Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

Continue reading “Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)”

The Magic of Motivation

At some point, while you have been reading articles for classes, attending seminars, teaching and occasionally collecting data, you have progressed into the later years of your PhD.  One day you will realize, “Hey, I’m getting there!” and simultaneously feel “Ugh, so much more to do.”  This is the point in time when your motivation is as necessary as your experimental controls.  Why does this point in time happen so abruptly and how do you keep moving past it?

First, let’s briefly consider why this dichotomy of optimism and frustration occurs.  I think it has to do with the grand scope of a PhD program.  The large, amorphous goal is to develop, execute and communicate a project of to-be-determined size, depth and importance.  What you find at the end may be completely different than what you thought when you started.  And there is no simple roadmap of how to get from Point A to Point B while hitting all the landmarks in between.

From Point A to Point B

Our minds (and hearts) often have difficulty wading through the small details of a big picture. To better allow our brains to get to the end point, we need to set smaller, intermediate goals.  Now you may think, “Goal setting is obviously important for getting my papers written and my   experiments completed, but how does this help my motivation?”   Not only do these intermediate goals enable us to manage the day-to-day, they help us see progress on the messy path to Point B.  This article on mindtools.com has some great tips for goal setting and utilizing these goals as a compass toward your big picture.

Goal setting seems like the practical explanation to the question of how to maintain motivation.  I really appreciated this TIME article’s not-so-logical explanation of productivity loss.   Life is not just logic, and emotions alter our productivity and motivation.  So, what to do when you have an experiment that is just not working, your advisor asking you to do more and the feeling of frustration and fatigue inhibiting every reasonable plan of action? Here are three magical suggestions:

  1. Stay Positive: Whatever is going wrong is temporary and not the end.  If you are relating to this article, it is because you are in the middle of the long journey.  This means you have accomplished A LOT on your way to this point.  Remember all of those experiments that have gone well, those papers that you have really liked, that conference talk that was awesome.
  2. Get Rewarded: Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation have this one solid with “Treat Yo’self Day.”  You don’t need a reason – you’ll feel happy and much more excited to get back to the grind.
  3. Get Peer Pressure: You care what your friends think, so use them!  Ask them to push you toward that scholarship deadline or paper outline.  Be deadline buddies and set dates to check in on your progress.

There is no one path to a PhD or one solution for staying motivated, so these tips are as good a place to start as any.  Slow days will come and go.  Stick with it.  There is light at the end of the tunnel…

March Mad-Scientist

It’s probably been too long since I wrote when I have trouble remembering my password to submit this post. There have been times during grad school when I could easily blame laziness as an excuse, but the past four weeks have been the most taxing and stressful of my academic career: finalizing my dissertation.

So here I am, writing this, in my possession a fully revised and edited document containing over 31,000 words thinking that while my defense is still ahead of me, do I feel much different than I did before sending my final draft to my committee? Okay, bad example, that e-mail had so many emotions tangled together before hitting that Send button.  Let’s go back an hour earlier to when I packaged my Word document into a .pdf and finally had time to exhale. Breath in……and…..out.

I was surprised at how little I felt. Now, maybe this isn’t the case for other people, but I had this preconceived notion that finishing your dissertation should feel like this monumental moment in your life, the culmination of 4+ years potentially ending in you never being labeled a “student” again.  That all those sleepless nights or worse, nights you slept and dreamt about your dissertation, were going to stand for something and you’d have this sense of pride and accomplishment. For me, nothing.

Through the process of writing, editing, yelling obscenities at Microsoft Word, editing, fixing graphs in Excel, and (still more) editing, I started to see places in my results that opened up not holes, but passages for future and additional work that could show critical information. Information that would allow our whole research group to make stronger conclusions about our respective individual projects and potentially what they could mean for the scientific community. So, despite not feeling any changes, those thoughts made me realize one thing. It was time for me to go and maybe that was THE difference.

Workshop: Turning your dissertation into a book

The Graduate School-New Brunswick is organizing a workshop, led by Rutgers faculty, on issues to consider in turning your dissertation into a book or article.

Monday, April 6
12:00 – 1:30 PM
College Ave Student Center, Rm. 411

Please RSVP to: cfarber@rci.rutgers.edu

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

Prioritizing Writing

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

To learn more about the author’s suggestions, I suggest borrowing the book from the library or purchasing it.  This book has totally changed my perspective on writing.  While I understand that writing and preparing presentations of my work is just as important as reading background information and working in the lab, I have not been dividing my time accordingly.  Now, I am taking the authors suggestion and planning a few hours every week, on my calendar, just for writing.

So far this strategy has allowed me to more efficiently organize my thoughts and make progress writing emails, blog posts and my dissertation proposal.  I know that writing is viewed differently between humanities and sciences, but this point is relevant for any field.  So, I am eager for others to comment on their own trials and successes with writing productively.

What do you do to prioritize writing?

Workshop Podcasts Now Available

In response to requests, selected Project AGER workshops will now be recorded, when feasible, and posted on the new “Podcasts” page on this blog.

Two podcasts are now available:  Turning your dissertation into a book or article, presented by Chie Ikeya, Assistant Professor, History Department, 2/12/2014, and Careers in Academe: Issues to Consider, presented by Dean Barbara Bender, GSNB.  They are here.