Disclaimer: The information in this article about anxiety is based on my personal experience and opinion and is not substitute for medical advice. Please seek help from a health professional if you experience any symptoms associated with anxiety or depression.
“This is it,” Lydia sighed picking up her laptop to go to her committee meeting.
“My fate is in their hands. If they don’t approve this, I’m totally …”
She didn’t finish her sentence, just shook her head.
We all knew what she meant.
Lydia was an international student and her funding was going to run out in 6 months
If Lydia didn’t finish her PhD in 6 months she would need to return native country after 4 years without a degree.
She would disappoint her parents, who had been supporting her financially to help her pay for her living expenses.
To make matters worse, she would be worse off financially than before she had started her degree.
Without a doctorate, Lydia would not be eligible for PhD-level positions, and would need to spend years paying back her loans.
From Lydia’s perspective, this one decision by her committee would determine her financial future for the next 5-10 years and maybe the rest of her life.
Lydia came out from her committee looking anxious.
It was difficult to tell what her committee’s decision was.
They actually gave her the green light to continue her research, but with one caveat.
She had to schedule another meeting in 3 months to show her progress, and then the committee would decide whether she would be ready for her thesis defense 3 months later.
The pressure to produce more data in 3 months was more than Lydia could handle.
She tried to focus on her thesis, but she kept getting distracted by her anxiety and the possible consequences of not finishing.
How would she repay her loans?
What would her parents say if she returned home empty-handed after they had been supporting her emotionally and financially for 4 years?
During work hours Lydia found herself browsing the internet looking for job opportunities in her native country that did not require a PhD.
By looking for non-PhD level positions, Lydia was subconsciously sending herself the message that she was not worthy of a PhD and her motivation kept decreasing.
“What’s the point of all this work if there is such a small chance that I will get my PhD?” she kept saying while doing her experiments.
At one of her Skype calls with her family, Lydia learned that a professorship had opened up at their local university where Lydia got her Bachelor’s degree.
If she were hired, she could start that Fall, just 9 months in the future.
A professorship in her hometown was Lydia’s dream job.
She could be close to her family and friends, and the department chair was Lydia’s advisor during her college years.
Lydia really really wanted this job.
Even though her committee was skeptical about her finishing her thesis by the summer, Lydia decided to apply for the position.
Now she spent her afternoons filling out the application for the faculty position instead of browsing the Internet.
She put together her CV, and to her surprise she looked pretty good on paper in terms of her research experience.
This shift in focus (from searching for non- PhD level positions to applying for a professorship) boosted Lydia’s motivation and confidence.
She had more energy, and she made good progress by her next committee meeting.
While she still had a lot of data analysis to do, they approved her thesis defense for the end of the semester.
Lydia later recalled that the atmosphere at her final committee meeting was tense.
Not everyone agreed that she was ready to graduate.
But, Lydia decided to make a case for herself, because she was committed to finishing her PhD by the end of the semester so she could be eligible for the professorship.
Instead of giving in to all of her committee’s demands (like she had in the past) Lydia stood up for herself.
She emphasized all the progress she had made, and why it was an important contribution to the field.
Lydia had her thesis defense 3 months later, and it was one of the best talks I ever attended.
Her presentation was well-structured, and she handled all the questions with confidence even when she didn’t have the exact answer.
Unless you knew her story, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that just 6 months earlier she was coping with debilitating anxiety and wanted to quit.
By having a goal worth fighting for (her dream job) and shifting her focus, Lydia learned one of the most important lessons in graduate school:
Your fate is not in your committee’s hands.
You cannot control their decisions, but you can influence them – more than you realize.
How You Can Turn Debilitating Anxiety into an Awesome Thesis Defense in 6 months
1. Don’t ignore your anxiety
Anxiety is a signal from your body that you need to pay attention to, otherwise it might get more severe over time.
You may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, or have a significant change in your weight.
If you notice any symptoms related to anxiety, see your doctor as soon as you can.
He or she may be able to help you with medication or other types of therapy.
There is no shame in reaching out for help, ever.
Whether you decide to take a medication or go to therapy (or both), the relief that you gain will help you to feel and function better.
The quality of your sleep will improve, and you will be able to focus on your work.
2. Write down what is causing your anxiety or stress
When you live in your head, it is difficult to tell what is really causing your stress.
Our tendency is to distort reality and blow small events out of proportion.
Writing down all the reasons why you are stressed can have a magical effect on your mood.
First, you will see what are all the things that command your time and attention.
This awareness will automatically bring you some relief, because you might realize that some things that are low priority are taking up a lot of your time.
Second, you can create an action plan to complete your high priority items.
An action plan can help you feel empowered and more in control over your situation.
3. Focus on the big picture
Why is it important for you to get a PhD?
If you heard horror stories about the job market for PhDs maybe you are wondering why ever started your program in the first place.
Before you go down that route, think about the reasons why you decided to go to graduate school.
Were you excited about research, or passionate about the career path that a graduate degree would open up for you?
Perhaps your enthusiasm waned during graduate school, if you realized that you don’t want to stay in academia or your field in general.
Almost every graduate student considers quitting at least once – even the ones who are now successful professionals in academia or industry.
But, one of the main reasons they decided to stay in graduate school was to feel a sense of accomplishment.
Lydia’s focus changed the instant she heard about the professorship in her home town.
This opportunity gave her the motivation she needed to finish her PhD.
No matter what career path you decide to follow (and there are more non-academic career paths than you might realize), the confidence that you gain from finishing your thesis will help you tackle any challenge in the future.
4. Emphasize what you have accomplished
One of the main reasons that Lydia was anxious about her committee meeting was that couldn’t get all of the results that her supervisor asked her to.
She felt like her story was incomplete and she worried that her committee wouldn’t let her graduate because of these gaps in her research.
The reality was that Lydia had made progress, even if she didn’t meet all of the milestones her committee required.
After three and a half years of always feeling behind, Lydia resigned to the belief that she just “wasn’t cut out for research.”
She didn’t give up and kept trying to make progress because she didn’t want to be a “quitter.”
But, her heart was not in her research anymore.
Lydia just went through the motions everyday so she could produce more results, but she felt hopeless about her chances of getting her PhD and her future in general.
This changed the moment she learned that she had the opportunity to land her dream job and start in less than one year.
Her research now had a purpose.
Everything she did contributed in some way to helping her get her PhD so she could become a professor in her hometown.
5. Get resourceful and gather as much support as you can
Once Lydia set her mind to finishing her thesis in 6 months (an ambitious goal) she brainstormed about all the ways that she could make progress faster.
Her main challenge was that she was not able to produce results fast enough because she didn’t have enough experience with the method she was using.
To get through this hurdle, Lydia asked for help from one of the senior scientists in her group.
After she discussed her problems with him, she learned that her goal of finishing in 6 months was realistic and this gave her even more motivation to continue working.
Lydia gathered as much academic and emotional support as she could during her final semester: she discussed her experimental problems with the senior scientist in her group, met more frequently with her supervisor, and she also teamed up with another final year student to be her accountability-buddy during thesis writing.
The shift in her mindset, daily habits, and support system helped Lydia to finish her thesis on time – a goal that she thought was impossible just 6 months earlier.
Did Lydia get her dream job after working so hard to finish her PhD?
The position that she first applied for was filled by another applicant.
But, once again Lydia got resourceful.
After she realized that her dream job was to get a professorship close to her family, she searched for other faculty positions.
To Lydia’s surprise, her expertise was a “hot area” that several universities were looking for.
A half-dozen interviews later, Lydia was offered a professorship at another university that was also close to her family.
Lydia’s story shows the importance of staying focused, yet flexible.
You may not get exactly what you want, but if you are resourceful you might get something very close or even better!
Which of the strategies above would help you the most to finish your thesis?
Please leave a comment and Dora will respond to you directly.
For more tips to help you get your thesis DONE productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”