Successfully Completing your Terminal Degree

I finished a Doctorate of Computer Science just over a month ago. While it is still fresh on my mind, need to share my experiences and explain which qualities make for the person who will finish. Remember, ABD (All But Dissertation) is not the completion. When a person is ABD, their highest level of education is still their master’s degree. If you are ABD, you have not yet completed your “terminal degree.”

First, which kind of person is most apt to make a successful start? I shall answer the question with several items and those items in order of importance. My answer is that the successful terminal degree seeker is just that, a seeker. The second quality the student should have is a passion for their topic. Your topic should set you on fire; your topic should keep you up at night.  Your topic should WAKE you up at night. The subject of your dissertation should be something that resonates with your very soul. Your topic will eventually pull you to the finish line. Mine did. I did my research on the best practices for starting an Insider Threat Program in the private sector in the United States. There was a point toward the end of my study when the work took on a life of its own. The research began to pull me to finish it. It is like the study came alive and demanded to be completed.

The third attribute that you need to see you through the doctoral journey is tenacity. Some call it grit, others call it stick-to-itiveness. It is the idea that you will put your head down and plow through the storm and get to the finish, no matter what. The quality of tenacity will help you when life throws rocks in your way, and some of those rocks are boulders. I weathered through a presidentially-declared national disaster, family illnesses, leaving two different jobs, as well as my limitations. You need to be mentally prepared for setbacks and willing to overcome those setbacks.

The fourth character quality that a doctoral or Ph.D. student needs to cultivate is that of cooperation and humility. As long as you are a student in your program, you are a learner, an acolyte, or novice. Those who teach you and guide you through your work are the authorities, listen to them and adhere to their advice. If you find yourself in conflict with your mentor, or other university personnel, be conciliatory, stay far away from creating clashes.

Tied in closely with a passion for your topic, tenacity, and cooperation is the ability to discipline yourself, the fifth characteristic. Learn to write even when you do not feel like it. Get a lock on your office or bedroom door so that you can focus on your work. Self-discipline may be the most difficult thing on this list because there are so many distractions even when you are locked in your room with just you and your computer. There is the internet, and there is your phone. You may get calls from your employer in the evenings, if you work in information security, as I do. You may have to hide your phone.

I advise you to set blocks of time to work. I keep a small oven timer near my desk. I set it for 20-minute intervals, and I work furiously until the beeper sounds off, then I get up and get coffee. Or, If I am on a roll, I set the beeper for another 20 minutes. That lets me know that I may take a break. This last concept segues nicely into the next piece of advice.

The sixth quality may be one that needs to be cultivated. One must be able to take creative short breaks. I stop and make coffee for a break. Or, I go outside and fill the bird feeders. Often, the longer breaks consist of 10-or-12-minute walks, which refresh both the mind and body. It is a researched fact that getting outside helps the mind to function more effectively.

The next three concepts are advice. Take it upon yourself to celebrate the small victories. Do not wait until the end of the research and dissertation to celebrate. Reward yourself for the steps that you accomplish. Keep the rewards small and reasonable, but make sure that you savor every moment. I bought a backyard barbeque grill. I rewarded myself with dinners outside and treated my family to grilled steaks.

Additionally, learn to trim time in every way possible. Cleaning house for me became an infrequent hobby. I once heard in passing the three rule of  running a household while working full-time, they are to ‘dump, delegate, and see dust as a protective coating.’ This rule applies to finishing your terminal degree. I began to order groceries delivered. I started cramming food in my over the refrigerator freezer so I would not have to go out and shop (we rent, so buying a new refrigerator or a freezer is out of the question). My family quickly learned to figure out what they wanted for their meals instead of depending on me to serve them. (Males are fortunate, many of them find that they depend on their spouses to take care of the daily chores.)

The topic of coping with daily life leads to the next concept. The doctoral student should find a support network. Friends, family, work colleagues, whoever is willing to cheerlead you as you progress are invaluable. Your family is especially important because you see them every day. Keep in touch with your network, let them encourage you and keep you buoyed up. For me, several classmates graduated ahead of me, and they helped me along by reading my work and making suggestions.

The last item is different from the above characteristics. Now, I offer a more encouraging and positive admonition. Learn to enjoy the journey. You are on an expedition into the world of knowledge as you create your own contribution to the body of knowledge. You are changing the world with your work. Savor it.

Please offer suggestions and return.

Dr. S. J. Buitron
Doctorate of Computer Science, Colorado Technical University
Masters of Science in Information Assurance, Norwich University
Adjunct Faculty in the MSIA program at Regis University
MCSE in Windows 2000, ITIL v3, v2 Foundations Certified,
Network +, IBM Power Systems certified for AIX and Linux

 “Warfare only ends when one side quits, not when you shift domains because the war ends. Our enemies have moved into the social and political domains as a response to U.S. economic power.”
 Arthur Karl Cebrowski 1942 – 2005, Vice Admiral

 “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
 W. B. Yeats

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