WTF: Prelims

As with all things related to a humanities PhD,  requirements vary from program to program, department to department, school to school, and university to university. The advice contained in this column is not intended as a supplement for your graduate student handbook. 

It’s February and we are introducing our WTF Topic of the Month. We’ve chosen to kick off WTF Topic of the Month with preliminary/field exams, also known as prelims or fields. You see, prelims and February have a lot in common. They are both short and brutal, but they can both be beautiful. Like sitting on a frozen lake in a frozen wilderness, prelims can be an amazing experience that changes your view of yourself and the world, but it takes training and is not for the faint of heart.

Hey There! I’m so happy you found this post! In the first year of abd2phd, I did a month long blog series on how to survive your prelims. Since then, I’ve updated this advice with what I’ve learned from clients and what I’ve learned about executive function. I created a series of worksheets to cover everything from your prelim timeline to assignments you could give your students if you have to teach during your prelims. I’ve put that all together in one place for your convenience. You can buy it here.

Weekly Roundup

We hope this list of resources is helpful to you. Weekly Roundup links are selected by the editors on two criteria. (1) We came across something published this week that we thought would be useful or (2) We came across a post published a while ago relevant to something happening this week. If you see something  you think should make it into the weekly roundup drop us a line on the contact page.

This week’s roundup is a special edition focused on working-class PhDs.

Out Priced and Out Classed–a personal piece on the complexity and the pain of all of it from the appropriately titled The Mucky PhD.

Coming to Terms With Being a Working Class Academic–Some helpful definitions and a good essay from Sociology Lens.

Blue Collar Advantage–An American piece with an interesting take on the value of working-class academics.

A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide to Getting It Done–A good piece with useful advice. We need more of these.

Weekly Roundup

It’s application season! For all of you considering applying to a PhD program we’ve collected advice from around the web aimed at new PhDs. Why not collect advice on how to apply, you ask? Well, because there are other people doing that better. Also, a consistent theme among new PhD students in person and online is that no one really told them what pursuing a PhD entailed. If we could go back in time we would still apply to PhD programs but we might have done some things differently if we had known what doing a PhD required. For instance, personal fit is a much bigger key to your long term success than national, or itnernational, program rankings. It also turns out that it’s hard to complete a PhD if you live in a place you hate or a place that doesn’t facilitate whatever it is you do to relax. But this is a topic for another post . . .

We hope these posts on what it’s like to start a PhD help you make good [application] choices.

This post hits all the big points from managing your advisor to your imposter syndrome.

One of the few advice columns written for a STEM PhD that has genuinely transferable advice for ALL PhD students. We love this column from Stearns Lab.

This column is chock-full of excellent advice to implement on Day 1 of the PhD. In particular, we wish we would have made some citation tool our friend from that first day and taken ten minutes a week to put everything we read in there. It would have saved so much time and trouble later on. Also, BE SELFISH. Make your coursework, all of it, work for you somehow, some way.

There’s a lot of bad advice out there. We laugh so that we don’t cry: Bad Advice.

We are planning to update this pot from Next Scientist for humanities students soon. In the meantime, they really walk you through some of the basics that are easy to forget in the swirl of newness and anxiety.

Go forward, friends, and may our Patron Saint, Our Lady of Overcoming the Odds, Elle Woods, bless you.



Weekly Roundup!

We hope this list of resources is helpful to you. Weekly Roundup links are selected by the editors on two criteria. (1) We came across something published this week that we thought would be useful or (2) We came across a post published a while ago relevant to something happening this week. If you see something  you think should make it into the weekly roundup drop us a line on the contact page.

Transitions: Re-Imagining Your Academic Output By Embracing A Mind-Set Of Abundance–If the looming end of the quarter/semester/year has you panicked about your output this post from the beginning of the year may help.

Have A Little Fun With Semester Planning–Because we are often asked to start planning the next semester before we’ve wrapped up the current one, this post from Tonya Golash-Boza has suggestions on how to make the process less heinous and, perhaps, even fun!

Productivity Comes Last–Can you tell that your humble editors are feeling a bit overwhelmed by end of semester deadlines? Well, we love this post from James Hayton.

PhD Defenses Around the World–For any of our colleagues preparing to defend at the end of this term or the beginning of the next one we recommend checking out the latest installment in the series from PhDTalk.

The final three posts in the weekly roundup are about graduate students unionizing as the discussion of how the GOP tax bill may effect graduate students has got us thinking about worker protections. Also, call your Senators!

The Implications of Graduate Student Unionization

Ruling Pushes Door To Grad Student Unions “Wide-Open.”

Call Your Senators!

Weekly Roundup!

We hope this list of resources is helpful to you. Weekly Roundup links are selected by the editors on two criteria. (1) We came across something published this week that we thought would be useful or (2) We came across a post published a while ago relevant to something happening this week. If you see something  you think should make it into the weekly roundup drop us a line on the contact page.

Ten Ways To Beat The Fear of Writing–Patter very kindly collected the tweeted writing tips from author Joanne Harris. We especially like her methods for overcoming fear and dealing with unfriendly reviews.

Your Thesis Is The Map, Not The Journey–The Thesis Whisperer breaks down how to take make order out of the chaos that is the dissertating journey.

Reading! You’re Meant To Be Writing–Patter on the tension between reading and writing.

How To Interact With Someone Who’s Just Given A Talk–Gretchen McCulloch on how to do academic small talk a painful yet essential task for conference season.

Macros, Mids, & Micros

There are many things that academics are good at, but that’s not why this site exists.

One thing that academics, particularly grad students, are bad at is practical goal setting. In the early days of an academic career, there is a fair amount of structure established for you by course work where the syllabus establishes what you read, by when, and gives deadlines for turning in work. This isn’t to say that improved goal setting can’t improve your experience of coursework. It can, but that post is for another time.

Today, I want to focus on the latter half of a grad students career when the structure of course work disappears. In my personal observation, everyone tends to talk about time management as if it is the panacea to all of the difficulties of being post-coursework. Time management, on its own, however, is meaningless. What exactly, are you managing your time for?

You are managing your time (or attempting to) to make progress on your exams or your dissertation. How do you know if you are making progress?

You know you are making progress by setting and meeting goals.

Goal setting is the heart of time management and yet, at least in the academic circles I’ve been privy to, it is left out of the conversation almost completely. I suspect the reason for this is because academics are very, very bad at goal setting in any meaningful way.

Let me give you an example. At the beginning of this semester (fall 2017) I sat down with a friend to determine our macro goals for the semester and the micro-goals that would get us there. I initiated this conversation after some business classes had introduced me to the concept of macro and micro goals and setting them with a partner.

Our first attempt at goals was a train wreck. My friend listed a micro-goal as finishing edits on a chapter.

This, beloved, is not a micro goal. This is a macro goal. It makes a certain type of sense that, with the ultimate macro-goal of the dissertation on the horizon chapter revisions do seem like a micro-goal. Yet, chapter revisions are comprised of several independent tasks (the real micro-goals) and take days to complete (at best).

Why does it matter?

Well, if you set revising chapter three as your micro-goal you are going to wind up frustrated and discouraged. Instead of focusing on the progress you’ve made you will wind up feeling like you never get anywhere.

I believe this is why so many grad students prioritize teaching tasks over dissertation tasks despite dire warnings that “teaching is a time suck.” Teaching inherently has a micro-, mid-, macro-goal structure that is rewarding. For instance, in one of my classes this semester I have 15 students. If I want to get their papers back to them in a week (ha!) I know I need to grade two papers a day–that is my micro goal. I can adjust it based on what else is going on–if I have a day where I miss grading papers I can add two more to the next day or grade three papers per day over the next two days. When I grade 8 papers I know that I’m over the halfway hump. In a career where most of our labor doesn’t produce tangible results teaching let’s us see that we are making progress and it can be addictive.

This is actually really good news because it means you already likely have experience with setting micro-, mid-, and macro-goals. The trick is learning to apply it to dissertating–the ultimate in structureless, macro-goals.

First, what is a macro-goal in the context of dissertating? A macro-goal is any goal that is in the future and relies on the completion of several other discrete tasks. These discrete tasks can then be broken down into your micro- and mid-goals. Let’s go back to that chapter revisions example.

Macro-goal: Revise Chapter 3. This goal will likely take several days, at a minimum, and relies on you completing several other discrete tasks such as proofreading, rewriting, and citing.

Mid-goal: Proofreading. I use the model advocated by Kellee who conducts the UNSTUCK productivity group over at The Professor Is In and it has transformed my editing process for the better.


  1. Read through my draft. That’s it. Just read. No pen, no marks, no margin notes. Just read it.
  2. Give it some breathing room (try one of our recommended 5-minute videos here).
  3. Read through my draft and put a check mark next to anything I think needs editing. No notes. No comments. Just a check mark.
  4. Give it some breathing room.
  5. Read through one more time and add a comment for every check mark on what you think needs to be done.

Ta-da! I’ve transformed the overwhelming process of “Revise Chapter 3” into several things I can do today and each time I cross off one of these micro-goals I can see and feel my progress. (Kellee calls this “feeding the Lizard brain” which I love.)

My next Mid-goal will likely be Rewriting and here are some relevant micros- for that goal:

  1. Make all spelling and grammar edits. (Pro-tip: I use a highlighter to highlight my own comments after I make the requisite changes so I don’t go in circles or waste time looking for where I stopped if I get interrupted.)
  2. Make any syntax edits. (What the hell did I mean when I wrote that sentence, anyway?)
  3. Make notes on any changes to the argument. These will become your next set of micro-goals. For instance, do you need to look up that one article that will tie together the transition from section two to section three?

Let us know how goal-setting works for you and what you’d like to see next!