“Healthy Habits During Dissertation Writing” workshop notes

Below are my notes and a handout from a workshop I attended yesterday morning on maintaining healthy habits while writing a dissertation. The workshop was sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Office of Graduate Studies and was hosted by licensed psychologist Dr. Scott Winrow, who did an excellent job summarizing some of the most recent research on stress management and wellness practices.

Managing Stress During the Dissertation Writing Process

  • highly recommend the book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis by Joan Bolker
  • your dissertation = unsupervised work
    • avoidance is a common problem, which is why 15 minutes per day is always a good starting point
      • even on days off, 15-20 minutes of work can be good to keep your focus on your work, keep your thoughts flowing
      • scheduling = also critical –> don’t let other things eat into the time you’ve set aside for your dissertation work
  • plan out goals of different lengths
    • daily, weekly, monthly, semester goals
    • focus just on daily goals can lead to tunnel vision and/or missed bureaucratic deadlines (keep your eyes on paperwork deadlines!)
    • milestone goals = when chapters are to be finished, drafts to readers, etc.
  • consider different writing approaches
    • e.g. don’t edit when just beginning to write your dissertation –> free-write and then go back, so that you can get your ideas flowing
  • be sure you can say “no” to other people to protect your writing time
    • look for balance, set priorities –> with friends, yes, but with your advisor too
  • get your writing space set up the way you need it –> figure out what you need
    • be aware of avoidance behavior and correct it when you notice it
    • communicate your needs to your advisor (especially if you are working from home and they may not see you around as much –> make sure they are aware you are working)
  • take some breaks – after one or two hours of work AND at the end of the week
    • but don’t reward yourself if you don’t do the work
  • break away from social media if you are the type of person who needs to do so
  • keep perspective: your dissertation is not your magnus opus!
    • most people average two years or more to write their dissertation
    • be hesitant about trying to add too much as you go and/or about going back and changing things –> this can drag the writing process out (and your expenses for attending graduate school, missed job opportunities)
    • get support from peers — especially if your family and/or friends have never been to graduate school
      • writing groups can also be good –> you may need people to “call you out on your B.S.,” on your avoidance behaviors (in a healthy way)
    • maintain contact with your advisor and/or committee members –> be active in seeking out support from these people and also be aware of avoidance
      • find other mentors if you need to, if you aren’t getting what you need from your advisor
      • follow up if you don’t hear back in a reasonable amount of time –> can also be proactive by setting a timeline when send e-mails
      • keep track of your advisor’s ideas for your dissertation
        • taking notes helps clarify the changes they want you to make (and whether or not you’ve done what they want)
    • take the time to take care of yourself: you will be more productive in the long-run –> all research supports this
      • taking care of yourself is NOT competing for your time — it HELPS you
      • this includes exercise, eating well (especially breakfast –> otherwise your brain doesn’t have the glucose it needs to move things into long-term memory)
      • adequate sleep = crucial –> even 1 night of less than 6 hours of sleep impacts your brainwaves for 3 days (takes 3 full days to recover from 1 bad night)
      • plan rewards but ONLY for getting things done
    • keep in mind that it’s normal to feel inadequate, overwhelmed from time to time: “imposter syndrome”
      • “you know more than you think” so give yourself credit for it
      • these fears^ = healthy as long as you keep them in perspective
    • come see the folks at CAPS if you need help
      • about 40% of their clients = graduate students (perhaps in part because assistantships make student health insurance visits “free”)

Q & A session:

  • What if your dissertation is done but your advisor keeps getting “ideas?”
    • enlist the help of Graduate Studies in reminding your advisor (as a 3rd party) that there are time limits involved, financial burdens to you taking more time to finish your program
    • sometimes profs get used to you being here, doing things, don’t want to let you go
    • can ALSO turn drafts of your dissertation in extra early, may give them the time they need to suggest revisions in time for you to graduate on target
    • also try stopping by your advisor’s office in person, rather than e-mailing
      • try sending e-mail first thing in the morning, cc other committee members, to increase the chances that your request goes to the top of their “to-do” list

Handout, Managing Stress During the Dissertation Writing Process