The question on everyone’s lips: “how’s thesis-writing going?” The question that has plagued me the last few months from well-meaning colleagues, friends and family. I can confirm that writing a PhD thesis can very much leave you feeling like SpongeBob, or Ross from friends – I’m fineeee!
It’s never going to be an easy task, and there’s always going to be moments where you feel like pulling your hair out with stress or booking a one-way flight to another country and never turning back – but I haven’t given in to those invasive thoughts yet! And I have found a few ways to keep myself from spiralling as I attack the monster that is the PhD thesis:
- Don’t give in to isolation
I get it, the temptation to lock yourself in a room with your laptop and completely block out the outside world until the thesis is done. But if you’re anything like me, this is a recipe for hitting a serious wall. After transitioning from being in the lab surrounded by my colleagues to being in a quiet room with just my thesis, I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t take time out to have lunch or a coffee with my friends, I’d be a very sad gal by the end of the day – not conducive to good writing. So don’t let the stress turn you into a hermit, your mental health will thank you for it.
- Move your body
This is a keep-sane mechanism that I neglected when the stress hit in my final year of my undergrad. I fell into the trap of thinking I didn’t have time to exercise – the wrong mindset!! I now recognize that by taking time out for a yoga class or to put my earphones in and throw some weight around RCSI gym, I’m giving myself the mental break I need to then have much more successful writing sessions afterwards. Not to mention keeping the endorphins high to balance out the thesis-induced cortisol production. So whatever your preferred form of exercise is – schedule it in and do it!
- Get outdoors
Another textbook keep-sane tip, but for a good reason! I know for a fact the days I get over to Stephen’s Green for a coffee walk or to eat lunch outside, I generally have a better mood for the day. And a happy gal is a productive gal. The serotonin boost from feeling the sun on your skin or seeing some gorge flowers or a cute squirrel is fairly unmatched. This can also be easily combined with Tips #1 and #2 at the weekends by planning a nice hike with friends to have the chats, move your bodies, see some views and, of course, get an obligatory coffee and sweet treat afterwards. I’ve found it to be an ideal weekend activity to get me out and feel like I’ve done something nice without tiring myself out too much to be able to get some work done afterwards. We’re so blessed in Dublin with parks, mountains and the seaside, not to be taken for granted!
- Schedule in some silliness
I know a lot of people who vow to stay on their best behaviour while they are thesis writing, saying no to social events involving a sneaky drink or two. But I have learned that for me, this is not the best approach, and scheduling in some occasional silliness is the best motivator to keep me going. You truly can’t beat the feeling of sending a draft off on a Friday evening, followed by heading out somewhere fun with your friends. Be that a karaoke night, a few drinks in the evening sunshine, or a night away somewhere, these moments of fun are important for keeping sane. It’s also important to remember that while it feels like your PhD is the center of the universe, it’s not a reason to miss out on life events happening in the meantime – your sister’s hen party, your friend’s birthday, or whatever else is happening outside of your PhD bubble. Finishing your PhD, like life in general, is about balance, moments of fun and silliness to balance out the serious stuff.
- Think ahead
My last tip for keeping sane while thesis-writing is to think ahead of what life might be like when you’re done. This does NOT mean stressing about applying for jobs or looking for new housing, or worrying about finances post-PhD, but just playing with ideas in your head of how you envision your life after you’ve earned the coveted Dr. title. Do you want to take a break from science, travel, or spend time with family? The world is quite literally your oyster. For a good chunk of my thesis-writing I avoided thinking ahead because it overwhelmed me, there’s often no definitive deadline to a PhD thesis, so it is difficult to plan ahead, and if you set yourself a deadline that you don’t meet, it can feel like a failure. But I’ve come to realise that by flexibly planning the end and what comes next, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes easier to see.
So they’re the five top methods I’ve been using to keep me sane in the final sprints of my PhD. My final word of wisdom is this – be compassionate with yourself. Writing a PhD thesis is not easy, and it does take time (sometimes more time than you had anticipated), so try not to beat yourself up if your progress isn’t where you thought it would be. You will finish, and it’s better to be in a mentally good place when you do so you can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and celebrations that come with it.
Happy (hopefully sane) writing!
Written by Catherine Murphy