Five Things That You Will Experience While Writing Your Dissertation
Updated: Jun 5
Writing (and finishing) your dissertation can be one of the most rewarding times of your life. But it also involves immense challenges. Some emotions and experiences are common among dissertators: isolation, uncertainty, the dreaded impostor syndrome, to name a few. This short blog post will help you identify some key issues and recommend strategies for keeping your spirits up.
Have you ever questioned whether you belong in your graduate program, second-guessed your own intelligence, or doubted that you could continue to produce quality work? Chances are you are not an incompetent fraud but rather one of many graduate students experiencing impostor syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is an incredibly common problem among graduate students and other high-achievers. Described by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness,” imposter syndrome can strike no matter how successful you’ve been in the past and often persists despite ample evidence of achievement.
How can you combat such an insidious problem? Speak openly with peers and trusted mentors. You’ll soon realize that your feelings of inadequacy are extremely common—and unfounded. Talking with your support network will remind you how common this problem is and interrupt cycles of negative thoughts before they really get going.
Let go of perfection: Send your work out into the world even if it doesn’t yet meet some impossible flawless standard. For instance, you might present new ideas in friendly venues such as a lunchtime talk series at your university or ask your friends to read over less-than-perfect drafts. As you become more comfortable sharing your work, you’ll free yourself from the tyranny of perfectionism and join more interesting scholarly conversations.
Even during “normal times,” grad students often find themselves feeling isolated from family and friends. Maybe you moved to a faraway city to get your degree, maybe your nonacademic family members don’t really understand what you’re doing, or maybe the time pressures of the Ph.D. leave you with little time for socializing.
These feelings of isolation are especially liable to arise now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Typical social activities such as parties are temporarily impossible. Libraries, archives, and university campuses are closed, meaning that you’re also isolated from your advisers and crucial on-campus resources. There’s no denying that 2020 is shaping up to be a difficult and lonely time for many people.
In my experience, the best solution to isolation is reaching out. Check in regularly with your committee members either by phone or video call. Build a wide support network of both mentors and peers. Participate in “Zoom happy hours” with your grad student peers (or organize one yourself if none exist). Is there a professor you met at a conference last year and have been meaning to email? An old friend with whom you’d like to catch up? Now’s a good time.
Stress and Frustration
Graduate school has a reputation for generating stress. As you write your dissertation, you may work with archives that have limited opening hours, send countless emails into the void trying to prompt a response from your absentee adviser, struggle to balance teaching with research and writing, suddenly need to learn a new language or skill, or simply feel a sense of despair in the face of looming deadlines
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the array of stressors and frustrations that arise during the dissertating process. Again, cultivating a broad support network can help you through the inevitable hard times. Ask for advice on navigating that confusing archive or untangling a complicated chapter.
Many students find it helpful to try meditation or DBT techniques, maintain healthy sleep and exercise habits, and learn other wellness skills; the Happiness Lab podcast, for instance, is dedicated to explaining up-to-date scientific research on happiness, with the practical goal of living a happier life.
If you are really struggling during graduate school, make an appointment with a trained mental health professional. University health services should be able to assist you in finding an appropriate therapist.
Should you split that huge dissertation chapter into three separate chapters? Should you submit an article to Specialist Journal X or Prestigious Journal Y? How do you know when you’re ready to defend? Writing a dissertation involves a series of choices; it’s a long and winding road full of forks, and each choice you make just leads to more choices.
Graduate students often enjoy considerable independence when it comes to choosing a topic, shaping their research trajectory, and making career decisions. But that independence is daunting. How do you know you’re making the right decision? Is there even a “right” decision?
The short answer is: Yes and no. There is no one path that is the best, and there’s no way to know ahead of time how everything will turn out. But there are ways to strategize for success and make decisions that lead to outcomes you want.
Discipline and Determination
When you’re early in the dissertation process—and quite possibly wondering what on earth you want to spend the next several years researching—it’s all too easy to lose motivation. Mid-dissertation, as you encounter obstacles and frustrations, motivation might continue to be elusive. Motivation, after all, is fickle; discipline, however, keeps you moving forward even if you don’t really feel like it.
No dissertation gets written without, well, writing. So make a plan to get that writing done. Put it on your calendar, make it official, and ask your friends to hold you accountable. Whether you manage 1000 words per day or 100, every word counts. Sometimes you’ll spend your designated writing time staring at a blank page, glaring at that one ugly sentence, or wondering where to fit in a particular section. That’s okay. The process of writing is also a process of thinking. As you outline, write, edit, reorganize, delete, and rewrite, you figure out what you truly want to say.
And once you’ve experienced a flash of inspiration, you naturally want to see your big idea through to completion. Figuring out what truly interests you about your field leads to a sense of determination. That combination of discipline and determination will get your dissertation done.