In 1900 few Americans finished high school. Those who did had a huge advantage over everyone else. By 1950 high school graduates were common, and gaining a career advantage from education required a college degree. By 1970 people with bachelor’s degrees often began adding master’s degrees to stand out from the crowd.

When the global financial crisis began in 2008, many young people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees could not find attractive work of the kind they were prepared to do. In this environment, a Ph.D. degree became the latest source of career advantage. New Ph.D.s who turned their dissertations into nonfiction books that established substantial professional credibility had the upper hand.

While high school, bachelor’s, and master’s diplomas had each in their day provided valuable credentials simply for anyone who learned a body of knowledge, a Ph.D. provides a great deal more: the opportunity to substantially add to the storehouse of what is known. As a result, earning a Ph.D. can provide an opportunity to develop such useful knowledge that the newly minted expert’s help is sought all around the world. Isn’t that wonderful?

However, gaining such esteem doesn’t happen automatically. You must conduct original research, find or develop valuable knowledge, gain your advisors’ acceptance, and attract interest with your writing. It’s not a small challenge. Large numbers of talented people start to earn a Ph.D., but never do. Not all those who earn the coveted degree emerge as sought-after experts.

Corresponding with a faculty colleague at Rushmore University about his first Ph.D. reminded me how poorly most Ph.D. candidates initially understand many important aspects of producing a dissertation. Let me help you correct any mistaken beliefs you have by drawing on Professor Morten Middelfart’s many excellent observations.

Morten has an uncanny ability to get through difficulties. Perhaps his heritage plays a role: Born and raised in Denmark, his last name in Danish can be translated into English as “middle passage.” I think of such a route as one that doesn’t include extremes, avoids detours, but nevertheless avoids any obstacles.

Here’s the first of five problems that many Ph.D. candidates don’t expect:

1. The original research concept doesn’t work (and the next few don’t work, as well).

As you can imagine, such an experience (especially if repeated) can be discouraging. Most people respond by concluding that a Ph.D. program is more difficult than expected and feeling pressure from time passing. Some start to despair of ever being done.

Here’s my advice: Relax. This is all normal. Such seeming setbacks simply lead to better research concepts, ones that are more likely to amaze and delight others. Here is what Morten says about his experience with developing his research concept:

“During these research projects, I familiarized myself with analytical methods such as conjoint analysis, perceptual mapping, multivariate regression, as well as developed my own data-mining algorithm. Having computers assist in new ways of analyzing data, other than those I have been accustomed to while developing analytical applications for business, was a true learning experience.

“My most important scientific experience was from Pat Robinson, my advisor, teaching me not to segment data too early in a process. One should explore the data to see what patterns emerge, and then use this understanding to name the patterns in the data fabric.”

The next challenge comes during the literature review:

2. More time is spent reading about previously unheard-of things than the candidate thinks could be possible.

If you don’t already have good reading and note-taking skills, be sure to correct any deficiencies. You’ll be glad you did. Once again, my advice is to relax. Some of these new areas will turn out to yield highly valuable insights. Be eager to find golden nuggets of wisdom wherever you look. Here are Morten’s observations:

“The literature research phase took a lot longer than I anticipated. I felt that all the books referred me to still other books. Because of that, I combined structured referencing and intuition in scoping my literature research.

“In other words, I went to the obvious literature, but I was very open to whatever literature ‘came to me,’ as well. Whenever I heard the name of a book three times from different parties or I found a book which seemed interesting in that moment, I would read it as well.

“By using this approach, I found that the initial research structure gradually changed. However, the most challenging part of this process was how to keep up with my notes, which rapidly accumulated as I covered 75 pieces of literature in addition to the mandatory ones in the Rushmore program.”

Despite good intentions, other problems will appear during the literature research:

3. Notes will either be incomplete or disorganized such that a lot of research will have to be repeated.

Such a problem can be reduced by first studying how to take and organize notes for a literature review and preparing a dissertation. A dissertation advisor should review the methods in the beginning to suggest improvements. Morten is a very careful researcher, yet he still had unexpected problems. Here’s some more of his advice:

“If I were to do it again, I would include page numbers concerning the literature sources in my reading notes. This simple step would have saved me a lot of work in citing the references during the actual writing.”

When the research is done, the writing can begin. Hurray! That’s the good news. The bad news is that the challenges aren’t over yet:

4. The first writing outline won’t work, nor the second, nor the third, etc.

You might be wondering how so many writing outlines could be faulty. Well, a lot of what makes enormous sense in outlines proves to be quite awkward, if not virtually impossible, to render into prose by following the outlined sequence.

In other words, the mental construction of how to explain the material makes a lot of sense to the Ph.D. student, but the same sequence presents a head-scratching mystery to someone without the same knowledge. Remember two things: first, at this point the candidate knows more than anyone else in the world about the subject. Second, the writing must make the information accessible for readers, not the writer!

Again, my advice is to relax. Everyone needs to order the material in a way that the writer understands before the knowledge can be translated into a sequence that makes the most sense to everyone else.

Morten commented as follows:

“The process of writing took on a life of its own. The initial skeleton of chapters and references changed, and sometimes it felt as if my hands were just writing on pure inspiration.

“During these times, readjustment was needed to ensure the overall flow of thought. However, at these times the writing became livelier, coming from both my heart and my head.”

Are you ready for the last problem?

5. Dissertations have to be totally redone for publication as non-fiction books.

Oops! This problem must seem like a cruel blow. Realize that most universities focus on creating dissertations solely to inform the academic community. They aren’t interested in producing more accessible works for general use.

Publishers know what sells, and dissertations don’t! These savvy book producers will usually require outlining and writing from scratch.

One possible alternative is to find a university that accepts and assists in developing research as non-fiction books, rather than in dissertation format, for fulfilling Ph.D. requirements. This difference in educational philosophy can save you thousands of hours and allow you to become a well-recognized expert years sooner!

Even writing a book is challenging. Although Morten wrote a book instead of a dissertation, he found it rough going. Here are his observations:

“Getting feedback was particularly valuable for me. It was the fuel that kept me going through the hard and frustrating times when inspiration just wasn’t there. The kind assistance I received from friends who helped me create a flow of worthwhile reading was invaluable.

“I had a truly remarkable connection and synergy with Rushmore’s editor, who not only did an excellent job of editing my writing, but who also encouraged and inspired me about the content.”

I pray that learning about these problems and how to deal with them has been valuable and will serve you well while you earn a Ph.D. degree.

Hesitate to procrastinate in getting started! You’ll enjoy being a world-renowned Ph.D.!

What are you waiting for?

Author's Bio: 

Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit