The Trials and Tribulations of a Dissertation

Deciding to go back to school for your doctorate is a life-altering decision. There are so many unknowns that come along with returning to school for such a degree, which is something that keeps many people from pursuing this personal challenge and goal. Five years ago, I could not get rid of the nagging thought that it was time for me to seriously consider applying to schools for a doctorate in educational leadership. I applied, was accepted, and am in the final stages of dissertation writing...closing in on my last weeks without the title of Dr. Throughout the process of taking classes, writing, writing, writing, and then revising, revising, revising, people have shared their own desires to return to school; however, with those desires come all the fears of the unknown. In short, going back to school to obtain this degree has been well-worth the time, energy, and money; in long, you need to have stamina, perseverance, patience, emotional support, understanding family and friends, and really thick skin.

Time. Upon interviewing for admission, a professor on the committee said, “If you want to start and finish this program, do not change jobs; do not get married; do not get pregnant.” At first, I thought the advice was a little extreme, but I soon realized that it was the best advice anyone could give to potential students. Doctoral programs require all of your attention. If you are lucky, you will be part of a small cohort, and this cohort will become your life support. Your peers and professors are truly the only ones who understand the time and energy--the mental exhaustion--that is part of the commitment of returning to school. Family and friends, no matter how understanding and supportive they may be, will feel like you have abandoned them. It is imperative to practice good time management and to plan out short and long-term schedules that include time for work and play.

Stamina. Completing weekly school assignments after a 12 hour day at work is exhausting. What’s more exhausting? Completing the five chapters of the dissertation in a timely manner that does not make your research old and your bank account dry. Once you begin writing about your topic, the clock starts ticking. Once again, managing time is the best approach to get you through these steps. Each chapter follows a specific format, and you should be prepared to review and revise each section of each chapter a number of times. The research process, qualitative in my case, required knocking on many doors until I found participants willing to share their stories. I was ready to give up on more than occasion, but in the end, I met some of the most enthusiastic, caring, and inspirational educators. Each “completed” chapter is another step closer to the end goal, which helps build stamina to pick up the pen (or laptop!) and start writing again.

Mentorship. Another approach is finding a mentor with whom you have a good working relationship. The respect the mentor and the mentee have for one another should not be underestimated. Conflicting ideas about research topics, work ethic, and writing styles may create tension and impede progress. Luckily, this was not the case for me, but I have heard stories from people outside of my program who have had to scrap all of their work and start new because of issues with mentors.

Celebration. The coursework and dissertation process is a grueling one, and rewarding yourself for every success can help ease the mental pain. While taking classes, I promised myself a massage for each course I completed. While writing, I celebrate(d) by allowing myself a free weekend with no dissertation talk or dissertation writing... just a relaxed, think and work-free weekend. I also kept my close friends and family up to date with my achievements. In turn, they provided me with words of encouragement, inspiring me to continue striving toward my goal.

Teresa Ivey

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Replies to This Discussion

I found that for the original dissertation, I had to set an hour a day aside for just writing. And it had to be alone so it often would be staying in my office or going to St. John's when I needed to spread out. Once I was home, the phone or family copuld often blow up whatever piece of the puzzle I was trying to put together.  Not to be discouraging, but I probably spent almost as much time after the dissertation was approved and I got it back from the editor. Many of the changes were looking  my writing and streamlining what needed to be included. Formatting issues for printing were also a nemisis. They were tedious changes ( like making the left margin 1 and 1/2 inches instead of 1 all around. I had lots of charts and tables that wouldn't fit that way, so I ended up landscaping some  pages, which can throw off numbering and printing.  I also put it aside for a while when I was not on the financial clock Teresa spoke about.  It's all submitted, and I guess this is as good a time as any to call again to see if it has been accepted and sent for printing....

Writing a dissertation creates a writer in you that may or may not have been there when you started. The writer of this article is "dead-on" when describing the process one goes through when participating in a doctoral program and, thus, writing the dissertation.

I, myself, have missed family functions and vacations, yet appreciated the support I received from them, whether or not they truly understood what I was going through. I remember hearing about the time you needed to set aside to do the work. Of course, I didn't realize what they were talking about until I began.

I began my doctoral process in 2003 with two children - one was a year old - and finished in 2007. I changed jobs and obtained tenure.

Yes, life can get in the way of writing the dissertation, but with solid time management and the setting of priorities, you can make it work.




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