If you don’t know where you are going, so how can you figure out how to get there?
The cycle that I had I had been through so many times with dead-end projects (read the literature, collect data, present it at meetings, and then abandon project for one reason or another) had exhausted me.
As the graduation deadline in my sixth year came closer, I became more anxious with each passing day by the uncertainty of not knowing what I had to do to finish my thesis before my funding ran out.
But, I had made a commitment to put all of my energy towards my research and find a way to get through any obstacle.
This commitment had forced to do something about my thesis every day, even when I wasn’t always sure what the best use of my time was.
Then something interesting happened.
Each time I did something to make progress on my thesis (read a paper, wrote part of my thesis, started an experiment, discussed a problem with my supervisor), I gained at least a glimmer of clarity about what I should do next.
My thesis started to come together, even though most of the time I felt like I was trying to make my way out of a dark tunnel without any instructions.
I retrospect, I realize that no matter how many papers I had read, I couldn’t have predicted the results that lead to my finished thesis.
Paradoxically, once I learned to embrace uncertainty (instead of resisting it) I was able to gain the clarity and resourcefulness I needed to pull together my thesis in my last year.
You don’t have to know every detail of your journey, but you can always take the next step.
Think of finishing your thesis as driving a car through a snow storm.
Even if you have your headlights on you can only see a few feet ahead, and turns in the road will only become visible when you keep driving.
Your journey will unfold with each step you take, and you will only know what to next do if you take action.
Be patient with your progress.
Some of the answers will not come to you right away, but inspiration may come unexpectedly after a walk, a day off, a meeting with your supervisor.
When you commit to taking action daily on your thesis, and staying focused on your goals as your research evolves, your thesis will come together.
What are the major obstacles that are preventing you from finishing your thesis?
Leave your comments below and I will reply to you directly 🙂