WTF: Executive Function

Executive function is the set of cognitive functions that enables you to do things.

In broad terms, executive function covers three areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). Together, these three areas make up a lot of what we do. If you haven’t heard the term “executive function” before you might have heard of some of it’s most popular side effects like:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks
  • Staying focused on tasks until they’re done
  • Keeping track of what you’re doing

We know that ADHD, OCD, ASD, Anxiety, and Bipolar are all entangled with decreases in executive function.

Many of the most talented academics I know are plagued by executive dysfunction either on its own or as a symptom of one of the above. As a result, we spend a lot of time yelling at our brains to


In fact, problems with executive function are why I spent ten (10) minutes looking for the *perfect* gif for this piece when a search instantly revealed half a dozen gifs that would be just fine.

While problems with executive function might be part of neurodiversity on your part I’ve long thought that the current structure of PhD programs in the humanities breeds executive dysfunction. After all, part of executive function is being able to prioritize tasks but every humanities PhD student I know feels torn between prioritizing their teaching, research, writing, activism, and self-care. So many of us are doing too much with too little it’s not at all surprising that deciding what to focus on for the hour or the day or the week can seem so challenging.

That is why we are so excited to debut our two-part series for December!

The first part of the series will take place here on the website, with articles about how executive function might be impacting your progress towards your PhD.

The second half of our series will take place on Instagram (search abd2phd) where we are having a Productivity Advent. Every day we will post one small, easily doable goal designed to move you towards measurable progress on your dissertation by Christmas.

Join us!

WTF: Teaching

We are so excited to start our September series on teaching for all of you abd2phd-ers who are just starting, or soon to start, the academic year.

The majority of PhD students in the United States attend research universities of some sort. Research universities, as the name implies, are focused primarily on research. This creates something of a paradox. Teaching is done at research universities because it brings in a great deal of money but the higher up you go in the university hierarchy the less teaching is a priority.

This paradox can be particularly difficult to navigate for graduate students for several reasons.

First, no one will teach you how to teach. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In general, the larger the course you teach is the more likely that there will be some sort of training before they let you around the actual students. If you teach a section or two of a massive course like English composition or public speaking the need for grading standardization (and to minimize student complains) often leads programs to institute training for new teachers. If, however, you go to an institution where grad students aren’t allowed to teach until after their prelim exams then it’s more likely you’ll be asked to teach your program’s survey course, handed a couple of the past syllabi and expected to handle it.

Second, if you actually like teaching and talk about liking teaching colleagues and faculty may write you off as a less serious researcher. It doesn’t matter that this point of view is patently ridiculous. Let’s just put it this way, “You’re so good at teaching. Have you thought about applying to teach at private high schools?” is less of a compliment and more of an indictment.

Third, some institutions will throw you into teaching as the instructor of record from your first day on campus. Other institutions won’t let you lead a class until you’ve passed your prelims. There are justifications for both methods but the second one has the unfortunate result of newly minted ABD students being thrown into the new responsibility of teaching just as they are struggling to figure out how to write a fudging dissertation. It can be stressful.

In our series on teaching we are going to cover all three of these topics to the best of our ability. We will start this week with some teaching resources, including some lessons you can borrow.  Second, we will cover how to be good at teaching and how to like teaching without sacrificing credibility as a researcher. Finally, we will discuss strategies to balance dissertating, lesson planning, grading, and all the things.

If there’s a particular subject related to teaching you want to see covered this month leave a comment or send us a message!


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.

Sh*t I don’t know. Sh*t I do.

Hey Friends,

I’ve been absent for a while. I didn’t mean to take time off in the middle of this series but sh*t happens. In particular, I’ve been going through what The Thesis Whisperer calls “The Valley of Shit.”

I have been so close to calling it quits and walking away to do anything else.

On top of that, this series about being a PhD student from a working-class background has been . . . difficult.

It’s forced me to confront the fact that I don’t think I know much about how to be a working-class PhD student.

Am I from a working-class background? Yes.

Have I been in a PhD program for six years? Yes.

Have I written a dissertation? Yes.

Does that mean I know f*ck all worth sharing about being a PhD student from a working-class background? I don’t know.

Today, I had a conversation with my chair about what needs to be done before we can schedule my defense and I left that meeting, a meeting 6 years into my PhD and 8 years into graduate school, and 17 years after starting college classes, feeling like I don’t know sh*t about how to navigate academia.

Things that seem so basic to my committee, things not even worth mentioning, are revelations to me. I don’t want to get into specifics, but I had been working on the assumption that, to schedule a defense, I needed to do A, B, and C. Thus, I was diligently putting *all* my effort into doing A, B, and C.

When I asked my chair about scheduling a defense date she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing that until I had done X.


What the hell?!

It’s not that I can’t do X. I can. X is easy.

It’s just that I had no idea X was a prerequisite to getting A, B, and C done.

I wonder how long I would have diligently kept working on A, B, and C without knowing that my advisor was waiting for X.

It may sound like I have a bad thesis advisor, but I genuinely don’t think that’s the case. My advisor is patient, gives good feedback, responds to emails promptly, and gives me a lot of leeway to construct my project.

These are all excellent qualities and I’m grateful for them.

My impression after today’s meeting was that the idea that X needed to come before A, B, and C was so basic my advisor never thought to mention it. I was so focused on A, B, and C that X would never have occurred to me.

I find myself running into this dynamic all the time. I am almost done with this degree and still have these moments of finding-out-something-hugely-important-that-I-should-have-known-ages-ago All. The. Time. In fact, I have these moments more and more the closer I get to defending.

It’s exhausting and demoralizing.

I would love to tell you that I have learned the tricks and can tell you what to do, but I can’t.

Here is what I do know:

I know that these moments of “WTF?” and the difficulties you have in navigating archaic institutional structures are not reflections on your intelligence. They are not reflections on your scholarship or your dedication. They are not reflections on your ability. They are most certainly not reflections on your worth either as a person or a scholar.

I know that you belong here. I know that you can figure out this system if you want to.

Although I feel like I have so much to learn about navigating this system, and so little advice to give, in reflecting on the meeting described above I’ve come up with two best practices I wish I had adopted much, much sooner which, maybe, could have stopped the painful incident described above from ever happening.

WTF: Working-Class Academics

I’ve been putting off introducing this month’s theme: working-class and first-gen PhD students because it’s personal and because I don’t know where to start with something that is, simultaneously, so big and so close to home.

Let me start with why I’m addressing this topic at all. A month ago, I wanted to do a Weekly Roundup post with helpful links about what it’s like to come from a working-class background and be in a PhD program. I was absolutely certain that there would be enough posts to generate a Roundup (at least 3), but there weren’t.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were posts aplenty but they were mostly from the UK and while they were well-written and insightful it can be hard to translate advice between the UK and US academic systems. There were, of course, also some great links to working-class scholar organizations (which will be in this week’s Roundup), but I couldn’t find the type of advice I was looking for–the type of advice I wish I’d had when I started. So, to paraphrase the great Toni Morrison, if there’s a post you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. That’s how this month’s focus on working-class and first-gen PhD students came to be.

Before properly beginning this month’s series, here’s a quick rundown of my background: My mother was a clerk for her whole career and, because she never got a college degree, was an hourly worker–never eligible for the promotion to salaried, exempt status. My step-dad drove dove a cement truck and then a dump truck. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree. My mother did attend some community college before she had my oldest brother and both of my brothers gave college a try before leaving for different reasons. Neither of them got degrees.

I know some folks don’t count families who have had members attend college but not graduate as first-gen. I’m absolutely sure it’s a different experience. As hard and confusing as it was for me I had some people with some experience to rely on. I can only speak to my experience but if you know someone willing to guest post drop me a line on the contact page.

It’s also important to note that my family is white. Being white comes with a lot of privileges in general but one thing I’ve noticed in academia is that people are more willing to assume I’m middle-class than they are with my colleagues of color which, in turn, makes it easier for me to present as middle-class in professional situations which leads to a whole host of other benefits. It’s also important to note that being white played a part in allowing my family to move out of the trailer park and into a house-house when I was 15. And being white played a part in helping me to get an FHA loan to buy a house (with my mom’s help) when I entered a PhD program which has helped me immensely as well.

While I’m excited and nervous to spend the month of March sharing what I’ve learned about being a PhD student from a working-class background I am most aware of what I don’t know. Always, but especially this month, take what’s useful, leave the rest, and please use this as a space to share resources that have helped you navigate this experience.