Congratulations! You’ve advanced to the dissertation! Realize, though, that with your new status, your current lifestyle must change.
Doctoral students at the outset have often confessed to me in my dissertation coaching practice that the lack of external structure can be a terrible shock. No more prescheduled class meetings and specific assignments. No grades to goad you on. No classmates to remind you to tackle the next assignment. You must make your own schedule and follow through. It’s not easy.
If you work outside the home full-time, or part-time, some structure is already imposed—consider yourself fortunate. You can easily figure out your dissertation time: evenings, weekends, and an occasional call-in-sick day.
If you work at home, the lack of structure can be fierce. I’ve had students who took a year off to do their dissertations and thought this was the solution to completing.
But they became busy with more “necessary” nonacademic activities than you can shake a dissertation manual at. To their panic, the year evaporated with little done.
Figure out the time you can devote to the dissertation and commit to it. Make a list of the tasks necessary. And stick to your promises.
In this new commitment, you’ll also need to change your definition of leisure. During my own dissertation struggles, at lunch one day several of us fellow students compared how we spent Christmas. After listening to everyone else’s festive activities, Hugh spoke.
“I told my family I’d go to the big dinner at the grandparents’ house on one condition: that I could work on my dissertation in their spare room upstairs.” We all stared at him.
“Sure, I wore a Christmas vest, but right after dinner I took my pie and briefcase upstairs and worked for the next four hours. When my family was ready to leave, they called me down, and, surprisingly, everyone was civil. A cousin even wished me well with my dissertation.”
Now that’s commitment.
You may not dare as radical a stand as Hugh but recognize this: The evenings of binge TV and Facebook-clicking are over. Instead, at your self-promised times, you’ll be attending dissertation seminars, studying your university outline of chapters, making notes, or surfing the Internet—for scholarly materials. On weekends, rather than car tinkering, sports cheering, or friendly spats with your spouse, you’ll still be studying, amassing too many materials, reading all those articles, and sneaking up on the horrific prospect of actually writing.
You will be facing at least two years and more likely four to six of dissertation concentration. Yes, take some breaks (another article), but keep to your schedule and list of tasks. As you do, inch by inch you will build your dissertation.
To help more, get support from others. Talk to your cohort members, recent “doctors,” professors, and scholars. You’ll no doubt hear their horror stories but should also glean some ideas about handling your time. Some students arrange a dissertation “buddy system,” where you and another doctoral student check in regularly, encourage, and prod each other to keep going.
For more support, talk to your partner, spouse, and children and ask their cooperation. Explain why you most hole up most of the time, and how it will benefit them too later (another article).
As you begin the dissertation, recognize that your life will change. Acknowledge, accept, and activate the changes. When you do, you will feel better, work more effectively, and forge your new dissertation-completing lifestyle.
© 2015 Noelle Sterne
Noelle Sterne’s new book, based on her longtime academic coaching and editing practice, helps doctoral candidates struggling with their dissertations and deals with often overlooked or ignored but crucial aspects that can prolong their agony: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). Noelle’s first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her academic practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
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a writing coach with 20 years of experience teaching at the graduate and undergraduate levels in universities, as well as in diverse community settings. She specializes in working with women in academe.