Category Archives: Reviews

Self-Help for Graduate Students Part 7: The Clockwork Muse

Publishing Info: Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Time Investment: 98 pages of clear prose.

Clockwork Muse begins by encouraging writers to de-romanticize the writing process. Though we associate writing with spontaneity, structure is the key to finishing a large project. Like Joan Bolker, he advises keeping a diary of your effectiveness so that you can craft a realistic schedule that allows you to write for a good length of time, at a good time of day.

Next, Zerubavel suggests that you outline your entire project (even though it will not be complete) and break it into smaller chunks. Then, you should write the entire thing from start to finish before trying to perfect any one chunk. “Once you have completed a first full draft of your manuscript you will almost never fail . . . to complete your project in its entirety.”

While I appreciate that sentiment, my advisors definitely seem to expect me to complete a near-perfect draft of my first chapter. They think it will be easier to write the other chapters after doing so. It seems like you couldn’t make this plan without talking it over with your committee.

The next step in Clockwork Muse is to estimate the number of pages in each section, your pace for each section (the number of pages you will complete per day) and your padded deadline for the section–based on the schedule you made earlier. My major problem with this method is that I fear I would be constantly re-calibrating the schedule, devoting precious time to tinkering with it instead of actually writing the dissertation.

The book announces in the last couple of pages that you need to have self-discipline to write a book, but it offers no help in understanding how to achieve that self-discipline. I feel that the book was helpful in thinking about mechanics and schedules, but did nothing to address the real issue of how to continually self-motivate.


Self-Help for Graduate Students Part 6: The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom

Publishing Info: Orman, Suze. The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Steps So You Can Stop Worrying. New York, Three Rivers Press, 2000.

Time Investment: 332 pages in a small paperback–some of it may be skippable, as it is geared toward people in all stages of life.

When The Future Mister Doctor Jones hired a financial planner to help him get out of debt, plan our wedding, and save for retirement, I did not just feel relief that he was getting some good help. I felt an intense need to learn what he was learning. I turned to my friend, The Future Master Rebecca Zook–who had made an amazing transformation in the course of a couple years from a college graduate who had never been employed to the proud owner of a thriving tutoring business with health insurance and a pile of savings. She recommended Suze Orman, who also has a book called Young, Broke and Fabulous. I read both books, but I liked The Nine Steps better–less faux-young lingo.

Orman’s advice only cost me a few dollars on, but it has been very consistent with the advice the professional financial planner gives The Future Mister Doctor Jones. Orman does a great job of telling you exactly where your priorities should lie–for example, which credit card bill to pay down first, or how to split up your tiny amounts of extra money between retirement, life insurance, emergency savings, and savings for big-ticket items like the down payment on a house. She also explains when and how to invest your money in different types of mutual funds and stocks.

Though my financial situation is fairly simple–I don’t have any debt, I don’t own anything, I don’t have any savings, and I legally don’t pay taxes–I still felt that this book was very useful to me. One little tip I’ll leave you with: the best savings account interest is through an on-line bank called Emigrant that links to your checking account and is extremely easy to use, with no fees of any kind.

Self-Help for Graduate Students Part 5: The Power of Now

Publishing Info: Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Novato, CA: New World Library, 1999.

Time Investment: 200 pages of clear, but at times wince-inducing prose.

I felt a lot of skepticism about this book initially, but a good friend really wanted me to read it. And I actually ended up recommending it to a few non-Future Doctor friends, because I think there’s a lot of useful things in it. It would be easy in graduate school (as in many other areas of life) to constantly feel anxious about the future–contemplating the likelihood of graduating and getting a good job is enough to send most of us away from our work and toward our various vices. At its best, this book offers a variety of tools for self-calming (besides basic deep breathing, which has never worked well for me).

I cringed, rolled my eyes, and groaned through much of the New Age-y philosophy, especially when Tolle blames human problems on brains. I don’t really want to think of my brain as the enemy when writing my dissertation. But if anxiety ever interferes with your work, keeping an open mind through this book might be worthwhile.

For example, I tend to run a few paces back from The Future Mister Doctor Jones when we jog together. Even if we’re running the same speed, I typically have to really struggle to run next to him. After reading The Power of Now I decided to try and focus on the present. I realized that I had been pysching myself out before, thinking, I can’t keep up this pace. I changed my thinking and told myself, I keep up Now, I keep up Now–and what can I say, dear reader. It worked. I felt exhausted but terrific at the end of the run.

One of the things I most appreciated about The Power of Now is the reminder that nothing in the future–not a degree, not a job, not a book–will make us happier, more fulfilled people. Learning to be happy on the journey (oops–the New Age speak is creeping in! Better wrap this up!) is a much better plan.

Self-Help for Graduate Students Part 4: Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Part 2

Publishing Info: Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Time Investment: 150 easy-to-read pages; it’s possible to read it one chapter at a time, as you progress toward your degree.

Some favorite advice from Joan Bolker:

  • “If the writing doesn’t sound good to you while you’re writing it, it’s fine to make a note to yourself about this . . . I often put that commentary right in the midst of my text, using square brackets, or a different color of ink or pencil, so that when I come back to revise, I can recognize and engage quickly with the problem I’ve already noted.”
  • When you write a certain number of pages (3-6) per day: “the faster you do them, the sooner your time is your own; this method of writing rewards learning to write faster, and from what I’ve seen, fast writing produces no worse results than slow writing does.”
  • “Perhaps you can work nonstop for a few days, but no one can sustain that sort of effort over the long haul.” Sustainable work was a revolutionary concept to me—doing an amount of work that is repeatable for five workdays in a row.

Self-Help For Graduate Students Part 3: Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day

Publishing Info: Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Time Investment: 150 easy-to-read pages; it’s possible to read it one chapter at a time, as you progress toward your degree.

I love Joan Bolker. Reading this book has brought me to the point of tears more than once. I quote her constantly when giving advice to colleagues. Occasionally I imagine writing her elaborate tributes or fan mail.

Joan Bolker has excellent experience to recommend her for the job of helping you write your dissertation. She started two dissertations, only one of which she finished. She knows the difference, first hand, between a failed dissertation and a successful dissertation. Second, she worked as a therapist to that’s right! struggling doctoral students for years and years.

Joan Bolker doesn’t just want to help you finish your dissertation—she wants you to enjoy writing it. To do so, she offers ways of analyzing your own work habits. In fact, she’s the main reason I began this blog. Also, her chapter on how to choose committee members and what to do when you have problems with your committee prompted to me to change my committee in a way that infinitely sped up my progress.

“If you’ve tried, God forbid, to train a puppy by beating it, you’ll know that you can end up with a docile dog, but not one with any spirit or joy. Puppies who are trained with praise and treats grow into lively, obedient dogs.” This has been one of the most vivid images in my mind for the past three years. Rewarding yourself for accomplishing small, realistic goals by calling a friend, going outside, or taking a bath works infinitely better than punishing yourself for not accomplishing your goals by piling on more work.

More on Joan Bolker next week, but by then, you should have bought the book already!

Self-Help For Graduate Students, Part 1: Review of They Say, I Say

Publishing Info: Graff, Gerald and Birkenstein, Cathy. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Time Investment: 135 pages, written for high school or undergraduate audience

They Say, I Say is a tutorial on entering an academic conversation—a crucial, basic component of writing a dissertation or scholarly article. They offer simple explanations of summarizing, quoting, answering potential objections to your ideas, and meta-commenting.

To teach these skills, the authors rely on templates. For example, here is one template for introducing an ongoing debate:

“In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been _________. On the one hand, _____ argues _____. On the other hand, _____ contends ______. Others even maintain ________. My own view is _______.”

If this seems an overly simple way to begin an essay, perhaps you’ve never struggled, as I have, to explain the main ideas of your dissertation in brief. The authors do not suggest every paper should begin with a variation on that sentence, but they do offer simple starting points for expressing your main argument. I can imagine beginning a chapter draft in this way, just to have a clear point to come back to when my mind is muddied up with details. In the final draft, one could always begin with something snappier.

Clarity is something that most writers strive for—and clarity becomes even more important when our purpose is to teach or convince others of specific claims. They Say, I Say helps writers clarify their purpose in writing and communicate that purpose to others.