Steering Clear of the “Doldrums”

Ship at sea

By Kimberly K. Estep,
Chancellor, WGU Tennessee

During the eighteenth century, British sailors endured many hardships on the trans-Atlantic sea voyages to the New World. One of the most dreaded complications of this risky voyage was the doldrums, the common term for running into a low-pressure area that produced no winds. In an age when ships were powered exclusively by wind, being trapped in the doldrums meant making little or no headway – for days or even weeks on end. 

Of course, we’re all susceptible to “hitting the doldrums” in our everyday lives as adults. This is particularly true for many WGU Tennessee students, who must balance their coursework with family and work obligations. The freedom of our competency-based approach – which allows students to set their own pace as they move through the curriculum – can sometimes be difficult to navigate. In my own experience as a doctoral student, hitting the doldrums almost kept me from reaching the safe port of completion. I had moved very rapidly through the early part of the program, finishing my coursework and qualifying exams right on time. However, after returning from my semester in England – where I conducted historical research for my dissertation – I was pulled into the typical distractions that every student faces: I took on an additional part-time job to pay the bills, I moved to a new residence, and I spent time reconnecting with friends. Before I knew it, ten months had slipped by, and I had produced almost nothing! I was fortunate that I had a professor whose stern encouragement helped push me out of the doldrums. With his help, I found the winds I needed to make progress toward my goal.

Wondering what to do if you hit the doldrums?

  • Acknowledge and forgive yourself. Even if you have fallen far behind, it makes no sense to beat yourself up for the past. After all, if we made no mistakes, we wouldn’t accrue any wisdom to share with others, would we?
  • Set a modest plan for getting back on track. As I was working four different part-time jobs, the only time I had to work was after 11:00 p.m. I made a promise to myself to work for two hours a night, whether I felt I was making progress or not. Making (and keeping) this daily commitment was what I needed to begin seeing progress.
  • Set an interim target to check your momentum. I made a promise to my professor to get one chapter completed within the next two weeks. Breaking that huge task into small chunks made it manageable.

Some of our mentors also had some great suggestions:

  • Revisit your Vision Statement as a way to redirect your efforts toward your goal. Taking stock of how far you’ve come can inspire you to keep going. (Yvonne Teddy, Student Mentor – WGU Tennessee Teachers College)
  • Complete a smaller assignment that provides you with instant gratification. When we accomplish short-term goals, we get the energy we need to maintain focus and keep moving forward. Sometimes the best way to take a “break” from a larger project is to tackle a smaller one. (Curtis Dush, Student Mentor – Health Professions)
  • Enlist the help of your Student Mentor and your at-home support network. Tell them about your struggles and ask for their advice to get back on track. Maybe it’s as simple as taking a walk around the block or watching your favorite TV show. The important thing is to remember to ask for support when you need it! (Kathy Franklin, Student Mentor – WGU Tennessee Teachers College)

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