Writing While Away

By Aria S. Halliday (@Queen_Diva6

For some graduate students of color, getting to A.B.D. (All But Dissertation—all requirements for the degree except dissertation have been completed) status is a recognition of one’s ability to do PhD level work. After courses, papers, exams (oral and written), and presentations, A.B.D. status is the hallmark of one’s doctoral journey because there are an estimated 50+% of graduate students who never receive their doctoral hood. And for some, it marks the stage in which you can start the research you so desperately went to graduate school to do. For students like me, you find solace in A.B.D. because it means you’re almost there and can finally live somewhere else to finish your dissertation.

As you can imagine, finishing your dissertation in a different location than where you started it can be difficult. Not only are you uprooting or at least greatly disrupting the support system you’ve created over the past 2-3 years during coursework, but also your new location has a set of obligations, struggles, and fears of its own. If you’re like me, you think that a new place will ignite the dissertation-writing fire that had turned to embers due to institutional burnout. Now, you can say no to program, organization, or university obligations and smile when you write that line in the email, “I’m sorry, I will be away from campus and unable to complete this request.” YES! THE JOY! I hope you get how excited I am about that sentence.

For me, I decided to finish my dissertation at home. Some others I met along my journey went to acquire new jobs, conduct ethnographic research, or at least be around the loved ones they had been neglecting for years. I moved back home after a rough 3rd year at Purdue. I had been President of the Black graduate students organization, had served on various committees and helped my program hire faculty, had even worked with the Provost and others to combat racism on campus. And I was tired. Not a single-layered, I don’t want to write today kind of tired. No, it was the debilitating burnout that so many graduate students of color experience after throwing themselves into their graduate programs with little guidance or support. **For everyone who is trying to figure out where their motivation has gone or why they can’t muster the energy to even open a word document, you should know that you are not alone. And even more importantly, I promise there is a way out.** So, going home was both a way of getting away from obligations and people that I just couldn’t do anymore and also a chance to re-center myself. At home, I could regroup and look towards the future. I could figure out what things I need to keep and trash after seven years of post-secondary schooling (yes, I went straight to graduate school after undergrad). Home meant home-cooked meals that I didn’t have to make, holidays that I didn’t spend hours and hours traveling or away from family, family gatherings that I didn’t miss.

Writing while away was a solution to many things for me, but it also surfaced some attitudes about living at home in my mid-20s that I hadn’t anticipated. The first few weeks, I struggled to even get out of bed before 11am. I took naps for no reason at all and generally laid around. I found myself feeling like a failure for living at home with nothing to show for my years and years of schooling. Like the Kanye West skit on Graduation, I had a bunch of degrees with no real money or other accomplishments. It took a few dozen conversations with my family, best friend, writing group, and myself before I let those feelings go. And when I did, I was finally able to write again.

As you can imagine, writing away can be good for the soul. But as you begin to decide whether it’s for you (or you already made the move and are struggling like I was), here are a few tips to help:

  1. Make a list of the reasons why you are writing the dissertation. In other words, why are you getting this degree? When you are low or tired or struggling, pull this list out and remind yourself why you made this decision.
  2. Find out what paperwork or requirements are necessary to leave your institution to write. If you’re on fellowship or are a TA, are you able to work “in abstentia” or must you still be in student status?
  3. Speak with other students about the process and what they know. Many times, institutions don’t publicize the information so ask around.
  4. Let yourself rest. Part of why my burnout was so debilitating was because I expected myself to be able to write through it. I thought it was like my 2nd year burnout, where with my officemate (shout out to Stephen H!), I was able to write through it. Give yourself a break, if you are able to.
  5. Set a schedule! When you live in an environment that is not bound by academic schedules or attitudes, it’s hard to go against the grain. No, you can’t write in your pajamas. I know you do it at school, but YOU CAN’T. I promise, if you find a nice place to write and set a schedule, you will be productive.
  6. Respect your own boundaries. If you know you can’t write around noise or with cartoons on, make those adjustments. You have to actively create a productive environment.
  7. Check in with your committee once a month. Despite what they may say, your committee is fickle. If you are not actively communicating with them, they WILL forget you. Even if it feels ridiculous, set up calls or Skype meetings with advisors and mentors to catch up on progress. This can help you, also, transition into a more collegial role in the mentor-mentee relationship and build deeper connections.
  8. Be willing to change your strategy. While in graduate school, you are surrounded by folks constantly writing and thinking. When you move away, those communities do not come with you. Therefore, if things aren’t working based on the schedule you’ve set, change it up! This part of your journey is your own, so be willing to shift your strategy for success.
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One thought on “Writing While Away

  1. Thank you for writing this!!! I’m currently home and trying to work on my thesis. Yikes! Not much progress so I appreciate reading your entry and feeling like I can relate to other people’s stories. You also answered some of the logistical questions that came to mind. Thank you and I look forward to reading other things you’ve written! 🙂

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