Category Archives: Process

Dissertators and Cow Behavior

I grew up on a farm, and the plague of my young life was misbehaving cows. News that the cows were out periodically sent the whole family into a flurry. “Out” sometimes meant the cows were in a neighbor’s corn field or on the highway. This occasionally happened in the middle of the night. To this day, when I drive down any highway, I automatically scan any and all herds of cows for signs of trouble.

The thing is, if cows want outside the bounds of a barbed wire fence, they can pretty much plow through. But my dad always says that if you can keep them in for a few days, they’ll forget they know how to get out.

It does seem to work that way. The cows get out several days in a row at generally the same spot (even though the fence has been repaired). Then, for months at a time, they behave perfectly.

Even though I know what good and healthy disseminating looks like, sometimes I have days that seem defined by bad behavior. However,  I’ve found that just one day of good behavior is enough to get me back on track for several weeks.

For me, when temptation (the Internet, the d***ed spider solitaire, the pool) is overwhelming, the best thing to do is simply corral myself to my desk chair for a little while–no matter how bad it feels. Because the next day, thoughts of temptations have receded, and I’m able to focus better and for longer.

An Argument for Working Seven Days a Week

Both of my brother-in-laws, who work in the restaurant industry, are happy to work seven days a week. Imagining chopping vegetables for eight hours straight and then having to cover someone on my day off is downright appalling to me. But they are both of the opinion that a weekend (or other two-day break) breaks up their routine in a bad way. Another way of putting this is that Mondays are terrible precisely because you’ve had time off. You’re not used to working, and now you have to get used to it, and fast.

I really believe that working five days a week is best for me. But there are other ways of working it out–writing six or seven days a week, writing every other day, two days on/one day off . . . it’s worth experimenting, especially at the beginning of the dissertation writing process to find out what patterns keep you in your groove.

Another advantage of experimenting with your work habits is that you will confident that you’ve chosen the best process for you, which can be comforting when you discover other people’s habits. I usually have a reaction like “how could you possibly work that much?” and people tend to react to me like, “it’s amazing how you’re able to make so much time for things besides work!” As far as I can tell, there’s usually a bit of jealousy on both sides. But what other people do is not important. It’s only important that you aren’t ignorant of your own best practices.


Sometimes when I’m trying to start working, I get this fluttery feeling. Sometimes that feeling makes me want to clean something, sometimes it makes me want to find comics to read on the internet, sometimes I want to call a friend, and sometimes I want to play a computer game.

“Just for a minute,” I say to myself. “Just to clear my head and calm me down.”

What happens next is embarrassing. With each successive game, I get more and more agitated, telling myself I just need to win one more time and then I’ll get back to work. All the while I’m more and more alarmed at how much time is passing. “Oh, sh**! 3:00 already!”

So I’ve started a new ritual to deal with the flutters. It’s very simple–I’m not into incense or mantras or meditation, though I don’t see any problem with using those techniques to get in the mood for working. All I mean by ritual is that I do the same thing ever day before starting work, to calm me down and get me focused on the task at hand.

I read five pages of The Craft of Research. It’s a guide to writing that I enjoy reading. It’s clearly written, infused with a you-can-do-it! attitude, and relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish.  I think reading anything that you like, that you think is well-written, could be great–even if it wasn’t related to your dissertation specifically. It should be something you know well (this ritual should not be suspenseful), something you like, and, most importantly, something that doesn’t spark any wild emotions.


My last post about breaking a no-work period by making tiny goals got me to thinking about the best time to make daily goals.

For me, the answer is hands-down at the end of the workday, especially if I’m transitioning between activities.

For example, when I’m researching, I don’t find it that difficult to pick up where I left off the previous day. I organize my files by publication date, and then simply read them in order. If I don’t write down “Begin reading sources from June of 2004” at the end of my work day, chances are I’ll figure it out and start reading the next morning anyway.

But, when moving between chapters, starting a new revision cycle, or approaching the introduction or conclusion of a chapter, I need that plan in place. Otherwise, I sit down in the morning with a panicked, overwhelmed feeling that rarely leads to productive work.

I have a calendar just for dissertation matters, and if I use it to plan my next day’s work, I start the day with a specific, reachable goal. In the calendar box for tomorrow, I wrote “make a list of reasons supporting my conclusion” and “make a new outline” (based on the list of reasons). So I know exactly what I will do tomorrow. I will sit down at the computer, open my chapter and a new document. I will read the chapter, pausing to write down reasons in the new document.

It doesn’t sound hard, does it?

That’s the idea.

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.

5 Things

At the end of each day, I write down five things I want to do tomorrow. I use a notepad file on my PC so that I can easily cut and paste items into different the lists for different days as my priorities shift. Usually one project is writing my dissertation, but it’s something specific, like “write 3 pages of the conclusion.” One project involves planning class or grading. Another might be reading to do for the dissertation. The last two are some combination of household chores, exercise, phone calls I need to make, and errands to run.

My “5 Things” helps me have realistic expectations for the day. Even though I often don’t finish all five, it’s never impossible to do so. I make the list at the end of the day, when it’s fresh in my mind what needs to be done next. And if I think of things I need to do at random times, I put them onto my “5 Things” list, but I schedule them a few days out (or bump something off my list for the current day).

My list has been most helpful at managing my errands and life stuff not relating to work. There’s usually not more than one really important errand to do in a day. I do the most crucial task first, and schedule the rest one at a time over the next few days.

I like this system because when I wake up in the morning, my goals for the day are already defined and managable (this is better than a big, vague cloud of FEAR). Also, if something comes up (which happens a lot), I can decide at a glance what can wait and what needs to be done immediately. Sometime, I do the easiest thing first (a load of laundry, maybe), and then have the comforting feeling that there’s only four things left to do.

As I’ve mentioned, I have many types of long lists, all of which I “put away” into a bookmark on the internet or a file on my hard drive. Only this immediate, short, doable list lives on my desktop. Long lists can be overwhelming and inspire hopelessness. Even if I have a very bad work day, I can still usually get half of my 5 things done.


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.

Research Question

I’m reading a great book called The Craft of Research. Look for a complete review in the coming weeks. But for now, I simply have to share a crucial vocabulary word for any doctoral student.

I was told that I do not have a research question in my dissertation. I made several attempts to improve the situation, but I have continued to struggle with it.  Finally, this book showed me what I was doing wrong.

A practical question has a problem, which is in some way related to unhappiness. (A small business is losing money). The solution to the practical problem is an action (laying off 2 people).

In a research question, the problem is always a lack of knowledge. Therefore, in a dissertation, we wouldn’t frame the problem as something sad (losing money) but something unknown: how can this business lower its operation costs? The solution is always increased understanding–not an action. Presumably, after research, one would arrive a fairly complicated answer to the question about the business.

And our research might not lead 100% directly to the practical solution. Maybe the owner would still be unwilling to consider layoffs even after seeing that it would be effective–maybe her employees are her nephews or something. But often, a research question is at least related to a practical problem.

At this phase in my dissertation, when I’ve finished a draft of the entire thing, I worked backwards, asking myself “what do I have a better understanding of now that when I started?” This worked better than asking myself “what should people do who have read my dissertation?”


Joan Bolker, my dissertation-writing guru, says in Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day that you should reward yourself each time you reach a milestone. You reward youself in a small way at the end of each day that you’ve reached your goal ( in my case, with an episode of Northern Exposure). You reward yourself in a bigger way each time you finish a chapter (with an expensive dinner, maybe, or a weekend trip to see a friend). And you reward yourself in a big, big way when you finish your dissertation. You plan out your reward early so that you can look forward to it the entire time you’re writing.

After I read that book, I decided that I wanted to go to Japan after graduation. I want to see some of the most seriously awesome aquariums in the world.

But recently, I changed my mind. I’m going to Alaska. Partly because Northern Exposure has been such a pleasant part of my last year of grad school. Partly because I want to rest, and the small towns of Alaska seem less challenging than Tokyo. Partly because there’s not a single thing related to poetry or art that I want to see there (please don’t mistake me: I’m sure there are things of that sort to experience. They are just not the reason I’m going). Partly because I have developed, in the last few weeks of writing the dissertation, an obsession with what my niece Cate calls “bearses.” I don’t know why, but all the sudden, I need to see bearses for myself.

By the way, you don’t have to leave bear-sightings to chance in Alaska. There are small planes that take you to places where bears are guaranteed to be hanging out. In June, they’ll be taking advantage of the salmon run.

Heck. Yeah.

I also considered buying a fancy new bed, getting a massage for seven days in a row, and going to a fancy pants spa in Palm Springs for a weekend.

You’d think graduating would be it’s own reward, but the celebration is a nice thing to look forward to, and surprisingly comforting when the work is not going well.  No matter where you are in grad school, I encourage you to make some plans.

Introduction & Conclusion

In many ways, the introduction and conclusion are the hardest things to write in the dissertation. Not only do you have to be clear about your main points, but you also want to interest your readers and compell them to keep reading (in the case of the introduction) and make them feel a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge (in the case of the conclusion).

As they say, no pressure.

I found it very helpful to read some of the introductions to my favorite scholarly books before starting my introduction draft. I didn’t do that before I wrote the conclusion.

My last three pages of the conclusion are, at the moment, truly lame. I felt like I was trying to get out of an awkward conversation at a party as I was writing it . . . I babbled on and then ducked away suddenly. The last pages string together some vague platitudes and maybe even a little motivational speaker-ese. Yuck.

I’m going to read the ends of a bunch of good books today. I think it will help.