Defense Advice

Advice from an English professor young enough to remember his defense:

When preparing:

  • Look over the introductory chapters of the Booth/Colomb/Williams book The Craft of Research and practice talking about your research question, your claims, and your overall argument in the dissertation.
  • Memorize a few things–lines from your dissertation or the texts you’re working with.  It helps to have something specific to refer to.
  • Make a short opening statement so that you can control how the conversation begins.
  • Become aware of the committee’s relationships to one another.  (I know a few professors in my department who are more than happy to gossip about things like this, but the details aren’t as important as remembering that these people relate to each other outside of your project. If you sense some tension in the room, it might not have much to do with you.)
  • Send your committee an e-mail the day before reminding them about your defense.
  • Go to a movie the night before and try to relax.

While in the room:

  • Talk to the committee, not other people in the room.
  • Don’t give bullshit answers, but don’t dodge questions, either. “I don’t know as much as I’d like to about that, but here’s my partial answer . . . “
  • Repeat and clarify questions, especially if someone rambles for awhile. This will buy you time to formulate a response and also help the rest of the committee understand each other.
  • You can also help the committee understand each other by connecting their comments. “That’s an interesting question, Prof. S. It reminds me of what Prof. M was saying earlier . . .”
  • Try to connect your responses to questions to something that you want to talk about (at least some of the time).

After the defense:

  • Don’t expect to feel closure. It’s probably not going to happen. (See the previous post, “Not the Apocolypse.”)
  • Drink.
  • Create your own ritual to get some closure down the line. (My mother would no doubt recommend burning something.)

Not the Apocalypse

I really thought when I turned my dissertation into my committee that my world might end.

I imagined endless amounts of free time to cross off all non-dissertation to-dos. I imagined reading novels on sunny afternoons. I imagined writing long letters to friends. I imagined birds chirping. Constantly.

But the night before I turned it in, I realized my world was going to spin right on–overwhelmed with errands, good intentions, hard work, and even–yes, it’s true–more dissertating.

It was a letdown. On the other hand, I’ve had a few friends who experience great highs at the last moments of dissertating–as they write their conclusions, everything comes together in new, exciting ways. They get a surge of energy, and their committees are only too happy to urge them on.

That feeling you might have, that nothing about the dissertation goes the way you planned it to go, does not end once its turned in, or once you’ve defended, or once you’ve graduated. There are so many milestones that say you’ve “almost” finished, but it’s never really the end until you decide you’re done culling articles or shaping a book around the work you’ve done. That could take years.

I’m happy. But I’ve been astonished at how busy I’ve been, and how the dissertation still seems to need so much of my attention.

When I told my friend M. this, he said, “Yeah, but you’re still done.” But I guess what I’m trying to say, to those in the middle of a big project, is that you can’t plan for that  feeling of completeness or relief. It might not come when you’re expecting it.

E-mail Overload

There is a consensus that e-mail makes people less productive. The latest article I read, “E-mail is Making You Stupid” by Joe Robinson, shared some startling statistics: e-mail volume is growing at a rate of 66% per year.

So far, I have not been able to do what’s recommended: check e-mail at 2-4 designated times per day. However, I do generally close my e-mail program while I am writing. Considering it “takes a worker 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption,” I’m not a big fan of stopping to check e-mail or Facebook while trying to be productive.

One suggestion Robinson made that I really like is that if you send less e-mails, you’ll get less e-mails. He also advises putting “no reply necessary” in the subject line to signal that a conversation can be over.

The Future Mister Doctor has a practice of a double asterisks in the subject line to indicate that there is nothing in the body of the message. For example: “**meeting at 4PM tomorrow.” When you don’t have to open the message, it makes the process of checking e-mail faster.

I like to have a clean inbox, so I’ve recently been sorting messages into “This Week” and “Non Urgent” folders. True, I mostly never answer the non-urgent stuff. But that’s probably good (I’d only get more e-mails in return, right?). When all the pressing stuff is gathered in one place, I can go through it without becoming distracted by non-essential messages.  Anything that doesn’t need a reply is deleted immediately. I am also a diligent unsubscriber from mass e-mails–I never let an unwanted sender into my inbox twice.

This system ensures that nothing truly important gets lots in the shuffle–since those messages stay in my relatively small inbox. The “This Week” folder ensures that I see what’s time-sensitive when I settle in for an e-mail session–usually a couple times a week. The Non-Urgent Folder gets mostly forgotten, but it’s in there because it doesn’t need to be stressed (for example, if someone sent me a link to an article they thought I would enjoy).

How do you keep e-mail from making you stupid?


I tried an experiment last week in order to try and see whether anticipating problems would help me be more productive. One morning, I felt unusually tired, so I wrote a short list of what to do if I started having trouble working:

  • 30 minute nap
  • shower
  • 15 minute walk

It actually really helped. Later that afternoon, I looked at my list and decided to take a short nap. Not only was the nap effective, but when I hit a wall, I was able to quickly evaluate my options, make a decision, and address the problem with a minimum of stewing.

Since then, in the front of my calendar,  I’ve been keeping a running tally of ways to address typical problems I face when writing. My mission: to avoid getting sucked into hours of playing computer games. I was truly embarrassed the other day by throbbing wrists in yoga class that I was 100% certain related to mouse clicks. I just got a massage, which included a lengthy session on my forearms, and I’m determined not to waste that money or treatment by exacerbating the problem immediately after attempting to fix it.

I usually play computer games when I’m restless. So here’s my restless list:

  • dance party (an extremely effective method my friend Rebecca & I came up with while writing papers in college)
  • read dissertation-related book
  • deep breathing exercise
  • empty dishwasher/advance laundry
  • organize magazines
  • write a blog post (just thought of that one!)

I know organizing magazines isn’t everyone’s idea of a great time, but we have quite a stack of unread magazines right now that it soothes my mind to put in chronological order. The Future Mister Doctor helpfully disorders them on a fairly regular basis, thus giving me a completely non-urgent, non-stressful project that can be accomplished in less than ten minutes.

And here’s the FEAR list:

  • read dissertation-related book
  • deep breathing exercise
  • exercise
  • design an elaborate reward for the end of the day’s work
  • try to focus on inviting yourself to write and explore, rather than demand yourself to succeed (a technique I learned in yoga)

As you can see, there is some overlap in the lists. But the point is not originality, the point is simple, effective ways to get the off-track Future Doctor back on task. For me, a written contingency plan has been very helpful.

Ooh, just thought of another list–the maddening e-mail from an advisor list:

  • call and/or immediately forward e-mail to members of dissertation support group
  • read the Dinosaur Comic entitled “kant was the one who thought genius meant originality, but kant thought a lot of things” (The title alone reminds one that every smart person has a bunch of idiotic ideas, too–just consider Plato on the theater. Then T-Rex starts talking about a “Power Punch Bear.”)
  • watch Die Hard (where the hero takes every form of psychological and physical abuse, and yet triumphs) or something in the Shooter/Taken genre, where Marky Mark/Liam Neelson gets mad and then kills everyone. Any Bourne movie would work too.

Renouncing the Privileges of Laziness

I adore Rob Brezsny’s horoscopes. Let me just say, at the outset, that I do not believe in astrology. In fact, it creeps me out when people discuss things like going into their Neptune phase in a serious manner. Yeesh! But Rob Brezny’s horoscopes are imaginative and playful and clever. He creates a feeling of intimacy and insight week after week that I find truly commendable.

So pretend this is your horoscope for today–it may get you excited about what comes next in your work life:

“Let us not underestimate the privileges of the mediocre,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. “Life becomes harder and harder as it approaches the heights — the coldness increases, the responsibility increases.” I bring these thoughts to your attention,  because in the next two months you’ll be in a prime position to renounce some of the “privileges” of your laziness. Please hear me out. I’m not saying that your lackadaisical attitudes are any worse than mine or anyone else’s. But there come times when he or she has a chance to outgrow those lackadaisical attitudes so as to reach a higher level that’s both more demanding and more rewarding. This will be one of those times for you.

Emergency! Emergency!

. . . is the title of one of my favorite Promise Ring songs. But it’s also the state in which many of us get the most work done.

You can’t exactly maintain a sense of urgency for eight years. At the same time, watching The Future Doctor Anderson revise each chapter in 48 hours in the final push to finish her dissertation was completely awe-inspiring. And then I, who took 3 full months to revise my first chapter, revised Chapter 4 in less than two weeks. When graduation gets near, you can do amazing things!

But wouldn’t it have been great if we could have been that fast earlier? How can that be accomplished?

  • Some people apply to conferences with yet-to-be-written papers. If they get in, this forces them to get a solid draft of something by the time they give their talk.
  • For me, what kicked me into high gear even more than graduation was the thought of my upcoming four-day stay in a luxurious-looking hotel in Napa Valley. We’re going there for a wedding. I’ve never been, and the thought of the restaurants (French Laundry! I’ve been dreaming of you!) and the wineries just makes me want to have accomplished something. I cannot work in Villagio Palacio Hotel of Grandeur, or whatever it’s called. I need to be treating myself to a hot rock massage in celebration of my dissertating accomplishments! I need to be telling other wedding guests that I’ve finished my dissertation as I sip (okay, guzzle) local wine. Whee!
  • My husband has two busy seasons in his work. His business has a seemingly natural flow to it, heating up for September, slowing down for the holidays, getting crazy in March and then relaxing through summer. Maybe it’s possible to arbitrarily designate two busy months of the year, when you’re going to knock something out or die trying. Especially if you follow that busy period with a small break–perhaps a holiday, or just a couple weeks of taking it easier.
  • Sometimes a big life change (pregnancy, the start of a new job, funding running out) can be used as motivation to finish up quickly. Or maybe even a particular birthday looming ominously.
  • A writing group deadline, where you have one or two chances per semester to turn in work, could be very helpful. If your date to share is not flexible, you’ll probably crank something out just to avoid looking like a fool in front of your colleagues.

It’s hard to have a sense of urgency, though, when you really don’t know how long things are going to take. You don’t want to punish yourself for taking longer to write a book than you expected–hey, you’ve never done it before. That sense of urgency can quickly turn into a sense of failure if one isn’t careful. My therapist used to ask me what would happen if I took a semester longer to graduate. I guess she was trying to give me perspective, and show me that 3 months here or there wasn’t the end of the world. But it’s all too easy to get used to that lack of urgency, and be unproductive because of it.

Finding the Right Routine

Joan Bolker talks about finding good routines to maximize productivity. “Write first” is one of Bolker’s most highly recommended routines.  But some people will get more done at night, and there are probably even weirdos whose energy peaks in the afternoon.

Bolker advises dissertators to continue refining the routine, letting your process evolve so that you’re doing what works, not merely what seems logical.

Recently, I started working on weekends, because I really want to graduate in May. I have resisted working weekends since the Future Mister Doctor moved to Austin, because he does not generally work then and I wanted our free time to align. However, I thought I could handle working weekends for a few months, especially if I made the weekends a little different than the weekdays.

I told myself I would work every day, but on the weekends, I could stop as soon as I didn’t feel like writing anymore, no matter how long it had been. Then I would read dissertation-related books until I was sick of that, too. By pressuring myself less on the weekends, I hoped to preserve some sense of relaxation.

It turns out that I can be insanely productive on the weekends. I should have figured it out sooner. Unlike the Future Mister Doctor, I don’t sleep in that well. Usually, I try not to wait to wake him up until he’s slept more than 12 hours (Sorry, parents. I know how much that last sentence hurt you to read.) Anyway, a lot of the time, what would happen is that I would do something productive (pay bills, catch up on personal e-mail) and then feel kind of tired because I’d popped out of bed so darn early.  I’d go back to sleep for awhile. (I’m not good at sleeping in but I excel at napping.) Turns out that weekend mornings are great dissertating times for me.

It’s possible that I should have been working weekends all along, and taking off Mondays instead, when I feel like lazing around (and have no problem sleeping in).

Job Talks

I recently attended a mock job talk. One of the hardest things about this particular talk was that it was supposed to be given to a mixed audience of undergraduates and professors. Here’s some thoughts I have about how to give a good talk in this situation:

1) Ask your audience easy questions at the beginning. Getting even a small amount of feedback (Let’s have a show of hands on who has seen Avatar!) will calm your nerves. Plus, the audience will be engaged. I say ask easy questions because you don’t know these people–you don’t want to put them on the spot if they are shy or insecure.

2) Repeat key terms a couple of different ways. Even the main concepts are not difficult to grasp, giving a quick definition or simple example will force you to introduce your main ideas slowly and keep your audience with you.

3) Rather than trying to cram all the different issues in your dissertation into one talk, pick one thread and stick to it.  As one professor put it, the hiring committee has read your abstract. They don’t need it rehashed, and a summary of all your big thoughts will just confuse a listening audience.

4) Don’t try to sound smart. Don’t name drop scholars. And if someone asks you a question that you don’t have a good answer to, it’s okay to ask them to elaborate or say that it’s an interesting problem (and explain why) without answering the question definitively. This approach has the added bonus of making your audience feel smart (they thought of something that you, the expert, didn’t!) and also making you look humble. Everyone would rather work with the humble guy than the guy who pretends to know what he’s talking about but is obviously full of it.

If you’ve got a job talk coming up, good luck!

Interview Tips from FSP

Female Science Professor strikes again! Her calm, practical advice for interviewing is definitely beneficial to any future doctor. There’s a whole series, but this post particularly addresses issues that are worried over often, including wardrobe and family issues.

Doing What You’re Not Good At

My friend and mentor, Dr. Susan Somers-Willett, once told me that most academic writers are much better at close reading than theoretical framing, or vice versa. She described herself as more naturally inclined toward bigger-picture scholarly questions. I am more of a detail-oriented, pick-apart-the-text-one-syllable-at-a-time kind of woman.

Back then, I thought there might be something wrong with me because I was having such a hard time thinking about my project in terms of literary theory or contemporary scholarship. The idea that I might be better at something that Susan was–whether true or not–was pretty exciting.

I continue to struggle to fit these two types of thinking into a single piece of academic writing. Today, starting a chapter revision, I decided to completely ignore all my evidence and examples, and focus on getting the big-picture, scholarly conversation stuff in place.

It was scary but so worth it! I already have a wealth of examples to draw from previous drafts. But rather than try to build an argument around those pieces of evidence, I focused on writing all my ideas on a rather daunting topic–nothing less than the history of poetry as a genre. I came away from my work this morning knowing that my advisor will not find the same old weaknesses in this version of the chapter.

I don’t know if I could have used this technique in earlier drafts or not. Without realizing I was doing it, I started writing my dissertation by putting down a wealth of detail that had no real point. It would have been awesome to figure out my theoretical questions before writing, but I don’t know if I was capable of doing that then.

Nevertheless, wherever you are in your writing project, I encourage you to try on an alter-ego for a day. Be the person whose strengths are your greatest weaknesses. It might be easier than you expect.