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Re-Starting: Strategies for Returning to Your Dissertation

Getting back into the swing of things.

September 6, 2016

Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can contact her via Twitter or her website.



Three months ago, I had a very clear plan for how my summer was going to progress. My cross-country move from Southern California to New Jersey was meticulously planned, and I was ready to start my life as a full-time dissertation writer. After unpacking, which I figured wouldn’t take more than a week, I just knew that the words would easily and effortlessly flow from my fingertips. A chapter by the end of August: no problem!


But then something happened. A stream of somethings, actually. Maybe more like a raging river of somethings.


My adventure across the country turned into a 5,000-miles-in-4-days saga of broken dishes, exploding tires, dishonest mechanics, twitching eyelids, and exhaustion. Yet, in the end, these trials pale in comparison to the fact that, less than six hours into my journey, I found out that my grandfather had passed away. Individually, each of these things would have driven a calm person to swearing or tears or both. However, when they all happened at the same time, the only thing I could do was muddle through by ignoring my dissertation for more than two months and watching a ton of Netflix.


Eventually, I began thinking about getting back to work, about deadlines and blank pages, about my advisor and my department. I wasn’t paralyzed any longer by sadness or exhaustion, but instead by the seemingly insurmountable effort of restarting my dissertation. Every time I thought about writing, my heart would start to race and panic would well up inside of me. Every time a deadline came and went, I’d resign myself to abandoning the whole project. How could I possibly start again? How can I expect to write something good when I can't even remember where my research is let alone what it is all about? I failed to work on it for so long, how did I expect to start working on it now?


Graduate school occurs in tandem with some of life’s most profound and emotional developments. Between the ages of 25 and 35, people articulate important life and career goals, figure out how to live a financially solvent lifestyle, fall in love with a life partner, fall out of love, get married (or not), have children (or not), and, as I learned this summer, lose relatives and friends. Each of these life events can be traumatic and exhilarating. They can force you to reevaluate your future and come to terms with your past. Graduate students, however, go through these experiences with an ever-present companion: a dissertation.


At some point while writing your dissertation, life is going to happen to you too, and you are going to have to put your work on hold for a little while. Earlier this year when I lost another relative, my advisor told me that grief and other personal setbacks take time to overcome, even more time than you think possible. He was absolutely right. When life--for better or worse--derails your dissertation, you must take time for yourself, mentally and physically.


But one day, after a week or four, you will catch yourself thinking about some minute point you want to make in your dissertation. Or you will wake up one morning and think, “Hum. I bet I can get some work done today.” You will hit a tipping point and, suddenly, you’ll be ready to get back to work, I promise. And when it is, here are some tips for easing yourself back into writing and avoiding dissertation-induced anxiety.


Tips for Re-Starting


1. Re-member to Forgive Yourself: While I was one week deep into my sloth-Netflix phase of the summer, I couldn’t help but list all of the ways I had failed my advisor, my department, my dissertation, and myself. As due dates and personal goals passed me by, I wallowed in defeat. It will surprise no one to learn that this sort of negative self-talk death spiral, endemic among perfection-seeking graduate students, is paralyzing. So, stop it! Right now! Although it is easier said than done, you are not going to be able to start anything until you forgive yourself for the past. This is an opportunity to start fresh, so take it!

2. Re-organize Your Writing Space: Chances are, since you last worked on your dissertation, your writing space has suffered from lack of use. Take a few days to focus, not on missed deadlines or the horrors of the blank page, but on making your workspace clean, inviting, and full of adorable office supplies. For me, this meant making sure that my standing desk was comfortable, that I had plenty of Post-it notes at the ready, that my transliteration charts and timelines were clearly visible, and that my desk was surrounded by art and family photos. Have you thought about making your desk more ergonomic? Do it! Have a ton of messy papers and old student exams? File and shred them! Do everything you can to make your space comfortable and your writing easy.

3. Re-boot Your Computer: This tip is a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone situation. First, I’m pretty sure your computer is a mess, with files everywhere and clutter strangling your research. Second, time has made your memory a bit fuzzy. What do your sources say exactly? How much material do you actually have? What did you need to look up? When I started back to work, I spent the first two days going through every file on my computer--backing up my databases, making sure my security was up-to-date, collecting material into my personal database, and tagging absolutely everything. By the end, not only had my cursor touched every file, but I also had a very clear understanding of where I was at in my dissertation.

4. (Slowly) Re-acclimate to Scholarly Work: Your brain is a muscle, metaphorically if not actually. It thrives on exercise and suffers from ill use. When I started back to work, it felt like I was looking at my research through a thick fog. My attention span was minutes long; my lack of concentration was astounding. Instead of throwing in the towel and admitting mental defeat, I decided to take a different approach: slow and steady. My first week back, I started each morning by reading a scholarly journal in my field. The articles didn’t pertain to my specific research interests, but they did get me back into a scholarly mode of expression. Although the first day was a bit painful, by the end of the week I was reading faster and comprehending more deeply. This is just one way of easing yourself back into scholarly work, but there are so many other options, too. If you try to do too much too fast, you will get frustrated with yourself. Don’t let that happen! Instead, take it easy for a week or so. Stretch your legs and walk a bit before you run.

5. Re-plan Your Completion Schedule: It is important, even before you start writing again, to have a clear, articulated path to completing your dissertation, because it keeps you focused on your goal: graduation. Since my schedule was more than a couple of months off, I decided to throw it out and start fresh. To do this, I find a three-part system works best. First, brainstorm and write down everything that needs to happen before you can submit, from sources you still needed to collect to chapter breakdowns and reading lists. The more specific and detailed, the better. Second, sort your exhaustive list into smaller and more manageable groups by putting like tasks together. I used a convoluted system of Post-it notes and project-mapping software, but use whatever method you want to make sense of your brainstorm. Third, schedule specific goals for yourself. A friend recommended a giant wet-erase calendar, which I love, but you could use Google Calendar, a personal planner, or a bullet journal to the same effect. At the end of this process, you will have a very clear, organized breakdown of your dissertation with specific, achievable goals in mind.

6. Re-start! It took me about two weeks to get back into the swing of writing everyday and the 4,000 words I wrote in August don’t add up to a complete chapter, but, once I had done all of these little steps to restart my dissertation, I easily slid back into a consistent research and writing schedule. In fact, in the last three weeks I have written nearly everyday, and I feel like I am making real, measurable progress towards my goals.


Please don’t let an unexpected dissertation break spiral into a permanent divorce out of restarting-related anxiety. Also, don’t sabotage your efforts by expecting too much of yourself too early. If you instead focus on slowly ramping up your efforts, then restarting will feel less like an insurmountable climb and more like a homecoming.


Have you had to restart your dissertation? What tips do you have for others struggling to restart their own? We’d love to hear about them, so tell us about it in the comments section!

[Image by Flickr user Acid Pix and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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