Part 1. The Journeys of Completing a Ph.D.

The process of completing a Ph.D. cannot be captured in a few paragraphs or a list of bullet points. Moreover, many aspects of earning a graduate degree in the learning sciences are similar to the process in other fields. An individual’s degree completion is highly personal in that it is situated within the culture of a particular department, not to mention that student-advisor relationships are highly consequential to one’s overall experience. That said, here we share some collective wisdom that we have found helpful to consider.

The very personal process of becoming a professional

Completing a Ph.D. is a challenging process for some very good reasons. Consider the situation: you may not be used to having so much independence or agency over your research agenda. You are trying to answer something that has not been answered before. Managing your own time and often working alone can be isolating. The scope and timescale of a dissertation is often larger than anything you’ve done before. At the end it is true that you will be judged. It is often a financially precarious time, and it’s not often clear what will come next. It’s not so hard to understand why, for all these reasons together, the process can be personally challenging and require you to develop and draw on your emotional resources. Here are some key ideas that can help you manage the obstacles when you are down:

The dissertation does not have to be everything

Your dissertation may feel like your magnum opus, but it is not. It is a first venture—a beginning, not an end. After all, it is possible that the only people who will read your dissertation are your advisor(s) and the reviewers. It can be helpful at times to think about the dissertation as an opening move in a long-term career. This will help get perspective on the role of the dissertation in your larger scholarly identity.

On that note, remember that your dissertation does not have to be everything. Meaning, you don’t need to say everything that you want to say in your dissertation. You will have the chance to develop and write about other ideas that you want to express in the future (or even in other venues in the present). It is one part of a larger career development trajectory that you will embark on. In short, keep the scope of the dissertation in mind and this may help you reduce the pressure you may be putting on yourself to produce a field-changing manuscript.

Having doubts is normal

When working on something as large in scope as a dissertation, it is natural to engage in self-questioning around your work and future career trajectories. It is important to critically reflect on what that doubt is telling you. Sometimes, doubt can help improve your work. Uncertainty about a faculty career path, for example, can mean that you are paying attention to new dimensions of research and thinking seriously about whether you like them, which is a good thing. In addition, you may be feeling uncertain about your potential to make a contribution to the field, and whether or not people will come to value your unique contribution. It is always helpful to remember that everyone, at some point, faces these doubts (especially after a scathing review!). Although we recognize that rejection comes in many forms and degrees, and that often critiques are not necessarily fair, our advice is to acknowledge that having doubts is common. Second, remember that uncertainty does not mean you are not good enough to be a learning scientist. In short, doubt about the work and doubt about what you want to do afterwards are normal, we shouldn’t extrapolate those to larger claims about your intellectual quality.

Sometimes doubt is unhelpful. It can be negative self-talk or imposter syndrome manifesting itself. In these cases, it is important to recognize that such doubt is not necessarily productive, and to find strategies to overcome these doubts. Sometimes, it is useful to step away from a particular piece for some time, returning to it later with new strengths and fresh directions. Stepping away can also provide opportunities to reevaluate the bigger picture of what you are working on and not get caught up on the details. Another strategy to engage with doubt is to keep a “compliment folder” where you keep good reviews and positive things people have said about your work that you can refer to in trying times. Sometimes it is helpful to reflect on what brought you to educational research, the learning sciences, and/or academia in the first place. Depending on your level of comfort, you can find some peers or mentors with whom to talk openly about these feelings. If doubt gets so debilitating that you are having trouble eating or sleeping, be assured that it is not a shame or weakness to consult a professional counselor or therapist. An article discussing burnout, repeated rejection, and imposter syndrome – and how to work against them – is here. Showing just how normal coping with failure is, you may want to check out the idea of a CV of failures discussed here and see an example here.

Live sustainably

Completing your Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint. It is easy to think, “Once I finish my dissertation, I will finally have time to hang out with my kids,” or something along these lines. Although a Ph.D. does require juggling priorities, it is important to not defer things that bring you joy, that are important to you, or that support your health and well-being. One good example has to do with sleep. You needn’t sacrifice good sleeping habits by pulling all-nighters, as this is not a sustainable way to live (and is very unhealthy!)

Although the Ph.D. is one stage within your career, there are many more stages to follow. For those who take academic routes, a post-doc may be followed by Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor, and Distinguished Professor. For those taking other routes, subsequent stages can be considerably more varied, but could include becoming a project manager, team leader, division head, and founder of your own company. In short, your Ph.D. is a vital step, but not the only one when you see the big picture of your career.

Given the fact that most of your career will involve continuous steps up the promotional staircase, you are well advised to learn how to balance work and life now. For most it is a myth that there is a great swath of free time awaiting you after the dissertation is finished. While this may sound distressing, the takeaway is to live now as you might like to live in the future, rather than putting off key personal goals or priorities until the nebulous future. We argue that it is not necessary to put your life “on hold” for your Ph.D. If you learn to sustainably enjoy your work and your personal life now, as a graduate student, it will be easier to carry this balancing skill into the next stage of your career. Plus, you’ll have more fun now!

The very interpersonal process of becoming a professional

“All I can tell you today is what I’ve learned, what I have discovered as a person in this world. And that is this: you can’t do it alone.” – Amy Poehler
Consistent with the epigraph above and sociocultural theories of learning, completing a Ph.D. means being in dialogue with others, including advisors, friends, local scholars, and the broader learning sciences community. As we described in the section above, you are likely to encounter obstacles and setbacks along your personal journey. In the following section, we therefore provide a few practical tips for how you can use your social supports to remove barriers that stand in your way.

Build a good relationship with your advisor(s)

The relationship that you will have with your advisor may be the most important that you will have throughout the process of your doctoral work. It is possible that your advisor will understand your ideas (and therefore some parts of you) better than anyone else in your life. Of course, the relationship is very personality dependent, but there are certain things you should keep in mind as you try to cultivate as productive an apprenticeship as possible. First and foremost, be thoughtful about choosing an advisor. As you decide, carefully balance factors that are most important to you, which might include alignment with your research interests, availability, and/or record of effective mentorship.

While it can be intimidating to know that your advisor is looking over your work in detail, it is also a blessing in that it is rare to have such dedicated attention and desire to improve your work. Looking retrospectively, some scholars point to the dissertation phase as the period in which they received the most detailed feedback on their research. Looking at it this way can help view your advisor’s feedback not as something to be intimidated by, but instead as something to look forward to. Remember that good feedback is intended to sharpen and help you advance your ideas in ways that can make them more accessible to a broader audience.

Remember that your advisor’s job (and career choice!) is an academic one. Presumably, they love learning and the exchange of ideas. Stated differently, it is very likely that your advisor is a nerd who already passionately spent days and nights thinking about ideas similar to yours, and would love the opportunity to advance them. Oftentimes we are reluctant or may not want to bother our advisors out of respect and thinking they may not be interested in such little details, only to find that they love chewing on questions like these. And while it is your advisor’s job to offer mentorship, it is part of your job to keep clear, open, and consistent communication that helps them help you most effectively.

In addition to asking mentors to read drafts of chapters, it can be helpful to look for quick ways to get feedback on your ideas, such as through brief presentations, powerpoint slides, whiteboard images, and tabular representations that can be shared, critiqued, and improved much more rapidly than writing can. Don’t wait until you are writing to get feedback; that’s too high stakes. Workshopping ideas when they are in earlier forms is less painful. It’s easier to shift directions when you haven’t already written up a full analysis. Providing these kinds of experiences to present evolving ideas (with the assumption that they will be messy) can make the writing process more streamlined and also boost your confidence that you’re writing something others will find compelling.

A related point is that you can use opportunities that are not explicitly set aside for mentorship as opportunities to get feedback. For example, taking on the role of teachers’ assistant to support your advisor may give you the chance to casually raise ongoing questions that come up and get feedback. (Of course, use your discretion; it’s good to be a little pushy, but not overly pushy!).

We recommend cultivating relationships with other faculty members, post-docs, or senior doctoral students at your institution and beyond. This allows you to recognize that no one person, even your advisor, can meet all of your academic and intellectual needs. Instead, draw on multiple people’s expertise and wisdom.

You can avoid frustration and unpleasant conflicts with your advisor by nurturing coordination and effective communication. Remember that while your advisor is generally eager to help you, they can’t read your mind, and at this stage, the responsibility for your progress rests mostly with you. Therefore, you should be proactive about consistently communicating with your advisor about your expected timeline, your next steps after the dissertation, and general expectations about your progress. From the advisor’s standpoint, every relationship with a student is different. Therefore the close relationship that you are likely to have with your advisor will probably require deliberate regulation. It is not unusual for both parties to step back and engage in metadiscourse about how you see your collaboration unfolding. Check in about your norms and practices so that you can maintain a healthy and productive connection.

Those Who Write Together, Stay Together

“When we write for others, we engage in conversation with our readers. When we write with others, we work with colleagues toward a common product. And when we write among others, we create a community of writers.” – Helen Sword
Writing your dissertation can be isolating, but it’s useful to remember that you are usually not the only one working on a major piece of writing at your institution. We recommend finding a way to write among others, which can help keep you motivated, release writer’s block, support consistent reflection, sharpen your goals, and importantly, remind you that you are not alone in your journey. One common approach is to form or join an agraphia group (a.k.a., writing group), in which participants get together for a set period of time each week to write in each other’s company. There are some great resources about writing in good company and specific strategies you can use. Some books and resources we’ve enjoyed on this topic are (1) a website with list of useful phrases for each section of a research paper, (2) the book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, (3) the book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, and (4) the book The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia.

Don’t be afraid to take advantage of campus and community resources

Most likely you have access to a host of resources found on your campus or in your community to support you. If you are facing writer’s block, go to a writing center or library; if you are feeling discouraged, seek on-campus or off-campus counseling; if you are feeling anxious, go to a mindfulness workshop; if your back is cramped from sitting in front of the screen for too long, consider a campus fitness center or community gym. These are just some examples of the different ways that you can lean on others to help you through the trials and tribulations of your dissertation. In some cases, you are eligible for these services at no or reduced cost as a doctoral student.