Do You Ever Wonder If Your Thesis Is Worthy of PhD Degree?
“Is anyone ever going to read my thesis?”
This was the leading question in my mind during the last two years in graduate school.
I knew I didn’t want to be a quitter and I wanted to finish my thesis.
But deep down I didn’t think my thesis was worthy, or made a difference.
I couldn’t wait to graduate and start a job where I would make a real impact on someone’s life.
I needed a break from analyzing piles of data in isolation and writing hundreds of pages that no one would ever read.
What was the impact of the thousands (yes, thousands) of hours that I had put into my thesis?
In my mind, the impact of my thesis on society was close to zero.
This belief was, to say the least, not motivating.
Yes, I wanted to tell my family and friends that I finally finished.
I wanted to get a PhD-level job and support a family.
These are all valid reasons to finish your thesis, but I realized that they will only get you so far.
So, if you don’t think your thesis is worthy, but you want to get it done, how do you motivate yourself?
How do you keep working when there is an inner voice that keeps saying your thesis isn’t “good enough” or that you “don’t know enough”?
Please don’t close the browser after reading this next sentence even if it sounds crazy:
To motivate yourself to write your thesis, you need to reframe your self-doubt into a sign of progress progress rather than shame
You are still with me, right?
This may sound like a little stretch (or a big one) right now, but it’s closer than you think.
Let me put it a little differently
When you write a long document like a thesis, you will run into “sticking points”, which are sections that
- Are confusing,
- Don’t sound coherent, or
- Are repetitive.
Your instinct may be to interpret the quality of these sections as a sign that you are not good at writing.
What if you reframed your self-doubt into a sign that you know you can do better?
If you didn’t have high standards you would not have self-doubt in the first place.
You would submit your thesis as is, confusing, incoherent and repetitive.
Self-doubt is only your enemy if you let it be.
Sometimes self-doubt is a product of your upbringing, if you grew up in an environment where you were expected to keep excelling.
Anytime you hit a goal, you felt like you “should have been further along” or “could have done better.”
If this sounds like your inner voice, just recognize that it’s only a habit of your mind, not reality.
Your thesis will not be perfect (I don’t even know what it means to have a perfect thesis).
It may not be an earth-shattering contribution to your field.
But, the invaluable (albeit sometimes painful) training your get in the process of becoming an independent researcher is something no one can ever take away from you.
Your self-doubt is not telling you to stop.
5 Myths You Need to Bust to Turn Your Self-Doubt Into a Finished Thesis
Myth#1: If you think your thesis isn’t worthy it probably isn’t
I thought that my self-doubt would begin to fade away as I got closer to my thesis defense.
But, the voice in my head that my thesis wasn’t “worthy” of a PhD just kept getting louder.
What was wrong?
Why did I have so much self-doubt when I had already written a few chapters of my thesis?
At the time I just moved forward, self-doubt and all, but it was an uphill battle.
It was only after my defense that I realized that my self-doubt was partially a signal to keep improving my thesis.
(The other part of self-doubt was a habit of the mind, having always been an over-achiever)
It’s because you have high standards for yourself and you want your thesis to be great.
Your self-doubt (the inner voice that tells you your thesis needs to improve) is what will shape your thesis into a piece of work that will be approved by your committee.
Accept your self-doubt as part the process of writing your thesis (and all other major undertakings).
Remember, if you have been accepted to graduate school, then by definition you have what it takes to write a “worthy” thesis.
Myth #2: You need to hide all the mistakes you made from your supervisors and future employers
“Mistakes” are usually seen in a negative light among graduate students.
If you make a “mistake” it implies that you are careless, lazy or not smart enough.
Employers, on the other hand, see “mistakes” as opportunities.
In fact, don’t be surprised if an interviewer (in academia or industry) asks you how you handled a mistake during graduate school.
If you answer that you didn’t make any mistakes in graduate school, you might as well wrap up the interview and apply for another job.
Employers ask about mistakes, so they can find out whether you have the courage to own your mistakes and learn from them.
Showing how you handled a setback is a sign of strength, leadership, and resilience: qualities that all employers value.
During graduate school, one of the biggest mistakes that student make is hiding mistakes from their supervisors.
It’s tempting to solve everything on your own and only show finished work to your mentors.
There is value in being independent and taking initiative to solve problems on your own.
However, your supervisor is paid to mentor you.
If you feel stuck, reach out for help.
Most likely, your supervisor will have greater respect for you for trying to resolve the problem on your own before approaching them.
Myth #3: If you feel like you don’t know enough you should read more instead of writing
This is a biggie.
It is so tempting to read when you feel like you don’t know enough.
But, every time you start your day with reading instead of writing, you are missing an opportunity to capture fresh ideas.
You may feel like “you don’t know enough”, but you won’t realize what you actually do know until you begin writing.
Feeling like you “don’t know enough” is one of the most common reasons that students don’t write, or feel that they have Writer’s Block.
Ideas are not formed completely in your head, but exist as “idea fragments”
It is through the daily grind of writing out these ideas (as awkward as they may seem) that you get to sculpt your ideas into coherent sentences.
Just as if you were building a sculpture, you begin creating your thesis with a general outline.
Then you gradually build it, chiseling one section at a time, until the your thesis, as a whole, starts to take shape.
If you commit to daily writing (just 15 minutes a day) even if you feel like you “don’t know enough” you will be amazed by the ideas you come up with.
Myth #4: The only reason to write your thesis is to get a better job
You probably started graduate school because you were passionate about research.
But, even the most dedicated students can begin to lose their confidence in the unstructured environment of graduate school.
There comes a point when you just want to get your thesis over with.
You are tired from living from such a small paycheck.
You want to get your thesis done and then get a better job.
This is great but what if you don’t know what your job prospects are?
When you have uncertainty about your future, it can be even more difficult to motivate yourself to write.
The point of your thesis isn’t just to get a better job (although that usually happens).
What if you perceived your experience in graduate school as training to improve every area of your life?
The rigorous training that a doctoral program puts you through will increase your confidence, leadership skills and resilience.
You may not recognize these qualities in yourself while you write your thesis.
If anything, graduate school lowers the self-confidence of many students.
Once your thesis is behind you, however, you will notice that your training in graduate school gave you the confidence that you can finish what you put your mind to.
Whether you are applying to academic positions or industry, knowing that you had the stamina to finish your thesis will help you to handle your future challenges with resilience.
Myth #5: If you are struggling it means you weren’t cut out for grad school
If you are struggling and you are still in the game then you were definitely meant for graduate school.
You may never have had this perspective about graduate school, but the whole point is to keep going despite uncertainty.
After years of failed projects, missed deadlines, and disappointing yourself (and your loved ones), it takes a person with extraordinary commitment to keep writing.
Your committee will not hand you a graduate degree on a silver platter.
It is your committee’s job to push you beyond the limits of your comfort zone.
They will ask you questions that you don’t know the answer to.
You may have conversation (or presentations) that feel humiliating.
Many professors will tell you embarrassing stories from their graduate studies.
But they stuck with their thesis, and you can too.
You can keep moving forward despite losing a small battle nearly every day.
Do you know how many people do that?
(Hint: not many)
Most people give up when things get hard.
If you are reading this article, I know you are still in the game, putting one foot in front of the other.
Perhaps no one will ever read your entire thesis.
Make peace with that now.
You don’t have to change millions of people’s lives or win a Nobel prize to know that your thesis is worthy.
The real worth of your thesis doesn’t come from how many people will read it, but who you become as a result of writing a graduate-level thesis.
Self-doubt will be your companion until the day you defend your thesis (and beyond).
When you hear the voice of self-doubt, it is a sign that you are moving outside your comfort zone and becoming a better writer and research.
Self-doubt doesn’t make you an impostor, but a scholar, who keeps rising to the challenge and pursuing their passions despite adversities.
When it comes to writing your thesis, what is the #1 source of self-doubt? Please leave a comment below and Dora will respond to you directly.