Survival tips sough: dissertation due/daily agony--how to make do?
May 26, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

My dissertation hand in deadline is within two months. I still have a sh*tload left to do, and I fear I'm sinking fast. I have well meaning friends and colleagues that offer support, but the stress is killing me because I can't trust my own instincts and I don't know how to ask for help.

So the clock is ticking and I have problems facing reality: I have at least two chapters to write from scratch and at this point I'm still going through my data, and questioning whether or not I can write this. It feels awful because I not only question my qualifications to do research, I struggle with the meaning behind all of this. I do better working incrementally of course, but I fear that what I write cannot be connected to the overall structure (sorry for the vagueness because it's vague to me atm).

Here's the sticker: for several weeks, a well-meaning friend and colleague believes I'm really struggling and that I need help before I have a mental breakdown. I believe what he has to say, but it doesn't help me. Instead, I keep convincing myself I can do this, and that so much depends on it. I feel that if I were to apply for an extension, I'll never finish my work and I'll continue to be miserable for more months on end while life moves on, my parents grow old, the person who I'm supposed to grow old with doesn't meet me, etc, etc.

My primary question is: how can I filter these suggestions which aren't helping me but for which I know are well-intentioned?

Survival questions: is there something I can do to keep myself sane? I take long walks, I sleep enough, but once in a while I panic, and I'm thrown off for a couple of days and at this point I feel that I need almost every waking hour. My best friend who lives hours away has asked me how she could help me, but I really don't know how anybody can.

I'm sorry this comes across as unstructured, I'm really struggling here, though writing it down seems to make me feel that at least I'm 'doing' something or than convince myself that I'm hopelessly delusional.

Other info: I have ADHD and am in treatment, I'm living in a foreign country, and it has been 'do or die' for the past three months straight.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest two things:

1. Keep on working (deadlines are good!) but also keep telling yourself that if the worst does happen (i.e. you have to get that extension), it will be okay. You will be neither the first nor the last to need some extra time writing the dissertation. I know people who didn't file until a year or two after starting a tenure-track position, and while that is certainly not ideal, you can make it work if you have to.

2. When people ask what they can do to help, tell them: meet up with me for a work date! At least for me, this has been a huge thing for keeping me on track and motivated. Just having someone there to hold me accountable (either in person, or even in an online chat room if face-to-face is not possible) is a HUGE DEAL. If any of these people are in your field, a 30-minute chat about your project can also be hugely helpful. Part of why the dissertation is so hard is because it is so damn isolating...talking through your ideas with someone can help you see that they are not terrible and also help you work out the proper direction to go.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:42 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this struggle. Writing a dissertation sucks. Doing it in a foreign country with limited support sucks worse. And 'Do or Die' for weeks on end is enough to wear anyone down.

> For several weeks, a well-meaning friend and colleague believes I'm really struggling and that I need help before I have a mental breakdown. I believe what he has to say but [...]

A reader on a website is in no position to judge this. If someone on the spot believes this, and you actually agree with this assessment, then you need to stop doing what you're doing, and actually get the help you need.

> I feel that if I were to apply for an extension, I'll never finish my work

Why? Are you worried that you'll be marked a failure? That you weren't tough enough to hack it? I really don't understand this part. People take extensions, life goes on. I can assure you that many many dissertations have seen a LOT worse, and many, many of them lie abandoned because their authors didn't get the help they needed in time, and actually had serious breakdowns.

Again, as an anon commenter on a random website, based on what you've written, I'd urge you to pause and get help instead of trying to power through to avoid not taking an extension.

Good luck with the writing, in any case!
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:44 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Tips for writing thesis chapters:

1. When you are not sure where to begin, summarize the chapter in one sentence. Do this for each chapter. You can also do it for each subsection.

2. When you are not sure what to write, start the paragraph with, "What I want to say here is..." and then fill in the rest. You can erase the "What I want to say here" later.

3. Rather than taking a deep dive, go through and make sure you have ~something~ on paper for each section. E.g., if you have to have 8 figures, have a draft version of each of those 8 figures before you move on. If you have to do a bibliography, make a draft version of that. This is painful to do, and it can be hard to pull yourself out of the weeds to get ~something~ on paper for each section. However it's a worthwhile endeavor and it helps a lot.

4. Set yourself accountability - set a deadline with a coworker or your advisor to have various pieces done.
posted by htid at 12:47 PM on May 26, 2014 [14 favorites]

I'm only a few months behind you on thesis deadlines, so I absolutely feel where you're coming from. So far, guided meditation and breathing exercises have been helpful to me; they help me drop stress at the end of the day so that I can start fresher in the morning, and they're helpful training to calm myself down when the panic sets in.

While you should take care of yourself and get mental health support if it's available (many universities have a therapist who specializes in working with grad students who are finishing up), what you're feeling is extremely common, and I've watched nearly all of my friends go through it in the last stages of the thesis. Everyone I know says they aren't sure how their thesis got finished, and some people actively don't remember writing whole chapters because they were so sleep deprived. Impostor syndrome is rampant. Do your best to keep yourself from getting into that state, but do know that you aren't alone and that people do, somehow, make it through. You will too.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:50 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tell your well-meaning colleague that you need a deadline to get anything done, so you'd rather push as hard as you can for this deadline and deal with getting an extension at the last minute if you need it. Tell them "this is just how I work" (assuming that's true).

Your friends can help you make a to do list for the next few days, then update it once you finish those activities. Your old friend can remind you that they love you and will still love you even if you were to NEVER finish. They can call you from time to time and say "how are you hanging in there?" They can send care packages, especially healthy snacks like nuts and fruit.

I believe you can get through this without having a breakdown, and it sounds like you just want to power through and be done. But your friends can offer to be the person you call if you're ever freaking out at 2 am who will remind you that your life and your personal worth are vaster and deeper than this project and its deadline.

It doesn't matter if your research has meaning, if that's what you're saying. From what I hear, everyone hates their research by this phase in the process. A ph.d. person i know likes to say that if all you learned is what you SHOULD have asked and how you SHOULD have set up the research, that's success.
posted by salvia at 12:58 PM on May 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Two pages a day for two months is 120 pages. You definitely can do this, you've probably taken in-class essay exams and written two pages in an hour or two. I wrote my theses in two months - I plopped myself down in a lazyboy recliner with my laptop and knocked out a couple pages a day. And I didn't work crazy hours, I worked at it like it was a job i.e. no internet.
posted by 445supermag at 1:56 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have at least two chapters to write from scratch and at this point I'm still going through my data, and questioning whether or not I can write this. It feels awful because I not only question my qualifications to do research, I struggle with the meaning behind all of this.

This is 100% normal. Almost everybody feels like this at some stage. That said...

Here's the sticker: for several weeks, a well-meaning friend and colleague believes I'm really struggling and that I need help before I have a mental breakdown.

This might also be true.

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't take advantage of the mental health services offered by my university while I was working on my dissertation.

There is no reason you can't do all of the following: 1) talk to the person you're seeing for ADHD about your anxiety or whatever you're struggling with, and look into appropriate talk therapy and/or drug therapy, 2) keep working, and 3) finish on time, without having a mental breakdown.

My best friend who lives hours away has asked me how she could help me, but I really don't know how anybody can.

Get together with them by text or on Gchat or iMessage or whatever the young people are doing these days. You both have something that you need to do. You need to write, they need to pay their bills or email their mom or do something else that they are procrastinating on. One person sets a timer for, say, 15 minutes and types, "OKAY, GO!" When the timer goes off, they type, "15 minutes DONE! WOOO! How did it go?" Then you chat for a little while, before setting the timer again. (Time your breaks if you need to.)
posted by BrashTech at 2:08 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I use a fake exam strategy.

I get a kitchen timer and set it for an hour and tell myself to answer the chapter question in that hour and just sit down and go hard for an hour as if I was answering an exam question and I don't let myself use any notes or references (to avoid distractions).

Then I do it for the next question.

Then I create editing exams where I fill in from notes and references as it were a take home exam.

I work and write really well under imminent time pressure so I try and find ways to create that imminence. However, it is also important to have a recovery period. So you need set it up and do it and then walk away for a bit and do and think about other things.
posted by srboisvert at 2:10 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I was in the weeds, I started emailing my supervisor my daily plan first thing in the morning and then sending him the day's work in the evening. It made me set realistic goals and held me accountable. Once the ball got rolling we moved it to once a week. Good luck, you can do this.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 2:43 PM on May 26, 2014

If you are not currently medicated, get medicated. If stimulant medication is not available where you are--I know this is the case in some countries--then try to work out an equivalent stimulant routine. It's not just coffee or nothing; I at one point during the Adderall shortages was running during law school finals on a combination of nicotine patches, 12-hour decongestants, and tea that I wouldn't have wanted to keep up long-term but that worked well in the short-term. Caffeine tablets can be split into smaller pieces. The big thing is to try to avoid spiking and crashing. But I prefer the real medication by a long shot.

Once you've got that going, pomodoros or similar intervals. You can totally check your email--in twenty minutes. You can look at Metafilter--in twenty minutes. Set timers. If you have a smartphone, look for an app that will do interval timers by default.

Take deep breaths. Take lots of deep breaths. If you start to panic, ideally, if you have a laptop or can otherwise give yourself enough work to do this, go and work at a coffee shop for awhile, or a public library if you prefer it quieter; change things up a bit. I tend to picture it a bit like shutting down and rebooting my brain when it starts to get glitchy. The important thing for the ADD/anxiety combination, to me, is to have a routine for how to handle the work-related anxiety when it comes up, something I can turn to immediately when I start to feel that tightness in my chest, before it gets out of control.
posted by Sequence at 3:01 PM on May 26, 2014

I just finished my phd thesis a few weeks ago. Like you I faced a lot of internal barriers. Here are a few major things that helped:

1. I started a writing club with some fellow students. Laptops in a meeting room for 4 or 5 hours, every weekday afternoon. Focused work for 50 min (no talking, surfing, or otherwise straying) and then a 10 min break. I even had a wall of shame where you owned up eaach time you caught yourself straying. I benefited tremendously from the structured environment, as well as from having company, so I didn't feel so alone. Find people who can be in this with you, even if it just means sharing a workspace every day.

2. Demote the task from thesis-writinf to praragraph writing. Make your goal to finish a paragraph before each break. It is usually possible to put together a paragraph in an hour. Try to squeeze in a paragraph before breakfast. Make paragraphs happen whenever you have a block of time.

3. Write those paragraps even if they're terrible; there will be time for revisions and edits later. It is not that hard to edit something terrible into something passable, and then edit something passae into something really good. It is hard to write something really good from scratch. Lower the bar. It's an incremental, iterative process.

4. See a counselor, if you're not already. They can help you manage things. Take advantage of every resource you can.

5. Every now and then, take a small amouny of time -- maybe 15 minutes -- to make space for your anxieties and fears. Take a walk to a nice soothing place. Tell the scared one inside that you see them, amd you value their needs, and you will make space for them, after the thesis. The idea is by touching in lightly in a contained way, you can prevent an eruption that knocks you out for days. I experienced this myself and this strategy helped me a lot.

6. Whenever you feel fear, doubt, or anxiety about your ability to make this work, the quality of the work and whether it will stand, or anything else which is getting in the way pf the paragraph you are writing -- recognize that these fears belong to the scared one inside, and tell that person "later", and go back to the paragraph. Finish the terrible paragraph first, then take a break and make space for your fears, if it's the right time.

Good luck. You can do this. It is probably going to be the hardest time of your life but then it will be over. Take care of yourself and get some paragraphs on the page. I'll be cheering you on.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:20 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

I've handed in my Master's thesis three weeks ago. I wrote most of it in three weeks (~60%) on top doing some data analysis, generating figures and rewriting a couple of big sections. I did collapse from exhaustion towards the end, and it does contain some stupid language mistakes. But a deadline is a great motivator. Once I realized I can finish in time I relaxed a bit.

Two chapters is not an insane amount of work to do in two months. I think it's totally doable. You should outline your chapters, and just wake up in the morning and work until you're exhausted, take a break, and then work some more. I've mostly chosen to do tasks that seemed "easy" that day - one day it was to generate figures, other days I felt like rewriting sections. I tried to write new stuff only when I was ready and knew what I wanted to say - at the right time, writing is easy and goes fast. Getting to this point is harder, and requires outlining, talking to other people and reading related work. I think writing the last two pages or two of content (which were the hardest) took more time than the five previous pages.

The nice thing about doing data analysis and generating figures and stuff is that it gives you a break from writing. And once you'll get going, you will realize that you can, indeed, finish this in time. And you will feel better. I've also found that talking about my work with people who were not my advisor helped me generate ideas for content (some email discussions went into the thesis with minor edits).

Either way, I wouldn't ask for an extension just yet (and even if you do, it's not a failure). Maybe you want to check out the process for getting an extension, but I'd try to harness the deadline as a motivation to get a shitload of work done.

And every bit helps! Every task you complete pushes you further towards the finish line. That really helped my motivation.
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 3:59 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Break things down.

* Chapters -> outline -> sections -> subsections -> paragraphs -> topic sentences -> fill in paragraph
* Adopt the "Just do it" attitude. There is sometimes no other way to get around to some things.
* Make a to-do list in a notebook for every day/hour. Set up your weekly planner

* Keep doing regularly one thing that you know will de-stress you- yoga, gym, running, tennis- whatever floats your boat
* Meaning of all of this? - 'I will figure it out in the two weeks after submission'.
Can I write this or not? -'Well, I've got this one chance in a lifetime (for now) to find out. Lets find out whether I can do it or not. Lets find out whether what I think is actually true or not!'
My qualifications to do research?- 'Well the committee has given me the go ahead to write the dissertation so I must be on track'.
* Set a regular (for you) regimen regarding sleeping and eating

* Fellow students and your advisor and committee can be helpful if you feel/are stuck. Its not important to do this alone. Its more important to recognize when you need help and get it done.
* Make use of campus counseling if the anxieties are still getting the best of you. You may or may need medication and talking it out will be helpful because those services are meant for exactly these kind of situations.

Writing and writing dissertations are not easy tasks. And they aren't rewarding tasks for most students. Instead of punishing yourself with a "wall of shame", reward yourself for small accomplishments. And plan for a reward when you are done with the writing, and for after you have defended.

You can do this, so go do it already!

Good luck.
posted by xm at 5:18 PM on May 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

just open the word processor and start. write the negative of your hypothesis if you wish, but write. Start at 9 AM and write until 5 PM. take the nights off. Don't outline for a week.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:30 PM on May 26, 2014

As you've probably gathered from the other responses, this is actually fairly normal. As far as still working with the data, hell I'm doing that with every scientific paper I write up until I actually send it out for publication, that's normal too. What you really need to do is set up smaller steps that you can accomplish. Trying to "finish the dissertation!" is too big and too much stress. Sketch out some smaller steps you can accomplish. Start with a really broad outline of the two chapters you have to write, don't worry about putting in details, just the major points. Then, when that gets too hard/overwhelming, switch to making your figures look nice. Then go back to writing. Start adding in details to the outline. Figure out if there are different figures or analysis you need to make the points you are sketching out in the outline, if so, do those. Then start writing out parts of the chapters with full sentences. Pick the sections you feel most comfortable with to start. If you hit a part where the words aren't quite flowing, write it in thoughts or ideas and highlight it to come back to it later. Step by step you'll get it done. I find it is helpful to make mini deadlines for myself before the big deadline. So you may say by Friday you want to have at least a rough outline for at least one chapter, or maybe both. Make them realistic so you can make them without adding more stress. And then as you are able to check things off your to do list, it will help you feel like you are getting more done which while help keep you motivated to keep working. Incremental work is the best kind and you can always connect things together later (though starting with a big picture outline helps me to keep them vaguely on track in terms of the story I want to tell without having to write it all as one sequential chunk).

Any advice you get that stresses you out more, ignore. Focus on things that help you work how you work well. If you need a deadline to motivate you, or it stresses you out more to think of moving it, don't do it now. You can do it later if you need to.
posted by katers890 at 7:42 AM on May 27, 2014

There are also a lot of good mind games to keep anxiety in check.

Write it "as if." E.g., "if I *WERE* going to write a Results chapter, how would it go?" Concede to whatever the anxious voice is saying but move ahead anyway. "You'll never finish." "Sure, sure, I'll probably never finish. But if this ever were to be a completed document, this chapter would probably have to include..." "None of your results mean anything!" "Sure, sure, they might ultimately not mean a whole lot. But supposing they had just enough meaning to fill a chapter, that chapter would include..."

Another approach is the catch-me-if-you-can mischievous approach. "You can't do this." "Well, let's see if I can get away with this anyway!" "These results don't mean anything." "Well, let's see if I can convince the committee that they have just enough meaning to graduate me!"

Someone else above suggested starting writing with "what I'm trying to say here is." But you can start with whatever you're feeling. "This chapter will suck because all I have to say is..." I'm not encouraging you to beat up on yourself, but sometimes the path of least resistance is to reply to whatever voices with "yeah, yeah, fine," while you're proceeding to get business done anyway.
posted by salvia at 10:03 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

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