After years of observing doctoral students, it is clear to me that there is one distinct moment in time that creates the most problems for being motivated and productive. That moment is when a student needs to make the transition from not working or being engaged in their dissertation to doing actual, meaningful work. This is the moment when you transfer your energy and focus from checking your email, watching television, organizing research materials, making an action plan, or engaging in any activity other than doing dissertation work to actually working on your dissertation. Students often struggle to make that transition, instead engaging in all kinds of alternate activities. Some students can only transition to doing meaningful work if a deadline looms or they feel stressed about how much work they need to do. I believe it is important to be aware of this moment of transition and how you can more quickly, easily, and successfully make that transition without deadlines or fear of negative consequences.

I like to think of making the transition to being actually engaged in dissertation work as similar to entering a pool that is below 80 degrees (okay, I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to my comfort level in a pool). My parents have a beautiful pool in their backyard that always looks very inviting anytime I walk out their back door. But my parents will not heat their pool. Despite my pleas, they stubbornly refuse to heat the pool even for my children. They believe heating a pool is like pouring money down the drain. (Actually, I do not disagree with them except when I am in the midst of getting into the pool). They live in a climate that is warm enough for the pool to be tolerable for about 2-3 months during the summer. I always enter my parent’s pool the same way. I walk down the steps slowly trying to ease the painful sensation of being in cold water while simultaneously planning to turn around and get out as the water travels higher up my legs and torso. I think, “why can’t they just heat the pool once in a while” and then resign myself that I either need to just jump in and get the pain over with in one fell swoop or get out and stop complaining. It takes a little mental convincing but usually I talk myself into taking a full-body plunge into the cool water. It feels momentarily unpleasant and a bit painful but then I am relieved and refreshed. The next time I get in the pool, I repeat the same process of trying to avoid pain by wading in slowly only to realize after a few minutes that just diving in is a better solution.

I find making the transition to academic work to be similar. The first few months I was writing this book, I would start each writing session by first doing all kinds of unrelated writing tasks and then tasks related but extraneous to writing. First I checked my email, returned phone calls, paid bills, made tea, and snacked. Then I would wade into writing by fiddling with my outline, reading other dissertation books (and panicking that I have nothing new or important to say), organizing my desk, and editing previous writing. I rationalized to myself, “Alison, you are working on your book even if you are not writing.”

On a summer visit to my parent’s home, it occurred to me that all of these work habits were my way of wading into the cool water. I began striving to start writing sessions by diving right into a specific section or subsection. For me, it takes a burst of energy not that dissimilar from the will translated into action that gets me to dive into my parent’s pool. I push myself to dive into my work despite feeling like I would rather do something else and avoid writing. It is painful for a bit but then I get warmed up and actually forget it was hard to get started. You can finish your dissertation by “wading” into your work but it is likely to take much longer than if you find a way to develop a habit of “diving” and more readily make the transition to taking action. So practice diving into your dissertation work. It is not easy but with consistent practice, you will get better at quickly making the transition.

You may also want to consider how you can warm up the pool so that diving in is not so unpleasant. Creating timelines and action plans where your work is broken down into small chunks that seem more doable is certainly a good way to make the transition to work easier. Other ways my clients and I have discovered to “warm up the pool” are to work with a friend, have another person hold you accountable for completing a certain amount of work for the day, using the 15-minute rule, planning small actions to start the day, getting your work materials set up prior to a work session, managing and maintaining an organized work environment, and striving to maintain healthy preferences for good work output. As you aim to more readily make the transition into productive work sessions, I encourage you to notice what strategies and factors seem to “warm up” or “cool off the pool.” Over time, you can become more effective at “warming up the pool” and make it easier to dive in and more frequently and easily make the transition to doing actual dissertation work.

This article was written by Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master’s students successfully earn their graduate degrees.

Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach