The journey of a dissertation can often feel astonishingly solitary, an experience compounded by the weight of stress, anxiety and daily worries. It was precisely this sense of isolation that compelled me to become a dissertation coach, with the goal of transforming the solitary odyssey into more of a shared pilgrimage.

I clearly remember the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the looming uncertainty that clouded some of my time as a PhD student. Yet throughout it all, it was essential to remember that I was not alone. I relied heavily on my own dissertation coach, project supervisor, peers in the program and family to remind me that this particular academic challenge was, in fact, worth it.

Now, as a dissertation coach, I have walked alongside countless clients, witnessing their similar struggles and sharing in their moments of triumph. There is nothing more satisfying than supporting a client amidst the challenges and being a part of their eventual dissertation completion and graduation.

The Role of Modern-Day Stressors

The modern world carries its own burdens, especially for those in their 30´s and beyond, adding layers of complexity to the dissertation process. Work, family and social life all demand their share of attention, leaving precious little opportunity for research and writing. My clients often describe feeling extremely overwhelmed, as they attempt to make progress with their dissertation projects while attending to everything else going on in their lives.

This delicate balancing act can be draining to say the least, leaving little energy or time to give to the dissertation process. Studies confirm that the contemporary pace of life can have a profound impact on our mental well-being, particularly when combined with dissertation demands.

Recognizing the Signs of Mental Health Struggles in Academia

In the landscape of academia, it’s crucial to recognize the signs of mental health struggles. Stress, anxiety and depression can manifest in various ways, affecting not just the mind but the body as well. Sleepless nights, incessant worry and a persistent feeling of inadequacy can be telltale signs.

My coaching clients often talk to me about the tight grip of anxiety and moments of self-doubt, and I remember those same feelings during my own dissertation journey.  At first, it may seem like keeping these feelings silenced is the best approach – adopting the mature response in the face of adversity.

But the reality is that silence is often the chain that binds many of us in academia. We proudly suffer in solitude, our struggles hidden beneath a thin veneer of scholarly composure.

The key is to recognize the damage of internalization, and to begin recruiting others to serve as a listening board.  This can include colleagues, friends, family or a good therapist. The practice of sharing your fears and anxieties can serve as a necessary release for stress and weariness.

The Importance of Self-Care Throughout the Dissertation Process

During my own dissertation experience, I learned firsthand the importance of taking a step back, even if for just a short time, to rest and replenish. I was working full time as a department Chair as well as raising my teenage son, so time was scarce! For me, digging around in my garden and getting involved in outdoor activities grounded me. Spending quality time with a good friend over lunch weekly definitely helped to break up the dissertation routine.

The value of rejuvenation strategies throughout the dissertation process cannot be overstated. Whether it’s a quiet walk, the escape of a favourite book or yoga with friends, these moments of respite have the power to allay the anxious mind. You can gain strength from simple practices that rejuvenate your spirit and prepare you for the next chapter (literally). What self-care strategies can you rely on throughout the dissertation process?

Knowing When It’s Time for a Longer Term (or Permanent) Dissertation Break

As I managed the occasionally bumpy terrain of my own dissertation process, I discovered the importance of recognizing when it was time for a more serious break. The tipping point – when the journey becomes unsustainable for one’s own mental health – is unique to each traveler. Maybe a new job or a serious illness is that point for you. Or simply, the heavy realization that you feel burnt out, empty.

The reality is that the dissertation journey is not for everyone…and that’s perfectly okay, even if you realize this late in the process. Sometimes, it’s wiser to put a dissertation aside and explore alternative avenues, preserving one’s well-being above all else.

Why a Multi-Faceted Dissertation Approach Can Help

Over the course of the past decade, as I’ve stood in the role of a dissertation coach, I’ve worked with many individuals whose experiences are a reflection of my own. They have grappled with the intricacies of work, the demands of family life, financial constraints and a multitude of personal challenges. Each of them carries a unique narrative, filled with moments of triumph and tribulation.

As a dissertation coach, I am an academic guide, but also a confidant, an ally in adversity, a partner who helps clients navigate through the darkest of academic alleys. We chart a course together, always focused on what will move your project forward in a way that is sustainable.

In the midst of this dissertation terrain, I have witnessed countless clients just like me – who weather the fractious challenges of everyday life, find inner strength and emerge triumphant with a PhD in hand. It’s the best feeling in the world to be a part of their success.

I encourage you, my fellow travelers, to prioritize your mental health during the dissertation journey. Seek support when needed, take breaks with zero sense of guilt and remember that your well-being is paramount.