Staying Motivated: Perspective on Successfully Completing a Dissertation
Betsy L. Diegel
During my dissertation process, I kept the simple phrase, ‘Keep your eye on the prize’ at the forefront of my mind. The prize, of course, was finishing and successfully defending my dissertation. I had always had a tenacious, highly motivated demeanor when it came to accomplishing personal goals. This attitude allowed me to complete my undergraduate degree while also being a student-athlete, continue immediately on to my Master’s degree, and finally begin a career in higher education teaching and administration. After two years of full-time teaching and supervising adjuncts, it became obvious I needed a terminal degree to continue to move up the academic ladder. However, the process scared me. I knew I was motivated and focused, but I questioned whether I was intelligent enough to perform well in the doctoral classes, and then subsequently, complete the doctoral courses. This article highlights my experiences in successfully completing a dissertation and discusses learning lessons I endured along the way to readers who need that final nudge to finish their dissertation.
I was honest with myself from the beginning that pursuing a terminal degree was probably the most daunting task I had ever faced. I wanted my dissertation topic to be unique but something I was able to accomplish within an adequate time period so I would not lose my passion along the way. I had no idea when I began my doctoral program what I wanted to research, which was overwhelming because most of my peers did. However, I listened to my professors and, in their words, “let the program wash over me” through coursework and expertise of my dissertation committee members to find a dissertation topic. I wanted a topic that related to my career, was exciting but attainable, utilizing qualitative methodology. My professors’ advice proved to be valuable as I was able to solidify my topic just before I took my comprehensive exams. After passing my comprehensive exams, I took a deep breath and prepared to immerse myself in the process of collecting and analyzing mounds of qualitative data. I had decided to do a phenomenological study to explore what department chairpersons did to provide support, mentoring, and professional development opportunities to adjunct faculty in their departments. I interviewed three department chairs and eighteen adjunct faculty to collect my initial data, followed by a focus group of adjunct faculty to solidify the major themes that arose during the initial interviews. This process was lengthy, involved some travel, numerous organizational revisions of content to each chapter, and at least one Diet Coke per day, until eighteen months later when I scheduled my dissertation defense.
During the dissertation process, I slowly realized each day of my life had to be planned out to accommodate for writing time. Balancing a full-time career, pregnancy, and producing quality writing became my reality. I was shocked at the amount of revisions I needed to do for each chapter of my dissertation. As soon as I would get something back from my dissertation chair, I would scroll to the last page of what she reviewed to see how many comments and edits she made on what I sent her. At times, the amount of feedback was overwhelming. Because of this, people who are writing dissertations should be aware that stress and even crying are part of the writing process. Additionally, it is also important to never get frustrated with your dissertation chair. That individual is your advocate in seeing you through to the finish line. Embrace your chair’s expertise and dedication toward your research—even if they ask you to revise the same sentence multiple times.
As I neared completion, I began preparing for my dissertation defense. I was less nervous about the public speaking and more concerned about taking the approximately one hundred-page dissertation and discussing all of what I found to be important in just 20 minutes. I used Microsoft PowerPoint for my presentation and decided to dedicate two slides per chapter. It was tough deciding what was most important to share, but I found I naturally elaborated on specific details as they emerged through the question and answer session at the end of my presentation. I was nervous during the question and answer session because I had no idea what questions my committee members were going to ask me. However, my nerves quickly subsided. It was my hard work to display and I was proud of it. Furthermore, I realized no one knew my topic of research better than me. I was so happy I invited my immediate family members, cohort members, a few friends, and people I work with to my defense because they could share in my elation when I passed and officially became Dr. Diegel.
My family and I celebrated together after my dissertation defense but the next day and subsequent few weeks that followed involved completing the final edits and formatting. Even though I was technically still working on my dissertation, I did not feel the same type of pressure and time crunch as when I was writing. This was mainly because the edits I needed to make were fairly minor and did not involve analyzing my data again. There was no better feeling than submitting my final proofed and approved dissertation to the university before I walked at graduation. I was never more proud of myself as I was at that moment. I knew my personal motivation, tenacity, and support system got me through to completion.
It is crucial to realize early on in your dissertation path that the ultimate goal must be to finish. I had numerous colleagues, as well as fellow students in my cohort, who lost their passion when they finished their coursework and comprehensive exams. Time passed and they did not move forward in completing their dissertation. That was not acceptable for me. I was pregnant and had set writing goals for myself after I completed my comprehensive exam of what I wanted to have completed before my son was born. I planned to take a two week hiatus from my writing once he arrived but planned to set aside one hour per day after that to stay on track. Additionally, I recalled all of the hours during the weekend I had spent in the classroom trekking through my concentration and cognate courses, studying early in the morning and late at night, money spent, time away from my family, and what this terminal degree could do for my career. I buckled down by setting up a weekly calendar that tracked my writing progress through each chapter while I was home on maternity leave. When I returned to work, I would block writing time in between teaching, meetings, and student office hours. I set a goal that once I received comments and revisions from my chair regarding a particular chapter, I would not exceed more than a two-week turnaround time to return it back to her.
Moreover, I surrounded myself with people who wanted me to succeed. I formed a few close friendships with people in my cohort who had the same drive to finish their dissertation that I had. We would proofread for each other, informally discuss dissertation topics or methodology ideas, or just grab lunch together in between classes to get a break. I also found support from people I worked with who already had their terminal degrees and understood the rigorous process in attaining it. Additionally, I communicated frequently with family members who cared about my success. I would often talk about my topic and data collection with my support network. I would see them on campus or during a family gathering and they would ask how my writing was going. I wanted to make them proud and show them I could do it. And even though I became annoyed when people would ask, “are you done yet?” their questions helped me stay accountable to my goal of finishing my dissertation.
Around one year into full data immersion and writing my final two chapters, I began to set short-term goals to keep me motivated. For example, when revisions came back from my dissertation chair, I would commit myself to working on a set number of them or for an indiscriminate amount of time every day. I would do something every day toward my dissertation—even if it was only modifying my cover page or adding someone to my acknowledgements section. I had colleagues who would dedicate their entire weekend to writing or rent a hotel room for a few nights to do nothing but write but that was not my style. I worked best writing and revising in short, but regular time intervals.
Finding your style and balance with work and life is integral to staying organized and on track. If you work, take days off to dedicate toward your writing or learn to say no at work when it comes to taking on extra responsibilities. That certainly is not an easy thing to do but it became clear to me that the long-term payoffs far exceeded the short-term sacrifices I made to complete my dissertation. I kept the lines of communication open with my supervisor about needing to take days off or keeping my office door shut between meetings or teaching so I could get some quality writing time. It felt odd at first to turn down committee work or extra projects because I am passionate about staying involved in every aspect of my job, but I was determined to finish in a timely manner.
Over time, the novelty of being referred to as ”Dr.” will wane. However, the result will always be yours. Work to forage relationships early on with people in your cohort and your professors, surround yourself with people who care about your success, do something every day when it comes to your writing, and always have a positive attitude. As someone stated to me long ago, “a good dissertation, is a finished dissertation.” Stay strong; you can do it!
- Define personal accountability. How can you achieve this to assist you in finishing your dissertation?
- Describe your ultimate writing environment. Be very descriptive so we can all picture being there with you. How will you create this environment on a regular basis so you can complete your dissertation?
- How will you successfully finish your dissertation once you pass your comprehensive exams? Define your path.
About the Author
Betsy Diegel is the Director of Academic Services & Associate Professor at Davenport University in Midland, MI. Her roles include academic administration and undergraduate teaching in a variety of science and biology courses. Her research interests include adjunct faculty development and women in higher education.
Please e-mail inquiries to Betsy Diegel.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.