Contributed in 2014 by Shaun Stevenson, PhD Student, Carleton University

The dissertation process can be all-consuming. With constant deadlines, committee meetings, research, writing and endless hours of anxiety-ridden procrastination, tackling your dissertation can easily become the single most defining feature of your life. Do not let your dissertation define you. This article offers a few helpful insights on how to strike a sustainable work-life balance while getting through your dissertation. For the sake of full disclosure, the examples provided do have a Humanities/Social Science leaning, although I do think the tips and tactics discussed can prove useful across disciplines.

Manage your time so that your time doesn’t manage you

In a post on the blog Dry-Erase Writings: Teaching in the Humanities, PhD graduate PhebeAnn Wolframe offers her take on how to get through the dissertation writing process in a timely fashion with, “some semblance of work-life balance.” Wolframe completed her entire PhD in four years, but didn’t let the process take over her life. Wolframe attributes her speedy completion time to setting deadlines that she was “hell bent on meeting.” She broke her time down quite deliberately, and while she is clear that time frames work differently for everyone, she ultimately ended up with a strict six-week deadline per chapter. Wolframe credits this stringent time management schedule to ensuring she completed x number of hours a day, ultimately confining her dissertation work to weekdays and freeing up her weekends for social activities.

Make time for other things

My next point goes hand-in-hand with good time management strategies: do things outside of academia! For Wolframe, reading, knitting, hiking, and studying music on weekends helped her feel more rested “and less reluctant to resume ‘thesising’ on Monday.” It is too easy to get stuck at home and your computer. Making time to see friends, going outside, and getting exercise can make thesis writing less alienating. Making room for what non-academics might refer to as “hobbies,” harkens back to a distant pre-PhD era, where we were free to define ourselves beyond the narrow purview of ‘research interests.’ Time management goes a long way in setting and achieving realistic goals surrounding your dissertation, with the added benefit of freeing up time for friends, family, relationships, attention to your physical and mental health – you know, the important things.

Write Something Else

Really? Is a good way to get away from writing… more writing? Blog writing for academics is increasingly championed as a useful means of both developing your writing skills, while also building international networks of like-minded research contacts and followers (Seriously! People will read blogs on just about anything!). The University of London’s online magazine London Connection suggests blogging as an excellent way to enhance your research profile or collaborate with fellow students. The blogosphere has the ability to get you away from the staunch framework of your dissertation, allowing you to explore your research more freely and in less formal ways while also having your research reach wider audiences. It allows you to approach your work with a little more personality and humour.

Publicly posting your thoughts and feelings, let alone exposing the fact that, at least half the time, you’re wondering if you know what you’re talking about may not be for everyone. Our good friend, Dr. Wolframe, offers an alternative method to help distance yourself from the sometimes-limiting dissertation writing process:

I found journaling really helped in this regard. Sometimes I would write a journal entry––stream of consciousness, and written in very colloquial language––trying to capture in my own words, however casually, what I was thinking about/noticing in my primary text(s), or what patterns I was seeing across text(s). From this rambling, I find a few key ideas tend to emerge.

Whether blogging, journaling or tweeting philosophical quotes, the trick is to free yourself from what can be a very regimented and stifling academic language. It is important to be reminded that you are a good writer with interesting ideas that other people beyond your committee want to hear about. Putting your ideas out there in other forms allows you to define yourself beyond the dissertation, while also remaining productive in ways that ultimately benefit your research in the long run. If you’re still skeptical about the benefits of blogging about your research, check out this aptly titled blog post: “38 reasons why you should blog about your research.”

These are just a few ideas of how you might break away from a dissertation-centered lifestyle. Remember, your dissertation will end – it must – and you will continue on as a diverse and well-rounded individual, academically, professionally and personally. The goal is to foster this approach throughout the entire process.

Go back to Writing Resources: Science and Engineering.

Go back to Writing Resources: Humanities and Social Sciences.