Dissertation Writing: Maintaining Emotional Control

By: Dr. Ron Jones

A key psychological component of the human mind is emotions. Experiencing emotions is simply a natural part of living, interacting with people, and engaging in life’s endeavors. Few people possess the ability to engage in any personal or professional activity devoid of emotions. Writing a dissertation or doctoral study typically involves a wide array of emotional reactions, ranging from extreme highs to severe lows. Maintaining emotional control brings stability, adds clarity to the required intense thought process, and lowers the stress level associated with the doctoral project. A student might enjoy an occasional roller coaster ride at an amusement park; yet riding the emotional roller coaster regarding writing a dissertation brings little amusement. Think of the doctoral process as crossing a mountain range; sometimes you travel uphill while, at other times, the direction is downward, yet all the time progressing toward the final summit.

The doctoral journey involves a series of steps, phases, and milestones. Successful scholars attain these milestones, enjoy a victory at the culmination of each step and deserve a time of celebration. Although achieving intermediate success brings an emotional uplift, attaining the single victory most likely resulted from dealing with a multitude of anxieties, frustrations, and disappointments caused by numerous required revisions, editing critique, and doctoral committee reviews. In other words, the doctoral student is likely to experience far more negative emotional feelings than emotional highs because the writing and research process contains far more opportunity to academically falter than the number of milestones in which to commemorate the success.

Negative emotions such as anger, dejection, disillusionment, extreme frustration, mistrust, and resentment result in increased tension, lost doctoral productivity, and decreased motivation. Can a doctoral student set aside his or her emotions while engaged in the development of the study? No. Does writing a dissertation become a mechanical process in which emotional numbness occurs? Again, the answer is no, yet emotional balance and control is the goal, not unhealthy emotional deadness.

So, how does one manage emotions to produce the optimum doctoral product in a timely manner? Begin with remembering the original motivating factor that led to the pursuit of a doctorate. A ship without a rudder seldom arrives at the intended destination. Never forget the answer to the question, “Why am I pursuing a doctorate?” Next, cultivate a strong student-doctoral chair relationship founded on cooperation, mutual respect, openness, and trust. Seek out the chair’s advice, candidness, critique, expertise, and friendship. Recognize that the doctoral chair is not in an adversarial role trying to make the doctoral process difficult, but in a supportive role to help a student achieve success. The chair typically serves as the primary contact person; therefore, news of doctoral progress, regress, success, or intermediate failure flows from the chair. When disappointing or frustrating news arrives (common dissertation occurrences), several options are available: (a) mope and pout for a week or two emotionally distressed, angry, and offended; (b) immediately responding with an irate, ill-conceived reply; or (c) take a deep breath, recognize the value of academic criticism, calmly review the required changes, and develop a strategy to address the deficiencies in a cooperative, emotionally and academically professional manner. Options (a) and (b) increase the negative emotional effects while option (c), maintaining emotional control, provides the only pathway to attaining a celebratory victory.

Network with other doctoral students; talking out problems, sharing experiences, and learning from each other’s successes and failures is an excellent emotional release. Build relationships with experts in your field of study to overcome anxiety caused by the unknowns. Strive to seek work-life-school balance. The stressors associated with a writing a dissertation will only be exacerbated by an imbalance in family, work, and academics. Know your emotional limits. In other words, take care of your emotional health; you will need it to overcome the inevitable emotional forays into the dissertation valleys. You might be able to see the summit, yet the doctoral journey requires traversing a lot of foothills, rapids, valleys, and mountains prior to the final ascent.

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