Self-Care for Dissertation Students


William G. Wargo, Ph.D.


It’s good to take some time off and get recharged. Writing a dissertation can be a grueling ordeal over a number of years. Most doctoral students that I meet through my consulting practice are working full-time and have families to care for. These students need to look after themselves on a day-to-day basis.

I call it Self-Care for Dissertation Students. It is very valuable to have time away from your studies. You could: start an exercise program, do daily meditation, listen to music that relaxes you, read sacred scripture, take walks in the park or other beautiful places, or get regular massages. Anyone of these are beneficial. The key is to do one of these with some degree of regularity. The accumulated effect over time will make a positive the difference. So taking care are your physical, emotional, and spiritual self is paramount.


When researching and writing a doctoral dissertation, the primary focus if not the exclusive focus, is on getting the dissertation done. Just finding enough time to work in the dissertation is quite an accomplishment. When I talk to doctoral students about what they are doing to care for themselves, their response is usually the same. They say something like this: “I just don’t have time;” or “When I get this blasted thing done, then I’ll be able to exercise and eat better and sleep better;” or “Every waking moment is devoted to my job and the dissertation.” This is truly unfortunate.

If you think of traditional doctoral studies in the past, the student was full-time and living on-campus. They devoted almost all their time to their doctoral studies and eventually their dissertation. If they were married, they lived in student housing on campus. If they worked at all, it was probably as a graduate assistant teaching a course or two or possibly working in the university lab. These types of students still exist today on the campuses of major universities throughout the country.

I almost never interact with these types of students. I would estimate that about 98% of my clients over the years have these lifestyle conditions: they are married, working full-time, and taking a full academic load. Most are working on doctorates at online universities where deadlines are short and the penalties for not making the deadlines expensive. The online schools attempt to teach the dissertation in a similar manner to the way they teach content courses. Each component of the dissertation process must be completed within a certain number of weeks. If it is not, there is a financial penalty to pay for an extension. So clearly the pressure is on the students and, if you are one of them, you know what I mean.

And it’s not just the accumulation of family responsibilities, full-time employment, and full-time academic schedules that get in the way self-care. It is the fact that we are all now plugged-in every day, seven days a week to the computer, smartphone, iPad, and other electronic devices of various kinds. We are locked-in to technology. This doesn’t help the situation or contribute to opportunities for self-care.

When I think of self-care, I think of what each of us can do for ourselves to facilitate and maintain our health: mental, physical, and spiritual. Many years ago I read a study that compared the physiological benefits of 30 minutes of walking per day to three 10-minute walks per day. There was no significant difference between the two groups. You may feel that there’s no time for exercise, relaxation, meditation, and prayer. There’s no time to eat right. This being said the ultimate question is, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

I had a dissertation client a number of years ago attending Virginia Tech University. Her name was Susan. She was a conscientious student with great work ethic and high standards. She completed her dissertation in a little over nine months. After she finalized her dissertation and graduated I didn’t hear from her for about six months. Then she called me and we talked for while. She said that soon after completing her dissertation she got sick with all kinds of problems and thankfully none were life-threatening. But the point she made was that she went through a series of maladies such as colds, flu, abdominal cramps, headaches, and backaches. In other words she was just overwhelmed with a long series of medical problems. She’s very intelligent and I knew that she knew what she could have done to minimize those problems. She said that she had to devote all her time to completing her dissertation. There was no time for herself; there was no time for self-care. The good part of her story is that she did recover and is completely healthy. She now has a booming consulting practice in the Washington, DC area.

It could have been worse. She could’ve burned out. She could have ended up with some stress-related severe illness. And there was no need for that, if she had taken a little more time on a daily basis to do self-care.

As Grandma Mary said on her 90th birthday, “Do what you can do.” Take some time for yourself every day. Whether is 10 minutes of walking, 10 minutes of meditating, or 10 minutes of listening to soothing music, and start a simple program by taking care of yourself because you’re worth it.

 Suggested citation for this article:

Wargo, W.G. (2017). Self-Care for Dissertations Students. Menifee, CA:           Academic Information Center