Surviving (and completing!) Your Doctoral Program

Ask anyone who has successfully completed a doctoral program about their experience and they will have a story. I know that I have one. Ask anyone who has not and they will also have a story. Their stories will probably be a bit longer. Maybe. The truth is that completing a dissertation is singularly the most challenging task in education. You don’t have to look far to find individuals who entered a doctoral program, failed to complete the dissertation, and now are going with the fall back title of ABD (All But Dissertation).

A recent study by the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate for doctoral students in the social sciences is 56 percent, and that the number of ABD students continues to increase worldwide. I was part of those negative statistics for a long time. After completing around 90 credits at Teachers College, I took on a new job and had my share of “life getting in the way” moments. Sure enough, the dissertation was put on the back burner and soon my TC career was a thing of the past. Thankfully, Manhattanville College created a program for individuals just like me who were ABD and were interested in finishing the dissertation once and for all. I enrolled in 2014 and successfully defended in January of 2016. In all, the process took me 12 years from when I started at TC in 2004. Phew.

So how can doctoral students avoid becoming just another negative statistic? Here are a few suggestions that I wish I had been told before I got started. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way…

1) Understand The Doctoral Program: Perhaps the greatest obstacle for students entering a doctoral program is getting past the fact that they have gone through a lifetime of schooling, were likely overachievers all the way back to their first undergraduate class, and have been conditioned to do whatever necessary to earn an “A” on each paper and class. While that level of dedication can certainly be helpful if channeled correctly in a doctoral program, it’s important to recognize that getting an A in all courses will mean nothing without the successful completion of the dissertation. Period. When I started at TC, I didn’t realize that approaching my courses (and program) in the same manner as I had my courses at the master’s level was actually leading to a “hamster on a wheel” effect as I amassed credits but, ironically, made marginal progress toward the successful completion of the degree. When the time came for dissertation seminar, I was essentially starting from scratch and quickly realized that I was still miles away from the finish line. I wasn’t alone on this point, and not surprisingly I saw students pulling back and falling off one by one…adding to the long line of “non-completers” and becoming yet another statistic.

2) Take Courses That Build Your Base: Please don’t misunderstand the point above to mean that the courses that you take at the doctoral level are not important. They are critical! A strong core of courses will not only provide a deep understanding of research methodology, which will be vital when designing a study down the road, but will also transform you into thinking like a critical researcher. This last point is really what it’s all about. So the trick in the early stages is to choose courses that support what will potentially be your research base. In order to do that, you need to be thinking about your dissertation, reflecting upon potential “problems” and questions that need to be answered, and building a base of research that will serve as the potential underpinning of your study.

3) Start Building a Literature Review: Yes, start building your literature review on Day 1 and keep building it until you have narrowed your research problem and research questions to a point where you are heading toward developing your official proposal. The Literature Review is the heart of any research study. It provides the context, the rationale, and answers that critical “who cares?” question. It is also the most daunting part of the dissertation for any doctoral student because the sheer volume of studies can just be overwhelming. Professors often say to “just keep reading until the findings start repeating or trends can be identified.” While that doesn’t seem like very helpful advice, the truth is that it’s the only advice because there is no shortcut. A good literature review can take over a hundred hours to write so the key is to start building one right away. For every study read, log the bibliographic information along with the key findings in a table and keep building the document as you go. You will be happy you did when the time comes to develop and narrow your topic.

4) Stay Focused on the Dissertation: Perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) part of successfully completing a doctoral program is writing your dissertation, so make sure that everything that you do leads to that outcome! In addition to choosing courses and analyzing research that support the necessary academic base that is needed, it’s important to prevent (or limit!) distractions that might get in the way of its completion. Life always seems to get in the way for doctoral students. Whether it’s a new job, starting a family, or a million things in between, there are bound to be distractions that pull you away from writing. While it’s impossible to fully prevent these “life getting in the way” moments, the key is to compartmentalize them so that the dissertation is given its proper place and attention. A dissertation is singularly the most independent task that you will take on. There are no “due dates,” professors will not call you daily to see that you are working, and universities allow the process to drag on for years if that’s the path you choose.

5) Build The Right Committee: This starts with choosing a dissertation sponsor (“committee chair”) who has expertise that will directly support the writing of your dissertation. This can be with regard to content knowledge, methodology, or a combination of both. It’s also super important that you have a sponsor who is responsive with feedback so that you can keep going. The faster you get the feedback, the better off you will be. Once you have a sponsor in place, you should look to round out your committee with individuals who will fill in any gaps that may be lacking so that you are best supported. Just be sure to be thoughtful about selecting committee members. One bad choice can lead to lots of headaches.

And finally…

Just Do It.  

Stop reading this blog right now and start working on your dissertation. Stop procrastinating, stop asking questions, stop thinking, and start researching and writing. Be like Mike. “Just do it.”


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