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Kathleen Clarke is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke where she tweets about graduate education, mental health, and disability.




There comes a time in every person’s doctoral journey when they realize they must focus on the dissertation and get it done. Throughout the past couple months, I’ve had time to reflect on where I am in my program, and, as I head into my fifth year, the time for me to focus on completion is now.


The above paragraph is the opening of an email I sent back in June, informing colleagues that I was resigning from my position. Hours of contemplation took place before I decided to resign. It wasn’t an easy decision. Now, at the beginning of the new semester, I can already see how writing this e-mail jumpstarted a streak of decisions that has changed the rest of my doctoral journey.


Throughout my program, I committed to everything. I took on teaching, positions on several Board of Directors, conference planning, and research assistantships. It always seemed as though exciting opportunities were around the corner. As a result, I took on one commitment after another and juggled as many things as I could. I wanted to build my resume and make new connections. But taking on these things came at a cost: I wasn’t working on my dissertation.


This summer, I realized I was heading into the 5th year of a 4th year program and that something had to change. I had to start cutting commitments and turning down opportunities so that I wasn’t juggling as much and had time to work on my dissertation. There were several decisions that had be made though in terms of what had to go. Here are some considerations and steps to take if you are in the same position I was:


Step 1. Map Out Your Commitments

All of them. Make a list of every single commitment you have. Don’t worry about organizing them in a certain way right now; just get everything down. What jobs are you committed to? What volunteer opportunities are you committed to? Do you owe certain people things? The items you identify don’t only have to be related to your program, or to developing your resume. Think about what family or other personal commitments you have that will take time. Do you have any vacations planned or any upcoming family events? Write it all down.


Step 2. Organize

Now that you have everything written down, organize them in a way that makes sense to you. Make a table that has a few columns so that you can compare across the commitments and see the big picture. Consider making a column for:


Time. How long will each commitment take? Is it a daily, weekly, monthly commitment? When you start making your plan for each semester, you will want to know what your commitments are so you can organize your time. An article might be a weekly commitment if you are aiming to write it over the course of a semester. A conference proposal might take a few days but could be a bigger commitment if you are submitting conference proposals for multiple conferences. Also, keep in mind that sometimes people underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. This may happen especially when you don’t want to cut something. By underestimating the time it will take, you might convince yourself it can fit into your schedule. Keep this in mind as you make your decisions and remember that the goal is to finish writing your dissertation!


Hard vs. Soft. I refer to hard commitments as things that you can’t get out of. Or rather, things you think you can’t get out of because you believe it will make you look bad if you do. For example, you might have a job that you think would be difficult to resign from. Or, maybe a weekly family commitment that you are dedicated to. Soft commitments are the things you think would be easier to cut or get out of. For example, maybe you volunteered for something for an extended period and you feel you could cut your hours back or stop completely. Looking at whether your commitments are hard or soft might help you decide which things would be easy (or easier) to drop.


Benefits. There might be things on your list that you come across and think, “This takes a long time and it would be easy to get out of, but I really enjoy doing it.” Part of your decision on what to cut is the personal and professional benefits you feel that you get from doing it. You may not want to completely cut some of the professional commitments out of fear that this could hurt your job prospects. You may not want to cut things you have a personal commitment to because you enjoy doing them. Therefore, make a note of what each commitment brings to your life in your table of commitments.  


Step 3. Decide

Next, you need to look at your table and decide which commitments you are going to cut. This can be hard. The thing to remember though is that this is temporary. In her post about “disappearing” so she could finish writing her dissertation, Regina Sierra Carter talked about steps she took to meet her goal including how she would screen her calls. She noted though: “This might sound cruelly calculating, but it’s necessary. Remember: you are practicing social abstinence.  It’s temporary. Once you are done with the dissertation, life will (hopefully) resume its regularly scheduled programming.” For me, writing for GradHacker made the cut because it doesn’t take a lot of time and I enjoy doing it. Teaching, however, was cut because it takes a lot of time, I already have teaching on my resume, and my partner and I could survive financially without it.


When I was having a hard time cutting something, like teaching, I would talk about the commitment with my partner because some of the decisions would affect our relationship (e.g., finances, time together). He always responded with a question: “If you take this on, how long will it add to your program?” Of course, depending on the commitment it would be hard to answer this question, but it reminded me of my goal to finish and why I made this goal in the first place. I now consistently ask myself: Is this other commitment worth taking time away from my dissertation if a completed dissertation means I will graduate, not have to pay more tuition, get a job, and move on with my life?


Because of cutting back I’ve had more time to write and it has been easier for me to get into a groove with the things I am still working on. I’ve similarly written elsewhere about how taking a social media break can increase your focus. In both cases, your brain has fewer things to process and fewer transitions between tasks.


I’m curious about what steps others have taken when they reached a point where they knew they had to cut back on commitments and what they experienced after they cut out certain things. Share your experiences in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user kosmolaut and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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