Archive for the 'Tips' Category

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.

New Year’s Resolutions for Academics

[This is a guest post by Michael, a PhD candidate in Political Science. He can be reached at hulley22@gmail.com.]

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.

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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