The dissertation. It’s the last and biggest task on the path toward getting a doctoral degree, and for many graduate students, it’s an experience marked by worry, self-doubt, exhaustion, and at times even despair. The emotional toll of the dissertation is a major reason why doctoral students have higher-than-average rates of mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and why half of doctoral students in the U.S. don’t actually complete their degrees. So how can you survive your dissertation in one piece? Here are some tips from my years of working with doctoral students in counseling, and from my own dissertation journey as well.
- Break it down and map it out. So you’re supposed to write something like 150-200 pages. (This depends a lot upon the discipline.) The sheer enormity of this task overwhelms many students and leaves them unsure of how even to get started. I recommend first taking out your calendar and marking your intended defense date. Then, going backward from there, try to determine each deadline (chapter submissions, committee meetings, etc.) you’ll need to prepare for along the way, and mark those too. The more you break things down, the better. These deadlines can change once you get to work, of course, but it makes a huge difference for your psyche to view your dissertation as a set of manageable steps rather than as a massive monolith.
- Structure your days. One of the biggest perks of graduate school (and academia at large) is long stretches of time without anywhere you’re expected to be. Yet this can also be one of the biggest pitfalls for many students. You sit down in front of your dissertation, pause to check social media, get up to make yourself a snack, sit back down in front of your dissertation, text back and forth with a friend, respond to an email from one of your undergrads, then get up to switch out the laundry… and suddenly it’s 10 PM and you’ve written half a paragraph. It can be very helpful to add some structure to your days. Maybe you write every morning (phone on silent) and then give yourself a break to connect with friends or get the house in order after lunch. Or maybe you work in the late afternoons after exercise and a hot shower. Your structure doesn’t need to be rigid — minute-by-minute schedules tend to lead to frustration and resentment — but try to give your days some regular shape so that they don’t get away from you.
- Make room for the rest of your life. With such a huge task before you, it can seem compelling to spend every waking moment on it. How you can possibly go to that yoga class when you have a chapter due on Monday? How can you keep up on date nights with your husband when you have so many revisions to make? But when it comes to getting things done, time works in funny ways. Investing in the rituals and activities that bring you pleasure and restore your spirit will actually pay back in renewed energy and clarity when you sit down in front of your work. Not investing in them will lead to chronic burnout. So please make sure that you make room for self-care, social connection, and whatever pursuits give you peace and joy.
- Let go of self-defeating thoughts. With all of that time spent alone with your dissertation, it can be easy for self-defeating thoughts to come knocking at your door. These may range from judgments of your work (“It’s never going to be good enough”) to worries about your career (“The way things are going, I’ll never land an academic job”). Unsurprisingly, these thoughts can get in the way of making any progress on your dissertation. One solution? Try not to answer the door. What I mean is that you can let a thought pop into your mind without engaging with it and allowing it to steal your focus. I suggest jotting self-defeating thoughts down on a notepad the minute they come up, and then immediately crossing them out and returning your attention to the writing. You can always process them later in a more constructive context (for example, a conversation with a trusted peer or counselor), but do not let them carry you away when you’re trying to work.
- Seek support. This is a long road, and you should not have to travel it alone. In addition to your personal support network, there are other resources available to you. Many graduate programs offer dissertation writers’ groups where you can check in with one another about your progress before sitting down to write together (virtually or side-by-side) in order to boost motivation. If you don’t have access to a group like this, you can start one of your own or choose an accountability buddy for the same purpose. You may also benefit from the professional support of a licensed counselor or a dissertation coach; though their roles are somewhat different, both can help you identify and get past blockages, maintain or regain motivation, and find balance between your dissertation and the rest of your life.
- Celebrate successes. Research has shown that paying attention to what’s going well (as opposed to only what isn’t) can improve our experiences and increase our optimism. This is particularly important on the dissertation journey, where you’re likely to go through long stretches of minimal feedback punctuated by pointed critiques from committee members. I encourage you to become your own cheerleader and celebrate your successes, big and small, along the way. Figured out how to organize that tricky section? Record it in a success journal. Finished transcribing those hours of interviews? Write that on a post-it and stick it to a success wall. You can also share your wins with your writing partners or others who will applaud you. The more you mark these successes, the more empowered you’ll feel as you move through the work.
- Remember that you are not your dissertation. In our society, we’re often defined by what we do (“So what do you for work?”) but this is particularly acute in academia, where you devote endless amounts of time to becoming the expert in one very specific niche (“I study the mating habits of female coatimundis”). It is not uncommon for doctoral students to become fused with their dissertations and base their sense of self on them. But please keep in mind that your dissertation is something you produce, not something you are. You are so much more than this document — you are a loyal friend, passionate soccer fan, doting dog mom, avid baker, caring partner, devoted vintage record collector, and so on. And those things will be part of who you are long after the dissertation is done.
And it will get done! You’ve got this. You really do. I hope these tips help make your process a bit smoother. If you’ve got tips of your own to share, please comment below so that others can benefit from your wisdom and experience. Wishing you the best of luck!