how to support a friend writing a dissertation

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Currently, I’m one semester into what I anticipate will be two years of data collection for my qualitative dissertation. There is a lot of good advice I got in the first four years of my PhD to prepare me for this moment—memo often, get a writing partner or two, bring your questions and confusions to trusted colleagues (or Twitter), schedule regular massages to stave off repetitive stress injuries and chronic back pain. Still, there is one arena that I wasn’t fully prepared for and that’s just how much spending your days in interviews or participant observation can affect your relationships with the people you love most. I always knew that writing a dissertation could be an isolating experience, but I never understood that one reason why is that qualitative work is so unbelievably emotionally exhausting that you have nothing left to give your loved ones–even though you need them more than ever.

As I move into the new semester of data collection, I have reflected a good deal about how to do better at balancing being a researcher and being a fully-functioning and social human. On the top of the list is communicating more clearly with my friends, family, and partner about how dissertating can impact the relationships we’re trying to build and strategizing about how we can strengthen them anyway. Here’s what I intend to say:

Please reach out to me. A huge amount of fieldwork is contacting people who have no investment in you or your work and patiently wading through all of the times they decline to see you, cancel appointments last minute, or stand you up. At the end of a week like that, it is hard for me to summon the energy to start the same process with my friends to make weekend plans. If we haven’t seen each other in a while, do me the favor of being the one to reach out. If we already have plans, do what you can to keep them and be kind when you have to cancel.

Understand my schedule is unpredictable. When that hard-to-reach participant does finally set a time for an interview and it happens to be when we had plans, there are times I will cancel on you. I am sorry for that. It’s incredibly unfair (especially after the request I just made of you), but you should know that because my participants have so little investment in my dissertation (and I really, really need them to finish it), any barrier to meeting them can lead to a lost interview. I promise that when I have to cancel like this, I will make a recommendation for a time we can reschedule.

Make low key plans. I’m an extrovert, but a hard week of dissertating can make me feel like an introvert. After a week of intensive social interaction through interviews or observation, sometimes I want to see you, but I can’t muster what it takes to meet you at some loud crowded public space or to be a social butterfly who has to participate in conversations with strangers or entertain our friend group through a lot of active participation in a fast-moving conversation. Understand where I’m coming from if I suggest a movie night in instead.

(On that note, I want to give a shout out to all of my friends who have attended dumpling nights or Stitch and Bitch. These are big group events, but usually only one person speaks at a time. Being responsible for 50% of the conversation often feels like too much, but I can always offer up 10% in exchange for listening to you talk about your lives and make each other laugh  for the other 90%. Grad students, introverts, and other tired people who value their friendships—I can’t recommend this type of social outing enough.)

But sometimes I’ll be really chatty. After hours upon hours of sitting quietly and observing and listening to everyone else, sometimes I’m extremely eager to talk. The same goes for days I’ve been holed up in my office all alone to write. I apologize for when I take up too much space in our conversations and ask you to humor me. If it’s too much, call me out. If it’s not, take advantage of my burst of social energy as a time to catch up with me.

Ask me about my dissertation. For something that takes up the vast majority of my waking hours, I’m surprised by how little I talk about it with anyone. As someone who studies something as gruesome as sexual violence, I never want to impose my work stories on anyone else, but there are a lot of times when I could use an ear. It can be intimidating for non-academics to start a conversation about a dissertation, but it doesn’t need to be. I don’t need you to offer me some brilliant scholarly insight to alter the course of my dissertation, but I do need someone who can let me process that interview that has been keeping me up at night or reassure me that my awkward interaction with one of my participants won’t ruin my research (and my career) forever.

But don’t make me talk about it. That being said, there are some days all I want to do is to forget my dissertation exists for the couple of hours I’m spending with you (and focus on you and our wonderful, beautiful friendship). On those days, don’t push for details.

Remind me that it’s okay to be a mess. Writing a dissertation can bring out the worst perfectionist instincts out of any Type A aspiring academic. That has trickled into my personal life much more than I expected. Remind me that you want to be around when I don’t have it together—be that as an emotional wreck or someone who feels woefully inadequate for the tasks I’ve set for myself. I appreciate everyone who tells me my work is amazing, but I also need to hear that you’ll be here for me and love me all the same even if my work is terrible.

Celebrate with me! A dissertation is such a monumental endeavor that it’s easy for those of us in the middle of it to lose sight of the small victories we’re having along the way. If you catch one that I’m overlooking, help me see it and then let’s use it as an excuse to share a bottle of wine or go to our favorite restaurant or re-watch our guilty pleasure movie. And this goes for the bad stuff too! If you know I had an especially grueling week, that’s a great time to propose a toast to commemorate that it’s finally over.

Know it’s not you. There are times when this big thing I’m doing will eclipse my intentions to be a good friend. It’s nothing you did. I am very sorry and I will come back to you when I can.

Have your own recommendations for balancing your latest academic challenge and the relationships you hold most dear? Please share them in the comments!

Author: nbedera

Nicole Bedera is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @NBedera.

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