Friday, September 28, 2007
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
While I had promised in my last post to regale you with tales of setting margins, choosing paper, adjusting styles in MS Word, and other fun tales, I received an IM this week that made me think this particular post is more important. Copyright permissions and the like will have to wait..
HOW TO COPE
You may be halfway to two-thirds toward reaching your day of glory, or maybe you are working on a proposal, or maybe the dissertation seems like this huge obstacle you'll be tackling in a year or so from now. No matter where you are in the process, know that writing a dissertation can be one of the most emotionally dynamic experiences of your life. As Joan Bolker says: "Whether or not writing turns out to be your practice, writing your dissertation will still have changed you for all time" (Writing your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, 150).
The following list contains just a sampling of emotions you may experience during the course of the diss: frustration, joy, depression, confusion, satisfaction, despair, wonderment, excitement...Like I said, dynamic! So how does one cope under the stress of such an emotional roller-coaster? Well, let's rephrase that questions: How does one TRY to cope?
I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends
You can and will receive support from family and friends, but it is important that you have reasonable expectations of them. When you need support because of dissertation-related stress, I suggest using the following "hierarchy." This hierarchy is NOT a statement about the quality of the people or the friendships (so I'm looking for a different word), but instead a strategy for success when seeking empathy.
GROUP A: They've Been There
Aside from being repositories of helpful advice and information, these people do know what it is like. Seek out people who have completed their dissertation within the last ten years, so a) they aren't too emotionally removed from the process and b) they can relate to the struggles of a modern dissertation. Occasionally you may run into someone who was so traumatized by their experience they "don't want to talk about it," but more often than not, people will want to help you by sharing their own hard-won wisdom. Ideally, you'll find someone willing to both listen and share. This is also why it is a good idea to have a junior faculty member on your committee.
GROUP B: Misery Loves Company
To some extent this is true, but you want to make this interaction productive. Getting together with fellow dissertators for a huge venting session can be satisfying and healthy. But venting only gets you so far. Try to form a support/writing group that meets weekly. Give yourselves a pre-determined amount of time to chat/vent then get down to work. If you are all at the writing stage, exchange a couple pages every week with a partner and give constructive feedback to each other.*
*Peer advice can be very helpful and doesn't come wrapped up with the same psychology of receiving comments from a mentor or advisor.
GROUP C: We Love You Anyway
These folks are likely to be the people closest to you...the ones who are still there after you've bitten their heads off for the fiftieth time, whom you've told they "just have no idea," and who have been willing to listen to hour-long pontifications about the finer points of liturgical theory as it relates to ritual and the concertized Latin Mass. Not surprisingly, it is this group of people who you will most likely find yourself pushing away. Try to be aware of this. They love you, and no, they may not "get" everything, but they'll be there at the end of the day and want to celebrate your success.
As far as dissertating goes, solitude can be both a blessing and a curse. Try to know when you need it and when you don't. I'm a people person, so I was much more comfortable working at a coffee shop, where the reminder of life was comforting and helped me focus. For others, holing up with a carrel at the library may be what they need. Sometimes you'll find yourself craving one or the other.
If you start thinking "I'm all alone," amber lights should start flashing. At best, it may just be periodic self-pity. More importantly, this can often be an indication of depression (even a minor form), because the truth is, you are NOT alone. Even if you don't have the flesh-and-blood colleagues around you to form a writing group, the internet has expanded our professional and social resources. Find an on-line dissertation support group (or start one!). Call and email your PhD and ABD friends. One helpful resource: The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide (I recommend their newsletters).
Note on photo: I'm considering this fair-use, but I'll be happy to give credit, so if you took this photo, let me know.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Now that I am a bonafide PhD, I do not claim to know anything and everything about writing dissertations. (Nor do I resemble anything close to the above figure). I do know what helped me. Writing it here does NOT mean I always followed my own advice, but when I did, I reaped the rewards. I decided to consolidate my dissertation experiences into a helpful guide (I hope) and this idea has already received an enthusiastic endorsement from several friends who are dissertators. This post will offer some general advice that is applicable to any long writing project, not just a dissertation. I hope you find it useful!
1. Carry a moleskine, small notebook, whatever suits your purpose. Have another one on your bedside table, and another at your home work station.
Ideas have a bad habit of appearing at the most inconvenient times. As any good GTDer knows, the Ubiquitous Capture Tool (UCT) is of the utmost import. This is especially true for the dissertator. If you think you'll remember to write it down, you probably won't. Don't take chances. (Moleskines or a notebook with a pocket are especially helpful if you run into a dissertation contact who hands you their card). While PDAs can be good UCTs, generally they get a little overloaded if you have a flurry of inspiration and your idea translates into an entire paragraph or two of workable material.
2. Envision the end. Use your imagination.
When gravity is seemingly pulling you toward the molten core of the earth, stop what you are doing and allow yourself to daydream. For me, it helped to think about calling my college mentor and introducing myself as "Dr." For you, it might be something else: telling your parents, eating that pint of Ben & Jerry's you promised yourself, whatever. Allow yourself to fantasize. There is a whole lot of data out there about the positive effects of envisioning your goal. Close your eyes and let yourself really feel whatever emotions you'd like. This may sound cheesy, but it really does help when you feel isolated and like no one really cares if you finish.
3. Beware the Vices and the Stress
Watch the drinking, smoking, caffeine, (insert your own vice). Life will continue after the dissertation and you'll want to be healthy enough to enjoy it. Graduate School takes enough of a toll on your health without you helping! That said, I am not suggesting you become an ascetic. Just watch yourself. If you notice that you are using alcohol (for instance) as a crutch, something has to change. I promise that your dissertation won't get written any faster if you drink a martini, or two, or three. I can attest to this (lest you think I'm a hypocrite).
Make time to exercise. You've got to. Even if it is only a half hour of stretching, working on a Liszt piano concerto, whatever. While I didn't graph it, I'm fairly sure there was a direct correlation between the days I exercised and the days I was most productive.
Meditate. I don't mean that you have to sit on a mat in the lotus position and hum. That is an option, however. Just take some quiet time alone to concentrate on your breathing. This can be in your house, or in some nice outside locale. I recommend this especially before you sit down to write.
Take breaks and take them often. Do not even attempt to do three hours of uninterrupted dissertation work. If you have three hours of work in you, it will happen on its own. Set a more reasonable goal, even if it is only fifteen minutes (see book recommendation below). USE A TIMER. A general rule, however, is that the break should be shorter than the work time.
Posture. While this may seem like a no-brainer, most people who sit at the computer all day have terrible posture (myself included). This really will affect your emotional/psychological well-being and your ability to focus. Make sure you have a good chair with good lumbar support. Your abdominal muscles should be supporting your spine. Your arms should be supported on your desk when you type. Better carriage gives you more energy. I forget my posture at almost an hourly rate, so I have a post-it on my computer that says "POSTURE." Your chiropractor will thank you.
4. Fifteen Minutes a Day
I've read quite a few books on how to write a dissertation and I'll be reviewing them here. One of the best, in my opinion, is Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Bolker has numerous worthy suggestions and excellent practical advice, but what I'd like to focus on is the "fifteen minute" idea. EVERYONE has fifteen minutes.
The hardest part to writing (anything) is getting started. Sitting down to "draft a chapter" is a far more daunting task than sitting down to write fifteen minutes of material. More often than not, 15 minutes will turn into an hour without you thinking about it. But, on the days it doesn't, the likelihood is that you will have at least a couple sentences of usable material. If you are feeling really unmotivated, I suggest what I call "barfing it out" (elegant, yes?). Don't worry if it isn't pretty or doesn't even make logical sense...just get it out of your head and on to the paper. Leave it be, then return to it the next day to see what you can extract from the gobbeldygook. You may be surprised.
The next installment will feature more practical advice on maintaining bibliographies, MS Word strategies, backups and exciting topics like that! I look forward to comments and helpful tips from my readers!!
Thursday, September 06, 2007
I'll let you figure out who the troll was. :-)
PHEW! Guess I've got to change my blog blurb now!
EXTRA-CREDIT to anyone who can tell me what the lyrics say (I've got as far as "Lo Hicimos, the bridge and the troll... but she goes up the mountain and does WHAT? And it just goes downhill from there.)
...and Pavarotti was dead.
Back in the day, when I loathed opera, when I associated opera with Saturday house-cleaning, when I didn't know how to listen to music, I knew Pavarotti. He was the emblem of opera. Word-association: opera = Pavarotti.
And now, he's gone. May he rest in peace. I hope he is singing with Beverly, Jerry, and Regine. What a year.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
I managed not to bite through my tongue, rip my hair out or dig my nails into my own flesh as the nice woman at Fed-Ex explained that the plane broke down and that is why my dissertation is sitting in the Fed-Ex in Memphis, TN instead of on the West Coast. She assures me that it will get to the final destination by TOMORROW morning at 10:30am PST. I even remembered to thank her for the information.
I think I will now go run around the block several hundred times.
I've Fed-Exed probably twenty packages in my short life. THIS had to be the one not to arrive on time? At least I gave myself a little bit of a cushion...very little.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
They go out on Tuesday via Fed-Ex (after a quick jaunt to the post office to get a postal money order--grrr.)
Then, we wait. No premature congrats, please. It ain't over til its over, but I've done my part. :-) I'll keep you posted.
Prayers, good thoughts, positive energy, etc...all gratefully accepted. :-)