I’m a faculty member and a program coordinator for our doctoral program. A significant part of my job is to advise doctoral students and to chair dissertations. Students and their dissertation chairs often call on me to help students make progress. At any given time, I’m usually working with 5-6 students who are actively completing their dissertations. Needless to say, I have experienced my fair share of students who are struggling with their dissertation and have even stalled.
So Many Reasons for Stalling
Why are students struggling? There are numerous reasons. Students who did perfectly well during coursework can still have a difficult time with the dissertation because it’s a very different exercise. The structure and inherent accountability of coursework is less present during the dissertation. Whereas there are often real, concrete consequences for not meeting a deadline during coursework, missing a deadline while writing a dissertation may have few direct costs. Students are often expected to do a substantial amount of independent work, which requires a level of discipline that does not come naturally to many of us. Plus, the reality is that it is difficult to really prepare a student for all facets of the dissertation. There will be something that pops up in your dissertation that probably wasn’t adequately covered in coursework.
On top of all of these reasons, doctoral students are adults. Even if they are highly talented and motivated, being an adult carries additional responsibilities and life complications. My students have families, sometimes even multiple young children. They are working full-time and must do so in order to support their families. They have jobs that are often demanding, asking that they work more than 40 hours per week. I have had students who have moved because of a spouse’s job or had to leave their current position in the middle of the semester. I have had multiple students have babies and multiple students lose parents during the program and often in the middle of their dissertation. Simply put, getting stuck is common. In fact, I would say it’s rarer for a student to have a completely un-interrupted dissertation journey. I’ve had to figure out some strategies to help jumpstart a stalled student. And there are also some things stuck students can do to help themselves get unstuck.
When I meet with students or advisees who are struggling to make progress, I approach the conversation from a place of empathy. I haven’t had a single situation where a student simply wasn’t writing due to lack of motivation. This doesn’t mean that scenario is impossible, but in my experience, students are usually stuck for very good reasons. They want to work on their dissertations. They want to finish, and in some cases, they feel a deep sense of commitment to their family and mentors to see the program through. It’s common for my students who are stuck to feel profound guilt, especially those who were successful during coursework. That guilt often confounds things and makes getting started again harder.
Tip #1 - Don’t make students feel guilty. Listen to their experience and express understanding. Let them know there is always path forward.
My next strategy is to develop a personalized plan for the student to help them take a step in the right direction. Note that my goals are modest. I don’t say that we’re going to go from stalled to finished overnight. My students tend to get stuck in two places. The first place is early in the process, trying to write their 3-chapter proposals. I think the proposal is the hardest part of dissertation writing because it’s basically breathing life into a project that doesn’t exist. There’s no prompt from an instructor, no syllabus. It requires a ton of reading to make even incremental progress. When problems arise at this moment, I do a couple of things.
First, I ask whether the student is certain about the topic or purpose of the dissertation. One of the most frequent causes of a stalled dissertation, in my experience, is misalignment between a students’ passions/professional experiences and their topic. Provided a student is not too far along, it can do wonders to hit the reset button and identify the right topic/purpose. If/when a student is happy with their topic, I then push them to ensure their purpose and research questions are crystal clear before they move on to anything else. To this end, I have students write a 2-page purpose statement culminating in their research questions. This is the foundation from which I have them build. Lastly, I often encourage students to size down their ambitions. Many students in these early stages get overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the dissertation. I try to have them look at the dissertation differently--as a single project to make a contribution to our understanding of education practice. Additionally, I try to break down the dissertation into more manageable pieces, like a series of papers that fit together. This seems like a no-brainer, but I see chairs make a common mistake like telling a student to “just go write chapter 1” or “send me a proposal draft.” I view this as a non-starter.
Tip #2 - Make sure there is alignment between a students’ passions/professional experiences and dissertation topic.
[A faculty colleague suggested students keep a list of “problems of practice,” which I think is a really smart idea for students.]
Tip #3 - Have students write a 2-page statement of purpose before they do anything else. Use this as the basis for developing the rest of the dissertation.
Tip #4 - Size down the scope of the project and break it into manageable pieces.
Tip #5 - Don’t just tell a stuck student to go write a chapter. If they could do that, they wouldn’t be stuck. Help them take a first and second step.
A second moment where students often get stalled is right after collecting their data. There are a couple of reasons for this. One reason is that students seriously underestimate how long and how taxing data collection, data cleaning, and data analysis will be. Students frequently share with me their dissertation timelines and build in hardly any time at all for data collection and analysis. As a result, they aren’t prepared for the challenges related to data collection and analysis. Second, it seems like many students during their coursework practice writing proposals and literature reviews. Few of them have the chance to present and write about results/findings. They don’t always have a great visual for how their chapters 4 and 5 should look and what content to include in those chapters. Confusion, uncertainty, and lack of experience can deter progress. If this is the case, I try to energize students by reminding them that, in many ways, the final chapters are the downhill of the dissertation journey. They are often the experts of their data, and there is far less referencing of literature, which can make writing move a little faster. Many students are excited during data collection, and I try to re-capture that energy to motivate them for the final push. Second, I provide examples of dissertations that use similar methods to help students visualize possible ways of presenting findings. Lastly, I walk through my own research to share with students my approach and thought process when sharing and discussing findings.
Tip #6 - Remind students not to underestimate the challenges of data collection. But help them see that, once they have their data collected and cleaned, they are on the downhill.
Tip #7 - Data collection is often an exciting part of the research process. Help to re-capture that energy to motivate students to the finish line.
Tip #8 - Share dissertations that use similar methods and walk students through your own process for sharing/discussing results/findings.
Stuck students can do some things to help themselves get moving again. At the end of the day, students have to start writing--their chair can’t write the dissertation for them. I can’t tell you how many times a student tells me: “I must graduate this semester.” I always say, “Okay, what are you going to do to make that happen?”
Some of my students who have been able to get unstuck try to “start fresh.” What do I mean by this? They recognize that their old ways of working or approaching the dissertation were not working. They acknowledge they needed to make a change and readily embraced a new strategy. They are often very receptive to my advice. Many of them also try to not dwell in the past, which was a source of guilty, and instead look to the future with optimism.
Tip #1 - Don’t sit and dwell on past challenges and failures. Get some help, develop a plan, and start fresh.
Some of my students aren’t stuck, exactly, but they’re not moving towards a final product. Why? They are struggling to take feedback and make changes. This drives chairs crazy. What’s the point of giving you all this feedback if you aren’t doing anything with it? My mentor as a graduate student told me that the best scholars take feedback gracefully. I think about this all the time. Some of the best students I have advised, and students who have been able to make steady progress, take feedback and act on it. They also take notes during meetings, and some of the really organized ones type up their notes and send them to me so we each have a copy of our discussions and plans.
Tip #2 - Make the edits and changes your chair advises. Take feedback gracefully. Take notes during meetings and email them to your chair afterwards.
I have had a few situations where a student has wanted to change chairs when they are stuck. Let me be the bearer of bad news: rarely is the chair the problem. If it’s the case that you aren’t writing or doing what you are supposed to do, changing the chair isn’t going to help much. Having said this, there are some instances in which a student and a chair don’t work well together. I have had a situation like this, and the student was able to make progress working with someone else.
Tip #3 - Don’t blame your chair if you’re not writing. Switching up a chair only helps in rare circumstances.
Students shouldn’t let fear prevent them from advancing. I have had a few students who have not come to me for help because: a) they were worried I would be mad that they missed deadlines or b) they were worried I would think less of them. The results is that sometimes they wait weeks or months before they reach out to me. Stop that! As faculty, our job is to educate students and to help them complete their degree. I realize not all chairs are going empathize and some might even be frustrated. But the best way to get a stuck dissertation moving again is to reach out for help and keep channels of communication open.
Tip #4 - Don’t let fear keep you stuck. Reach out for help at the earliest signs of stalling.
My last tip is to try to limit the number of prolonged breaks you might take. Writing a dissertation is intense, and taking some time off to collect your brain and recharge your batteries can be beneficial or even necessary. However, regular, prolonged breaks can really impede progress. It requires that students spend time getting back into a rhythm and re-learning what they were doing. Similarly, chairs have to re-learn your project and get back into the swing of things. The thing about momentum is that if you stop, it takes more energy to get moving again.
Tip #5 - Limit prolonged breaks; aim for slow and steady progress.
The bottom line is that getting stuck while writing a dissertation is common. I hope some of these tips are helpful and hope students and faculty alike will share with me other strategies that have helped them get moving.