5 Tips for Finishing Your Dissertation During a Global Pandemic

Dr. Stephanie Marcotte, author of 5 Tips for Finishing Your Dissertation During a Global PandemicDr. Stephanie N. Marcotte is a graduate of the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program at UNE Online, the College of Graduate and Professional Studies at the University of New England.  She has guest posted in the past, sharing Ten Tips for Online Doctoral Students: A Dissertation Success Kit. We are happy to have her return to the Vision Blog with another insightful post.

In life, there are many things that we will do or experiences that we never thought would happen. Maybe you travel somewhere new and discover a talent or hobby. Maybe you meet the love of your life while in the grocery line. Regardless, these are little unpredictable moments that were probably completely unexpected but will impact you in some way. My most recent experience with this was completing my dissertation during a global pandemic. 

Completing my dissertation

For much of my life, I thought that I wouldn’t be successful in completing my dissertation. Then, when I was finally nearing the finish line of that journey, something unexpected happened: a global pandemic.

Now, some might say, “Wasn’t your doctoral program online? The pandemic wasn’t as big of an issue for you.” While my doctoral program at UNE was online, there is always more to the story. As many others have experienced, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted more than just my doctoral studies online. It impacted every aspect of my life from my personal responsibilities to remote work. Every element of ‘normalcy’ switched in what seemed like a blink of the eye. I never imagined that I would have to juggle so many responsibilities from my dining room table – let alone the final stages of my dissertation.

I am proud to say that I defended my dissertation online in the spring, graduated from my doctoral program in May, and received my diploma by mail in June. Many of these moments happened in unexpected, non-traditional ways; nonetheless, they happened and shaped me. While there were times when my motivation may have wavered or my task list began to overflow, in the end, I was able to finish an unthinkable task – complete my dissertation and doctoral program online during a global pandemic.

Throughout the past months, I have learned many things about myself as a worker, community member, graduate student, and now Doctor of Education. More recently, I have taken the time to reflect on the past three years of my doctoral program and more importantly, the past few months of my dissertation.

This journey for academic and self-discovery, during a time of global crisis, illuminated 5 tips that might help others who are starting or finishing their graduate work during a global pandemic.

TIP 1: Have a clear mind & workplace

I like to think of my mind as a closet. In my closet, I have everything neatly organized by season or by use. I know where things are when I need them. All of my items are neat, clean, and organized. However, COVID-19 was a tornado that blew every sense of normalcy into disarray. Soon, my tidy closet became unbearable.

So I took a day “off.” I decided to organize my mind, my to-do list, and my workplace which was now my dining room table. I needed to recharge and go back to the drawing board. This was the single best thing that I could have done.

  • First, I found free meditation online and took the time to meditate at strategic points throughout my day. Often, I did this when I was transitioning from my paid work to my dissertation work. This provided me a clear mental space to feel more productive. I no longer had my traditional schedule breaks, so needed to create them myself.
  • Second, I made sure to reorganize and color-code my to-do list. I did this to help me compartmentalize my tasks and feel more control over my day-to-day requirements. I actually wrote (or rewrote) my to-do list at the beginning of every morning. I used my color-coding system to include every single thing that needed to get done that week. While the list was long, I was happy to have it on paper instead of on a constant loop in my mind.
  • Third, before I transitioned from paid work to my graduate studies, I did a quick tidy through my house. Knowing that my house was in order (or more-so in order) helped me to de-stress and focus on my work.

These were small things to do, but on a heavy work day, it felt like a stretch to get things in order. However, this routine was pivotal.

TIP 2: Assess your productivity & listen to yourself

There is nothing worse than having to get work done when your brain is already overworked and needs a break. Sometimes, especially when we have graduate deadlines, it is easy to push ourselves and our workdays beyond our limit. Not only does this build a bad association between us and our work, but it also can reduce both our productivity and work quality. With COVID-19, I began working from home, and I did not have the normal daily separations that I once had. I felt like I needed to sit at my dining room table around the clock. This made me feel both overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time. The best thing that I did was let my mind and body tell me when it was ready to get work done. There were some days when I was wide awake at 2 am and thinking about something that I wanted to add to my dissertation. So, what did I do at 2 am? I got up and did some writing and went back to bed. Now, this might not work for everyone; however, when I listened to what my body and mind wanted, I was able to do far more work in far less time.

TIP 3: Connect with your colleagues

Have you ever been kayaking? If you are an avid kayaker who is a great swimmer, you might say “no, I don’t need a lifejacket.” However, if you are safe, you at least attach it to your kayak in the event of an emergency. You never know what might happen, but it is good to have that safety net with you. The same goes for doing your doctoral or graduate studies whether online or in-person. I found that the COVID-19 pandemic had me reaching for my lifejacket. I needed to connect with colleagues both from UNE and work. Now, I did not necessarily want to Zoom for hours at a time, but I just needed extra check-ins and to know that I was not alone. These little emails helped more than I could have imagined. If you are in a graduate program, take the time to reach out to your colleagues or ask them to connect with you. This is a time when, regardless of our swimming ability, we need to put on our lifejackets.

TIP 4: Be mindful of your caffeine & nutrition

I am not sure about others, but when my mind is overwhelmed it is easy for me to take it out on my body. When I have more work to do and I am tired, I drink more caffeine. Or, when I am overworked and stressed, I stay up late and do not sleep enough. Regardless, of how we respond to stress, change, or COVID, we all have to check in with ourselves and our health. I have found that it is way too easy to drink too much caffeine in order to get things done. It is way too easy to disrupt my normal food and eating patterns for things that are faster. However, these are just short cuts and will catch up eventually. During COVID-19, I really had to focus on what I was going to eat and when. Otherwise, I would put that last on my list and feel the effects the next day. Regardless of where you are in your graduate work, checking in with your mind and body is extremely important to your overall motivation, productivity, and, most importantly, your happiness.

TIP 5: Celebrate your wins (small & large)

Last but not least, completing a dissertation or graduate work online during this pandemic can feel like we are swimming against a strong current. We are working so hard to meet the end goal that we forget or even ignore the wins that we have along the way. These wins might have to do with our grades or work, but it also might be something personal. Our graduate work is something that we take on in addition to the hundreds of other things we have going on in our lives. Therefore, I often feel like graduate work is very much part of my personal life. We have to give ourselves some praise for all that we do, both small and large, throughout our journey. If we cannot feel the little wins, it is hard to keep the motivation to reach the bigger win.

Completing my dissertation during a global pandemic has been an interesting chapter in my life. I have been tested in many ways, but I have also been able to adapt quickly and in ways that I would not have expected. Regardless of whether you are starting a graduate program or in the final stages of a dissertation, completing your studies is possible. COVID-19 could disappear or linger, but at the end of the day, if you are willing to adapt to change and grow as a person, there is no hurdle that you cannot turn into an opportunity.


Interested in becoming a doctoral student and applying these tips to our online Ed.D. program? Download our guide!

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