For lagging doctoral candidates: How to finish your dissertation and keep your family

work from homeIf you are in the throes of your dissertation, you probably realize that, other than yourself, your family is most affected by your dissertation, and they most affect your progress. It can be hard for family members to understand what you’re going through and must continue to endure for several years.

A poignant example from one of my dissertation coaching clients: Ava wailed to me, “I get calls daily from my mother, my three sisters, and my two cousins! They all say they’re tired of me not coming to the family events. I had to go to the reunion!”

Like Ava’s relatives, family can start squeezing you.

Trying to compromise, Ava went on the week-long family reunion. She told me she took her Chapter 2, hoping to do some work. That was wishful working. With all the activities, festivities, and late-night gab fests, she barely had time to change clothes. Ava came home more exasperated and behind in her work than ever.

Like many or most of you, Ava was trying to juggle at least two lives. Graduate school is itself a “career,” and she also had a family life (husband and three kids), and profession as an elementary school teacher. She crammed in dissertation time as she could.

To give Ava credit, she did try to inform her relatives early. As she collected research, her printed articles overflowed the den and covered the dining room table in high-rise stacks. Using “one picture is worth” reasoning, she took photos of the two stuffed rooms and sent them to her relatives. But she confessed to me, “The photos didn’t penetrate. Everyone still kept calling.”

Early Intervention

Ava made a mistake. She waited until her relatives noticed her withdrawal, and by then they thought she was avoiding them. The absolute best time to orient family to what awaits you for the next several years is when you first begin the dissertation. Without some advance notice, they will feel even more confused, bewildered, and angry, as Ava’s relatives did.

Whether you’re the first to pursue an advanced degree in your family or one of a long proud line of related PhDs doesn’t seem to make much difference. Family members who haven’t been through it have no idea at all; members who’ve earned the degree may have forgotten what it’s really like and probably minimize their own struggles.

Early intervention is a major strategy, and face-to-face is the absolute best (no emails or texts; Skype if you must). If you feel shaky about informing and inducing your relatives, remember your own sacrifices to get to your doctoral pursuit—you’ve deprived yourself of vacations, time off, activities with your kids, sleep.

Randy, a single father with two children, did it right. He enlisted his family near the beginning. He called his mother, aunt, and sister his “team.” When Randy first started working with me, he said he sat them all down and explained what he would have to do in the next two years (at least). He asked for their support and advice, which they willingly gave. Randy knew that, directly and indirectly, they would help tremendously on his journey. And they did, in practical and emotional ways, taking over many tasks and bolstering him at low points.

Once when Randy was dejected about his slow progress, his sister sent him a miraculously timely and reinvigorating email:

Thinking of you, sweetie. I know we talk a lot, but I also know you’re going through something that none of us has ever gone through—your doctoral program. You work at your job like crazy, you take care of your household and your two kidlets, and you constantly keep at your graduate work. With all of this, you stay positive. It’s got to be difficult for you.

Please, don’t EVER hesitate to call me when you need to release some mental stress or things just get too overwhelming. I’ve ALWAYS got your back!!!

I could have kissed that sister.

Educate Them

As Randy did, educate your relatives. Don’t flinch from telling those nearest and most hysterical that they’re not the only ones who will be sacrificing visiting time, money, moments of satisfaction, and the luxury of trivial arguments. If your family members have earned undergraduate or advanced degrees, rouse their memories of their own travails with term papers, master’s theses, and capstone projects. They may nod in squirming or even empathic recollection. Then pounce: Tell them that the dissertation is at least five times worse.

Sketch out, vividly, the kind of time and attention you need, especially with your many other duties. Ava’s photograph didn’t work, but when you’re face-to-face, you can be dramatic in painting the word pictures and backing them up with evidence—like Edison.

Edison’s mother and brother kept complaining about his absences from the traditional Sunday family dinners. He sat them both down and, in a heart-to-heart, detailed his monstrous dissertation schedule. He had one and a half hours a day to work on his dissertation, that is, if his boss didn’t slap overtime on him. Weekends were out because his wife started to work as a nurse for the tuition he needed while he took care of the two kids, both under eight.

He told his family that with all the research necessary he could write about ten pages a week. That’s twenty weeks, he continued, or five months to get two hundred pages, the average length, and this span was just for the first draft. He then told them that he knew, from sending his first chapter to the chair, she took more than the supposed requisite two weeks to return the draft and demanded all kinds of revisions.

After this summary, Edison pulled out the evidence: the chair’s marked-up tracked-change draft, the university rubric, the printed chart in the university dissertation handbook of a typical timeline that spanned two years. His mother and brother sat there, open-mouthed. Message delivered.

Bribe Them

After your ice-water shock to the relatives of the hard facts of your dissertation chase, and their recognition that they won’t see you for at least eighteen months, it’s time to bribe them.

Whatever version of “no pain, no gain” you choose, family members especially should know that something good awaits at the end of all the sacrifices and suffering. These can include your better job, promotions, prestige, more business, new business, more time for a partner or child to resume a degree program, more time with the family, and, most importantly, mo’ money. Remind them (and yourself) about all the payoffs.

The other type of bribe is to make promises for the future, AD (after degree). These can be special dates, an extended visit, a vacation together, or offers of help with their special projects.

To show your goodwill and seriousness, offer a bribe for a more immediate time. Geoff promised his wife that after he finished writing up his data collection methods, the very next weekend he’d take her out to their favorite mountaintop restaurant overlooking the majestic river.

Madelyn told her ten-year-old daughter that the minute Mommy completed her proposal PowerPoint, they’d build the birdhouse together the girl was begging for.

Ben signed a crayoned promissory note his six-year-old wrote: “After my Conclusion is done, Betta and I will go to the zoo for a day.”

How to Do It All

A major part of your successful dissertation journey is to reach a balance that works for you between ignoring your family and trying to be superspousepartnerparent. The educational and enticement strategies I suggest have worked for many doctoral candidates (and other academics with major projects). Family members have often been surprisingly cooperative and supportive.

If you ever want to finish, you must take the time to get family on your side. They may never really understand, and they may cooperate grudgingly, but they’ll finally leave you alone to do the work you need to do. And later, much later, they’ll rejoice with you, and tell everyone, as you proudly become a doctor.

© 2019 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site: www.trustyourlifenow.com


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.