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Jim’s Secret for Getting His PhD in Less than 4 years



Before he even started graduate school, Jim knew he would get his PhD in 4 years or less. The reason was simple: He won a fellowship for 4 years, and his advisor had no additional funding. He either finished his PhD by the time his fellowship ended or he would have wasted 4 years of his life. As a consequence of this firm deadline, Jim was laser-focused on his dissertation. He still had a social life and got engaged to his girlfriend during graduate school, but he put all irrelevant tasks on the back burner or eliminated them completely.

What set Jim apart from other students was his mindset. Unlike 99% of the population, Jim did not start his day by reading email. As soon as he got to work, Jim started working on priority tasks that would keep him on track to finish his dissertation in 4 years or less.

Jim experienced setbacks and dead-end projects just like his peers, but he stayed so focused on his 4 year timeline, that he always found a way to meet (and even exceed) his milestones. He still answered his email in a timely manner, but he made sure that he addressed all the high priority tasks early in the day. 

If I had to summarize Jim’s secret it would be this: Jim was proactive, while most graduate students are reactive. This strategy might sound too simplistic, but it is what helped Jim to complete his dissertation in less than 4 years, while the average length of time to earn a PhD in his department was 6-7 years! In addition, Jim published several papers in high impact journals. Thus, his proactive attitude not only helped him to finish his dissertation sooner, but his research was high quality too.

What distinguishes a proactive person from a and reactive one, and why does it make such a big difference? In summary, a reactive person spends most of their time responding to the demands of their environment, pleasing other people and putting out fires, which can lead to little or no progress on their own personal or professional goals.

When you begin your day by checking email, you are essentially prioritizing other people’s agendas, at the expense of your own work. You respond to their questions, send them necessary information, and do a myriad of little favors for them before you know what you need to do to make progress on your own goals.

A proactive person makes their goals a priority, including their work, their health, their family and their other personal relationships. Being proactive does not mean that you are selfish – on the contrary. In Jim’s case, his proactive work schedule made it possible for him to make consistent progress on his dissertation, go home at a reasonable time, spend quality time with his fiancee and visit his parents on 3-day weekends.

When you are proactive, you make it a priority to show up for yourself first, so you can show up for others and give them the support they need.

When you make other people’s agendas a priority, you might be under the illusion that you are selfless and others will appreciate you more. However, most reactive people, a.k.a. “Everyone’s Happy Helpers”, give so much of their time and energy to others, that they fall behind on their own milestones, and end up being resentful and frustrated. Not a great way to show up for your your loved ones who depend on you for emotional and financial support, right?

I have interviewed successful PhDs in both academia and industry, and I learned that Jim’s “secret”  is no secret. Students who get their PhDs in record time are usually not geniuses – they simply have different work habits from their peers. Being proactive, and taking ownership of your research is the #1 strategy that helps students finish their dissertation.

Whether you have are just starting graduate school, are mid-way through, or have been in there for many years and can’t wait to move on with your life, this simple shift in your mindset can boost your productivity faster than you think.

You Know You Are Reactive When You Feel Like You “Should” Be More Productive

Ellie was a PhD student in Physiology and she contacted me for coaching because she felt like she was not making enough progress on her thesis. “I feel like I should be more productive, but I just don’t know how to do it,” she said. I then asked her “How do you define more productive? What would you need to do differently in order to be satisfied with your progress?”

There was a little silence, and then she replied, “I am not sure what I need to do to be more productive, but right now I feel so overwhelmed by all the things that I need to that I just end up spending my afternoons on social media and browsing articles not related to my thesis.” 

Ellie described her typical daily schedule as coming into lab around 9 am, checking email, setting up her experiments for the day, and then collecting data in the late afternoon. She spent a good portion of her day putting fires, either in her own work or helping others, but she did not know whether any of the data she was collecting would make it into a manuscript or her thesis. Ellie had a lot of data, but it was so disorganized, that she was reluctant to calling a committee meeting because she did not know how to present and interpret her findings.

Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, Ellie beat herself up daily. Her feelings of guilt led to procrastination and several hours a day on social media at work. Ellie knew she “should” be working harder, but she had no idea where to start.

Ellie’s story is very similar to the other students I worked with.  Graduate school is an unstructured environment, and you need to set your own hours and milestones.  Unless you purposefully take a proactive approach, you will fall victim to the demands of your own environment, both at work and at home. You might fall behind on your research and  experience frustration and chronic stress.

You might even hear an annoying little voice inside your head that keeps repeating “You “should” be working harder, or else you will NEVER graduate.” It is time to toss out this broken record, and take charge of your thesis and future. All it takes is a subtle shift in your mindset.




The Metamorphosis:

Shifting from Reactive to Proactive and Feeling Great About It

Changing from a reactive person to proactive one is uncomfortable in the beginning and takes a leap of faith. If others are used to you responding quickly to emails and demands, they might start to view you as being selfish for starting to say  “No” to their requests. You might even lose some “friends” in the process. If that’s the case, they were not friends to begin with, and you will probably be better off surrounding yourself with more positive ans supportive people.  In one of my previous articles, I described some strategies for saying “No” politely  others, or gradually reducing significant time commitments that are interfering with your work.

Make a Commitment

The first step in becoming proactive is to simply commit that you will make your own goals (work, health, relationships) a priority. If your friendly little voice inside your head starts making you feel guilty for starting to say “No” to others, simply remind it that you are becoming more proactive so that you can show up for the important people in your life (e.g. family, advisor, thesis committee) with more energy and creativity, and help them achieve their goals too.

Decide your Long Term Goals

Once you have made this commitment, you need to decide what your long term goals are. Ellie wanted to publish a paper in 1 year and graduate in 2 years. Jim’s goals was to get his PhD in 4 years or less, and as the years progressed he kept this firm deadline embedded in his mind. Before you can become more productive, you need to know what you are aiming for. 

Define a Meaningful Purpose

A long-term goal, such as “I want to finish my PhD in 2 years,” is only meaningful is you have a purpose that is very motivating for you. I cannot tell you what your purpose needs to be. I can tell you that a purpose that comes from a place of positive energy  (e.g. I can’t wait to graduate, so I can get a job and provide for my family financially) will be more powerful than a purpose that is based on anger  (e.g. I can’t wait to leave this place). 

Your purpose needs to come from your heart: get an academic position because you are passionate about research, find a job in industry so you can help to develop products to improve people’s lives, advance your career so you can provide for your family, or finish your thesis so you can finally move in with your husband who has already started his job in another state.

Whether your purpose is based on professional goals or personal goals, the more positive emotion you have associated with it, the more motivated you will be to follow through on your plans. 

What differentiated Ellie from Jim (besides their daily work habits) was that Jim had a very clearly defined purpose and Ellie did not. Jim was passionate about his research, and knew he wanted to continue in his field. He was motivated to get his PhD so he could get a job, a real paycheck, get married and start a family.

Ellie had trouble motivating herself because she was not even sure she wanted to stay in her field of research. Why bother coming to work, getting a PhD, if you want to change fields altogether? Finally Ellie realized that no matter what direction she chose to pursue after graduation, she wanted to have the confidence in herself that she had the perseverance to finish everything she started.

Visualizing her finished PhD thesis bound in shiny black cover, gave Ellie the momentum she needed to start taking action towards her long-term goals of writing her paper and completing her research.

Shift to a Proactive Lifestyle and See your Productivity Soar

Once you have a clear goal and an uplifting purpose, you can start shifting to a proactive lifestyle. Habits (e.g. checking email/social media frequently),  are tough to break, and your shift might not happen overnight. Ellie knew that in order to get her thesis on track, she needed to meet with her advisor and get clarity on the questions her thesis was asking. She organized her data (a task that took multiple weeks), and developed a new research plan with the support of her committee.

A few months later Ellie had enough data for a poster at a conference. The key to her success was that she took daily action. A vision, a purpose, and a plan are necessary for success but your thesis will only come together if you take action: collecting and organizing data,  reaching to others for help, and writing reports and manuscripts.

During her shift to being more proactive, Ellie did not spend more hours at work. She simply changed her priorities. Email and social media will always be there waiting for you. But inspiration for a paper, a new study, or a novel way of analyzing your data is fleeting. If you don’t take action daily, you are losing opportunities that might never return.

Start each day by addressing your highest priorities – the actions that will lead you to your long-term professional and personal goals. One of the reasons that being proactive becomes easier with time, is that the less reactive you are, the fewer demands other people put on you.

If you respond to every email in 5 minutes, guess what? The other person will send you another email that you need to respond to – so by being reactive you are actually creating more work for yourself! A strategy that works for many students is to check emails just a few times during day, rather than being constantly online. You might find hat you will get through your email much quicker if you only look at your inbox only every few hours.

Due to extenuating circumstances in graduate school, I only had 20 days between my final thesis committee meeting and my thesis defense. During these 20 days I had to pull together a 150 page thesis and prepare 50 slides for my defense.

Initially I thought this was impossible, but I was able to succeed, because I began every morning by focusing on the highest priority tasks. I still responded to email every day, but I only spent the minimal amount of time necessary on “recreational” computer use.

Eventually, the people who really care about you will understand that in order to help them, you need to complete your own work, and take care of your own health, and you cannot be available to them 24/7. In fact, as you become more productive and successful, others will have more respect for you and your time.  

To close, I would like to share a quote from Jom Rohn, one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs: “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” Make your choice and watch your productivity soar.

Do you ever prioritize other people’s needs at the expense of your own work or health? How does that affect your self-esteem and relationship with others? 

Please share specific experiences, as students around the world are looking for inspiration to finish their dissertation!

Click here to get on the waiting list for the online “Finish Your Thesis Program” and get a copy of my free book “Finish Your Thesis Faster”


I was sitting on my faded burgundy couch staring at skyline in Boston on the other side of the Charles River.

That was it…just staring and watching my breath.

I wasn’t reading or writing or painting wild animals roaming free across the safari (my favorite hobby at the time).

I wasn’t doing any of these things because I couldn’t.

I was physically unable hold a book or write a check, let alone have the strength and dexterity to bring nature’s beauty to life on canvas.

I spent two weeks sitting on my couch doing absolutely nothing after my doctor told me that “taking a break” (is that even possible in gad school?) was the only way to avoid surgery.

The surgery was supposed to alleviate a chronic inflammation I developed in my arms from the stress in grad school, but it had a very low chance of success, so I decided to pass and rest instead.

I had expected that my thesis supervisor wouldn’t be too happy with this “break”, but I hadn’t expected that during these two weeks I would gain immense clarity about my thesis that made it possible for me to graduate by the end of that semester.

When you do nothing for two weeks, you start questioning many things: “What am I doing with my life?”,  “Is this the right path for me?” and most importantly, “What got me into this awful situation and could I have avoided it?”

I didn’t spend much time on the first two questions.

I was already in my 6th year of grad school and I was determined to get my Ph.D. no matter what.

“I am not a quitter” was my motto day in and day out, regardless of how much physical pain I was in, or how apprehensive I felt about my upcoming thesis committee meetings.

The last question “What got me into this awful situation and could I have avoided it?” forced me to rething my entire experience in grad school: how did I end up in such a hopeless situation?

I followed everything my thesis supervisor and committee told me to do.

I passed all my courses and qualifying exams, and when I started doing research for my thesis I worked 10-12 hours days, 6 or 7 days a week just like everyone else.

In my 3rd year my body started to rebel against this abusive lifestyle.

It started out with mild shoulder and back pains, and tension headaches.

Nothing extreme, just what you would expect after sitting in front of the computer for 12 hours a day.

By my 4th year these mild pains turned into an extreme form of an inflammatory condition called tenditis in both of my arms.

I managed the pain with traditional Western medicine (paid by insurance), and alternative healing therapies (which pretty much ate up my entire grad student stipend) for 2 years.

In my 6th year my pain got so severe that I couldn’t relieve it with any of the therapies or prescription-strength painkillers.

The only option I had was to allow my body heal itself.

That’s how I ended up on my couch for 2 weeks doing nothing except breathing, hoping that with each exhale I would relieve at least a little bit of the pain.

When I finally returned to work I knew I had to do things differently.

I had reduced the inflammation in my arms during my break, but I knew it could flare up at any moment.

I couldn’t afford to lose any more work days if I wanted to graduate that semester.

During my break I made a list of “commandments” and I committed to following them every single day until I got my supervisor’s signature on my thesis.

I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t stick to this plan 100% of the time.

However, every time I fell off the wagon I got right back on and I got my thesis done by the end of the semester.

In fact, during those last 6 months I accomplished more than I had during the previous 2 years.

Ironically, the clarity I gained during my break helped me to finish my thesis that semester, a goal which seemed impossible just 12 months earlier.

5 Dissertation Tricks and Tips to Help You Graduate (at least) 6 months Sooner

1) Get in the driver’s seat

You are in charge of your dissertation, not your thesis supervisor.

Don’t get me wrong.

Your thesis supervisor is probably an expert in your field and may be funding you too, but the purpose of grad school is for you to learn how to become an independent researcher.

You have to be your own project manager and decide the direction of your thesis.

By the time you are close to graduating, you know more about your topic than your thesis supervisor or committee.

I was very fortunate that in my 5th year a recent graduate told me that she “negotiated” with her committee so they would let her graduate with the research she had already done.

I decided to take the same approach, and be assertive during my committee meetings, and I am glad I did.

This tiny shift in my attitude saved me at least 6 months in grad school.

My committee members didn’t agree on the requirements, but my chair approved my thesis once I stood up for myself and explained why I thought that my work was sufficient for a doctoral dissertation.

You are not at the mercy of your thesis supervisor or committee.

You have enough experience to determine what is realistic and negotiate the requirements for graduation.

2) Stop multitasking

I used to think that the secret to get your thesis done quickly was to be as efficient as possible.

I multitasked all the time by answering emails, running experiments, or doing house chores while writing my thesis.

This approach not only led to poor writing and failed experiments, but it exhausted me after just one hour.

I felt so drained that I couldn’t focus on writing for the rest of the day.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking.

You can only focus on one thing at a time.

When you do two tasks simultaneously, your brain is switching back and forth between the two tasks, and you probably will not be able to do either of them well.

You may have peers who pride themselves on multi-tasking, but after working with hundreds of students I know that on the long it is always more efficient to focus on only one task at a time.

There are a few occasions when you cannot avoid multi-tasking (if you are a parent you know exactly what I mean).

You wake up every morning with a finite amount of energy, and if you don’t protect it, it will be sapped very quickly by disruptive coworkers or family drama.

You don’t have 100% control over your time and energy.

However, if you manage the time that you do have control over strategically, you can channel your energy towards the tasks that will lead to tangible progress on your thesis.

3) Make every click count

If I had to summarize in one sentence why I accomplished more in 6 months than during the previous two years it would be that “I made every click count.”

To keep my pain under control I had to limit my time at the computer to 4 hours a day, and I had to take a 5 minute break after every 15 minutes of typing.

With such a constraint (and the looming graduation deadline), each minute at the computer had to contribute in some way to progress on my thesis.

During every 5 minute break I had to decide how to spend the 15 minutes so I would make the greatest progress on my thesis.

Most of the time it was just an educated guess, and sometimes I realized that I had wasted 2 hours analyzing data that I didn’t have to include in my thesis.

Yet, the intention of using every click at the computer towards progress on my thesis, made me realize how much time I had wasted previously on email, writing and rewriting paragraphs, or perfecting the fonts and colors on my power point slides.

Unless you have a severe medical condition like I did, you don’t have to be so strict with your time at the computer, but you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish if you dedicate a few hours a day to your thesis, when you make “every click count.”

Turn off your cell phone, email and social media notifications during this time.

I know this may feel strange at first, but it is well-worth it (and after a while, you won’t miss the constant beeps every time someone sends you a message).

4) Don’t reinvent the wheel

I had no idea what a dissertation was supposed to look like.

I wasted months writing and rewriting paragraphs, second-guessing myself and taking a wild guess at what my thesis supervisor and committee expected of me.

After I returned from my break I realized that I didn’t have time to take guesses anymore, and I decided to find out what had worked in the past.

I looked at doctoral dissertations from my department that had topics similar to mine, and I modeled my thesis after them.

I used these manuscripts as guides for the approximate number of words and level of detail required in each section.

I was relieved that I already had about 80% of the elements in place for my own thesis.

Using other students’ dissertation as guides saved me months of work, not the mention that I didn’t have to go through 3-4 iterations of each chapter with my thesis committee to satisfy the requirements.

5) Take real breaks – and lots of them!

This may sound sound counter-intuitive, but I created most of the content for my thesis when I was away from my desk.

My two-week break forced me to restructure my day and create a more efficient writing process.

Then, the 5 minute stretch breaks that I had to take every 15 minutes allowed me to get new insights and “debug” the sections of my thesis that needed the most work.

I also took an hour break in the middle of every day – 30 minutes to eat and socialize in the lunchroom, and 30 minutes to walk.

Walking served multiple purposes.

First, it helped me to get circulation going in my arms (which reduced the inflammation), and it cleared my head so when I returned to my desk I felt more focused.

I sometimes wonder how long it would have taken me to finish my thesis if I hadn’t developed a medical condition that forced me to question the traditional way of writing a thesis:

Just glue yourself to the chair until it is done.

I developed these dissertation tricks and tips out of necessity, because the conventional method (work, work, work), led to little progress and a debilitating inflammatory condition.

I am fortunate that have recovered fully from this medical condition, but this experience transformed the way I prioritize my work and how I take care of my health.

I will never know for sure how my life would have been different if I hadn’t gone through this challenge, but I do know that on the days when I follow these principles I feel better, I make more progress and I am more fun to be around.

Working fewer hours, being healthier and making more progress all at the same time is pretty cool if you ask me – and I think you’ll agree.

What is the one strategy that helped you the most to make progress on your thesis?

Please share below and Dora will respond to you directly. 

For more tips to help you get your thesis DONE and be more productive in graduate school,click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”


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