At the start of my PhD program, a member of my dissertation committee told me something that I never thought would help me finish my degree: “There will come a point in your graduate school career where you will think you are dying. You will think you are so depressed that nothing can possibly help. This isn’t depression—it’s the dissertation.” Now that might sound dire, but the final hurdle to completing a graduate school degree—the writing of the dissertation—is so intimidating for some that it can manifest in profoundly negative effects on the mental and physical health of grad students. The intimidation, the professional stress, and the daunting task of taking the equivalent of a fire hose of data and converting it into something digestible in the written word is something that trips up just about every dissertation writer at some point.

Most dissertation advisors urge their students to write through it. Mine closed every email to me with the words, “Keep writing!” Surely you have heard the other saying: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation.” Neither of these statements actually addresses the practice of writing and instead they function as prods. In fact, most grad students that I know develop the nasty habit of waiting until a week before a deadline with their advisor or dissertation committee to get to writing after months of wading through data and research. What blocks most of us when we sit down to write is the anxiety that comes from an empty document and the blinking cursor. It taunts us, and the rewards for forming sentences and paragraphs take much longer to come to fruition than that pile of essays waiting to be graded or those emails requesting your attention for that colloquium next week. In dissertation writing, the payoff is slow and arduous and the only way to get out of the cycle of anxiety, depression, and potential repetitive stress injuries is to make a regular habit of writing. Once you get started with that dissertation chapter and make it a habit, it will get easier.

Dissertating on the Daily

Just about every writing guide and memoir out there urges the dissertation writer to make writing a daily habit, because once you fall off the daily writing train, it’s very difficult to get back on. I would urge you to think of writing daily like training for the equivalent of an athletic event (for a sports metaphor) or rehearsing a play or piece of music (for a performance metaphor). Think of the dissertation defense as your race or opening performance and daily writing as your workout. If you pick up any marathon training guide, they urge daily practice. The same goes for yoga and learning a musical instrument like a guitar. If you want to avoid injury, the logic goes, you practice and you increase intensity at regular intervals to keep your muscles nimble and responsive. If you do something intense with no practice—say, run a marathon without regular training, attempt advanced asanas your first time at a yoga class, or if you try to write that dissertation chapter in one night—you could do serious physical harm to your body. For the dissertation writer, the dangers are back pain, chronic fatigue, ulnar neuropathy or carpal tunnel syndrome, heightened blood pressure…

Practice Makes Perfect, or at least a Completed Dissertation

This notion of practice raises a few questions: How do you make time to write every day? And what if you just don’t write well but your ideas are good?

In answer to the first question, if you continue the practice metaphor, you know you have to write every day or your writing muscles will get out of shape. I try to write in the mornings, but I set an alarm every day for 9PM in the event that I didn’t get around to it. Most of the successful writers I know schedule a time and place to write where distractions are minimal. A space dedicated to writing is key, beyond the reach of the Internet or social media. In the final stretch of my dissertation, I took over a teaching assistant’s office every evening after 7PM because it had neither cell phone reception nor Internet. The key to that space was that it was intentional and it became a part of my practice of writing.

Dissertation Editing and Writing Help Is Only a Click Away

More pressing, perhaps, is the second question. It gets to the root of the anxiety that comes with spewing half-formed ideas onto a page. Here is where we can be of assistance. We offer dissertation-editing services to help you clean up your sentence-level worries. Worry about such things as tone and APA or Chicago styles later. Start with churning out the ideas through daily writing practice. Then, contact us for the editing and formatting expertise needed to bring your dissertation to completion (and your depression to an end).