Dissertation or thesis writing[1] is daunting and comes with many challenges. This is notwithstanding ‘University Study Guides’ (often consisting of a few hundred pages!) and supervisors that, for some reason, do not guide their students to success.

A FT survey (2014) has highlighted that globally, about 50% of post-graduate students never finish their dissertations, and therefore, never graduate. There is no reason to believe that this figure has improved substantially since then. This figure is simply terrible – all these good people had dreams, looked forward to a better future, career prospects, and, even a bigger salary. Furthermore, they have all probably invested a huge amount of money and time into their studies so far. All for nothing and many are probably experiencing that horrible feeling of being “unsuccessful” or even worse, a “failure”.

Why are post graduate studies then so difficult to complete?

Good question – various formal and less-formal studies have been conducted into this topic and they all list a variety of good reasons to explain this tragic situation. Interestingly, under-graduate students fail for very different reasons than post-graduate students. Under-grads essentially lack “study life skills”, such as being unprepared for university life, infrequent class attendance, poor time management, influences of friends, poor study habits and so forth.

Graduate students, however, have different problems. If I can cluster them, then it looks like this:

Financial issues. Many post graduate students are either part-time students with huge under-grad student debts, or full time students with too limited bursary income. Many have married, even started a family and trying to pay back old student debt. Either way, there are enormous financial pressures on many post-grad students, especially with MBA courses costing anything from $20,000 to $100,000 over two years for tuition fees alone.

Lack of focus. With work demands and family life added to their studies, many students find it exceedingly difficult to get going, hence a large dropout rate in the first two years of post-graduate studies. Procrastination, of course, also plays a big role in “to get going”.

Inadequate support systems. At least two thirds of the students that I have helped over the past years, have mentioned a lack of academic support as a key reason for not progressing with their studies. “If only I could talk to someone over a coffee, to soundboard my research challenges or discuss some of the things I have read”. (Side note: Isn’t this also the role of the supervisor?). Then also, dealing with questions like “How to?” and “What next?” are also high on the list of reasons for not progressing.  To top it off, loneliness as emotion then becomes pretty much embedded into this lack of support problem.

Something that has always intrigued me, is the role of University/College student support services in this regard. Many use support staff that has not even completed a dissertation! Also, where do study supervisors fit into all of this? Many students feel that the practical support they have received from their institutions and supervisors, is wholly insufficient. From guidance with the academic writing process, to research methodology advice, to engaging students with general support and accountability. A Supervisor once told me straight up “I am not getting paid to baby-sit graduate students through their dissertations. Students must read the [University] Study Guide or Google things that they don’t know. I just want to see their chapters as they complete them”.  How is that for positive engagement and support?!

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