All By Myself: fighting off loneliness in the doctoral process

by | 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.