Let’s face it; a dissertation is a big undertaking. You don’t need to be a genius of the pre-eminent thinker of your times in your field in order to successfully complete one, but it is foolish to think it’s going to be a walk in the park. Plan ahead, consult with your advisor frequently, set and meet your sub-goals and deadlines, and you should be okay.

However, there remain some traps and pitfalls, nonetheless, in which it is sometimes easier to get stuck than we might think. Here we cover a few of the more confounding issues you may run into that will leave you struggling with your dissertation, and, more importantly, what you can do about it.


The foundation of your dissertation will be your hypothesis. It is a statement of belief about your topic that must be testable or arguable, which is what you are setting out to do in the paper. You don’t have to prove yourself right, as much you as you do your research thoroughly to find out whether it is true or false, or conditionally true in some circumstances.

Moreover, this statement needs to come out of the background research you have done, through which you demonstrate in the beginning that your belief/argument has a logical basis for being explored, based on existing research. Sometimes, however, as we proceed, we discover that we have not stated our argument clearly enough, or we have not said exactly what we wanted to say. This can be a problem, similar to building a car with one wheel not quite straight with the others, and once we roll down the road we feel like we’re not going in the direction we wanted.

Garden paths

Similar to having our wires crossed, we may have our foundation established, but as we go forward we realize that we have been drawn into another point, perhaps closely related but not in line with where we started. Along the way we may find some powerful research we didn’t see before, and we want to include it but in reality it is too much of a garden path that winds away from the one we have stated we shall follow.

No argument at all

Another similar pitfall that can leave you struggling with your dissertation is the problem of having a really weak argument, not supported enough by research and what is happening in the field to make it seem valuable. As we go along we find something related that is stronger, and perhaps we have started to bend our argument toward another point, and we find ourselves again in a place where the destination doesn’t seem to line up with the starting point anymore.

Restating in simple terms

Unless it a bigger matter, like you have an existential crisis and realize you want to be a traditional cobbler, and not a marine biologist after all, most of the time when people struggle with their dissertation it is because of a fundamental flaw like the ones described. In this case, you must work it out in order to proceed, and it is not impossible.

Go back to the basic argument, and put it in simple words for yourself as though you are explaining it to another person, say somebody not from your field of study. Can you express what exactly you want to argue or test, and why it is relevant to the field, based on previous research? Does it all line up and make sense? If not, you have likely found the source of your struggles.

At this point, the best plan may be to seek help from your advisor, and/or other people in the field. Everyone struggles with logical errors or research issues at some point, so don’t be shy; you are not alone. Identify your problem in detail, but simple language, and then seek help, saying, ‘I am struggling and I think this is why’. Sometimes there is nothing like an outside opinion and the opportunity to speak your confusion out loud to help you sort it out.

It can be done, and if you still believe you can do it, then you can. Get help, get refreshed, and keep going!