duke’s graduation deadlines (you’re welcome)

January 25, 2015  Deadline to apply to graduate (through ACES).

March 19, 2015  (or 2 weeks before your scheduled defense) Deadline for “initial submission” of dissertation. Then they e-mail you to tell you what is wrong with your formatting, and then you meet with someone to work it out.

Somewhere in this time frame, your adviser has to send the grad school a letter that you are ready to defend, and your department has to send a “defense announcement.” Then you have to physically go to the grad school and pick up your “examination certificate.”

April 6, 2015 Deadline to defend dissertation (this is earlier than I thought).

April 20, 2015 Deadline to submit final dissertation and “exam card” to the grad school.

But I am not liable for any errors here. Check out http://gradschool.duke.edu/academics/preparing .


time to freak out

I just really looked at the calendar. Again. It appears that (after I finish this “draft” of chapter 4 next week) I have 2 weeks each for revising chapters 1,2,3,4, and 5; 1 week for the introduction; and 1 week for the conclusion.

Goal for December, before leaving for Christmas: Draft an introduction and revise chapter 3. If I can actually do that, there might be hope for the rest of it.

take aways from the PAL event

So, what did I take away from tonight’s discussion (which of course included doing worksheets and sharing responses in pairs)?

I am going to try to stick to the first person, so I sound less pedantic and more accurately convey that this is all my interpretation and reflections on my own experience.

Think of all the things I do in preparation to write: read primary and secondary sources, take notes, make outlines, do brainstorms.

All these things can be, and have been means of procrastination at some time or another. But the view to take now is, how can all of these things be “pre-writing”? How can they be writing that, by undergoing one or more iterations of rendering, become writing? Become prose that takes me a step closer to the finish line?

Any reading or note taking that isn’t leading into writing somehow is generally a waste.

How do you go from these “pre-writing” activities and turn them into composing? Come up with strategies to make this less of a barrier, less of a concrete obstacle, or leap between prep and actual writing. How do I think, research, and write all at once? How do I stop reading and start writing?

Basically, the answer to is to write your way out of it, to turn reading into writing, turn research into writing. Here are some concrete strategies I am going to try:

Dedicate a set time per day to read a book and write about it in my own words. Like, in the span of one hour, read something, take some notes on it, and then sum it up in my own words in complete prose. See how that worked? I am not left with a list of quotes from the text, some dry notes that reflect none of my own thinking, or are too detailed to be useful. I am left with a paragraph that captures the argument or whatever I deem most important in my own prose, which could go straight into a piece of writing. Do some additional thinking and editing, and it becomes a reaction to that author that situates my own work in relation to that piece. I am going to do this when I write my introduction. I am going to do one book a day, then string them together and write and edit it until it is a larger statement about my historiographical intervention.

Take notes on my notes. I do this already. Like, I will cordon off a chunk of related sources, say 10 documents, and take notes on them. Kind of rough notes that cover all the bases, but are not too detailed, but don’t rule anything out because I don’t know what I will need to use yet. Then I put them all in one document and print THAT out. Then I read that and take notes on that, trying to pull out what the big picture or important issue is. Then I start to turn it into writing, just using the notes. As the writing gets going, I realize what I do and do not need from those sources, and can go back accordingly (to the original sources) to get any details I need.

The theme is getting down to to work in a way that is intentionally moving towards writing, and incorporates writing. “All writing is pre-writing.” There is no way to get around the fact that I must read, research, and think before I can get to any writing. But the reading, research, and thinking need to be turned into writing regularly–like, on a nearly daily basis–to create a writing practice that is consistently productive. If I try to do all the reading and research and thinking all first (and this is the trap of that first year you really start to try to write your dissertation), it is simply impossible. First, it makes the hurdle from “pre-writing” to writing to huge and daunting. Second, there is no way I could remember, or even take good enough notes through that whole process to actually be able to then move on to a seamless, pure writing stage.

Other random things:

If I am stuck (like taking too many notes, not knowing where to begin, etc–and if whatever I am doing is not leading to writing, I am stuck), it is a writing problem. I need to figure it out (like is it procrastination, lack of clarity on the next step, etc?) and then figure out a strategy to get around it.

I have to plan and be strategic and be metacognitive about figuring out my own process.

Someone shared that their adviser told them to write one thesis statement per day and this has helped her a lot. Like, your argument can change constantly, and if you keep generating these thesis statements, you always have a lot to choose from. I think I might start some version of this, because I am finding one of my tendencies at the moment is to really put off the big picture. I am good at just GOING, writing whatever next thing I know is going in the diss, but I am really putting off thinking about larger arguments, I always feel I am not ready to make any big claims.

I have to find a rhythm I can live with, and even reward myself for. The goal on any given day is not to finish my dissertation. There will only be one day where that is actually the goal. The goal is to establish a practice in which I write regularly and productively enough that I am able to finish on that one day, next spring.

some complaints

Tuesday morning! My workflow has been f-ed up not just by being sick, but because my sleeping hasn’t normalized, which means I’m not getting up super early/before my family, which means stuff I usually do early in the morning gets pushed to 9am after Piper gets out of the house to school. Which means a late start. I’ve also been waiting to have a morning where I just feel good and fresh (which is how I NORMALLY feel in the morning, but haven’t for weeks now!), so I can knock out this block of editing that I know will go super easy if I just have a fresh mind. But I just feel shitty and want a nap by 10:30am.

Ok, just have to keep going. I’ll feel good again someday.

winter is trying to kill me, but i am having none of it

I posted a week ago, optimistic that I was recovering from that awful cold. Only to basically fall apart with prolonged coughing fits for the next couple of days until I went to the doctor and got various drugs to treat my bronchitis. Today I had the most energy and least coughing I have had in what seems like forever. And I can finally sleep through the night.

I lost a lot of time. But I specifically was trying not to go into a panic spiral of how will I ever possibly finish my dissertation if I lose 2 weeks to being sick?!? I basically didn’t work at the Hartman for 2 weeks, which is really fine, since my boss said he doesn’t  care about me making up the hours. That left all day every day at home, and on all but maybe 3 days of the whole ordeal, I felt well enough to work on my dissertation for an hour or two. Which is practically all I work on it when I am well! So, not that bad over all I guess.

I am extending my chapter 4 work period through to Thanksgiving (as opposed to Nov 19, which was the original plan) and see where I get.

Let’s just hope I really am getting well this time.

“if you stay in the stable too long, the stink will kill you”

Let’s face it, most writing advice is all the same, because there aren’t too many ways to say “Just do it.” This is my favorite thing that I have read in a while, not because it is particularly novel, but because it really confirms everything I have found to be true for myself over these past few years of trying to crack just exactly the best way to get myself to write.


I am basically just going to summarize what it says in my own words …

Spend less time at your desk. Yes! Look folks, writing your dissertation is stressful and hard. You can only take so much of it in one sitting. And if you end up sitting there dicking around on the internet, you are doing nothing but prolonging the agony. Get in and get out. What do you need to do today? Write up that thing about some random law in some random decade? Write 1,000 word of anything? Revise something you wrote yesterday? Then make a plan and do it–how long is it really going to take? How many minutes or hours of focused attention on this task will get it done? Then commit to that, and then mic drop out of there! “If you stay in the stable too long, the stink will kill you.” Keeping the time you spend at your desk “working” contained will make sure you don’t die of asphyxiation before you can get your dissertation done.

The 2 hour rule. I take this to mean we are all miserable failures and can’t really work as long as we all believe we should. You are not fresh for very long. Face it. You’ve got about 2 good hours before the day goes to shit. After that, the quality of your thought, efficiency, ability to write good stuff, or tackle a new problem significantly diminishes. Plan to do your hardest work in this “fresh” window, then plan to do more mundane, less intense stuff for the rest of the day. Also, if you are trying to do something hard after you have already been working for four hours, you are just kind of beating yourself up and it is going to get really demoralizing. Reconsider how you think about your work time. “I have all day tomorrow! I can get so much done!” No, you fool! You will still just have a couple of good hours, and then a bunch of rough hours. Plan accordingly. Treasure those fresh two hours and protect them. And if you have to do something else in the afternoon, realize you still have those morning hours and you could actually be almost as productive as if you were at home all day.

Which leads me to my own rule not covered in the snazzy article … Quit early. The returns diminish so quickly, that it is literally better to just stop at the point that you are not being very productive any more. Better to quit, have dinner, exercise, sleep, have fun, etc than continue whatever unproductive self torture you’ve worked yourself into by the end of the day. Just quit already. It will be easier tomorrow.

Write fast. Write like you are ripping off a band-aid. Just get it out, get it down, you can always come back later. Just never get slowed down by some idea that what you are writing at this moment is crappy. Of course its crappy! You are a graduate student! This is like the first thing you’ve ever written. Just get started, get it down, and then it will only improve from there.

Leave it to rest. That steaming pile of crap you wrote so fast will be really bad, and if you try to improve it after you just wrote it, you will become incredibly discouraged and just want to quit altogether. Just come back later–you know, tomorrow morning at that fresh two hour window–and it will be easier. Your brain will put it on the back burner, and by the time you come back, you will be all the closer to knowing what you want to say and how to say it and how to change around that crappy draft to make it a reality. Leave it to rest also goes for any problem that is giving you a headache. Is this getting too hard? Do you not know how to proceed? Just let it be for the rest of the day. Do something else that isn’t as hard. Then come back when you are fresh and tackle that problem. Do it in iterations.

Disclaimer: AND BY “YOU” I MEAN ME.

why i swore off self imposed deadlines

So, I have been sick the entire week. It started off a crappy cold for the weekend, then I took Monday mostly off, then Tuesday I tried to function normally (because, hey, I already took a day off, what else do you want from me?!?!) and realized that this shit was just getting started, then spent Wednesday and today pretty miserable. I think that now I can downgrade clearing my sinuses to just a part time job, which means I am going to try to get some dissertation stuff done tomorrow. Unfortunately, all one can really do is just pick up where one left off, and try not to freak out about the fact that you are now a week behind whatever imaginary schedule you had laid out for yourself.

And the schedules ARE imaginary.

Last February I made an honest to God, all out effort to meet a self imposed deadline. I have never been able to meet them. Literally, never. Hard deadlines I always make, of course. But these schedules and calendars of tasks I swear I will do by such and such a date, it just does not happen.

So, back to February 2014. I was going to finish revising an article before a family trip. I decided I would simply treat it like a real deadline, and do whatever it took to meet it. If it meant letting other things slide as the deadline approached, fine. If that meant an all-nighter, fine. Basically, just make it a “hard” deadline in my mind and act accordingly.

It did not work. The article seemed to multiply as I got closer to the deadline. I was stressed. Stuff that shouldn’t have taken very long was taking forever. It was like it had a half life–no matter how long or how much I worked on it, I felt like I was only really halfway done. I was constantly cataloging what I had done and what else I was going to do and how long it would take. I got very stressed, was really beating myself up about it, and just became a more and more dysfunctional academic writer. And I STILL didn’t meet that deadline. I ended up having to set it aside altogether and didn’t submit the damn thing until August (as Erin predicted, by the way).

For whatever fucked up psychological reason, I simply can’t deal with self-imposed deadlines. Even just run of the mill, real deadlines are not the greatest thing, but I have over the years learned to cope to the point that I generally don’t get that stressed or thrown off by deadlines (I am generally talking grant applications, when I get thrown into the brave new world of job applications, my coping abilities might get stretched to the max).

So I decided that self imposed deadlines simply don’t work, they cause more damage than not, and even if it is some kind of huge personal failing, I gave it my all and it still didn’t work, so I’m done with them.

My new system is to basically block off chunks of the calendar to dedicate to certain writing projects. For example, I have until the Thanksgiving-zone to work on chapter 4. Will I try to finish it? Yes. Will I try to approximate the appropriate pace and amount of material and length, etc, for it to pass as a completed draft? Yes. But I can’t guarantee it. And I don’t have to because no one really gives a fuck. By that time, I will have something that I call “chapter 4” and then I will move on to the next writing task (revising chapter 3, maybe), and so on, and I will just keep doing that until the real deadline. When there is a real deadline, I know I will have a “done” dissertation, because I can meet REAL deadlines. But anything else is fiction so I might as well keep working in the most productive manner I know how (just keep going on this massive work in progress with no real stopping points) up until I need to read the thing and make sure there are no sentence fragments or parentheticals telling me to look something up.

There are a few advantages to this system, for me. It means I don’t spend an indefinite amount of time on a writing project. If it is not done during that time I blocked off, it just isn’t done and I’ll have to come back to it later. I spent months and months, ok years, really on an article, because I was always “almost done” with it. When in reality, I wasn’t ready to be done with it, didn’t have enough perspective on it to really wrap it up, and just wasted a ton of time continuing to work on it. I dedicated a month to chapter 3. Was it a good draft? No. Was it even finished? No. But I had something. And when I sat back down with it, it was easy to make a plan for revision and see what did and did not need to be there, and I am optimistic about it overall. If I had held onto it until it was “done,” I would probably still be working on it, have less perspective on the thing, and be FREAKING out because it a week into November and I would not have started on chapter 4. I have a lot of unexpected shit come up–for instance, being sick this week–and I can’t feel like the world is coming to and end every time I get some work days shaved off. I was sick this week, but I am sticking to my original time block for chapter 4. I realized I tend to get things done in iterations, and trying to force myself into some state of completion artificially is a mess. Also, I think this actually is closer to how academia operates. Deadlines are a huge feature of academic life–but how many of them are real? Grants, jobs, and grades. That’s it. Maybe the day you give a conference talk. Everything else, books and articles, the major projects that build your career, is pretty fluid.

It has yet to be seen if I will complete a defendable, good enough dissertation on time.


So the application season is slowly beginning to recede into the background, and now the trouble will be to get cracking again on the dissertation. Paige posed a question a few weeks ago about how I was going to apply for jobs, revise two chapters, and write an introduction in October. The answer is that I wasn’t going to. I continue to have a hard time creating realistic deadlines and meeting them. I met what were the most important deadlines – jobs and postdocs – but the “internal” ones went by the wayside. I had made some progress taking notes on primary sources for the revisions of one of those chapters, but as application deadlines encroached, those ended up falling off as well, and now it’s a matter of recreating dissertation momentum.

I still have a couple things I want to finish up for my application though, particularly because I have most of my materials up at my website and I want them to be “good enough” if people click on them. So today, teaching statement. Tomorrow, research statement. The goal is to have them good enough by 5 or 6 p.m. each day.

And then my most important project is probably paring a couple chapters down to readable length in case a committee requests additional writing samples. After that, I’m writing my introduction. The new books will be in the mail by the end of the day.

Thanks, also, for everyone contributing to this. It is a huge source of motivation to read peoples’ posts.

take the weekends off?

This professor at University California Merced advises to take the weekends off, along with some other pretty canned advice, like take a walk without your cell phone and meditate. The argument is that working more than 40 hours a week can be counter productive. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/766-take-the-weekends-off

I agree. I take one full day off, Saturday, and my long term goal (like when I have a real job) is to take weekends off completely. But you have develop the work habits, time management, priorities in order to get to the point where taking weekends off doesn’t just mean sacrificing a bunch of work time. More recently, I have made my goal to work 7 days per week. I already don’t work very much, usually 30 hours per week or less. Given the life circumstance of having a young kid, you generally have less work time in a given day, week, month, and you have totally unpredictable interruptions. So I make up for it by working on weekends. And I feel like for this point in dissertation writing the most important thing is to keep the momentum going at all costs, and the best way for me to do that is work a little bit EVERY day.

There is also the issue of quality. I work 25-30 hours a week, but that is active working time. I don’t time breaks, commuting to campus, eating, internet surfing, etc. I do count meetings and any event, seminar. If I hit that timer, I am sitting in my chair just working on whatever task I have set myself to. I feel like this gives me more freedom to really mentally break form my work–when I am not working, I am NOT working, and generally not thinking about working or feeling guilty about not working.

(Side note: The two most useless emotions related to dissertation writing are GUILT and DOUBT).

In conclusion, I agree that there is a tipping point at which working is just counter productive in terms of burning you out and poor quality, and that I need designated, sometimes extended, time off in order to stay focused and productive.