What Hiking Taught Me About Writing the Dissertation

Appalachian Trail, Virginia

It’s March and it’s snowing on top of the springtime buds (because March) and I’m getting that familiar itch telling me that it’s time to go for another very long walk outside. Over the past two summers, I’ve completed two long section hikes (400 and 500 miles) of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) and I’m ready for round three. Before I go back to Pennsylvania to hike a third, I need to finish writing the second chapter of my dissertation. The sooner I finish a full chapter draft, the sooner I can go outside and give my eyes a rest while my legs and shoulders do most of the work. Soon, instead of staring at a computer screen, I can peek out from the woods to see a mountain range.

There are some really important life lessons that the A.T. has taught me, and long distance hiking has been as much a part of dissertating for me as reading and writing have been. In this post, I hope to share some of those take-aways with you.

Finding My Voice

mtmadisonWhen I went on my first trial hike to test out my gear, I carried five liters of water and a total of 40 pounds up Mt. Madison in New Hampshire for a three-day hike. Little did I know that I was carrying a lot of pounds I didn’t need, and I had chosen one of the steepest, rockiest climbs on the A.T. for my “trial” run. It took me hours, and I left a significant amount of sweat and blood on the mountain. My legs were sore for two weeks and they’re still scarred but I also surprised myself on my way up. I started talking to myself, saying encouraging things and making myself laugh, which must have sounded crazy to the birds but was precisely what I needed. Later, I realized that I was finding my voice.

When I finally reached ABD (All But Dissertation), I needed to find my voice instead of hiding behind the quotes of more advanced scholars. I wondered (in my hiking journal): what do I have to say when no one else is talking? Alone with my own thoughts, I discovered what I had to say, and my self-reliance and self-love grew like a tree from those two roots. I needed to find my voice so I could recognize what thoughts are mine–and what is nonnegotiable for me–in the noise of academia.

Hike Your Own Hike

Every A.T. hiker knows this mantra. It’s not really hiking advice; it’s life advice. You can try to push your body to go faster than it wants to, or pack your sleeping bag like so-and-so, or take a short cut because of peer pressure, but ultimately your body will tell you to slow down, you’ll figure out your own way to get your darn sleeping bag into its compression sack, and you might regret missing those skipped miles when you get to Katahdin–or you won’t. The point is, you have to listen to your body, use the gear that works for you, and stay true to yourself no matter what. Because this hike is about you.

Once I started writing the dissertation, it felt like my time-to-degree suddenly became a race. I felt the pressure to publish, my anxiety about the job market skyrocketed, and imposture syndrome followed me like a shadow. I forgot that I love writing, that I love my project, and that dissertating is a process. I needed to stop comparing myself to others. Academics can be extremely judgmental of themselves, and some, unintentionally or intentionally, are also judgmental of others. This isn’t a quick dash to the finish line; instead, it’s about the evolution between start and end points. I need to give myself time to undergo the transformation from student to doctor. I still ask for advice all the time, but I only do what works for me. Hike your own hike.

All of it is Uphill

You must think that I love hiking. Even after 900 miles, I still wonder if I do. There have been so many moments when I made it to the top of a hill and felt that happy rush, only to see the next giant hill ahead, and groan at the sight of the deep valley in between. I have cried, with blisters on my feet, all the way downhill, feeling every inch of elevation lost, staring angrily at the mountain climb ahead, feeling Sisyphus’s defeat. I have yelled at mountains for existing despite the fact that I do, at the end of the day, swear that I love hiking. There are plenty of miles on the A.T. that are boring and even ugly. No one tells you about the highways, parking lots, cement sidewalks, and contaminated water supplies. It’s not all pretty, and it’s a lot of work. Whether you walk north from Georgia or south from Maine, it’s all uphill.


Now that I’m writing almost full-time, some of the joy of dissertating is gone. I remember feeling so excited to finally WRITE after reading for my Oral Exam. But there’s more to it than writing (e.g., citations, formatting, research rabbit holes that amount to almost nothing), and drafts get tiring. I do all of the things I tell my students not to do, I fall into all of the same traps. The important thing is that I now know my process. And it’s a full-time struggle to write well. I have to rely on myself, be disciplined. The dissertation is entirely self-motivated, and shifting from one chapter to the next feels like descending into a valley that I will have to climb my way out of again. But do I love it? Perhaps in the same way that I torture myself with spicy food, yes.

It Gets Lonely, Being Alone

Trudging through mud in the rain, my hiking buddies used to say, “I’m having the time of my life,” just to lighten the mood until we reached a dry shelter. On those days, we didn’t get very far, but sticking together made those miles bearable. Having a friend to share the sunset with, tackling a tricky situation with two heads instead of one, and having someone to commiserate with on a bad day makes it all manageable. And you hike smarter together than you do alone.

Dissertating can be an isolating experience but no one should write their first book for an isolated audience. You could, if you wanted to, enclose yourself in a cave of books and come up for air and hot pockets once in a while until it’s done. That might help you get the writing done sooner but what would you be sacrificing? I know from hiking that I don’t want to do it alone. I share pages with colleagues in an equal exchange of feedback, meet up with weekly writing buddies like I would gym buddies, and commiserate with friends who struggle with the same obstacles that I do. I need that combination of professional and personal support, and it makes my work so much stronger. Also, peer review is the stuff that makes seminar papers into articles and dissertations into books.

Self-Care is Not a Luxury

When hiking for weeks or months on end, self-care is literal and absolutely essential to completing a long-distance goal. When I neglected my feet, I lost all of the skin on my pinkie toes. When I didn’t stop for water because it was 0.8 miles in the wrong direction, I hiked eight miles without (in West Virginia in June) and started seeing bubbles. Self-care is necessary to the long-distance game. Now, I clean and prep my feet every morning and night; I stick my feet in a cold stream when I can stop by a creek for a snack; and I elevate my feet to decrease inflation and stretch at the end of the day.

I hate I-should-be-writing statements because they promote exhaustion, neglect, and the kind of anxiety about writing that prevents scholars from taking real breaks away from work that are essential to good writing. Fighting draft fatigue is a battle I know I can’t win. Letting my brain rest and recuperate, giving my eyes a break, and stretching my muscles are necessary activities that contribute to strong, thoughtful, and polished writing. Simple activities give my brain room to think; I troubleshoot paragraph problems when I’m washing the dishes. With a little self-care and responsible scheduling, I take the time I need to write at a healthy pace, which is not the fastest pace.

Hike Smarter, Not Faster

Photo courtesy of my dad

My first summer on the A.T., I set out to hike 40 miles of the Great Smoky Mountains with my dad, who wanted to give me a proper send-off. We learned our gear, we tested different water filtration systems, he taught me how to build a fire (cabin style), and I taught him how to make gourmet meals with dehydrated foods. We had one long stretch, a 12-mile day, which was hard on our untrained legs, and neither of us had really encountered a day like that before. My dad wanted to schedule our snack breaks based on distance, and I wanted to schedule them based on time. After that day, I decided to schedule all of my breaks based on time, which puts my body first rather than putting the miles first.

On writing days, rather than trying to take breaks based on how much I’ve written, I take breaks based on how long I’ve been writing for. When I run out of steam, I finish the sentence and make lunch. I keep track of how many hours I’ve spent on the dissertation every day on my old-school wall calendar, and at the end of the week I add it all up. My goal (thanks to a wise friend’s recommendation) last semester was to write for 10 hours every week, and now I write for 15 hours every week because I’ve started scheduling my time based on this model. It works because it puts my brain first rather than putting the writing first. I feel more confident that I will get the writing done because I’m putting in the time.

Reflecting on Milestones

On the A.T. I got into the habit of taking a moment every night to look at my trail map and calculate how many miles I had walked. I keep a journal and write down my big ideas of the day, make notes about the weather, the quality of the campsites, the colors of the flowers, the views worth seeing, and the animals I encountered. Reflecting on my day and the work I had done became a ritual meditation before bed on the good things I accomplished and the lessons I learned. I’ve recently started doing this with my dissertation and other work.

Keeping track of my time on a wall calendar (for all of the hats I wear) has shown me that I do a lot more in a day than I usually give myself credit for, and I have the capacity to manage multiple tasks and long-term goals at once. Taking a moment to reflect on the time I’ve put into different jobs, especially the dissertation, makes me feel good about my productivity. I’ve stopped shaming myself for procrastination, and I’ve started putting my writing first in a positive, uplifting way, rather guilt-tripping myself into it.

My last glance at the Smokies in North Carolina, 2016

I hope these insights are helpful, and that you’ll take advantage of the good weather, when it arrives, and go outside. Usually when I get stressed, it’s because I’ve forgotten that I always manage a way to figure it out, and, at least for me, spending time outside reminds me of my own strength.

3 Replies to “What Hiking Taught Me About Writing the Dissertation

  1. Wow–I’m trying to get back into writing and make it my actual job (even if it hasn’t paid me a cent yet and I have a day job). But my brain is all over the place and has been for months (stupid depression). I need to get it screwed on straight. I was looking for something to stimulate some thinking and you reminded me of a good one. I live in the Houston area (so the biggest hills are freeway overpasses and speed bumps), but there are some parks and other places being built up around here that I haven’t gotten to yet. I just needed the reminder to go out and see ’em and walk ’em (and they’re places to go for my “artist’s dates.”

    Thanks for the brain refresher–I knew I’d learn something good today. And wow, it looks like you’ve had fun.

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