Category Archives: Fear

Panel on Productivity

I’m sitting here at SXSW in at a panel entitled “I’m So Productive, I Never Get Anything Done.” It’s probably the worst panel at a conference that I have ever been to. I wish that I tweeted regularly so that I knew how to quickly tweet with the appropriate hashtag and tell everyone at the conference, including the organizers, how much I hate it.

Anyway, what’s making me mad about it is that the people who are on the panel have no information, no research, and no advice. They simply say, “buckle down, don’t let yourself get distracted, and do the work.” Oh, thank you.

If it’s true that these people are great at self-control, then I don’t think that they are the best people to offer advice to those who want to be more productive . . . But wait! Now these supposed experts on self-control are freely admitting that their personal relationships are screwed up because they are constantly distracted by their phones.

Here’s my theory: the people on the panel are not more productive than the people attending it. They are just more confident and more forgiving of themselves. Maybe it would help the people attending the panel to believe that they are productive. Maybe believing it makes it true.


Bad Habits

In the months of November and December, I did more panicking about my dissertation than working. Witness the lack of insightful blog posts. Even after all this time, my bad writing habits still take over occasionally.

I will say that I did a better job working while traveling than I ever have, and I think this last bout of depression and anxiety was a) based partly on real-world worry & grieving, not just self-torturing for no reason, and b) still more short-lived than many other bouts of depression and anxiety that I have experienced over the past eight years. Also, c) I did do *some* work. In this dry spell, it at least drizzled once or twice a week.

I’m beginning the new decade in a spirit of self-forgiveness. I don’t have A+ or even A – writing habits yet, and I’m close enough to the end of this process to realize that I’m not going to attain–or, more accurately, I’m not going to maintain great habits in the time that’s left before graduating.Instead of saying, why haven’t I learned anything? Why do I still make the same mistakes? I will celebrate the fact that I can recognize my mistakes more quickly.

During the months of November and December, I knew I wasn’t writing because I was scared. And I had strategies to deal with it: I forced myself to go to the library, where there were no distractions, when visiting Chicago. I spent long periods of each work session reading over the parts of the diss that were finished–which made starting much less daunting, and continuing where I’d left off easier. When I was really paralyzed with the FEAR, I read from my reading list until I got a new idea for something to add to my dissertation, and, more importantly, remembered that I have ideas. A particular background photo on my laptop dissuaded me for opening computer games because it reminded me, in a very gut-punching way, that life is short. (That particular strategy didn’t stay powerful for very long, because that life-is-short sensation is fleeting. But I milked it while it lasted.) I worked from bed a couple of times because I was dreading my desk and somehow it seemed less taxing that working in an upright position.

I also knew, in light of the real-world worries, that I couldn’t demand of myself to be as productive and focused as I wanted to be. And I also knew, after two weeks of not exercising, that I needed to help myself get happier. And I also knew that I couldn’t just snap right back into my exercise-addict routines after such a big break, so I eased myself in with 15 minute walks every day to help my body and mind get excited about physical activity again. Along the same lines, during those first few days of being “back” in dissertation mode, I let myself work for short periods of time and then get huge rewards (watching movies in the middle of the day).

After all, if it was easy to do what we know is best, if humans could live in uncomplicated states of contentment and productivity–there wouldn’t be anything to write dissertations about in the first place.

Research & Revision

I just got out of a DSG meeting with the Future Doctor Anderson. We were discussing how we both dread doing research on a chapter now that we’re in the dissertation-revision stage. It’s discouraging to “go back” to reading after one’s been writing a lot.

Looking back on my most recent chapter revision, though, I had to admit that I did almost no unnecessary research for that draft. Unlike the first draft, where there are understandably a lot of dead ends, and one spends time writing many pages that are later cut–in a late revision, one spots relevant material almost immediately.  Research is so much easier once there’s a draft or two already completed.

I enjoyed researching for my chapters, but the process took a long time. The research I have to do to revise my next chapter is touch-up research: just a few little spots need filling in. I don’t have to scrape off all the old paint and start over with primer.


Many times this summer I have admitted a kind of mental exhaustion with poetry, a fear that after seven years (and how many drafts of that one chapter?) I have ruined a perfectly good hobby.

I even told the Future Mister Doctor that I was afraid if I taught poetry classes for a living that I wouldn’t be able to think of enough interesting things to say–a fear that I certainly never had as an undergraduate, when my hand shot up dozens of times per class period.

And yet, to paraphrase Keats, the ideas in the mind are never dead. Here I am, about to enter my eighth year of graduate school, battling weariness at every page. And there are still new ideas coming. Even this summer, which I have described as a period of stagnation, I have had major insights, major discoveries. Stagnation has in fact been punctuated, all along, with flashes of thought that excite me.

I experience these flashes as relief–not dead. not dead. But in fact, I should expect them. They are going to continue to arrive, in steady (if not completely predictable) increments.

Typically, I make resolutions at the beginning of the school year involving organization, accomplishments, and work habits. But I have a new and better idea this year: resolve to trust your brain. If you keep working, it will too.

Writing–7 days     Exercise–5 days (I’m still on track–planning to go to yoga this afternoon and something with the Future Mister Doctor this weekend.)

Skimming and Skipping

I have a hard time not reading every word of everything I start reading, and that’s a real liability when it comes to scholarship.

I’ve been practicing skipping as sort of a warm-up to developing the skill of skimming. I now skip the makeup articles in Real Simple, since I have never worn makeup and don’t ever plan to start. And I’m working on skipping articles in trade magazines–things like The Chronicle of Higher Education. I was advised, and I think it’s good advice, to read The Chronicle as preparation for going on the job market. And indeed, I feel that I have been getter a more complete sense of the profession from reading it. But sheesh, it is long. And it comes really often. Then there’s Poetry magazine. I really do not enjoy it, but it features articles pertinent to my dissertation often enough to make it worth my while. Except for the lame poems–lame poems are actually never worthy my time. Now, I read the first six lines or so of every poem and then (mostly) skip!

Still, just because I’d planned on reading it today, I read an essay that was almost an exact duplicate of a chapter in the book I read yesterday by the same author. Why I did not recognize the obvious need to skip this reading is beyond me.

Wait, no it’s not! I was just scared to start writing. Aha! The FEAR strikes again, this time in the form of re-reading something that was a struggle to read the first time through! And the sad thing is, I read that book twice four years ago in preparation to write a book review. (I really did need to re-read it once though, I swear.)

Writing–4 days     Exercise–4 days     This experiment is going great so far! Exercise really does give you energy. Today I went running first thing, then did a ton of cooking and cleaning in preparation for the Future Mister Doctor & my first wedding anniversary, and then wrote for two hours! And look at me now, posting to my blog! Whee!

Radical Revision

My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”

The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.

She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.

When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%,  not again!)

As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.

Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.

But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.

Easier Said Than Done

from pg. 66 of my new favorite book, The Craft of Research (Booth/Colomb/Williams):

Know that uncertainty and anxiety are natural and inevitable. Those feelings don’t signal incompetence, only inexperience.

It’s hard for those of us ending our bazillionth year in graduate school to remember that we are still inexperienced when it comes to researching. But it’s true.

Pressing Reset

It’s been a slow few weeks in dissertation land for the future Doctor Jones. I have been working well for so long now that when I didn’t work for a few days I wasn’t too worried. I traveled to Arizona and New York in April, and a family friend visited. There was lots of grading and course planning to do.

But after a full week at home and making no progress, I had to face my failure to work. A very short examination of my feelings was enough to help me understand the problem. The FEAR was in full effect. I’d gotten some good, tough feedback on a chapter, and I was afraid–afraid that if I went down the rabbit hole of revision, I would never find my way out.

I’ve been mulling over something my friend J. said to me about how she’s been trying to make decisions to further her happiness. For example, the decision to exercise, not smoke a cigarette, or go to bed early may not be enticing just beforehand, but afterward, they make her feel good and  feel good about herself for making the good decision.

Yesterday, I did not make many good decisions. I didn’t do any work, didn’t change my fish Pig Pen’s water, and didn’t wash my dishes. I watched television when I should have been working. However, after a run with J., my body felt the full effect of my last several decisions to run. J. and I both found our run considerably easier than it has been the last few weeks. We felt the endorphins flowing. And in the glow of that good decision, I formulated a plan for today:

1) Read over the Future Doctor Anderson’s comments on my draft.

2) Make a plan for revision.

It was an unambitious plan. But it set me up to easily make a good decision today. I finished my tasks in less than an hour. I could have done more, you might be saying. But after the FEAR takes over, the immediate goal has to be to diminish the FEAR. I made a small goal for today. I set another small goal for tomorrow. And I know the more I work, the less the FEAR will bother me, and the more I’ll be able to accomplish.

The no-work period is over. And as long as I’m working, I’m getting closer to becoming Doctor Jones.


My husband gave his brother this advice:

If you’re going to build boats for a living, don’t just do it because you think building boats would be fun. Try to build boats greener, or faster.  Have a reason to build boats.

In many ways, I think I ended up in grad school because I thought school was fun. Lately, I haven’t been finding research that fun–so I’m wondering if I really want to be a scholar.

The only thing that can sustain research, as far as I can tell, is an honest question–really wanting to find something out, having a reason for doing it.

Lately, I have been asking myself whether I really and truly want to graduate. Since I’ve been filled with self-doubt in the past week, in many ways it’s not a good moment to make a big decision. Still, I’ve been thinking about whether or not I have reasons to stay.

My questions about poetry are, in this moment, not that pressing. But I have a very good reason for writing my blog: I want to address the problem of graduate students feeling isolated, worthless, and/or unproductive. And while I don’t seen anything inherently shameful about quitting, I don’t see how I can keep writing my blog unless I continue to pursue the degree. Also, I’ve recently had a big idea for a project relating to alternate careers for doctors. While I could do this project now, I think it will be much more credible authored by a Ph.D.

These reasons are not directly related to my dissertation, but they’ve helped ease my anxiety. I really do not want to feel trapped in grad school. It’s hard enough to be here when you have reasons. If I get to the point where I don’t have any left, I’m outta here.

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.