I remember some very good advice I received from James G. Kelly, Ph.D., a faculty member who served on both my master’s thesis and dissertation committees. My dissertation required very involved qualitative analyses. In our conversations about my research, he consistently told me that one of the most important qualities I could develop as a doctoral student and as a researcher was the ability to tolerate ambiguity. He stressed that academic research and writing is filled with moments when the appropriate course of action is not apparent; where more questions are apparent than answers. He emphasized that being able to tolerate the inherent ambiguity in academic research is crucial to success. Dr. Kelly encouraged me to be more tolerant of ambiguity in my own research so that I would not rush to premature conclusions about my interview data with homeless adults. He believed it was important to wade around not knowing the answers while delving deeper, asking more questions, and being thoughtful about what stories my data had to tell. Being tolerant of ambiguity during the writing process is also a key to success. Such tolerance will increase your willingness to write a beginner draft and help you be more patient and less judgmental of yourself when writing does not come easily, ideas are unclear, and answers are not readily apparent.

How do you develop more tolerance of ambiguity? A key strategy is to keep your expectations and standards in check, especially in the early stages of writing. Personally, I actively remind myself that my writing in any given day may be of less quality or clarity than I would like. I expect that my writing process will vary considerably from day to day and week to week. Sometimes writing comes easily and other times I am confused and struggle to organize my ideas and articulate or express my ideas on paper. Even as I wrote this book, my original book outline changed on a regular basis and there were many times when the order and content of chapters seemed ambiguous. At many points, I had random notes and ideas written on scraps of paper, in various folders, and written directly into chapter drafts. Often, I did not know which notes and ideas were useful and relevant and which to disregard. When I am engaged in writing, I do my best to believe that I will eventually transform my chaotic, messy, all-over-the place writing into something I would consider letting other people see. I remind myself that my job is to learn not to always know everything. It is important to learn to trust that with time and consistent effort you will be able to make revisions, figure out how to write something that you could not express previously, and improve the quality of your work. Creating a well-crafted product does not usually happen in one or even several work sessions. You may end many work sessions feeling confused and uncertain. But if you can maintain tolerance for the ambiguity of academic research and completing a dissertation while being consistent in your efforts to read, analyze, write, think, clarify, revise, and improve your work, you will eventually have a product you can feel good about.

Aspiring to be an incremental theorist of intelligence (see the research of Carol Dweck in Dweck, 2000) is a second useful strategy to becoming more tolerant of ambiguity. People who hold an incremental theory believe intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort, guidance, and perseverance. People who hold an entity theory believe intelligence is a fixed entity that is unchangeable (Dweck, 2000). I surmise that incremental theorists are more tolerant of the inherent ambiguity of conducting and writing a dissertation study. They are more apt to view intellectual challenges and difficulties with their dissertations as opportunities for learning, growth, and as ways to increase their competence and mastery. They are more willing to struggle, ask for guidance, and wade around not knowing how to solve a problem or overcome a challenge than entity theorists. If you are someone who views intelligence as fixed, tolerating ambiguity is likely to be more challenging for you. You may want answers to come easily, fearing that an intellectual struggle is a sign that you lack intelligence. If you lean toward having an entity mindset, I encourage you to use your dissertation and the difficulties you are bound to encounter as opportunities to practice being more tolerant of the discomfort associated with not knowing what to do. Be willing to write very rough drafts, try different data-analysis approaches, seek guidance, explore ideas, struggle, and map out visual representations of your research questions, theoretical framework, or the argument you are trying to make (or find) over and over again. Be curious in the pursuit of finding your voice as a researcher. Keep exerting effort and try to see your dissertation as an intellectual adventure that can and will increase your intelligence if you let yourself struggle, ask for input, and pursue solutions without making premature evaluations of your intelligence. Struggle does not equal lack of intelligence. Struggle is inherent to the dissertation process and is the way to a good dissertation. So practice being more tolerant of ambiguity. You will be more productive as a result and perhaps be able to become more of an incremental theorist as you see that persistence is an important avenue to work through intellectual struggles and actually become more competent.

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