Monday, September 23, 2013

From Dissertation to Career - It's All About Strategy and Process

I stumbled on this website - THE PROFESSOR IS IN. It's a good place for concrete tips and strategies toward landing that faculty job you're after.

Here's an excerpt from the author's "Uncensored Bio":

"I created The Professor Is In  to make an intervention for any ABD or Ph.D. who wants to be told the truth about academic work, who wants to get through the veil of silence around money and jobs, who is seeking an advisor who is focused on their professional, career success."

The Professor is Dr. Karen Kelsky.

I think she is a little too militant about accusing graduate programs and professors for not sufficiently advising students. While some of what she says is true - that in many programs, our advisors do not give us any direction or support at all in how to go about building steps toward a career - the landscape of academia is not as bleak as she suggests. But I do understand where she's coming from and that she's out to help graduate students who are not getting the career mentoring they need to enter a very competitive job market.

Here is a column she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I think she might have gone too far on her diatribe against the lack of advising in academia. Read the comments and you will get a good sense of the dilemma some professors find themselves in. If they were to do what Karen does, could they do the rest of their job - research, teaching, service? It's a tough road for professors too.

But the bottom line for dissertators looking ahead - no matter the situation in your department/school, thank goodness for cyberspace where information is sometimes truly free and truly useful.

So, ignore the ire, but take advantage of her useful material and resources. She has a lot of free stuff, although the website is a consulting site and you can hire her as your personal consultant if you want.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Henry Miller's 11 Commandments

Famous novelist ... desperate dissertators: We all struggle to create, to work, to move forward. Sometimes we inch forward, sometimes we speed ahead, and sometimes we sit still stuck and silenced. At the Dissertation Boot Camps we've discovered the importance of including joy and fun into our writing process. We've seen that taking care of our bodies and emotions generates energy and focus to write. And we've learned that it's discipline that opens up wellsprings of talent and inspiration. Henry Miller's list captures all of this in 11 simple principles.

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to "Black Spring."
  3. Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can't create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don't be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. ConcentrateNarrow downExclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book youare writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Source: Lists of Note


Friday, June 7, 2013

2013 Summer Dissertation Boot Camp - Faculty Speaker Prof. Tarek Azzam

Our faculty speaker at this year's Summer Dissertation Boot Camp was Prof. Tarek Azzam from the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences.

Seated around Grove House’s comfortable living room, we spent a very productive hour listening to and talking with Prof. Azzam. Here are some highlights from our conversation about the writing process and completing dissertations.

Pay attention non-judgmentally to discover your optimal writing patterns.
This was a running theme through Prof Azzam’s talk.
Writing processes are unique to individual contexts and writing styles. There is no single approach or tactic. Therefore, paying attention non-judgmentally to your process, habits, and environments helps you find strategies that build motivation and productivity. Controlling the environment you write in begins by, first, knowing yourself and your patterns, and the patterns that impinge on you.
  • Track your productivity in a non-judgmental way for a week and then reflect.
  • Identify the typical patterns in your days, what environments make you most effective or ineffective, what really gets you engaged, and what interrupts.
  • Noticing your patterns is the first step toward controlling your writing process. You can then plan to actively do more of what gets you engaged and less of what frustrates you. For example, I might like writing in the morning, and my friends are productive writing in the morning, but with children and other routines in my morning, that did not work for me. So, switching over to writing at night when I was not distracted, and I didn't have to keep telling the children “no” worked. 
Track your productivity as a way to motivate you to write.
Goal setting can be hard: Our goals can be too big. Or, too small. We set goals that are just right when we set them, then life happens and we miss our targets. This can be very frustrating and demotivating.
Instead, record what you do each day or part of the day. In a week, you will have a list of things you’ve done, rather than a list of near and entire misses. So much more motivating!
Paying attention to what you're tracking might reveal useful patterns about where and when you were most productive and what kinds of settings that happened in … and you can try and do more of that.

Prioritize your writing to help you make conscious choices to persist
Prof. Azzam’s response to a question about the characteristics of a PhD candidate who is on track: PERSISTENCE.
The first two to three years in course work with external deadlines are easy. The hard part is when you must drive the process; no one will tell you what to do. So, whether you are dissertating or writing to publish, no one makes you write. Deadlines are generally up to you. YOU must choose to write, and build in the structure and processes that help sustain your writing.

  • Learn to be fully aware of your situation so you can make conscious decisions. When YOU do the choosing – to write, to take a break – you are more in control, more motivated, and more persistent.
  • Choose to write. Stuff is always going to happen. We can accept that, observe what happens, and find ways to take control and make the dissertation your priority. It’s easy to continue in existing patterns of work and life. But you have to make a choice.
  • Plan time dedicated to writing. Look ahead, look for opportunities, then make them concrete by structuring time for writing. This works better than just thinking generally that you’ll try and write this weekend. Making specific plans to block off time for writing is a mental and emotional commitment. Alerting people to your plans and taking concrete steps to structure your time, builds in a social and physical commitment. You are more likely to write!
Prof Azzam shared his experience of planning ahead to dedicate a month and a-half for writing his dissertation. He alerted family and friends of his intentions, set an auto-response for email, and sequestered himself to write. In that time, he just focused on writing, balancing that against reading fun things related to the dissertation.  At the end of this time, he had a first draft of his dissertation and as he put it, “It was terribly written, but man, what a confidence booster! It’s very satisfying to have a draft to edit; then, it’s just fun.”
Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to get going. You have to get really angry or passionate about getting done. “It’s all about being stuck, wanting to move on. I became really uninterested I being a student… I was done being a student. I felt stuck at the end of a year doing nothing.”

JUST WRITE! Keep editing and revising OUT of the writing process to move your work ahead.
Prof Azzam spoke about the importance of giving yourself permission to “just write,” without worrying about how the sentences sound, whether the argument works, and whether your grammar is perfect. These are things you do later when editing.
Often, we approach writing with some anxiety because we feel we need to write at a certain level. Anxiety is very counter-productive; we get stuck, and feel less motivated because we feel we must sound good and write at a certain level. Some ideas on countering this anxiety.
Do the easy, pleasurable parts first to build confidence and motivation. 
  • Write out of order if you must; you do not need to begin with the introduction. 
  • Do the easy parts; reduce anxiety. 
  • Make writing as pleasurable as you can when you begin each session. That way you are likely to stay at it longer, which means you produce more, and that builds confidence …. it’s a very productive positive reinforcement. For example, if the methods section is fun and easy for you to write, start there. This builds your confidence, gets you into the flow of writing, and then you can move on to other parts.
Give yourself permission to write what and how you like. 
Acknowledge and embrace limitations; set your intentions to deal with the problems later. This helps you generate material more easily. As Prof. Azzam put it, “There is no way I am going to write perfectly so I just ‘talk’ to myself; it’s a written narration of what’s going on in my head, what I want to say."
Write first – edit later. Prof Azzam shared a study by Mike Rose at UCLA which compared the creativity and productivity of those who edited as they wrote against those who only edited at the end. He found that the latter group’s writing productivity was better. 

Here are some tips on how to avoid breaking the thinking-writing flow:
  • Do not interrupt your process of generating material to go back over a section, paragraph, or sentence to “fix” anything. When you’re stuck, too attached, or feel you have to nail this paragraph down – move away and write something else. In fact, by doing something else one is likely to trigger other others that might actually help with the section one was stuck with.
  • Keep editing for “down” times, when you’re too tired to focus on creating material, but you can re-read and fix grammatical or content glitches. Prof Azzam shared that he tries to write for publication in the summer when he knows he has time for generating material, and then spends the academic year, when he’s busy teaching, editing his work and responding to reviewer comments.
Understand the necessity of slow movement and mess as groundwork for productivity.  
We become discouraged if we move slowly and are not so productive in some parts of our writing. Being discouraged – leads to frustration – frustration takes away energy – and lack of energy depletes motivation. And so the writing peters out.
But, change the way you think and you will change the effect on your writing. The slow and messy parts are all part of building a foundation of thinking and writing so that further along, you work faster and better. Again, paying attention to the patterns of your writing process will help you remember this and prevent you from feeling demotivated when writing slows down. Trust that you will gather momentum and accelerate if you can shift your thinking to understanding and accepting this process.

Have a ready-to-hand “parking place” for ideas to prevent writing flow disruptions.
When writing, we often get good ideas that are related but not essential at that very moment. We are tempted to break the flow and go look things up, and find ourselves suddenly off in a tangent.
Even if things that occur to you are relevant, you have better control of time and mental energy if you jot them down in a separate document to come back to and deal with later. This way, you maintain control of your writing process and can keep building momentum in your writing. Also, you avoid fragmenting your thought process, which also aids in building and maintaining your energy for writing. 

2013 Summer Dissertation Boot Camp Days 4 - 6

At the mid-point of boot camp, we're all tired, but still writing. What keeps us going? The three most critical discoveries we made:

Learn the discipline of taking breaks. Ninety-minute blocks of writing with breaks in between really gets our writing moving. We get tired, but can sustain writing over a day or more because we use the discipline of taking a break. When we first begin, we feel fresh, and when break time comes around, we might be inclined to not stop writing. But in the long run, this is unproductive as we will get tired and lose energy. The discipline of taking breaks ensures that we rejuvenate and re-energize constantly and, so, can keep writing for longer.

Pay attention to your body. We live so much in our heads we forget how important the body is to supporting the energy we need for intellectual processes. Many of us discovered that taking a walk, doing some stretching, and most importantly, breathing, help keep us energized and alert for writing. When writing, we often sit still in the same position - just fingers moving. Breathing slows down. Our brains get less oxygen. Our muscles become stiff and tight. So, as above, the disciplin of breaks helps. Breaks ensure our bodies at least get to unfurl and our lungs get to expand.

Find a place where the dissertation is the only thing.  Find a space that works for us. This may not be our beautifully set up space at home because that space might come with distractions. A space where we can minimize distractions is key. This might be a coffee shop, the library, an empty office at our workplace (that is not our own workspace with work distractions around us). The important thing is to find a space in which only our dissertations exist for the time we dedicate to writing.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

2013 Summer Dissertation Boot Camp - Day 3

Day 3. We're still writing .... still motivated

Staying Motivated Through the Process - Find Your Academic Community

An interesting point that came up in the session Kim Perkins led this morning on staying motivated through the dissertation writing process.
  • COMMUNITY is important. Who do we connect with to build conversations about our work? Who are the scholars beyond our university we can begin talking to? Many different stories emerged from this discussion. Some of us have had positive responses when we reached out, while others met indifference, even hostility. Academia is a very strange place.

    But the bottom line is that connecting with other scholars is important. It builds our identity and presence as scholars. It creates networks for collaboration and resources. Nothing is so motivating to the writing process as feeling that this dissertation is just one part of a holistic existence as a scholar. Too often, the dissertation is something that seems to "interrupt" life - we want to get it done, get past it, leave it behind. And as a project that's true; we must complete it so we can move on to other things. But, the dissertation is also our scholarly creative output, an articulation of our curiosities and explorations. It's part of our expression of who we are. And connecting with others who might share our interests helps make this more real. 

Writing Goals

This afternoon's reflection session was about writing goals - an idea that is emotionally burdened.

  • If I set a goal and then I don't hit it, I feel I failed.
  • I never know if I am going to meet my goals
  • I am the worst goal writer ever
  • It's such a problem writing goals
  • It bothers me  ... once it is written, it has to get done.

Setting goals, and hitting them ... sounds like target practice. If we don't "hit the mark", we're just not good shots. And then, we feel bad or guilty or ineffective. This is not a healthy way to work on anything, much less a dissertation.

Here are some alternative ways to think about goals.

Moving toward a horizon. (thanks to James Griffith). This takes the big picture perspective. We set an intention and a direction; there is a place on the horizon you're heading toward. This could be a whole chapter, or a section. And then, rather than set goals based on specific tasks, we just work to get there. So, smaller goals each day or hour do not really matter (although I suppose you can set those too), as long as you're moving in the general direction of your destination.

This might work well for those of us who have trouble setting accurate or realistic goals (we set them big and feel disappointed or too small and then it feels pointless). It also would work quite well when our work is still shaping itself and we have to work emergently, completing one thing in order to discover what the next task should be.

Be careful with this analogy though. If you constantly look at the horizon it can get frustrating. The horizon seems to forever recede as you move. Or, things on the horizon seem a lot closer than they actually are, and we feel that we're travelling and travelling but not getting there. It's important to be mindful that once we set our destination, discipline must kick in. We must just focus on the task at hand, where we are at each moment. Take stock at the end of the writing time, rather than constantly look up and out to the horizon; "that way madness lies".

Track milestones rather than hit targets. Extending from the idea of heading toward a destination, we can log our progress. What are the milestones we hope to reach each day or week? And then, keep a log of our progress. Sometimes we pass a milestone and move further than we thought we might. Other times, we don't travel so far, but we keep track of where we got to. And sometimes, we might have to make a detour, but, again, we keep track of where we went, and re-calibrate so that we're still heading toward that destination.

The focus in this kind of process is to make a list of what you did - like a travel log of progress. This can be highly motivating as well as clarifying. Instead of focusing on what we did not achieve, we acknowledge and make concrete/visible what we did do; this is highly motivating. And in logging what we did, we clarify what we need to do next. This can actually speed up your process.

Goal setting as self-discovery rather than task challenge. Change how you think about goals. Rather than see goals as challenges and targets you must meet and measure yourself against, think of them as a way to discover how you work best. So set goals, and then at the end of your writing period, look at them - with a curious, reflective mind. What kind of goals do you tend to be able to actually meet? What kind of goals do you tend to miss? Over time, you will find patterns that will help you adjust and improve the way you approach planning any kind of work.

Monday, June 3, 2013

2013 Summer Dissertation Boot Camp - Day 2


Today's question was about our practice of being made to take breaks. We write in 90 minute blocks and ask everyone to take a 30 minute break in between. No whips to enforce this "rule" - some people take the full 30 minutes, others cut it short, some continue to write and take just 15 minutes of break.

Breaks are good in a number of ways.
  1. The discipline of taking breaks allows us to sustain a longer energy arc for writing. Rather then push for a few hours and get diminishing returns as our energy ebbs away, breaks allow us to renew and re-energize BEFORE we lose steam. The result - we are able to focus better for longer, which motivates us to write. Putting this into practice in real life, outside of boot camp, we will find that it's easier to write through the week, without getting discouraged.
  2. The discipline of taking breaks is practice for sustaining writing in the midst of the other rhythms of life. For many of us, writing is going to be an important part of life. What will happen is that we will be interrupted and must stop writing, or we find opportunities in between things to write. The discipline of taking breaks helps us build the ability to switch our mental focus into and out of our writing efficiently.
  3. Taking a break after about 90 minutes of writing allows us to mentally review and re-focus, so that we get some perspective on what we have just written. We can return to our writing with a clearer sense of how to move it along.
  4. Taking breaks between chunks of writing helps us ensure we have a writing product at the end of the day. Sometimes we get drawn into revision and editing, or doing more research etc. The breaks give us a chance to disrupt these distractions; we can reflect and notice what we've been doing, take stock, and decide to cease and desist, and to move on. In the next writing block, we might, then, be more productive.


This was a theme during reflections time. Quite a few of us took time to edit and revise work rather than produce new writing. Is this a good thing? 

Well, the answer, of course, is .... "it depends". 

But on the whole, the idea is to aim for forward movement. Write first, revise and edit later, outside of the writing sessions. The aim in a writing session is to create, to generate writing. This takes discipline. It is more satisfying to improve what exists. But this can be an insidious distraction from writing. Is our constant desire to revise and edit a way of avoiding writing?

Here are some good practices for developing the discipline of writing first. 

SET PRODUCT BASED GOALS. Set "product" oriented goals like a number of words or pages to aim for. Use the words "create", "generate", "produce" in setting goals. A goal like "Work on Chapter 2" allows you to revise what you've already written in chapter 2. Better to set goals like "Add 3 more pages to chapter 2", "Finish argument on paradigm shift, begin section 3 on theoretical framework". 

DO NOT EDIT. By editing, we mean going over your writing to proofread and fix grammatical and style issues. Really, leave this kind of work for non-writing time. During writing time, build the discipline to write. 
But what if our perfectionist tendencies are pushing us to edit? Someone I know appeases her perfectionist side by dedicating a specific time each week to editing. So every Friday, she knows she can look forward to the pleasure of sitting down with what she's written that week, and going over it to dot her "i"s and cross her "t"s. This also motivates her to produce something each week before Friday - just so she can have the pleasure of editing.

REVISE ONLY IF GOING BACK WILL MOVE YOU FORWARD. This takes discipline. If revising something just improves it, but you can write the next section whether or not you revise this section - DO NOT REVISE. Resist all your instincts to improve this section; leave it alone, move on to write the next section. If necessary, make a few notes on what to revise and ... move on! 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

2013 Summer Dissertation Boot Camp - Day 1

Building Strategies as a Community
After breakfast, we began the process of building a set of shared experiences and strategies for writing.
On large sheets of paper, we listed:
  • Challenges we faced in moving our dissertations ahead
  • Strategies we use to keep ourselves working and motivated
  • Best ever writing tips we've used or heard about
While it was not really surprising to discover that many of us shared similar challenges, it was nevertheless comforting to know this. We are, each of us, on unique journeys in this dissertation process and yet, the general shape of balancing work, life, and dissertating is similar. So are our uncertainties, and the habits that prevent us from moving ahead as fast as we'd like to.

The best ever writing tips list was, again, no surprise. Although, reading your writing to your dog was an unexpected tip! But if it works ....

This list of really good tips made me realize that we all do know so much about what we should be doing. But, it's that word - "SHOULD." Our aim this week is to turn that into CAN. What can we do to keep writing and keep motivated to write? How do we transform these great tips into our personal writing habits?

Reflections session at the end of Day 1
A good day of writing. We celebrate ...
... writing twice as much as set in a goal
         ......feeling energized to write

Grove House is a beautiful, open, expansive space in which to write. Physical spaces might be more important than we think. We often write  in the midst of the many other things we do. Our work spaces might be cluttered with other work. Here, there is dedicated space and time for writing our dissertation. Does clearing the physical space for writing also, in some way, clear a mental, emotional space for writing?

Challenge: A couple of people spoke about the challenge of distracting oneself from actually writing because of a sense of anxiety or fear of writing.

Some ideas that were shared in the group made me think about this some more. What one person said resonated with me. Our dissertations, at CGU at least, are less directed by our professors' interests. Our dissertations represent ideas very close to us, our interests, curiosities, and questions. So, emotional stakes are high. Will my idea work? What if this idea is a lame one? Will people fall about laughing ... or worse still, make polite noises, when I share my ideas? So what looks like distractions and difficulties in getting started could really be outcomes of an anxiety about our work.

Another kind of anxiety .... Katya recalled that at the last boot camp, someone spoke about being afraid to finish (she has since finished, and graduated this May!) We live with this project for so long that it becomes the thing we do; it is who we are. Finishing means finding something else that occupies us and defines us - and that is a scary thought.

Would recognizing and naming what makes us anxious or fearful help us move through/past it and write?

We also spoke about the importance of community, whether that is telling someone else about your work, or finding a group to meet and write with. The important thing is to put this work outside of our inner emotional life - in a semi-public space of a writing group. Even though you are not sharing your writing by having others read it, you are participating in a writing process. And then, there is the commitment and accountability a group process gives us that really helps move the work along.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Workshop - Reflections on Self and Well Being

Jan 29 - First meeting for Spring 2013

The focus of our discussions was well-being and self-awareness.

We all agree that writing a dissertation or MA thesis is a crazy process.
We all experience that swing from the euphoria of exciting ideas and insights to the weariness of a seemingly endless, road-block-ridden, plodding loneliness of writing.
We all know that finding a more stable process is the key to sustainable writing that allows us to enjoy our scholarship and writing AND get to the finish at a good clip and in good spirits.

It's no wonder then that our concerns about working on our projects and being effective in moving work forward ended up being centered in questions about how well we do in being healthy and happy. Sounds cliched, but really, our physical and emotional health are keys to success.

TAKE AWAYS AND THINGS TO DO between this workshop and the next
Observe ourselves:
  • what, where, and when are our productive mind-wandering spaces?
  • what energizes us and brings us joy? What blocks us from accessing this?

Some reflections and realizations that emerged from this meeting:
Mind-Wandering, Brain Food, and Energy.
Working intensively all the time is not productive. Do we give our minds space to wander and make connections that yield the insights we're searching for? Many of us have experienced this phenomenon of having worked at something, and then taking a walk, cooking, or having a shower and in that sort of mid-space between thinking and not-thinking - that wandering space - the best ideas and insights turn up. There is now quite a bit of research that shows how mind wandering is actually a productive process. Check out this article about the research so far on this.

What feeds our brain and gives us energy? Are we taking time to have fun and look after ourselves. For some of us this means playing with our children, for others it's taking time to bake from scratch, or hiking on the weekend, or playing with the cat. Whatever you do where you are fully engaged and feeling good about yourself and the world around you is brain food and a rich source of energy. It might sound counter-productive, but taking time to feed your brain and tap into your energy sources will help you move faster through your writing.

It's the Food You Eat
Energy to write comes from the amazing interactions between our emotional, physical, and cognitive well-being. How do we nourish these energy centers?

Latoya has been reading It Starts With Food that shows how our relationship to food and how we eat affects how we feel and the energy we have to do what we want to do. It's not just about losing weight (although that might be a side effect); it's about finding a more even keel with mood and emotions, finding yourself more energized and positive in how you approach everything.

Click here for a quick slide show on energy boosting foods.

Internal or External Structure
Freedom is not all that it's made out to be.

Suddenly there is no more coursework. No class times, deadlines, nor a professor to whom you must be accountable. Whether you write anything at all, whether you read one article, or twenty, or none is no longer anyone's business but yours. If you have a job, then the structure of the job can become all powerful and the dissertation or thesis becomes less and less prominent ...

 ........ getting sidelined...
........................and eventually
............................................................moving off stage into the darkness.

So structure that moves your project forward must come from inside. It's all up to YOU!
Some ideas for getting structure into our scholarly lives:

WRITE FIRST. The principle is to begin your day with a little time devoted entirely to you and your writing/reading/scholarship. Start small - spend the first 15 minutes of your day on your scholarship. Then stop. You'll find very quickly that you move from being relieved the 15 minutes is up and you can get into your day, to being frustrated when the 15 minute timer (yes, set a timer) goes off and you really want to keep writing/reading. When you get to this point, add another 15 minutes. Eventually, you might find that you are spending the first hour or two of your day on your work.
What does that do?
  • "Vantage number one"(with apologies to the Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake) - You feel calmer, less guilt ridden about not doing your work and you enter your day with greater equanimity, less stress, and more openess to what the day will bring. Chances are therefore that you will actually find time and opportunity to do your work. 
  • "Vantage number two" - Your work will occupy mind space rather than be forgotten, and having worked on something at the top of your day, it will keep simmering in your mind while you go through your day doing what else needs to be done. And when you return to your work, you'll find yourself more productive.
RITUALS AND ROUTINES. The more our day is full of different demands and tasks, the more we need a ritual or routine of some sort to transition us from the booming-buzzing-everything-else to our dissertation/thesis work. It's hard to just stop what we're doing and just sit down and engage. Some ideas:
  • Dedicate one space to your dissertationt/thesis work. In this space do nothing else. In this way you associate this with your project and when you sit here, the inclination is to do your work.
  • Find a "setting up" routine  - I know someone whose routine is to make a cup of tea, light a scented candle, and change into "writing socks". For someone else the routine is going to his favourite Starbucks, buying a vanilla latte, setting up the computer, taking out his journal and noting day, time, and place. Whatever your routine or ritual is, a series of concrete events to get you into your space to write can help transition from the hurly-burly of life to your project. 

You're Not Alone - Here are some of the members of our group!