Often when students are struggling with their dissertation, they struggle alone at home, in the library, and in their office writing in circles, reading more and more research material hoping for inspiration, avoiding their work and becoming demoralized. As a consequence of the solitary nature of conducting a dissertation, students often rely solely on their own thoughts and ideas to write, develop, carry out their study, and deal with research problems and challenges. Most students will get stuck, experience writer's block, or become uncertain about what to write or what action to take at some point. Yet when you feel stymied, you do have a choice. You can stick it out and struggle on your own or you can seek support and talk things over with another person.

If you stick it out on your own, you will most likely be able to figure out how to get moving again at some point. Yet the process of getting unstuck all by yourself can be quite painful and delay your work and ultimately your dissertation defense. An effective strategy for short-circuiting being stuck is to talk over your struggles with others. When my clients are struggling, I recommend that they talk to fellow students (current or former), their faculty advisor, or other faculty/committee members. Who you choose to talk to about the challenges you are facing will depend on your comfort level and who is best suited to the particular issues you need to discuss. If you are not sure, start with a student or former student from your department. You may also want to consider forming or joining a dissertation-writing group where you can discuss your work and solicit input and feedback from other students.

I remember a time when I was struggling a great deal with making a major revision and reorganization of my literature review. For my final dissertation, I needed to do some new writing as well as substantially revise, reorganize, and reconceptualize the literature review I had previously written as part of my dissertation proposal. I had been struggling for several months, spinning my wheels and becoming increasingly discouraged. I developed a major case of writer's block. A wise professor pointed out to me that writer's block is really a thinking block and that my problem was that I could not figure out how to think differently about my literature review by myself. This professor also pointed out to me that I was not using one of my strengths, my verbal skills to talk things through and sort my literature review out verbally.

After this conversation, I asked a friend and fellow student, Bernadette, if I could get her input on my literature review challenges. I met Bernadette at a coffee shop and brought a print out of the latest (and quite convoluted) version of my literature review. I laid it out on the table and  gave her a basic tour of what I had written, what I was trying to do, and my organizational and conceptual dilemmas. She occasionally reflected back what she heard me saying and made a few suggestions. Actually, she did not need to say much. By the end of the meeting, I had developed a substantially improved mental outline of how to revise and organize the literature review just from talking out loud about my struggles. I went home that afternoon and spent several hours cutting, pasting, editing and doing new writing. By day's end, I had substantially revised and improved my literature review.

After months of struggle, I was quite amazed at how helpful my meeting with Bernadette proved to be. What struck me most was how the meeting was less about having Bernadette solve my literature review problems for me and more the opportunity to talk to someone instead of writing and thinking alone. It was the chance to process my ideas, thoughts, and dilemmas verbally that made the difference. Talking through research and writing issues can considerably accelerate your ability to think through complex ideas, determine an organization strategy, and improve your ability to articulate and express yourself. The next time you are struggling with your writing, consider talking it over with someone else. The person does not necessarily need to be knowledgeable in your research area unless you need substantive advice and input. Often just having someone listen helps you process and think through important ideas.

Of course you may struggle with other issues such as the selection of a topic, the development of a sound conceptual framework, the design of your study, or data analysis. When you are experiencing such challenges you would likely benefit from finding someone who is knowledgeable and approachable to discuss your area of concern. Resist the temptation to struggle alone. Solitary struggle does not make you nobler or make your dissertation more worthy than the dissertation of someone who sought help. Seek out someone who can help you move more quickly through the dissertation challenge you are facing, even if all that person does is listen. I recommend you list several people below (see exercise below) who are good resources for discussing dissertation challenges and add them to the bottom of your dissertation timeline. The next time you are struggling, plan a meeting with someone from your list. You are likely to benefit from the support.

Exercise: List people who are good resources to discuss dissertation challenges:

______________ ______________

______________ ______________

______________ ______________


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.

Please visit thedissertationcoach.com for more information.

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