Can you use spirituality in graduate school


by Noelle Sterne

Does spirituality go with school, specifically graduate school? School requires your intellect; spirituality requires surrender of your intellect. School lives on logic and realism; spirituality survives on faith. 

I used to hold fiercely to these assumptions. Spirituality and school were completely contradictory, I thought, or at least separate. 

However . . . privately, in my longtime academic practice coaching and advising doctoral candidates as they complete their dissertations, I’ve often applied spiritual principles. I forgive an ornery client, ask for guidance on a daunting project, let the right assuaging words flow through before a difficult meeting. 

But I hadn’t come across any public acknowledgment of the companionship of spirituality and graduate school until I did research for my book, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. 

In a provocative scholarly article, Sheryl Cozart, Ph.D., examined her struggle between spirituality and academia. She wrote, “I acted as if spirituality was a third kind of consciousness [in addition to being an academic and African American female], rather than part of my merging double-consciousness into a better truer self” (p. 253). 

Cozart came to a reconciling definition of spirituality. For her, it was 

inner submission to my God consciousness. This definition is not meant to refute other definitions, only to add location to my relationship with my God consciousness. I acknowledge that I cannot live within my own power but through the power of my God consciousness. (p. 257)

I admire Cozart for admitting, especially in a scholarly journal, reliance on her “God consciousness.” In my own work, I’ve found too that reliance on my own power does little good. Rather, especially when I’m stuck, when I turn to my God consciousness (or intuition, Inner Guide, Voice, Inner Light), and wait, it gives me answers that prove to be the best ones, often with astounding speed. 

Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh sure, I go to God for my health, for my brother on drugs, for money, for world peace. But school? Uh uh.” But if you’re wrestling with a dissertation, or any other scholarly project, here I’ll help you use your own God consciousness for a major issue many writers experience: the dreaded writing. 

The Two Important Techniques

As you begin, two techniques are essential. These are meditation and affirmations.   

Meditation. Meditation was sanitized for the West by the courageous Harvard M.D. Herbert Benson with his 1975 groundbreaking and evidence-based book The Relaxation Response. Today meditation is widely accepted, given prime space on the internet, and even prescribed by enlightened physicians. You can meditate at home, in the library, at the red light, on the checkout line, waiting for your major professor, even in church. 

Books and articles on meditation continue to proliferate, but it’s really quite simple. Sit in a quiet place (park your tech appendages out of thumbs’ reach). Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Then silently say a word, phrase, or sentence that means something to you (“Peace,” “Ahhhh,” “All is in order,” “Chocolate”). Keep repeating your chosen words. 

Or if you don’t want words, just watch your breath—in an out, in and out. See if you can do it to 4-4-6: inhale to a count of 4, hold to 4, and out to 6. Keep coming back to the count. 

One of the most recommended stints is for 20 minutes, but I can never last that long. At about 4, my to-do lists start knocking at my head. I often set a timer (highly recommended) for 5 and just about make it. 

Be patient with yourself. Whatever method you choose, all kinds of thoughts will intrude—they do for all of us. Just keep coming back to your chosen word or phrase or breath count. Your mind will grow sharper, you’ll feel rested, and you may even look forward to your next session.

Affirmations. Popularized by Shakti Gawain (Creative Visualization) and Louise Hay (How to Heal Your Life), affirmations too have filtered into popular consciousness. They are positive statements for anything you desire, dream of, and don’t yet see in your present perspective. Never mind those who say “Face reality.” The secret is to turn away from “reality” and make your own. 

Affirmations are based on the principle that as we change our thoughts, we change and create our experiences. Create and repeat affirmations in the present tense, with fervor. Describe clearly what you really want, as ridiculous or impossible as it may seem at the moment. When you try affirmations, probably to your shock, your mood will actually lift. 

Now to apply these two techniques to the writing you’ve been avoiding . . .  


First, recognize and admit your anxiety. My clients have blurted, “I can’t write a thing.” “Sure I knocked out those doctoral course papers—and got As. But now with the dissertation, I’m paralyzed.” “I sit and stare and my stomach is sinking.”

So, to meditate, go sit outside, or in a comfortable chair, away from your computer. Take some deep breaths. Repeat that favorite word or follow your breath. Your anxiety should lessen, even melt. 

In your meditation session, “ask” yourself where the best place is to begin. Listen. You will receive answers. 

Sometimes you’re frozen because you’re trying to plunge in at a tricky place, like the first chapter of the dissertation or the conclusion. Contrary to the King’s advice to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, you don’t have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end.

I often advise clients not to start at the beginning, that is, the introductory Chapter 1. Why? This chapter demands a synthesis of the topic, something many students don’t know until they’re well into the work. No doctoral Divine Lightning will strike if you start in the middle. For example, you could begin with the more straightforward description of your sample or explain the steps you took to collect your data. Ask again. Listen. You will be told.


In that calmer state during or right after your meditation, you’re ready for affirmations to begin the writing and stick with it. Here are some:

  • I have all the courage I need to plunge in.
  • The answers are here.
  • I did it before (remember that first frightening undergraduate paper or a published work). I can do it again.
  • I act as if I can do it (Hamlet, Act III, iv, 161). 
  • I listen to my Inner Mentor for perfect guidance.
  • Every idea flows to me in perfect order.
  • Every one of my sessions is productive.
  • I ’m stronger than this stack of paper/notecards/journals/books/outlines/scribbled notes.
  • I stick with it, I Stick With It, I STICK WITH IT. 

A Few Prompting Questions

Now that you’ve established your base, to actually start writing, you may want to ask some central questions and wait for answers. Here are important questions and some responses clients have received. 

  • Where should I begin now? 
    • “Why I became interested in this topic.” “The project’s significance and application to clinical practice.” “Recommendations for future research.” 
  • What do I want to write now?
    • “I now write Significance of the Study.” 
  • How do I want to feel writing? 
    • “I now feel clear, sharp, joyful, and flowing writing the Significance section.” See also Chlup’s (2016) excellent suggestions for writing, especially this: “Set an intention for how you want to feel while you create” (p. 6). 
  • How do I want to feel after writing? 
    • “I now feel satisfied with what I’ve written and eager to begin the next chapter.”

Clients have reported that, after feeling miserably blocked, when they asked such questions and repeated affirmations, they suddenly knew where to begin. Some remembered former class notes, an article, or an old paper that helped them. One felt a strong inclination to change her topic sentence and another to reverse his entire premise. Another abruptly thought of the perfect title that capsulated her topic and got the professor’s attention (and a strong pass, by the way).

So . . . 

As you develop the meditation-affirmation-question habit, it will get easier. The truths of your affirmations will happily seep into your mind, calm your nerves, and rebalance your stomach. Your answers will come and your pages will mount. And you’ll probably find yourself using these techniques repeatedly with your dissertation writing and problems, other types of writing—and the rest of your life.



Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. HarperCollins.

Chlup, D. T. (2016, Summer). From blocked to breakthrough: The art of stress-free

creating. Academic Author [Textbook & Academic Authors Association], pp. 5-6.

Cozart, S. C. (2010). When the spirit shows up: An autoethnography of spiritual

reconciliation with the academy. Educational Studies46(2), 250-269.

Gawain, S. (2002). Creative visualization: Use the power of your imagination

to create what you want in your life. New World Library,

Originally published 1978; anniversary issue 2016.

Hay, L. (1987). You can heal your life. Hay House.

© 2023 Noelle Sterne

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