The Pygmalion Effect and Dissertations
July 26th is George Bernard Shaw’s birthday. His most famous play, Pygmalion, told the story of a girl of lower birth being transformed into the toast of high society. Doctoral students undertake a similar transformation on their dissertation journeys…
Pygmalion, the play, was named after a mythical Greek sculptor who so loved a statue he had created that it eventually became a real woman. In the play, Professor Henry Higgins transforms Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady who passes for a duchess in high society.
These stories of transformation also lend their name to the observable Effect. In a 1963 study, Rosenthal & Jacobsen found that when teachers were told to expect great things of a small, randomly selected group of students, that group, in fact, eventually achieved beyond its peer group. They concluded that teachers’ expectations directly influence actual student performance!
“So, what does this Pygmalion Effect have to do with my dissertation?” — A lot, actually! Doctoral students whose mentors expect them to be successful tend to exhibit higher graduation rates than those who do not. And, they tend to graduate faster!
One area where this effect is particularly obvious is the difference students experience in the pre- and post-proposal phase of the dissertation journey. Students often find their committees are barely engaged during the proposal phase. Feedback can be harsh and unrelenting.
However, once you successfully defend your proposal, you will find your committee to be far more invested in your success. At that point, the pace quickens across the board. The nature of their feedback changes from questioning your ideas and abilities to addressing minor issues and polishing. Whereas before your proposal was approved they were not convinced that you would be up to snuff, after, they expect you to graduate.
Although having the support of your committee is a great advantage throughout the dissertation journey, many students simply aren’t so lucky. So what can you do to use the Pygmalion Effect to your advantage when your committee may be twisting it to your disadvantage?
Simple. Just surround yourself with other mentors and colleagues who expect you to graduate.
I’ve mentioned before that emotional support is essential for success in the dissertation journey. Being able to lean on someone who expects your success completely changes your perceptions of yourself.
It boosts self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Quagmires become challenges.
Frustration becomes hope, buttressed by plans.
Stagnation gives way to momentum.
And, ABD’s become D-o-c’s!