Writing a dissertation is never a completely stress-free endeavour, but it can be particularly hard when you have not eaten or drunk anything for the whole day and are maybe also struggling with lack of sleep. In this blog post, Jennifer Philippa Eggert shares her experience and some top tips on how to manage your dissertation during Ramadan.
It’s that time of the year again … when Muslims all over the world fast from before dawn to after sunset during the month of Ramadan. This year, Ramadan started on 6 June and will finish on 5 or 7 July. That means that Muslims in Western European countries such as the UK fast for 19 hours, from circa 2:30am to 9:30pm. That’s a lot of time not to eat or drink (no, not even water…)!
Fasting such long hours is hard for anyone, but how do you cope as a PhD student? I wrote my Master’s thesis during Ramadan a few years ago and have since then survived two summer Ramadans as a PhD student (this is my third). These are some of the things that work for me:
1) Don’t panic
First of all, don’t panic. You will be fine. As Muslims we believe that “God does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear” (Qur’an, 2:286). You are not supposed to do anything that is not possible. Your job is “only” to try your best. If the fasting proves to be too hard, if you cannot physically (or mentally) cope, to the point where your health is at risk, of course you will stop (but do check with a qualified scholar if you have any questions regarding your personal circumstances). In fact, I broke my fast on a number of days last year when I started to get dizzy.
2) Eat (and drink well)
You only have 5 hours to eat and drink at night, make proper use of them. Stuffing your face with fast food and sweets might be your initial impulse (it definitely is mine after a long day of fasting!), but will this provide you with the nutrients your body needs to make it during another day of fasting? Personally, I try to eat well outside of Ramadan (my personal rules are: no fizzy drinks or fried food, ideally five portions of fruit and veg, maximum one portion of sweet per day, whole meal is better than white bread / rice / couscous) and in general I maintain that during the month of fasting. Of course, there are always exceptions, but that’s what I try to live by in general.
3) Get enough sleep
Non-Muslims often seem to be shocked when they hear you don’t eat or drink for up to 19 hours during a summer Ramadan, but frankly for me, the biggest issue is the lack of sleep. Of course it is hard, but I can cope much better with the lack of food and drink than when I don’t get to sleep my 7 – 9 hours. Try what works best for you, some people are fine getting just 4 hours per night for the whole month (how do they do it?!), others sleep during the day or fit in several shorter naps.
4) Take it easy
If you think you’ll be able to get as much work done during a summer Ramadan as during “normal” times … well, you’re either a super star (please share your secret!!) or you are as delusional as I was when I was about to start my first Ramadan as a PhD student… It can be really stressful if you have not told yourself (and your supervisor) that in terms of the amount of work you will be able to get done, this month will not be like any other month. But it’s fine. You’re a person, not a machine.
5) Studying can be worship
If it is likely that you will not get as much work done during Ramadan as usual, the same holds true for your worship. Maybe you are used to spending a certain amount of time every night praying in the mosque, reading Qur’an etc. during Ramadan. In order to avoid disappointment, it is important to keep in mind that it might be difficult to maintain this when you are trying to work on your dissertation during a summer Ramadan. Again: it’s fine. With the right intention, in Islam, anything can be worship, and we all know how highly valued gaining, producing and spreading knowledge are in Islam. Instead of beating yourself up about “not doing enough”, focus on that and try your best to stay positive.
6) Be open about your situation
If you are struggling, there is no reason to hide the fact you are fasting. Tell your supervisor that you will be fasting (and explain to them what exactly that means, e.g. no food or drink between dawn and sunset, short nights, maybe lack of sleep). I work hard for my PhD for most of the year, but in Ramadan I plan to get much less work done. Maybe some reading, a few paper proposals, but no work on a major chapter or anything like that. Most people will be understanding, and if they are not, speak to someone else at the university. If your university or department holds their summer fête during Ramadan and it means anything to you, ask if it would be possible at all to postpone it. Most academic institutions are not nearly as culturally sensitive as they should be (it is your right for your needs to be taken into account), but nothing will ever change if we don’t speak up and address the issues that matter to us.
Jennifer Philippa Eggert is a PhD Candidate at the University at Warwick. Her thesis looks at female fighters during the Lebanese Civil War. She tweets at @j_p_eggert.
If you are observing Ramadan, do you have any tips or experience you’d like to share? 🙂