Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How To Survive A Dissertation: Part II: COPING


While I had promised in my last post to regale you with tales of setting margins, choosing paper, adjusting styles in MS Word, and other fun tales, I received an IM this week that made me think this particular post is more important. Copyright permissions and the like will have to wait..


You may be halfway to two-thirds toward reaching your day of glory, or maybe you are working on a proposal, or maybe the dissertation seems like this huge obstacle you'll be tackling in a year or so from now. No matter where you are in the process, know that writing a dissertation can be one of the most emotionally dynamic experiences of your life. As Joan Bolker says: "Whether or not writing turns out to be your practice, writing your dissertation will still have changed you for all time" (Writing your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, 150).

The following list contains just a sampling of emotions you may experience during the course of the diss: frustration, joy, depression, confusion, satisfaction, despair, wonderment, excitement...Like I said, dynamic! So how does one cope under the stress of such an emotional roller-coaster? Well, let's rephrase that questions: How does one TRY to cope?

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

You can and will receive support from family and friends, but it is important that you have reasonable expectations of them. When you need support because of dissertation-related stress, I suggest using the following "hierarchy." This hierarchy is NOT a statement about the quality of the people or the friendships (so I'm looking for a different word), but instead a strategy for success when seeking empathy.

GROUP A: They've Been There

Aside from being repositories of helpful advice and information, these people do know what it is like. Seek out people who have completed their dissertation within the last ten years, so a) they aren't too emotionally removed from the process and b) they can relate to the struggles of a modern dissertation. Occasionally you may run into someone who was so traumatized by their experience they "don't want to talk about it," but more often than not, people will want to help you by sharing their own hard-won wisdom. Ideally, you'll find someone willing to both listen and share. This is also why it is a good idea to have a junior faculty member on your committee.

GROUP B: Misery Loves Company

To some extent this is true, but you want to make this interaction productive. Getting together with fellow dissertators for a huge venting session can be satisfying and healthy. But venting only gets you so far. Try to form a support/writing group that meets weekly. Give yourselves a pre-determined amount of time to chat/vent then get down to work. If you are all at the writing stage, exchange a couple pages every week with a partner and give constructive feedback to each other.*

*Peer advice can be very helpful and doesn't come wrapped up with the same psychology of receiving comments from a mentor or advisor.

GROUP C: We Love You Anyway

These folks are likely to be the people closest to you...the ones who are still there after you've bitten their heads off for the fiftieth time, whom you've told they "just have no idea," and who have been willing to listen to hour-long pontifications about the finer points of liturgical theory as it relates to ritual and the concertized Latin Mass. Not surprisingly, it is this group of people who you will most likely find yourself pushing away. Try to be aware of this. They love you, and no, they may not "get" everything, but they'll be there at the end of the day and want to celebrate your success.


As far as dissertating goes, solitude can be both a blessing and a curse. Try to know when you need it and when you don't. I'm a people person, so I was much more comfortable working at a coffee shop, where the reminder of life was comforting and helped me focus. For others, holing up with a carrel at the library may be what they need. Sometimes you'll find yourself craving one or the other.

If you start thinking "I'm all alone," amber lights should start flashing. At best, it may just be periodic self-pity. More importantly, this can often be an indication of depression (even a minor form), because the truth is, you are NOT alone. Even if you don't have the flesh-and-blood colleagues around you to form a writing group, the internet has expanded our professional and social resources. Find an on-line dissertation support group (or start one!). Call and email your PhD and ABD friends. One helpful resource: The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide (I recommend their newsletters).

Note on photo: I'm considering this fair-use, but I'll be happy to give credit, so if you took this photo, let me know.

1 comment:

Sammee said...

That was SO helpful! Again, I am so grateful that we're friends. :)


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea