Let me tell you a quick story about my history with dissertation writing anxiety. I recall the moment when I had submitted a full chapter to my dissertation advisor requesting for feedback. This document was likely over 40 pages long. When I opened the Word document I saw red. The margins were full of comments and I felt a sudden surge of dread go through my body.
Instead of giving myself space to process my feelings, I proceeded to go to my Word settings, and I clicked File>Print>Microsoft Word>Print What>List of Markup>SaveAsPDF. Then I opened that new file and saw that I had over 140 comments. I don’t remember receiving any compliments or positive feedback among those comments. My heart sunk again.
See, the reason I went straight to checking how many comments I received was because I had developed a system of adding up my chapter comments and tackling them one at a time but I had never received so much feedback. I felt like a terrible writer. That feeling led to me experiencing debilitating writing anxiety. Not only did I not want to face chapter revisions but I was dreading starting to write yet another chapter for fear that I’d have to deal with those negative comments again.
As someone who was new to writing in long form, it was already so hard for me to write a chapter to begin with. And when I compared myself to peers in my program, I often had the impression that they were stronger writers or weren’t struggling as much as I was.
What I did not know at the time was that experiencing writing anxiety—you know, that feeling of fear, stress, and uncertainty that comes up when even thinking about writing— is all too common in graduate school. I also did not now that there are proven strategies that I could have relied on more to help me overcome my writing anxiety.
Next month I’ll be releasing an episode of the Grad School Femtoring Podcast all about “Strategies to Help Doctoral Students Overcome Writing Anxiety” but since you read my blog posts, you get access to this information early. 😉
Here are the six common obstacles that can contribute to writing anxiety and what you can do about it:
If you have that thought in the back of your mind of “I should be writing right now” then there’s a good chance you have procrastinated on your writing at some point in your higher ed journey. You might be procrastinating now due to distractions, fear of failure, confusion regarding how to complete a task, waiting on motivation, or you aren’t prioritizing making time for the task. The longer you procrastinate, the more anxious you may feel at the thought of writing because each time you try to write, you remember just how far behind you are compared to your expectation of how much writing you should have completed by now.
A really helpful strategy that I’ve found to combat procrastination is reducing distractions and using a reward system. If you want to change any habit, you’ll want to identify the cue that makes you want to procrastinate, then change your behavior, and motivate yourself to want to make that change by giving yourself a reward after. You could say, “if I sit down, set a timer, close the door, and work on my dissertation proposal for two 25-minute sessions today then I will reward myself with X.”
Or you could try coworking with someone virtually. If you don’t have anyone to cowork with, there are websites like Focusmate that pair you with a random stranger to cowork with.
2) Lack of motivation
This comes up a lot among graduate students because usually motivation comes from intrinsic goals, or goals we set for ourselves based on our interests and passions. When you’re writing a dissertation, you may be working on a topic you love and yet you start to lose motivation because the act of writing a proposal or dissertation chapter is more of an extrinsic goal, it’s a requirement to earn your degree. The problem with waiting on motivation is that you won’t always feel motivated and that can delay your writing timeline, which will further increase your anxiety. You could even start to resent your dissertation topic because suddenly, you no longer feel excited about it like you did when you first came up with the idea.
External accountability can help you deal with a lack of motivation. Again, meeting up with others, such as a writing group and doing so consistently can help.
Another strategy is to write down all the reasons why you’re working on this dissertation and this PhD and then print that out or put it on your desktop background to remind yourself of your why when you’re feeling lackluster about writing.
Also, in many cases motivation comes after you start an action rather than before. How many of us dread working out but afterward feel good about it? It’s not just you. The same can be true about writing.
3) Time-management issues
I believe that for a lot of graduate students, their time-management is linked to writing anxiety and that’s what makes it hard for them to make progress on their dissertation. As a graduate student, you likely have a lot of other responsibilities, from teaching, to publishing, to service work, part-time jobs or full-time jobs, personal obligations, you name it! I’ve been there. And they often will conflict with your ability to make time for writing. The writing will continuously become less pressing if you don’t prioritize it. And prioritizing and saying yes to too many other responsibilities, will add to your anxiety about not meeting your writing deadlines.
If it really is a time-management issue, I highly recommend breaking things down into very small tasks and creating a timeline. This means breaking down the act of writing a proposal or dissertation chapter into smaller sections. From the chapters, break it down to sections and even sub-sections. And from the sub-sections, break it down to topics for each paragraph.
And a timeline is important because you can set your own internal deadlines or align it with deadlines your advisor gives you.
The key to time management is not letting the overwhelm get to you by always prioritizing and reprioritizing tasks. If you know you really want to finish your dissertation proposal this quarter, you’re going to need to have a strong sense of urgency and put a lot of things to the side to make time for it. If you don’t have the urgency or you feel like you have a lot of time, it’s easy to not make time for it.
4) Struggling with the research process
You might be struggling if you’re working on a project that is not quite working out or you’re working on an experiment that continuously fails. Or you’re trying to work on a topic that’s too complex or ambitious. Maybe you’re working on a topic you’re not really into that someone else has encouraged you to work. Or perhaps you’re not receiving the guidance necessary to learn how to effectively perform the methods and write your dissertation. It can be easy to feel frustrated and then doubt your ability to complete the project, which will only add to your anxiety.
If you’re experiencing a research related difficulty, you’ll need to find mentors, femtors, and peers to help. It doesn’t always necessarily have to be your advisor and I don’t recommend relying on your advisor for everything. It helps to get input from others.
I know this is easier said than done but you could see if there’s a methods course you could take or sit in to supplement a gap in your training. You could see if there are library resources or resource guides to help you push your topic further. You could see if there are workshops or a writing center with consultants who can help you. Research difficulties happen but it’s up to you to keep trying different things until something works.
5) Struggling with addressing feedback
The next obstacle brings me back to the memory I shared with you earlier. Some graduate students receive a lot of feedback and that’s anxiety inducing because it can often lead to feeling inadequate or like your writing isn’t good enough. Remember, academics aren’t trained to praise your writing.
Some graduate students receive little to no feedback or have hands off or absentee advisors who take weeks if not longer to give them feedback.
And very rarely do graduate students get trained on how to successfully address feedback and how to incorporate feedback and revisions into their dissertation writing timeline.
If you are feeling good about finally finishing a first draft and then you don’t receive the type of feedback you were looking for, that can increase your anxiety because then you will associate each time you meet a writing milestone with the expectation of receiving slow, unhelpful, negative, or even soul-crushing feedback.
When it comes to handling feedback and revisions, something that helped me was actually reframing the way I viewed feedback. That time I received 140+ comments I shared this with a peer who reacted so differently than me. She told me how lucky I was that my advisor had looked at my writing so closely because her advisor would take so long to get her feedback and when she did receive it, she hardly received any feedback. She would have to find other people to read her writing and give her feedback and was frustrated about it.
In your case, depending on what type of feedback you get, too much or too little, too negative or too positive ( yes, this is a thing, where you don’t have much to work on and grow), then it helps to reframe it and then remind yourself that you can get feedback from other sources too and that each time you address feedback it’s an opportunity for you to strengthen your research and your writing too.
6) Feeling the imposter syndrome or phenomenon
The last obstacle I’m going to highlight that comes up when writing a dissertation has to do with experiencing the imposter syndrome or phenomenon. This can lead to fear and self-doubt because you may worry that you’ll never produce good enough work. You may start to do things that will self-sabotage yourself, like avoiding writing altogether or not asking for help.
It’s hard to manage imposter syndrome. I can’t say that I have fail-proof ways that always work for me to manage it. But you know what has helped, two things: surrounding myself with people who believe in me and reminding myself of my strengths.
I am much more intentional now about who I surround myself with. It’s people who uplift me, who support me, and who believe in me. It’s people who motivate and inspire me. It’s people who love and care about me.
These people also help me to pinpoint my strengths. No matter how bad you may think your writing is, trust me, you have strengths. Remind yourself of them. Maybe you’re really creative, or you’re really great at connecting ideas, or you’re really good at summarizing information, or you’re really good at analyzing data, or you’re really good at conducting interviews, or you’re really good at organizing information, or you’re really good at explaining difficult topics in clear and simple ways. You might not want to work on your writing because you’re thinking of your faults but if you remember that there will be some part of the process where you can add your strengths then you know it won’t all be terrible and that it’ll get better over time. It’s not supposed to be perfect now, or ever really. Progress over perfection y todo poco a poco.
If you gained something from this post and liked the strategies I shared today, I want to encourage you to do one of three things.
1) Share this blog post with a friend.
2) Invite me to host your next professional development workshop.
And 3) consider working with me through one-on-one coaching to receive personalized help. I appreciate your support! Gracias!