2018 News

What it Takes to Dissertate

College of Education faculty and students share with rising graduate students about the dissertation process and what it takes to maintain life balance while pursuing a doctoral degree.  

Disseration panelists sit at a table together answering questions

From left to right: Diana Socie, PhD; Nicholas Bardo; Sara Smith, PhD; Nathaniel von der Embse, PhD; Erika Roland

If you've ever considered pursuing graduate school, one of your early thoughts may have been about the increased workload and high levels of self-discipline it takes to succeed. Graduate school provides students with the opportunity to further their expertise, study alongside experts in their field and learn more about a research area that really interests them. 

This is especially true while in a doctoral program and working toward completing your dissertation research.

To provide guidance to graduate students who are not only interested in pursuing a doctoral degree but who are also preparing to begin their dissertations, the College of Education Graduate Student Council hosted a panel discussion in May titled “What it Takes to Dissertate.” 

Comprised of a group of USF faculty, post-doctoral fellows and current doctoral students, each panelist shared what they wish they had known when they began their academic careers and dissertation research. 

Your dissertation research is work that you do — but it doesn’t define you.  

As a graduate student, you will explore many areas of interest that may or may not turn into a hands-on research project. As a doctoral student, your dissertation will seem like a labor of love, but it’s not the entirety of the work you’re pursuing now or in the future.

Instead, it’s wise to think of your dissertation as a jumping off point, said Diana Socie, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in the College of Education’s School Psychology program. 

“I sort of thought ‘This is it! I have to do everything I ever wanted to do in this one thing,’” Socie said. “It’s so not that on the other side.”

Scale back your inhibitions about what your dissertation can become 

When starting your dissertation research, the hope is that you will be passionate about your work. Having passion for a topic may tempt you to think big, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic and attainable.

Doctoral student and soon-to-be graduate Nicholas Bardo said it took some time before this reality sunk in. Remembering that his faculty mentors wanted him to graduate and take on something manageable helped him keep a realistic perspective while pursuing his work.

“It took a lot of other people telling me this to finally realize that maybe they have a point here,” Bardo shared. “I’m not going to solve every mystery of the universe by myself, so I might as well break it down a little bit and try to take heed of all of these accomplished academics and their insights.”

Take ownership of the work – it’s yours

As a doctoral student, you will be heavily reliant on your major professor and the talented individuals who make up your dissertation committee – at times they may even feel like a lifeline. But there comes a point in your dissertation when you become the expert, said Sara Smith, PhD, an assistant professor of Foreign Language and ESOL Education.

It’s great to get all of the advice from your mentors ahead of time, she says, but there will become a point where you are the captain of the ship.

“You’re the expert,” Smith said. “You know more than anyone else about this project you’ve been working on. Enjoy that moment and be ready to take charge when the moment comes.”

Rejection comes with the discipline – but it doesn’t mean you won’t succeed  

Research publications and grant providers receive more proposals than they can accept, and with this reality comes another one – rejection happens to everyone in their academic careers.

While it may be easy to get discouraged, Assistant Professor of School Psychology Nathaniel von der Embse, PhD, says keeping that reality in mind helped him while working to overcome the inevitable failures.

“One thing that has really stuck with me throughout my academic travels that was engrained in me early on by my mentors and advisors is that you are not your writing,” von der Embse said. “It didn’t really make sense to me until (after) multiple, multiple failures and lots and lots of rejection.” 

The dissertation process does not have to be a lonely process

It can be easy to fall into a slump while working on your dissertation. You will spend many hours researching, coding, writing and editing, and this process can begin many, many times over as you receive feedback from your mentors.

Recent studies suggest that graduate students may be at a greater risk of experiencing mental health issues, potentially because of the isolated feeling many students may have throughout their studies and the pressure they face when having to advocate for themselves in the academic job market. 

Erika Roland, a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership program, says she works to combat these feelings through a self-created “board of directors” — a network of close friends who each help her in unique ways, such as helping her take breaks, unpacking her thoughts and providing the support all graduate students need to complete their final product.

“I think that the anxiety can get to people sometimes. Self-care (is important),” she said. “I think if you just take that in and build a board of directors, it helps along the way.” 

Support can also be found through online networks such as Facebook groups and through on campus student organizations like the College of Education’s Graduate Student Council.

You can view the full panel discussion from “What it Takes to Dissertate” below.