One of the most important elements of a successful dissertation process (and by successful, I’m referring to both the process AND the outcome)- a successful dissertation process is one where you feel reasonably happy, generally on target, and are making steady progress- as evidenced by pages of writing.

In order to create and maintain a successful dissertation process, you must find points of engagement with your work. While engagement can mean many things, the way I think of engagement is that you are intellectually involved with your ideas, committed to moving them forward, and that you have a frequent relationship with your dissertation, in some form or fashion. This relationship may be reading, writing, developing arguments (it can even include talking to yourself about the project!), but engagement requires each of these elements.

Let’s use the metaphor of the dissertation being like a love relationship. If you feel involved and excited by your dissertation, you will want to spend more time with it. (Just like you do with an intriguing someone in your life.) If you avoid, deny, or make excuses for why you aren’t spending that much time together, the relationship suffers. Similarly, if you don’t invest any time or energy in this interaction, it can not move forward.

For too many of you, the dissertation is like a bad relationship- one that you won’t leave, won’t invest in, but can’t get rid of. Ugh.

One of the best ways to move ahead in your dissertation process, especially if you’ve been working for a long time but haven’t made significant progress is to try and find a new way to engage with your dissertation topic and process. Consider places in your life where you feel capable, confident, and energetic.

Think about how you can bring these positive qualities to the dissertation process- transforming it from something cumbersome, worn out, tired, to something that feels newer and fresher again. This doesn’t mean, usually, that you start over from the beginning or that you have to make major changes. Engagement, that sense of “turning toward”, is an inside job.

You might have heard me tell this story before, but let me give you an example from my client files. I had a client who was struggling with writing one particular chapter for months and months before we started working together. When we discussed this chapter, she would sigh deeply and feel overwhelmed. So I asked her, “Why do you have to write this chapter? Why is it important to include?” And she said, “I don’t know.” So then I said, “Well, what if you take it out and write about something else?”- at which point she actively protested, telling me the chapter was crucial to understanding the plight of the underserved population she was studying. I asked her why- and she spent the next 15 minutes telling me.

So what I saw here (and I hope you saw it too) is that this client moved from disengagement (I don’t know why I’m writing this) to active engagement (practically arguing with me about why this chapter was vital). The idea here is to find something that makes you passionate about the topic and/or helps you reconnect with the larger picture of why you are working on this topic in the first place.

Disengagement is the most difficult obstacle to overcome when working on the dissertation. Therefore, it is crucial to find ways to stay invested in, and engaged, with your work.