Archive for October, 2007

I’ve been frittering, frittering away the time I set aside for writing.  Not only have I been frittering it away, but I’ve been putting one of my vices in its place.

This is a dangerous time of the year.  Not only is it Halloween, heralded in grocery stores and drug stores by rows upon rows of sacks of “fun-sized” Snickers and other character-busting candy, but in my family  we celebrate a couple of birthdays in October.  That means cake and ice cream.  And house guests.  And food.

Eating those Fun-Sized Snickers becomes yet another way to procrastinate on my writing projects.  Once I give in to all of that Halloween candy and birthday treats, I get into more trouble by slowing down on exercise.
I’m going to say that you also have these issues and sometimes procrastinate on writing your dissertation.  So, here’s what I think:
1.  It is dangerous to let food/sugar become yet another way to procrastinate.
 Like doing busy work, eating can be substituted for writing and other productive activity.  When I’m munching and loving that taste of nuts and chocolate, it feels as if I’m doing something important.  And I can once again put off writing– for 5 minutes or for however long I can distract myself.

2.  It is dangerous to stop exercising, even for a few days.
 There seems to be a slippery slope once I give in to Fun-Sized Snickers.  I find excuses to stop exercising and eating escalates.  Once the structures I have in place start to fall, like the time I usually give to exercise, I can’t seem to find the time to write.
3.  It is dangerous to have negative goals. 
 It is true that I don’t want to give myself any excuses to slip and slide into the bad old patterns.  But researchers tell us that positive goals are easier to achieve.

4.  It is dangerous to go on auto-pilot.
 When I’m particularly busy in preparation for an event or working for others, I need to find an early-morning quiet time to take care of me.  I need to remind myself what is important. 

•  I will choose how I’ll make writing a priority (write early).
• Exercise is critical.  Even if I have company, even if I have a birthday, even if it’s Halloween (or Thanksgiving, yikes!), I will exercise.  Exercise helps me focus, prioritize, and lowers my stress level. If I exercise, I don’t slip down as easily into squishy self-deception/self-sabotage.

How about you?  I’d love to hear how you manage procrastination.

Please stop by my website (www.nwcoaching.com) and sign up for my free electronic newsletter– I’m giving a bonus for signing up.

Until next time,


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In a recent conversation, a tenured professor at a large research university told me that he left it up to his doctoral students to get in touch with him.

He didn’t say that he doesn’t want to invite more work since he already has more to do than he can get done, but that might have been partially his reason for waiting.

I sympathize with the workload many professors carry.   In departments with which I’ve had first-hand experience, primarily those in the liberal arts and social sciences, professors work very hard:
• Preparing for classes and meeting with students from their current classes;
• Actually reading the papers their students write;
• Enduring hours of committee work and departmental meetings;
• Trying to find time to conduct research and write their own papers and articles.

But wait a minute– the truth is that in the relationship with his doctoral student, this kind, intelligent tenured professor holds all the cards.   All of the power in this relationship is on his side, or so goes the thinking of most ABD’s.

Many doctoral students feel paralyzed by overwhelming anxiety and unrealistic fears at the thought of contacting their advisor.  At times, some even avoid opening their university email account, fearing that their professor might have written to tell them to forget the project. 
 Even though Joseph Berger, in his NYTimes story “ON EDUCATION; Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.,” asserts that “universities . . .  [are] demanding that faculty advisers meet regularly with protégés,”  he doesn’t say precisely which universities are making this demand.  My dissertation coaching clients are unaware of any such demands. They haven’t been contacted by their advisors.

So if a student shouldn’t expect a phone call or email from an advisor, then what?  Continue to hide out?  Living in dread is no way to live.

Try this:
a. First, state what the belief is that is allowing you to hide out.
b. Second, take a hard look at that belief or assumption.  What evidence can you muster to disprove or reject that belief?
c. Third, come up with an action that you could take (will take?) that will let you step over that belief.

Here are some beliefs I’ve heard from my dissertation coaching clients and some potential follow-up steps:
Belief #1:  If I write my advisor to say that I’m working again, he/she will be nasty.  His/her sarcasm will just crush me.
 Action:  Ask yourself what’s the worst thing he/she will say?  The best?  What is he/she likely to say?  You know the words he/she will say.  You’ve heard them before.  Write them down.  Assume his/her voice and read the words aloud.  Say them aloud several times until the words of ridicule sound ridiculous.  Make it funny.  Laugh! Let it go.

Belief #2:  If I send a chapter or a few pages to my advisor, he/she will hold onto them and won’t return the pages with any comments. And then I’m stuck–all I can do is wait.  I don’t want to feel any more helpless than I already do.
 Action:  You aren’t helpless.  Ask for an appointment (by phone or in person) at the same time that you send the text to your advisor. You can help make this process easier for your advisor and at the same time give yourself more control over the process.   Give a choice of two specific times that would be good for you and ask to hear back by a certain time.  Specific requests are more likely to elicit a response.

Belief #3:  Even if I make an appointment, my advisor probably won’t look at the text ahead of time.  An appointment or a telephone conference is a waste of time, and afterwards, I feel just as lost as ever.  I don’t know where to go next.
 Action:  You have options.  Email and re-send the text shortly before your appointment, highlighting key passages with specific, pivotal questions.  You know your work best–give your advisor a perch from which to view your work.

Belief #4:  My advisor never seems to have any comments, even when we have an appointment.  I have no control over what happens.
 Action: What if you act as if you do have some control?  Come with specific questions about the text.  Don’t hide.  Don’t waste the opportunity.  Always take notes, or, if all parties agree, tape the conversation.  Show a willingness to do whatever it takes to get through this process, and show respect for the time your advisor has carved out for you by having an agenda.  Make it easy for your advisor to help you.

What are you waiting for?

Your university probably hasn’t made any demands that your advisor meet regularly with you.

Your advisor is not going to email you to say that you are in his/her thoughts or to invite you over for dinner.

Advisors may not have the best interpersonal skills, but they probably aren’t plotting to do you in. 

Stop Catastrophizing—you’re busy; your advisor is busy.

Why not shoot off an email tonight to your advisor?  Ask for what you want.
Please share your strategies on how you sidestep the urge to catastrophize and get on with your dissertation.  When your Lizard Brain is in overdrive, what do you do?  I would love to hear from you.

At my website (www.nwcoaching.com), I offer a free newsletter with helpful tips.  I invite you to sign up for it and let me know what you think.

Until next time,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation and Academic Career Coach


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I often ask my dissertation clients, when they commit to a goal, if this is a no- kidding, no-fooling goal.

Since it is often said that the key to finishing a dissertation is perseverance, I’m asking them if they will be unstoppable, and, in effect, to commit to perseverance.

But perseverance does not necessarily mean an all-out, urgent lock-down. 

One of my clients,  despite enormous achievements in her life– degrees from top schools and a high-level job, struggles with perseverance.

The word that comes to her mind when she hears the word perseverance? “Exhaustion.”  The picture that comes to her mind? “Shoulders hunched.”

Pain and tension are not prerequisites for perseverance.

If you hunch your shoulders and grind your teeth in an attempt to stick with writing your dissertation, try some of these strategies instead:

 1.  Stop and smile.  Planting a smile on your face relaxes your face and your mind.  Look around for something to smile about or just smile. 

2.  Induce a state of being mildly happy.  Researchers suggest that it’s easier to persevere if you’re in a good mood.

3.  Try to come to the work fresh.  If you have been pushing yourself to persevere in another area, you may have used up your perseverance.

4.  Try to keep yourself from contributing to failure—use self-control and allow yourself to move forward.

5.  If perseverance is not a top strength, use other top strengths as leverage.  For instance, if leadership and fairness are top strengths, how can you be fair to yourself?  How can you be a leader to yourself?

6.  Take a break to exercise.  Power walking and weight lifting have good benefits.  You will return to work with a heightened ability to concentrate, and you’ll feel happier.

7.  Practice, practice, practice.  Recognize that you are using different strengths and approaches to gain perseverance. 

8. This bears repeating–Getting what you want from yourself takes practice, practice, practice.

9. Imagine how important this project will be in 100 years.

How do you persevere?  Please share your strategies.

At my website I  offer a free newsletter. I invite you to sign up for it and let me know what you think.

Until next time,

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What is it that you think you don’t have, but if you had it, your work would be so much easier?  What is the difference between you and that PhD on the tenure track at a great school?

Over and over, what comes up as my dissertation clients and I talk is the question of perseverance.

Interestingly, my clients think they lack perseverance.  They think this because they find that writing their dissertation is so hard and is taking such a long time.

In their other lives, that part where they aren’t hounded by their dissertation, they pinpoint and complete small tasks.  They know that finishing the small tasks often moves them forward toward a larger goal. 

But they claim they lack perseverance.

They seem surprised when I say that their showing up each week on their phone call with me shows perseverance.

When I praise them for not over-promising on how much they will write during any one week, and, instead, for delivering on real, manageable tasks, they seem surprised that I call that perseverance.

Perseverance does not mean producing a stellar work in near record time.

The key to finishing a dissertation is steady, even if slow, work—week after week of following through on one small task after another.

To persevere, you don’t have to keep your eyes on some huge mountain down the road that you have to climb.  More often, it means just fastening your eye on one pebble ahead of where your foot will fall and keep taking one small step after another.

At my website I  offer a free newsletter. Please sign up for it.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Until next time,

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The good news is that the average doctoral student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D. 

 This is good news because, according to an article in the New York Times (“Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.,” 10/3/2007), in the past, it has taken the average student even longer to get the degree.

The article states that universities are setting more deadlines and “demanding that faculty advisors meet regularly” with their doctoral students.

I’m curious—has anyone had any such changes made in their programs?

Are advisors attempting to schedule conferences with you?  Are they making attempts to meet regularly with you? 

Many of my clients have said that deadlines would have made their task easier.
And they would welcome more contact with their advisors.

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If you have been involved in other demanding projects and are now coming back to your dissertation, your inclination may be first to review and read over all of your notes and everything that you’ve written. 

And how much time would the review consume?

Oh, I will venture a guess that it could consume your day.  It could go on forever, right?

Instead of letting the review become a marathon, try this:
1)  Set the number of hours you plan to work in this session.

2)  Decide how best you could use your time during the review.  What specifically will you re-read—your outline?  Proposal? Introduction to the first two chapters? 

3)  Where are you heading after you’ve read your outline, proposal and introductions?  What is the new work you will do?  Take stock–what is the challenge you’re facing right now in your writing?  What is the difficult section or chapter that awaits you?

4)  Decide how you will divide the time available between the review and the new work.   What fraction of the time will you review?  What fraction of the time will you write?

5)  If you have 3 hours of work, could you do the review in 1 hour or 1 hour and 15 minutes?  That would be less than ½ of the time available, leaving most of your available time for moving forward. 

We can easily make ourselves believe that we really need to spend more time reviewing, but the goal is to keep moving forward. 

To re-start your project and to get your momentum going, make a detailed plan for your writing session that will quickly move you into producing text

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