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Top 5 Survival Skills When Writing Your Dissertation

1. Form good habits early

When I started my program, I will admit that I had an advantage in that both my master’s degree and doctoral studies are focused on Students with Disabilities with an emphasis on teachers who teach these students. So many of the classes were a review of some of the information and knowledge that I had previously acquired. So what did that mean for me? It meant that I continued to brunch like it was my job, spend my Saturday’s going to TJMaxx, Marshalls, and Burlington with my daughter, and never missed a social engagement. I’ll admit I got cocky and thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty easy.’ *Face palm* Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Things did get more challenging at that meant that I had to do a much better job at managing my time and actually saying no to things, which leads into my next point.

2. Life doesn't stop

Let me repeat this. Life. Does. Not. Stop. I'm not sure why I assumed that when I began my program that the world would suddenly begin to revolve around me and my needs. I didn’t really think this, but I had this idea in my head that life would slow down. It doesn't. Your job demands are still there, sometimes even more so. Demands of your family are still there. Your students still need you. People get married and have children. Life does not stop. This was probably one of the hardest adjustments I had to make. And it wasn't even the fear of missing out, but the fear of not being able to be there for friends and family and students and the job. Which led to my wearing myself out to the point of exhaustion because I was trying to do it all at the cost of my own self-care. What I learned is that it’s ok to say no to things. Your friends and family will understand that this is only a short-term situation. And if they don’t understand, then that’s one less person you’ve got to keep up with.

3. It takes a village

I was very fortunate to be one of those individuals that sailed through undergrad and even grad school to a certain extent. Don't get me wrong, I certainly had a support system. My graduation from undergrad and grad school felt like mere checks on a to-do list. The doctoral process is a JOURNEY. And one where your village will be there to keep you sane and remind of your magic when you’ve forgotten it. When I began searching for a doctoral program one of my main requirements is that it was cohort based because I love the support system that they provide. I have been so fortunate to have an amazing cohort who understands the struggles and lifts each other up through the really trying times. I'm sure when we were all accepted they had no way of knowing how we would all work together. I'm so glad fate made it possible.

4. It's a lonely process

Even with a village this is a lonely process. Long nights reading or writing a paper. Trying to describe your dissertation topic to those who inquire and being met with a forced smile and a head nod. Feeling of self-doubt, thoughts of quitting but knowing you can't because you’re not a quitter and even questioning whether or not you are “qualified” to even be conducting research. These are all of the challenges that I’ve faced throughout the process. One thing that has helped is to have a dissertation buddy. Throughout my journey, I have met many colleagues. Some were in my program, some I have personally reached out to, even colleagues from different programs.

As mentioned earlier, distance learning is a very lonely process, so it is very important that you make friends with people who are able to understand your experiences. Every day we would debrief what we were working on and provide each other affirmations. In my program I had buddies who shared the same Chair as me. Every day we text each other to check-in and provide tough love or motivation that we need. Although small gestures, having a buddy makes the process feel less lonely.

5. Self-Care

Over the course of my doctoral journey I became photo collector. I also revived my love of books which is something that I had fallen off of a bit. I like to call this productive procrastination, but self-care is probably a better term. Although the perception when you’re a doctoral student is that you have to eat, sleep, and breathe your dissertation, it’s ok not to. Just like you have to have a life outside of your job for self-care. You have to create a life outside of your dissertation. I have an extremely busy schedule, so it is important and essential for me to carve out time to take care of me. Meditating, taking pictures, reading, running, are all of my outlets for that. Now you might be thinking, but there’s just not enough time in the day for everything.

You are absolutely right, there’s not. And I admit that sometimes I get less than an ideal number of hours of sleep every night. But because I’ve become much better at saying no, I’m able to use my time more effectively doing things that are good for me. For example, I now try very hard to make sure I actually take a lunch break instead of working through it. During this time, I eat my lunch, do some quick meditating, or read a few pages of whatever book I’m reading. I used to feel bad about doing this because there was a lot that still needed to be done, but I was a lot more productive after I gave myself that self-care time out.


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