Well- I seem to have done it! I successfully defended my dissertation last week and passed unanimously! I don’t know if that is unusual or not, but it still feels good. Of course there were some minor revisions suggested by a few committee members, but that seems to be par for the course, in our department at least. It has been a long haul, and while I have enjoyed it overall and have met some truly lovely people, I am ready to find out what the next chapter of my life holds.
However, I wanted to take some time to give advice to others on this path. Hence, my Dissertation Survival Guide. Before I start, I will admit that I never bothered to read any of these types of lists while I was in the process myself. However, it has come up in conversation a few times, so I thought It would be worth sharing my thoughts, now that I have survived this journey, relatively sound of mind and body.
1.) Put on real clothes every day. This may or may not be important to you, but to feel like a “real” grown-up during this process, I had to look the part, to some extent. I am not advocating that you dress like you are going to a professional office every day, but I do recommend not spending more time in your pajamas than is healthy for you.
2.) Keep a routine. This was vital for me. After being a parent and teacher for most of my adult life, I was used to being responsible to and for other people. I started grad school when my children were finishing up high school, so my role was already shifting, and as a GRA, my work was flexible and somewhat sporadic, so it could have been easy to fall into a slacker lifestyle. (as a former Austinite, I can use that word with pride!) So, I still got up every day and worked out, did my house chores, and spent time “working” pretty much every day, Monday-Friday. I am a list maker, and I would make lists before I went to bed to come up with tasks to accomplish the next day, be they for my paid work, my own research, or other grad school related activities. I was afraid if I started going to movies or such during the day that this less structured lifestyle would suck me into some kind of unproductive vortex and I would linger in grad school for more years than was reasonable.
3.) Set goals. This is related to my lists. I would stay on top of reading in the field, applying to present at conferences I cared about, and I took more classes than necessary- but I did like that part of grad school. I enjoy learning!
4.) At some point, you just have to sit your booty down and write. This one took me awhile to figure out. I knew I would have to start making progress on my dissertation if I was going to finish this Spring, even though I had not gotten my IRB approval yet. But it was hard to move forward. My motivation came in the form of a fellow grad student, Elese Washines’ Facebook post. In early January, she posted her resolution to start writing an hour a day. While this is not a novel idea by any stretch of the imagination, it was all I needed to get started. So, in solidarity, I messaged Elese and asked her if she wanted to be my “accountability buddy” and that I would start writing too, and we would text each other our progress.
5.) Build your stamina. When I actually started writing the dissertation itself, I started out writing for an hour a day, four days a week. Then I based it on a daily word count. Over time, I built up the amount of time I would spend writing, and by the end, could write for hours at a time. This was useful when it came to the last push to finish on time and I would spend the whole day at my computer! My marathon analogy from previous posts has proven to be useful in so many ways!
6.) While I didn’t know it would be so useful, having an accountability buddy was important. Just texting Elese a few times a week kept me more honest about sticking to a writing routine. Being a commuter student meant I didn’t have access to meet my friends for writing sessions, so this virtual way of connecting was just enough to motivate me. Find someone, preferably who understands what you are going through and commit to each other!
7.) Lastly, I do not know if it was a coincidence or not, but I started a regular yoga practice the same week I started this PhD program five years ago. Not having a full time job, and now having a much more flexible schedule, meant I could structure my day around when there were yoga classes I could attend. It may not be the answer for everyone, but I felt calmer than the occasion often called for, and I do credit yoga for helping me stay more mellow and in the moment through all of my grad school process.
I don’t know if any of this will be helpful to you, but it worked for me. If you are in this process, I wish you the best of luck. Stick with it, because being on the other side FEELS AMAZING!