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 Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents.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!

Flow: A Very Doable Magic Trick

I debated long and hard about whether or not to include the concept of “flow” in our summer series on rest because flow isn’t really a way of resting so much as it is a way of working.

The flow state is more commonly known as “being in the zone” and you’ve probably experienced it at some point. I know some people who report getting into a flow state when playing video games or running (not at the same time). Part of the reason I chose a math minor during undergrad was because I often fell into a flow state when doing math problems.

As a PhD student, falling into a flow state when writing is akin to finding the Holy Grail.

But the flow state, the zone, as elusive as it might seem from the outside, is actually something that can be cultivated.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is the positive psychologist who has researched and popularized the idea of flow. According to Csíkszentmihályi the key to flow is that the task is “just about manageable.” In other words, the task is a Goldilocks: not easy enough that you get bored but not hard enough that you feel defeated–instead it’s juuust right. The task is a challenge but one you feel up to.

The key to flow, as with so many things in graduate school, is understanding task management. [1] We seem to achieve flow when we pick a task that is difficult but not overwhelmingly so. There also seems to be some evidence that we achieve flow when we work on a task where we can observe measurable progress (remember the video games and running from before?). Unfortunately, not a lot of tasks in graduate school, are ones where we can sit down and see measurable progress at the end of an hour or working. A dissertation certainly isn’t that type of task.

The first step of inducing flow in dissertation writing is to break the actual writing itself down into manageable chunks.

You know your writing speed best so start by picking a goal that is at the outside limit of what’s manageable for you in a day–remember, it needs to be challenging but doable. For instance, I can easily write about two-three pages a day. A stretch goal for me would be to write three pretty good pages. My partner, on the other hand, writes slowly. He can, generally, write about two paragraphs a day. A stretch goal for him would be to write one and a half good paragraphs a day. [2]

The second step of inducing flow is to give yourself permission to write badly.

No, really. When I talk to graduate students they often report that putting words on paper isn’t the difficult part. What’s hard is dealing with the fear that what you write won’t be good enough or second-guessing how what you’re writing right now will fit in with what you write when you finally get to chapter four. That leads to this:

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Instead, take a deep breath and remember

Quote-Ernest-Hemingway-first-draft-anything-shit

Give yourself permission to just write in the moment without worrying about how this sentence connects to what you said in your prospectus or how you’d defend this claim in a job talk. (No, seriously, I used to spiral out on that last one ALL the time and all progress would stop.)

The third, and final, step to inducing flow is to give yourself restful conditions.

Restful conditions here doesn’t mean a comfy bed, but instead means conditions under which you can focus without being interrupted. [3] If you’re a person who needs complete silence then scheduling time to go into your office on the weekend might be your way to flow. If you need some ambient noise picking a coffee shop where you aren’t likely to run into friends could put you on the road to flow. Once you’ve found your spot you can mute your phone, turn off your notifications, and enter into that smooth and beautiful flow.

If it doesn’t work the first couple of times don’t worry. It’s going to take some trial and error. You might find out that a student theater troop practices (loudly) in a classroom next to your office every Saturday and need to restrategize your location. [4] You might find that what you thought was a reasonable goal is too easy or too hard and need to recalibrate. The hardest part is letting go of expectations for your writing. This takes consistent practice but you can absolutely do it.

Although flow can be magical, our real lives aren’t often conducive to flow. For instance, how often are you able to schedule uninterrupted writing/reading time?

Yeah, same.

That’s why our final post in our summer session on rest will be on mindfullness which you can apply even when all of your officemates are meeting with students in your tiny office and your email is blowing up.

We are currently taking suggestions for our subject for September. Let us know if you would prefer a month focused on teaching tips or writing advice.

  1. Why is this? I don’t actually know but I think it’s because many advisors don’t actually know much about task management themselves and use one, or both, of the following methods:

alltheworkwhile-crying-240091150_2271838629704588_95508656639967232_n2. Neither of these writing styles is better and writing faster doesn’t actually mean you finish faster. I tend to do a lot of research, sleep on it, then write a lot. My partner tends to write as he goes. I also wind up deleting most of what I write the first time around and he doesn’t. We take about the same amount of time to finish projects.)

3. The comfiest bed:

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4. Yes, that really happened to a friend of mine.

Wonder: Your Superpower

Near the end of my Master’s program, I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop with Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Dr. Tinsley was generous enough to end the workshop with a Q&A. As all private Q&As between young profs and grad students are wont to do the questions eventually turned to

“HOW ON EARTH DO YOU GET THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL WITH YOUR SANITY INTACT?!”

Dr. Tinsley said something that got me through graduate school:

Don’t lose your love of stories. 

Maybe your PhD isn’t in literature. Maybe stories, in the sense of novels or films, aren’t what got you into graduate school.

But something brought you here. Specifically, it was a love of something that brought you here. (Side note: I often listen to this song on repeat while writing or doing syllabus prep.) It was a bit of wonder at the beauty of a good story or the elegance of high theory or the historical intricacies of AAVE or the nuances of social commentary in space operas or whatever the thing was that made you say to yourself, “I could definitely spend 7 years and a book on THIS thing.”

And yet.

The process of graduate school can wear away that sense of wonder. It starts to slip away in your first “Intro to the Discipline” course where you read the canon and start to wonder if you can shoehorn that thing you’re so passionate about into academic jargon. It erodes a bit more in a semester where there are no classes offered related to your thing and so you have to take a bunch of other classes and write a bunch of papers about stuff that isn’t your thing. Then come prelims where you read a wide-range of books and your sense of wonder renews itself but in a negative way that leaves you wonder-ing why so many half-baked theories got published in the first place. Then comes the actual dissertation which is just so much more work than you can imagine before you actually do it and you wonder if it was a mistake to start a project that seems like it will never be finished. In short, it’s very easy to lose your love of the thing, your wonder, somewhere along the way.

There are a lot of surveys of why 50% of humanities PhDs leave their programs before completion. None of them ask about wonder. Yet, from my own observations, a lot of people who walk away do so because that sense of wonder either turns to something outside of academia or withers away. In the most difficult moments of graduate school that sense of awe or wonder, that deep devotion to your topic, is your lodestone leading you through the Forrest of No Fucks Left to Give.

Wonder is, in short, a superpower we all have access to. It can be the thing that leads you down the right path research/career-wise, and it is an easily accessible answer to many teaching questions.

I know a lot of folks reading this will be preparing a syllabus (or several) for the upcoming fall semester. If you’re putting together a new syllabus use wonder as your guide to fill in the gaps. When asking what texts to put on the syllabus ask which ones you’re dying to talk about–which ones fill you with awe/wonder? Put those in.

When trying to decide how to set up assignments you can use wonder to ways. First, what assignments really sparked your own wonder and creativity as a student? Incorporate those. Second, what types of assignments have you always wanted to incorporate or try? Incorporate those.

I can tell you from almost a decade of my own teaching reviews the feedback I consistently get from students in every class I teach is that I really love teaching that subject. Some students think I’m a great teacher. Some students think I’m a terrible teacher. Some love me. Some hate me. But they unanimously agree that I really, really love teaching that subject even if they think I’m the worst person to ever stand in front of a class.

Similarly, every award I won during grad school was some version of an audience-choice award. I used to think that meant my research wasn’t good enough to win a more prestigious award. However, I’ve come to think those audience-choice awards really mean that I did an excellent job getting people to care about my topic and I think I did that because I cared so deeply about it even at the points when I hated graduate school the most.

Now, there’s a solid chance you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “I’ve totally lost my sense of wonder so please stop blathering on about a superpower I don’t have.”

No.

No, I won’t stop blathering on. Wonder is a renewable resource, my friend, and I believe in your ability to reclaim your superpower.

The reason I’m going on about wonder in our summer series on rest is because rest is the only way I know to renew your sense of wonder. There are so many moments that take it away. You could argue the whole academic system is designed to take away your wonder, but you have to find the moments to renew it.

I often find that little moments of wonder occur during moments of mindlessness. When I’m waiting for the bus or walking across campus and not really thinking about anything  I’ll feel a deep sense of wonder and awe that I get to be in this space. Maintaining my sense of wonder, my love of stories, is also why I read fiction every day throughout grad school. Even though my PhD isn’t in literature it was important to me to stay in touch with my love of language throughout this process.

Finally, I know a lot, A LOT, of people who tell me that wonder is definitely important for their teaching and research and they will get on renewing their sense of wonder just as soon as they are done with graduate school.

Bruh.

D1Z-thats-not-how-it-works-thats-not-how-any-of-this-works

You need to take time to attempt to renew your sense of wonder, your love of the thing, often. Ideally daily, even if it’s just for twenty-five minutes, because if you don’t figure out how to make rest and wonder part of your routine now then you never will.

I’m speaking particularly to humanities PhDs who want to get TT jobs here.

Graduating is a huge accomplishment. Getting a TT job is an even bigger accomplishment. For both of those accomplishments you are rewarded with more responsibility, not less. You have more things to do, more claims on your time, and the pressure doesn’t ease up. Sure, you have more money and better insurance, and those things definitely help some, but most folks I know who have TT jobs are just as busy as they were as grad students and most are more so. The extra money and better insurance means you (barely) break even with your newly increased work load.

This isn’t meant to discourage anyone from getting a TT job. Rather, I want to encourage you to do so in way that is sustainable for your mental, emotional, and physical health. On a related note, there’s some science indicating wonder seems to be a vital component for each of those things.

WTF: Rest

Our theme for this month is rest.

Seems simple, right?

Who needs to be told to rest? Let alone, how to rest?! Seems ridiculous.

Maybe, to a lot of people, that idea is ridiculous, but for most graduate students I know struggle with knowing when or how to take a break from work is a big problem. In fact, among the graduate students I’ve surveyed being able to take a break was the number one problem reported.

It’s not that the graduate students I talked to never took breaks. Of course, they did. However, their breaks tended to fall into one of two categories.

The first category was the sheer-exhaustion break. One common example of the sheer exhaustion break is when grad students get sick over spring break or holidays. They have been pushing their bodies so hard, without taking care of their health, that the minute they stop running on sheer adrenaline their immune system crashes. This often induces a lot of guilt and anxiety because what was going to be a productive break of writing turns into a lot of sleeping and bleary-eyed Netflix watching while trying to feel better.

The second category is the guilty break. This person manages to take a break before they reach the immune-compromising state of sheer exhaustion BUT they feel guilty about it the whole time. This is the person who keeps a book on their lap while “watching” a show on Netflix with their partner. They may even manage to read a few sentences but they don’t do either activity well–they don’t fully relax with their partner and they don’t get their reading done in any real way.

I have been both of these people. Sometimes at the same time.

The thing is, rest is necessary for good scholarship in a myriad of ways. Yes, I mean rest as in getting good sleep, but I also mean rest as in doing things that are not work. Taking breaks keeps you healthier, ultimately allowing you to work more consistently over longer periods of time, and keeps you creative. That’s two out of the three C’s that make PhDs!

Academics, in general, are bad at resting.

There’s a bit of popular advice that academics should structure their schedule like a 40 hour work week.

This advice works for some people but, by and large, most of the academics I know became academics because the idea a 40 hour work week gave them hives. Beyond that, academics are being asked to do more than ever. There is simply not time to fit all of one’s teaching responsibilities, research, and any committees you may sit on into a neat 40 hours.

I’m here to tell you that you can work more than 40 hours a week and still find time for rest. You can work 40 hours a week and still tend towards balance.

How? Well, that’s what we’re focusing on this month. We’ll be covering why rest is important for your physical body, and how it improves your scholarship. We have some great links and resources lined up to share with you and we’re going to be super honest about the very real obstacles that prevent grad students from resting like other ambitious, early-career professionals.

We’re going to start with the concept of balance. Most people, when they think of balance, get the concept wrong. Come back Wednesday to learn more about how real balance is totally within your grasp even as a busy, underpaid grad student.

Weekly Roundup

10 Surprising Time Management Tips To Help You Graduate–Exactly what it sounds like from finishyourthesis. We don’t just like it because tip two encourages writing in short bursts which we are here to help you do.

We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD–a super important post we plan to revisit later in the week from The Thesis Whisperer.

lol my thesis–a delightful collection of people who have summed up their thesis in one hilarious sentence to get you through that mid-semester writing slump.

Weekly Roundup

What Not To Do–Exactly what it sounds like from Times Higher Education.

Engagement and Exhaustion–This excellent piece from the Harvard Business Review talks about the nuances of engagement and why it is totally possible to burn out doing something you love. Spoiler alert: when you love what you do but have high demands and low resources (what we call “typical grad student conditions”) burn out happens.

PhD Problems–Excellent advice for when the question of “enough” haunts you from The Thesis Whisperer.

Writer’s Block–And a concrete strategy for how to give yourself the freedom to explore concepts from Explorations of Style.