Overcome Barriers to Completion

There are many different challenges that you will encounter as you continue through your graduate program, including a number of barriers to your progress. Consider whether you need to address any of the issues below.

Barriers or Challenges to Degree Completion

Have you stalled out on your thesis or dissertation?

You may find that you will stall out at some point when working on your degree. You may feel as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or encounter disappointments or unexpected setbacks. It is important to know that this is a common part of the process!

It helps to put the entire project into a broader perspective. Completing a lengthy thesis or dissertation requires stamina, determination, shrewd negotiating skills, and a willingness to stretch your own intellectual and emotional capabilities.

Tell your research supervisor about your concerns about progress. He or she will not be surprised or disappointed to learn that you have lost momentum. Faculty will have seen the same thing in other students.

  • If you are still at the proposal-writing stage, determine with your research supervisor the precise steps you need to take to prepare the final proposal for formal presentation to your supervisory committee.
  • Determine a clear deadline for submitting your proposal, and stick to it.
  • Arrange to meet regularly with your supervisor. Having to report on your progress will motivate you.
  • Take advantage of any program supports (e.g., workshops) on writing your thesis or dissertation.

Examine your time-management skills. Where are you wasting time? Work with a carefully-designed plan for developing and completing your thesis or dissertation, creating a well-organized listing or even a project flow chart of essential tasks that you must carry out on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Carefully prioritize your tasks by asking yourself, “What is the most important thing I can do right now?” Use your answer to plan your time and get back on track.

View the information on Final Thesis or Dissertation Submission in this Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website.

Participate in graduate student workshops offered through Graduate Pathways to Success, and also those offered by:

Have you encountered difficulties in your working relationship with your research supervisor?

Your working relationship with your research supervisor and other members of your supervisory committee will undoubtedly influence your momentum and your performance. Periodically examine what is working well, and what needs improvement in your working relationships.

If there is tension in your relationship with your supervisor, the first step is for you to clearly identify for yourself what is going wrong. Here are some common sources of tension.

  • Lack of supervisor availability. Your supervisor is not available for consultation.
  • Micromanagement. You may feel that your supervisor is overly-directive.
  • Lack of support. You may have a sense that your supervisor is unhappy with your performance or even critical.
  • Divergent goals. You and your supervisor may have different goals for the research or want to emphasize or give priority to different aspects of the research program.

The next step is to talk with your supervisor. A good way to begin is to ask your supervisor for a candid appraisal of your performance and progress. Try not to be defensive, but rather get a clear idea how your supervisor sees your collaboration.

  • You may find that what appears to be a lack of availability or support simply reflects work or personal pressures on your supervisor.
  • If your supervisor has some concerns about your work, ask him/her to give you some details about the problem and some suggestions for how they can be corrected.
  • Make some suggestions of your own about what might help you and the research project.
  • Keep the discussion focused on finding solutions and not on rehashing past grievances.

Know the role boundaries and what is reasonable to expect from your supervisor. Maintaining appropriate role boundaries is essential for the well-being of both faculty and students. Students need to maintain professional relationships with faculty and develop appropriate support networks for personal issues.

If you and your supervisor can't agree on what steps are needed to get things on course, talk about various options for resolving the situation. This might involve a joint meeting with your program's graduate advisor.

A detailed discussion of the steps available to you if the problems persist, read “The Working Relationship”  in the G+PS Handbook of Graduate Supervision.

Graduate students have a right to emerge from graduate school with good self-esteem. This requires careful and thoughtful management of professional relationships.

Do you find yourself procrastinating?

If you find you are procrastinating on major responsibilities, determine the reasons. Examine your personal work habits, patterns, behaviours, and feelings to see what steps you need to take to understand and reduce procrastination. Any of these factors may impede your progress:

  • Fear of failure, which can result in a form of emotional paralysis or disabling anxiety.
  • Self-doubt or endless second-guessing about everything that you think or write.
  • Fear of success, which often arises from anxiety about what you will do when you have finished.
  • Perfectionism, which can create an inability to either start or finish a major task. Perfectionists tend to be their own worst critics. Nothing is good enough. Constant self-criticism leads to paralysis and avoidance and will sabotage your progress.
  • Exhaustion or illness related to ignoring your health.
  • Preoccupation with other life problems such as relationships or finances.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the size of a required task, such as writing the entire thesis or dissertation or analyzing a large body of research data.

Procrastination is a mental road-block that you can learn to overcome. Procrastinators tell themselves, “I don't feel like doing it now... I'll wait until I'm in the mood.” Unfortunately, this doesn't work because waiting until you're in the mood may take a long time. Begin with action. Taking action reduces fear and has the effect of “priming the pump”. Once you begin something it will encourage you to do more. You then feel better about yourself which motivates you to continue.

Suggestions for getting started

Forget about doing something perfectly, just get started.

Seek out the information you need for making decisions.

Ask your supervisor for help or direction with your project.

Try to focus on one aspect at a time.

Break your task down into a series of smaller steps and distribute these steps over a structured time frame. Taking the smallest step forward will give you satisfaction and increase your motivation.

Begin with the tasks that you find the most interesting. Success there will motivate you to tackle less enjoyable aspects of the work.

When it comes to writing a thesis or dissertation, it pays to create a personal “writing strategy” that enables you to develop a daily work pattern and a reward system for writing every day.

  • Recognize that effective writing involves time for reflection, mulling things over and sitting with your thoughts. This is a natural, creative process, not to be confused with procrastination.
  • If you find you are having trouble beginning your writing, experiment with free writing – write about something unrelated to your academic pursuit – and notice your rhythm and spontaneity return.
  • Try “talking” your dissertation, i.e., telling a friend or partner what you are trying to write. Expressing your ideas verbally will free up your writing.

Are you thinking about changing direction in your studies?

As you progress in your program, you will become aware of a widening array of career and professional options available to you. It's also possible that you will discover a desire to change your career direction or objectives.

If you are thinking about changing your area of graduate study or departing from graduate study altogether, it is wise to consider the impact this would have on your overall career plans.

Be sure to consult with your graduate supervisor and other faculty if you have questions or concerns about the current direction of your graduate study. It's quite possible that they will be able to offer suggestions that can assist your decision making.

Be sure to distinguish between a genuine desire to go in a different direction and anxiety-related avoidance.

Are financial difficulties impeding your progress?

The costs associated with graduate study can be substantial. Some graduate students are forced to manage with inadequate funds. In some cases, debt loads are substantial enough to interfere with timely degree progress and/or completion.

You need to think seriously about the amount of debt that you are willing or able to accrue by the time you have finished your graduate study. Financial planning, like career planning, should be an ongoing practice, not something that you put off until you graduate!

As you continue in your graduate program, be sure that you have thoroughly reviewed all possible funding options through your program and UBC. Consult this G+PS website for Awards and Financial Aid.

Be careful not to fall into a “work trap” in your final years of graduate study. A work trap occurs when a graduate student feels compelled to accept employment for needed income but that work slows or even derails the student's progress completing degree requirements. This pattern can cost more money in the long run. Sometimes it is better to bite the bullet and borrow money so that you can finish up and get a paying job.

If you encounter financial difficulties, be sure to consult with your research supervisor for advice on funding options and strategies.

Read the Tips for funding applications provided on this web site.