A theme which has been showing up lately in my dissertation coaching work is that of depression and the dissertation. For several of my clients, the dissertation has become one long, depressing and overwhelming process- a process which has no defined endpoint or change in site.
Think of it this way: imagine waking up each day, doing the exact same thing, without fail, but making no progress. No matter what you do, you end up repeating your efforts, and you have no idea when (or if) you’ll ever get the project moving along. Hours melt into days, which melt into months…and then years.
As I mentioned before, the definition of dissertation insanity is taking the same actions over and over, yet expecting a different result. Unfortunately, for some of you, this exactly describes your dissertation process, and, as a result, you’ve started to get depressed.
My background is in clinical psychology, so I’m able to knowledgeably share with you the symptoms of depression. They include, but are not limited to: changes in eating patterns, sleeping patterns, and activity levels. This means that you might be eating more or less than usual, sleeping more or less than usual, or feeling revved up (much more active) or sluggish/lethargic (much less active) than usual. Typically, people who are feeling depressed tend to lose interest in activities and relationships they once enjoyed. They may isolate themselves, withdraw, and avoid social interactions. They may feel weepy, and cry easily, or they may feel very irritable, and express anger more often.They sometimes try to manage their anxiety and stress with medications, food, or alcohol.
Aside from these symptoms, your dissertation progress (if there was any) grinds to a halt, and you start to become less efficient, less focused, and everything becomes much more difficult. You might feel angry with yourself, but then also hopeless of ever being able to make any significant and lasting changes.
The bad news is that you might be feeling this way. The good news is that you don’t have to.
The first step in overcoming dissertation-related depression is recognizing that you feel this way. The second step is seeking out appropriate sources of help and support (which might include your spouse/partner, your friends, colleagues, your advisor, a counselor or a coach.) The third step is to take small steps, with guidance and support, to overcome the current routines and patterns in your life. Presuming that there is no medical reason for your depression, you will get relief from instituting a regular pattern of exercise, spending time with loved ones, and monitoring your diet more efficiently. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to improve mood, sleep, and appetite just as well as antidepressant medication. It makes no sense to try and tackle the dissertation until you have these basics taken care of.
Once you are feeling better, the next step to take is to decide that you will finish, and to set a deadline for doing so. Then work consistently towards that deadline, leaving behind any doubts, fears, or worries about not meeting the goal. As long as you are putting one foot in front of the other, you are making progress. Most people avoid setting a deadline to finish, without realizing that this is one of the most powerful methods for regaining control of your dissertation process. It shifts the balance of power from external to internal.
While it can be easy to think suffering is a necessary prerequisite for a successful dissertation process, this simply is not true. If you, or anyone you know is experiencing any of these negative mood symptoms, please take some action, today. All you have to take is the first step, and then the next, and so on.
Depression sometimes does accompany the dissertation process, but it doesn’t have to.