You have probably heard that insanity defined is the process of doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. Dissertation insanity is very similar, but it focuses on how people with normally good time management and coping skills seem at a loss when it comes to the dissertation.

There are so many people who take on the dissertation process as if it’s a chance for them to overcome all their limitations (real or imagined) and they want to use this process to rid themselves of all their “bad habits”- just to prove, once and for all, that they have “what it takes” to become a Ph.D.

In reaction to this, then, they set unrealistic goals, cycle rapidly through over-working and extreme avoidance, and, generally, feel like they are constantly anxious and worried. The dissertation process becomes dramatic and full of upheaval.

It needn’t be this way. The dissertation is, simply, a research project. It is your opportunity to research and report on items of interest. It is not, and should not become, a chance for you to “prove” anything about your fitness to be a scholar, academic, or even to graduate in the first place. Stated another way: you have a certain working style and pattern which has brought you this far. The dissertation project is not the time to try and rid yourself of all your bad habits in one fell swoop. Instead, it is a time to use what’s worked so far, and to apply your good work habits steadily and consistently.

Just like any other goal, the dissertation is finished by a clarity of purpose, the consistent application of energy, and of being resilient to the normal ebbs and flows in the process. Just like you wouldn’t expect to go to the gym once and be fit for life, you can’t expect to work on the dissertation just every now and then and have that be enough.

If your dissertation process too closely resembles insanity, it’s time to stop the madness and do something different. If you’re too close to the ideas and have gotten lost in them, talk about your project with your advisor and colleagues. Get some perspective. If you’ve been avoiding the dissertation, hoping it would write itself, it’s time to get real and start working. If you’ve been avoiding the dissertation with excuses of “I’m too busy, there’s no time”- it’s time to clarify your priorities. If finishing the dissertation is important to you, take this goal seriously, as you would any other- and then plan, focus, and finish.