Remix: The Dissertation Bottleneck

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting why it’s so damn difficult to move between the stages of a PhD program. You’re not stupid if it’s hard. The system is set up to fail you, but we’re here to help you through. Enjoy!

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.

Remix: Editing A Draft: A 7 Part System

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting our seven part editing system, sometimes hailed as externalized executive-function. Just follow the steps and Enjoy!

Congratulations!

You’ve completed your first chapter draft and are feeling that peculiar mix of excitement and nausea that settles in before sending something to your advisor and/or committee for feedback.

Before now and then, however, you want to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be to reduce the nausea part.

We’ve already talked about editing twice this week. We’ve talked about why writing and editing need to be separate processes and how to use simple editing to jumpstart your writing process.

Simple editing, for our purposes, is the process of reading through a text and annotating it with your thoughts. This process is similar to what you do when you read an article or grade a student’s paper. It is, fundamentally, a critical process and though criticism is not always bad it can be difficult to criticize the things we love which can make it difficult to criticize our dissertations.

Today, I want to share with you the seven-part editing process I cobbled together, largely from the good advice of other people, that I used to edit every chapter and the dissertation as a whole.

These first three steps I learned in a Facebook Live video from Kellee Weinhold at The Professor Is In. I tried to find a link to this system but failed. However, TPII and Kelle Weinhold have great advice on productivity and I would definitely recommend checking them out.

  1. Read it.

That’s it. Just read it. Don’t make notes. Don’t even hold a pen. Just read it. Then take a break–do something else. For whatever reason, I always liked to do this part while walking up and down the long hallway outside my office. I felt like I had better editing skills when I was walking. I probably looked a bit odd but, hey, it got some movement in my day.

2. Read it again. Put checkmarks next to changes.

Just like it sounds. Read it again but instead of writing out full comments put checkmarks next to everything you want to change from punctuation to restructuring paragraphs. That’s it. Then take another break.

3. Read it again. Write comments.

This is the phase where you write in all those comments that have been brewing during the previous two reads. Change the punctuation, correct spelling, make a note to include that source you can’t believe you didn’t include and so on.

Weinhold argues that this three-part process build critical distance between you and your work. In my experience, that’s true. With each read through I picked up more nuance and was able to read the work as if I was providing helpful comments on a friend’s piece rather than criticising my own (intellectual) baby.

4. Start with the easy ones.

Once you’ve written in all your comments prop your notes up on one of these things (seriously, it will save you SO many neck problems) and start with the easy edits. Go through and put in, or take out, all the commas, fix all the typos, use a thesaurus to find a synonym for any words you noticed you were over using and so on.

PRO TIP: Every time you make a change, even a simple one, highlight it on the document. This seems like such an easy thing but it is a huge timesaver when you inevitably get interrupted while editing. Instead of reading back through the document and comparing it to the previous draft to figure out what the last thing you edited was you can just find the last highlighted portion and start right back up.

5. Repeat for the harder changes.

This is where you tackle adding sources, refining the argument, and all of those more nuanced changes. Be sure to highlight them when you’re done.

6. Listen to your draft.

Okay, this one is a game changer and I owe it all to my advisor who gave me this piece of advice.

Make Word read your draft to you. For Mac users: here. For PC users: here.

Highlight a section or two of text click the button and let the robot voice read to you. This will help you catch all kind of mistakes. It will certainly help you catch spelling mistakes but it will help you catch a variety of other mistakes. For instance, it will help you catch when Word has autocorrected a word you misspelled to another word that makes no sense in your sentence. It will also catch when you’ve fallen into the habit of obnoxiously overusing a particular word without realising it. Finally, hearing whether or not the rhythm of the sentence is off can be a huge help in catching punctuation mistakes.

Seriously. Do this. It is amazing.

Also, just listening to the document gives you a bit of time to do something mindless and relaxing like your nails or playing with playdoh. Personally, I liked to play Spider Solitaire while listening to my dissertation.

7. Celebrate!

You did it. Send that draft in and celebrate yourself.

Remix: Start With Editing

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting why it’s important to start writing by editing and how to do it. Enjoy!

So far this October we’ve given you some of our best tips to make dissertating feel doable and, dare we say it, exciting!, rather than terrifying.

If you are an astute reader (and of course you are, you smart cookie) then you’ve probably noticed that we haven’t talked much about writing at all. Certainly, we’ve talked about how to approach your writing with an understanding of the genre, unlearning unhelpful writing habits, and focusing on momentum. However, we still haven’t talked about how to sit down and write the thing.

Truth be told, the advice we can give here is limited. You are the expert in what your committee and department want just as you are the expert in what type of writing system works for you (e.g. mornings, midnight, in silence, on a bus, and so on).

However, there is one piece of advice we can recommend to all of you: start with editing.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers that editing an existing piece is 1000% easier than writing a piece into existence.

Starting a project as massive as a dissertation can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s hard to know exactly where to start. By now, you’ve certainly written enough things to know that you always write the introduction last but knowing what comes last just isn’t enough. What should come first?

Make it easy on yourself and start with editing.

Since this month’s focus is on writing a first draft you might be asking yourself, “Editing what? I haven’t written anything yet!”

Except that you have.

You’ve written seminar papers and prelim exams and a prospectus.

You’ve written lots of things that are, in some small way, related to your dissertation.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the document you are starting with is on exactly what your dissertation is on. It just has to be sort of, kind of, maybe, a little related.

This is the brilliance of editing.

After some failed attempts to start writing the dissertation I began to make real progress when I went back an edited an old paper from my Master’s which was on the Adolescent Family Life Act as a piece of Cold War legislation. My dissertation is a comparative study of virginity as a form of sexual regulation in World War II and the War on Terror in the United States. I wasn’t looking to write about the Cold War at all, much less about the rhetorical history of Cold War legislation. All of that is to say, the paper I was editing had very, very little to do in subject or time period of my dissertation.

However, in editing an older piece of work that was tangentially related to my dissertation topic I started to ask myself questions and make writing notes. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Does this source also talk about World War II?
  • Are budget re-authorizations a good place to look for legislative changes?
  • How is this different from World War II and War on Terror? How is it the same?

In looking up and writing out the answers to these questions I suddenly had that most magical of substances–new material. From the answers to those questions and others, all inspired by editing an old draft of a kind-of related paper, I had material I could work with. I then began to edit the answers to the questions into a more coherent piece which, over time, became the iteration of the problem–why it was necessary to compare World War II and the War on Terror–rather than do a more traditional longitudnal study.

It’s important to note that when I started this process I wasn’t trying to shoehorn old work into my dissertation. What I was doing was looking at my old work to find the gaps between already articulated questions and the questions I had yet to articulate for my dissertation.

Moreover, I didn’t go through this process one time. Since editing a seminar paper felt like it gave me some much needed momentum I went back and edited my prospectus as well. What had I said in the prospectus? How would I say it better now that I knew more? Had new questions arisen since I defended my prospectus? Was my list of archives up to date?

Through editing these older works I was able to reduce the question from “how the hell do I write a book on this?” to “what questions did I leave unanswered in these older pieces and how can I answer them in the dissertation?”

The second question is much more manageable than the first.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about our favorite editing strategies.

Remix: The Humanities Are Harder

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting our most controversial post of all time on why writing a dissertation in the humanities is so fudging hard. We got a lot of messages about this one and we’re looking forward to a lot more. Enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

Our goal for this month was to make dissertating feel exciting rather than terrifying.

There is, however, a fundamental truth of dissertating which we may have mentioned before: It is hard.

Even if you love your project, even if you have the world’s best committee, even if you have a generous funding package–writing a dissertation is difficult.

As it should be.

The old adage about getting a PhD remains true: it’s 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance.

What I’m about to say next is a little controversial, but I believe it completely:

Humanities dissertations are harder than other dissertations.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is.

In general, humanities dissertations are longer than dissertations in other disciplines. A friend of mine in the social sciences had a ten-page chapter. Ten (10) pages. Another person I know had a four-page chapter. Four (4) pages. In fact, that four-page chapter was for a person in STEM where the dissertation was not new, original research but four published articles bound together with an introduction and conclusion. Those articles? They weren’t solo pieces. They had several co-authors and, of course, the reputation of the lab of which the person is part can play a significant role in their ability to get published in the first place.

Is this the standard in all STEM programs? Probably not.

Is it difficult to write a dissertation, even one with a four-page chapter? Of course it is. I’m sure my STEM friends would want me to point out that a lot of work went into that four-page chapter. It can summarize hundreds of hours in a lab and dozens of hours of research. I’m not trying to say that STEM dissertations are easy in any way.

What I am saying is that humanities dissertations are harder.

Aside from the general length of the thing, though, the formatting can be more difficult. At the beginning of this month, I encouraged you to read a couple of dissertations related to your field to get a sense of the genre (and, importantly, remind yourself that you are definitely good enough to do this thing). We also noted that you can find a dissertation you admire and use it as a model for your own dissertation. One of the reasons you might want, or need, to do this is because there’s no formula for a humanities dissertation.

In most social science and STEM programs the structure of the dissertation is quite rigid. Many of them follow some version of this outline: introduction (chapter 1), literature review (chapter 2), methods (chapter 3), results (chapter 4), conclusion (chapter 5).

Using my own dissertation as contrast, I went through that process above (intro, lit review, methods/documents, results/argument, conclusion) in each of my chapters while trying to weave the broader connections between my arguments together so that the overall dissertation followed that same pattern in a wider arc.

Again, I’m not saying other dissertations are easy. I’m saying humanities dissertations are harder.

Finally, humanities dissertations are harder because of the types of questions we deal with. The types of questions you are asking in a humanities dissertation don’t have easy answers. They are questions of ontology and epistemology that have been argued and fought over for as long as humans have been around.

As someone who has worked in both STEM and the humanities I find it incredibly disappointing how often my STEM colleagues forget that many of their heroes did not perceive a rigid division between science and metaphysics. Descartes was both a mathematician and a philosopher whose work on intersecting planes is part of introductory study in both fields today. Newton was an alchemist, and not a proto-chemist-alchemist, but a turn-lead-into-gold-and-find-the-secret-to-immortality-alchemist. Sure, he wrote the Principia which is a great achievement but it was also part and parcel of his questions about how to understand human life.

What I’m saying here is that many of the great minds in both the sciences and the humanities did not percieve a difference between the sciences and humanities. Moreover, while they contributed greatly to our scientific knowledge they didn’t come up with a lot of concrete answers to the humanities part so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. Those questions are just harder, at least in part because people and societies have the alarming tendency to change much more quickly than the physical properties of the universe.

Writing a dissertation shouldn’t feel scary but it is hard and humanities dissertations are harder.

Don’t make the process harder than it has to be by being hard on yourself. The work is hard enough; treat yourself with kindness and, if appropriate, half-off Halloween candy ❤

 

 

Remix: Macros, Mids, and Micros

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. It seems fitting that one of our first posts ever was about breaking goals down into macros, mids, and micros. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that breaking goals down into doable pieces is something we’re constantly talking about and this is where it all started. Enjoy!

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.

Micro-goals:

  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!

Happy New Year!

Welcome back, Beloved!

We are so happy that you are here! We’ve been so in the work that we haven’t noticed a couple of big milestones have happened.

First, we had our two year anniversary back in November! Holy Cow! It seems amazing that this little site has been around for two years already. It’s been a joyful, at times chaotic, journey–much like the process of dissertating itself.

Second, we have over forty (40) followers! To all of you who have clicked the “follow” box, we cannot thank you enough for letting us into your minds, into your hearts, and into your inbox. We are here to serve you and we are so grateful to connect with you.

As we move into our third year of existence we’re making a couple of changes.

First, we’re going to add some new pages to help clarify our mission, who we can help, and how. Get excited, folks 😉

Second, we are working on some brand new series taking on some big dissertation challenges for the the upcoming academic term. While we work on these changes we’re going to be re-posting our favorite/most popular posts from the last two years.

Today, though, we can’t wait to share a little piece of advice we came across from our friends at Panda Planner. You may have previously encountered this advice:

A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action becomes reality.

I think we can all acknowledge that’s good advice but how do we put that into practice? It can be hard if you struggle with executive function or if you have perfectly normal executive function but have professional training in connecting disparate parts rather than breaking things down into discrete pieces.

Here’s how Panda Planner suggests we break our goals down.

First, make a goal. Easy–I know we all have a million, maybe start with one slightly more doable than world domination. For example, one of my goals for the new year is to stick to my budget.

Second, set a date by which you want to achieve that goal. The date by which I went to be living by my budget is March 1st but I know that I often underestimate how much time change takes so I’m gonna give myself until May 30th.

Third, every week, keep track of your goal. If it’s a weekly thing, like a budget, did you meet it or not? If it’s a daily thing, how many days did you succeed?

Fourth, analyze what went wrong? For instance, I’ve already broken my resolution to stick to my budget because I needed new clothes for a conference next week.

Fifth, test a solution. I’m going to take my mom’s recommendation of buying one new professional clothing item with every paycheck instead of putting it off until the last minute and see if that helps me stick to my budget next week.

Above all, be patient with yourself. It’s not about flipping a switch and changing your life–it’s about building new structures to live in.

There’s A Reason You Can’t Do It

Last week we talked about the role of executive function in your life/dissertation.

While executive function in adults is understudied we do know that problems with executive function are part of ADHD, ASD, and anxiety.

I’m not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist, but as someone who lives with anxiety I’ve noticed two important things. First, most of the PhD students I know are neurodivergent in some way. (I know, I know–there’s all sorts of caveats here: maybe all my friends are neurodivergent because I am, maybe it’s a self-selecting population, etcetera–but I’m not worried about the mechanism here.) Second, it TOTALLY makes sense that people with anxiety, ADHD, ASD and other brains impacted by executive dysfunction are really good at PhD programs.

Our brains are really good at finding connections other people might not see and weaving them into arguments to create knowledge.

This natural propensity is enhanced by the structure of a PhD program itself which encourages us to think not in five paragraph arguments but in five chapter monographs.

When we train brains that are already good at making connections to make more connections we really shouldn’t be surprised that we have a bunch of people who struggle with the executive function skills of breaking a task down into parts, planning, organizing, and completing it.

I would argue that humanities students struggle with this more than STEM PhDs because STEM PhDs are often based on fieldwork, an equation, and experiment, and so on. In short, STEM PhDs have a definable start and finish in ways that humanities projects often do not.

For instance, in my own project I was looking at how U.S. doctors and legislators talked about virginity in World War II and the War on Terror. Part of my committee, the part made up of historians, wanted me to do a longitudnal study instead of a comparative study. Even when I got them to agree to a comparative study there was still the problem of how to define WWII and the War on Terror. For instance, did I define WWII as when the US entered the war? When the war started in Europe? Or when the US army started preparing to enter the war? Defining the War on Terror was even more complex as a War on Terror is, by definition, and endless war.

My point here is that breaking our projects into workable pieces is HARD and it’s made harder by the fact that our job and our training are teaching us to look for connections between those pieces.

When you look at your project you see all the connections. The inside of a dissertating brain usually looks something like this:

Conspiracy

If it feels crazy-making that’s because it is.

You are not crazy or dumb for having difficulty sorting through the connections. It’s antithetical to everything you’ve been trained to do. That’s why, sometimes, you need someone else to come in take a look at your project to help you sort it into doable pieces.

In theory, your committee should be able to do this for you. That is, after all, what committees are for. In reality, there are a lot of reasons you might not seek this sort of feedback from your committee. Maybe they’re on sabbatical. Maybe they only read finished work. Maybe their feedback is contradictory or unhelpful.

Fellow graduate students can be a great resource to give you this type of feedback as well. I’ve known graduate students who have been able to get reading/writing groups together that meet regularly and give each other feedback. This has been extremely successful for them.

I tried, several times, to set up a graduate student reading group during my PhD. It never worked out.

In general, I’ve noticed that reading groups tend to work out if you have a group of people who are on fellowship. If you have a group of graduate students who are teaching or TAing it’s a little harder to get going and may never take off.

Sometimes graduate students can offer you much needed sympathy and support but not the perspective you need. Sometimes you need the help of someone with more distance from your project and your program. And that’s okay.

Getting a PhD isn’t about how smart you are. Getting a PhD is about persistence and persistence is, among other things, about knowing when to ask for help.

If you need it, or think you might need it, we’re here for you.