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Getting the Writing Done: Completing Your Paper, Thesis, or Dissertation

Getting the Writing Done: Completing Your Paper, Thesis, or Dissertation

This morning, I attended a workshop, "Getting the Writing Done: Completing Your Paper, Thesis, or Dissertation," at The Graduate Center, CUNY led by Dr. Karen Starr with eleven participants. I thought it'd be good for others to get to see my notes from the workshop.

We opened with a reflection on what we needed/wanted help with. Everyone got a few moments to reflect on it (and write it out in a pre-workshop questionnaire) and then we were asked to share out with the whole group. The pre-workshop questionnaire asked for our goals for today's workshop and asked us to rank from 1-5 (not at all, a little, somewhat, mostly, definitely) the following questions. You can do it yourself, as a thought experiment! I found it very helpful to assess my own situation.)

  • How difficult is it for you to complete academic work?
  • Do you have trouble with time management?
  • Do you have difficulty concentrating?
  • Do you feel you have learning difficulties that may interfere with your academic success?
  • Are financial pressures impeding your academic work?
  • Are family responsibilities impeding your academic work?
  • How much do anxiety and stress interfere with your academic work?
  • How much does depression interfere with your work?
  • How much does self-doubt interfere with your work?
  • How much does alcohol or other substance use interfere with your work?
  • How much do you enjoy doing your academic work?
  • Is your advisor helpful for you in moving forward with your work?
  • How supportive is your family in encouraging your academic goals?
  • How supportive are your friends in encouraging your academic goals?
  • How confident are you about moving forward with your academic work?
  • How confident are you that you will complete your degree?
  • How confident are you that you will find suitable employment after completing your degree?

Dr. Starr remarked that all of our anxieties are shared with many other people both in the room and in academia in general.

The conversation was going to start by talking about topic selection. However, because of an audience question from the audience, we started, instead, on the topic of managing one’s adviser.

When you are in a doctoral program, you’re expected to be more independent than undergraduate students. When choosing advisers, many people choose experts in their fields or based on their name-recognition. Those qualities, however, Dr. Starr pointed out don’t necessarily translate into good advising. She then suggested that two of the important qualities in a good adviser is being good at relating to students and who does not intimidate you too much.

If you already have an adviser and you’re in an impossible situation, you can always change your adviser. However, Dr. Starr had some concrete suggestions for how to manage one’s work with the adviser that you already have:

  • One big mistake is that you think you can't expect anything at all from advisers. That’s wrong: you can set expectations, by asking, with your adviser: "I would like to meet once per month to make sure that I'm on-track. I need that because I can’t be in a dark room, writing on my own."
  • If you get harsh (bad) feedback, sit down with them. What parts of the feedback is the more important? Can you ever be right with the particular people on your committee? 
  • It’s important to remember: It’s OK to push back. You know more than anyone else on the subject. So, if you disagree with something that your adviser or committee member says, you should push back. Part of the process is moving from student to scholar, and being a scholar is taking ownership of your subject and standing by it.
  • A lot of people are afraid of sounding stupid (talking about unstructured ideas: “This is what I think”) but you should speak to your adviser about these things. You risk hearing that your idea isn’t good but avoiding speaking to them only makes things worse, especially if you do all the work without speaking to your adviser. 
  • The more you set up the constraint around your expectations, often your adviser will respect you more.
  • You pay tuition, you deserve to have your adviser collaborate with you in certain ways. Monthly meetings, and regular guidance are what you’re entitled to.
  • When sending material to the adviser, make sure you keep them up to date on what you’ve been doing, and what your expectations are on what feedback you want from them (general points on your topic or a close-reading of your sentence structures, spelling, grammar, etc.).

Dr. Starr then addressed the idea of topic selection. Though it may sound trivial, she pointed out that when writing anything, try as hard as you can to choose something you’re really interested in. It helps keep you motivated! If you’re not sure what’s interested in you—talk to friends.

  • Once you have a topic, it really helps to not reinvent the wheel—if you have a general topic you’re interested in, see if you can write in the “global” subject for your class papers. Then, your writing and reading for those papers will matter for your dissertation in the end.
  • Keep it pretty simple. People think of dissertation as a magnum opus. It should be a slice that can be submitted and get through your Ph.D. program.
  • Your proposal is not carved in stone. If you find that you’re not as interested in what you said you were going to do, or if you find it getting too big, you can change it/make it narrower. Go to your adviser and speak to them about it.
  • If you get intimidated by writing, read other people’s dissertations, theses, or papers, so you can see that you’re not as bad as you think you are.

The next topic on our agenda was that of having a writing schedule and sticking to it. Dr. Starr provided some really helpful suggestions here as well:

  • If you’re doing a long time, or you do a lot of other things (other projects, work, children), you need to take into account your life. Literally look at a calendar, and write in the things you really have to do, where you have to show up. See where you can carve out space where you can get writing done.
  • Set up your writing time-space as a sacred space, where nothing interferes. She got up at 4 am and worked until 7 am in order to finish her dissertation (this may not work for anyone).
  • Think about the time of day you are most active—are you a morning, evening person? Are you more awake before your toddler gets up?
  • Where are you more comfortable writing? Find your space.
  • When the weather gets nice, you can grab your laptop and sit in the park. Change the space where you write.
  • Be realistic: You cannot write for 8-10 hours per day. A really nice amount would be 2 hours of writing per day. Don’t say: I’m going to write all-day Thursday. It’s unrealistic. And you will feel like you’re always failing—set yourself up for success instead. (See goal-setting below.)
  • If you worry all day about not working, you’re working without getting anything done.
  • Sprinkle your writing-time through the week. If you work on the weekend, it’ll get monumental if you say you’re working the entire weekend—and it won’t be enjoyable.

One audience member asked: What happens if you sit down and you’re stuck. Not a single word comes out on the page? So we turned to the idea of being stuck or getting unstuck:

  • Being stuck means that you are also processing what you’re working on. Sometimes you’re stuck because you’re not sure what you need to do. Then get up and do something else. Your mind will keep working. Go take a shower, take a nap. Don’t sit through it.
  • This is helpful—if you only work once a week, your mind does not keep working on the dissertation.
  • Another way to get through being stuck—make a mess. Just write. Start getting your ideas down on the paper. Keep writing.
  • To avoid getting stuck, write notes to oneself in writing, in brackets or all-caps: "[write about patriarchy here]". Sometimes we’re not up to doing the writing/research tasks at the very moment. Then leave it for another time.

Someone in the audience added a comment that she sets an alarm for 30 minutes and then (at least sometimes) it helps her focus. Dr. Starr added that procrastination is about avoidance; it’s your way to deal with anxiety about a monumental or undoable thing until a deadline comes up and competes with that anxiety. If you set up 30 minutes as your own deadline. You put the pressure on: you don’t have time to be stuck or perfect.

Dr. Starr then spoke about two topics that are often related to each other, and affect graduate students’ work: Perfectionism and impostor syndrome.

Perfectionism, Dr. Starr remarked, often comes from judgment and self-criticism is our past. If we have gotten feedback from professors, that becomes voices in our heads. They become judges that we try to please. When we write, the thing that often makes us stuck is the critic in our minds—it’s easily an issue for most people.

What often happens is that we’re trying to be smart. And you’re trying to show the judges that you’re smart. It usually stops most of us, especially in advanced education where we’re trying to prove that we fit in here.

Dr. Starr’s solution for perfectionism can be called “flipping the script”: Because you’re immersing yourself into what you’re writing about, you probably know more, and thus, we should try to write about our topic as we would explain it to undergraduates rather than trying to sound smart. It means you don’t have to use hard language but direct and clear expressions. It makes you sound much smarter than when you use academic language and sentence structures.

Impostor syndrome, Dr. Starr explained, is that feeling that most of us in graduate program have experienced—that we’re really faking it, that we’re not as smart as we look, that we don’t have what it takes, that we’ll never be working in academia. It has to do with feeling like we have to sound smart. Her advice is to firstly, understand that we’re all in the same boat (even our professors experience impostor syndrome) and, once again, to flip the script: to understand that we need to be clear in our writing rather than sound smart.

Another interesting strategy that Dr. Starr brought up in order to deal with impostor syndrome is to acknowledge the “fakedness” of academia (and any other profession). The way to feel like you “are” something, is to pretend that you are: Faking it, is a solution to the feeling that you’re faking it. It may help you be more confident.

We ended with a quick summary of some other common problems for dissertators:

  • If you have a chunk of time set aside for writing but you find that you don’t get to write about something in that time: write a quick note to yourself in the document about what you were going to write and how it relates to what you were writing about. Then, returning to the writing will be easier.
  • If you find yourself not able to write about anything or something in particular: Find something that’s not intimidating or something that you’re interested in writing
  • If you find that you can’t write at all: Do something else with that time—make a list of the things that you need to do, that are unrelated to the writing (articles to download, books to get from the library). Better use of your time than just sitting there.
  • If you're really, really feeling stuck: Step away from your work. Try to attend a conference, if you can, and talk about your work. It can (and often will) inspire you to have a thought about your conference. The common impulse is to burrow yourself into a hole and avoid everyone in the profession—refrain from doing that.
  • If you’re nervous about not “getting into the flow” of writing: First off, accept how long it takes for you to get into the flow. Secondly, it sometimes helps to think: “What if I was teaching this to someone?” And remember, you don’t have to sound smart. (An audience member added, try to do all the preparatory work for your writing while in transit before sitting down to write. That way, you may have an easier time getting into the flow.)

Dr. Starr left us with one last handy tip, which she cautiously said might not work for everyone: Try to piggyback writing on another task. If you have to watch a film clip or see a play, for instance, write about it immediately afterward. Try to tie in the writing to other things that you’re doing anyway.

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