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Transitioning to Graduate School, to Research, and to a Dissertation

Here are some tools for moving into the research phase of your graduate career:

Access Your Motivation
A key element of successful graduate work, including research and completing your dissertation, is grounding the work in your own motivation. Although this is true of many undertakings, it is especially true of activities that are done more independently. Since you will be working on your own so much, you will need to be an initiating “self-starter,” and at least at times, if not often, you will also need to be a “self-sustainer.”

Valuing and Envisioning
Being a self-starter and a self-sustainer will be easier if you are able to remind yourself why you want to be doing what you are doing. Accessing, drawing on, and building this “want” or desire is usually connected to the belief that the product of your work is valuable. If you can anchor your work in its value and have an image of the possible consequences of your work, including the effects this work will have on your later efforts, you will have ready access to your motivation. It may be useful to envision yourself in the situation you hope to be in some time from now. Notice how good it feels to have achieved that state and feel some of that feeling in the present. Repeating this envisioning can activate feelings that spark motivation as you bring these feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment from a possible moment in the future into the present.

Choosing and Re-choosing
Remind yourself that completing the program you are in is a choice and that you can do something different if you really want to do so. It is helpful for many students to reaffirm periodically that being in their program is a choice and other possibilities are available. The emphasis on choice and options helps banish vestiges of the feeling that you “must” be here to please someone else or a part of yourself; this “must” is, in fact, a choice. After accessing your motivation, follow-through strategy is essential.

Do a Time/Task Analysis
This assessment should include all of your necessary activities (even mundane matters like laundry and cleaning) as well as time with significant others, etc. Build in “reward time,” too; I recommend scheduling daily reward time to enjoy after reaching that day’s goal, and building in weekly and monthly reward times, as well. Draw up a list of things you look forward to doing and select from these activities to fill your reward time. This elementary behavioral psychology actually works very well; failing to allot yourself reward time is a sure way to set up a pattern that does not get you to your goals.

Divide and Conquer
Concerning the academic part of the time/task analysis, the large goals that seem mountainous need to be broken down into a series of smaller “hills.” And while you have probably heard that part before, I am not getting ready to recommend that you schedule all of your time, unless for some reason you happen to work best with a structured schedule. For divide and conquer to work, the daily goals must be specific and measurable for each task (e.g., forty pages read in Subject X, ten pages written on Topic A). So, “I’ll study for an hour” is not what this is about.

  • Base estimates of the length of time you will need to complete these specific, measurable units on your personal experience and periodically review them. Once you establish these estimates and the time estimates for all your other activities, you can create charts for the year or semester, month by month, week to week, and finally daily estimates of what you need to do in each domain of activity to reach your goals.
  • Once you have a time blueprint for your tasks, there is usually a sense of great relief. Now you can see that you are able to complete all of your goals, including the mountainous ones, in addition to doing life maintenance things.
  • Do not make unrealistic demands that you finish something more quickly than is possible for you without burning yourself into the ground. The burn-yourself-into-the-ground strategy usually only works in spurts and the short run, rather than in the long run, and a graduate program is a long run that may be as much a test of endurance as of intellectual ability.
  • Structure is helpful for endurance. Experiment with a schedule that allows you to work at certain tasks during the times of day that you seem to perform those tasks the best.
  • Place the most important tasks at the top of your schedule.

Avoid Avoidance
Keep a regular feedback loop going with your advisor in which you show your work to the advisor and get suggestions. If you are in doubt about any matter with your advisor then be assertive and ask for clarification. Avoiding feedback and follow-up questions, as well as avoiding your advisor, is usually very costly.

Find and Listen to the Voice of your Independent Innermost Self
To carry out useful research, you will usually need to look at things differently and imagine new possibilities. At times this will mean combining two or more things in a new way; at other times it is looking at something from a different perspective. With research, there is always another angle to the problem—yours!

—Joe Talley, Ph.D., Counseling and Psychological Services
Reprinted with permission