How to Feel Less Isolated While Writing Your Dissertation

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If you’re deep into writing your dissertation, it is likely you haven’t had much time for anything—or anyone—else. You may feel like you have one hundred years of solitude under your belt. You wander lonely as a cloud from your desk to the kitchen to pour yourself another cup of coffee. You relate deeply to Robinson Crusoe, feeling like a castaway on the island of your office, surrounded by an ocean of crumpled sheets with discarded ideas.

No one can write this dissertation but you—this is your research, your insights, your perspective, your work. You accept the burden of putting it all down on paper because you are the only candidate for the job. You talk to your supervisor once or twice a week, but that just makes you more anxious about deadlines. Ultimately, you are left with almost no pleasant human interaction. You lock yourself in your ivory tower and pound at the keyboard until you don’t even know what you are writing anymore, maybe even until you don’t know who you are anymore.

If we did not paint the picture vividly enough, let us put it in plain words: Many scholars suffer from social isolation when they devote themselves to their dissertations. Writing a dissertation is a huge undertaking that swallows a significant chunk of your time and energy, but you can’t ignore the other aspects of your life. If you’re becoming so overwhelmed that you are neglecting your social life and mental health, it might be time to accept some help. Take a deep breath, submit your current draft for revision, and use the break to seek out people who are in the same boat. If you’re unsure about where to begin, here are some suggestions.

Reach out to your grad school cohort. Even if you haven’t been in touch for a while, they will likely welcome the contact. You can safely assume these people will be able to commiserate with you and truly understand where you’re coming from. The best part is that many of them will presumably be at a similar stage in their dissertation process, so they will get your stress and single-mindedness like no one else. 

In fact, they may need this social interaction just as much as you do, and you can save one another from spiraling into dissertation-induced insanity. With old friends from grad school, you can celebrate victories and offer/receive support when you suffer setbacks. So, grab your phone and start making calls! 

Join a workshop or feedback group. Getting a bit of constructive criticism on your work can go a long way and provide a hefty dose of perspective. Yes, your unique point of view is critical to the success of your dissertation, but everyone has blind spots, and a fresh perspective can draw your attention to details you may have overlooked. At the very least, constructive feedback can provide some much-needed inspiration and get those lightbulbs going off in your head again.

You might even find a great group of critical friends with whom you can exchange a draft or two for objective feedback. Check with your institution to see if there’s an established group, and if there isn’t, why not start one yourself? By taking the initiative, you can even command more respect from your peers. 

Workshops and feedback groups can also provide some necessary accountability, so if you need a bit of extra motivation, this is a great place to begin. You can make new friends who understand exactly what you’re going through, which will help you feel less isolated and alone, and they can provide valuable feedback on your paper to boot. Once you have your draft examined by the group, make sure to order a round of academic proofreading and editing to make it absolutely perfect.

Distract yourself with family time. This may seem counterintuitive since your brain is so involved with your research and writing, but it can be nice to get out of your head and spend some time with your family. If you go to school far from your home, schedule regular video calls with people back there. 

This could help with potential dissertation tunnel vision and give you some much-needed social time with people who care about you so that you can return to your work knowing that you have a cushion to fall back on. Catching up with your family and friends can re-energize you and help you find the motivation you lost after that seventh cup of coffee. Moreover, taking a break from your word processor can actually help you overcome writer’s block. While you’re chatting away with family members and friends, your brain is quietly chewing on your dissertation topic in the background, so when you resume writing, you may find you suddenly have fresh ideas popping up.

Make plans for real-life activities. Step away from the computer screen. Crawl out of your lair and do something physical with others. Start your day with yoga, go out for a coffee with a friend, or take a long walk in nature with a colleague. If you have a partner or children, get some quality time with them, whether that means going hiking or playing a board game.

Even if you’re not spending time with others, taking a break from your computer will recharge you. Take a nice relaxing bath or indulge in a hobby for a bit. Pencil in a workout if you can—the benefits for your mental well-being are innumerable, and even 10 minutes can do you a world of good. The time spent away from the screen, in the real world, will be an invaluable reset for your brain, and the endorphins from this change of environment will benefit your mental health.

Take advantage of the internet. Seek out message boards, blog posts, and resources from those who came out of their dissertation-writing process intact and are now thriving on the other side. If you can strike up a friendship with someone a bit ahead of you in their academic career, you may be able to glean some valuable insights and advice or at least get some much-needed emotional support.

If you don’t have much time to spare for long walks or in-person feedback groups, try messaging platforms like Discord or mutual accountability platforms like Notion to organize your brain space and make the internet a pleasant and social place to be. Collaborate with others over Zoom in silence—just knowing there’s someone else on the same journey will be comforting and will push you to work harder. Empathize with and encourage other Ph.D. candidates on relevant forums. 

Though you’re probably feeling the burden of solitude, you might be surprised to find that you are not as alone as you think. Honoré de Balzac famously wrote, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.” Be that someone for another person in the same situation, and you will be paid back in kind. Remember: You don’t have to go through this alone, and your isolation is temporary. 

Writing a dissertation is an isolating experience, but when all is said and done, you will hopefully have produced excellent work, built a group of great critical friends, and come to understand that reaching out to others is good for your mental health. Balance is crucial even during the dissertation-writing process. When you nab that title, don’t forget to contact our academic resume experts for a CV update!

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