10 Habits of Successful Doctoral Students

The attrition rate in doctoral programs is alarming. It is particularly sad to see students complete their coursework but never finish their dissertation. They invested significant amounts of time and money, and used university resources, with very little return on investment.

However, other students manage to stay on track and complete all of their degree requirements in a timely manner. What’s the difference? Surely, some academic programs provide more support and accountability than others (e.g. cohorts) but ultimately, students’ ability to finish on time depends on their habits.

Here is what the successful ones do.

1. They set clear priorities

Successful doctoral students are crystal clear on their priorities. They set goals and timelines that are non-negotiable. They know what it will take to finish their degree and don’t let themselves forget. They don’t allow little things to get them off track and don’t let people distract them from taking care of their priorities.

2. They identify things they can stop doing

They understand that plugging writing hours into an already overflowing calendar is not going to work. Before they block off hours to work on their dissertation, they identify activities they can stop doing or do less often to free up some time.

3. They keep their day job to 40 hours/week on average

They most certainly continue to perform well at their jobs but they stop working long days and on the weekend. They understand the responsibilities that come with their position and the responsibilities that come with being a successful doctoral student. They remain loyal and fair to both roles.

4. They don’t wait to feel motivated

They know that if they wait until they magically feel motivated to start writing, the moment may never come. They have a strong sense of purpose and use it to get themselves to follow-through on their writing schedule, even when they aren’t in the mood to write. Not feeling like writing but writing anyway, is less painful than paying tuition longer than necessary and feeling pressure and regret.

5. They have a designated work space

Some people like to work at their desk, others prefer the kitchen table, and others go to a library or a coffee shop. It is important to know what type of environment is conducive to making progress and avoiding distractions. Having rituals can be beneficial too. Being in a physical writing space helps students get in a mental writing space too.

6. They honor themselves        

If they are asked to do something that they don’t want to do and they know saying yes will set them back, they don’t hesitate to say no. They honor themselves enough to keep the promise they made to themselves. They refuse additional commitments when it means breaking the commitment they have already made.

7. They make time for joy

They avoid burnout by giving themselves breaks and making time for fun. Their self-discipline applies to hours blocked off to write as well as hours blocked off for family activities and leisure. They know how to disconnect mentally from the pressure of being a doctoral student and recharge their battery before it’s time to get back to writing.

8. They exercise

Living a sedentary life makes people tired physically and mentally. Successful doctoral students make time to exercise and keep their energy levels up. They also don’t sit for too many hours. They know when to take a break, clear their head, and move their body.

9. They ask for help and support

They may delegate more at work because they can no longer put in many extra hours. At home, they speak freely with their families about what they need and agree to have systems in place to help them succeed. For example, they ask not to be interrupted when they are writing in their home office. Their spouse may help more around the house or put the kids to bed at night. Dissertation writing can be a lonely process but success is a team effort.

10. They create accountability

They may have an accountability buddy who is in the same doctoral program. Or they may ask a friend to keep them accountable. Another idea is to announce the expected graduation date to everyone because the thought of disappointing others will create enough pressure to follow-through.

If you struggle with self-discipline and want to find a solution to feel better immediately, change your habits, and make considerable progress on your dissertation, consider working with a coach. Click here to view how I can help you and don’t hesitate to schedule a call if you’d like to speak with me.


If you liked this article, I recommend reading “How to Get Your Dissertation DONE In a Timely Manner”.

I hope I get to call you Doctor very soon. Wishing you all the best!

About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits.  Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.