80/20, Love, Hate: A Guide for Dissertation Success

This week’s blog is about advice from a seasoned academic advisor (SAA). I wondered how that advice compared to advice Dr. Patti and I share on this blog. While the dissertation process (SAA calls it dissertating) feels like a mystery, it isn’t. When you start the process or when you’re deep in the bowels of it, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what questions to ask, what ideas are important, what a good research project looks like. And that’s the real mystery: When do you know what you know? When does the light goes on and your thinking starts to flow? When do you feel like you’ve got this?

The SAA explained that the dissertation process is not new, but it will be new to you, the graduate student. According to the article, the mystery is in students learning to become  independent scholars.

Baby Steps and Sinking In

We forget that learning is a process. Learning takes practice, time, mistakes, revising, and a series of baby steps (starts and stops). It’s a process we can’t rush because it has to sink in before you start to feel it.

For me, taking graduate classes was the easy part. I kept wondering how all these classes tied into my dissertation – What did I need them for? It starts with a foundation and understanding theories, the dynamics of higher-level thinking, and a new way of learning.

Stopping is easy but starting is very hard. There was a point where I wanted to take a few months off from my program.

Thankfully, my classmates and instructors advised against it. Better to keep moving as best you can – only take a break if you really need it. It’s hard to jump back into the game after a break of three to six months.

SAA Advice

Below are some tips from a seasoned academic advisor (SAA). Let’s see how Dr. Patti and I compared. Here we go!

  1. SAAs will help you come up with a research idea. Students need to talk, exchange ideas and work with the SAA. A good project is a collective effort and there are good and bad research topics. The SAA advised to think about what kind of job you want after your PhD. It can guide your thinking about a good research topic based on your interests.
  2. SAAs don’t know everything. They can help you find a topic. But you will be the expert, not the SAA. This is part of the becoming-an-independent-scholar part: You review the literature, develop the methodology, do the work. Your SAA is the sounding board for feedback.
  3. Your study won’t change the world. Your job is to focus on a topic, not write the “perfect” proposal. Perfection is a pipe dream and stop wasting time. Think about what value your research will bring to your field.
  4. Talk to your SSA regularly. Listen to constructive feedback, but remember that you still have to write your dissertation. “Make writing a regular habit” and start with an early draft as an outline. Write, revise and refine, then review and revise again. It’s all about iteration.
  5. Time management is important for you and your SAA. They are not waiting for your email, you’re not the only student they are advising. Respect their time, send gentle reminders, and be flexible about a response time from your SAA.
  6. SAAs work for you. They should challenge you to have high standards, to help you succeed. Ask for help to edit, learn scholarly writing, improve your grammar, use any resources available to finish the job. Period.

DTB Best Tips

And here’s Our Best Tips list from the DoctorTales Blog.

* Our best tip #1: Don’t expect your advisor to hold your hand or tell you what to do. Their job is to guide you to the finish line as you develop your expertise. Own your research and embrace the challenge! (See #2 above)

* Our best tip #2: Overcome your fear of mistakes, disagreements, or asking for help. You and your advisor should be a team – both of you on the same page and moving in the same direction. It really is about team work. (See #1 and #6 above)

Our best tip #3: Set our priorities. If you don’t have clear priorities, it’s easy to stumble along wasting and losing time. Include work and play in your weekly plan. Learn to say “No” and avoid tasks that prevent you from writing your dissertation.

Our best tip #4: Learn to be self-directed – Autonomy is the name of the game. You have to do the hard work. Dr. Patti and I had to drill down into the literature to understand our research topic. It’s an evolving and exciting process. (See #4 above)

* Our best tip #5: Use the 80/20 rule. Remember Pareto’s Law Rule of 80/20 in your time management. Invest 20% of your time on work that has an 80% return rate. Do the important things first, learn to use time wisely and prioritize your projects. (See #5 above)

Our best tip #6: Motivation is not good enough. You will have MANY days when you don’t feel like working on your dissertation. You need to make yourself do the hard work. An alternative to motivation is to set small, achievable goals each day. For example, write for two hours, read for 30 minutes, exercise for one hour each day.

Personal Favorites

My closing thoughts include a list of personal favorites:

  • Learn to persevere. When you feel like you want to quit, step back and think about why you started this journey in the first place. Be honest with yourself. Remember that you’re learning a great deal about endurance and perseverance in writing your dissertation.
  • Feel the love and the hate. Yes, I felt the love and the hate for my dissertation. Many times these feelings clashed – like when your brain is frozen as you claw through the cobwebs in your mind. Take a step back, breathe, and remember why you chose this task.
  • Follow your dream. Only you can make that choice. I discovered that I wanted my doctorate for reasons that surprised me: I love puzzles and intellectual challenges, I wanted to know, and I love to write. And I struggled with doubt, fear, terror, and the imposter syndrome. But I followed my dream to the end of the rainbow.

So when do you know what you know? It’s an evolving process: When you feel like an expert. When they call you “Doctor” at commencement, you know that you’ve got this!

Dr. Bessie

Source: The Not-So-Secret Guide to Dissertating

Strive for progress not perfection.

Author: Dr. Bessie DiDomenica

Food Policy Researcher • Resilient Agriculture Advocate • Public Speaker • Public Policy Wonk • Writer • Teacher • Social Entrepreneur • Associate Editor

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