The Dao of Dissertating

 April 11, 2018


“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

― Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades


I want to address a problem for graduate students that we don’t always talk about head-on: anxiety. I knew someone who got so stressed out about his dissertation that when he sat down at his computer to write, his anxiety spiked like he was on his way to the dentist for a root canal. How does that kind of thing happen? Like this: you come to associate your dissertation with anxiety, and on an emotional level it turns into a type of unspecified “threat,” however irrational that might seem. The more time you spend avoiding the “threat,” the more anxiety builds around it. Eventually it starts to induce panic to even think about your dissertation, and that’s when you stop being able to work.

My friend wasn’t lazy, or foolish, or just missing that one magical iPhone app that would solve his so-called time management problem. I don’t think he even had a time management problem, and I told him so.

“Look,” I said, “you’re stressed out, and that makes sense. So how about tomorrow, you just sit down and write for 30 minutes? Don’t do more. If you feel like you can do more, stop anyway. Just be with the dissertation for only 30 minutes so you can start to prove to your brain that there’s nothing to panic over.”

My friend took my advice. He did half an hour a day for about a week, then pushed it up to an hour, and by the following month he was doing about four or five hours a day, five or six days a week. Does he still get stressed about writing? Of course. We all do.  Overcoming writing anxiety is a lot like learning to meditate: accept your anxiety, forgive yourself for it, and start with small increments (like the Pomodoro method).

When you’re ready to start writing again, here are three ways you can up your game:

  1. Use a calendar or planner and schedule time. This seems obvious, but you’d be amazed at how it much helps to just schedule your writing time like you’d schedule a meeting. You wouldn’t skip a meeting, right? Treat your writing time the same way.
  2. Know your energy level and how it shifts throughout the course of the day. If your best hours are right when you get up, make those your writing hours. If you write best in the afternoon, maybe at a bar or café, go for it. But assume that there’s a time of day that works best, most of us are on diurnal cycles, and make that time yours for writing.
  3. Here’s an experiment: try meeting friends for writing sessions. This creates the kind of accountability you can only get from knowing that someone is counting on you to be at a certain place at a certain time to do a certain thing. I recommend starting with just one person who you know you can count on not to spend the whole time talking. Then you can think about making it into a group activity, or you can schedule out your week so that you meet a different person every day. You can even try this experiment with an online writing accountability community, as now-alumna Georgia Paige Welch shared in “Writing My Dissertation with Slackers.”

Once you do get up and running time management is the key to staying in control, and a number of the best tools and strategies have been compiled by a team from this year’s Emerging Leaders Institute on a Time Management Resources site—which even includes a diagnostic to help identify areas where you need the most help and points you to the best resources. You can find resources specific to planning your dissertation on the site as well.

Tips are great, but the key for many of us is acknowledging anxiety about writing and taking it seriously. It’s not your fault, you’re not alone, and you can still get into a good writing rhythm!


Phillip Stillman

Ph.D. candidate, English; Graduate Student Affairs Administrative Intern, The Graduate School

Phillip Stillman is an intern in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs and is preparing to defend his dissertation on biology and British fiction in the nineteenth century. He studies the work done by novelists to manage the contraction between Enlightenment notions of personhood and the modern science of human biology, arguing that in the nineteenth century, it fell to fiction to imagine the human being as both autonomous individual and a biological organism at once. You can find out more on his LinkedIn page.