Stop Working So Hard

You are working too hard on teaching and you need to stop.

I know you think you’re not doing enough, but I promise you that you are doing too much.

How do I know this?

Because all new professors do too much. (And, yes, if you have yet to defend your dissertation I’m counting you as “new.”)

I think there are a lot of reasons why PhD candidates work too much on teaching. In part, it’s because teaching is significantly clearer than dissertation work. You have a time that you show up at a place and you do a thing and then it’s done in stark contrast to dissertation work which you can start whenever you want and never feels done. It’s significantly easier to measure your progress in teaching. If you have twelve papers to grade and grade six of them then you are halfway done in contrast to dissertation work where you may write 600 words but how close is that to done, exactly? Perhaps the most seductive thing about teaching, though, is that it lets us feel like experts because when you teach you are automatically viewed as the expert in the room whereas, with writing a dissertation, we are constantly thinking about how to prove that we know a thing.

Teaching, as we’ve said before, expands to fill the space you give it and many, many ABD students give teaching too much of their time because, for the reasons mentioned above, teaching feels good when other parts of the PhD process do not.

As always, there is something about the type of person who wants to get a PhD in the first place that lends towards the teaching-too-much problem. If you are getting a PhD you probably love learning and you probably want other people to love learning which means you’re going to put a lot of your time and energy into making your classes a space where students can love learning.

These are all the reasons why I know you are teaching too, too much and you need to stop it.

Here are three ways to help you teach less without short-changing your students:

  1. Let go of the idea of coverage. It’s not possible to cover everything in a single class particularly if, like most graduate students, you are teaching an intro level survey class. You will want to cover everything, but you can’t. The professor who first gave me this advice used this example, “So what if you teach a class about the 20th century and don’t cover World War I?!” This was from an historian. Her point, however, was that when putting together your syllabus you have to let go of the idea that you will cover everything. Instead of trying to cover everything include a mix of what you think they absolutely need to know and what you find interesting.
  2. Limit your teaching time. Again, teaching will expand to fill the time you give it so one of the absolute best ways to do less teaching is to limit the amount of time you allow yourself to teach. I mean this literally. Set a timer when you work on teaching tasks. The timer shouldn’t be for longer than an hour. When the timer goes off you stop doing teaching things.
  3. Time your teaching. Set a time limit for how much teaching work you will do per week. The general assumption is that you’ll spend twenty (20) hours a week on teaching things and the same amount on research and writing things. In reality, most people work far more than this on both their research and teaching. However much you actually work commit to spending absolutely no more than half of those hours on teaching things. The important thing here is to make sure that you count ALL of your teaching hours. This doesn’t just mean you count the hours you spend grading. It means that you count the time you spend in the classroom, in office hours, prepping for class, and grading. Time all of those things, add up how much total time it is and when you reach half of your working hours for the week it’s time to cut off teaching.

If you practice these tips you will reduce the amount of time you spend teaching which will give you more time to dissertate. I know first hand, however, that it can be difficult to put these tips into practice because it can feel that limiting our time on teaching will, somehow, short change our students.

I can only promise you that it won’t. Putting these tips into practice for the first time may feel scary but I would urge you to try it for a month and see if the quality of your teaching decreases.

In my experience, when I limit the amount of time I spend on individual teaching tasks and the amount of total time I spend teaching weekly my teaching improves immensely. It improves because I have more energy and focus for teaching. It improves because limiting time helps me prioritize my teaching tasks. It improves because I feel less distracting guilt that I’m not working on my dissertation enough.

We hope that these tips will help you save time on teaching and create time for dissertating from now to the end of the present term. For our next couple of posts we’re going to focus on how to set up your syllabus so that you have less grading and less class prep from the beginning.

How to Fail

Earlier this week we shared that a crucial part of making progress on your dissertation isn’t just letting go of perfection but actively giving yourself the freedom to fail.

Today, we’re going to share our favorite ways to fail.

If you take lessons in acrobatics, stagecraft, or tumbling, one of the first things you will learn is how to fall. While we’ve all been challenged by gravity a time or two there are better ways to fall than others. There are ways to fall that you can recover from so the routine goes on and, if you can’t recover, there are ways to fall that minimize the possibility of injury.

In the same way, there are better and worse ways of failing.

Trying to prevent failure in the dissertation process is futile. The only thing you can do is learn to fail forward.

If you’re in a US institution then you are in a culture were we are discouraged, in numerous ways, from talking about our failures.

Beyond this broader cultural taboo, however, is a problem peculiar to academia: most of us chose to be in academia because we’ve always been good at learning.

We were the kids who got “A”s on most of our school work. We are better than average at testing of all kinds, at reading comprehension, and writing. We like making nuanced arguments. Many of us were encouraged to go to grad school because we are good at these things.

We choose graduate programs that play to our strengths. For instance, I find media and culture incredibly interesting so I picked a PhD program that would allow me to focus on cultural critique and media analysis. Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents. I love analyzing documents. I’m very good at it. I conducted exactly one interview during my MA program and learned that I hated it.

My story is not uncommon. Most of us, particularly in the humanities, are blessed to be able to choose our programs and projects according to what interests us and what we are good at.

This will serve you well in coursework and even through your prospectus writing.

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

You see, for many of us, pursuing a career in the academy has kept us safe within the bubble of our skill where we rarely have to fail. But writing, like most successful ventures, is a process of failing until you succeed.

I think one of the reasons a full 50% of PhD students drop out is because writing an original manuscript like a dissertation requires them to fail and it feels indescribably yucky.

You are not going to complete a dissertation without some version of what feels like failing and when you’re not used to it “failing” can feel like dying.

I put failing in quotes there because what grad students count as failure often wouldn’t count as failure in a different workplace.

I passed my prospectus defense with revisions and I counted that as failure.

Every time my advisor gave me back a draft with extensive notes I felt like I had failed.

If I hadn’t been so used to turning things in and getting “A”s on the first try I might have had a better adjusted sense that revision is a normal, inevitable, vital part of writing.

In my workplace now it’s normal for most projects to go through several stages of revision and it’s not failure; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just work.

Beyond that, most graduate students I know, particularly those in the humanities, hold themselves to an impossible, invisible standard known or cared about by no one but themselves. That standard is often simply, “be perfect.”

No one can be perfect but when you’ve always been close to perfect, an “A” student, being less than perfect can feel like failure. When the only way forward is through imperfection and failure and you’re terrified of failure then you may find yourself standing still. I’ve known people who have stood still, doing nothing on their dissertations, for years. I know people who have left their graduate programs rather than face the sort of failure inherent in the writing process. If you want to finish your dissertation then you have to give yourself the freedom to fail and you have to learn how to fail forward.

Write Badly. Write as badly as you can. Instead of worrying about how to write a good sentence or how to succinctly state the significance of the problem do those things as badly as you can. It’s always easier to edit than to generate original content. The most intimidating part of a blank page is the pressure we put on ourselves to write something brilliant. Set that aside. Write as badly as you can. You can always make it beautiful later.

Writing Is Not Cooking. My aunt taught me that, when I was cooking, I should always add less salt to a recipe than I thought was warranted because, while I could always add more at a later stage, I couldn’t take the salt out once it was in the dish. This is a good principle in cooking and a terrible principle in writing. You can always go back and erase what you’ve written if you decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit. Don’t stop to think or critique your work while you’re producing it. Don’t worry or wonder if what you’re writing is good. Just let it all flow out and trust your inner editor to clean it up later.

Create a”Pieces” Document. I suggest doing this for every part of the dissertation: each chapter, the introduction, even the acknowledgements. A pieces document is an intellectual security blanket. When you know that a sentence or a paragraph or a section doesn’t quite fit where you want it to but you don’t want to delete it because, damn it, you worked hard on those words, then you can copy and paste it into your “Pieces” document. Chances are you will not actually go back and use these pieces in your dissertation. If you’ve made the decision to take them out then they probably need to be out. However, reading through my old “pieces” document has often worked as a great way to get over writer’s block.

Follow Bunny Trails. One of the most defeating experiences as a writer is when you spend all day (or week or month or year) chasing down a lead. Sometimes all you have is the name of a scholar who said something you know would tie together your whole argument in this one place. Sometimes you remember the gist of what was said but not who said it or where. Sometimes, you find what you’re looking for but once you find it it’s not obvious why you were so sure it would fit. Sometimes, you spend all day looking and you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either way, at the end of these days it’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself for wasting so much time chasing down a bunny trail. But those bunny trails are actually an essential part of the writing experience and help prepare you for your dissertation defense. In your search for whatever piece of scholarship you are looking for you are acquainting yourself with the literature of your field. If you find the thing you were looking for and it doesn’t fit then you’ll be prepared to articulate to your committee or a job search committee why you rejected it because you made a conscious decision to do so. Mostly, you have to trust that you’re not an idiot and if you have a hunch that you need to hunt something down then that work will pay off sometime, somewhere. It always does.

This is the last entry in our September series on letting go of perfection and embracing progress.

For October we’ll be focusing on how to spend less time teaching and create more time for your dissertation without short changing your students. This is one of our favorite topics and we can’t wait to dive into it with you!

The Dissertation Bottleneck

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.