Category Archives: Grad School

It Takes as Long as it Takes

I recently recovered from finished my dissertation, which turned out well, and some of my friends, colleagues, and faculty advisors have encouraged me to share about my experience.  So consider this the first installment of my blog series on such advice.

Throughout my time in graduate school, and especially during the dissertation process, I heard graduate student after graduate student worrying or lamenting about how long the dissertation process takes.  These concerns are understandable in light of the length of doctoral programs and the large amount of emotional, mental, and even physical energy that they require of students.   These concerns make even more sense when you take account of the fact that graduate students are already somewhat fatigued by the time they entire the dissertation phase of the program.  However, time should not be a concern.  The process takes as long as it takes.

There are many books on the market that come up with somewhat arbitrary schedules for students to take to finish the dissertation faster.  Work for at least 1 hour a day.  Write one page a day before breakfast or before bed.  While I understand the intention of such advice to provide students with more structure, the exact nature of these regimens is, as I mentioned before, arbitrary and, particularly if you are writing a social science or humanities dissertation, not even helpful or realistic.  Here’s why:

1)The nature of dissertation work requires extensive reading, reviewing, and incorporating of a significant amount of detailed information and setting aside only one hour per work session will result in wasting a large portion of that time remembering where you left off, reviewing your plan for what to do next, and rereading relevant source materials.  You might avoid some of this wasted time by devoting one of your one hour sessions to planning, and you might get away with it more during the research stage of the dissertation.  However, in my experience one hour is rarely enough to really accomplish anything.

2) The one hour or one page quota will be even less helpful during the writing process, particularly so if your research is in the humanities and social sciences and is qualitative in nature.  During the writing stage the amount of time lost to getting yourself back into the chapter or sub-section of your dissertation for each writing session increases significantly, and when you factor in the incorporation of secondary source materials, primary source or interview quotations and anecdotes, and the development of a sophisticated (read: complex) argument worthy of your dissertation one page of writing may easily take well over an hour after you account for rereading what you wrote the session before to remember where you were going.

My advice: Forget arbitrary quotas and cookie-cutter deadlines for the dissertation process, they will only be a source of frustration when your process starts seeming to take longer you think it should.  Instead, find what works for you.  The spirit of the advice that you should work one hour a day or write one page a day until it is done is still valuable:

You do want to figure out ways to make sure you keep working and keep moving throughout the process.  For more qualitative dissertations, I recommend making sure you devote several significant chunks of time a week to working on your project, especially during the writing phase.  And by significant, I suggest at least four hour chunks of time.  Because each time you sit down to work, and especially each time you sit down to write, it takes a good 10-20 minutes to truly re-position yourself in the project and in your writing, using a longer chunk of time will increase the overall amount of time you spend in the writing “zone” where you are most efficient.  In other words, instead of having a short review and mind resetting process each time you sit down for your hourly session every day, having fewer sessions means less time wasted on review and more time actively engaging in the work that will help you finish faster: the writing itself.

3) Because the dissertation is a long project, both in time and length of final product, working in longer stretches of time enables you to a finish subsection of a dissertation chapter in one sitting as opposed to over the course of an entire week (or perhaps even longer).  It is better to be very productive in two or three sections a week than it is to be marginally productive in shorter sections even if you “force” yourself to work everyday.

4)Finally, developing a work plan that incorporates longer work sessions but fewer of them helps provide you with very important down time “away” from your dissertation that is necessary to maintain sanity during the process.  If you are like me, and I assume at least some people are, you think about your research and writing most of the time when you are not working anyway, but allowing yourself to take days off of intense work sessions will make the process better for you.

Of course, all of this advice centers around your ability to find what research and writing strategies work for you, and gaining an understanding of how you work most efficiently.  The earlier you develop these understandings in the process, the less frustrating the overall experience of researching, writing, and finishing the dissertation will be.  Remember, it takes as long as it takes. 

More dissertation related advice to follow…

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Filed under Academic Writing, General, Grad School, Graduate School Advice

Summer Strategies for Graduate Students Part IV: Professional Development

In two previous posts in this series, I focused on strategies related to reading and writing that graduate students could use over the summer to improve their graduate school experience and prepare for the future. While the reading strategies could benefit any graduate student, many of the writing strategies were more geared toward graduate students with a specific desire to pursue research, publications, and the development of status within their academic fields. I recognize that many graduate students may not be interested in academic writing outside of the requirements of their program, and today I am focusing on other things graduate students can do over the summer to advance their professional development.

      1. Stay Engaged. This is as much a mindset as it is an action, but I have found it to be a key to my development throughout my grad school career. To be sure, most of the strategies I have talked about throughout this series of posts as well as those that I am about to mention are the product of staying engaged over the summer. Yet, staying engaged is also about mundane things such as checking your school email regularly. You never know what sorts of important information might be sent to you over the summer. Checking my email during the summer months helped me land a position as a graduate student researcher that has given me many opportunities to conduct, present, and publish research. I still had to interview to get the position, but if I had been completely checked out that summer I would not have gotten the email that led to the interview. Throughout my time in my doctoral program, I have seen several employment opportunities solicited via email during the summer. So, as tempting as it is to stop checking that school email completely, it might be in your best interests to check in on it throughout the summer.

      2. Maintain your academic relationships. Staying engaged can also be as simple as maintaining relationships with your advisor, other faculty you have taken courses from, your peers in your graduate program as well as those you might have met from other programs at academic conferences or similar events. While the graduate degree you are earning will have only your name on it, working through any graduate program is made exponentially easier by the help of other people (particularly if you are in a doctoral program). Developing and maintaining strong, supportive, and reciprocal relationships with other graduate students in your program or discipline is invaluable once you get to the exams and thesis or dissertation stages (more on this in a later post). And of course, working through the master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation is significantly easier if you can communicate openly with your faculty advisor. So send emails, make phone calls, and have chats over lunch or coffee.

      3. Teach or Volunteer. Teaching a college course and volunteering are two other ways of developing experiences and skills related to your chosen field during the summer. Every program is different, but if you want to teach over the summer chances are you need to apply some time in the winter or spring (but do check that email, you never know what last minute instructor changes might be made because of illness or schedule conflicts that could lead to a potential last minute employment opportunity). Even if you do not plan to enter the academic world after you get your degree, teaching can be valuable. Much like the reading strategies, teaching can provide an opportunity to gain mastery over your field and it may therefore help you down the road when you get the exam stage of the program (and you can make money too, which is always good). While teaching may be more of an option for those in a doctoral program, anyone can volunteer. Volunteering can help you explore the types of jobs that are available in your field and can help you establish valuable social contacts that may be valuable after you graduate. Teaching and volunteering are also two activities that would be good to put on your CV…

      4. Develop your CV. I don’t think it is ever too early to start crafting and re-shaping your curriculum vitae (or vita or résumé or whatever you or your field prefer to call it). In fact, I personally think it should be a constant activity for any graduate student, but the summer offers a good break from other obligations to catch up and add recent activities, positions and experiences to your CV (as well as those things that you know you will be doing in the not too distant future). You never know when a job opportunity might arise that will require you to submit a CV, so it is a good idea to take the summer to update it if you have been neglecting it. The summer also offers a good chance to play around with new CV layouts and formats.

      5. Clarify your goals. If nothing else, the summer offers a good time to reflect on why you are pursuing your graduate degree. Considering and clarifying your goals related to your graduate education can help you make better decisions on how to use the rest of your summer and will help you prioritize your obligations as you advance through the program. If your career goal is to teach in higher education, than you might favor teaching during the summer and school year over developing your own research projects. If you want to eventually take a job in industry, you might take the summer to explore industry opportunities instead of teaching or developing term papers into conference papers. Ultimately, you have a large role in what you get out of your graduate education and clarifying for yourself why you are in grad school can help communicate your needs to your faculty and peers, and it can save you a lot of time, energy, and work in the long run.

The summer can be a useful time for all graduate students. Whether you decide to read, write, or engage in other activities related to your development as a scholar or community leader, making the most of your “time off” can make your life a lot easier as you advance in the program and get closer to entering the workforce.

Earlier Posts in this series:

Part I

Part II

Part III

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Filed under Grad School, Graduate School Advice, Higher Education

Academic Beards

Here is an entertaining blog I read this morning on “The Manuscript Beard,” the beard male members of the professoriate grow when developing a book length project.

It got me thinking about the many types of academic beards I have grown over the course of my college career.  There was the “I’m a freshman in college and just discovered my independence” beard, the term paper beard, the “I finally got through that quarter and I’m not leaving the house for a month” beard, the “I can’t believe I thought it was a good idea to submit so many conference proposals at the same time” beard, and the “written exams” beard.  After I passed my oral exams and advanced to candidacy, I started a dissertation beard, but quickly realized that it would be a very long time until the dissertation process would be over so I shaved that one (though in all fairness it is sort of being continuously regrown.  I have a well-trimmed beard most of the time so my academic beards are not completely brand new growth, but rather result in various full-beards with different areas at completely different stages of development).

These academic beards are one of my ways of dealing with the mental chaos and self-doubt you encounter through out graduate school.  How do you deal with these things?

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Filed under General, Grad School, Higher Education

Summer Strategies for Graduate Students Part III: Writing for Tomorrow Today.

In Part II I shared some strategies for reading over the summer that have worked for me at various stages of my graduate program. Reading over the summer is a great way to increase your knowledge of your field and to get ahead start on program requirements that are looming ahead in the coming academic year. However, reading is not the only activity that graduate students can engage in over the summer that can make their immediate and long-term futures more promising. Today I am going to discuss how graduate students can use the summer to write.

Throughout the academic year, graduate students engage in many activities or encounter ideas that can potentially lead to summer writing projects. Here are a few strategies that I have used in the past to advance my academic livelihood by devoting significant portions of my summer to writing.

      1. The Term-Paper Transformation. In my post on reading I talked about identifying areas of interest that you did not have the opportunity to pursue in detail in your coursework and devote time to reading them over the summer. This strategy is sort of the opposite. Reflect back on the past year of coursework and the research or scholarly projects that you completed as term-papers for your courses. Do any of them stand out? If you find yourself still thinking about a term-paper topic a great deal or if you did particularly well on one of them it is a good idea to take the summer to transform the paper. If you are a younger student, you might begin by meeting with the professor for that course to talk about ways to improve the paper and proceed from there. For more advanced graduate students, I recommend thinking about old term papers as potential future conference papers and, eventually, publications. Conference papers are a nice transitional stage between the term paper stage and the publication stage, and it is never too early to start thinking about presenting at conferences (I will address the issue of conferences in more detail in later posts). Regardless of your goal, however, the important point here is to continue developing promising projects that you began as term papers. Doing this can help advance your thinking, lead you toward potential thesis or dissertation topics, and foster your professional development by introducing you to the process of maturing research or scholarly paper projects. At the beginning, you may need more direct guidance from the faculty in your program, but as you mature as a graduate student you will begin to get a feel for what a term paper needs to transform it into a conference paper.

      2. Controlling the Conference Carousel. Academic conferences occur throughout the year, and the deadlines for proposals to present at them are generally 6-9 months before the conference date. This means that if you are trying to stay active and involved in your field (and that’s never a bad idea) you will likely have both conference proposals and papers at different stages at any given time. The summer is a good time to get control of this conference carousel (or at least get caught up). If you proposed to present at a conference that occurs in the fall, you will likely hear if your paper was accepted by the early to middle portion of the summer. If you were accepted, the summer is the time to write and edit the conference paper (not the fall quarter right before the conference). At the same time, if you’d like to present at a conference that is scheduled for the winter or fall, your proposal would likely be due over the summer, and you would want to save time for that. The conference carousel gets even more intense if you are also developing proposals and papers for your research group as part of a graduate student researcher/research assistant position, and in these cases making the most of the summer is invaluable. The bottom line is that you don’t want to be trying to cram for academic conferences during the academic year. It is unnecessary stress and graduate students already have enough.

      3. Pushing for Publications. Another possible focus of your energy over the summer is developing a conference paper or other serious project into a publication. Here, just as in the term-paper transition strategy, you would want to procure feedback about your work (and a conference is a great place to hear what other people think) and then consider how you want to respond to that feedback. Not all feedback from conference chairs, discussants, panelists, or other colleagues needs to be addressed, but it is always a good idea to pay special attention to their remarks because if you intend to submit your work to a journal it would be sent to experts in your field. I find it best to plan for and pursue several rounds of this feedback-reflection-editing cycle before even considering submission somewhere (hopefully using the various faculty in your program). I find it easier to focus on such a large task during the summer, when I have fewer obligations to the graduate program and the university.

Obviously, these are not the only ways to utilize writing over the summer, but, outside of developing thesis or dissertation-related work, I think these three strategies are the best ways to advance your work while also making your life during the coming academic year easier. The less you have to worry about developing side research projects, conference proposals and papers, or publishing your work during the “school” year, the more you will be able to devote your energies to successfully completing your coursework or other program requirements. And if you can do all that, while still increasing your research and presentation experiences, all the better. Spending some time to write today with your eye on tomorrow is never a bad idea.

Earlier Posts in this series:

Part I

Part II

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Filed under Academic Writing, Conferences, Grad School, Graduate School Advice, Publishing

Hoping for the Return of the Lecture

Here is a post from the Brainstorm blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education on a study that found there were some redeeming aspects of lecturing.  I am all for interactive classrooms and giving students agency in their learning experience, but, like many teaching techniques, it needs to be done well to be effective.  I took plenty of classes in grad school from professors who seldom lectured and my experiences were often underwhelming.  In most cases, I just wanted to hear the professor offer his or her opinion on a topic from time to time and when that didn’t happen I lost interest in what we were doing.  Plus, left unguided by a professor’s expertise, students of all ages can occasionally lead each other into misunderstandings of course materials (I’ve been in a few classes like this as well).  The whole students-teaching-students thing only works if all the students are doing the readings for a course, which, even in grad-level courses, is not something you can assume is happening.  So, here’s hoping for the return of the lecture (at least some of the time).

What do you think?  Should the lecture make a return?

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Filed under Grad School, Higher Education, Teaching