By: Molly F. Morin, Ph.D., University of Maryland College Park
To move or not to move while dissertating? This may be a question you are currently thinking about or may think about in the future. Or, like me, you may have already relocated away from your institution and are dissertating (if this is you, know that we can do it!)
While I never planned to move away from my institution before completing my Ph.D., it is a decision I would never change! As I was completing my Ph.D. coursework, my husband applied for medical schools across the country and was admitted to a medical school 600 miles away. My husband is my #1 support system and has always encouraged me to pursue my educational endeavors. So, I knew that I wanted to relocate to join him as soon as I was done with my dissertation coursework. My husband relocated to join me as I pursued doctoral studies, and I was proud to say that now it was my turn to relocate to join him as he pursues his medical degree. Despite a rhetoric of “do not move away from your institution under any circumstances,” I knew this was going to be the best for me personally and academically to get PhDone.
You may consider relocating during your dissertation writing phase for a variety of reasons:
- To move back home
- To serve as a caretaker for immediate and extended family
- To join your partner/support system
- To pursue a new career opportunity
- Or any other reasons that play a critical role in your happiness and well-being
Regardless of why you relocate, it is critical to think about: What type of support and structures do you need in place to complete your dissertation? It has been almost a year since I relocated away from my institution and began a full-time job upon relocation. Not only was I transitioning to a new geographic location, but I was also making the transition from being a full-time student back to being a full-time employee. I recognize that some doctoral students reading this post may also be deciding whether to pursue a full-time career opportunity before completing your Ph.D. It is vital that you make the best decision for your livelihood and personal/professional journeys. I worked full-time before beginning my doctoral degree and my time as a Ph.D. student reaffirmed my desire to be a scholar-practitioner and work full-time in service to students. I have aspirations and interests in also serving as an adjunct/affiliate faculty member or potentially a clinical faculty member in the future. I recognized the opportunity that my relocation could pose on my professional journey by being able to return to a full-time role at a college/university.
The insight and advice that I impart below are a result of my reflections over the last year since I have been away. I have defended my dissertation proposal and will defend my final dissertation since being away. So, it can be done! The areas below have been key in supporting my dissertation progress and keep me motivated in my journey (especially after a long work day). I invite you to add to this list and think about what will support your dissertation completion.
Stay Determined and Remember your Purpose
Your hard work, ambition, and drive to succeed got you admitted to a doctoral program. Continue to channel this persistence and determination as you enter the dissertation phase. If you are not committed to complete your doctorate, you will not finish. Stay committed. If you lose focus or find your commitment to completion waning, ask yourself, “Why? What do you need to do to refocus your work?” It is okay to take days (and even weeks) away from your dissertation writing. Sometimes these days (or weeks) away can rejuvenate you and give you a new perspective on your work. Admittedly, some days I have felt like this:
But, I have always gotten back to the writing. When you feel like you are drowning in your work, remember your purpose for your work. Why are you pursuing your doctorate? What motivates you to conduct this research? I have revisited my personal statement to remind me of my purpose. As a Latina, first-generation college student, I remind myself that pursuing a doctorate is not just for me. It is also for my family, my community, the students that I serve, and the students I have yet to meet.
Locate Networks of Support and Communicate the Type of Support you Need
The dissertation process can feel very lonely at times regardless of whether you relocate away from your institution or not. Think about the type of support you need to make dissertation writing a reality. What does this support look like? Who do you envision as part of your personal advisory board? Even though the dissertation is an individual endeavor, it will take a village to get you through. You may consider yourself extremely independent and like to do things on your own (which is the case for me). Know that while your dissertation can be done alone, that does not mean that it should. Please note, when I say “support,” I do not mean getting actual support with your writing itself. I mean receiving emotional support and benefiting from knowledge from peers is key. It truly takes a village. While I am no longer in the same physical space as my Ph.D. peers, I remain in virtual contact with them regularly.
I am blessed to have multiple sources of peer support that have provided me with invaluable words of affirmation and knowledge in this journey. This support began in my first year with my connection with my cohort sister. Not only is having support from cohort mates beneficial, but support from advanced doctoral students is also vital to gain insight into policies, processes, and unwritten knowledge into doctoral degree completion. I not only have wonderful peers within my doctoral program, but I also benefit from valuable support from my family and friends from home (who are 2,000 miles away). My family and friends continue to support me unconditionally; even though it sometimes takes me hours (or days) to return a text message, weeks to return a phone call, and I rarely have time to make social plans when I travel home not solely because of a lack of time but also out of exhaustion. It is important to communicate the type of support you need from your loved ones. Family and friends who truly care about you and are committed to your success will understand why you can no longer attend social engagements in the same frequency. They will also understand how Ph.D. students benefit from having scheduled social events and phone call catch up sessions in their schedules. Although I consider myself a planner, I never thought I would need to schedule times to catch up with friends. Do not feel embarrassed to communicate the type of support you need. For family and friends, please also know that questions such as “When are you graduating?” have good intentions, but do not be surprised if the doctoral student in your life responds, “I’m not sure.” This is a genuine response not because of a lack of effort on our part, but because of the nature of the dissertation data collection and writing process.
Implement a Structure to Facilitate your Success
During my last semester of coursework, I received invaluable advice from one of my dissertation committee members to treat dissertation writing like a job. This way I dedicate the same level of commitment to my dissertation as I do to my career. This dissertation committee member encouraged me to dedicate 15 hours to writing Mon-Fri and 12 hours over the weekend to writing. Also, to add these blocks of time on my calendar. If I needed to remove those times from my calendar for any reason, then I should add those lost times back to my calendar for another day/time. As an MBTI “J,” structure and being detail-oriented comes naturally for me. But for some reason, I was not sure about how to implement structure into my life as it relates to dissertation writing. So, I was very thankful of this advice. I would encourage the MBTI “Ps” to try this out or some variation of this because creating some structured plan will help you complete your dissertation given all the moving parts. To this day, I continue to structure my writing although it has shifted a bit. Now that I am working full-time, my energy levels are low after the work day, so at best I get about 5-10 hours of writing in during the weekdays and 15 hours in over the weekend. My advisor also gave me valuable advice to leave heavy-lifting writing to the weekend and focus on editing, finding sources, and reading during the week. I also recognize that I am in a privileged position productivity wise since my husband is in school as well. We are now both Starbucks gold card members. As you set up your writing structure also incorporate rewards (e.g., going to the movies, checking out a new restaurant). If I accomplished my writing goals on any given day, I would reward myself by watching something on Hulu or Netflix…or even when I hit a writing wall (which will happen) just to relax and take a mental break. You CANNOT write ALL the time.
I also greatly benefit from accountability partners and groups to check-in with about my writing progress. I would encourage you to identify at least one accountability partner during your dissertation-writing journey. Here it is also key to think about: What type of accountability support you need? For example, I have one friend who I will Snapchat whenever I sit down to do some heavy writing for motivation and accountability. I also am part of a GroupMe group with other doctoral students who are also dissertating and we will check-in about our writing and progress. This also serves as a space to vent and affirm one another. I have also made a drafted dissertation timeline and shared this with my cohort sister to have someone else check-in on my progress and vice versa so I can support her. Because of all the moving parts involved in the dissertation process, making a drafted timeline that I continually revisit and update is very helpful. As you make your timelines do not forget to include some critical pieces such as: changing verb tenses after your dissertation proposal from future to past tense, updating your table of contents, completing required paperwork (e.g., graduation application, nomination of dissertation committee), submitting receipts from grants you have received, writing your acknowledgements/dedication section of your dissertation, and more! Set realistic goals with your timeline and do not feel discouraged when you do not reach the goals you set (it will happen). Adjust these goals and keep moving PHorwarD!!
As you make your timeline of goals communicate these to your advisor for their feedback and perspective. Once relocating, I would also encourage you to schedule regular meetings with your dissertation chair based on your shared availability. My dissertation chair is supportive and we have met via videoconference during my lunch break to check-in, review feedback on my chapter drafts, and discuss next steps since I have been away. Do. Not. Fall. Off. The. Radar. It is so easy to fall off the grid once relocating (cue cliché: out of sight, out of mind). Our faculty balance so much and I believe we need to take the initiative ourselves to set timelines, solicit feedback, ask questions, and communicate the support we need. Even if you feel embarrassed or disappointed in yourself that you have fallen behind on your goals, DO NOT let these feelings get in the way of connecting with your chair. Life happens. Writing roadblocks happen. It is how you respond that matters. In addition to a supportive dissertation chair, I also have a supportive supervisor at work who also wants me to get PhDone. For those of you in a full-time job or planning to pursue a full-time job, I would highly encourage you to negotiate some flexibility during your dissertation writing process. This will be critical during your data collection phase as it is important to connect with participants based on their availability, so the more flexibility you have the better as data collection (depending on your topic) may involve travel or take place during the typical 8-5 work day. Post data collection I also adjusted my work schedule to work 7-4 or 7:30-4 (with a 30-minute lunch break) as much as I could so I could get home earlier (or get to Starbucks sooner) to be able to get some productivity in during the week. Never measure your productivity solely by the number of pages you write, productivity can also involve coming up with an idea of how you want to present your findings, making an outline of a chapter, meeting with your peer debriefer, brainstorming with a friend, and more! There may also be other elements you need to consider to find a structure that works for you that I have not yet mentioned.
I hope sharing pieces of my own journey and advice throughout my dissertation writing process can be of support in some way. While balancing dissertation writing upon relocation is not easy, it can be done! Finding a dissertation topic you are passionate about will also get you PhDone. I can genuinely say that I enjoy reading through my data and writing the findings and implications. Never forget – you are the expert of your topic and our scholarship matters! Keep pushing PHowarD!
Molly F. Morin is from El Monte, CA and recently received her Ph.D. from the Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at the University of Maryland. Molly completed her bachelor’s degree in Sociology/Liberal Studies from the University of La Verne, is an alumna of the McNair Scholars Program at Claremont Graduate University, and completed her master’s degree in Counseling and Personnel Services with an emphasis in College Student Personnel at the University of Maryland. Molly’s research interests center on the access, persistence, and success of underrepresented students in higher education particularly Latina/o and first-generation college students, the experiences of Latina administrators in higher education, and using assets-based frameworks in educational research. Molly’s dissertation focused on the career pathways and lived experiences of current/former Latina Chief Student Affairs Officers (CSAOs).