Does Graduate School Really Have to Take That Long?
What comes to mind when you picture a graduate school student working on their PhD thesis?
Let’s be honest: most of us imagine an overworked student hunched over their computer typing away all day and night.
There is an assumption that if you want to get your PhD you have to work very hard (and be stressed out).
Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth in this.
You cannot finish a PhD thesis by binge-watching Netflix.
However, you probably know students who work during any free minute they have and still cannot see a way to finish their PhD.
The assumption that you have to work overtime and have to feel stressed most of the time, is the #1 reason that students get stuck in graduate school.
This realization hit me in graduate school when I attended thesis defenses and chatted with the students after they passed.
Yvonne and Linda had the same thesis supervisor and worked on similar projects.
While the average time to finish was 6 years, Yvonne finished in less than 4 years and Linda took more almost 8 years.
Did Yvonne work twice as hard as Linda?
Students, like Linda, who stayed for 8 or more years worked overtime and kept running into obstacles that prevented them from finishing their thesis.
Students, like Yvonne, who finished in 4 years, usually worked reasonable hours and had time for exercise and their families.
These differences couldn’t be explained by the thesis supervisor or the nature of the projects.
Students with the same advisor and similar projects took different lengths of time to graduate.
Having taken classes with these students, I knew that intelligence was not the sole determinant either for the length of time to graduation.
How could one student finish in 4 years, while another (with the same advisor and a similar project), take almost 8 years?
After I graduated, I interviewed hundreds of PhDs and came to an interesting conclusion:
Your mindset about what the graduate school experience is supposed to be like is a self-fulfilling prophecy
Yvonne was married and went home every day around 5 pm to exercise and have dinner with her husband.
She expected setbacks, and when they occurred she handled them responsibly as they came up.
Students like Yvonne, who graduated quickly while working reasonable hours, were the inspiration for creating the “Finish Your Thesis Program.”
Just knowing that you don’t have to give up all your free time, made it possible for many students of the “Finish Your Thesis Program” to get their PhD, even if they were behind schedule.
Linda, on the other hand, interpreted obstacles as signs that she was not moving forward, and she beat herself up for progressing so slowly.
The more Linda beat herself up, the less energy she had to handle obstacles. Despite working long hours, she was stressed and lacked the mental clarity necessary to make good decisions
As a result of being caught in the “burnout cycle” Linda was stuck in graduate school for almost 8 years.
Finishing your PhD is similar to running a marathon (in more than one way)
Imagine that you are about to run a marathon (if you already have, congratulations!)
You have to run 26.2 miles (42 km) while dealing with hot weather, rocks on the road, and runners who bump into you.
Are you going to focus on the obstacles, or the feeling of exhilaration when you cross the finish line?
Professional runners spend hours a day visualizing themselves crossing the finish line.
During a marathon you have to “hold the vision” of crossing the finish line, even if you are not performing at your best.
Just thinking about the obstacles would make anyone want to crawl back into bed on the day of the race.
Yet, this is how many graduate students approach their work.
Students who are frustrated by setbacks and all the “what-ifs” that could happen, usually stay stuck in grad school.
If this resonates with you, remember that we are all human, and we can learn to do things the right way once we know how.
There is no reason to burn out, or to feel like you are stuck while working towards your PhD.
The more “stuck” you feel, the more life passes by you, and the more opportunities you miss.
Students like Yvonne, and graduates of the “Finish Your Thesis Program” are proof that with the right guidance, you can change your habits, get your PhD, and move on with your new life.