Getting a doctorate degree is not the easiest thing in the world, by far. Only about 1 percent of the U.S. Population has a doctorate . They are generally quite rigorous and take from three to seven years to complete. But if you need it for career or self-actualization, no road is too hard.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in 1997 after the medication I was on for my third bout with postpartum depression sent me into a mania spin. For ten years I rode the Bipolar Express while my doctors and I searched for the right medication cocktail to put me back on track. I consider myself in remission from mania since 2005, with brief periods of depression still attempting to derail me. A special education teacher by trade, I earned a Master of Arts degree in 2007 and started a doctoral program in 2009 at California School of Professional Psychology in Organization Development. I came out almost immediately to my professors and small twelve-person cohort. I had ‘come out’ before and am pretty open about having bipolar disorder. I wanted to study what other people’s experience around coming out with mental illness was. I wanted to know if my public disclosure during my current job’s vetting process was like everyone else’s.
I won’t lie. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life – writing the dissertation I mean. It took a full year beyond my coursework. I sacrificed. I gave up friends, movies & television and pretty much any social life. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. But then again, neither is having a mental illness. Those of us with bipolar are some of the strongest individuals I’ve ever known. Beat down by our own inner demons, we struggle to survive. Sometimes, we walk the edge, but I’ve learned many strategies for living life, and living through graduate school.
- PUT YOUR SOCIAL LIFE ON HOLD. Seriously. I saw my first movie in 4 years this past summer. I didn’t see Avatar until 5 years after it came out. I haven’t read a book for fun, and am just now reconnecting with friends who thought I’d moved to Eastern Russia. But when I get to identify myself as Dr. Lisa Keith, it’s all worth it.
- KEEP A ROUTINE. It’s essential. Keep a journal of the days and times you are going to study and write. Set them in stone. Do not give up your writing time for anyone or anything, unless your children are sick or bleeding. It must be non-negotiable. The first time you let someone talk you out of your writing time, you are done for.
- BE STRUCTURED. I do work routines called “60-60-30’s”. I set a timer and worked intensely for 50 minutes, then close my eyes for 10. Work for another 50 and close my eyes for 10, then I take a 30-minute bio break for food and a short walk or exercise. Working in this way keeps you from getting over-fatigued, helps you stay focused and keeps you fueled. On a good workday, I could complete up to 3 sets of 60-60-30’s.
- FIND A CONFIDANT OR THERAPIST. Every Saturday and Sunday at 0500 in the morning I meet my elderly parents for breakfast at our favorite diner, “Sandy’s Country Junction”. My father is a retired teacher and the first in our family to go to grad school. They listen to me complain, explain and refrain from lecturing me on anything having to do with working too hard. It is so important to be able to share this experience with someone who even remotely understands. Some of my colleagues formed writing partnerships or groups. But for me, sharing with my parents who love me unconditionally, brought us closer and let me vent about all of my life’s twists and turns.
- STAY ORGANIZED. It’s essential. Keep a file for each class, each dissertation subtopic and interview. I would also add, organize your household. It’s too hard to find the damn cheerios in the pantry when you are thinking about the philosophy behind hermeneutical phenomenology. Label your shelves and containers, put your work clothes together by outfit with accessories so you don’t have to wonder what to wear in the morning. If you stay organized when you are feeling good, then it’s easier, and more likely that you’ll function effectively, when you’re feeling depressed.
Those are my essentials for finishing a doctoral program in less than five years. These are the same suggestions I tell my Master’s Students at the University where I teach. If I can do it while having bipolar disorder, you can too.