Finish Your Dissertation in 2019 Part 3: Admit You Don’t Know

January 2, 2019

We are happy to be back with our 3rd installment of our 4-part series on finishing your dissertation in 2019. We hope you will read the first two posts on setting intentions and reinforcing those intentions to support your goals this year. In this post, we suggest something that may seem counterintuitive; being willing to work on your dissertation without knowing exactly what you are doing. Yes, we are actually telling you to let it be okay that you don’t always know what you are doing. By admitting you don’t know in a given moment, you will be better able to make solid progress on a consistent basis. It’s not only okay to move forward without knowing; it’s actually crucial.


Developing skills and knowledge is certainly central to earning a doctoral degree. But sometimes the focus on skills and knowledge can become an impediment to your focus, productivity, and learning. Often too much emphasis is placed on being smart, possessing knowledge, and producing a quality dissertation without acknowledging the reality of the struggles, missteps and errors you need to experience to truly learn. We have been coaching graduate students for almost twenty years and we can confidently say that deeper learning takes place when you are willing to take action while wading through the ambiguity and confusion inherent to writing a dissertation. Will it feel frustrating? Yes, absolutely. But will it be worth it? Yes, absolutely.

If you believe that you should know what you are doing before you have learned to do something, you are left in a tough spot. How can you carry out a solid dissertation study if you are not granted permission to struggle, contemplate, experiment, write very early drafts and revise repeatedly? Learning and writing are writing are both iterative processes. As you learn more about your topic by reading for your literature review, for instance, you’ll define and refine your research questions. As you write that first draft, you will realize what you don’t know and therefore what you need to investigate further. You do not have to know everything all at once. No one can. In fact, your advisers don’t know everything either, even after decades of experience and even if they seem like they do. Instead of insisting on knowing, consider that a beginner’s mindset may better support deeper skill development and mastery over time.


What is a beginner’s mindset? Writer Marta Brzosko explains the concept of “Beginner’s’ mind, or shoshin in Japanese Zen Buddhism,” as “an empty mind and a ready mind.” Think about that for a moment. “An empty mind and a ready mind.” How could that concept help you when approaching your dissertation? Perhaps it will make it more possible for you to write a very rough draft, or, as Alison calls it, a “baby draft,” before you know very much? Maybe it becomes more possible to write a draft that you know will have holes? Or proceed with your literature review or your research while not knowing exactly what the outcomes will be? If you are in a field where you have to perform an experiment, you can clear your mind of assumptions and just allow the experiment to take place, realizing that the results may not be at all what you were expecting? A beginner’s mindset can create a very different context in which you work on your dissertation. In such a context, a much deeper kind of learning can take place because you have greater freedom to experiment, struggle, learn from mistakes and develop your skills and knowledge over time. Deeper learning becomes possible when we humble ourselves and admit we don’t know.

2019 FOR YOU

So in 2019, we suggest that you allow yourself to admit that you don’t always know what you are doing. Give yourself more room to engage with your dissertation from a place of curiosity and a willingness for it to be difficult. Learn to trust that with effort, trial and error, and the guidance of others, you can work through each challenge and area of learning while improving as a product of your effort and persistence. You will likely find it easier to engage with your dissertation, knowing that it will improve as you make discoveries, learn from mistakes, and revise based on feedback. You will experience the joy that comes from digging deep and learning what you once didn’t know.