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How not to complete your dissertation

From my longtime academic coaching and editing practice guiding doctoral candidates through the peaks and gullies of completing their dissertations, I have seen how women in doctoral programs can easily become diverted by compassion for others in trouble. Well-meaning decisions and actions may result in calamitous consequences to their goal of a completed dissertation.

Although my experience has been primarily with women, if you are a man reading this, you may recognize some of these scenarios. In these stories (names and identifying details changed for their protection), you will see that tender-hearted consideration at the wrong times dangerously waylaid dissertation progress. If you’re a doctoral candidate writing (or not writing) your dissertation, perhaps these tales will confirm decisions to let no major interruptions complete your dreamed-of doctorate.

Marcy’s House

Marcy had just reached a major milestone: approval of her dissertation proposal. Her husband found a piece of land at a bargain price and wanted to build a house together. Marcy’s next dissertation step should have been to collect her data. Instead, she collected designs and architectural plans and interviewed contractors for their house—and took a leave from her studies.

When Marcy and her husband hired a builder, she thought she could get back to her dissertation as her husband held down his office job. But . . . she became the general contractor of the general contractor. Her days and nights were filled with supervising every square inch of the building process. I don’t know if Marcy ever reentered the university, finished her dissertation, or got her degree.

Tina’s Clock

Tina entered a doctoral program “late,” as she called it. She and her husband wanted to start a family, and she feared her biological clock was ticking faster than the doctoral statute of limitations. Tina became pregnant and, reading every book she could find on “academic mommies,” with great motivation worked on her dissertation until the eighth month. Then she withdrew from the university for “only a year,” she promised me, “until I can get the kid into pre-pre-school.”

I received the birth announcement of a beautiful baby boy. Tina, though, underestimated the dual demands of motherhood and dissertation writing. I didn’t hear from her for six years.

When her son Matthew was seven, she reenrolled at the university. Her statute had run out, and she was forced to start from the beginning. She spent more time and money to retake the required courses before resuming her dissertation. Then she rehired me to help her, she said, regain motivation and momentum and plow through her chapters. With my coaching and consistent encouragement and Tina’s unrelenting effort, I’m glad to say she finally became “Mommy PhD.”

Elizabeth’s Son

Grown children can also pull. Elizabeth had been making steady progress in her dissertation, and we both anticipated the finish line in a few months. Her son had been let go from his firm and needed financial help while he looked for another job. She gave her son one of her credit cards to “get over the hump,” as she said. Unfortunately, the hump lasted for two years. Elizabeth paid his bills with the money she’d set aside for tuition and my services. When she saw her son’s latest bill, she put her foot down and cut the card up. But her dissertation had been delayed, and she had great trouble getting back into the scholarly mindset.

Brenda’s Granddaughter

After years as a high school principal and close to retirement, Brenda finally took the doctoral plunge, a lifelong dream. She enthusiastically completed the coursework and did preliminary research on her dissertation topic. Then her married daughter had a baby girl, who developed breathing difficulties. With the first of several operations scheduled, the baby’s life seemed in danger.

Brenda raced out to the Midwest to comfort her daughter and care for the ailing baby. She stayed for three years. When the child eventually regained health, Brenda returned. But her earlier degree fervor had dissipated and instead of putting “PhD.” after her name, the only letters she could use were ABD (All But Dissertation). She never finished.

Jenny’s Parents

Jenny lived on the West Coast. With elderly parents on the East Coast, Jenny gave up a six-figure job and moved back to her family home to take care of them.  She also took the first job she could find as a secretary. Her doctoral program was stalled, but to her praise, she continued slowly. Somehow, between the 9-to-5 job, ferrying her parents to incessant doctors’ visits, and policing their medications, she somehow fit in her studies. The last I knew, Jenny was still in the early stages of her dissertation proposal. Her parents were thriving.

Anne’s Romance

The excitement of a new romance has waylaid more than one dissertation writer. When Anne moved to a suburban development, a neighbor was a helpful and attractive man who became a friend. As he introduced her to the mysteries of crabgrass and weed killers, they became more than friends.

Anne felt elated and young. Between dinners on each other’s verandas and forays together to the home supplies store, she kept chipping away at her dissertation. Soon Anne and her lover combined their homes and lives.

She applied for and got two extensions. As the second ended, Anne started collecting her dissertation materials. Her lover, who had a master’s, became more distant. She told me in tears that he admitted feeling threatened by her imminent advanced degree. Anne was shocked but wasn’t willing to give up her goal. They broke up.

Too depressed to think about school, Anne applied for her third extension. Within a month of it ending, she resumed her dissertation work but had great trouble concentrating. Anne withdrew from the university, sold her suburban house, and moved to another state. No degree.


No one can argue with a wife’s, mother’s, grandmother’s, daughter’s, or partner’s love and concern. But there’ are times and places to say yes and to say no. If an apparently dire situation threatens to entice you, stop and think. Think about your own goals and desires and the life-altering prices you will probably pay to help. Think about how you’ll feel quitting the dissertation and probably never getting the degree. Face it.


If you are confronting a situation like one of these, or are tempted by one, talk to someone you trust. Like the candidates in the stories above, what may seem at first like a harmless little pause in your dissertation writing or a favor to a loved one can stretch to a permanent break that will never culminate in the award of your degree.

So, before you make the inextricable commitment, ask yourself some questions. What other options are available than your total involvement with those in need? Who else can you call on? How can duties be divided? When you talk with a neutral person, a dialogue can open up possibilities and resources you may not have thought of.

Granted, saying “no” may be very hard. You can explain why you’re declining (although often any explanation doesn’t convince). Practice gently refusing, especially when you can offer alternatives. Sometimes, saying no is the kindest thing you can do.

Tina was unkind to herself by not seeking responsible childcare earlier. Elizabeth may have fed her son’s weakness by giving him a credit card rather than, in AA terms, practicing “tough love.” Rather than trying to do it all herself, including her dissertation, Jenny could have explored home health aide care.

Take Yourself Seriously

If you really want to complete your dissertation, take it seriously, like any large, important project. It needs time, concentration, and focus. You’re an athlete in training: no excessive booze, no late nights, no DIY massive projects, no offering to host a 30-guest Thanksgiving, no whirlwind romances, or offers of help that sucks you dry.

You haven’t lost your compassion for others. For all you know, when those who don’t receive your help seek other solutions, they may come out stronger. When you tactfully decline, you too will come out stronger. And you will honor your desire to complete your dissertation and, finally, achieve your precious and hard-won doctorate.

© 2022 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

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 700 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