Manage Out

One of the wisest pieces of advice I got while I was writing my dissertation was from a senior faculty member who observed that, “Sometimes, through no fault of their own, advisors and advisees get stuck in a loop rehashing the same issues in the text.”

Again, in it’s own way, this can be a bizarre sort of academic compliment. It can mean that your advisor sees potential in your work and wants it to be the best it can be. It can mean that your advisor is trying to prepare you for questions you’ll face from journal editors and hiring committees. It can be a lot of things, but whatever else it is, it is also damn annoying. No document is ever perfect. Dissertations, in particular, are a deeply weird genre, in which perfection should not be the goal.

When this happens, the best thing you can do is manage out.

(Note: I have no idea if this is a real term. I just made it up to parallel our last post about managing up, which is a real term.)

The entire point behind having academic committees is to make sure that the whims of one person don’t control your whole dissertation. Even so, I’ve met dozens of dissertating students who don’t use their committee. Hell, I was one until the very end of the process when a molten core of anxiety and rage formed something approximating motivation that was strong enough to overcome my imposter syndrome.

That is how I know that if you feel stuck in a feedback loop with your advisor one of the best things you can do is to show your work in progress to another member of your committee and get their feedback on it. Perhaps they’ll be able to frame your advisor’s comments in a different way that makes more sense to you. Perhaps they’ll be able to advocate for you with your advisor by mentioning how well that chapter is coming along the next time they see each other.

There are some cases where you genuinely can’t go to the rest of your committee for help for various reasons. For instance, two of your committee members could be out of the country and one could be on sabbatical. Alternately, you could have senior committee members who have explicitly told you they’ll defer to the advisor’s judgement (thus nullifying the entire god damn point of committees, but anyway) and a junior member who feels powerless because she is powerless in this context.

If you find yourself in these or other commitee permutations that don’t allow your committee to advocate for you with your advisor then there are two key ways to manage out.

The Long-Game

The preferred method is to cultivate academic relationships. Cultivating connections in your discipline can be a huge help in breaking up advisor (or committee) gridlock. It can also be a good long-term help in your academic career.

When you and your advisor keep circling the same issues with no path to resolution it can be powerful to go into a meeting and say, “Scholar-X, who wrote book Y, very kindly read over this chapter and gave me some feedback. Based on her notes I was thinking of doing A and B in section C of this chapter.”

There’s no bones about it, this is a power move. What you’re essentially saying in the above sentence is: Look, another expert in the field thinks this is fucking fine. I’m going to make these minor changes. Please just drop this shit and let us all move on, ok? It’s a subtle reminder to your advisor that they aren’t the only expert in the field and that other experts have looked at your work and deemed it good enough (which is all our work can ever really be, tbh).

The thing about this strategy is that it takes *a lot* of investment to get to this place. You have to cultivate a relationship with a senior scholar in your field. Everyone says the best place to do this is conferences and that might be true? IDK, it’s never really worked for me. Everyone at conferences is some bizarre mix of tired and amped, bored and exhausted, trying to network and trying to turn this trip into a vacation. I’ve rarely made good academic connections at conferences and when I have it’s because I’ve been the slightly senior academic, but that’s a whole other post.

If you want to employ this strategy you can’t just email a senior scholar in your field and say, “Will you read my chapter?” (I mean, you could, but it’s not respectful of their time and if they send a response it likely won’t be in your favor.) Instead, you have to reach out to them ahead of time. I recommend reaching out with a genuine compliment like, “I saw your op-ed and really enjoyed it” or “Your book has been so influential in my thinking about X.” Everybody likes to be complimented, academics more than most.

If the academic in question responds positively to this then follow-up the next time you see a pop culture thing that makes you think of them like a Twitter thread or a television show related to their work. (I specifically advocate doing this with a pop culture thing related to their work because academia is a very small world when you get into people’s specialties. Sure, you could send them that new journal article in their area of research but there’s a decent chance that they were asked to be a reviewer for it or have already heard of it.)

When the next major conference rolls around then you email them and ask if they’d like to serve as the chair of a panel you’re putting together for the major conference. The important thing here is that you, as the junior scholar, are offering to do all the time-consuming leg work. If they agree then you now have a professional connection. Hooray!

After the conference it will be appropriate to ask them to read over your chapter.

Like I said, it’s a very time-consuming process.

The Quick Fix

If you need help sooner than that timeline would allow there are a lot of services out there to help you. You know, like this one.

You can work with abd2phd, or a service like us, where someone who knows the process can look at your work along with your advisor’s comments and help you figure out how to move forward. If you feel truly stuck this is a great option. In fact, I did this when I was near giving up on my dissertation and it was immensely helpful to have someone who didn’t have a lot of power over my work/life give me honest feedback about what was good and what was missing.

[Shameless Self-Promo: abd2phd is currently accepting clients FOR FREE. As in, we will work with you at no cost. If you’d like to work with abd2phd to jumpstart your dissertation progress then drop us a line via our Contact page. We’ll schedule a 30 minute consultation so you can decide if we’re right for you. If we’re not what you need then we’re more than happy to recommend some other folks.]

One last note here, managing out is not the same thing as having a support network. During the exact same time that I was working with the wonderful Avigail Oren on revising my dissertation I also had weekly meetings with a close friend to whom I could complain and rant and rage. My friend did an excellent job of supporting me which was her job in that moment. It was the emotional component I needed but it’s not what you want someone you hire to do for you. While it’s certainly alright to get on well with a paid editor (you should!) their job isn’t to take your side like a friend would but to help you make progress even if that means telling you something you don’t want to hear.

Sometimes, though, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

Sometimes, you have to leave.

There are a lot of reasons to stick with an advisor you don’t particularly like. Sometimes they may be the best person for your topic. Sometimes they are the only person at your institution to work with for whatever reasons. Sometimes things go bad when you are very close to done with the project and it’s easier just to finish.

Our next post in the ongoing advising series will be on what to do when your advisor is deliberately sabotaging you.

 

Manage Up

Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth: The overwhelming majority of PhD advisors are very bad at their job.

This does not mean that they are bad people.

Many, many of them are good people, good teachers, good scholars.

And bad advisors.

There are many reasons for this and the most mundane are the most powerful. Without discounting the fact that there are some very bad actors taking advantage of an archaic system, a lot of bad advising happens because good people are stuck in a bad system.

As we’ve mentioned before, the academic system is set up so that advising PhD students, while a necessary part of pursuing tenure and promotion, is competing with all of the other (mostly unpaid) things that faculty have to do for tenure and promotion. Advising is a small slice of your advisor’s time and advising you is just a fraction of the total time she can devote to advising. Let’s pretend that your advisor magically manages to have a perfect work-life balance and spends half of her waking hours working and half on her family. The image below is what her time would likely look like in this ideal scenario:

Advisor Time

You are one of the tiny slices of pie that she devotes to advising. In reality, though, your advisor doesn’t have perfect work-life balance because none of us do. In reality, research and writing probably take up more of her time than the 25% of the pie we’ve allotted to it here. In reality, shit happens: the kids get sick, teaching is more time consuming than she thought, an in-law passes away, the toilet stops working and she has to cancel everything and call a plumber, her tenure portfolio needs to be put together, and on and on it goes.

So, where is she gonna find that extra time she needs in her day when stuff comes up? Well, dear reader, it’s probably gonna come from her advising time. You are, after all, a smart and capable adult or else you wouldn’t be here so you’ll either figure it out or let her know if you need something.

In this, the best case scenario, it’s not that your advisor means to give you the short end of the stick it’s just that she, like you, is a person in a rigged system.

In this situation, the best advice I can give (and which I discovered way too fucking late) is to borrow from the corporate world and employ tactics for managing up. Managing up is, essentially, how to get the person in authority over you to do what you need them to do and there is a lot of helpful advice in the corporate world about how to do this.

What it all boils down to, though, is that you have to know what you need and ask for it.

Do you need regular meetings to stay on track? Ask your advisor if you can schedule a quick check-in with her once a month.

Does your advisor keep giving you contradictory advice? After you receive advice from her, either in person or comments on a draft, email her right away with the following template:

[Salutation]

Thank you so much for your feedback on my work [at our meeting/in the comments you sent me on X date]. I see you’ve raised issues A, B, and C with the manuscript in it’s current form. 

I hope to have revisions addressing these issues back to you at [realistic date–which is when you think you can have it back + 10 days]. 

This does two things. First, if you’ve misinterpreted the feedback in some way it provides an opportunity for clarification. Second, when you get contradictory advice on the next draft you go right back to this baby in your email and forward it to your advisor with this note:

[Salutation]

Thank you for your feedback. I see that you would like me to do X in revisions. In our conversation on [date] (included below) we discussed me addressing A. I included X in an attempt to rectify the issue you identified with A but seem to have missed the mark. Can you provide some clarification for how to move forward? 

[Probably put in some sentences here specific to your issue, like, “Do you think providing a more detailed lit-review would be helpful here?”].

This will help you and your advisor have clear conversations in the event that it’s just miscommunication getting in the way. It will also hold them accountable if they truly are giving you contradictory advice because it forces them to explain themselves without upsetting the delicate ecosystem that is the academic ego. Finally, it creates a paper trail should the need arise.

New faculty and veteran advisors, we would be particularly grateful if you have time to lend any advice in the comments about how your PhD students can be proactive in creating a productive relationship with you.

 

 

Better Than Fine.

I started applying for tenure-track academic jobs the year I thought I would finish my dissertation. So, you know, a little over a year before I actually finished my dissertation. I looked and applied for jobs from July 2016 through January 2018. Part of what attracted me to academia originally was the idea of a stable, middle-class life. As a first-generation, working-class student the idea that I could provide for my family while also pursuing the life of the mind was amazing.

My longings for financial stability were inseparably intertwined with my desire to be in academia. Because of this, I made myself a promise when I started my PhD program: I would spend two years on the academic job market. If there weren’t promising results then I would move on and do something else.

I wasn’t one of those people who applied for every conceivable job. I didn’t apply in places I didn’t want to live. I only applied to jobs I thought I would like at places I thought I could like. This may seem revolutionary in a culture where a lot of academic job advice is to apply for everything but choosing quality of life should be the norm, not the exception. That aside, I applied, over the course of eighteen months, for about 30 jobs. I got one conference interview. I did not get a campus visit.

I had a ritual for putting together my materials for an application. I would open all the tabs for the various websites I needed (e.g. faculty page, department page, course offerings page, etcetera), open my Word documents, and start an episode of Project Runway on Hulu.

I would listen to the episode in the background while editing my documents. When the runway show started I would take a break from working on my documents and watch. Maybe I would stretch a bit. Then, after the elimination, I would Google the person who was eliminated.

And you know what?

In every single case, from every single episode, in over a dozen seasons of Project Runway available on Hulu at the time Every. Eliminated. Designer. Was. Doing. Fine.

In some cases, my favorites, who were eliminated wound up doing better than the folks who won their seasons. (For example, Michael Costello.) In all cases, though, the folks who got eliminated were doing just fine.

I once heard someone say that Tim Gunn was the perfect PhD advisor.

It’s true. Gunn is always supportive but also honest. He always believes in the potential of the designers. He wants to support you as you, “make it work.”

The metaphor can be extended though.

If Gunn is the perfect advisor then the Judges are the academic job market.

They don’t care about the backstory that goes into your piece. Their criteria doesn’t always make sense and are overwhelmingly subjective. It’s the Judges job to winnow through way too many talented, qualified folks and pick the person they think is the best.

That person may or may not be the best.

But everyone comes out okay.

I’m telling you this today because today was my first day as an academic advisor.

Washington state has a program that allows qualifying high school students to attend college classes in their Junior and Senior years. I was in this program when I was in high school. It shaped a lot of my life. Now I’m the academic advisor for students going through this program.

I’m using the skills I honed during my PhD. I’m working with students, particularly first-generation students who tend to take advantage of this program. I’m getting paid a salary equivalent to many first-year assistant professors. I have benefits. I have kind co-workers.

I’m also working on an exciting book project on a freelance basis and I may start writing for some other outlets soon.

I’m happy and I’m excited.

I didn’t get the job I thought I wanted, but I’m doing just fine.

In fact, I’m better than fine.

So, why am I telling you this?

Because, dear reader, I know how difficult it can be to write or dissertate when you’re worried about what will happen after you graduate.

I can’t promise you that you will get an academic job. I can’t promise that tomorrow’s midterm elections will improve US politics, or make the US less volatile on the world stage. I can’t make any guarantees.

What I can tell you, however, is that sometimes your old way of life is ending so that your new life can begin. I believe in us and I believe that we can make a life and make a world that’s better than fine.

 

The Humanities Are Harder

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 ❤

 

 

Editing A Draft: A Seven Part System

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.

Start With Editing

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.

Writing vs. Editing

When I was in coursework I often had 3 seminar papers due around the same time at the end of the semester. Combined with teaching responsibilities and the rigors of trying to be a person (e.g. cooking, cleaning, showering) I often wrote these papers at the last minute.

What I mean by that, is that I would often have some books, some notes, some ideas and no words on paper. I would sit down at 7:00 a.m. the day the paper was due and write as many pages as possible before the paper was due at 5:00 or 6:00 or 11:00 or whenever.

This process got me through my MA and all of my PhD coursework.

Although there are undoubtedly people who are more prepared for their lives many of the graduate students I knew, operating under the same constraints, used a very similar process.

Similarly, your prelims exams are timed and whether you have a day or a week you are cranking out a large amount of writing in a condensed amount of time.

In each of these situations, you are going from having next-to-nothing (or nothing) and turning in a finished product. The consequence is that you combine the writing and editing processes somewhat. As you write you’re thinking to yourself, “Does this tie-in with what I want to say in my conclusion? Does this make sense here?”

While that’s not ideal, it’s certainly workable in a project that is (a) under 50 pages long and (b) not the foundation of your future scholarly career.

Dissertations, however, are significantly longer and more important to your overall career making a habit that was functional for previous parts of the process a detriment to your dissertation writing.

One of the most important things to do when writing a dissertation is to un-learn writing habits that got you through previous work but will work against you in a dissertation.

I speak from personal experience. when I started writing the first draft of my dissertation I would make a claim–not even a particularly bold claim or a claim central to my argument–just an ordinary claim. I would then, trained from years of writing and editing simultaneously, ask myself how that claim fit in with the dissertation as a whole. In the rare cases where that question alone was not paralyzingly overwhelming, I would then ask myself how I would defend that claim if I were asked about it in a job talk. This would then lead to an afternoon spent researching the literature and experts related to that one simple claim and no writing would get done.

I have an anxiety disorder so my brain tends to perceive everything as a slippery-slope anyway and for the longest time I perceived this as a problem that was mine alone.

Until, one day, my friend Marc confided that he had a similar problem when he started writing his first draft. I asked Marc how he dealt with this problem and he said one of the most brilliant things I think I’ve ever heard:

I think of my dissertation as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster. I’m trying to bring this thing to life but first I have to make all the requisite pieces. I used to get derailed from writing thinking I needed a heart, an arm, a specific thing at a specific place. If I wasn’t making what I thought I needed in the moment I would get paralyzed wondering where, exactly, the paragraph I was writing would fit–would it be a toe or a nose or what? Now, I’ve given myself permission just to write and to trust that everything I’m writing is like making a piece of the monster. I don’t need to know where it goes right away. I’m just building a critical mass of pieces and I trust when it comes time to assemble them I’ll be able to figure that out.

If the idea of your dissertation as a Frankensteinian monster, while seasonally appropriate, doesn’t make sense to you then feel free to substitute whatever building or growing analogy does. Some other examples include:

  • Each sentence you write is like a brick for the grand edifice that will be your dissertation but before you can start building you have to make all the bricks.
  • Each sentence is like planting a seedling in the ground and editing is your harvest. You have to plant your seeds and give them sun and water and space before you harvest.

The analogy you use isn’t the important part. The important part is that you begin to train yourself to think of writing and editing as separate processes and, in so doing, set yourself free simply to write without wondering if it “fits” the larger project.

A measure I developed to do this was my Wild Promises document. Any time I was writing I would have up a separate Word document titled Wild PromisesEvery time I made a claim like “I will revisit this issue in chapter three,” I would hop over to my Wild Promises document and make a note to myself saying “Be sure to revisit topic X in chapter three.”

This did several things. First, it removed the worry that I would forget to revisit topic X in chapter three because I hate nothing more than when an author makes a promise in a chapter to revisit something and then never does. Second, it gave me permission to delay thinking about how topic X threaded through multiple chapters and just focus on what I was writing about topic X in the moment. Finally, if I got stuck working on chapter three I could revisit Wild Promises and see what I had said I was going to write about to jump start my brain and alleviate writer’s block.

I’ve shared this method with several dissertating folks and they’ve reported that it has aided their process immensely and I hope it helps you as well.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about some of our favorite editing processes.

It’s Called A Trash Can

 

Last Wednesday, we asserted that “dissertations are a trash genre.”

We stand by this statement

However, we’ve also received some great feedback from people who have written dissertations that we wish to add.

The most important thing to reiterate is that you absolutely have to write a dissertation. It is the only way to get your PhD.

And that means that you have to be a trash can and not a trash cannot.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you be your best dissertating self.

  1. Read other dissertations.

Okay, okay, this doesn’t really count as a new tip since it was what last week’s post was about but it’s important and it bears repeating.

2. Read other dissertations from your department/program.

Do this if at all possible. Many departments still follow the tradition of keeping recently defended dissertation manuscripts in hardcopy form. Ask your departmental admin if you can check out one or two.

If your department no longer does this because they are all digitally deposited then ask for the names of people who have recently deposited and look up their dissertations in ProQuest.

Looking at dissertations from your own program will give you a guideline for what you are expected to do. If at all possible, skim a couple of dissertations from your program to get a sense of the average page length and chapter layout.

One caveat here is that this will not work for all programs/departments. The larger your department is the more likely this strategy will work for you. However, if you in a smaller program, especially if you are in a smaller, interdisciplinary program, there may not be a lot of recent dissertations or dissertations similar to yours. Which brings us to our next point . . .

3. Find a dissertation you like.

This may seem contrary to our previous post about dissertations being trash but it’s not. Finding a favorite dissertation is a bit like having a favorite reality TV show. We all know the genre is terrible, but we also all have our favorites. (Mine are “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress” and “America’s Next Top Model.”) Find a dissertation, or two, you like better than others and use it as a general guideline for writing your own dissertation. This is especially helpful at the first-draft stage when you’re striving to figure out how writing a dissertation is different than writing several seminar papers.

Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about the difference between writing and editing and why it might be more important than you think.

 

The Struggle Is Real

On Tuesday I promised that I would share a post with you on Thursday about how to think about writing a dissertation because it is fundamentally different from almost any other writing project you can undertake.

However, if you check our archives that you’ll see there was no post on Thursday.

Started on Monday, now we here.

Yesterday, I had a bad mental health day. It was bad from the time I woke up to right before i went to bed and although there were some good moments in the day the overall day had a lot of unexpected curve balls.

As I was going to bed last night, finally feeling a bit more human, I contemplated just finishing and posting the draft I’d started for Thursday’s topic and hoping y’all wouldn’t notice that I was late.

Lord knows, as a grad student, I certainly used this tactic a time or two with my committee.

When I woke up this morning, though, I thought about all the times that my health had impacted my writing schedule when I was dissertating.

Sometimes it was physical health. Stop me if this one sounds familiar: It’s fall semester/quarter. Your students/classmates have the sniffles. You have grading to do and papers to write and a term to end. You are running on adrenaline and caffeine. You get to the end of the term. Hooray! Now, at long last, you can “catch up” on all that writing you put off while trying to finish things up over the last few weeks. But Lo! The minute you stop running off adrenaline you get sick. Your brain’s too foggy to read. You’re barely awake. You feel miserable and doing anything more active than laying on the couch with Netflix in the background is too damn much.

In interviewing grad students about barriers to their productivity I had dozens of grad students tell me that this exact pattern often ate up at least a week of their planned writing time while debilitating guilt and panic over the idea of catching up took out another week.

Mental health issues are just as debilitating but often more difficult to prevent or treat. For instance, I don’t know why I woke up already in a bad headspace yesterday. I do know that this time of year always exacerbates my anxiety and depression. It could also be residual exhaustion from the Kavanugh hearings and/or the ongoing stress of moving. I don’t know why it happened. I do know that I did all the right things: I used my UV spectrum light to help mitigate the effects of the weather. I took my escitalopram. I did restorative yoga and I called in sick to work. I took care of myself in the best way I knew how and, you know what? It was still just a bad mental health day and the writing did not get done.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, first, because if you are in a PhD program and deal with a chronic illness of any type I want you to know that you are not alone and that your dream is not impossible. During my PhD program, I was diagnosed with anxiety and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I had likely had them for some time before my PhD but they became increasingly debilitating and, therefore, increasingly noticeable throughout my PhD.

My own illnesses were, in fact, part of what inspired this business. I didn’t want people to go through their PhD program thinking they were failing at all the things when they were sick.*

Second, the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so incredibly true when it comes to health and writing.

Most academics I know tend to think of their bodies as giant meat suits they use to carry books from the library to their office.

But that’s so far from the truth. The origins and perpetuation of that myth are a whole other set of topics. What’s important to know here is that feminist, queer, and disability studies have all clearly proven that our bodies are critical in working with our brain to shape what we perceive and what we think, how we process and how we make meaning.

The thing is, I can’t tell you how to take care of your health and I know there can be some structural barriers to doing that in grad school (like difficulty making an appointment with CAPS which is underfunded absolutely everywhere).

I can tell you that taking the time, daily, to do what works for optimizing your mental and physical health is a long-term investment in your writing.

For me, this often means ensuring that I get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep and doing somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes of yoga.

I can also tell you that even when you are doing your best there will be days when you just can’t write. There will be days when the thing you most need for your health is to stay far away from writing and that’s okay. Those days are, also, an investment in your long-term writing success.**

In summary, if you want to write well then do everything you can to be well–including practicing compassion towards yourself.

*PhDepression is something I foud via Twitter. They are doing some great work talking about mental health in grad school. If you know someone struggling to balance mental health and grad school I would recommend checking them out.

**Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy is a sign of depression. If you find yourself needing to take a lot of days off from writing it might be time to have a loving conversation with yourself about whether your health is in jeopardy or if grad school is still the right path for you. All the answers are ok and you are brilliant no matter what you do.

 

 

 

 

Do It For Love; or Dissertation Advice Conveyed Primarily Through GIFs of Elle Woods

Congratulations!

You were admitted to a PhD program, you completed your course work, you survived your prelim exams, you defended your prospectus and now you are, at long last A. B. D.

That moment can feel like this:

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Embrace it. Celebrate it. Take at least a week.

Then, right before you feel really ready for it, begin dissertating.

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It is impossible to describe to you just how difficult writing a dissertation is. Within this difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first draft of the dissertation. Within that difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first chapter.

This is true no matter who you are. It’s true if you’ve written a lot. It’s true if you’ve been published before you start writing your disertation. It’s true if you like to write. It’s true if you’re good at writing. It’s true for everyone.

Previously, we’ve discussed how your prelims are the last big exercise you go through as a consumer of knowledge. Your dissertation is your first big exercise as a producer of knowledge. Nothing in your academic life can quite prepare you for it. You have, after all, spent well over a decade as a student and now you are being asked to create new knowledge. It’s a little bit of magic and a whole lot of difficult.

You may enter with an Elle Woodsian sense of confidence but throughout the process you will feel like this:

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And like this:

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Feedback from your committee will have you like:

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And that is all not just in the realm of normal but damn close to a best case scenario.

You will want to quit.

Statistically, many people do quit.

There are many good reasons to quit and no part of this business exists to shame people who leave graduate school. What we are here to do, however, is to help people who want to get through their programs minimize unnecessary difficulty.

To that end, there is one thing you can do before you ever start dissertating that will help you cut through all the bullshit that dissertating will throw at you:

Love.

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I know, I know! It seems cliche and unhelpful to simply say that love will get you through dissertating, but it’s true.

There were many, many moments throughout the dissertating process when I wanted to walk away. What kept me from walking away, every time, was the love of my project. Simply put, I wanted to be the person who did my project. I didn’t want to bequeath my research to someone else and go do something else.

On particularly bad days the thing that I always turned back to was my project. When I was writing the rest of the BS just seemed to fade away.

Being able to pick a project you love, or a project that has elements you love, is one of the great privileges of the humanities. I’ve spent a lot of time with STEM and social science grad students and their projects are often dictated by what lab or research group they get in which is, itself, dictated by what lab and research group get funding which, of course, is influenced by a whole nexus of factors.

While I loved the topic of my dissertation I’ve known people who have a genuine love for the practical applications of their research or the methods they’re using or where their archive was located or the population they were working with.

You don’t have to love every element of your project but I can promise you that your dissertation journey will be a helluva lot easier if you love something about it.

Loving something about your project will make you happy, even in some of the darkest moments of dissertating and

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Well, that, and they’re much more likely to finish writing their dissertations.

Now, it’s possible you reading this and thinking, “Fucking great. It’s great to know this now but I already defended my prospectus and there was nothing in there that I loved so how the heck am I supposed to love something about my dissertation?!”

It’s a fair question.

Remember, your dissertation is supposed to change between when you defend your prospectus and when you defend, well, your dissertation. Even if your committee has already approved a prospectus on a project that feels doable but doesn’t have elements you love I promise that there are still ways to add a little of that most magic of ingredients to your project.

Again, it doesn’t have to be the subject material. It can be a whole host of things. It can even be the sheer challenge of it.

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On Thursday we’ll be discussing how to think about writing–a crucial step into turning that ominous blank page into a first draft.

Until then, think about what you love about your project and remeber

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