Category Archives: Dissertation Support Group

Productivity & Positivity in Meetings

I’m reading an interview of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity. Fredrickson discussed some research by business consultant Marcial Losada. Losada studied sixty business teams during their annual strategy meetings. He tracked the statements made in the meetings as positive, negative, and neutral. He then tracked the performance of the different teams. He found that “three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point” that turns a medium-performing team into a high-performing one.

The first thing I thought about when I read this was a recent bad meeting I had. The meeting was so bad that it wasn’t until the next day that I realized major progress had been made on my dissertation. All the negative feedback was essentially about style. The core of my project–which had been on shaky ground–was finally acceptable. However, instead of anyone telling me that, they started telling me about minor things I was doing wrong. I can’t say I helped the positive vibe–I felt emotional to the point that it was difficult for me to have productive thoughts or defend myself.

Contrast that with a conversation I just had with my DSG (Dissertation Support Group). The first thing the future Doctor Anderson said after I told her about the meeting was, “wow, you sound like you’re handling a hard situtation really well.” I have long marveled at the chemistry and productivity of my DSG meetings, and now I realize that they are well beyond the 3 to 1 ratio of positivity. No matter how rough the material, we find ways to remind each other of the good work we’ve done.

But let’s go back to what I did right after this bad meeting.  I was determined to squeeze every ounce of usefulness out of it that I could. So after it was over, I went over my notes and wrote down every useful suggestion I could find about how to improve my dissertation. Then I categorized the suggestions into categories. This was already helpful–the meeting seemed more productive once it was on paper. Then I sent the summary to people involved. I asked them to check over my summary and make sure we were all on the same page. The summary was in neutral language (“need to improve close reading” as opposed to “close reading section is very bad”).

The 3 to 1 ratio has many applications. I know that I don’t give my students that much positive feedback on their papers. I would really like to try to do that. I’d like to talk to my family with that much positivity. I’d like to be that positive when I’m reflecting on or discussing my work.

Here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to send this blog post to my committee before my defense. And I’m going to ask that they help me make that conversation as productive as possible. I know too many stories of defenses that are not fun, anti-climactic, or boring. Defenses should be at best a celebration of what’s been achieved, and at least a productive conversation that helps students revise before graduation and/or publication.


Graduate School and Mental Health

In some ways, I’ve had it better than most in graduate school. It wasn’t until well into my seventh year that I had this thought: I am too stupid to be here. Until then, I had always maintained that anyone with the desire could be a doctor.

Since I’ve had the thought, it’s been hard to shake. Before that moment I had never felt too stupid for anything. I loved school and always did well, and I was given a lot of credit for being smart by those around me. I knew some people in graduate school felt inadequate, and I felt sorry for them because I was sure their problem was a lack of confidence and not a lack of ability. I felt fortunate for my own sense of self-worth.

Grad-School Blues,” a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, cited a 2004 study that revealed 54% of graduate students suffered from depression severe enough to interfere with their ability to work. Compare that to 9.5% of Americans suffering from depression in a typical year.

Writing a dissertation can be seen as an empowering act: an individual relies mostly on him or herself to complete a long, intellectual piece of work. In practice, however, graduate students can feel very powerless, at the mercy of university politics, their supervisor, or their department’s expectations.

The article cites Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell, who explains that grad students don’t typically participate in many social activities such as clubs or intramural sports. Graduate students who are socially isolated may be less likely to know about resources available to them.

Besides counseling, getting a dissertation coach, participating in online discussions about graduate school, or joining a writing group can be helpful. Practicing yoga, meditation, or a religion can also help keep the dissertation in perspective.

One doctor who had left academia was quoted in the article: “There’s this perception that if you hold your breath and make it through, you’ll be fine,” she says. But if you don’t deal with such issues, she says, “you will not be an effective student, scholar, or researcher.”

When I read “Grad-School Blues,” I thought, this is the reason I’m writing my blog. I believe it’s a bad idea to simply try to fake smartness and confidence in your academic life. We should be willing to discuss therapy and strategies for working and living–if not with out superiors, at least with our colleagues. Our health depends on it.

How to Be a Good Reviewer

A few weeks ago, I was in a rut. With graduation approaching in a few months, I started to feel very fearful. Those fears also led to a bit of existential drama. Mostly this involved trashing my project (and my career in general) as meaningless.

Some good talks with my Dissertation Support Group, classmates, and advisors cheered me up and re-engaged me in my work. It got me to thinking about how one can offer useful advice on other people’s writing.

  • Instead of simply making marginal notes, write a letter to the writer explaining your thoughts about their work.
  • Even if you have fifty separate suggestions for improving the draft, prioritize them and break them down into three or four clear, digestible points. For example, say “the most important thing you need to do next is cut unnecessary information.” I prefer to relate these points to one of the four cycles of revision–thesis, organization, evidence, and clarity. Break down for the writer what types of problems they should focus on.
  • Give very specific examples of the type of problems you note. Saying “I really don’t get your point” is colossally unhelpful and potentially debilitating. Re-read the draft and point out sentences that made you feel like you might be getting it, and paragraphs where you felt the most lost. Or, in the above example of the writer needing to trim the draft, underline evidence that you feel could be cut.
  • Summarize what you think the writer did well, and praise them for any progress made since previous drafts.
  • Give your feedback both in written form and face-to-face. It can be hard to remember what someone said in a conversation (and I know my own notes from those meetings are often puzzling when I revisit them). At the same time, written comments may be misunderstood and sometimes don’t pack as much punch as face-to-face feedback.


Stay tuned for a future Doctor Jones post on the influential book Getting Things Done, but in the meantime, I wanted to lend my support to one of the book’s tenets.

Periodic review of one’s work is one of the best ways to spur productivity. It can seem counter-intuitive. Let’s say you’ve had a bad, ineffective week of work. Instead of sitting down on Friday afternoon to assess your progress, you want to actually get something done.

But parodoxically, the very act of reviewing makes one more productive. I think this is one of the biggest benefits of having a Dissertation Support Group. Simply preparing for that meeting for fifteen minutes–which for me, involves checking the progress of last week’s goals, setting new goals for the following week, and noting a “big idea” that I had over the course of the week–often helps me crystalize some aspect of my project. Knowing that the check-in is imminent also sometimes prompts me to quickly finish (or start) working on one of my previous goals–even though there are no negative consequences if I don’t work on them.

I recommend periodic check-ins, alone or in groups. They are not a waste of time.

Dissertation Support Group Agenda

My DSG’s meeting agendas have changed a few times, but right now we have a system that is working awesome.  We can go through the agenda in about 1-1.5 hours with the three of us.

  1. Goals from last week.  Everyone briefly states how much they accomplished.
  2. Idea of the Week.  This is a way for each person to talk over a new thought–perhaps something an advisor suggested, perhaps something read in book.  We each respond to the other big ideas.  It feels wonderful to engage other people after working in isolation all week.
  3. Strategy.  We discuss various difficulties in our work routines, and offer suggestions to each other on new ways to approach problems.
  4. Goals for next week.  We each state our goals, and help each other refine them until they sound realistic and attainable.
  5. Pep Talk!  We end with some enthusiastic support and loveyness.

The Big Picture, or, Why Am I Doing This?

We recently had a great talk in our Dissertation Support Group about why we are working on our dissertation projects.

Here are some examples of uninspired reasons:

  • I want to get a job.
  • I want to graduate.
  • The poems of X are under-appreciated.

The conversation really got going when we realized that we all were writing, in different ways, against snobbery that exists in our culture. Even though our dissertations have different subjects, we all make the point that it’s not just the university-educated folks that have something to contribute. To frame it more positively, you could say that we all want to invite people to look at poems/essays/historical sites that they may not otherwise have known about, that may enrich their understanding of art/nations/education.

I highly recommend having an exploratory conversation about what drives you to work on your project with other people in your field, or to journal about it on your own. You know you’ve found your real reasons when your heartbeat quickens and you pound your fist on the table.

Going to work every day, alone, is hard for all of us sometimes. Sitting at your desk to re-organize a chapter might seem ultimately pretty pointless some mornings, but keeping your real, emotional reasons for working on your project in mind (or better yet, on paper) might keep you in your chair for another day.

Forming a Dissertation Support Group

Around the time I started writing my prospectus, I formed my Dissertation Support Group (DSG). I formed the group with two other graduate students that were in my year. We chose each other based not on shared academic interests but a shared attitude toward our work. We were all committed to find the joy in the dissertation writing process, and none of us wanted to spend our time together complaining about our work.

The format of our discussions has changed, but during that prospectus-writing time, we took turns every meeting looking at a different person’s writing—anything from a few pages to a completed draft. The feedback I got from my group was so encouraging and helpful, and it was very reassuring and inspiring to watch other people’s growth so closely.

I highly recommend finding a DSG of your own, but choose your group carefully. Don’t necessarily pick your best friends or people in your area of expertise. Pick people who you feel affinities with, work-wise—we found each other through our Qualifying Exam study groups. Also, don’t feel the need to invite everyone in. We’ve several times had to kindly explain to friends that we don’t have room in our group for them. We have a small number and it works for us, so we protect it. I think a group of six or seven would prevent everyone from knowing each other’s work intimately, which is a huge part of what I value in my DSG.