6 Tips for the Final Year of Your Dissertation Marathon

To get through the last few miles, you will need a holistic approach that prioritizes your mental health alongside productivity and writing, advises Samina Gul Ali.

September 21, 2021
 
 
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What a long 18 months it has been. You made it this far as a graduate student during a pandemic. Congratulations! Now you are in your final year of funding, and you need to finish up that dissertation.

You’ll find plenty of advice on writing and productivity out there, as well as tips for navigating an increasingly challenging job market -- academic and otherwise. But what is often left out of the conversation is your mental well-being.

Many of us have heard the adage “the dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint.” To get through the last few miles of your dissertation marathon, you will need a holistic approach that prioritizes your mental health alongside productivity and writing. Here is a list of tips that helped me through that final stretch.

Join or start a weekly writing accountability group. The final dissertating year is one of isolation. Add in a pandemic, and you are looking at many extremely lonely months ahead. And when COVID first hit the United States, one way my university trimmed its budget was by cutting our dissertation writing group. I knew I needed some kind of accountability to get to writing again, so I decided to create my own group. Luckily many others were eager to find a writing group at the time, so within a few days I had 10 members ready to go -- although we eventually whittled down to four core members.

When I first sent out feelers to see who might be interested in joining a writing accountability group, I made two things clear: 1) this was not a group for unsolicited advice, and 2) you could only join if you were seriously committed to meeting every week. I envisioned my writing accountability group as a place for cheerleading rather than for advice. We were there to remind each other of our successes and progress more than anything else. And if anyone directly requested advice, we could do our best to share what worked for us while still respecting boundaries and understanding the different limitations we each faced because of the pandemic.

This approach works best when everyone is at a similar level careerwise. The people in my group, for instance, included early-career scholars who were not yet on the tenure track and graduate students in the final two years of their programs. I could not have completed my dissertation without this group, the members of which I now consider to be very close friends.

Get your butt to a therapist. You have many good reasons to check in with a mental health professional during the final year of your dissertation: a pandemic with no end in sight; the harsh realities of the academic job market; the recent assaults on academic freedom; the stresses of teaching online, in person or hybrid; the impostor phenomenon, the grad school blues; and just general languishing. In fact, many graduate students do not complete their dissertation because of the mental health struggles that plague the final year. But the important thing to remember is that you are not alone.

I am the first to admit that I was incredibly hesitant to start therapy. I was raised to believe that it was only necessary for people who had already experienced total breakdowns. But after struggling with depression-induced writer’s block much longer than necessary, I knew I needed an assist to reach the finish line of my graduate program.

If you are still an enrolled student, start with your university counseling center. If you have health insurance, check out the providers listed on your health insurance website. If you do not have access to either of those options, reach out to some private practices near you and see if they offer sliding-scale services. Your state also probably provides mental health services at low or no cost, depending on your income. You can also find resources here, here and here.

Communicate with your nonacademic friends and family. A big part of the final dissertation year is feeling like your friends and family don’t understand the specificities of what you are going through -- a feeling that rings especially true if you are the only person in your family who has attended graduate school.

The best way to deal with this challenge is simply to speak openly with your loved ones and explain the process. Let them know right at the beginning of the final academic year that, yes, you know you’ve been a “student” for seemingly “forever.” And, yes, you are happy to be almost done.

But also let them know that the stress of the final year is overwhelming. Tell Mom that she needn’t ask about job opportunities every time you chat -- you are actively applying, and you will excitedly alert her when you reach the interview stage. Let people know that it is a grueling yearlong process, that each application requires individualized documents and that academe is going through a difficult moment that the pandemic has exacerbated.

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Those who care for you will hear you, understand and respect the conversational boundaries you’ve put in place. Once you get this explanation over with, you can spend your time with your nonacademic connections doing nonacademic things -- like enjoying life! And for those who don’t hear you, maybe that’s a sign you should limit your time with them until you submit your completed dissertation draft for review.

Preserve your weekends. A surefire way to destroy your wrists and your eyes is to spend all your time at your desk for the next nine months or so. The dissertation can wait until Monday! Same goes for those job applications -- I have yet to see a job app that requires submission on a Saturday. Remember that you are human and need rest.

Also remember that adequate rest time increases your productivity. After this year of collective burnout, rest is more important than ever if you want to complete your dissertation. And yet an unfair reality is that preserving weekends may not be an option for everyone. You may be juggling multiple jobs or have family obligations or other responsibilities that eat into your weekend rest time. No matter what your schedule is, you absolutely must find time to rest, even if it is just for 30 minutes a day before bedtime. The uphill battle to dissertation completion will become steeper and higher if you don’t take time to relax. It’s also a good habit to develop now so you don’t burn out quickly during your first year post-diss, whether you land an academic, industry or nonprofit position.

Limit your time searching job websites. When I first entered the job market, I was checking academic job websites every day -- indeed, multiple times a day. And it was making me insufferable because the lack of job ads in my field put me in a constant bad mood. Finally, a dear friend of mine suggested something that should have been obvious: Why not turn on the job alerts available on these websites so I receive a weekly report of opportunities straight to my email inbox?

That simple suggestion was revelatory to me. You do not need to check job listings every day. There is no job that has a one-day turnaround for applicants. Checking academic job posts every day will most certainly contribute to burnout during your final dissertating year. Job opportunities --both academic and nonacademic -- pop up all year round these days, so you will need to muster up the energy to apply to positions in October and April. Pace yourself.

Limit your social media use. This is a tough one, because many graduate students use social media for both networking and to find a sense of community when the grad school blues get them down. I am not advocating for complete disengagement from social media (although that worked best for me). For those who have been historically excluded from the academy, Twitter is a place to find commonality in experience and place microaggressions and macroaggressions within the larger systemic framework of inequity in higher ed.

But we have all succumbed to the allure of doomscrolling. And if it’s preventing you from focusing on your dissertation and prioritizing your mental health, you’ve probably reached max capacity for reading about all the ways that higher education is deteriorating right before our eyes. Maybe now is not the best time for you to see job placement announcements, award/fellowship announcements, promotion announcements and the like.

That doesn’t make you a bad person -- it just means you are going through a tough time because it’s a really tough time to be writing a dissertation. For two weeks, try to limit social media use to an hour at the end of your workday and see how you feel. No matter the outcome, keeping track of your time on sites like Twitter will give you a better sense of your work habits and how social media may or may not be affecting your overall well-being.

The final stretch of the dissertation will certainly be overwhelming. But the key to mitigating stress is to be mindful of and attentive to your overall well-being. Following these tips will help you navigate the road to graduate school completion. You are almost at the finish line -- you’ve got this!

Bio

Samina Gul Ali recently defended her dissertation in literary studies at the University of Miami. She is an incoming Equity in Action Postdoctoral Fellow in English at Kean University.

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