Why Writing a Dissertation is About Showing Up, No Matter What

Why is Writing a Dissertation So Scary?

When Aileen, a Chemistry PhD student, started graduate school, she didn’t think that writing a Dissertation would be a challenge.

She passed her PhD candidacy exam with perfect grades and had a great relationship with her PhD thesis supervisor.

Fast forward several years…

As Aileen was beginning her 8th year of graduate school, she realized she had not talked to her PhD supervisor for 7 months.

In the beginning they talked every few weeks.

Although Aileen was not always proud of her progress, her PhD supervisor was supportive and gave her good guidance.

But, as Aileen started her 7th year, she realized that most of her peers had already finished their Dissertations. Meanwhile, she didn’t even have enough data to present her progress to her thesis committee.

“There must be something wrong with me,” Aileen thought. She continued working, though, even as her motivation was waning.

She tried collecting more data, and writing drafts of her chapters.

But, she never felt like she had “enough” to show her supervisor.

As time passed, their relationship became awkward.

Aileen had enough funding to continue for another year.

Her supervisor occasionally checked in with her, and she kept promising to deliver drafts of her Dissertation chapters.

Aileen kept missing deadlines, until she didn’t even trust herself anymore.

She didn’t want to flush down  8 years of her life by quitting her PhD.

On the other hand, she also didn’t want to disappoint her supervisor with her lack of progress.

Without realizing it, Aileen was trapped in the cycle of fear and shame, and had no idea how to get out of it.

What Got You to Graduate School, Will Not Get You to Your PhD

Aileen is one of the many thousands of PhD students who have no idea why they feel so stuck writing a Dissertation.

If you have always been a “good student” , why is writing a Dissertation such a challenge?

You may have heard Woody Allen’s quote: “80% of Life is Showing Up.”

While this quote has become cliche, it really describes the core challenge PhD students face: fear.

I know you really want to get your PhD, so why would you be afraid of “showing up”?

The fear cycle in graduate school stars out innocently

The fear cycle may begin with a remark from your supervisor that you interpret as your work not being “good enough.”

So, you try harder. But, no matter what you do, you always get feedback to improve some aspect of your research process or writing your Dissertation.

If you have been training yourself to get perfect grades during your education, this can throw you off.

You may not be used “disappointing” your supervisor or yourself with less-than-perfect work.

“Why is it that everyone else has it together when it comes to writing a Dissertation? Is there something wrong with me?”

Sometimes just knowing that you are not the only one who feels this way  lessens the power of fear

Why Many PhD Students Struggle with Writing a Dissertation

The problem is not that something is wrong with you, or that you don’t work hard enough on your Dissertation.

The reason you struggle is that the mindset and habits that got you into a PhD program (be the best at everything), is not going to get you through the PhD program.

If you always try to be perfect, the best case scenario is that you will finish, but you will be burnt out.

“If I don’t strive to be the best, then what’s the point of getting a PhD?” you might ask.

Getting a PhD level job is so competitive that you have the best at everything to get a shot at those jobs, right?

What I am about to tell you may scare you for a little while, so just stay with me. 

In order to make it through your PhD program (and stay sane), you have to be ok with doing less than perfect work.

You have to be ok with making mistaking and with your supervisor giving you (harsh) feedback

At one point you might even need to come face-to face with realizing how little you know or that you are back to square one.

Sounds scary, right?

Actually, what holds you back from finishing your Dissertation is not your lack of knowledge.

What holds you back is fear of what others will think of you, when your work comes to light.

In other words, the fear of “What will they think of me?” can be overwhelming.

Not surprisingly, after years of being “disappointed” in yourself, you might experience something even more scary than fear: shame.

The research of Brene Brown’s, Professor at the University, shows that shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence, and judgment.

Your Dissertation Does Not Have to Be a Journey Through Shame

The problems that are holding back your progress are not what you think: it’s not because you don’t know enough or work enough.

If the problem were that you didn’t know enough, you would make an effort to learn what you need to.

Or, if the problem were that you didn’t work enough, I am sure you would find time somehow to put in more hours.

You are capable of learning what you need to and to make time to work

So, if you are hard-working and smart, why do you feel stuck in graduate school?

Going back to Brene Brown’s research, once you start to develop shame around your work, or yourself, the experience of writing a Dissertation becomes like quicksand. 

The more you struggle with writing a Dissertation, the more trapped you feel.

The number of hours you work, and the even the quality of your work becomes irrelevant if you are too ashamed to talk about your Dissertation or get the feedback that you need to graduate.

How Aileen Got to The Other Side and Got Her PhD

Aileen was too ashamed to tell her friends or family about her Dissertation struggles.

But, she did reach out for help anonymously on the Internet.

Initially she was looking for insights to help her get motivated to work on her Dissertation.

First, she realized that “hiding” from her supervisor was not helping her.

Although he seemed disappointed when she didn’t make progress, he also gave her constructive feedback on what she needed to do to move forward.

Second, Aileen connected with students who faced similar challenges, and realized that there was nothing wrong with her.

The “mistakes” that she had made in graduate school, were part of the process of writing a Dissertation.

By connecting with other graduate students Aileen broke the cycle of shame and a year later she finished her Dissertation.

When you have support from others the key components of shame, silence, secrecy, and judgement fall away

The Power of Getting External Support

Once you open up to others and they understand why you feel the way you do, your perspective on your Dissertation will shift too.

Your internal dialogue will shift from “Why is it so hard for me to write this Dissertation?” to “What step can I take today to make progress on my Dissertation?”

When you free yourself from shame, whether it’s through in-person support or an online community, you strengthen your self-confidence.

The more confident you are, the more motivated you will be to seek the support you need to finish your Dissertation and get your PhD.

When you get outside support, you also get ideas about how others make it through days when you really don’t feel like writing.

Just knowing that someone is holding you accountable can make all the difference to help you finish your Dissertation!

Are you feeling alone or stuck writing your Dissertation? Check out our Dissertation Writing Workshop to get help finishing your PhD

Dora Farkas, PhD

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