Trade-offs to Tame Grad School Worry

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Graduate school and worry go hand in hand. Worry haunts many graduate students, and if you are one of the haunted, you may be experiencing the characteristic overwhelm, stress, procrastination, and temptation to quit.

The good news is that if you decide what success looks like for you and what trade-offs you are willing to make to achieve it, you can exorcise the worry demon—or at least keep it at bay.

Read on for four steps to help you tame worry and navigate the challenges of finishing your degree.

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I tend to think about success in terms of two targets: quality and schedule. Even though your degree program has its own standards, never forget that you are free to choose your own—in the moment, over time, and for the end result.

The Quality Target

Quality refers to the clarity of your writing, completeness (depth and breadth) of your content, and length of your work. Although you ultimately will need to pass a certain minimum level of quality required by your chair and committee, you set the bar until that point and, if your goal is higher than your chair’s, you will continue to set the bar.

I will never forget the effect that setting a low target had for one client I will call Mark. Mark was intelligent, ambitious, and had a strong drive toward perfectionism. He had produced 400 pages for his master’s thesis, but had not managed to finalize any of the chapters over the two years of his program. One of my first instructions to him during the thesis boot camp he attended was, “On this draft of the chapter, we want 50% writing quality and 70% content completeness. If it’s better than that, we’ve missed our target.” Being given permission to aim low and drop the quest for perfection was all he needed. In four days, he had not only completed his chapter draft; he completed the whole thesis (ultimately with high quality).

If you are having trouble with your coursework, try adjusting your quality target in terms of your writing, completeness, content, and/or length. Once you have a first draft (and until the document is finalized), you can keep adjusting the target. Ultimately, your goal may be to simply meet requirements or, on the other end of the spectrum, you may endeavor to win a dissertation award. The choice is yours to make.

The Schedule Target

Your degree program wants you to complete your coursework and related requirements within a certain time frame—ideally according to the schedule it has laid out for you. However, this schedule may not work for you. You might want to complete the thesis faster … or slower … than planned. You may prefer to do a little bit each day, or you may wish to go months without working on it, and then complete entire chapters within only a few days. Some students find themselves dealing with unanticipated personal or work events that prompt them to defer their thesis or dissertation until long after the rest of the program is over. Figure out what your schedule targets are, and pick a best case, worst case, and likely case.

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Achieving your targets is going to take resources—specifically, time and money. Deciding how much time and how much money you are able and willing to spend will help you achieve your degree within limits appropriate for you.

First, you are going to need time to do your research. Depending on how much you already know about conducting research, you may need a lot of time, quite a lot of time, or a ridiculous amount of time. Figure out how much time you have available (each week, each month, each semester) for your research, and figure out when that time happens. If you are working, have a family, or have other commitments, your time may be quite limited. Conversely, you may be focusing primarily on school right now and may relish the learning, trial, and error of this process. Settling on a number helps you know what you’re dealing with.

Second, yes, even though you've already invested a lot in tuition, most of you will need additional money for your research. You may need to buy extra books, survey instruments, software, research reports, formatting help, coaching, editing, statistical support, or gifts for participants. While no one wants to spend extra money on their graduate work, most students do. It’s important to decide how much additional capital you are willing and able to spend. I advise that you decide on the amounts per month, per semester, and for the whole degree.

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With your success targets defined and your budgets set, you can now plan your tradeoffs. Making this plan now will enable you to smoothly move forward when you discover you have skill or knowledge gaps, you hit crunch time, or when the temptations to procrastinate or quit strike.

Here is the technique:

  • Out of the four "accounts"—quality, schedule, time, and capital—assign a “4” to the one that absolutely cannot budge.
  • Of the three remaining, assign a “3” to the target that cannot be missed or budget that cannot be overspent.
  • Of the remaining two, assign a “2” to the one that is more important to you.
  • Assign a “1” to the only account remaining.

Let’s take the case of Mary, who enrolled in a master’s program to improve her consulting skills. She was more than a little dismayed to learn about the thesis requirement and just wanted to do what was needed to earn the degree. What she wasn't willing to sacrifice was graduating on time: her father was aging and ailing, and she wanted him to be there when see walked across the stage. She ended up with the following plan:

  1. Quality
  2. Time
  3. Capital
  4. Schedule

Although Mary always strove to do her best work, this tradeoff plan meant that when she was lacking some skills or was up against a deadline, she first would relax her quality expectations. If something still needed to give, she would spend more time learning and doing the work. If she still needed help, she would then invest in additional resources or expert help. Only as a very last resort would she let the schedule slip. Knowing her quality ceiling and floor, and how much time and money she was willing to spend helped her know when it was time to dip into the next "account."

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Now that you know what your targets are, what you’re willing to spend, and how you’re willing to adapt to reach the finish line, figure out what tools, techniques, and support are available to help you. Think about your knowledge, skill, and other gaps (e.g., access to literature or subjects). Then brainstorm: Who has the particular skills, knowledge, or capabilities you need? What resources will help you gain what you need? Be specific and write down the names of friends and family, faculty members and classmates, outside experts (e.g., coaches, editors, faculty, subject matter experts), and tools (e.g., books, software, approved theses, published research, courses) that will help you reach your goal.



Research is challenging, but it can also be rewarding. Make sure you are keeping it manageable by planning your targets and understanding your budgets and tradeoffs in advance.


What challenges have you encountered when conducting your research? What has helped you move through these challenges?

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