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Starting Your Dissertation? Rethink Your Lifestyle

By Noelle Sterne, PhD

You’re ready to begin your dissertation, and you deserve congratulations! But realize, though, that your current lifestyle must change.

No Structure

Doctoral students beginning this coveted stage are often shocked at the lack of external structure. No prescheduled class meetings, specific assignments, or grades to goad you on. No classmates to remind you to tackle the next assignment. You’ve got to make your own schedule and follow through.

If you work away from home, you’ve already got some structure. You can easily figure out your dissertation time: evenings, weekends, and an occasional call-in-sick day.

But if you work at home, the lack of structure can be insidious. In my dissertation coaching practice, one student took a year off to complete her dissertation. But she found that her time was taken up with all the “necessary” nonacademic activities. To her panic, the year evaporated with little done, and she hired me for structure and accountability. So, to prevent such mistakes . . .

Make a List. Draw up your master list of tasks: research into subtopics, outlines of chapters, chair and committee meetings, university deadlines, actual writing. This list, interminable as it may seem, does have an end. You have it all laid out in front of and eventually will have the delicious reward of checking items off.

Make a Schedule. You are in training for the dissertation finish line. Allot reasonable times to your training. An hour when you come home from work and two 2-hour stints on weekends? If you work at home, a morning stint, then lunch, even a short nap, and another work session in the evening? Be honest about when you work best.

New Leisure. You’ll need to change your definition of leisure. The days of Facebook-clicking and evenings of binge TV are over. Many social invitations must be declined or postponed. No more camping weekends or long afternoons at the mall—except maybe when you complete a chapter.

Instead, at your self-promised times, you’ll be attending dissertation seminars, studying your university dissertation template, making notes, or surfing the Internet—for scholarly materials. On weekends, rather than car tinkering, sports cheering, or friendly spats with your spouse, you’ll still be studying, amassing too many articles, reading all of them, and sneaking up on actually writing.

Get Support. To help, get support. Talk to your cohort members, recent “doctors,” professors, and scholars. You’ll no doubt hear their horror stories but should also glean some ideas about how to best handle your time. Some students arrange a dissertation “buddy system”: you and another doctoral student check in regularly on your progress and encourage and prod each other to keep going.

Talk to your family members and ask their cooperation. Explain why you must hole up most of the time and how they too will benefit later.

So, use the methods here that work best for you and others you may devise. With smart decisions and wise planning, you will rethink your lifestyle so you can start—and finish—your dissertation.

© 2024 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at