Making Your Dissertation Environment Work for You

March 28, 2019

Take a scan of your work environment right now. What do you see? Is your desk cluttered, messy, amok with papers, books, and files? Is your space an environment where you can focus easily and concentrate? Are you able to find what you need? Is it clean? Inviting? Do you like being there? Do you feel inspired to get down to business and work?

While it might seem obvious that your work environment would have a big impact on your productivity, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have time to attend to it and that your energy would be better spent working instead of improving your surroundings.

Over the last 19 years, we have supported thousands of students on the doctoral and master’s journey and often see that students are so focused on getting their work done that they don’t even realize their work environment is part of what’s holding them back. While it’s possible to use cleaning and organizing as a form of “productive” procrastination, we find that that is not usually a problem for our clients. Usually, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They haven’t spent enough time thinking about their work environment and the context it creates. If, right now, you’re saying, “that is me” and feeling us speaking directly to you, don’t worry. There are many ways to improve your dissertation environment, starting first by identifying its current state.


While this might seem silly, ask yourself if you have a designated place to work? Virginia Woolf famously said that for a woman to write fiction, she needs “money and a room of her own,” and this advice rings true for dissertation writers, no matter what their identifying gender (room of your own more so than money). Playwright Lillian Hellman went even further than Woolf, saying that “a room of one’s own isn’t nearly enough. A house, or best, an island of one’s own,” since she believed that writers needed to isolate from others in order to focus. And sure, that sounds nice, but entirely unrealistic, particularly in today’s economy.

More and more students are living with roommates and may have only a corner in their private room to set aside for writing. Or if you are raising a family, it might be challenging to have any designated space at home that is quiet and safe from distraction. We sympathize. That said, it’s important that whatever your situation is, you have a designated place or places to work where you can concentrate and focus on your research. You may need to clearly communicate with roommates or family the importance of honoring your needs for quiet and not being interrupted when you are in your designated work space.

We find for many of our clients it is great to have a place at home and outside the home to work. Alison, the owner of The Dissertation Coach worked at different university libraries and coffee shops all over Chicago and chose the space depending on her mood. (She gives a special shout out to Kopi Cafe in Andersonville for letting her stay all day, having great food and no Internet – sometimes no Internet is what she needed). Kathryn, a long-time coach and consultant at The Dissertation Coach, often works in coffee shops in the Houston area, but she has been known to make use of auto shop and doctor’s office waiting rooms, and even grocery store cafes. With the right attitude, many places can be transformed into a productive work environment just by designating them so.


If you are working at home, it’s important to make it space where you can really work. Is your space clean or cluttered? Do you have a flat space where you can keep your computer and sit without straining your back and neck? What is the surrounding space like? Is it disorganized? Can you find what you need with ease? Look and see what adjustments you can make. Even making quick, simple changes can have a big impact. You may need to dedicate some time to organizing paper files, cleaning off your desk (and the floor!), and even getting out a duster and some cleaning supplies. We highly recommend getting an electronic labeler to label files. It makes it much easier to locate files when you need them and gives your work space a more professional feeling.

Now consider technology. How are your computer files? Do you have a consistent system for organizing files and finding the right version of your documents when you need them? Do you readily know key passwords you need to access files, documents, software, and accounts? If you answer no to any of these questions, it is likely that your computer could use a “spring cleaning.” We know you are busy, and you may feel too pressed for time to make tidying up your work environment a priority. But take a moment now to pause and ask yourself what impact the current state of you work space is having on your ability to concentrate, focus, and be truly productive.


Writing a dissertation or thesis is often a taxing and stressful experience so it can make a big difference to deliberately create a work environment that evokes a sense of peace and calm. Once you have cleared the clutter and gotten your environment better organized, step back and think about the sights and sounds in your work space. What would help you feel relaxed and centered? What would soothe your nervous system and work in a calmer, more deliberate manner?

Take a moment now to think about what you experience through your five senses that helps you settle, feel peaceful, and able to work. Some suggestions we have are lighting candles, burning incense, listening to soothing music (we are big fans of the Calm Meditation and Acoustic Guitar stations on Pandora), keeping a dog or cat bed nearby so your furry friends can join you for work sessions, turning the ringer and notification sounds off on your phone and computer,  hanging inspiring art, posters, or quotes above your desk, or opening a window for fresh air. The key is to tune into yourself and sense what will create more of that “Zen” feeling when you are working. Then take actions to create a more peaceful context for your dissertation or thesis progress.


Making your work environment work for you doesn’t have to take long or be emotionally taxing; you can make small changes that will have a huge impact on the way you work. Take note right now of what needs attention in your environment. Choose just one of those items and focus on getting it handled. Clear off your desk, file one stack of printed articles, use an app to collect all your passwords so you have easy access to them, or take 15 minutes and start organizing your computer files. Whatever you do, you don’t have to devote a large chunk of time to making the space work for you, and you can get organized incrementally if you don’t have time to do it all at once. What is most important is to take actions that make your work environment one where you can get engaged and stay engaged with your dissertation or thesis over time.