Monday, May 17, 2010

Greetings from Boot Camp / Writing in the Summertime

Dissertation picnic

Our recent Boot Camp was a great success and we welcomed several new first-timers to the dissertating ranks. As we all head into summer, that long stretch of even-more unstructured time, with even more tantalizing things to do other than write your dissertation, here are a few things to keep in mind to help you keep writing (using photos from the most recent Boot Camp!)

Many thanks once again to Nancy Sassaman, helping us make time for Vitamin D.

So much of the writing process happens indoors, cramped over a desk, carpal tunnel extravaganza. Make time for getting outside for brief walks and stretch breaks. You can continue thinking about your work. You can hop on the cell phone and call someone who is supporting you in your writing efforts. You can even bring a draft with you and look over it as you go. But it is important to make time to get outside. It may not seem like much, but it can recharge your batteries.

At the start of each reading / writing /editing /dissertating session, determine what your goals are for that day and write them down.

Choose reasonable, doable goals. Prioritize them. Then start chipping away at them. In the beginning, you'll pick goals that are too ambitious. Everyone does. Don't worry about that. Do your best, and over time, you'll start to refine your sense of what can be achieved in a given period of time. A lot of the process of writing your dissertation is discovering how you work - what you need, how long it takes, what you can reasonably expect. Make goals and fake deadlines, do your best to stick by them, and adjust them as necessary.

Take each day at a time and step by step, you'll finish the diss.

The advice that nutritionists often give to people trying to lose weight: If you have a day where you just blow your diet and go to town, you might feel like you've just lost all the ground you've gained, ruined your diet forever, and should just give up. But it's just one day. So what if you have a bad day? You can start over the next day.

Dissertating is the same way. Have a weekend where you fall of the wagon and get absolutely nothing done? Have a whole week that you just blew off? A whole month that got by?

Then put it behind you and when you wake up the next day, begin again. You can't control the time you lost last week / month / semester / year. But you can control what you do with the time you have left. So don't continue to beat yourself up - it isn't productive. Instead, focus on what you can do NOW.

Dissertating...the universal language

Write your goals in whichever way speaks most clearly to you. Use whatever language, colors, words, images etc that best helps you to directly and clearly motivate yourself. Do you like checkboxes? To Do lists? Rewarding yourself with bits of chocolate? Now is the time to find out.

Whiteboard ode to Stuart Smalley: You're good enough, you're smart enough

Remember when you were younger and a Ph.D. just sounded so grandiose, so intelligent, so far away? And isn't it nuts that you are now about to get one? It can feel so surreal. At times, it helps to play it down in your head, so that the doctorate feels more normal, more doable, because everyone else around you is doing one too. At other times, it's nice to just take a moment and take it all in...what you are doing is incredible. Very few people actually get this far. It's amazing! It's wonderful!

Dissertator, Thou Art Loosed!

Take a moment to take it all in. You're doing this!

Catherine typing on a laptop balanced on a bag, balanced on a sidedesk chair.

One of the great things about the image above is what you can't see: that Catherine here began her day at the Boot Camp by typing on a cardboard box. That's right, a cardboard box. On the first day of the Boot Camp, we had more people than desks, so Catherine was a good sport and found a long box that, when put on end, was just about the right height for a desk. So she balanced her laptop on it and began typing away. Later, she graduated to using another chair with an attached desk as her mobile laptop desk.

This is great for two reasons. One, it shows you that really, when you have to, you can write anywhere. And two, it shows that having a sense of humor and being flexible can help shake up your patterns and keep your writing interesting.

If you feel like you're in a rut, try shaking up your routine. Write in a new coffee shop. Find a different part of the library to make camp. Try your bathtub. Lie on the floor. Take a draft to the gym and read it on the stationary bike.

The next time you find yourself making excuses for not working on your dissertation ("Oh, I can't write now, I don't have my favorite pen"... "Oh, I would work on my dissertation now, but I forgot my laptop".... "I can't actually work now, because I forgot my iPod") Just remember: Cardboard box.

Encourage your friends to make you "dissertation music" mix CDs and playlists!

If you concentrate better with wordless background music, here are some sample "Writing Music" albums that dissertators have recommended:

The Piano Soundtrack- Michael Nyman
Gattaca Sountrack - Michael Nyman
Last of the Mohicans soundtrack
The English Patient soundtrack
Lost in Translation Soundtrack
The Essential Yo Yo Ma
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Mozart
Philip Glass
Bond (violin group)
African Suite - Abdullah Ibrahim
One Cello x 16 - Zoe Keating
Creating Pandora stations based on instrumental songs you like

And remember....even though it may feel like it, you're not alone

So the summer is here! You've got good weather to write in. You can do a beach day of research (Six words: To Do List in the sand!) There are so many opportunities to make headway on that dissertation. Go for it!


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