Fireside Chat: How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed

Now that you are preparing to write a thesis/dissertation, you may be feeling like I did – overwhelmed.  You may be asking yourself questions. How am I going to do this? Will I ever finish?  Will I have a life other than the thesis or dissertation? What is it they want me to write and what is it I want to write?

Getting started on a thesis/dissertation can feel like you are trying to each a whole elephant in one bite.  No need.  Here are some nuggets that may help you in that process.

Be Clear. Before you begin you need to have clarity.  Why are you doing this?  Are you doing this because you want to gain knowledge and skills?  Do you want to do this because you are passionate about the topic and want to delve deeper into the subject matter?  Are you doing this for career advancement? Are you doing this because someone else said you should?  If it is the last one, you need to think again.  Unless you are passionate about your topic, you may lose steam along the way.  If you are doing this for you, then when it appears that you are overwhelmed and losing steam, you will find the momentum to take the next step to keep going.

Journey. Writing a thesis/dissertation is a journey. I always calm my students by telling them that we are on a journey and I am their tour guide.  I have been there before.  What I know is this; there will be detours and setbacks.  I have taken this route before, so I know what to expect.  The detours and setbacks are just part of the discovery and process.   Getting to that degree is not a straight line, so enjoy and experience the journey.

BIG Decisions. Early on you will be faced with 2 big decisions – selecting the topic and selecting a advisor/chair. Maybe not in that order.  How you select a topic varies by disciplines.  In many disciplines, it’s student led. In my discipline it’s student led so as a grad student, I came up with the topic.  In other disciplines, your topic may be a small part of a larger project.  It could be that your topic may be project led depending on the funding source.

Selecting your advisor/chair can vary by discipline as well.  As I discussed in an earlier fireside chat Dissertation Expectations, you may not have a choice.   In some disciplines, the decision was made as you were accepted into the program and/or based on funding.  If you dohave a choice, choose carefully.   You want to look for an advisor/chair that has expertise in your topic, methodology, and data analyses.  You want them to be able to guide you through the process.  Remember, the journey is not a straight line.

You also are looking for an advisor who can motivate and mentor you.  In mentoring, you are seeking opportunities regarding what conferences to attend, where you should present your work, as well as networking possibilities.

Manage the Process. It is important that you be an active participant in the thesis/dissertation process.  You need to take an active role.  Discuss expectations with your chair/advisor.  Expectations about meetings, how often and with whom. Discuss teaching and industry internship opportunities.  Your advisor/chair may not be knowledgeable about everything; you want them to direct you to where you can seek answers. Select an advisor/chair who will guide you rather than shut down your ideas.

Wrong Direction. There will be times when the research or writing will not go as planned or expected.  Now what do you do? Don’t hide. Don’t be invisible.  It’s key to your success that you raise the issue. Sometimes as I experienced, you may face challenging times with your advisor/chair.  Talk with your advisor/chair.  If you feel the issue is not being resolved, it may be time to seek additional guidance. That is the time to seek advice from the Director of Graduate Programs or the Graduate Coordinator in your program.  Keep in mind your advisor/chair is not your supervisor for life.

Peer mentors can be a great asset and provide valuable insight from their experiences. Their experience can assist you. Remember, you are not the first to ever have challenges with their advisor/chair.  I came before you, and I can tell you from experience, you’ll survive and finish.  However, it’s up to you to take the next step, no matter how tiny that step may be. Take it.

Get Involved. You need a life outside of the thesis/dissertation.  Now don’t go to extremes and make this your #1 priority.  However, you do need to get involved with activities besides your work. Find or start a peer support group.  Go to informal coffees, attend social events sponsored by the graduate student association.  Attend conference or seminars on campus.  They are usually free.  Take time and visit the art museum or go for a walk or hike.  The time away allows you the opportunity to return refreshed and ready to begin again.

Remember you

  1. Need to be clear as to why you are doing this in the first place
  2. Are on a journey that is not a straight path
  3. Have important decisions to make
  4. Need to manage the process
  5. Need to seek assistance when you find you are heading in the wrong direction
  6. Need a life so get involved

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My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

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