If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there.
That would seem like an obvious statement, but with most types of writing there is no way to meet a goal or to complete the project without a well-considered idea of what the project is or what it should look like when it’s finished. The need for a map or guide is especially true for big expository or argumentative projects like dissertations and scholarly or nonfiction books, especially edited or compiled books developed from chapters written by a number of different writers. The map serves as a guide. It gives the writing a GPS-like set of directions that, if followed, can get the writer close to—if not exactly at—the originally planned destination.
Having a sense of a destination and mapped directions, somewhat like an outline but more of a big-picture idea, doesn’t preclude the fact that much academic writing needs an opportunity to develop into its own. Most writers write themselves into an early draft and often find a sense of where they’re going at the end of that draft. In other words, the thesis becomes clear at the end of the piece, and it might be a bit different from what the writer initially thought it would be. That’s a natural part of writing and to be expected.
Every academic writer knows that for a piece to be published, it will need to be revised multiple times. That goes for a short article or a longer piece of writing. Once a book is drafted, for instance, it needs an editor’s eye to help shape it. The original organization is almost never quite right. The details, however well expressed, typically need to be honed. Some beloved words need to be abandoned or thrown out. Such is writing.
However, it’s still important to begin a project with a good sense of its goal. Without that goal as a destination, whether the project has a single writer or many writers, it will lack unity and coherence. Furthermore, having a solidly mapped plan of action that includes solid goals for the writing very much helps writers get where they need to go.
Frustration is inevitable without mapping. For an example from my own writing experience, in one edited collection writing project where I am one of many writers, I recently received a fifth set of different directions on what I should do to revise my chapter. This new guidance came from an external reviewer along the book’s final path to publication. Previous guidance for the article was a compilation from both an early external reviewer and one of the book’s editors. Prior to that, the book’s editors alone provided guidance on the written drafts, though without a clear map of the book’s direction and goal. I’m not the only author in that book who needs to address yet another set of revision directions, some of which are contrary to earlier instructions. It has begun to seem impossible to bring the chapter home when the expectations—or destination—keep changing.
While everyone should expect to need to revise a piece when it needs to fit into a compilation of interconnected pieces, had the book’s editors known what they were looking for at the outset, had they really known where they were going, their instructions would have taken all of the authors closer to the goal from the outset.
To avoid such situations, authors and editors need to provide clear guidance to themselves and to writers stemming from a strong sense of the book’s direction. That crucial mapping step enables a better chance of actually arriving at the destination.
November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. The goal that many people take up is to write a 50,000 word novel in just one month. Sound crazy? Sound impossible? In 2015, 431,626 inspiring writers participated, and this year the number looks to be close to half a million people.
As someone who regularly participates in NaNoWriMo, I know that to reach 50,000 words in 30 daysrequires me to write roughly 1665 words a day, seven days a week. During November, I strive to make this happen. While I don’t always reach my daily word count, I keep trying by writing every day.
When you have a large writing project like a dissertation or a book, the only way to get it done is to write. Write frequently. Write daily. Write when you have time. Write when you don’t have time. Write when an idea takes you by surprise (have a pad of paper and pen or tablet with you at all times). Write when you wake up or write before you go to bed–or both. Just write!
Take a lesson from NaNoWriMo and give yourself a word count goal. Such goals help to get the job done!
The most basic function of cover letters for academic positions is to introduce yourself to the search committee; the most successful way to do so is to craft this introduction as a demonstration of your fit with the search criteria.
The first paragraph should introduce yourself, reference where you learned of the position, and explain why this specific job interests you. Conclude this paragraph by explicitly articulating why you would be a good fit for the institution.
The body paragraphs should details the accomplishments that make you a good fit and an excellent candidate. Pay careful attention to your potential contributions to the department or institution. This is not the time to be modest, but don’t promise things your supplementary materials cannot or do not support.
Conclude by reiterating your interest in the institution and the position.
Here are action tips:
- Craft each cover letter to the individual positions. Search committees will know if you use a form letter. If you mistakenly put information for another school in the letter, your letter will not be well received. Address the chair by name if possible.
- Consider length. Search committees will receive many dozens of applications. Aim for 1 page for STEM positions and up to 2 pages in the social sciences and humanities. No more than 2 pages is needed or acceptable.
- Watch your grammar and punctuation. The cover letter is the first writing sample the search committee will see. Make a good impression.
- Keep the job positing in front of you. Refer to it as you write.
- Know your audience. If applying to a research university, emphasize your qualifications to perform cutting edge research and any specific topics that interest you. If applying to a liberal arts college, focus on your interest in teaching, especially undergraduates.
- Get someone else to read your letter for content and to proof it for perfect editing.
It’s a tough academic world these days. If you don’t succeed at first, review your cover letters for possible clues. And keep trying as long as an academic career makes sense to pursue.
Think of a large writing project as a series of written out lectures. If you are daunted by the idea of writing a topic as large as a dissertation, then try to think of it as a written series of lectures on your topic that you could TEACH to many people. Do not get paralyzed by the word dissertation. It’s just a series of written out lectures.
How should we approach setting goals to make the most out of them? Setting goals for our work is only helpful insofar as the goals we set are ambitious enough to propel us but realistic enough that we can reasonably meet them without getting discouraged. Sustainability is the key here. If you set a series of goals that you have almost no hope of meeting, you’ll get discouraged and quit even bothering to try to meet them. Still, don’t set simplistic goals that you can meet without working hard or you aren’t getting most out of yourself.
It’s tempting to do just enough to feel like you were productive and quit for the day. Instead, use goals to push yourself a little bit further than you would go on your own. It will take some trial and error to figure out how you work, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Maybe you work by the hour or the day. Maybe you’re better equipped to meet average weekly or monthly goals. Maybe you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment only when you complete a section or an entire chapter. Try different things to see what works then stick with what does! And remember, sometimes you have to call a day a wash and start fresh in the morning. The goal will still be there and, if you’ve set it properly, will still be something you can reach.
Some words of advice:
- Word count is more reliable than page count because page count can be manipulated by different word-processing programs, by font sizes, by fonts in general, by kerning and margins, by any number of conscious and unconscious choices. Word count is a more standardized metric for measuring productivity.
- Keep an outline and check off completed elements on it. It’s a small trick, but those little things can help you feel like you’ve accomplished something important!
- Set small goals; meet them; then set larger ones. Strive to meet those, too, but if you repeatedly fail to do so, reevaluate them and reset them to something more manageable.
- Share your daily/weekly/or monthly goals with a writing partner, your significant other, or a good friend. Make sure this person is someone who will feel comfortable holding your feet to the fire.
- Hire a writing coach to help you identify goals and establish a plan for meeting them.
Avoid tangents. Stay focused on your writing.
When you have a big writing project like a dissertation, it’s easy to let yourself get distracted. The best way to keep writing is to keep focused. If something is not a direct connection to what you’re writing now, ignore it. Remember, you’re not writing a manifesto. You’re writing a specific, narrow text. There will be time to write other things later. Right now, you need to focus on the topic at hand. Your writing coach can help you focus.
You get only one chance to make a first impression with your writing, be that a dissertation, an article, or a book.
While mastering your word-processor’s editing and formatting tools can help you to present your work more professionally, a key component of the professional presentation you must strive towards is to avoid letting sloppiness slide. Even the most careful readers and writers will find they miss some of their mistakes. That’s where another pair of eyes can be helpful, vital even, because editing your own work is difficult and time-consuming.
You know your writing, your topic, and your thought process better than anyone else. It’s natural for your mind to fill in missing words, to skim over misspellings or sloppy punctuation, and to make connections between points that aren’t sufficiently explained in the text. An outside reader, however, won’t be in a position to overlook those errors. A good reader—like a writing coach—will not only catch those run-of-the-mill mistakes, but will help you to see where your argument is weak or unsupported by the evidence, where you lose your narrative momentum and start meandering, and when you need to rethink your organizational scheme to present your ideas more intuitively. A good outside reader will notice not only mistakes you might miss, but will also notice the connections that are implicit in your text, but that you haven’t yet untangled.
An extra pair of eyes can not only prevent your writing going out into the world with mistakes but also can help you strengthen your work in ways that you wouldn’t realize on your own.
Write every day—even if it’s only for an hour broken into smaller segments. Make good writing habits. Once you have established your good writing habits, set realistic goals of writing two double-spaced pages a day. The next day, start where you left off and keep growing the document. If you can write two pages per day, that’s 14 pages per week, 56 pages in a month, and over 100 pages in two months. It doesn’t have to be POLISHED writing. The idea is to get a draft written. Then your writing coach can get your draft into better shape and help you revise/reorganize/edit.
Sometimes, we have deadlines to meet—defense dates, submission deadlines, departmental review dates. At those times, we simply have to force ourselves to sit down and write. There are other times in the writing process, however, when we have the time and space to give ourselves a break. Refueling is all about waking our brains up again, and simply walking away from our computers may not be enough. In those moments, try one of the follow suggestions:
- Do something fresh and exciting. Try a new restaurant or take the afternoon to go to a baseball game. Head to the zoo or the park. Take a drive down a road you’ve never traveled on before. Anything that is new and exciting will take your mind off the stress of having a dissertation to finish or an article to write.
- Be active. You don’t have to take up marathon running, a nice long walk will do. Or, go to the gym. Ride your bike. Physical exhaustion can force your brain to switch off, so when you clock back in, you’re refreshed and ready to refocus.
- Try something artistic. You don’t have to produce a masterpiece, but dig out a pencil and a piece of paper or buy some crayons and coloring book. Spend an afternoon cooking something special. Anything that gets your brain to think in different ways can help.
Every dissertator will need different things to recharge, but it’s important to give ourselves permission to refuel so we can sit down to work more productively tomorrow.
If you do not trust yourself to stay on task, go to a public place where people can see you so you won’t not do what you set out to do, which is WRITE. Quiet places can include libraries, offices, and cafes (during non-peak times). Sometimes, when the weather is nice, sitting outside in a park may be a good place to work. Bring only what you will need: paper/pen/laptop, notes, books, articles. Turn off the internet/phone/TV/music. Focus on the writing by setting realistic goals (write for a certain amount of time or a certain amount of pages). Reward yourself for meeting those goals.
Quick. Name an academic article you’ve recently read that was engaging and well written. One that left you intrigued, delighted, and wanting more. Having a hard time? It’s understandable. Academic writing is full of dry, uninspiring, stilted prose that sucks the life out of a topic.
But there are authors in every discipline who write articles that are a delight to read, presenting solid research clearly and elegantly. These writers, few though they may be, produce classics in their field often quoted and assigned. Why are these the outliers and not the norm? This is the fundamental question Helen Sword asks in her 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing.
Sword, frustrated by the dreadfully boring articles she found in her own field of education, launched a two-pronged study to try and understand why academic writing is the way it is. First, she surveyed 70 plus academics from different disciplines to identify “the characteristics of ‘stylish academic writing’ in their respective fields” (7). Then she analyzed the books and articles identified as exemplary pieces of writing. Using all this information, she compiled a list of the characteristics of stylish academic prose:
- Interesting, eye-catching titles and subtitles;
- First-person anecdotes or asides that humanized the authors and give the text an individual flavor;
- Catchy opening paragraphs that recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem, or otherwise hook and hold the reader;
- Concrete nouns (as opposed to nominalized abstractions such as “nominalization’ or “abstraction”) and active, energetic verbs (as opposed to forms of be and bland standbys such as make, find, or show);
- Numerous examples, especially when explaining abstract concepts;
- Visual illustrations beyond the usual Excel-generated pie charts and bar graphs (for example, photographs, manuscript facsimiles, drawings, diagrams, and reproductions);
- References to a broad range of academic, literary, and historical sources indicative of wide reading and collegial conversations both within and outside their own fields;
- Humor, whether explicit or understated. (p. 8)
Sword then put together a data set of 1000 articles from across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to identify disciplinary writing styles. Using that dataset, she compared the characteristics she found with the advice given in some 100 contemporary writing guides. Sword’s finding was that “wordy, wooden, weak-verbed academic prose” had “few if any explicit advocates but vast armies of practitioners” (10). Sword doesn’t waist time lamenting how this happened. Instead she presents the antidote in the form of advice and examples. Part 2 of the book is a writing guide focusing on the Elements of Stylishness which she presents through eleven touchstone writing strategies:
- Voice and Echo
- Smart Sentencing
- Tempting Titles
- Hooks and Sinkers
- The Story Net
- Show and Tell
- Structural Designs
- Points of Reference
- The Big Picture
- The Creative Touch
Each chapter ends with a list of writing activities aimed at helping you improve your writing by showing you how to have your writing engage with your reader. Or, using the metaphor she adopts from Peter Elbow, “You must walk up to the readers and say, ‘Let’s go for a ride. You pedal, I’ll steer.’” [Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981: 351.]
Sword, a stylish writer herself, has written a writing guide that every academic writer should read and study, not merely buy and place on a bookshelf.
Next time you read a brain numbing academic article, remember that academic writing doesn’t have to be bad. Nowhere is it written that good writing is unacceptable in the Academy. As Sword argues, “elegant ideas deserve elegant expression” (vii). It’s time to make boring writing unacceptable by demanding brilliance in the form of stylish academic writing.
Your computer will fail at some point while you’re writing your dissertation. Your schedule will collapse on top of you despite your best intentions. You will receive unexpected and sometimes negative feedback on your work. While you cannot control the world around you, you can control how you react to setbacks and other emergencies that will inevitably creep up and conspire to knock you out of your productive moment. The key to successfully completing any lengthy writing project is accepting the fact that setbacks and emergencies will arise no matter how much planning and preparation you do. Remember that recovering from them is far more important avoiding them all together. Frustration and irritation are natural consequences in those moments, but giving in to the feelings of helplessness won’t help you overcome the setback.
What you can do, however, is try to reset. Allow yourself to feel frustrated or sad for a few minutes, and then stand up and resolutely reset your emotional thermostat to zero. Pretend the setback didn’t happen at all if possible or simply shuck if off until you can more productively deal with it instead of devising schemes to take vengeance against your waste of a computer. You may find you need to physically remove yourself from your office or your apartment to calm down. Do that then. You may find you need to talk to someone you love or trust to get the emotions out before you can recover. Do that then. Once finished, you can return to your computer with purpose and resolve, ready to face your dissertation once again with energy and thoughtfulness. While you may struggle to achieve this complete reset, it is a skill worth cultivating because otherwise you’ll compound the consequences of the setback.
- Give yourself a few minutes to feel the emotions associated with the setback. Be angry or frustrated or sad.
- Stand up, take a breath, and step away from your work so you can emotionally reset.
- Talk to someone you trust—like a writing coach—who can help you overcome the setback.
- Return to your work in a calmer frame of mind, ready to resume your work.
To help you stay focused, schedule your writing times on your actual calendar like you would an important appointment. Do NOT say you have “all day” when you can only focus for short periods of time. Schedule hour blocks and then get up, meditate, grab a tea/coffee/soda/water, stretch, walk/run, but keep the breaks to 15 minutes. Then schedule the next hour block to WRITE.
Who hasn’t been here? You’ve been dissertating for hours, productively making your way through a chapter, presenting your evidence, crafting your arguments, and generally achieving the ideal of dissertation writing. Without warning, the power in your apartment goes out and your computer screen turns black. You let your laptop’s battery run down or you’re working on your desktop machine. Either way, you haven’t been saving your work as you go and when the electricity comes back on, you realize that the auto-save function of your word-processing program of choice was turned off and you just lost an entire day’s worth of work. You will scream; maybe you’ll cry; either way, you’ll have to rewrite.
We all know we should backup our work, but maybe we’re not as consistent or serious about it as we should be and that needs to change. There are any number of programs and devices that are designed to save us the frustration and heartbreak of losing work. We just have to use them. Flash drives and external hard drives serve no function unless we plug them into our computers. Dropbox is a wonderful storage and file sharing tool, but you have to take the time to upload your material. Google Docs and Google Drive will save automatically as you type and can be opened on any computer, tablet, or smartphone. Take the time to explore your options now before you’re faced with missing work.
- Make a habit of backing up your work.
- Find the programs and devices that work for you. There are well known and free cloud-based options available in addition to the standard flash drive or external hard drive.
- Save your work in at least three separate, unrelated places—your computer’s hard drive, a flash drive, and Dropbox, for instance.
In physics, the momentum of a system is said to remain constant so long as there are no outside forces acting on that system. The same law applies in writing—a dissertation, an article, or any other project. Once we begin writing, we can speed through; we’re on a roll, steadily making our way through the chapter or article, but when we reach the end, we get stuck. Something in our system has been altered. We know what our next chapter or section needs to accomplish. We have our notes and our outline, but still we struggle to regain the feeling of momentum pushing at our backs and can’t get restarted.
Momentum is a tricky thing for academic writers. Losing it is not unusual and mustering fresh momentum can be challenging. While there is no one-size-fits-all-solution, there are some things to try.
- First, park on a downhill slope. That is, instead of stopping when you reach a natural conclusion, push through and start the next chapter of your dissertation or section of your article. Stop only when you know exactly what the next point you need to make will be and, importantly, how you will make it. You will have already gotten over the hump of the blank page when you sit down to work again. If, however, you find yourself totally stumped about how to pivot to something new, how to introduce a new concept or chapter, you can skip the introductions and jump right into the meat of your material—definitions, datasets, related scholarly arguments—then come back and write the beginning at the end.
- Second, if you stall because you haven’t spent the necessary time outlining the next chapter or section and therefore have no idea what is supposed to even come next, try breaking down each chunk of the new chapter or article’s section. The level of specificity you require is highly individualized, but once you determine your needs, take the time to satisfy them before you begin writing your chapter or article.
- Finally, when you do finish writing for the day, make sure you have some gas left in the intellectual tank. That is, make sure you stop before you’re burned out so when you sit back down to write tomorrow, you aren’t fighting mental and/or physical exhaustion.
- Think about why you’re stuck. Is it the feeling of completion or the worry over introductions that are stalling your progress?
- Park on a downhill slope.
- Outline the next chapter or section of the article before you begin trying to write.
- Stop working before you burn out.
- Hire a coach to help you identify your needs and devise a personalized strategy for overcoming the loss of momentum.
One of the most important things that dissertation, article, and book writers can do for themselves is to present their hard-earned texts in a professional manner. Sloppy presentation of an otherwise powerful text is like going to a formal wedding in yoga pants. No one cares what’s on the inside when the outside is inappropriate. To avoid this situation, go to your word processor, where some of the best help you can have in writing is available. Formatting tools like tabs, indentations, and hanging indentations automatically help you create a professional look to the paper. Most word processing software also has some form of “track changes,” comment features, display options, and spell and grammar checks. These tools all help you to present yourself professionally.
- Use the formatting tools your word processor provides.
- A “tab,” located on the keyboard, automatically indents a paragraph the same amount of space each time you use it. If you don’t like the length of the tab, use the ruler located above the text and move the arrows to the point you want. All tabs can be changed that way.
- Similarly, use the “indent” key or click the indentation icon in the word processor. Indentations, unlike tabs, realign the entire text by a set number of spaces (also changeable on the ruler). Indentations are used for block quotes in formal scholarly writing; indent twice (not once) to meet most style guide requirements.
- Find the “hanging indent” icon in the word processor. In Microsoft Word, it is located in the “paragraph” and then “special” indentation menu. A hanging indent is necessary for Works Cited and References lists that look professional. When people use the spacebar to give the look of a hanging indent, it risks incorrect indentation when even one capital letter is changed.
- Use “track changes” or some other kind of obvious marking to show that you’ve made changes on your revision or on the revision of a colleague’s piece. That way, you can see and keep track of the original versus the changes, revert to the original where needed, and understand your own writing/editing process as one that is open to changing text. Google Docs and Wikis also enable this ability to mark changes or to keep a history of revision.
- “Comment” features are available in PDFs, Google Docs, Word Docs, and most other texts. The ability to make a comment to oneself or to other writers without interfering with the original texts can go a long way toward opening the writer’s mind to new ways of thinking about the topic or writing. Ways to comment in “rich texts” include typing in the document and then bolding or highlighting the comments to set them apart from the original writing.
- The “display options” available in Microsoft Word (and possibly in other word processing systems) are vastly underused. Go to “file,” “options,” “display,” and check the boxes that allow you to see the formatting marks on the screen. You might find it a bit disorienting at first, but very quickly you can adjust and appreciate the ability to see where your text is properly formatted (One or two lines between each paragraph? One or two spaces between each word?), why it might not be properly formatted, and how to fix problems. I leave my display options on all the time. These are not visible when a text is converted to a PDF or when the text is printed.
- “Spell and grammar check”—well, these should be self-evident, but it’s amazing how many times writers send me texts they haven’t checked for correctness of spelling and simple grammar. While these checks can offer wrong advice and it’s up to the writer to make wise choices, there’s never an excuse for submitting writing to anyone for feedback without having correct spelling and basic grammar.
- Have a writing coach look at the final draft of your work. Don’t be surprised if he or she finds content issues that can be clarified, so don’t wait until the last moment. Strong presentation of your hard work is crucial to possible publication in this text-rich world. For dissertators, strong presentation of a draft that is ready for defense is one key to inspiring confidence in the text and its author.
Facebook. Instagram. Pinterest. Face Time. Skype. Linked In. Web browsing. Email. Instant messaging. Google Hangouts. Game of Thrones. Solitaire. Every possible way to put off a task can be found on the Web. For most of us, these handy distractions are fully available and calling our names from the computer or mobile device on which we’re writing our projects. We excuse this kind of procrastination from writing by calling it multitasking and suggesting that, actually, trying to write while cruising social media is a skill and a sign of our great intelligence. Can I just call humbug on that belief? There really is no such thing as multitasking. Every time we “multitask,” we change focus. The brain and hands really aren’t doing two things at once. We must interrupt our writing and our focus on it to change screens and to attend to that screen. The truth is, dear procrastinators, cruising social media just won’t help us finish that project. No one else is going to type the sentences, paragraphs, and pages that comprise this major project while we play on the computer. We have to take responsibility for our work, which means calling multitasking what it actually is—a form of procrastination that encourages our attention to wander and changes our focus away from the project. A psych break is one thing. But if we find ourselves spending hours on social media or other Web-based entertainment during writing time, it’s time for a good, hard look at our work habits. So-called multitasking isn’t going to get the job done!
- Pick a time to entertain yourself with Facebook and other entertainment and social media that is either well before or after completing writing for the day.
- Have a writing schedule that makes sense to you. Perhaps end the day’s writing by printing out your new pages, and then play to let off some pressure. Re-read your writing and mark it up before bed. First thing in the morning, key in the changes that you made the night before and add or change text that your good brain worked on subconsciously while you slept. Then, begin your new writing day, ending it with a “save,” “print,” and “play” cycle.
- Close email, Facebook, and other unessential windows when writing. Give yourself a break every hour and a half (or so) for a quick read of what’s going on in the world. Then, close those windows again.
- On a time crunch? Go off social media totally! By going cold turkey, you’ll be surprised at how much you get done and how little you miss all those memes and posts that irritate or otherwise destroy focus.
- If you need help finding ways to stop procrastinating, get a skilled writing coach who can help you manage your time and provide yourself with much-needed downtime after productive writing time.
When writing scholarly work, you must cite sources. Make sure to format the citation for the correct style (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) Have a current edition of your stylebook, as every few years the associations update their stylebooks and the rules can change. You can check online at the Purdue OWL (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/) for current MLA and APA citation guides.
If you use an exact quotation, you must cite. Make sure the quotation is accurate and that no words are missing. If you delete words from the quotation, use an ellipse ( . . . ).
Sometimes you cite from a source and paraphrase it into your own words. Paraphrases still need to be cited. Cite after each sentence where you “borrow” ideas from another author or source.
Any time you have a number you didn’t count yourself (including percentages, statistics, ratios, etc.), it must be cited to give credit to the source that did the math.
Failure to cite can lead to charges of plagiarism. If you have questions on how to cite, ask a coach or advisor.
When you made the decision to attend Graduate School to pursue an advanced degree, you surely knew that you were taking on an enormous task. Still, you may have been unprepared for the sheer amount of work required and the number of competing interests pulling you in opposite directions. It’s easy to look at other graduate students or professors, see only the work they put in, and think you can’t possibly measure up unless you work day and night, weekends and holidays. While such feelings are understandable, it’s important to remember that you don’t see the whole picture. Nobody—no matter how together she or he seems—can pull those sorts of hours for the years it will take to finish the dissertation project. But graduate school—which includes your classwork and research projects, any teaching responsibilities you may have, and your advisor’s demands—is your job, and you should work at it like you would any other job you accept. Even jobs we enjoy do not demand our constant, unfailing, 24/7 attention. Jobs work better if you set boundaries for yourself, your students, and your advisor; communicate these boundaries clearly; and stick with them for your own peace of mind. We all face deadlines or the work piles up faster than we can move through it, and sometimes we have to buckle down, push aside family commitments and fun, and get the work finished. As one professor expressed, “Sometimes you just have to crank it out.” But those times are not the totality of your graduate school experience—or of your life. You need time to decompress, to see your family and friends, to read a book that’s unconnected to what you study, or even to watch a silly TV show. You can’t forgo sleep for very long! There is nothing wrong with you asserting that need for a balanced life and meeting it for yourself. If you do these things, when you sit down to your job, you can focus on it with a clear and rested mind.
- Take stock of any upcoming deadlines or responsibilities: exams, conferences, grading, and project due dates.
- Decide on reasonable expectations for yourself. Communicate them clearly to those people who depend on you.
- Know your limits and how hard you can push yourself before breaking.
- Within the confines of your schedule, take the time you need to maintain your physical, emotional, and psychological health.
- Contact a writing coach if you find that you’re unable to meet your deadlines while finding time for outside interests.
Writer’s block comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s a little brain-blip, where it seems impossible to think anymore and your brain itself seems to hurt. This experience of writer’s block is fairly easily handled. Usually taking a short break will do it. Many (many) years ago in college, we used to call this process taking a “psych break.” And our methods were as varied as the person needing the break: Take a walk, a nap, or a swim. Run the perimeter of the campus. Eat something. Don’t eat something, but get a cup of tea or a coffee. Read another subject. Get a shower. Watch 30 minutes of TV. When my husband gets stuck in professional writing, he gets his brain back in gear by heading for the sofa and closing his eyes; his hard drive of a brain whirrs in the background whether he sleeps or not, and he gets back up ready to work. I swim or walk. So much of my thinking is done in the “doing” mode. Getting a little stuck usually takes a little action (or inaction, as it may be). One key, however, is to return to the writing task when the psych break is done! Another key is to change modalities: If you’re trying to type and it’s not working, pick up a pencil. If you’re handwriting on a notepad and it’s not working, verbalize your ideas through your cell phone’s speech-to-text app or using Dragon® NaturallySpeaking or something similar. Talk out the problem to a writing coach who can serve as secretary and take dictation of your your ideas. Share ideas with friends, who also may need a break. Of course, sometimes writer’s block is a bigger issue, a full-blown, out and out case of WRITER’S BLOCK, where there is no getting past the blank page or one sentence keeps begging to be reworked and you just have to keep going and the paper will never be done on time and the . . . . That size writer’s block calls for an immediate appointment with your coach, so she or he can help you get moving again!
- If you’re blocked and can’t make the ideas flow, change positions. Get a different chair or sit on the sofa or bed. Turn off the music or turn on the music or change the style of music. Dance. Run. Walk. Shadow box. Hula hoop. You get the idea: do something different. Then, return to writing.
- If you’ve tried those options, change writing venues. Move from the computer to the page, from the page to a voice recorder, from the voice recorder to a live talk with someone who cares about your writing—like a coach. Then, return to writing.
- Stare that blank page in the eye and defeat it by scribbling, writing a list, writing stream-of-conscious thoughts, journaling, or doing other common brainstorming activities. Turn off the computer screen and just type without seeing what you’re writing. Wait until after you’ve written to review and consider it. Then, return to writing.
- If all else fails, you may be too tired or distracted to write at that time, and you may need to change tasks. Move from writing to math by balancing your checkbook. Clean up the kitchen and put away all debris on the counters. Clean off your desk. Take out the recycling. Walk the dog. The idea here is to do something that will free up writing time in the near future. Then, return to writing.
- Writer’s block can be pretty serious especially when there’s a degree or a job for which the writing is being prepared. It’s not a mental illness, but writer’s block can come from deep parts of our past experiences with writing or from subconscious thoughts about ourselves, our topics, or even our committees and/or editors. Take what the block is telling you seriously by giving it attention, taking a break if needed, and talking about it with a skilled writing coach who can help you figure out what’s going on. Then, once again, return to writing.
When you sit down to write, consider for whom you are writing. If it is a scholarly piece of writing, you want to address other scholars. This audience would have a similar background and a knowledge base that allows the reader to come to your writing at a certain level.
If you are writing for a more general audience, you need to give more background on what you are writing so that the masses can understand the material as some will not be coming to your writing from a scholarly point.
Sometimes you may be writing for a mixed audience that would consist of both experts in the field and a more general public. This audience is more difficult to address in your writing, as you need to keep a balance to make sure you are appealing to both audiences and that both audiences can follow your argument.
Whoever your audience is, keep your audience in mind when you are writing. When you go to revise your work, ask yourself if your audience will be able to follow your line of reasoning. Ask a coach to help you make sure your audience can relate to what you have written.
If you’re the kind of person who is reading these blogs on the Defend and Publish website, you’re the kind of person who works hard to write well. You’ve probably struggled to come up with a clever turn of phrase. Maybe you’ve spent weeks alone in your University’s library trying to locate the evidence you need to support the main argument of your entire dissertation. You’ve written and rewritten. And then inspiration hit; the gears in your head turned; you found the right way to make your point, and you feel proud of your work, indeed. Now, imagine someone else using your carefully written words as their own, essentially stealing all the hard work and frustration you put in to craft and express your ideas. That’s just about the last thing you’d want to discover, right? While students are repeatedly told not to plagiarize, it still happens, and it is something that must be avoided at all costs. Plagiarism is representing the words or ideas of another as your own. Submitting papers that you haven’t written yourself is only the most blatant form of plagiarism. Plagiarism also includes, but is not limited to: copying another person’s papers; inappropriate collaboration with another student or writer; and verbatim copying, close paraphrasing, pasting in, or recombining published materials, including materials from the Internet, without appropriate citation. You’d rightly call a person who stole a twenty-dollar bill from your wallet a thief. Stealing somebody else’s words or ideas is no different. Fortunately, when it comes to writing, we have a way to respectfully borrow through appropriate quotation and citation strategies. Strong scholarship is built on the foundation of strong research, which means you will encounter words and ideas that express your point better than you could yourself. In itself, there is nothing wrong with using the work and words of another scholar, but you must give credit. After all, you want the same respect for your hard work!
- Learn when you need to cite another person’s work. This includes both direct, word-for-word quoting as well as paraphrasing.
- Locate a reference to teach you the various formatting guidelines associated with your discipline’s preferred style (for example: APA, MLA, Chicago).
- When in doubt, ask someone for an explanation. Many universities have writing centers with tutors who can help and some websites offer cogent guidance.
- For in-depth, one-on-one help, hire a writing coach. It’s the coach’s job to teach you how to avoid making writing errors. Plagiarism is a big—but easily avoidable—mistake.
When you receive comments, whether from your dissertation committee or a journal, keep in mind that a reviewer’s purpose is to submit comments. However, the motivation for each comment can be confusing. Sometimes the comment is representative of what the reviewer is thinking at that moment. Sometimes the comment is a reflection of your committee’s dynamics. But sometimes, the comments are incredibly helpful in transforming your ideas and improving your writing. These are the comments that make wading through the crowded field worthwhile.
I know. Your ideas are always good. Sure, so are mine. No, not really. A professor once said to a friend of mine, “Not every idea is a good idea” in response to her earliest dissertation concept. She was hurt. But she took it to heart and refined her thinking. Her next idea was better and the third one was on the mark. The truth is that we will have many ideas in our lives, some brilliant and others not so brilliant. If we’re honest, not many will be truly brilliant or even very original. I’m sorry. That means you and me, too. So, what then? Discard it? Abandon the thought? No, write it down. Play it out with outlines and brainstorming of connections. Read about it. Think hard: What will people get from my work if I continue down this path? Is this something that I want to study but in my spare time? Is this something I want to spend the next several professional years working on? Why? What is useful about it? What is unique about it? How can I take the basic idea and turn it to something rich and special and of importance to my colleagues or society? Sure, some ideas are for mundane presentations, a rehashing of the known world to share with colleagues who may not yet know those things and who need a good introduction to them. But other ideas are for simmering in the pot, recasting, and pulling back until a kairotic or “right time.” What is your idea?
- Honor your capacity to think and allow yourself to spend time with ideas that may have genuine value (in other words, the world needs them).
- Keep a notebook of your ideas. Sometimes you’ll find that they connect in interesting, unexpected, and unique ways over a period of time, enriching each part of the idea until it becomes a critical piece of thought that others should hear about.
- Don’t be afraid to abandon an idea forever or for a period of time. Even some good ideas aren’t worth the effort they take to birth. Others can be put aside for years. For example, I recently had an article accepted that I had begun 20 years ago. The time was right to revise the article when I found a coauthor who could speak to knowledge of a special issue that I lacked and didn’t want to learn. With her help, this good idea was reborn and will be published. It’s not too late to revive that idea that you put aside a while back.
- Above all, keep thinking. Keep writing. Stay open to your critics because they have useful advice to offer. But don’t abandon your own good ideas and intentions when you are sure of them and ready to make the effort to bring them to fruition.
- When you can, bring your idea to a writing coach who can help you examine it objectively and with an eye toward your audience and possible publication. Even people outside your field can offer thoughtful questions to help spur new thinking.
When you have a long project, like a dissertation or scholarly book, you are writing, it is best to have writing rituals that will keep you on track. Most writers who are successful in their work write daily and schedule the time into their day to make sure they can focus on the task ahead.
It is best to write at a time that works in your schedule. Don’t tell yourself you’ll get up and write and 4 AM if you are not an early riser, as you most likely will not get up to write. Instead, schedule a time to write when you can close a door and have some quiet (when your family is asleep; when the kids are at school; between a regularly scheduled meeting when you have a block of time, etc.). Put your writing time on your calendar, and treat your writing time as you would an important commitment.
Remove distractions: the laundry will wait; Facebook will still be there; email does not need to be responded to immediately. Put your phone on silence so a call or text won’t disturb you. If necessary, disable your Internet connection so you can’t go online to shop or surf the ‘net.
Give yourself a realistic goal. Setting up a realistic goal will allow you to be successful. You cannot write your dissertation in a day (or a week or a month). Instead, approach your writing by telling yourself that you will write on a specific section of a chapter for this long each day (2 hours; every morning; after dinner, etc). Doing so allows you to meet your goals and finish the project at hand.
Between coursework, research projects, teaching responsibilities, and—hopefully—a personal life, dissertators are juggling a lot of balls. In those busy situations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and start feeling out of control. We don’t feel like we have time to finish and clean up from one task before moving on to the next one. Papers stack up; library books go unreturned; dishes sit unwashed because we just don’t think we have the time. And then we wonder why we can’t focus in our work space! While everyone has different writing styles and habits, concentration is the one thing we all need. Most of us wouldn’t sit down to write in room of full of crying children or blaring television sets simply because we’d be distracted by the cacophony surrounding us and never get anything done. Our desks are similar in that messiness is like noisiness. We need space to lay out our research notes, calendar, or the exams to grade by tomorrow morning, for instance. It’s difficult to see what we need to accomplish if all we can see is a mess and we have to dig through it to find everything. Instead, create a work space that is comfortable and relaxing. Make sure you have good light. Make sure your tools are readily accessible. Make sure you can reach for that pen without spilling a half-eaten bowl of cereal all over the only copy of that eighteenth-century manuscript that you absolutely require to finish your project. Your brain works hard to make connections among various materials already, so don’t make it any harder than necessary by forcing your brain to wade through unnecessary clutter.
- Survey your work space. Decide what you need to complete the task at hand and what you’ve already finished working with. Put away books and papers that you’re through with.
- Throw out or wash anything that’s growing mold or other unidentifiable substances.
- Create a filing system and sort through any papers you think you need to keep. It’s a good idea not to throw out notes, though, in case you need them again. A cardboard box is a good temporary storage place.
- Voila! Sit down and work cleanly in an uncluttered space.
- If you find yourself feeling cluttered as well as living cluttered, get a writing coach to help you sort through the clutter and get back on track!
Incorporating Changes into Your Writing Is a Multi-Step Process. When you start incorporating comments and suggestions, keep in mind that every change can impact the whole piece through a ripple effect. Merely going through a list of revision suggestions one-by-one in isolation will produce a disjointed draft. Avoid the patchwork approach to responding to readers’ comments by being strategic and making it a multi-step process. First read all the comments to assess their purpose. Once you’ve assessed the comments, then start to address them.
Being finished with a piece of writing is an interesting concept. In some ways, writing is never finished. We can always think of a different way to say something or something new to put into an article, essay, dissertation, or book. Sometimes, if we’re really involved in the piece, we’ll wake up at night with ideas we hadn’t considered before or that we’ve reworked in sleep (Hint: Keep a notebook and pen handy for those moments of brilliance!). Sometimes, my best ideas come when I’m in the pool swimming laps. No notebook available there, but I write them down or speak them into my cell phone when I return to the locker room. So, being truly finished is a rare thing. You’ll know you’ve hit “finished” when the project not only feels done, but it actually is done and defended successfully or published in some manner. What comes next? For people who have worked long and hard on a lengthy piece of writing like a thesis or book, sometimes it’s necessary to take time away from writing anything but certainly from that project. I’ve known people who won’t even look at a dissertation for two or more years after it is turned in! But for most of us, being finished means starting anew. It offers the opportunity to look at the problem we’ve worked through a different way or to examine an entirely new issue. Writing as an adult professional isn’t like writing for school projects. We typically don’t do them just because we have to; hopefully, we write because we have something to say and want to say it to others who can benefit from reading it. For writers or for anyone who must write in a profession, endings mean new beginnings. With luck and intention, those endings open up new opportunities, new delights in exploring ideas, and new understandings of the world in which we live.
- Keep a list of new ideas while you’re working on small and larger projects. Be ready to whittle down those ideas to ones that really matter to you. Get started as soon as you feel the urge to read, reflect, and write.
- Take a break after finishing a piece of writing, even if it is only for a few days. That’s a good time to clean off your desk of notes, books, and other debris. Take in a movie. Read a suspense or romance novel. Honor the ending with a dinner out with someone you care about. Then, with a freshened mind, begin anew.
- Avoid beginning a writing project just to get promoted or just to be published. That’s the worst possible reason to write. It will dull your brain, make you feel coerced into doing something odious, and cause you to struggle with words at every level. If you must publish for promotion and tenure, then find something truly worthy of your efforts. Remember that the best reason to write and publish something is that you have something of value to say and share.
- If you must write and hate writing or frequently experience a block, get a writing coach to help you figure out your next project and how to develop that project to the best of your advantage. Good coaches help with all aspects of writing—the soup to nuts of idea development, organization, drafting, offering feedback, discussing emotional blocks and cognitive concerns, and revising and editing.
- Finish something, yes! Be pleased and proud! And then, start anew!
Sitting in the same location to write each day allows a writer to have a ritual. Often, sitting at your desk or your favorite coffee shop signals to your brain that it’s time to write.
However, if you find yourself in your regular place and get stuck, a change in location may help. A trip to the library may help you refocus. You can also try a new coffee house to see if the different vibe helps you write. If you’re home, try another room in your house/apartment to see if a different view will allow you to focus on the writing task at hand.
If you’re still stuck after trying various locations, contact a coach for some assistance on overcoming writer’s block.
Advisors can be tricky. They’re around to help you accomplish your goal, but they also have their own projects and responsibilities. They don’t have unlimited time to prod you and it’s not their job to force you. As a dissertator, one of the most crucial things you can do is to maintain an open line of communication with your advisor because it keeps you moving forward in a positive direction and it helps keep relationships clean. When you communicate your progress freely, your advisor isn’t left wondering what you’ve been doing with your time and you can ask for and receive the help you need when you need it. Maintaining a relationship with your advisor is always easier than rebuilding one, so don’t let yours fall into disrepair by failing to answer emails, even if you’re nervous about your progress or lack of it. You need your advisor’s guidance, so hiding from his/her emails won’t help you get finished. In fact, it’s best to practice professional assertion and send regular emails that communicate what you’re doing even when you’re not ready to send drafts to the advisor. Strive for a formal and polite tone, especially in the early stages of a relationship. There’s time for a more collegial relationship to grow, but don’t force it. Make a plan—hopefully with your advisor’s input—and, as much as humanly possible, stick to the schedule you set. This includes providing regular emails to your advisor informing him/her of how your work is progressing and identifying potential problems before they grow out of control. Be firm (and reasonable) about requests for help, and keep an open mind. There may be times when you don’t like what your advisor has to say, but that doesn’t mean she or he doesn’t have a point you need to consider thoughtfully. Similarly, you don’t have to sit back and passively accept all critique without respectful rebuttal or do everything your advisor suggests in an unquestioning manner. Part of completing a dissertation is maturing into a professional that your advisor and committee would recommend to others as a potential colleague. To that end, you need to learn how to take feedback, use what is helpful, and find your way through this monograph-length project. You alone have the responsibility to write your dissertation, so be assertive about your goals and your plan for meeting them. Emails to your advisor should serve a purpose. You’re both busy; don’t waste your own or your advisor’s time.
- Know how and when to approach your advisor. Don’t fall off the face of the Earth and don’t inundate your advisor with meaningless emails.
- Email regularly with confidence and in a polite tone. You have a right to receive feedback and help. You’re paying for it through your tuition. However, that doesn’t mean your advisor will jump the minute she or he reads your email, so be patient and send a polite reminder if necessary.
- Keep a record of your email correspondence and notes from phone or face-to-face meetings to help resolve problems if miscommunications do occur.
- If you’re hiding from your advisor for fear of letting him/her down, know that you can’t hide forever and you can’t finish your dissertation without an advisor. It’s best to jump in and get the reintroductions over with as soon as possible.
- Speak up early when a problem arises. Help your advisor to help you by asking for what you need to get through the problem. Be assertive about your own goals.
Time management is key to accomplishing any task, especially one as complex as a dissertation. Too often students get overwhelmed or stuck and lose track of not only how to move forward, but how to do it in a timely fashion. In those situations, the most useful thing you can do to help yourself (assuming you’ve been in helpful contact with your advisor) is to establish a calendar and stick with it. No easy task, that; we know. So start small by setting daily goals related to your dissertation project. This could be a simple goal like creating a brief outline of a chapter-in-progress or identifying relevant library material. A more ambitious goal might be producing a pre-determined number of pages per writing day. Once you have daily goals set, start thinking bigger. What are your weekly and monthly goals? Identify them, break them into manageable pieces, and write them down so they’re staring you in the face. Many of us don’t have the will power to stick to a calendar in the face of other, possibly more entertaining, activities, especially if we’re already struggling. That’s where an outside voice enters your life. Your calendar isn’t just for yourself. Let a writing buddy, your significant other, or a dissertation coach know your plans so there is someone else who is aware of your goals. This person can help keep you on track. She or he can help you refocus if your attention wanders and can recognize your effort when you meet your goals. This person doesn’t necessarily need to know much about your topic, but you must be comfortable sharing both your successes and you failures, so choose wisely. If you get stuck, don’t despair. Recognize that we all have bad days no matter how diligently we work and pick back up tomorrow. Each day’s work adds up and before you realize it, you can have a finished draft ready to hand off to your advisor.
- Set daily tasks related to your dissertation project.
- Move on to weekly and monthly goals. Try working backward from your desired date of completion to create a goals-related calendar that makes sense.
- Put your daily, weekly, and monthly goals into writing. This could be a paper calendar or your phone or tablet’s calendar program, but make sure you see it every day.
- Choose a person to hold you accountable for meeting the goals you’ve set for yourself. This person should be someone you trust.
- Hire a coach to help you identify reasonable goals and troubleshoot writing, planning, time management, and committee-related challenges.
Advisers. You can’t live with them; you can’t live without them. Actually, most of the time, your adviser is a good ally to the dissertation project. This person—for some reason—has opted to work with you for a lengthy gig that may take a few years. That’s quite a commitment to you and your potential! At some point, hopefully, you had (and still have) a good relationship with him or her. Sometimes, though, the relationship sours, and you may need outside help figuring out how to manage this important association. It’s important to remember that your adviser is not a writing coach. She’s not a therapist for writer’s block or marital problems. He’s not a doctor of medicine to figure out whether any malaise you experience is physical or psychological. Your adviser’s primary job is to advise you on the topic and the written product of the dissertation. That means you need to do the work and provide the dissertation to him or her in whatever form is required. Some advisers want to see the chapters as they are written; others want to see whatever you’ve gotten done in perhaps a month or two months; while still others only want to see the entire piece. But advisers also owe you something. Most dissertation students still pay tuition while they dissertate. That means you’re a paying student who is entitled to your professor’s time and feedback. To that end, it is the adviser’s job to provide you with timely face-to-face, Skype, or phone meetings and written or other feedback on dissertation chunks. When months go by and the adviser hasn’t responded to your request for a meeting or for feedback, something is badly wrong. If you have provided your best efforts to write the dissertation and don’t hear back from the adviser in a reasonable time frame (hint: months of no contact is not reasonable), you should change tactics and get your needs met immediately. Yes, you are entitled to this help!
- Begin with an adviser with whom you can work. If forced into a relationship that is less than ideal (and, yes, this does happen—often for political reasons in the department), find an ally right away who can help you plan to manage the relationship. A writing coach is one person who can help.
- Be accessible to your adviser, keep him or her in the loop of your progress with regular (bi-monthly, at least) emails or calls, and be appreciative of the time you receive. Be polite and lean more to formality than informality in emails because one day they may become evidence of a relationship that isn’t working as it should.
- If the relationship sours, try to figure out what, if anything, you can change about your own approach to the interpersonal dynamic or to your dissertation writing. Some responsibility will be in both camps. If changing your own behavior isn’t sufficient, try talking to your adviser honestly and without undue emotion (you can cry later!) about what you perceive to be wrong and what you need for the relationship to work.
- Talk to another committee member who may be able to provide you with the guidance you need, but don’t pit one committee member against another! That makes problems worse and you’ll most likely lose. Remember that eventually you’ll move on with or without the degree and university colleagues will need to keep their relationships cordial with or without you.
- If all else fails—if you cannot get a response from the adviser or if you and he or she cannot get along—go to the graduate dean. The university has something invested in your graduation, and you’re a paying student. You do have options other than to suck up a bad relationship. Be prepared to outline the problem; state fairly and clearly what you have done to mitigate it; describe what results your efforts have wrought, if any; and ask for what you need in order to finish the dissertation successfully. If possible, offer your choice of a reasonable defense date for completion or, if needed, make a request for a new adviser.
- Managing the committee and working well with the adviser are core skills you’ll need in any academic or professional life after the PhD. Take charge, think and act carefully, and enjoy what you can about your future colleagues. They’ll respect you for your efforts.
- If you need help, call a coach who can walk you through the challenges of navigating adviser communications and interactions. You don’t have to go it alone!
Writing projects, especially lengthy ones like dissertations and books, are hard work. There are lots of moving parts and changing ideas we need to keep straight to express our thoughts clearly.
Advisors, committee members, and publishers sometimes make suggestions or set requirements whose purpose can be difficult to understand. It can be hard to break up such a large project into manageable pieces. Setting a reasonable schedule and sticking to it is also hard.
Take the dissertation, for example. It requires several specific kinds of evidence to be presented in fairly standard forms. To write a quality dissertation, you need to be able to learn and juggle each of those items and many more. It’s no wonder that the task often feels overwhelming. Advisors, research, writing, schedules, evidence, literature reviews and methodologies—it may feel like too much for a single person to master
That’s when you need to ask for help. Maybe getting help is as simple as asking someone you trust to listen to you vent after an emotionally draining week. But sometimes, help needs to be more formalized, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s why dissertation and writing coaches like the ones at Defend & Publish exist.
In the early stages of particularly long projects, you may find yourself struggling to formulate a topic or articulate research questions. Later, you might be unsure about how to write a strong literature review or to figure out what a massive pile of data actually means. Toward the end, you may need help with navigating your committee or general formatting and editing requirements. These are all places where a coach legitimately can help shoulder the weight of finishing a dissertation. Similarly, book projects and even academic articles for publication can benefit from a coach’s eyes.
Working with a coach isn’t cheating. Coaches offer necessary support and guidance so that you can successfully complete important professional writing tasks.
- Think about what kind of help you need: a friendly ear, a surrogate advisor, a writing coach to help you maintain balance or a productive pace.
- Act early. Don’t wait until you’re drowning in your dissertation or other writing project. It’s easier to finish a project well having started it with support than to have to regroup in mid-project. (But it’s also better to regroup in mid-project than to flounder alone!)
- Contact a coach like the ones at Defend & Publish who can help with a wide variety of issues throughout the writing project process from conceptualization to completion.
One of the most challenging parts of writing a dissertation is the need to work—perhaps for the first time—with a committee of scholars who will judge your writing and your preparedness for the degree. It can be difficult to juggle the need to listen to these people and follow their advice with the need to write a dissertation that matches your vision. The work becomes even more challenging when you have a conflict with one or more committee members. This is the time to remember that you are not at the mercy of each person on the committee. Your adviser is your primary connection to the committee, and keeping a good working relationship with him or her is key (we consider what to do when the adviser-advisee relationship sours in another bloglet). Therefore, work as closely as you are able with the adviser when challenges arise with other committee members. But keep an ear open to what they say, too. Their opinions may not be what you want to hear, but often, when we least want to hear something about our ideas or writing, we most need to hear just that!
The idea is to balance the feedback you’re getting against what you’re seeing in your own idea development and writing processes. Try out their ideas. At the same time, know that what they’re saying comes from a particular point of view. Check out that point of view with the individual or committee as a whole: I hear you say XZY. Is that what you mean? How do you think I should put that into action?
Asking questions and seeking clarification can be especially helpful as you decide how to treat conflicting advice. When possible, send a copy of important email communication to your entire committee. Always copy your adviser on communications that involve crucial decisions. Let your adviser go to bat for you when needed.
- Realize that this committee ultimately exists to help you. Let them do that.
- Keep the committee up to date on your progress. Don’t let months go by without connecting with them.
- Tell committee members your timeline and deadlines. They don’t keep that kind of information at their fingertips, so help them plan when to provide you with feedback by giving them key information.
- Avoid the “divide and conquer” approach to managing the committee by treating all of them as esteemed professors who have their own work schedules and who have your best interests at heart.
- Keep your adviser even more closely aware of what is happening so that you can ask for his or her help when a committee member’s advice conflicts with the adviser’s or otherwise is confusing.
- Managing the committee and working well with the adviser are core skills you’ll need in any academic or professional life after the PhD. Take charge, think and act carefully, and enjoy what you can about your future colleagues. They’ll respect you for your efforts.
- If you need help, call a coach who can walk you through the challenges of navigating committee communications and interactions. You don’t have to learn everything by trial and error, and you don’t have to go it alone!
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