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Friends – How to keep them but keep them away when you need academic immersion

Note: This is the first of two posts on how to handle your friends so you maintain their friendship but hold them off when you need most of your time for your academic project.

The piercing voice of Kathryn’s best friend on the other end of the phone threatened to puncture her eardrum. Penny screamed, “You’re never around anymore! Why is this damn project so important to you anyway? You think you’re too good for me!”

Kathryn mumbled an excuse about the doorbell ringing, hung up, and started to sob. For 18 years, Penny was her best friend, confidante, and supporter. She had seen Kathryn through her mother’s death, two pregnancies, a lawsuit with the impossible neighbor, and her daughter’s first date, not to mention countless bad hair days and other infinite petty crises of daily life. Why was Penny reacting like this?

Penny’s explosion is typical of friends who, often like family members, simply don’t understand your academic demands, whether you’re working on your dissertation or a scholarly project. As with your family, you can do much to resweeten curdled friendships. Your responses demand dispassion, firmness, gentleness, explanations, promises, and frequent reassurance.

Your best strategy is early heading-off-at-the-pass. Tell them about your work and goals, especially the massive amounts of solitary time and focus you need. You don’t have to go into great detail about your intricate comparison of financial markets in the eastern and western Zhou dynasties, but they will feel good that you are sharing your consuming interest.

In response, your friends may engage you more. Be open to their questions about your work, their not-so-fond reminiscences if they’ve had higher academic experiences, and their possible indignation that they’re different from everyone else and, despite your preoccupation, deserve your time and attention.

“Come On—It’s Only a Quick Lunch”: Just Say Not Now

However eloquent your argument, a friend may still attempt to persuade you with invitations and especially with regular dates that you’ve made habits—weekly or monthly night or days out, habitual calls, and “quick” lunches. But we all know that quick lunches never are, especially in malls.

Explain to your friend in greater depth, using terms like intense concentration and momentum and monstrous journal editor. If you can relate your need for seclusion and concentration to equivalent needs in your friend’s life, like studying for a real estate license or training for a triathlon, so much the better.

If they still insist, how do you respond? Firmly: “Thank you, but no.” Rehearse in the mirror if you have to. Offer a bribe: “How about meeting for our lunch on . . .?” Or suggest coffee or drinks at the end of the day, after you’ve satisfied the superego devil on your shoulder with a decent chunk of writing.

Other regular and sacrosanct connections with friends require similar responses. For those hour-long phone calls every Friday that no event or act of God has ever interfered with, now tell your friend how you love the calls and offer instead to talk every other week for 15 minutes. If you’ve had an inviolable night out for pizza and drinks once a month with the still-loyal high school group, tell them how much you look forward to it, and you’ll make it if you can.

Community Involvement and Volunteer Activities: Just Say Later

Giving your time to worthy endeavors is admirable. If you have been very active, as a member or officer, your organizations and (other) officers may have become used to relying on you for help. You’re called upon for everything, and you know better than I that, rabbit-like, one committee breeds the next.

If you’ve been involved and overinvolved, and have no time for your project, choose two of those activities and promise yourself you can resume the rest after the degree is awarded or the article published, or at least accepted. If you find it hard to disengage or cut down, here are some scripts so you can withdraw gracefully:

  • I really love doing this [volunteering, coaching, dishing out stew], but I’ve got to concentrate now on my academic project.
  • I’m so sorry, but I can’t do this [volunteering, etc.] until I wrestle my project to the ground and it cries “Uncle” in Latin.
  • Maybe you remember how it was with a big long, monstrous project. I’ve got to give it my all now, and I’ll be in touch when it’s under control.
  • Regretfully, I must withdraw from this [volunteering, etc.] for the next eight months because of my academic work. I look forward to helping coordinate the Christmas pageant [or another appropriate event way in the future].
  • As I resign for now, I know you’ll find a qualified replacement. I’m glad to give him or her some pointers to ease the transition.

The model: Announce your intention definitively, give your reason quickly without describing every wrenching detail, refer to a time frame that’s comfortable, and make a promise for the future.

Declare your withdrawal either in person or on the telephone, even though these means may take more courage than email or text. You may have to field a few questions or objections, but have confidence that you can. Your voice carries greater weight than the read message. Besides, I believe emailing or texting are as rude for announcing withdrawal from volunteer activities as for breaking off a romantic relationship.

Decide what you want and in what sequence, assert your terms unambiguously, and stick to your declarations. This is how you will keep your friends and complete your academic project.

© 2017 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site:

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Inspire Me Today, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.

See also Noelle’s other posts:

For Academics: What to Do When Your Partner Wails, “I Never See You Anymore!”

For Academics: Are Your Kids Growing Up Without You?