Self-Care for Ph.D. Students: 10 Tips to Reduce Stress and Boost Productivity While Writing Your Dissertation

My husband told me that the 2 years he spent writing his doctoral dissertation were the most stressful of his entire life. Not only was he working full time and raising 3 children, but he was also driving 12 hours round trip to do research at his alma mater every weekend. 

According to Steve Tibbins, Ph.D. and dissertation coach, the average person completes their dissertation in 13 – 20 months. The average age of a Ph.D. student is 33 years old, and many of them, like my husband, are juggling family and job responsibilities while also trying to find time for research and writing. In fact, many wonder if academia and family life are even compatible. (Hint: they are).

All of this pressure, however, can lead to massive amounts of underlying stress and can cause many Ph.D. candidates to give up. In fact, statistics show that half of Ph.D. students finish their coursework but not their dissertations. If you can relate to that, and you’re struggling with wanting to quit in the middle of your dissertation, you may want to read our blog post on motivating yourself.

During stressful times in life, it’s important to practice self-care, and this is no less true during the season of dissertation writing. (Check out this blog post on how we are creating an online writing accountability software with R3ciprocity.) If you’re currently in the throes of researching and writing, it probably feels like you don’t have time to focus any energy on yourself. Ignoring your mental health (Read our blog post on dealing with academic stress), however, should never be an option. You may think taking time for yourself will cause you to be less productive, but practicing specific self-care routines can actually lead to higher productivity, not less.

Stress has a detrimental effect on our ability to process memory-related information. I know when I’m feeling stressed out, it’s much harder for me to concentrate and complete tasks. Our minds and bodies are inextricably connected, and if you want to write the best dissertation possible, and maybe even have a little bit of fun while doing it, implementing the following self-care routines is a must.

This post was written by an anonymous grad student (to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Plan Ahead and Set Realistic Goals

This may seem like a no-brainer, but how many people jump into researching and writing their dissertation without fully understanding what it’s really going to take? 

It’s important to get a plan down on paper that lays out what days and times you are going to work. Once you know how much time you have each day, try to estimate how long each piece of your dissertation is going to take. For instance, if you know you are a fast writer and can usually bang out 500 words in an hour, build that into the schedule. However, if you know that research isn’t your strong suit and will take time to complete, reflect that in the schedule as well.

Once you have an idea of how long each part will take, break your work down into milestones. In other words, say to yourself, if I work 1.5 hours every night and 2.5 hours per night on weekends, I can get all of my research done by this date, my literature review done by this day, and all of my writing done by this date. Finally, choosing a date of completion gives you a goal to work towards.

Planning everything out and getting it down on paper may seem like an unnecessary, time-consuming step, but I promise, your dissertation will seem much less overwhelming when it is broken down into manageable chunks.

As you’re planning out your dissertation schedule, be sure that each of the goals you set is realistic. Telling yourself you’re Superman/woman and can finish your dissertation in a few months is just going to set you up for failure when you fail to meet that goal.

Talking to people who have finished similar dissertations would be a great place to start when trying to ascertain if you’re being realistic or not. You’ve probably never taken on a research project of this size and magnitude, so it’s important to get some expert advice before you get started. 

(Check out this great blog post we did on editing your dissertation.)

Feed Your Brain

Eating healthy and drinking enough water aren’t only good habits for maintaining overall health – they also help boost brain function, improving both memory and concentration.

While writing your dissertation, you want to be as productive as possible, and the only way to can do this is to make sure your brain is working at its highest capacity. Foods such as blueberries, oranges, broccoli, fatty fish, eggs, and nuts and drinks such as tea and coffee contain nutrients and antioxidants that protect the brain from damage and improve memory.

Your brain also requires enough water to function at its optimal level. Research shows that not drinking enough water lowers a person’s ability to concentrate and remember. The sad thing is, even though proper water intake is one of the easiest ways we can help our brains, most of us are failing to drink the recommended 8 cups per day. 

When you’re stressed, it can be very easy to slip into bad eating habits, choosing what is convenient or what tastes good in the moment instead of choosing what is most helpful in the long run. Be sure to keep a water bottle and plenty of brain-boosting snacks nearby when powering through a grueling dissertation-writing session.

Get Enough Sleep

When I was taking voice lessons in college, my teacher gave me some very interesting advice to help me learn foreign language pieces faster and more efficiently. She suggested that I practice saying the lyrics for about 10 minutes before bed every night. It seemed a little silly at first, but I decided to give it a try, and after a few nights of doing it, I noticed that I could remember the lyrics much better than I could before.

Our brains accomplish a lot while we’re sleeping, and when we don’t get enough rest (at 6-8 hours every night), they don’t have the time they need to perform all their necessary reparative functions. 

Losing even a couple of hours of sleep per night for a couple of weeks affects your memory, creativity, and ability to multi-task, can lead to depression, and lessens the body’s ability to clear toxins from the body. When writing your dissertation, it can be tempting to stay up late, wake up early, and even pull a few partial or total all-nighters. The effects, however, are worse than what you gain from squeezing in a few extra hours of work. I wouldn’t risk it if I were you!

You will really like this blog post on creating a healthy sleep schedule as a PhD.

Get Up and Get Moving

Between working full time, running the kids to soccer practice, spending time with your partner, and researching for your dissertation, it may seem like spending an hour at the gym every day is completely unrealistic. And…it probably is!

But, getting some exercise every day can go a long way in helping you write your dissertation more quickly and efficiently than if your lock yourself in a dark room in front of a computer for hours at a time without moving. 

Exercise has so many benefits, including increasing your heart rate and pumping more oxygen to your brain, flooding your brain with stress-reducing hormones (think of the term “runner’s high”), and stimulating the growth of neural connections. 

You don’t have to hit the gym for an intense workout to feel the effects. Instead, shoot for a totally realistic goal of 20 minutes per day. During intense writing sessions, take quick, 5-minute exercise breaks. Jump on the treadmill, walk around the block, or do a few sets of jumping jacks. You’ll be amazed at how your focus and concentration improve as you stimulate your brain through short bursts of physical activity.

And that brings me to my next point.

Take Breaks

Besides taking breaks while working, taking longer breaks (like entire days off), are also important while writing your dissertation. As human beings, our bodies thrive on cycles: Cycles of sleep, cycles of work, cycles of eating, and cycles of rest. If we break one of these cycles (by working non-stop, for example), we’ll see our body’s physical strength and our brain’s cognitive functions begin to suffer.

A year-and-a-half is a long time to be working on something as stressful as a doctoral dissertation, and it’s important that you schedule complete days off so that you don’t drift into the realm of burnout. 

When I was in college, I watched a friend work herself into the ground for 4 years, completing a rigorous course of study, heading up clubs, and immersing herself in numerous campus activities. A couple of years after her time in college, her mental and physical health were hanging on by a thread and she ended up suffering a nervous breakdown – all because of the years she had spent wearing herself out physically and mentally.

It’s important that you take days off to spend time with your friends and family, or, honestly, just sleeping. Don’t be afraid to take whole days just to relax, sleep, and allow your body to rejuvenate. You’re not being lazy. You’re giving your mind and body the rest they need to operate properly.

Repeat Positive Affirmations

Some people see positive affirmations as some sort of hocus pocus spell you repeat over and over and then, magically, everything you say out loud comes to pass. If only it were that simple!

Negative self-talk can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, and, unfortunately, many of us are really good at it. We seem to be masters at tearing ourselves down in our minds. Writing your dissertation is one of the hardest things you will ever do in your life, and it can be easy to give in to negative thinking like I’ll never be able to pass my defense or Maybe I’m not cut out to be a Ph.D.

According to, positive affirmations are like exercises for your brain. If you want to build up a certain muscle in your body, you do repetitive exercises to strengthen it. In the same way, if you want to overcome destructive thought patterns and establish thinking habits that improve your life, one way to accomplish this is by using repetitive, positive thought exercises. Instead of beating yourself up by focusing on your shortcomings, try focusing on your strengths and speaking them out loud. This will go a long way in helping you stay motivated when you feel like you want to throw in the towel.

If you need help check out this blog post on persistence: You can do this!

  1. Practice Gratitude

Speaking of positive thinking, studies now show that practicing gratitude not only improves your mental health but can also fundamentally change how you think. Scientists and mental health practitioners are coming to realize that gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in fighting anxiety and depression. According to, gratitude is “positively correlated to more vitality, energy, and enthusiasm to work harder.” Who doesn’t need that kind of boost while writing their dissertation? 

One way to practice gratitude is by keeping a gratitude journal. Every day, write at least three things you are thankful for, including one that has something to do with your dissertation. Also, try expressing more gratitude to your family, partner, children, friends, and coworkers. You’ll be surprised how your outlook on life and overall mood improves after a few weeks of doing this. As a bonus, you’ll also improve the mental health of those around you.

If you need more motivation to begin practicing gratitude, you should watch this YouTube video.

Practice Deep Breathing

Researching and writing your dissertation can lead to prolonged times of stress and this can lead to high levels of cortisol being released into your body. Cortisol is a hormone that is extremely helpful in helping human beings deal with short-term, stressful situations, but when it is released at high levels over a long period of time, it can cause more harm than good. Some of the negative effects of prolonged cortisol production are high blood pressure, fatigue, weight gain, brain fog, and a compromised immune system.

A good way to help control your body’s production of cortisol is through the practice of deep breathing. Deep breathing slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and helps control cortisol levels. And the best part is, you can do it anywhere. 

If you feel your stress levels rising as you’re working through a particularly grueling part of your dissertation, simply close your eyes, take a slow, deep breath from your belly and through your nose, and then slowly release the breath through the mouth. Repeat several times until you feel your body begin to relax. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it will be to concentrate after a few minutes of allowing your body and mind to refocus.

Get Help

If you’re anything like me, you’re REALLY bad at asking for help! Our culture encourages us to be independent, which is good to a point, but it can also cause us to forget that no man is an island. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for some support during stressful times in your life, including while writing your dissertation.

Help could be asking your mom or dad to take the kids for one evening a week or calling up a friend to bounce research ideas off of. It could also mean hiring someone temporarily to help with household chores or ordering out a couple of nights a week. Think of the one task in your life that is interfering the most with you completing your dissertation, and then brainstorm ways you might be able to take that task off your plate.

Remember, no one is Superman/woman. We can only do so much, and there is shame in asking for help when life gets overwhelming. That’s what community is for!

Check out the R3ciprocity YouTube channel or all of the valuable resources we have created on the blog.

Do 3 Things You Like Every Day

I’ve definitely saved the best for last! Doing things that make you happy is one of the most important aspects of self-care. It might seem like you don’t have time in your busy schedule to do 3 whole things you like every day, but remember, they don’t have to be huge things like “Plant an entire garden!”

Maybe reading something for fun brings you joy, or going for a short walk, or buying yourself fresh flowers. Maybe it’s eating a piece of dark chocolate, taking 10 extra minutes in the shower, or reading a sports blog. Whatever it is, just make sure that it has nothing to do with your dissertation, work, or household chores (unless, of course, organizing a closet or washing the car is really fun for you!).

When you do things that feed your soul every day, not just the tasks that you have to do, you’ll be amazed at how much more energy you have to tackle the difficult things in your life, including your dissertation. It doesn’t have to take long – just 15-20 minutes of joyful activity every day – and you’ll be amazed at how good you feel!


Self-care is important at every stage of life but especially when you are experiencing higher than normal levels of stress. It may seem like you don’t have time to practice self-care, or that it really isn’t that important, but the bottom line is that your mental and physical well-being should be at the top of your priority list. If you aren’t well, you won’t have the energy you need to juggle all the important responsibilities and relationships in your life, including your dissertation.

Remember, our culture places a lot of emphasis on getting things done quickly, efficiently, and independently, but often at the cost of our mental health. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way! I  promise that if you put some (or all!) of these self-care tips into practice, your productivity will increase, your stress levels will go down, and your overall well-being will improve. Take some time for yourself today. After all, what have you got to lose except the stress?

If you like this blog post, check out these ones from the R3ciprocity Project:

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