You have made time to write, and you and your family have sacrificed for you to have that time.
Finally you send the chapter off to your advisor. You have put your best effort into this chapter to lay out a clear statement of your argument.
When you hear back from your advisor, her negative feedback and comments are not what you had expected. You must rewrite the chapter. You don’t know where to start.
You may feel that you have been treated unfairly, but mostly you feel that you have failed.
Many dissertation writers are dazed not only by the negative criticism from the advisor, but also at the thought of the time that was eaten up by the writing. The reaction can be physical as well as emotional, and to protect themselves, many writers walk away.
Perhaps the writers shouldn’t be surprised—they may have expected too much from an early draft or even a seventh draft, they may have not received the mentoring they should have from their advisor, or, mistakenly thinking they were protecting themselves, they may have resisted showing their draft to others.
Regardless of the causes of the failed text, the writer has to deal with that failure, and a writer’s reaction to the rejection of a text can be powerful.
What comes next after failure?
In the book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah Lewis contends that failure can clear the way for a better idea, an idea that lets us change and transform a project.
But first you have to find a way to re-engage with the failed work. What do you need to pick up a failed work and even reread the comments?
To start again and seek the better idea can happen, but the writer has to make some conscious choices first.
Where do you find the fuel to re-engage with a failed project?
Lewis contends that the character strength of grit gives the writer the means to return to a failed work and to tolerate the discomfort of sticking with what was formerly seen as a failure.
She credits Angela Lee Duckworth’s research on grit for making the point of how important it is to look at failure as information and to use your grit to return to the project.
As a doctoral student, Duckworth learned first-hand what near-failure is like. She was ready to walk away from her dissertation and the degree, but she says that she and her husband had worked out that he would hold her accountable. He reminded her that earning the Ph.D. was her choice and that she had chosen this path.
And so, you should ask another question or two or three:
Does grit come from some deep inner reservoir within you?
Or does someone call forth your grit? Or is it a combination of things?
One of my dissertation clients told me her story of sacrificing a large amount of time to write an important dissertation chapter. To open up time for writing, she engaged help to care for her children. When she received negative feedback from her advisor, she was so stunned that she couldn’t take it all in.
She stopped working on her dissertation and threw herself into work and family life. She told herself that she didn’t have time to write.
How did she eventually find the determination, motivation, perseverance, resilience and self-management—that is, the grit– to return to the work?
She gradually found the will to use those strengths to re-engage with her text after discussing the so-called failed chapter with her husband.
She said, “For the first time (probably in years) I asked my husband to let me talk through some of the issues I was having with my work.”
“We ended up talking about the chapter for several hours (until late into the night),” she added.
As a result of that conversation, she came to terms with what she had to do to turn the work around.
My dissertation clients often say that what has made all the difference in their managing negative feedback and restarting the dissertation is having someone to hold them accountable so that they could continue to build their sticktoitiveness, or their grit.
So what builds grit? What triggers it?
Failure indeed can be a gift. However, to come back from a failure, you need multiple gifts that help you build that essential strength of grit.
To build your grit, you must use the following strengths:
- Living your values
To build grit, you need self-management. Strong emotions, from anger to shame, can pull you into that big soft chair in front of the TV, far from your work. You need the willpower and self-discipline to do what is hard, and not what feels good.
You need to accept your own role not only in your setback and but also in your delay in taking the initiative that would have led to your comeback. To get a project back up and running demands that you take ownership for what you haven’t done, as well as what you have done. Only you can move the project forward.
Living your values
Coming back to rewriting a rejected text will undoubtedly once again bring up your insecurities and fears. When faced with returning to the work of managing your data collection, finding the right structure for your ideas, or writing text that for once is more analytical than descriptive overwhelms you, makes you angry, stressed, or anxious, think about why this project is important to you.
What brought you to this topic or this work? What will continuing this work give you and give others?
Who has been a giant in the area you are studying? Why do you admire that person? Make that person your role model.
Think about what is the larger picture in your finishing this project. How are you showing your values by getting back into the work?
You need to be called out on your all-too-human tendency to not do what you said you were going to do, and likewise you need to be challenged to acknowledge yourself when you show up and do the work. A spouse, friend, mentor, or your coach who holds you accountable will be a key strategy for building grit and achieving success.
To Make Your Comeback, Consider the Coach Connection
Are you beaten down—is your writing project going nowhere fast and leaving you overwhelmed? Toying daily with the urge to just hang this all up?
Or are you reeling from having a chapter or a prospectus rejected?
What you need is to make a comeback. A comeback that gets you back on your feet, taking an honest accounting of what you can do and what you have done, in control of your emotions, and living your values once again.
A comeback has you working smart, talking to your mentor or coach, and keeping to a plan.
To turn around a failed project, it is important that you be held accountable so that you take responsibility for your work and do what you said you would do.
Coaching can be of help in adding accountability.
How can I be of help to you? I would love to hear from you.
All good wishes,
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
nancy @ nancywhichard.com