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How to Write a Dissertation During a Pandemic

Writing a dissertation is HARD.

Writing a dissertation in 2020 is HARDER.

So… I’m currently trying to write a dissertation during a global pandemic, a bonkers election year, a massive racial injustice movement, and numerous climate disasters. In short, it’s exhausting and stressful.

But I’ve learned a few things along the way. Things are still rough out there, so here are a few tips for those fighting the uphill battle of dissertation writing during this dumper fire year and beyond.

May this help you not be so hard on yourself.

Be open to change: March forced everyone in the world to change something. We had to change the way we interacted with people, did our work, went to school, and ran errands. If all of those things had to change, so did our writing process.

To expect your dissertation plan to not change when everything else in the entire world has is ridiculous.

You have to be open to change in order to make progress. Remaining firm on your original expectations won’t help your writing in progress or quality. It’s okay to make a change.

Don’t lower your standards: Just because the world is falling apart around you, doesn’t mean your dissertation has to do the same. You’ve had to make changes and you’ve had days where you just couldn’t make yourself write. And that’s okay. But that doesn’t mean you have to lower your big picture standards.

Your work does not have to compromise its quality. For every bad workday, make sure you have two (or even three) good ones. Keep your expectations high. Believe in yourself and your ability. It may get tough, but if you are writing a dissertation, you can handle it. After all, you didn’t make it this far to just quit. Keep going, set high goals for yourself, and do your damndest to achieve them.

Do what you need to do to get your data/research: If you can travel safely and responsibly for your research, then do. If you can do it all behind your computer screen, then do. If you can’t physically visit a place you need to, then work hard to figure out an alternative method of collecting that data. Get creative and don’t give up. If you need to make a change, then do so with the help of your advisor.

Take breaks: Have days off. Or at least moments off. You may feel guilty every moment you are not working on your dissertation. That’s only natural. So, just try to give your mind a break. It may help you process your ideas and express them better later. Your brain needs time off. It needs time to process and sulk. Play Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2. Watch Dead to Me. Read Action Comics.

Have a side project: This may not work for everyone. But for me, I have to have a side project at all times. I work better when I have the motivation to take a break from one project and move to the other. My right and left brain like to work together as a tag team. This side project could be a screenplay, a craft project, a home improvement job, a side hustle, a business venture, or a physical challenge. Whatever it is, spend time on it and away from your dissertation.

Talk about it: Talk about your research and your mental state with someone. They may never fully understand your research, but you can help them understand your state of mind, your struggles, and your accomplishments. They don’t need to grasp the topic of your research, just the toll it takes on you. But talking it out can help you work harder and feel better. Sometimes, writing a dissertation is incredibly lonely and isolating, especially during quarantine. Talk to people about your research and how the writing process makes you feel.

Be kind to yourself: This is a hard one. Grad students are almost trained to hate themselves and their work. But it is so important to be kind. After all, you’re most likely kind to your fellow grad students. Or your own students, right? If you can be kind to your friend who is struggling during this time, then you can be kind to yourself. That means to try not to get mad at yourself when you have a bad writing day. Or if you don’t write at all that day. Be kind to yourself; body, mind, and soul. It takes all three to write a dissertation.

Find moments of joy: Celebrate the small victories. Celebrate making a weekly or monthly goal. Celebrate turning in a chapter to your advisor. Celebrate making a breakthrough in discovery. Find happiness in your topic. Remember why you chose your research topic in the first place. If it’s a tough subject, then remind yourself why your research matters and how it could help scholars in the future.

Be overwhelmed, then make a plan: It’s okay to be overwhelmed right now. It’s kind of inevitable. Let yourself feel that way. Let it consume you. Then move on. Take a moment. Make a plan. Adjust your plan to your new mental and emotional state.

Adjust to the circumstances: If your circumstances change, then your writing process should too. This could mean finding a different writing schedule, adjusting chapter orders, recalculating information, exploring new options, or whatever. The point is, in order to get through this dissertation process safely, you have to adjust. Otherwise, you will stay stuck in the same place. Stagnation is a terrible place to find yourself in this whole process. You have to continuously move forward.

Work hard and find fulfillment in your writing and progress: Try hard. Your dissertation is often the longest and most important thing you’ve ever written up to this point in your life. It takes a lot of hard work. So, work hard. Push yourself. Find fulfillment from your hard work. Be satisfied with your progress. That will make it so much easier to keep going.

Be proud of yourself: Just…. Be proud of yourself.

I am no expert. I’m just a graduate student trying to write her dissertation with the world crashing down around her.

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