I was already in my 6th year of grad school, but my dissertation was not even on my mind.
I was sitting on my faded burgundy couch staring at skyline in Boston on the other side of the Charles River.
That was it…just staring and watching my breath.
I wasn’t reading or writing or painting wild animals roaming free across the safari (my favorite hobby at the time).
I wasn’t doing any of these things because I couldn’t.
I was physically unable hold a book or write a check, let alone have the strength and dexterity to bring nature’s beauty to life on canvas.
I spent two weeks sitting on my couch doing absolutely nothing after my doctor told me that “taking a break” (is that even possible in gad school?) was the only way to avoid surgery.
The surgery was supposed to alleviate a chronic inflammation I developed in my arms from the stress in grad school, but it had a very low chance of success, so I decided to pass and rest instead.
I had expected that my thesis supervisor wouldn’t be too happy with this “break”, but I hadn’t expected that during these two weeks I would gain immense clarity about my thesis that made it possible for me to graduate by the end of that semester.
When you do nothing for two weeks, you start questioning many things: “What am I doing with my life?”, “Is this the right path for me?” and most importantly, “What got me into this awful situation and could I have avoided it?”
I didn’t spend much time on the first two questions.
I was already in my 6th year of grad school and I was determined to finish my dissertation and get my Ph.D. no matter what.
“I am not a quitter” was my motto day in and day out, regardless of how much physical pain I was in, or how apprehensive I felt about my upcoming thesis committee meetings.
The last question “What got me into this awful situation and could I have avoided it?” forced me to rething my entire experience in grad school: how did I end up in such a hopeless situation?
I followed everything my thesis supervisor and committee told me to do.
I passed all my courses and qualifying exams, and when I started doing research for my thesis I worked 10-12 hours days, 6 or 7 days a week just like everyone else.
In my 3rd year my body started to rebel against this abusive lifestyle.
It started out with mild shoulder and back pains, and tension headaches.
Nothing extreme, just what you would expect after sitting in front of the computer for 12 hours a day.
By my 4th year these mild pains turned into an extreme form of an inflammatory condition called tenditis in both of my arms.
I managed the pain with traditional Western medicine (paid by insurance), and alternative healing therapies (which pretty much ate up my entire grad student stipend) for 2 years.
In my 6th year my pain got so severe that I couldn’t relieve it with any of the therapies or prescription-strength painkillers.
The only option I had was to allow my body heal itself.
That’s how I ended up on my couch for 2 weeks doing nothing except breathing, hoping that with each exhale I would relieve at least a little bit of the pain.
When I finally returned to work I knew I had to do things differently.
I had reduced the inflammation in my arms during my break, but I knew it could flare up at any moment.
I couldn’t afford to lose any more work days if I wanted to graduate that semester.
During my break I made a list of “commandments” and I committed to following them every single day until I got my supervisor’s signature on my thesis.
I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t stick to this plan 100% of the time.
However, every time I fell off the wagon I got right back on and I got my thesis done by the end of the semester.
In fact, during those last 6 months I accomplished more than I had during the previous 2 years.
Ironically, the clarity I gained during my break helped me to finish my thesis that semester, a goal which seemed impossible just 12 months earlier.
You are in charge of your dissertation, not your thesis supervisor.
Don’t get me wrong.
Your thesis supervisor is probably an expert in your field and may be funding you too, but the purpose of grad school is for you to learn how to become an independent researcher.
By the time you are close to graduating, you know more about your topic than your thesis supervisor or committee.
I was very fortunate that in my 5th year a recent graduate told me that she “negotiated” with her committee so they would let her graduate with the research she had already done.
I decided to take the same approach, and be assertive during my committee meetings, and I am glad I did.
This tiny shift in my attitude saved me at least 6 months in grad school.
My committee members didn’t agree on the requirements, but my chair approved my thesis once I stood up for myself and explained why I thought that my work was sufficient for a doctoral dissertation.
You have enough experience to determine what is realistic and negotiate the requirements for graduation.
I used to think that the secret to get your thesis done quickly was to be as efficient as possible.
I multitasked all the time by answering emails, running experiments, or doing house chores while writing my thesis.
This approach not only led to poor writing and failed experiments, but it exhausted me after just one hour.
I felt so drained that I couldn’t focus on writing for the rest of the day.
There is no such thing as multi-tasking.
When you do two tasks simultaneously, your brain is switching back and forth between the two tasks, and you probably will not be able to do either of them well.
You may have peers who pride themselves on multi-tasking, but after working with hundreds of students I know that on the long it is always more efficient to focus on only one task at a time.
There are a few occasions when you cannot avoid multi-tasking (if you are a parent you know exactly what I mean).
You wake up every morning with a finite amount of energy, and if you don’t protect it, it will be sapped very quickly by disruptive coworkers or family drama.
You don’t have 100% control over your time and energy.
However, if you manage the time that you do have control over strategically, you can channel your energy towards the tasks that will lead to tangible progress on your thesis.
If I had to summarize in one sentence why I accomplished more in 6 months than during the previous two years it would be that “I made every click count.”
To keep my pain under control I had to limit my time at the computer to 4 hours a day, and I had to take a 5 minute break after every 15 minutes of typing.
With such a constraint (and the looming graduation deadline), each minute at the computer had to contribute in some way to progress on my thesis.
During every 5 minute break I had to decide how to spend the 15 minutes so I would make the greatest progress on my thesis.
Most of the time it was just an educated guess, and sometimes I realized that I had wasted 2 hours analyzing data that I didn’t have to include in my thesis.
Yet, the intention of using every click at the computer towards progress on my thesis, made me realize how much time I had wasted previously on email, writing and rewriting paragraphs, or perfecting the fonts and colors on my power point slides.
Unless you have a severe medical condition like I did, you don’t have to be so strict with your time at the computer, but you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish if you dedicate a few hours a day to your thesis, when you make “every click count.”
Turn off your cell phone, email and social media notifications during this time.
I know this may feel strange at first, but it is well-worth it (and after a while, you won’t miss the constant beeps every time someone sends you a message).
I had no idea what a dissertation was supposed to look like.
I wasted months writing and rewriting paragraphs, second-guessing myself and taking a wild guess at what my thesis supervisor and committee expected of me.
After I returned from my break I realized that I didn’t have time to take guesses anymore, and I decided to find out what had worked in the past.
I looked at doctoral dissertations from my department that had topics similar to mine, and I modeled my thesis after them.
I used these manuscripts as guides for the approximate number of words and level of detail required in each section.
I was relieved that I already had about 80% of the elements in place for my own thesis.
Using other students’ dissertation as guides saved me months of work, not the mention that I didn’t have to go through 3-4 iterations of each chapter with my thesis committee to satisfy the requirements.
My two-week break forced me to restructure my day and create a more efficient writing process.
Then, the 5 minute stretch breaks that I had to take every 15 minutes allowed me to get new insights and “debug” the sections of my thesis that needed the most work.
I also took an hour break in the middle of every day – 30 minutes to eat and socialize in the lunchroom, and 30 minutes to walk.
Walking served multiple purposes.
First, it helped me to get circulation going in my arms (which reduced the inflammation), and it cleared my head so when I returned to my desk I felt more focused.
I sometimes wonder how long it would have taken me to finish my dissertation if I hadn’t developed a medical condition that forced me to question the traditional way of writing a thesis:
Just glue yourself to the chair until it is done.
I developed these dissertation tricks and tips out of necessity, because the conventional method (work, work, work), led to little progress and a debilitating inflammatory condition.
I am fortunate that have recovered fully from this medical condition, but this experience transformed the way I prioritize my work and how I take care of my health.
I will never know for sure how my life would have been different if I hadn’t gone through this challenge, but I do know that on the days when I follow these principles I feel better, I make more progress and I am more fun to be around.
Working fewer hours, being healthier and making more progress all at the same time is pretty cool if you ask me – and I think you’ll agree.
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