Living in dissertation isolation – How writing a dissertation is the most isolating thing you’ll ever do in your life
It’s 6:42 AM. I’m still up working from the night before. I’m so tired but I’ve so much I have to do that sleep is just not an option. The dissertation isolation is palpable.
I slept about four hours total in the past few nights and I haven’t seen another person that entire time. The only thing I have seen is my computer and my dissertation. My eyes hurt.
The grape sized knot in my right shoulder has now grown to the size of a golf ball. My neck is stiff and the pain from my shoulder is shooting down my arm into my pinky. But all I can think about is how lonely I am.
Here I am, walking into Walmart to buy printer ink so I can give my closing chapter a final read through. (I prefer to do at least one reading on the hard copy).
I’m the walking dead, but the end is so very close I can almost taste it. My defense is at 2:00 and then I will know. Then it is done. After my defense I have to go coach, and then I will sleep. But what I look forward to most is spending time with family and friends, to human interaction, and to being done with the most isolating experience I’ve ever known.
I have named this feeling “dissertation isolation” because it is completely unique to writing a dissertation. I’ve been lonely before, I’ve felt isolated before, but this is something entirely different.
People try to be there for you, but you’re still all alone.
Friends try to understand. They try to support and relate. My family offers words of encouragement and try to empathize with what I’m going through. But the reality is (and what nobody tells you) that nobody understands the ordeal you are living day in and day out.
You are in it alone.
Most people don’t even know what a dissertation really means until they’re doing it. I know I didn’t.
It is without a doubt the most isolating thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s isolating both physically and mentally. You’re forced into solitude to stay focused enough to complete your work. It is hard to have so much that you have to do that keeps you from your friends. But what’s really hard is having something so important to you yet no one around you understands.
Your friends are trying, they really are.
After a few weeks of crunch time, people start to give you a hard time because you have to keep saying no to things. What they don’t know is it’s 100 times harder on you. They are trying to tell you that they miss you and want you around. However, it feels more like a guilt trip that makes you so much more aware of how long it’s been since you spent any time with the people you care about (Or with any people for that matter).
If you’re a friend to a current doctoral student who’s trying to finish their dissertation, the best thing you can do is to be there for them. Check in on them and make sure their okay. And please try not to make them feel bad that they can’t meet you for happy hour or go to the lake for the day. I promise they really, really want to. Please try to be patient. The gravity of self doubt flooding your friends’ brain right now is weighing them down more than you know. It’s taking their all to push through and “hang in there” … they’re gripping on for dear life.
There’s a reason why others cannot and/or do not understand your experience.
But the truth is you are doing something so few people have done. You are doing something so few people ever even think about doing. You are doing something so few people are capable of.
So when you want to give up when you feel so alone, remember there’s a reason no one understands. If everybody earned their doctorate it wouldn’t mean what it does. But because it is something that takes so much work so much commitment and so much time, it is a true honor to be working on your PhD (or at least it is once you’ve finished it).
People may not understand and they may just think of you as another student equivalent to those who are in undergrad, but you’re not. You know it, I know it and for all that really matters the world knows it. The dissertation isolation is excruciating, but you can’t give up now. Be proud hang in there and remember you’re almost done.
This was written weeks ago, only hours before I would become a Ph.D. I was seriously sleep deprived and a bit down in the dumps. I think I was talking to myself more than anyone, trying to reassure myself to keep pushing forward.
It’s an honest reflection on what I was enduring at the time and for that reason I only did minimal editing. Other than correcting some misspelled words, I left it in its original, pre-dissertation defense condition.