Mindset Of A Finisher

“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”

―Maya Angelou

A Legacy and a question

“I want to leave a legacy”.

Mathieu sat across from me in my office. I was then the director of an academic school, Church Ministry and Christian Counseling, within the Faculty of Theology.

“A PhD is not a legacy”, I replied. The furrows forming on his brow announced the shock of my response.

“Only five people will read your dissertation,” I continued calmly. “You, your supervisor, one internal and two external examiners. Your people back in Congo will not read your PhD”.

“Your legacy lies in what you do after your PhD”.

This was not a put down. I’m not that kind of person.

I simply wanted him to understand that a PhD is a passage.

It’s not a destination, but a launchpad.

Mathieu’s research would of course be valuable and significant on an academic level. But for it to become the legacy he envisioned, he had to break down his research into meaningful, digestible, value-adding, actionable information for his fellow Congolese.

He graduated at age 60. I guided him to develop courses from his research.

Also emerging from it are two popular books, which we will (well actually he is doing it, I’m simply assisting) self publish through Amazon KDP.

He also published in scientific journals.

Mathieu had his why, namely his legacy. It was what got him to persevere despite doing a PhD in a third language (he speaks Swahili and French)—and struggling greatly in the process.

Tragically, his wife passed away from malaria just after arriving in South Africa for his graduation.

That’s when we became friends.

What’s your why?

Why you need a why and what the stats predict  about your future

Let’s look into the statistics crystal ball (and you are here because you don’t want to become a statistic—you want to succeed). Hang in there …

A tale of one country’s PhD’s (“listen up” if you’re studying in South Africa)

Universities in South Africa delivered 2 797 doctoral graduates in 2016. This was 10.6% more than in 2015 (2530 PHD graduates), and 102.7% up from 2009 (1380 PHD graduates). However, this is still way off a departmental target of 12 000 PHD graduates by 2019.

50% graduation rate means 50% attrition rate. Only 5 out of every 10 Phd registrants will finish.

The doctorate in SA: Trends, challenges and constraints, Prof J Mouton, UKZN, June 2015

13% National Graduation Rate

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in 2016 reported an average national graduation rate for doctoral degrees of 13% ( find the report here: http://https://goo.gl/cThjVU)

PhD Attrition Internationally?

The doctorate in SA: Trends, challenges and constraints, Prof J Mouton, UKZN, June 2015

Which 50 Percenter Are You?

Where does this leave you? At which end of the 50 percenters do your want to be?

It really is as simple as making a decision.

Make it!

Surprising Factors That Make A Difference Between Completing and Not-Completing

Whether in South Africa or internationally, PhD students quit for very much the same reasons.

One US study analysed 21 doctoral students of whom only 8 completed successfully. Thirteen were classed as “non-completers”.

Failure in a PhD was not dependent upon intelligence or lack of technical ability.

“The results show that what best differentiates these two groups of participants is the extent to which they feel that they are moving forward, without experiencing too much distress, on a research project that makes sense to them. We assume that this set of factors is central in the dropout process.”1 (Emphases added)

If you don’t feel like you’re making progress, i.e, “moving forward” your chances of completing your PhD get less and less.

Also, if your project “makes no sense” to you (read: without a why), you are slipping into the non-completion zone.

Here is a simple test:

  • Do you feel like you are moving forward?
  • Are your stress levels high or moderate?
  • Does the thought of working on your dissertation stress you out so that doing something other than the PhD is often more attractive (procrastination)?
  • Does your research project make sense to you?
  • Do you understand it?
  • Enjoying it?

The Secret That Fuels Movement Towards Dissertation Completion

Motivation. That’s the name of the game.

“[S]tudent motivational factors are the sine qua non of persistence and therefore should be treated as the most important target of persistence research”(Allen, 1999: 462, my emphasis).2

In another study, motivation has been proposed as a determinant of doctoral degree completion.3

Intrinsic motivation transcends cultural differences. A study of Chinese students confirmed intrinsic interest in research as one of four motivation factors: Thus, successful students were motivated from “within”.

The other 3 factors were:

  1. overly broad and optimistic view of American doctoral education,
  2. high utility value of a PhD in obtaining permanent residence, and
  3. high social cost of quitting. In this study, belief viz, Confucian cultural beliefs also contributed to these motivations by factoring in belief in malleability, the importance of effort, interdependent self, and filial piety.4

Motivation is one of the most important prerequisites for learning. It is often compared to the engine (intensity) and steering-wheel (direction) of a car (Gage and Berliner, 1984).

Hilgard et al.(1979) state that motivation is concerned with those factors which energise behaviour and give it direction. Motivation in education is generally understood as a trigger of students’ thought of engaging in a particular subject, and maintains the intensity of acquiring the knowledge of the subject.5

Are You A What OR A Why Dissertation Author?

The 50% who fail their PhD have the same academic and intellectual skills—after all,

  • they were all approved for their studies
  • all had completed a master’s degree.
  • They all know what an RP should look like;
  • have a pc or laptop.
  • Importantly, they all knew, what they wanted to study and accomplish, namely a PhD.

What made the difference (and will make the difference for you?).

Knowing WHAT or knowing WHY?

Knowing the difference between the two is vital.

Too often we focus only on what we do and how we do it, which is good advice for most of us when things go well.

However, it is knowing your why that will provide the focus during the difficult times.

Inner Motivation Starts With Knowing This

Knowing and finding your why does not only apply to PhD students or ABD’s (an American reference meaning Anything But the Dissertation, referring to graduate students).

Anyone, including organizations that want to be successful, need to identify what it is that drives them; need to understand the intrinsic driving force for their existence.

It’s vital.

Simon Sinek in this 2011 TED Talk, viewed over 41 million times, convincingly illustrated how important knowing your why was for Apple, the Wright brothers and Martin Luther King Jr

Here is a 5 minute version of  Simon’s video:

Your Why Is Biological

The human decision making mechanism, within which the concept of WHY is grounded, is biological. The operation of the Golden Circle is an exact match of how our brain operates.

In the book, Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, Sinek uses the Golden Circle in order to illustrate the “outside-in” and “inside-out” directional flow of thought or motivation.

The outer section of the Golden Circle—the WHAT—corresponds to the outer section of the brain—the neocortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for rational and analytical thought. It helps us understand facts and figures, features and benefits.

The neocortex is also responsible for language.

The middle two sections of the Golden Circle—the WHY and HOW—correspond to the middle section of the brain, the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for all our behavior and decision making.

It’s also responsible for all feelings like trust and loyalty.

Unlike the neocortex, the limbic system has no capacity to process language.

The real origin of our “gut feelings” is the limbic system and not our stomach.

It’s a feeling we get about a decision we have to make that we struggle to explain.

In Sum

• A PhD is a lonely road. Worthwhile, but lonely.

• You have a 50% chance to fail. But you can change that

• It’s about more than technical skill. Especially when the going gets tough.

• Motivation, sustained motivation, is the name of the game.

• You’ll need a why.

How To Discover and Craft Your Why

Knowing your WHY, will enable you to clearly express what it is that makes you feel fulfilled.

Also, you’ll have a better understanding of what drives your behavior when you’re doing what you are naturally good at.

Once you’ve identified what that is, you’ll have a point of reference for everything you do from here onward. Your choices for your business, your career and your life will be more intentional and true to who you are.

From this inner fountain of motivation, you’ll be able to inspire others to buy from you, work with you and join your cause. No more guessing games and acting on gut decisions that are made for reasons you don’t understand.

Finally, you will work with purpose, on purpose. Instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed with uncertainty, when challenges arise (and they will), you’ll be able to forge ahead because you’ll start with WHY.

Simon Sinek did the world a great service when he researched the importance of motivation. In response to the need people recognized they had, he subsequently wrote several books, one of which teaches you how to zoom in on your why (I mentioned it above—Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team )

Below is an extract from the book setting out the format for formulating your Why.

Essentially, it boils down to identifying response-patterns to various situations throughout your life. A theme (or themes) should emerge that suggests areas or interests or causes that consistently over the duration of your lifetime (it can be academic lifetime) grabbed your attention; or got your juices flowing so to speak—start there, follow the trail.

Two Words: Contribution & Impact

You must answer 2 questions:

1. What is my Contribution? (In your case—the contribution of your research)
2. What is the Impact of my contribution?

Example of A Why for a PhD in Education

Through my research I aim,

To inspire teachers serving in disenfranchised communities
So that they inspire learners to break out of the perceived limitations of their environment and to become inspirational themselves

Discover Your Why With These Questions

• What were your own challenges? (Growing up, professionally, personally, socially, economically, etc)
• How did you overcome it?
• What experiences, individuals, books, movies, etc that changed your attitudes, perspectives, gave you direction, provided answers in critical (at the end or my rope, life or death) situations?
• Who were your role models?
• What attracted you to your current academic pursuits?
• What subject, topic, issue got your attention?
• What subject, topic, issue gravitated towards you or had you gravitate towards it?
• What gives you pleasure about your job or research or undergraduate studies?
• What was an “ahah!” moment in your academic or personal life?
• What was an “Oh sh*t!” moment in your academic or personal life?

So, start with why.

So How Do You Finish Your Dissertation Faster?

You’re still reading because you want to really finish.

You’re tired of feeling stuck, overwhelmed and discouraged?

Are you convinced of the importance of knowing your why?


I’ve gone one step further and made you a workbook. Download the FREE companion workbook to immediately start crafting your why. You can print and freely share it.

You are not one of the 50% non-completers. Say that to yourself. Make that decision now.

We built this resource so that you do not have to do this alone.

I was almost a 50% non-completer. But this saved me …

I have been down this road myself.

I was treading water for more than a year. Floundering. Feeling stupid. Discouraged.


In desperation, I eventually hired a dissertation coach.

With her help, having set clear timelines, writing objectives, milestones, rewards and getting my head sorted out, I finished my PhD. in eight months. But not everybody can afford to hire a full-time dissertation coach.

Therefore, you will find high-quality, high-value free resources here. If you follow the advice on this site, without spending a cent (or a dime), you will have more guidance than I had when I started out. It should be more than adequate to get you to graduation. Because I’ve been where you are and have been privileged to help other clients get clear and get done, I fully understand where you are—

But if you need more guidance, for example, over the shoulder step by step instruction on some aspect of the dissertation or thesis writing process, or how to deal with procrastination, or how to improve your critical thinking skills—then join the premium community at a very affordable price of $19 per month.

If you get all the help you need by being part of this community within the first one, two or three months, simply cancel—it’s month to month.

But, I’m hoping you’ll decide to stay longer because once you’ve graduated—your research or teaching career starts—and there’s a section here that deals with life beyond the dissertation.  If you want to stay longer you’ll benefit from the resources and community. Just saying

So, you know your why … now …

Whats Your Next?

There are more resources on this site including
Step by step guidance on various elements of writing your dissertation
Dealing with procrastination
Why a PhD?
Join the Private Facebook Community

Resources Consulted

1. Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N. et al. Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: a matter of sense, progress and distress. Eur J Psychol Educ (2017) 32: 61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-016-0290-0

2. Allen, D. Research in Higher Education (1999) 40: 461. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018740226006 (DESIRE TO FINISH COLLEGE: An Empirical Link Between Motivation and Persistence)

3. David Litalien,Frédéric Guay,Alexandre J.S. Morin https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2015.05.006 (Motivation for PhD studies: Scale development and validation)

4. Zhou, J. (2014). Persistence motivations of Chinese doctoral students in science, technology, engineering, and math. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 7(3), 177-193. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037196

5. MASANORI MATSUMOTO, (2001). MOTIVATIONAL FACTORS AND PERSISTENCE IN LEARNING JAPANESE AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, *New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3, 1 (June, 2001): 59-86. Bond University, YASUKO OBANA, University of Queensland, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/586/3ec27ae09ac21e57100caab094bc48aca084.pdf

Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team Simon Sinek (Amazon)
The doctorate in SA: Trends, challenges and constraints, Prof J Mouton, UKZN, June 2015