Awkward Encounters

Awkward encounters in the halls of the ivory tower are certainly not unusual. Around my campus, grad students and faculty alike are adept at the fine art of not acknowledging the presence of the other: they avoid eye contact; they are oblivious to nods, smiles, or waves; they spend office hours with doors closed.

Ever the contrarian, I sometimes over-perform friendly sociability when I pass fellow grads or faculty in the hallway. (Although at other times, I too am guilty of looking busy with my phone rather than suffer through awkward small talk about the fact that I’m still around.)

But then one day I was the perpetrator of an awkward encounter with a prospective PhD student visiting campus.

I had been working in my office most of the day, a hodgepodge of labor which included writing (my dissertation), reading (for my dissertation), being anxious (about finishing my dissertation), and some day-to-day tasks related to teaching. I was on my way to the washroom at the end of the day, and passed C in the hallway, standing with a Prospective Student. (C is reading for exams. Her studying habits are fueled by anxiety and guilt; she reads on an ereader, and if the screen begins to blacken because she’s taking too long to read the page, she feels guilty and reads faster. Such is the condition of graduate life.)

C introduces me to Prospective Student, who immediately asks what I do. (Hm, what DO I do?) A horde of contradictory answers came to mind: I am desperately writing my dissertation, I am plotting my career outside of conventional T-T academe, I do my best to mentor and support fellow grads struggling to professionalize and to write because they don’t receive formal training from their courses or advisers, I volunteer locally to build my skill-set, I read and think a lot about the state of graduate education, the academic job market, and how to market academic skills in a non-academic setting.  

Instead of any of this, though, I rattle off my historical and conceptual fields, and ask where she’s from and what she’s doing. The encounter was awkward; Prospective Student had trouble maintaining eye contact. But the bigger problem was the conversation we *weren’t* having. Why is she going to grad school? What are her career/professional goals? Has she any idea about the academic job market? Doesn’t she know that she just shouldn’t go

But those are the questions that would mark me as the cynical, advanced graduate student. Still here, still writing, and railing against the system that turns reading into a guilt-fueled consumption and amazing, well-qualified people into warm bodies filling short-term, temporary positions.

I don’t want to be the jaded grad student. So until I can figure out how to have those real conversations with prospective and new PhD students, I’ll keep having these awkward encounters. 


Finding Ways to Write

The world of graduate writing tends to be a lonely place. Graduate research and writing is not often taught explicitly, tutoring support seems more often aimed at undergrads, and a functional dissertation group seems harder to find than a tenure-track job. Of the grad students I know that have left their programs, 3 out of 4 left during the dissertation-writing stage (for a host of reasons unique to each individual, but still). Of course, there are shelf-loads of books devoted to not only writing, but actually “surviving” the dissertation, but everyone hates to tell a grad student to read just one more book. So, here are some things I’ve been experimenting with in my quest to Finish. This. Damn. Dissertation.

Goal-based writing sessions with other people.

This is a new model of writing group for me. In the past, I’ve tried diss writing groups based on peer feedback. We had a group of 4 grad students and each week (or every other or so), someone shared a piece of writing, and everyone else responded. This was the classic model in our department, but it didn’t work that well for me. I clashed with some of the other personalities involved, and the pace was too fast–I needed longer periods of ME-time in my writing process before I wanted to know (or cared) what readers thought. Responding to other people’s work so frequently was also time- and energy-intensive.

My new model of writing group is completely different. Four of us (2 grad students, 1 lecturer/PhD, and 1 Assoc. Prof) meet twice a week to WRITE. We don’t read each other’s work, we don’t respond as readers, we’re not even in the same disciplines. We come together ready to write, and begin each session by stating our goals for that writing session. We sometimes ask questions or pushback during this part of the session, if someone’s goals aren’t clear, don’t sound productive, or their rationale isn’t clear or convincing. Then we sit and write. At the end of the session (1-2 hours, sometimes more), we check back in with the group about our progress.

Having this dedicated time and space to write has been great–I’ve never skipped a session, it functioned as a real obligation in my calendar (unlike solo writing sessions, which are all too easy to cancel/postpone/schedule something else during), and the group created a sense of both community and accountability.

Document progress.

In addition to discussing my writing goals with my group, I’ve also started to keep track of my progress in a writing journal. (Okay, it’s just a googledoc, but “writing journal” sounds way better.) At the end of each session, I record how many words I added to my draft and write a quick self-assessment about my work, ideas, research, process, progress, and/or goals for next time.

Schedule downtime.

Stop working at a certain time and/or don’t work on certain days. Have a hobby. Be a real human being, not a grad-student drone. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and while it’s certainly true that maybe I would have been one of those superstar students out of the door in 5 years (I think maybe one person has done this that I can think of), but I like living a fuller life, feeling human, and to be honest, my brain absolutely need breaks from my work. My work suffers or stagnates when I’m mentally exhausted anyway, so I might as well be smart about how I’m expending my energy.

Dissertation Writing: External Deadlines

Expanding on my earlier post about some of the tools I use for writing and revision, I want to talk about how I manipulate my life to give myself structure, accountability, and a schedule. In other words, I have to set up external factors to motivate my writing because at its worst, writing a dissertation is isolating, exasperating, and draining. There are no clear deadlines, no discernible markers of progress or success, and that makes it hard to keep moving forward.

One of the most successful things I’ve done is to find external deadlines. While my department does have clear expectations about when the prospectus should be filed after the exams (6 months), almost everyone exceeds that deadline without consequence. (Give any writer–or grad student, for that matter–an inch on a deadline, and we’ll take a mile.) So knowing that firm deadlines motivate me, I’ve done two things to make substantial progress on my dissertation: I presented work at a conference and I applied for a research fellowship.

When I applied to present at Conference X, I had been working on my prospectus unsuccessfully for a year (gulp). I had been involved in a dissertation group and my advisor had seen drafts, but I wasn’t getting the proposal (or my thinking) to where it needed to be. My advisor suggested that I set it aside and begin working on a chapter. While I resisted this advice at first (I *really* wanted to get through this hoop), I eventually realized that this fit into what I already knew about my process: I suck at introductions. I always skip over them and write them later, sometimes even last. And to a certain extent, the prospectus functions like a speculative introduction to the dissertation. At about this same time, I saw the CFP for Conference X, a national conference whose theme was almost exactly the topic of my dissertation. I knew I had to go, not only to present my own work to a theoretically ideal audience, but to meet scholars in my field, hear papers and lectures, and network. So I picked my best idea from the prospectus (one which felt the most concrete and manageable, a good starting place), and wrote the abstract.

The process of writing the abstract, and eventually the conference paper itself, pushed my thinking in exactly the right way. When I had been floundering through the prospectus before, it was because I had been lost in the Big Picture. Doing the conference paper, however, allowed me to start up close and in detail (my strengths as a writer and researcher), and build my Big Picture around that. The conference paper also gave me that priceless feeling of progress and accomplishment, since I now felt like I had a “draft” of a chapter–well, at least a 10-page seed for one.

But doing the conference wasn’t enough. I still needed to file my prospectus. Enter the research fellowship application. At the time of this application, my funding for next year was up in the air. I was in panic mode, doing a ton of online research for dissertation, research, and travel fellowships. I found one that I was really excited about, although it was a little unusual. (While my work is interdisciplinary, I’m in an English department and on the surface, the funding institute probably seems like a strange choice.) My application included writing a 5-page research statement, including the purpose of my research and my methodology. Basically, I had to write a prospectus. But there were some key differences:

  1. I had presented part of my work, which gave me a concrete foundation for thinking about the Big Picture;
  2. I had a real audience, which made a huge difference in how I presented myself and my work;
  3. I had a real (really desperate) purpose, which I didn’t have before.

As soon as I had submitted my application, I revised this research statement and submitted it to my advisor as my prospectus; it was (finally) approved. (I did not get the dissertation fellowship I had applied for, but did accept the travel fellowship they offered instead.)

As I write this research narrative, I realize that luck, timing, and desperation seem to play a big role in the progress I’ve (finally) been able to make. And while those might be significant factors, I think it’s also been about finding myself an authentic audience and giving myself a real purpose in writing.

But I also have to be careful; now that I’ve tasted the tantalizing authenticity of writing to real people that I don’t know, I have to also resist that temptation. While these external outlets forced my progress, they can also tempt me off course. I can’t spend all my time applying for fellowships, attending conferences, or even thinking about publication–I’ve got a dissertation to write.

Dissertation Writing: Tools and Work Habits

As many writing instructors like to say, “writing is a process.” For the graduate student writer, the process of dissertation writing is new and strange, dramatically unlike writing seminar or conference papers, and well beyond the dreaded 10-page research paper of our undergraduate years. It’s something we’ve never done before and for which we (usually) haven’t been formally trained. There are lots of resources of course, books and websites and blogposts, but often our best practice–our process–comes about through practice, discovery, and trying lots of new things.

My process has been a long one (and I’m not done yet). I’ve come to realize that I need to pause in my writing and research. I need time and space to think without writing. I need to take my time to reflect and discover. Unfortunately, though, I also need to write. So here are some of the tools and tips which have helped me to streamline my process.

  • I use Zotero to manage my sources. I love that I can archive websites and pdfs, add notes and tags, and sync across different computers. I tend to “collect” articles and book titles in open Firefox tabs or unread messages in my inbox. Zotero has made my life much easier; I can collect my sources and citations right in my browser. (Zotero can also generate bibliographies, although I haven’t tried that yet.) I exceeded the storage capacity they offer for free, but I am happy to pay the small annual fee to support this project. Zotero works really well for me, but there are other ways to manage sources and citations, such as EndNote or RefWorks. (My university offers students free RefWorks accounts–check your library!) There is usually a bit of a learning curve when you first start using source management software, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
  • I use Googledocs for notetaking. I started using Googledocs when preparing for my exams; I created glossaries of key terms and concepts for my historical and conceptual fields, and then generated tables of contents and linked to my reading notes. It was a very clunky way to keep track of reading lists, but it’s a great way to take notes. I use Zotero now for my sources, but I still use Googledocs for reading notes, mainly because it’s so easy to find forgotten quotes and references by using the search function.
  • After seeing several students lose work on broken laptops, I started using Dropbox to back up my work. (I had been emailing my work to myself, but that is still pretty risky as a back up system.) Because I work from several computers, I really like web-based applications, and Dropbox is fantastic. I installed it on my home laptop, but I log in via the web from school. After writing sessions at school, I upload my draft(s) to Dropbox via the web login; once I get home and turn on my laptop, Dropbox automatically syncs the new documents.
  • I just started using a 3-ring binder. I often used binders to organize course materials and recipes at home, and I thought it would help me organize my writing. I have a section divider for each chapter, into which I’ve inserted chapter outlines. So far, I like being able to glance down at the overall plan as I draft the chapter draft; it’s a good way to keep my writing goals in sight (literally) without having to stop the writing, scroll to my outline, or open (yet another) file on my computer. They’re not there yet, but I also plan on filing “active” material there as well; the drafts, notes, and printed articles that are usually spread all over my desk now have a home.
  • I also use markers and highlighters to help with revision, especially re-organization. I print the current draft, and color-code highlighters to specific ideas or concepts. Once I’ve marked like ideas (or differentiated between background information and my own claims and analysis), I have a good visual picture of my draft, and it’s much easier for me to improve the structure and organization. I either start making changes in Word or (and this way is usually more fun) use scissors on my paper draft, cutting out errant paragraphs and taping sections into their new homes.

What is a dissertation, anyway?

Definition of DISSERTATION

: an extended usually written treatment of a subject; specifically : one submitted for a doctorate (
The word “thesis” comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning “position”, and refers to an intellectual proposition. “Dissertation” comes from the Latin dissertātiō, meaning “discourse.” (wikipedia)
(I know, I know, quoting definitions is lame! But the word nerd in me just can’t resist dictionary definitions and etymologies.)

While the holidays are never exactly restful, I have taken the opportunity to get some distance from my dissertation (and the fellowship proposal I’ve been writing for weeks). I’ve also been making some headway on reading some books about long-form writing; unlike the books I often use in my undergraduate writing courses, these are books specifically about writing books, theses, and dissertations.

I’ve started with How to Write a Better Thesis. Written primarily for students in the physical and social sciences, and based on the standards at the University of Melbourne, the book is not an exact how-to guide for every graduate student (nor is it intended to be, as the authors point out). Rather, it’s an interesting mix of pointers for students not in my discipline, along with broader principles-based discussion that extends to academic writing more generally. For example, the authors discuss the tensions between rational and creative modes of thinking and writing, and outline strategies for making that tension actually productive, rather than paralyzing. (And actually, reading about the conventions governing dissertations in other disciplines has helped me to crystallize the expectations in my own.)

But what has really caught my attention is their opening discussion: what is a thesis? Evans and Gruba start with the guidelines identified by their institution (the University of Melbourne). Here are the attributes of a passing thesis:

  • The thesis demonstrates authority in the candidate’s field and shows evidence of command of knowledge in relevant fields.
  • It shows that the candidate has a thorough grasp of the appropriate methodological techniques and an awareness of their limitations.
  • It makes a distinct contribution to knowledge.
  • Its contribution to knowledge rests on originality of approach and/or interpretation of the findings and, in some cases, discovery of new facts.
  • It demonstrates an ability to communicate research findings effectively in the professional arena and in an international context.
  • It is a careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work demonstrating that a research ‘apprenticeship’ is complete and the holder is admitted to the community of scholars in the discipline.

As Evans and Gruba point out, most of these criteria are really about the PhD candidate, not the thesis itself.

This observation seems pretty obvious/basic, but it really opened my eyes about the role of the dissertation in graduate education and, more specifically, the point of a dissertation for someone who does not intend to join the “community of scholars in the discipline” in any traditional sense. As a PhD in English (in a program which only accepts T-T positions as a successful outcome), I’ve been trained to see that the dissertation is really a book draft. Given the ever-increasing expectations about publication history (in both the job market and for tenure review), it seemed clear that the dissertation had to function as a book draft. Having this context in mind while trying to write the dissertation is obviously a tad overwhelming, and absolutely contributes to the sense that as a graduate student, one never actually accomplishes anything: I finished coursework! (Quick, study for exams.) I passed my exams! (Good, you can finally start writing that dissertation.) I finished my dissertation! (Sure, now start revising it. You need to publish a book to get a job/tenure.)

Of course, this paradigm was shattered when I finally realized that I don’t want a traditional academic career: I plan on either leaving academe or pursing alternative paths within it. So with this new roadmap, what’s the point of a dissertation? As a faculty member recently asked a friend of mine with the same general plan for herself: why finish the program/write the dissertation at all?

I have a few answers to that. First of all, although my career path will not be traditional, I am invested in the academic community. And even if my dissertation won’t need to function as a book draft, it does need to establish my credentials as a member of that community. In that case, it’s less distressing to think that all of 5 people will ever read it.

Secondly, even if I completely transition out of academe, the dissertation still demonstrates my skill set: research skills, communication, ability to synthesize complex information, large-scale project management, etc.  But since I am interested in pursuing hybrid positions within the digital humanities, I also now have the luxury of writing a somewhat untraditional dissertation, one which deals directly with the digital humanities, media history, scholarly editing, and electronic editions, areas in which demonstrated expertise (in the form of a dissertation) will hopefully serve me well in the kinds of positions I will be seeking.

And finally, there’s also the personal challenge of whether I can do it (although I suspect this might be the least productive/unhealthy? reason). As a writing tutor, I’ve been working for several months with a PhD student in Physics. He’s entering his 10th year, and has not made much progress on his dissertation. The experiments are finished, he’s completed lots of background reading, and has even published some articles, but he struggles to write the thesis itself. As he explained to me in one of our first meetings, this is his only chance to produce such a long piece of writing, a synthesis, the whole of everything he knows. (He expects to go into research or industry, where no one expects him to publish his dissertation as a book.) Unlike the view of the dissertation as a book draft (which emphasizes process and denies a sense of completion), he sees the dissertation as the endpoint, the finale, his Last Chance.

As my career goals have changed, my dissertation has taken on these same qualities: it’s my last chance for long-form writing. Since I have funding until the summer, I feel comfortable with my decision to continue working on it. But, if I don’t get funded for next year, I am going to have to make some tough decisions about how, when, or whether to finish.

New Year’s Resolutions for Academics

[This is a guest post by Michael, a PhD candidate in Political Science. He can be reached at]

It’s that time again; time to make New Year resolutions. As academics we might as well make them personally relevant. So, without further ado, here are some suggested 2011 New Year’s resolutions specifically for academics.

  1. Resolve to take a break. Since my last post I’ve done nothing on my dissertation. It’s been quite liberating. In the real world, people take vacations. In academia, we don’t (even though the rest of the world thinks we only work 9 months out of the year). We work more than 40 hours a week. We work from home. We work on the weekends. When we aren’t working, we feel guilty. Just stop! I decided to take a vacation from my dissertation and it has been amazing. 1a. Resolve to make that break total. My break from my dissertation has been complete for nearly a month. Prior to my total break I would head up to my office and spend hours staring at my computer screen. I accomplished absolutely nothing with the exception of being able to respond to emails in record time and develop rather witty Facebook statuses. The total break has allowed me to remove from my head the guilt of not working on my dissertation. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. I spent most of last semester feeling guilty when I wasn’t working and when I was, I was unproductive. On December 30th, for the first time in nearly a month, I thought about my dissertation. My thoughts even surprised me. Instead of thinking about if I would finish my dissertation I thought about when. To put it simply, this total break from my work has helped me to counter burnout. You might want to consider doing something similar if you find yourself overburdened by your research and writing. Obviously, the break will have to be tailored to your responsibilities and schedule, but don’t shortchange the value of a good-sized break. And don’t take a “working vacation”. Remove your work from your life for the allotted time.
  2. Resolve to dance with who brung ya. In Texas, and I assume other places, “dance with who brung ya” is an idiom that simply means be loyal. In this case, I mean be loyal to yourself and your passions. Since I have taken a break from my dissertation I have rediscovered the things that led me to grad school in the first place. Unfortunately, many of the things I love were taken from me when I started the PhD process; something with which I’m sure many readers can empathize. In my chosen field practicality gives way to theory, and I don’t like that. I don’t really care about “filling gaps in the academic literature”. I care about solving problems and addressing important questions. Because the academy and the real world are so different and because grad school sucks every minute of your life away, often times you might lose focus of the things that brought you into your respective fields of study. When you pile on top of that the fact that much of what you might read in grad school has no relevance to your own interests (or dissertation), you can become pretty jaded and lose sight of what you love. Since the total break from my dissertation I have reclaimed many of those things I once loved. I’ve come up with more writing topics in the last month than I have in the last 4 ½ years! I even asked for a book for Christmas that has nothing to do with my dissertation or academia, and I plan to read it soon. Crazy, huh? I’ve even investigated the thought of doing some freelance writing about things I care about (culture, public policy, and religion). Whether or not someone would pay me to write my thoughts or whether anyone would want to read them isn’t really important at this point. What is important is that I care about things other than grad school. I care about things that I find intellectually stimulating even if the supposed open-mindedness of academia does not. That wouldn’t have happened if I spent 24/7 working on or thinking about my dissertation. Had I not rediscovered my interests beyond my dissertation, I would be miserable, intellectually uninterested, and frankly, pretty lost. In other words, get a hobby or return to an old one!
  3. Resolve to watch less TV. I think this would be good for all Americans, not just academics, but if we are following resolution number 2, then a good way to rediscover the things you love is to ditch the TV. Just try giving up an hour a day. Use that hour to read for pleasure, workout, get out of the house or office, clean, etc. Use it for anything other than staring at the idiot box or doing academic things. Yes, it is sometimes great to veg out in front of the TV after a long day of staring at computer screens, books, and papers, but give yourself some time to be productive for YOU! You spend your work day doing things for students, your department, and your advisor. Why waste your night doing things for CBS, NBC, and Fox? 
  4. Resolve to care less about your dissertation (or other research) and more about yourself. I really like this one. I’m not saying write your dissertation in crayon or skip the proofreading. I’m just suggesting you not let your dissertation take over your life. Graduate school can be very bad for your emotional, psychological and physical health. Believe me. I know. I’ve been to a cardiologist twice for likely stress-induced episodes and I know academics on anti-depressants. The social and economic costs can be pretty staggering as well. Exercise regularly. Get up and get out of the office for a few minutes and walk around campus or your neighborhood. Go find non-academics to hang out with. (They exist, and they are wonderful!) Go watch a ballgame. Focus as much on you as you do your dissertation. Feel free to tell people in your department no when they ask you to read something for them or attend a given event. Give yourself a time that you will either stop working on your dissertation for the day or a prolonged break before returning to work. Put simply, schedule YOU time. 
  5. Resolve to understand you are more than your CV, dissertation, lectures, or job talks. And you are definitely more than your discipline, advisor, committee, and students say you are. Academia has a way of breaking you down. You are consistently told your work isn’t good enough. Papers may be rejected several times before they are accepted for publication. You have to deal with lazy, entitled, apathetic undergrads, and you get paid pennies to do it. Those things are characteristics of your job, and yes, they suck. They are not, however, descriptions of your worth. Don’t let those characteristics define you. I have failed miserably at this over the past few years. Academia makes me cynical and I’m tired of it. In two and a half months I will be a father for the first time. I don’t want to be grumpy and hating life when my daughter arrives. I don’t want academia’s problems to be her problems. If asked to describe yourself without using your job title or academic qualifications what would you say? I am ___?____. 
  6. Resolve to watch Big Bang Theory (Only half joking). Yes, this contradicts number 3, so adjust your time accordingly. It’s only 30 minutes out of your Thursday nights. We all need a good laugh, and what better way to get it than to watch a bunch of socially awkward academics attempt to interact with each other and the beautiful, uneducated yet normal girl who lives across the hall? Do it! You won’t regret it! It might even remind you of some of your co-workers.

What New Year’s resolutions should academics make that are not listed? Are there any disagreements with those listed? Let me know what you think and have a productive and sane 2011!

Working on Writing

December. For those of us on the Job Market, a time of particular professional anxiety. My December, however, is in limbo. Deadlines for local teaching opportunities and dissertation fellowships are fast approaching, so December is about deciding. Should I stay put, re-apply for the writing center position I hold now, and keep working on the dissertation? Or should I cut the apron strings, try for some alternative academic (or non-academic) jobs, see what happens, and plan on finishing the dissertation in my spare time? (As was suggested to Michael.) Either way, my goal (for now) is to Finish. So, December is about the work of writing.

I recently came across the Thesis Whisperer‘s 5 Books to Help You with your PhD:

  1. The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Greg Colomb and Joseph Williams
  2. How to Write a Better Thesis by Paul Gruba and David Evans
  3. Helping Doctoral Students to Write by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson
  4. The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg
  5. 265 Trouble Shooting Strategies for Writing Non-Fiction Barbara Fine Clouse

(Definitely check out the original post — each book has a lovely little gloss/review.) From teaching argumentative writing, I’m familiar with The Craft of Research, but the rest are new to me. I had to order most through inter-library loan, and the first batch arrived today.

In a dorky way, I’m excited to read them. I know that part of me is still looking for the magic formula that will just make this dissertation happen, but I also know that new techniques and fresh strategies do exist, and do help writers unlock what they want to say. I’m not talking about writer’s block exactly, but rather the problem of habitual writing and routine language. I’m working on a chapter draft, and I keep doing the same cycle over and over again: draft, print, re-organize, re-draft, print, re-organize. At this point, this might be exactly what I need to be doing in this early stage of writing, but I also just feel that my brain is working in the same old ruts. I phrase and formulate things in a certain way, and I want to break the cycle. So, I’m taking a break from writing to learn more about it.

One book that I have read is called The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. As the title conveniently indicates, it’s very practical. What I liked best about it was its focus on creating a schedule. From what I can remember, the first step is to identify your A time, the time of day when you’re at your best. Even recognizing this consciously was a huge help for me. I realized that I’m at my best writing-wise was about midday, which explained why trying to write in the late afternoon was so very agonizing.

Parallel to the division of time into blocks of best ability (A, B, and C times), you also split up the writing project into manageable sections; the most difficult tasks, such as drafting 2 pages of a particular section, should be done during your A time — but other times of day aren’t a waste. You can do less essential writing tasks during your off-times, such as fact-checking or tracking down sources. Graduate students are often doing many things at once, so part of the writing schedule has to include days when you know you just don’t have hours to devote to writing. But having a clear schedule of writing tasks makes those non-writing days much more manageable (as in, I don’t feel guilty that I’m not writing!). And actually, for quite a while now, I’ve treated my academic life like a 9-to-5 job; I spend most weekdays on campus, working my various jobs and writing, but take evenings and weekends “off.” (Of course, some of my down time includes lots of reading online about academe, the digital humanities, and higher education, but still.)

I’m wary that my interest in reading about writing is (just another) a procrastination tactic, but I hope not. As a teacher and writing tutor, I’ve seen undergraduate writers change as writers, and I’m hoping I can do the same.

Guest Post: Too Far Along to Quit (Too Apathetic to Finish)

[This is a guest post by Michael, a PhD candidate in Political Science. He can be reached at]

Hi. My name is Michael, and I’m an academic.  Not only am I an academic, but I’m a jaded academic.  An academic who is thinking of quitting, but can’t.  Why can’t I quit?  Why is it so difficult to say I’m done?  It’s not that I’m addicted to academia.  Far from it.  I’m pretty repulsed by what my chosen discipline has turned into, yet for several reasons I just can’t throw in the towel.

First are the sunk costs.  I’ve been in grad school for almost seven years and in my Ph.D. program for almost five.  My dissertation has not been written, but the data has been gathered and organized, the literature read, and the arguments prepared.  All I need to do now is to write it!  But I can’t.  I just can’t muster up the effort to sit down and write.  Unfortunately, I also can’t muster up the courage to quit.  People keep reminding me of how close I am to finishing.  Compared to where I was when I started, they are correct.  I could probably pound this dissertation out in a few months.  I’m a quick writer, and since I have no ambitions of being an academic, quality is of little concern to me.  One would think I would be able to just sit down and work.  I can’t.  One would think I would be able to quit.  I can’t.  I’ve put in too much work, effort, and money to quit at this point.  I suffered through years of course work that is pretty irrelevant to my dissertation or the rest of my life.  I survived comprehensive exams and my prospectus defense.  I’ve spent 80 hour weeks reading, writing, and running statistical models.  I’ve lost sleep, weight, money, relationships, and years for this, but I can’t seem to finish or quit and move on with my life.  I’m truly in no man’s land.  I’m too far along to quit, but too apathetic to finish.

Second, quitting sucks.  I hate quitting.  I’ve never quit anything.  Part of me wants to finish this Ph.D. simply because I want to quit.  It would be a way to defeat my inner-defeatism.  In high school I wasn’t the braniac, but in college I found my way.  Most people in my hometown are probably shocked I am working on a Ph.D.  Finishing is kind of my way of saying, “See.  I am smart!” If I quit, my fear is that everyone will say, “See.  You are who we thought you were.” I have no doubts that I can finish, I just don’t know if I want to finish.  While quitting is something that occurs at every job, quitting in academia is a sign of weakness or intellectual emptiness.  No one thinks you quit academia because you don’t like it or the job prospects are sparse.  People think you quit because you can’t do it.  I don’t know if I can handle that because I can do it.

Third, I don’t know how to tell others about quitting.  My wife knows I hate school, but I don’t think she fully understands how much I want to quit.  She doesn’t know I spend more time during the day thinking about quitting than I do thinking about my dissertation.  She doesn’t know I am writing this post.  Heck, she doesn’t even know that I haven’t written a word of my dissertation.  Why?  Because no one knows how horrible this process is except those who have experienced it, and I HATE talking about it to those outside the Ivory Tower.  Explaining the dissertation process and my discipline to someone who has never been through it is like explaining how to put together a car engine to someone who has never owned a socket set.  My fellow grad students understand the process and my discipline.  They are like my war buddies.  They’ve been to Hell and back with me.  Everything I’ve suffered through, they have too, and they’re just as miserable.  My wife, my family, and my friends just don’t understand academia.  It’s not because they aren’t smart enough.  It’s because they haven’t been there.  How do I tell others—many of whom have sacrificed so that I can go to school full time—that I want to quit?  They think all I have to do is write a long paper and I’ll be done.  If only that were true.  If only the dissertation were nothing but a long paper where I ramble on about ideas.  They understand neither my discipline, nor academia as a whole.  They have no clue what I do on a day-to-day basis, which makes explaining to them why I want to quit that much more difficult.  Aside from that, when my daughter is old enough to inquire about my education, what do I tell her?  Can quitting something simply because you don’t like it ever be a good example to set?  Will she think less of me?

Should I stay or should I go?  If I stay, how do I find the motivation to finish?  If I quit, how do I explain this to others—most of whom will never understand?  This is the battle I fight every day as a jaded academic who is too far along to quit, but too apathetic to finish.

November Funk

Maybe it’s the weather: cool, drizzly, and with snow somewhere in the forecast. But there’s definitely something angsty in the air. I’m not even teaching this semester and I still had to take some “me” days last week, and it seems as though the web is abuzz with similar feelings of  grad student uncertainty, regret, disappointment, and indecision. (Although I guess when you frequent blogs about ambivalent academics and ex-grad students, you shouldn’t be too surprised at the particular feelings such experiences might  give rise to.)  Some of my own recent reading:

“PhD in English Useless Destroyed my Life”: A Selloutyoursoul Reader Writes In

A Tale of Graduate School Burnout

When Your Loved Ones Don’t Get It at On the Fence

Got a Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do at WorstProfEver

And I know it’s a little 1998 of me, but thank God for the Internet! I love reading these tales of disappointment, burnout, and leaving. Of indecision. Of starting over. Of advice, both tender and harsh. And it’s not just schadenfreude, it’s exactly what a grad student in a November funk needs to read (especially, as one commenter recently suggested, if friends and family are the last people to consult about a major career change).

After years of feeling unsure about myself, my place in the world, my place in academia, the place of academic in the world, etc., etc.,  it just feels great to see a whole list of smart, savvy people negotiating the same kinds of fears, questions, and decisions. And even though my life hasn’t actually changed — I’m still working on my dissertation, still having awkward encounters with faculty members who avoid eye contact in the hallway — I feel like I have this fantastic secret: I’ve found an amazing place where just thinking about leaving academia is okay, and actually leaving can even be cool.

So, if you’re a fellow grad or post-academic in that November funk, find your community, and say hello.

What to do in the Meantime

So, you’ve decided to keep an open mind about your post-PhD future (meaning, something other than the tenure track). Maybe you’ve got a supportive advisor, maybe not. Maybe your program hosts alternative career panels, maybe not. Regardless of the level of program support, however, there are some things you can do now, on your own, to explore options or gain the skills/experiences you might need in your academic afterlife. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

[I can’t recall all the sources, but I know that Versatile PhD has been a major resource; in addition to Escape the Ivory Tower, and Leaving Academia. And fantastic new-t0-me blogs Worst Professor Ever and On the Fence.]

  • Google. Probably obvious, but good to remember for basic Idea Gathering, finding communities, resources, tips, statistics, median salaries, etc. Good way to learn the “facts” of the academic market, in addition to various alternatives.
  • Career Center. Maybe obvious, maybe not. Not quite “student” nor faculty, grad students seem to sometimes slip through the cracks (at least at my University). Many services, such as the Career Center, don’t market themselves to grad students, but they’re there for us, too. Probably a good place to help translate the academic CV to a resume. (I say “probably” because my one experience at a career center was *terrible*, but I’ll probably go back at some point, with a different counselor.)
  • Informational Interviews. Once you have a few ideas about potential career alternatives, seek out people in those careers and talk to them. I’ve done one — an English PhD in academic advising — and it was extremely useful. Of course, there are lists of do’s and don’ts in relation to informational interviews (such as never solicit for a job), but maybe that’s for a different post.
  • Network. Once of the advantages of informational interviews is that you’re building a network of people working in careers and in places you think are interesting. Beyond that, though, the usual strategies for networking include LinkedIn, conferences, alumni networks, and staff listings/directories for the kinds of places you’re interested in. Keep in mind that networking is reciprocal; you can’t just collect contacts you think will be useful for your own aspirations, you have to reciprocate: how can you be useful for other people?
  • Volunteer/Intern. Of course grad students are busy teaching, taking classes, taking exams, and writing dissertations (among many other Life things, like having babies), but if you can find a few hours a week or month to volunteer, it’s a great way to gain skills and experience and explore potential careers. For writing/editing careers in particular, I’ve heard that volunteering, such as writing for non-profits, is a good way to build a portfolio, since you might not get hired right away without a body of work or experience. (And again, a good opportunity for networking.) I’ve been volunteering at a local museum; I’ve made some great friends, I’m learning new technical skills, and honestly, it’s great to be in an environment where my knowledge and training are actually valued.
  • Read job listings. If you’re not on the job market, this might not be obvious, but it’s a great way to see what kinds of skills, education, and experiences make up your Dream Job. Also keep in mind, though, that job ads often paint the picture of an ideal candidate; applicants strong in every qualification/preference are rare. The links I’ve posted in the sidebar under “Jobs and Fellowship Opportunities” reflect my particular interests in technology, history, and the humanities, but the same basic logic applies: find the key job listing sites in your fields of interest, professional organizations, non-profits, corporations, whatever, and stalk them. I will add that subscribing to RSS feeds with GoogleReader makes stalking job ads really easy and convenient; some job sites allow you to save searches and will email you new postings that meet your parameters.
  • Know thyself. This last one’s probably the most difficult, at least for me. I know there are good books out there to help you find your bliss, figure out your personality type, and land your dream job, but I haven’t delved too deeply into those just yet. My basic strategy (for now) is based on the fact that I really enjoy the odd jumble of jobs I do now: I work in a writing program (but don’t really teach writing classes), I tutor writing, and I work on a digital humanities project. I’ve tried to isolate what I really enjoy about each activity and figure out how it might translate into a real job (as in, I love tutoring, maybe academic advising would fit?). I’m trying to keep my options open, but I’m also trying not to be overzealous about every possibility merely because I’m uncertain about what I’d like to do and where I’ll fit.

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