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You are not your dissertation

In tears on the phone, my dissertation client Aurora wailed, “Chapter 2 is destroying me! I’ll be in this article gridlock for the next 10 years! I’m just not dissertation material!”

Aurora’s heartfelt confession was not unusual. In my longtime professional practice coaching struggling dissertation students, many have admitted feeling blocked in their writing, whether it’s Chapter 2, the dread literature review, like Aurora, or another chapter that particularly bedevils them. But Aurora’s assumption that she wasn’t “dissertation material” was particularly upsetting.

I tackled her writing block rather than her sweeping self-condemnation. Together, we rethought appropriate sections for her literature review, and then I prompted her to begin with just one section and concentrate on just one article in that section. I knew that if Aurora started doing something, she’d regain a little confidence and stop disparaging herself.

Many other students have voiced self-deprecations: “My father was right—it was my sister who inherited the brains.” “My aunt was right—I’ll never get past a master’s.” “My wife is right—I was cut out only to sell cell phones.”

As I thought about those students’ fervent statements and Aurora’s, I wondered why they come to such damaging conclusions. Possibly they believe that completing a dissertation requires special gifts or godly dispensations bestowed on only a privileged few, usually fellow students or cohort members who are an enviable draft ahead of them.

Granted, it’s usually unknown territory. Unfortunately, many students have told me that all the doctoral-level courses they take that are supposed to prepare them for the dissertation (Literature Review II, Methodology 105; Conclusions 8406) somehow fail to do so—a mystery I will never fathom. Students come to me crying, “I’ve never done this before.”

Of course. Very few have, except the rarified scholar who goes after multiple masters and doctorates. I know of only one, and I suspect he racked up all those degrees because of an addiction to perpetual studenthood.

Doctoral candidates often equate their “failure” not only with lack of intelligence but also, like Aurora and the other lamenters, with their very personhood. Granted, the process can be brutal, especially with chairs, advisers, and committee members who take it out on their students with axes to grind, egos to sharpen, and displaced rage from humiliation at their own doctoral experiences.

Too many students, I’ve learned, after seeing their latest draft marked to hell by their chairs, go into months-long funks and are sure they’re worthless as human beings. One current tenured professor who’s also a dissertation director at a prestigious university confessed that, during her doctoral years, she received such a bloody draft. She immediately threw her unfinished dissertation under the bed. and didn’t touch it, or vacuum, for four months.

And yet . . . so many doctoral candidates have successfully navigated the shark-infested academic ocean to the promised island of doctoral letters after their names. This attainment is not impossible, although undeniably difficult and at great cost.

Thinking about my clients’ exclamations, I asked myself how I could help students shake loose their seemingly unalterable assertion that they’re not good enough or smart enough or even worthy at all to complete the dissertation.

As if in providential answer, a colleague’s email popped up in my inbox with the subject line: “Advice Like Chocolate.” Working on her own doctorate, she said she’d been groaning to a friend about her perceived personal deficiencies to continue with the work. Her friend interrupted the litany and announced: “You are not your dissertation.”

My colleague gasped.

Her friend continued, “The dissertation is not a test of intelligence or a measure of human worth. You know what it is? It’s a trial of your consistency and resiliency. The chair and committee are really asking: ‘How much can you take? After we keep knocking you down, how many times can you come back out of your corner, swinging and writing?’ None of it has any relation to your value as a human being.”

I called Aurora and read her my colleague’s words. Her voice was heavy with tears. “Oh, thank you, thank you.” The following week, I received her new, completed Chapter 2 for editing.

At our next coaching call, she said, “You know, when I sat down to write again, I started to feel the old block and all those thoughts of worthlessness taking over. Then I thought about what you said and decided to show it who’s boss.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” said Aurora, “I talked to my dissertation. I stood up at my desk with my hands on my hips and told it, ‘You are not the definer of my life. You are only a project!’”


She continued, “So I said to myself, ‘I can do a project.’ And boom! I sat down, followed your advice to take it one thing at a time, and got back to work.”

What Aurora did—and I have since advised many other stuck candidates to do—was to gain a perspective on her dissertation and what it means. And to change their self-talk, like Aurora did (accompanying body language optional but recommended).

Break it down into the smallest units you can—one article in one section of the literature review. Then the next article, and the next. Or in the methods chapter, the first step (maybe creating the recruitment letter), then the second (getting permission to send it out to potential participants). Remember too that your university guide for chapters and their subsections provides a roadmap. Or ask your chair for preferred subheads and referrals to accepted dissertations.

To help combat the feelings of helplessness and befuddlement, I often ask for students’ plan of attack. It helps them to write down, in sequence, what they’re going to do on each chapter and when. Self-imposed deadlines can always be adjusted, and there’s no penalty. Rushing to check off another section yields poor returns, and likely the section will have to be rewritten.

Sometimes it helps too if you talk to another academic or friend who’s been through the fire. You’ll probably be heartened at their confession of having felt exactly as you do at many points. You might also tell or email them your plan of attack. That action reinforces and redeclares your intention, and you’re inviting accountability.

Yes, the dissertation is big and it’s long and it a great deal of effort, concentration, and discipline. Yet there’s no denying the benefits of the doctorate: satisfaction, often of completing a life goal; prestige; more career opportunities; maybe a promotion; maybe even more money. But it’s still only a project. It’s a project you can complete. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be wrestling with it, however many times it’s hammerlocked you.

Your dissertation does not define you. It may reveal your interests, identify a passion; confirm your desire to improve a situation, to contribute, and to increase your mastery of scholarly conventions. But it’s only a project—and only one of the many you will complete and receive accolades for in your career.

So, in moments or days of discouragement when you’re tempted to demolish yourself or shove your drafts and computer under the bed, reignite your persistence. Talk to yourself. Take one small step at a time. And remember that the overlong, tormenting beauty is only a project. And you are not your dissertation.

Acknowledgment: With thanks to KH.

© 2021 Noelle Sterne

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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 600 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at