I Accidentally Wrote a Dissertation during the Pandemic

Elizabeth Olsson | 4 December 2020

I will remember 2020 as one of the most uncertain, tragic, and worrying years of my life. Since March, I have been petrified about my health, the safety and well-being of my friends and family, and the disastrous state of the world. Strangely, especially to me, someone who has spent the last six years of my PhD contract strategically procrastinating by teaching, blogging, writing research articles, and working with third mission activities, the pandemic forced me to write my doctoral dissertation. At first, it was an accident, then it became a ritual, and now, against all odds, I am nearly done. In this post, I reflect on the odd series of events that lead me to write a dissertation during a pandemic and the people—both real and literally— who helped me along the way.


The Waiting Place

I imagine that everyone sees the pandemic differently: as an inconvenience, a catastrophe, a living hell. I’m lucky. I’ve been spared the tragedy of losing friends and family to an unrelenting virus, at least so far. Nevertheless, like everyone, COVID-19 has affected me profoundly. When I think about the pandemic, I always come back to the children’s story, Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss.


Oh, the Places You’ll Go is a celebration of possibility, endurance, and finding the strength to move forward no matter the obstacle. In other words, it seemingly has nothing to do with the lock-downs, cancellations, and constant fear of a pandemic. However, when I think of this children’s classic, I think of the waiting place. The place in our minds where all of us occasionally find ourselves. The place where we are stuck just waiting.


Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go [...] or waiting around for a Yes or No. [...] or waiting, perhaps, for [...] Uncle Jake or a pot to boil or a Better Break or [...] string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss


In March 2020, I found myself in the waiting place. My daughters, my partner, and I fell ill with what we suspect was COVID-19. Again, we were lucky. None of us needed medical intervention, but all of us needed to figure out what to do. Would we stay in place, waiting for the pandemic to end, or would we do something while much of the world was either standing still or struggling to stay alive? I watched my daughters—whose strength and endurance is a testament to Oh the Places You’ll Go— recover from the virus and courageously adjust to the new normal, and I decided to do the same.


A Respite from Uncertainty

I left the waiting place in April and threw myself into writing my dissertation. I wrote when news from the outside world was tragic, and when it was hopeful. I wrote when I was inspired and when I was not. I wrote when writing was a blessing and when it was a curse. I wrote alone in my home office and together with my truly amazing colleagues during countless e-Pomodoro sessions on Zoom. I wrote as if my life depended on it and, looking back on this horrendous year, I think that maybe it did.


I will defend a 360-page draft of my dissertation on December 3 and a final draft in June 2021. As I enter into the daunting final phase of my PhD journey, I remember the waiting place and I remind myself that it is my job to take myself out of it. This job is tough, and constant, but it is a job worth doing. In the words of Dr. Seuss, we chose to stay in the waiting place and we chose to take ourselves out.


I hope that you also find the strength to “escape all that waiting and staying (and) find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing”--- even if those places are but a mental respite from uncertainty. I don’t think anyone should pressure themselves to write a dissertation, book, or article this year, but, if it helps you stay healthy and sane, I say do it! Who knows where writing will take you?

Keywords: #COVID #PhD #Dissertation #Thesis #TheNewNormal #OhThePlacesYoullGo #DrSeuss #AcademicLife #Pandemic #TheWaitingPlace

Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student in peace and development research at SGS. She will defend her doctoral dissertation in June 2021.

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