It's Not Your Life's Work

It's Not Your Life's Work

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It's Not Your Life's Work

larry ellisDuring my time as a doctoral instructor and a dissertation chairperson, I worked with many students to help them overcome issues with what some might consider the most confounding of all doctoral skills – academic writing. The scope of difficulties that many students experience can be grouped into three categories: a) the inconsistencies from within the discipline, b) the tacit knowledge about writing, and c) the unconscious, reactive behaviors that are generated from our subconscious.

Inconsistencies From Within the Discipline

This first category contains all those aggravating items like multiple accepted spellings of the same word, punctuation requirements that change based on where the student checked first, ‘preferred’ word usage, slang/anthropomorphisms, and the like. Individually, we can’t do much about the transitory nature of the language other than try to stay current with the changes. However, as faculty members, we can assist our students in the remaining two areas--tacit learning and reactive behaviors--by helping them become aware of what is happening to them and why, and then helping them identify creative ways to overcome the effects.

Tacit Learning

One issue that seems to affect students in some way is how their writing techniques and habits evolved from the time they started school. These habits result not only from direct learning but also from the tacit knowledge learned from their teachers. Tacit knowledge is experienced based (Frost, 2017) and usually brought about by implicit learning or learning of which we are totally unaware. This unknown knowledge can negatively affect how we write for years without our even being aware of it.

Students have been conditioned to stop and correct errors as they identify them even if they are only working on a rough draft. Warner (2015) addressed this condition when he wrote, seemingly tongue-in-cheek, that effective writing requires you to disregard everything you have been taught and begin writing things wrong again. This idea is a definite nod to creativity, which is needed at this point, but not necessarily to practicality, which is not needed at this time. Of course, this scenario applies mostly to first or zero drafts.

Reactive Behaviors

Miller (2009) wrote that “the work related to a doctoral dissertation is clearly challenging” (p. 19) and that “it is impossible to earn a PhD without experiencing negative beliefs, emotions, and behaviors at some point” (p. 19). Miller (2009) called these feelings and beliefs ‘thinking traps’ and their negativity can cause as many problems for students as actual physical blocks do. These are negative thoughts and they should be replaced with positive ones. This point is where an outside person, not a member of the formal academic team, can help by providing positive perspectives for dissertation students.

Lawrence Blum (2010), a practicing psychologist, noted that a new student seeks external validation during the dissertation process but, when he or she doesn’t find that support, an ABD (All but Dissertation) can be the result. The student must find a way to garner emotional support if he or she is to be successful (Heller & Rook, 1997). Singh and Shifflette (1996) wrote that emotional support from friends during uncertain times is the single most important factor in a student’s professional development.

The Dieting Analogy

In their studies on dieting, Tribole and Resch (2012) wrote that the mind and body respond to any sort of real or perceived deprivation without the person knowing that something is happening to them. Whatever the deprived condition might be, even if it is only in a psychosocial form, the mind tells the body that the condition is a need that must be satisfied in any way possible. The unconscious reaction is that the mind and body begin seeking ways to satisfy the deprived condition or feeling. Satisfying this need becomes as critical to the mind as food or sleep is to the body.

Applying the Dieting Analogy to Writing

When students first begin writing their dissertation, many are overwhelmed by the loss of socialization (support), the lack of direction (guidance), and the feeling of indifference (perception) – all reactive behaviors. The mind and body begin to work subconsciously to resolve those feelings. In reality, what happens is that, instead of shutting the door and working for an indefinite period of time, students will get out of their chairs frequently, get a cup of coffee or a glass of water, turn on the TV and switch through the channels, check their email or texts, or just do a quick look on social media, which usually results in additional time for ‘mandatory’ immediate responses. Then, when the students return to their dissertation, they cannot figure out why they are not making any progress. Those questions can cause harmful psychological responses like a rationalization that, because the student isn’t making progress, he or she isn’t smart enough to write a dissertation or that he or she just doesn’t have what it takes to be a doctor. All these items together can create conditions that can be very detrimental to students, but the good news is that they can be overcome.

The students should begin to write without regard for anything other than getting information on paper. If the students find that they automatically stop to erase or correct an error, you, as their mentor, should be firm with your message to them to keep going, to keep typing or writing, and to leave the errors alone! Keep pushing this procedure until your students can type for blocks of time without stopping. When the students are done, they will have what Bolker called a ‘zero draft’ (1998). Roberts (2010) wrote “write a crummy first draft. Don’t judge it, just write it!” (p. 12). In effect, ignore the tacit knowledge you have. Ignore everything you have been taught about writing as you create Bolker’s (1998) zero draft. Do not sacrifice creativity for habit.

When students are told to try this method, their immediate reaction is often to shake their heads and say they cannot do that. There are some things students can do to help drive that change. One is essentially tongue-in-check, and one is an easy fix that anyone can do with a little practice. The first one was recommended by Bolker (1998). She wrote that, when students begin the dissertation writing process, they should purchase a large bucket of super strong glue and then cover the seat of the chair they’ll be sitting in with it. Good food for thought but not particularly practical or safe if the chair is a prize antique. However impractical, it does reinforce the need for focus.

The second approach is to utilize conditioning principles to create changes to support the idea of a zero draft. Students cannot be expected to start off sitting for hours without some issues so start conditioning with a ten-minute block of time. Have the students use an egg timer or a stop watch to track time, and then have them start writing or typing and not stop until the designated time has elapsed. Have them keep going even if there is a loss of thought. A one or two-word note can be added as a reminder where a blank out occurs. The students must leave every error in the paper and work on increasing the continuous work time a minimum of 5-10 minutes every second or third writing session. The goal is to type or write for at least an hour without stopping.

Overcoming issues with the skill of academic writing for doctoral students will persist. But the zero draft technique is an excellent beginning for many writing projects including dissertations. All these suggestions will help the student when it comes to one final piece of advice from Evelyn Ogden. She wrote, “Remember the basic purpose of a dissertation is to demonstrate that you can do acceptable research in your field. It is not your life’s work” (2007, p. 37).



Written by, Dr. Larry Ellis, Adjunct Faculty


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Blum, L. D. (2010). The “all-but-the-dissertation” student and the psychology of the doctoral dissertation. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 24, 74-85.

Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Frost, A. (2017). The different types of knowledge. Retrieved from

Heller, K., & Rook, K. S. (1997). Distinguishing the theoretical functions of social ties: Implications for support interventions. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of Personal Relationships: Theory, research, and interventions (2nd ed.) (pp. 649–670). Somerset, NJ: Wiley.

Miller, A. B. (2009). Finish your dissertation once and for all. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Ogden, E. H. (2007). Complete your dissertation or thesis in two semesters or less. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

Patterson, Te-Erika. (2016, July 6). Why do so many graduate students quit? The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Roberts, C. M. (2010). The dissertation journey: A practical and comprehensive guide to planning, writing, and defending your dissertation (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Singh, K., & Shifflette, L. (1996). Teachers perspective on professional development. Journal of Personnel Evaluation, 10, 143-158.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York, NY: St. Martins.

Warner, J. (2015, November 30). The high school/college writing classroom disconnect. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Yesko, J. (2014, July 25). An alternative to ABD. Retrieved from

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