academic for dissertation-writers

One night in the summer of 2005, I lay on my bed, angry and helpless about what appeared to be completely immovable writer’s block. I could see no light at the end of the tunnel; I felt like I’d never be done. The dissertation would never be finished. I’d never have the PhD. I’d never get a real job. I would always be in limbo.

So I got up, and, as we often do, started googling things. Running searches is a remarkable way of actually narrowing down what you really need. You start with one thing, and gradually, by process of elimination, you discover that you really need something else, but something else that is extremely specific. Eventually, I ran “Dissertation support group.” And I got

I’ve never joined “support groups” before, and the idea seemed hokey and unreal. This is such a White thing to do, I told myself sarcastically. But the dilemma was real, and the need for solutions was immediate. So I created an account, and started to read the forum. The outpouring of messages of encouragement, support, and advice was like cool water in the desert.

Writing a dissertation or thesis is a lonely, lonely task. As a graduate student, you are expected to be superwoman – you should KNOW how this works and you should HAVE what it takes. If you neither know nor have it, you do not have merit – and you deserve to fail and be ground into the dirt. If you seek out help, you are not cut out for the rugged individualism that the intellectual/work world demands. So what better community to seek than fellow strugglers and stragglers, who see their own and others’ struggles as both real and productive rather than as symptoms of failure?

The phinished strategies are deceptively simple:

You create “pacts” for yourself at the beginning of the day and share them with others. By experience, I know that this is much better than turning on the computer with just a vague goal of “work” at the beginning of the day. When you have no concrete goal, you are less likely to reach it. And worse, when you have no road map of what your NEXT goal is, you may be inwardly terrified of actually accomplishing the current task. The best time spent is the 5 minutes of deciding what your goals are for the day.

Then there is the 40 minute method. Modern work patterns are destructive to human capacity. You are expected to work nonstop (with a lunch break) from 9 am to 5pm. No one can do this. You go through cycles of productivity and non-productivity; you work for a while and then you blog or you surf the internet for videos; you work, and then you write funny or anguished emails. This is the truth, and the masters of industry had better accept it for their own sakes. As puts it:

“The 40-minute method is one in which one does 40-minutes of sustained work, takes a 20-minute break, and then repeats the cycle as often as desired. This system combats burn-out and fatigue, and also does much to overcome procrastination and resistance. (e.g. “Ugh – I’ve got so much work to do, but I just can’t face my dissertation today! Then again, doing two or three 40-minute cycles doesn’t sound so daunting…”) You may find people using pact notations such as “3×40″, which means that they are going to spend three 40-minute cycles on a particular task.”

But one of the most important aspects of is the community. If you are one of those people who work best by reading a self-help book in isolation with only yourself to cheer yourself on, good for you. But if such strategies leave you cold, then you’d rather work together with someone. The problem is, you don’t always have a writing-partner handy. Nor do your schedules always match. S/he might be too chatty, or too cold. S/he might have nothing in common with your field of study/work. S/he keeps bringing up her love life. Well, the virtual community gives you the benefit of just how much support and community you need.

I’ve finished my PhD, of course, and I’d like to give credit to the community. I’m listed in their Hall of Phame still, and I am now returning to them because I have another case of writer’s block and another big writing task.

So tomorrow, I’ll be pacting again – for about 4×40.

7 thoughts on “ for dissertation-writers”

  1. Assalaam Alaikum Shabana Mir,

    I pray that this reaches you in the best of health an Iman.

    I am contacting you on behalf of The Western Muslim magazine, which is based out of Calgary, AB. We are a non profit online publication operating since 2004, promoting the idea that Muslim identities can be positively shaped by traditions of Islam and our lives in North America.

    I recently came across your blog, Koonj, and was wondering if you would be interested in writing an occasional editorial column for the Western Muslim. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Please check out our website at

    Salma Mohiuddin
    The Western Muslim
    PO Box 61185 Kensington RPO
    Calgary AB T2N 4S6

  2. I’ve been on Phinished for about two years too. And it has helped me realise that the problems I had during my PhD were normal. That the bad stuff that happened during it wasn’t all my fault. That problems like these were quite common in academia. It also helped me get through the phinish line. And now it is helping after that as well. For me the most special thing about Phinished is that it is truly a community. All the best for your writing tasks. I use a different moniker over there, but I guess it will be nice knowing that you are there somewhere among the persons I pact with.

  3. ummm, I almost regret my comment above. I think I got a bit carried away. I value my anonymity on Phinished enormously and can quite imagine how a comment like the one above might make someone else (valuing their anonymity) uncomfortable. I am sorry if I did that. My only excuse is that I was excited to “meet” someone from Phinished outside. That this person should come from the same culture and country that I come from, made it only nicer.

  4. I don’t think your anonymity or mine is compromised, but it’s good to meet you too, fellow phinisher!

  5. Glad to know that Shabana 🙂 I was afraid I might have inadvertently made it uncomfortable for you on Phinished. Take care!

  6. Whoa, i’m just an aspiring-somewhere-in-the-next-ten-years-for-a-PhD kind of person…you guys are scaring me!

    The 40x work cycle sounds great. Its something i do too but all my life, i’ve used cycles of two hours and then 45 minutes off. Gonna try this one now; see if its better because that DOES tire me.

    Excellent blog.

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