I wrote my thesis in a facility for students with disabilities. While I didn’t have a disability, I had been suffering for years from the physical and emotional pain brought on by the stress in graduate school. The staff at the facility trained me to use specialized keyboards, mice and voice recognition software to ease the writing process and help me to finish my thesis.
Initially, I was very disappointed in myself that I wasn’t tough enough to handle the challenges of academia on my own. But when I shyly admitted to other students that I had been spending all my working hours at this specialized facility, they shared their “secrets” as well. Graduate school seemed to take a toll on the mental and physical health of most of my peers.
I was not okay with this.
I already knew that when I was physically and mentally depleted from stress or lack of sleep, I wasn’t very productive.
So, why did we get trapped in a vicious cycle of stress that set us back in our work and, worse, ruined our health and relationships?
Life after graduate school didn’t seem appealing either. Most of my friends were doing a postdoctoral fellowship, supporting a family on a tiny salary for years, and not feeling prepared for a career either in academia or industry.
Between the pressure of having to finish a thesis and the bleak outlook for the future, it wasn’t surprising that my peers and I felt like we were just “existing”, merely going through the motions to get us through the day.
The passion that had been the driving force to get us into graduate school so we could make a difference for other people one day, seemed like a pipe dream.
After a few years in graduate school most of just wanted to be done, and move on. But, move onto what?
Fortunately, there were exceptions, and these students gave me hope that there was a better way.
Every once in a while I met a student who lived a normal life.
They went home at a reasonable hour to eat dinner. They took time off on weekends to be with their spouse, and children if they had them. They traveled during vacation, perhaps not very far depending on their budget, but they felt good about taking time off for themselves.
Initially, I eyed these students with suspicion. If the rest of us took 6-7 years to finish our thesis while working 70 hours a week, how long would it take these students to finish?
I remember how stunned I felt when I saw the thesis defense announcement for one of these “normal” students after just 4 years. First, I thought she was an anomaly, perhaps she just got lucky with her data.
But I started noting that many of the students who finished their thesis relatively quickly, lived well-balanced “normal” lives. Their futures seemed brighter as well. They either got a postdoctoral fellowship at a prestigious university or a job offer even before they defended their thesis.
Having taken classes with some of these students, I knew that they were not geniuses. They didn’t ace all the exams. But, they found a way to take care of themselves and relationships, despite the unexpected twists in their thesis work and their life circumstances.
I was determined to find out the keys to a successful experience and balanced life in graduate school and adopt them in my own life.
In my last two years I went to as many thesis defense presentations as I could, and I talked with the newly-minted PhDs about their personal journeys to the finish line.
One of the most valuable lessons that a friend of mine shared with me after her defense, was the importance of having confidence in my work, even if it wasn’t perfect. (A great lesson for all of us who have ever been held back by our own perfectionism)
This boost in my confidence led to one of the turning points in graduate school. At my next committee meeting, my chair made an unexpected decision. After seeing promising results from my last study, he declared that if I could write up what I had, I could defend my thesis that semester.
My excitement quickly turned to panic when I realized that the only date that all three of my committee members would be available was just 20 days away.
That was all the time that I had to write up a 150-200 page thesis, and prepare for a 1 hour thesis defense.
That night I stayed at the computer facility until midnight, pouring over all the data that I would need to write up into a coherent thesis.
It seemed like an impossible task, given that I was battling chronic pain in my arms as well as anxiety. As I sat there alone, I thought of my friends who felt hopeless about ever finishing graduate school, and I heard myself say out loud:
“If I can do this in 20 days, I will teach other students how to finish their thesis.”
It was one of the most powerful promises I ever made to myself.
The next 20 days were a blur. I typed as much as I could, and I also mastered the art of scientific writing with a not-so sophisticated voice activated dictation tool.
Most importantly, I learned the power of focus, and how much you can get done in a short amount of time when you know exactly what you need to do.
I completed my thesis by the deadline, and a few months later I submitted 3 first-author papers for publication.
After graduate school I followed a traditional scientific career path, first as a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts University and then as a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry.
Although I wasn’t sure about the best way to teach other graduate students to finish their thesis, I interviewed successful PhDs about their experiences and I started a website where I published articles regularly about coping with challenges of graduate school.
As a mom of 2 young girls, my writing focused on how to excel professionally while staying healthy and being present with your family.
By the end of 2013, my website gained significant traction and I had been invited to a few universities to give workshops.
At the beginning of 2014 I decided to leave the pharmaceutical industry and coach graduate students full time.
This is how the Finish Your Thesis Academy was born.
Over the past 5 years I have had the honor of supporting thousands of graduate students worldwide through live workshops, online courses and private coaching.
By working with me, student realize that graduate school is designed to prepare you for your career, and it is meant to challenge you.
The hardships, obstacles, frustrations are part of your training to become a PhD, an influencer and leader in your field.
Mistakes and “failures” are not signs that you are not smart enough for graduate school.
On the contrary, if you are still in graduate school after having gone through experiences when others would have given up, it’s a sign that you definitely have what it takes to finish graduate school.
Like many other students, one of my driving forces was that I wanted to make my family proud of me.
I am originally from Hungary, and I knew how many sacrifices my parents made so I had the opportunity to attend a university in the US.
I became the first PhD in my family, because I was the first one who had the opportunity to go to graduate school.
Now that I have my PhD I realize how much it means to my daughters to have someone to look up to, because I finished something that I started even when it seemed impossible.
When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and I was the only PhD besides my boss in my group, my skills as a critical thinker became invaluable when we were faced with problems that no one had ever solved before.
Having the experience of completing your PhD empowers you to be a role model for others, and to give back to your family and community, at a new level.
I founded the Finish Your Thesis Academy to give you the opportunity to become part of a community of like-minded students, who are also driven and passionate about impacting lives of other people.
I am honored to have the opportunity to support you and provide you the resources to excel academically, finish your thesis, and make your difference in the world.
Are you ready to finish writing your thesis, and move on to a new career to make a difference to the people you care about?