The End-of-Year Dilemma: Should You Work on Your Dissertation Over the Holidays?

December 18, 2023

BY KATHRYN PETERSON, PHD

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of the year. You’re taking stock of what you’ve done and thinking about where you want to be this time next year.

Yet there is the nagging voice that says, “Write, write, write.” Your dissertation wants to be written. But the lights are twinkling, the fire is crackling, and the table is set for a festive dinner. It’s the holidays. So, what are you going to do?

Decide, Don’t Slide: Make an Intentional Choice

It’s important to make a conscious decision about how much work you’re going to do over the holidays. Any time you spend on your dissertation will be beneficial, even if it’s only half an hour or fifteen minutes a day. But it’s also perfectly acceptable to decide not to write at all.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s better to decide not to and enjoy yourself than to want to and not do it. So, if you think that realistically it just isn’t going to happen, accept that, and make a date in your calendar for when you will return. No fanfare, no accolades, just an “I’ll get back to it Wednesday, January 3.” That way, you make a conscious choice of when to return, which will prevent you from feeling guilty during your time off.

Inform Family & Friends of Your Plans

If you decide to write or work on your research during the holidays, it’s important to let your family and friends in on this decision, particularly if it directly impacts their lives. Whether you are hosting or being hosted, it’s a good idea to consider the routines and plans of the other members of the household and how your dissertation writing may affect them.

You can also communicate clear but reasonable boundaries to them in the kindest way possible. You might try saying to your partner, “I’ll be writing for the first hour (or half hour or 90 minutes, etc.) of the day, but then I’m yours the rest of the time.” Or you might ask a family member to watch the children for a certain amount of time each day so you can work. Some upfront communication has a couple of important benefits. One, you are less likely to have conflict because others know your plans and what to expect. Second, you are likely to feel more accountable to work because you told others you would.

Take Advantage of Found Time and Down Time

One of the most productive periods in my life was when I was studying for my Master’s exam at the University of Cincinnati, and one of the reasons for that was the time I spent on Amtrak. I used to take the Amtrak to meet my parents in another state, and it was at least a ten-hour trip each way. Some of that time I slept, but I used quite a bit of it to study for the exam and write my thesis.

It is similarly rare now for me to be in an airport or hotel room alone and not get work done. In fact, those are often the times I accomplish the most, because I can’t do anything else. So, be prepared to take advantage of unexpected windows of time, no matter how brief. You can always take a couple of articles with you or a few pages to edit in case you have sudden, available time. Those moments do happen!

Be Realistic About What You Can Achieve

In the Academic Writers’ Space, we talk quite a bit about being realistic about our schedules and avoiding wishful thinking. In December, this is even more important. We may have two or three weeks with a different schedule, but we still don’t have endless amounts of uninterrupted time.

If you are like most of us, you’re also catching up on other things in your life, and you’ll want to take advantage of that time to spend with family and decompress as much as you can. The holidays have their own stress, so it’s important to recognize that and think about what you can realistically achieve during this time. This, above all times, is a time to be careful not to engage in magical thinking (i.e. “I’m going to write a whole dissertation chapter during my three-week winter break!).

Final Thoughts

Remember that the holiday season is a tiny fraction of your dissertation or thesis timeline. So, if you end up not working on your dissertation during this break, it is perfectly fine. But if you do decide to, remember that you don’t have to do much each day to add up to a decent chunk of progress that will set you up for a productive new year.