02/28/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

PhD or ABD?

At the opening of Passion, Sarah Ruhl's new, excellent play, I found myself seated next to a handsome, 30-something man and couldn't help asking him about his interest in the theater. To my delight, we shared a love of 17th century English drama. He was far advanced in his studies but had stopped after his doctoral graduate courses just before writing his dissertation. It had been five years since he had put it aside. So, in an aside of my own, I offered some free advice: Don't shelve it. Finish it. I assured him, that while he might resist, he'd be happier when it was done.

When I asked what he was doing in the meantime, he answered that he was conducting research on his own, studying and chatting in the library with others interested in such literature. Was it for credit? No. For publication? No. To further his dissertation? No. He just liked it, he said.

He's not alone. Maybe misery does love company, but not completing a PhD stings. Besides the intense feeling of shame, a lack of completion squanders the time, money, and hope already invested. Without finishing a dissertation you can't write PhD on your resume, and ABD (All But Dissertation) won't cut it. Flagging the fact that you haven't finished finishes you.

Why is it so critical to any student anyway? Higher Education, besides having so much value, requires original research only once, at the very end. If it were up to me, the system would require it much sooner. But up to this point, as it stands, students become skilled at fulfilling professors' requirements but don't have any guidance on how to really think on our own. Having to do that after nearly a decade of university courses requires a steep learning curve. When we do tackle it, choosing a topic (hopefully one that we are interested in using to launch our career), assembling a dedicated committee, then doing the research and defending our work, we demonstrate that we have achieved that which our professors have. Only then are we enough like them to be thought worthy of belonging. In a sense, standing up for ourselves is our academic rite of passage. Not doing so locks us out, not matter how smart and talented we are.

Here are some strategies, not only for my seatmate but for all of you who are struggling with starting -- or finishing -- the dissertation:

1. Set a time frame for completing it this year.
2. Find a buddy or support team and commit to a healthy number of hours per week. If you're stuck, pay a coach to guide you and hold you accountable.
3. Make a solid relationship with your committee chair and/or members, soliciting advice without complaining or showing that you feel regressed to adolescence.
4. Think about how it will feel to have a PhD behind your name. If you're afraid, review your past accomplishments as proof to yourself that you can do it.
5. If you don't make progress by this week or next, return to the top of this list.

Understand that often in our struggles, we must confront ourselves and thereby end up feeling unworthy, like imposters. But feelings are quite separate from reality. And the experience of doing the work anyway, even when we doubt we can, is a career competence in itself.

Make your luck happen.