Trying to complete a dissertation or thesis alongside all of our other responsibilities is incredibly hard. Many graduate students are also parents, full-time employees or business owners, or involved in teaching or clinical training. All students have lives beyond the dissertation. All have a need for social connection. All have bodies that need care and attention. All of these parts of our lives need our time and energy, and because there are only so many hours in a day and we have only so much energy to give, these competing priorities pull us in different directions. It’s stressful.
Throughout my dissertation experience, I was in close contact with four wonderful friends from my doctoral cohort. Later, we conducted a qualitative study to better understand our experiences. We all struggled with the dissertation. In particular, we all struggled to do the dissertation work in the contexts of our lives. Like most graduate students, we found that our families, our paid work, our health and other aspects of our lives all competed for our time and energy. Even our sense of ourselves within those other aspects of our lives sometimes felt at odds with our sense of ourselves within the dissertation work.
As we looked further into how we actually moved through the experience, we found that an ecological metaphor helped us understand what “balance” meant for us. We looked at the different aspects of our lives as interdependent ecosystems. Each aspect–family, for instance–was its own constantly changing ecosystem that sent feedback into another ecosystem, like the dissertation work. Sometimes this feedback disrupted the other ecosystem, but sometimes it was helpful. For example, I constantly felt guilty about missing out on time with my young son to work on my dissertation, and that seriously messed up my ability to do good dissertation work. Eventually, though, I had a realization that my family had made so many sacrifices to support me that I just had to complete my dissertation to honor their support. At that point, my family ecosystem was sending helpful, kick-it-into-gear feedback into my dissertation ecosystem.
My classmates and I never “found” balance. It was never over and done with. We were continually seeking balance. While different parts of our lives competed, there were also ways these different parts of our lives supported each other. We weren’t necessarily conscious of the helpful, contributing feedback relationships in the moment–it was a lot easier to see the disruptive feedback–but after closely examining our experiences, we came to the new insight that when enough contributing feedback was happening, the disruptive feedback was mitigated. And that was when our dissertation work moved forward.
Our research process was based on reflective writing and group discussion. Based on that process, we came up with some questions we feel may help other graduate student writers reflect on the different ecosystems in their lives and the feedback between them. Try writing on these questions and see what you discover:
- Tell the story of your dissertation experience (to date)
- What are the struggles or conflicts you see in your story?
- How do you resolve those struggles or conflicts? Or how might you resolve them?