Fall and Dissertations

September 23rd is traditionally the first day of fall. If it’s officially fall, then you should officially be back to work on your dissertation…

Do you remember summer break when you were a kid?

We didn’t have all that much when I was a kid, so summer break meant hanging around the house while my parents were at work. I watched a lot of TV. Read some books (probably less than I should). Played some video games — Anyone remember Combat! on the old Atari console?

Summer was freedom from schedule. No bedtimes. No alarm clocks. I still have a few responsibilities, but not a lot. My time was essentially mine.

Fast forward some 30, 40, or more years, and many doctoral students still treat summer the same way…at least with respect to school. Your school probably doesn’t have an official summer break. But you’ve probably checked out a bit over the summer, anyway.


It really has nothing to do with summer. Summer is just a convenient excuse to set a frustrating dissertation experience aside for a while.

The inconvenient truth of the matter is that you don’t know what you’re doing. As an accomplished adult, it can really sting to have someone tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing. But, as a student you should accept and embrace this fact. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one.

So, how do you fix this problem of not knowing what you’re doing? Adults typically learn in two ways.

The first is trial-and error. How’s that working out for you?

The second is by following someone’s lead. It can be a static example or an interactive guide.

Some people are able to use examples to great effect, but you can get into trouble if you don’t understand why you’re supposed to do things a certain way.

Dr. Richard Feynman told a great story in his biography about indigenous Pacific Islanders after WWII. During the war, American military came to their islands and set up bases and airstrips. Soldiers would man towers peering through binoculars. Others would wait on the ground with headsets waving their arms. When they did this, planes would land, bringing, among other things, food…food the military would share with the locals.

When the war ended and the military left, the planes stopped landing and the food stopped coming. So, the islanders took it upon themselves to bring more planes. They climbed the towers peering through tubes of rolled paper or leaves. Others donned coconut shells on their ears and flapped their arms on the airstrip.

But, no planes came. They didn’t understand why the Americans did what they did. So, when they tried to reproduce the behaviors they had observed, the results they desired didn’t follow.

This is why having a guide can be so much more valuable. A guide not only shows you how they have done something in the past, but when, how, and why you might need to differentiate from their example.

A guide can hold you accountable in ways a static example simply cannot. A guide can answer your questions. A guide can review and correct your efforts.

If your having trouble with your dissertation, consider whether your current support network includes someone who can act as a guide for you. If you don’t have a support network, get one!

But, now that it’s officially fall, you can’t use summer break as an excuse to not get your dissertation done. You either have to come up with another excuse, or, better yet, get to work!

If you need extra support and guidance to make it to graduation, I may be able to help. If you'd like to find out whether you qualify for the support we offer throughout the dissertation process, then...

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.

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