Writing a research project, thesis or dissertation is a colossal task. However, it can be accomplished if one exercises discipline and hones their organizational skills. I strongly advise my student clients to categorise and collate all aspects of their research from the beginning of their project; leaving sufficient time for vital complementary responsibilities such as formatting, proofreading, and editing. Even the best-laid plans can veer off course. Few students get through the year without at least one or two significant hiccups and some end up facing a personal or professional crisis whilst working towards the looming submission deadline.
In my experience, as an academic performance coach, I’ve navigated these crises alongside my students. I’ve seen some major, and in some instances, multiple, obstacles overcome by students. What’s the secret? Tenacity. That saying, “When times get tough, the tough get going,” has never been more true than when I’ve worked with students who have to make difficult decisions in order to realise their graduation dream.
Here are five common potential crises that occur during the thesis component of your qualification and how you too can take control and graduate on time.
1. Supervisor Issues
Whether your supervisor is AWOL or overbearing, the key to solving this problem is clear, firm and professional communication. Take the initiative to set up meetings. Arrive prepared and on time. Make use of technology to facilitate meetings by using digital calendars and online platforms for meetings.
Together with regular meetings, it is vital that you open up to your supervisor about challenges with your research or anything else that may be hindering your progress. Showing that you have doubts or concerns or asking for help are not signs of weakness but a conscious decision to want to succeed.
- Identify where you need training or help.
- Share your concerns about where your project is and where it is going.
- Ask about techniques, resources and recommended reading which could help.
Remember to be realistic with your demands and expectations. Supervisors are busy academics and researchers, often juggling teaching, research, pastoral, administrative, and family roles.
2. Traumatic Life Events
Psychologists have identified death/birth, divorce, moving house and a change in financial circumstances as dominant stress-inducing life events. This year, 2020, we can add living through a pandemic to this list. On a superficial level, lockdown seems like the perfect time to knuckle down and get the writing done. But lockdown comes with its own set of challenges: spouses and children at home, homeschooling kids, financial stress, adjusting to working from home – to name just a few. If you experience a traumatic turn of events in your life do not assume you can simply stick to your original plan – that is just setting yourself up for failure. Instead, review and adjust your plan. Speak to your supervisor and acknowledge the problems you are experiencing. The quicker you adjust your strategy, the better chance of success you’ll have.
3. Poor Planning and Under Preparation
Talking about how you will spend two hours a day working on your thesis does not constitute having a plan. Many postgrads have jobs, families and social lives to juggle. Thinking you can simply add researching and writing a thesis on top of all that is naive and short-sighted. You will have to review your day to day, week by week activities and commitments, and adjust your schedule accordingly.
Part of your preparation should be directed at putting the necessary measures in place to prevent data loss. I cannot stress this enough: back up your work. Use Google Drive or other cloud storage solutions to save your work. You could even email yourself every day’s work so that you have a copy of it if your computer breaks. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress knowing you have your work saved in another location.
Making time for your academic work will mean making sacrifices. In my experience, the students who accept that sacrifice is necessary and get all their stakeholders on board with those sacrifices are the ones who get the job done. And, without causing animosity at home/work or succumbing to feelings of guilt. Remember, these are calculated sacrifices with a real reward at the end.
Here are examples of the types of sacrifices that have proved to pay off:
- Asking the spouse to take over some of the parenting responsibilities such as driving the kids to extra-mural activities.
- Asking for accumulated/unpaid leave from the employer.
- Giving up recurring social activities such as book clubs.
- Saying no to invitations unless the emotional and relationship pay off is worth it.
Creating, negotiating and navigating a workable plan is not easy. I highly recommend engaging with a coach to assist you. In my practice, students make a PACT: Personal Action Commitment Timetable as part of their process. The confidence they derive from having a solid and realistic plan in place has proven to be priceless.
4. Toxic Work Environment
While the space you choose to work in does not have to look like something from a magazine, it doesn’t hurt to take some time to tidy up and make your space organised and comfortable. Get rid of the clutter. A clean desk means fewer distractions. It should be a space that does not stress you out as you will spend a significant amount of time there. You must want to be in your space, it must invite you in:
- A quiet space.
- A stable internet connection.
- Plenty of wall plugs.
- An ergonomically designed chair for comfort and support.
- Natural light.
- Perhaps a piece of art, a carpet, or a plant for inspiration & company.
I have found that a spot of greenery, like a plant (even a cactus will do!). An image that makes you happy will not go amiss.
Aside from the room itself, it’s vital that you have the necessary tools to perform the task. Any computer hardware or software is important. Invest in these. And, invest in the time to learn your products so you don’t get sidetracked with them at a later stage.
5. Confidence and Motivation
Self-doubt often manifests as imposter syndrome during the thesis year, usually when you feel that you are too far behind to catch up and finish on time. While it is ‘normal’ to have doubts, if your state of mind is so negative that it’s debilitating, you should immediately talk to your coach or supervisor to gain some perspective and help you navigate the crisis to get back on track. You would not be in the post-graduate programme if the institution and its staff did not believe you were capable of passing.
Motivation is another common problem. Performing research and writing the necessary reports is a discipline. Believe me when I say, motivation is your fickle friend who only shows up when the sun is shining. You have to learn: do not rely on motivation to get you to sit down and put in the hours. Get your bum in your chair and write.
You do not have to be motivated to pass your course, you need to be disciplined.
Show up for thesis writing every day, as you promised yourself, and success will follow.