About 50% of people who start a Ph.D. program never finish. I’ve seen some of the brightest Ph.D. students struggle to finish their dissertations because they’re too busy doing something else important.
I had a unique graduate school experience in that I was simultaneously training for the Olympic trials. I joined the doctoral program for two reasons:
1) I wanted to further my professional career in special education
2) I thought it would be a good compliment to professional running
My first year was challenging because of the intensity needed to do well in both. More often than not I felt like quitting one to focus on the other. One day I wanted to quit track the next day I wanted to quit school. But I didn’t want to become a part of the all-but-dissertation statistic. I needed to figure out a way to beat the odds.
Incoming Ph.D. students often ask me “how did you balance a Ph.D. with training for the Olympic trials?” I don’t think there’s one right formula that works for everyone, but I did find five things that helped me. This blog is for anyone who is looking to get it done by beating the odds.
1) Find a cheerleader
On the track my coaches have always challenged me to push my body beyond my expectations. In my Ph.D. program I was greeted with a similar stimulus, but instead of physical it was intellectual. I would spend hours preparing for meetings as my professors pushed my mind beyond my expectation. Every team needs two types of people — ones who will challenge you and ones who will cheer for you. I knew I needed a professor on my team that I didn’t have to prepare for and one who could support me emotionally. Having a cheerleader is such an important part of building confidence. On the track my cheerleaders have always been my family and friends. Why should a Ph.D. program be any different? Make sure your support network has the right people who will push you and who will sit on the sidelines cheering for you.
2) Compete with yourself
On the track I had seen some previous success, but I often questioned whether I was fast enough to be a professional runner. Similarly, like many students who start a graduate school program, I had seen some academic success, but I was often unsure about whether I belonged in the Ph.D. program. It’s common for successful people to compare themselves to other successful people, especially as they move up to more competitive fields. Sometimes successful people, especially women, say they feel like a fraud in their new job. One of the best ways to combat this feeling is by setting self-improvement goals. Tell yourself you belong even if you don’t believe it, yet, because one day you will feel like you belong. Stop comparing yourself to the people around you. Focus on you being better today than you were yesterday. Become your biggest competitor.
3) Quality over Quantity
On the track I would watch my teammates sneak in extra miles just to end up hurt in the long run. Similarly, in my Ph.D. program I saw my peers take on every publication and conference opportunity available to soon become overwhelmed and drop out. Sometimes it’s more important to spend your time engaged in one or two projects rather than worrying about the number of papers you can publish or the number of miles you can run. Too many projects without a clear purpose can jeopardize your ability to get things done. Sometimes is the quality over the quantity that matters most.
4) Don’t save the world
On the track I would wish for today to be the day I shocked the world with a break-through race. When I started my Ph.D. program I wished for the same thing. I remember wanting to write this all-encompassing break-through dissertation. I wanted my research to have a lasting impact on the field. But few achieve fame through their dissertation. Just as few can predict the day they have a break-through race. The dissertation is a learning process. Each step has a specific purpose. Focus on executing each step and not on “saving the world.”
5) Enjoy the Process
This one may seem like a cliché but it is by far the hardest cliché for me to remember. On the track I experience just as many successes as failures. Although I always try to learn something positive from each failure, the unsuccessful races always leave a lingering hurt. My coaches tell me to “enjoy the process”. But what exactly does this mean? So I broke it down. The process is the natural ups and downs in life. Sometimes after a bad race I want to say the heck with the process. I want to experience only ups from here on out. No more downs. In my Ph.D. program I had similar days when I wanted to throw my computer against the wall and days when I couldn’t stop writing. I learned that life will always have it’s ups and downs no matter how hard we wish for only ups. Might as well enjoy. It’s more fun.
I hope you make room for these 5 things in your life as they could help you get it done and beat the odds. Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.