by Melissa Williams | July 2, 2012
I used to partner with a particular faculty member to present a colloquium session on juggling life and one’s doctoral program. I really loved a metaphor she used; she would compare dissertating in a world full of non-doctoral learners to dancing the waltz amid a bunch of breakdancers. “The question,” she would say, “is whether you occasionally breakdance with them, whether they stop to watch you waltz, or whether you just end up going somewhere else to do your thing.” Friends and family sacrifice MUCH when a loved one goes through a dissertation process. But they also sometimes have no idea what that experience is like. Often, relationships crumble or friendships drift away. When this is exacerbated by the realities of online education—phone or email communication only, no idea what your fellow learners even look like—the inherent loneliness of the doctoral experience is compounded. And so you’re stuck in a world where nobody has any idea what you’re experiencing, and when you work on your dissertation, you’re quite literally all by yourself.
This phenomenon can be lethal to your progress. When something makes you feel bad, you tend to avoid it—I mean, that’s just self-preservation—and that’s especially true in a dissertation experience. So what does one do about this? Here are some suggestions I’ve made to advisees over the years.
- Be okay with the fact that you are a human being first. You’ve probably heard the old adage, “You know you’re a graduate student if you’ve accepted guilt as an inherent part of leisure time.” Well, PHBBBBT! Human contact IS necessary, and sometimes, your social needs should outweigh your dissertating needs. Forgive yourself for not being a doctoral robot, and occasionally blow off the schoolwork to do something fun with people you like.
- Have a set dissertating/schoolwork schedule. You can avoid sabotaging your social interactions by working in earnest during designated times and refusing to think about school outside of those times. Otherwise, you don’t really attend Thanksgiving dinner at your Aunt Rosemarie’s house; your brain is actually back in your study nook, mulling over Chapter Three. And Aunt Rosemarie is not happy. So be nice to Aunt Rosemarie and everybody else who wants to spend time with you by actually showing up, brain and all.
- Join a support group. It can be a single writing partner, a discipline-specific group of dissertators, a group of people from your last colloquium, or even dissertators from other universities who happen to know each other—the possibilities are endless. You might get a real academic benefit from exchanging writing and editing with each other; that would be great! But I hope you also set aside time to complain, tell jokes only another dissertator would get, gossip, and share little (and big) academic accomplishments. These people “get” you.
- Participate in social media. What some stranger says about his/her dissertation experience on, say, LinkedIn may actually make your heart leap in identification. This is why I started prowling mommy blogs when I had a newborn; not all the information was useful, and sometimes people who commented annoyed me, but much of the time, I thought, “Yup, my baby did that, too!” and it felt good to know I was “normal.” This gives you a chance to identify as part of a larger group.