Sunday, June 29, 2014

It Takes a Village: Why Asking for Help is Essential to the Dissertation Process

The 700th person just joined my Facebook group: Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees, and I am both amazed and humbled at the same time.  Almost a year ago I started blogging about my dissertation journey in hopes that I would find support for my extrinsically motivated self.  The Facebook group then seemed like another way to find additional help and maybe even comfort from a community that I could trust.  Like many other doctoral students, there are myriad feelings that come up for me when I realize that I can’t complete the dissertation on my own.  And when I do admit that I need help, I am careful about to whom I reach out.  This got me thinking: what holds us back from asking for help?

After completing the coursework and comprehensive exams in our doctoral programs, we are told that we should now be prepared to complete a dissertation.  But I don’t think I was unique when I got that terrifying feeling that the task that I was about to embark on was going to be daunting, to say the least.  Luckily, there are now numerous books available (see reference links below) that try to simplify the dissertation process by providing tips, tricks and insight into what goes on in the mind of a dissertating student.  This is one kind of help that works if you are a person that is self-motivated and can follow structured directions like a robot.  However, I am one of those “people persons” with a need for human interaction and ongoing feedback and I already admitted that I am also an extrinsically motivated person.

Unfortunately, the usual dissertation committee setup does not always provide that constant support.  I do feel fortunate that I have an amazingly supportive dissertation mentor and a wonderfully reassuring committee, but they all have many other responsibilities and it is not appropriate for me to expect constant check-ins and reminders.

There are many other instances in our lives that we don’t think twice about asking for help.  For example, I had a recent knee injury that needed a team of people to come together to help me get back to “normal.”  My primary care physician, surgeon, physical therapist, co-workers and most importantly, my family formed the dream team to get me back on my feet literally and figuratively. Everyone did their part to assist me when I needed it and even when I refused to admit I needed it.  There is nothing more humbling than hobbling around on crutches and becoming so much more conscious of the privilege that I have as an able-bodied person (but that’s a blog post for another day). I learned to ask for help and not feel guilty or undeserving of it.  That was more challenging for me than I thought.

So back to the question about what holds us back from asking for help in the dissertation process.  These are some thoughts I came up with:

External Issues: Our intuition tells us that we will be judged and those stereotypes about who does and does not belong in academia begin to show up in the ways that we are or are not actively supported.  The problem is that when we ask for help we are doing a few things:

  • admitting we can’t do it alone
  • making ourselves vulnerable
  • relying on others who may or may not actually be able to help

Internal Issues: Our feelings of inadequacy might creep up and we begin to believe that if we are asking for help we:

  • are not capable of doing it ourselves
  • don’t know what we're doing
  • should have known better than to think we could dare to aspire to accomplish such a significant achievement

I think on both sides of these equations there are some truths, but the bottom line is that NO ONE has ever done anything significant ALONE. Every great invention or accomplishment starts with an idea, but the final version of any great thing came to be because of a team of people who believed in the idea and then used their variety of talents to make it happen. 

This summer I decided to post a question in the Facebook group about creating summer writing accountability groups and I honestly thought that maybe 5 or 6 others might reply with interest.  We now have almost 60 Latina doctoral students from all over the United States, organized in 10 groups.  These writing groups are designed to support each other and provide a variety of online (and some in-person) check-in mechanisms to ensure a productive summer.  I am one of those people who is already benefiting from this initiative. My group has motivated me to spend time in the library and keep going at night when I thought I was too tired to code and write. (Thank you Darleny, Shirley and Daphnie!)

By reaching out for help and seeing my dissertation as a collaborative process I opened up a world of support, hope and love (yes love) that I could never have imagined.  I am grateful and look forward to celebrating more milestones with my newly found support group, um, I mean, summer writing accountability group. ;)

As referenced above, here are some useful dissertation writing resource links: