Not for the faint of heart
Since my first blog post here, I’ve finished my course work, passed quals, become ABD, and all of the other “smaller” academic milestones along the way. I have even conducted meaningful dissertation research that I completely made up and directed on my own. I’ve not only learned how to write a successful conference proposal (something that eluded me my first year), I’ve even started being selective in which conferences to apply to because I don’t have the resources and time to present at them all. I’m finally an expert on something (my dissertation research), and no one on earth knows this one little thing better than I do (no one on earth cares as much as I do, either). I have failed bigger than I ever have in my life, and never before have I felt so simultaneously smart and ignorant. Truly, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
So, here I find myself once again, writing about writing, but I’m in a very different place now. In June, I moved out of my beloved college town in which I inhabited space for 10 years, and into my mom’s basement (the “lower level”, as she likes to remind me). Livin’ the dream, folks, livin’ the dream. As I occupy a very different physical space than I did four years ago, I also find myself in a different mental space, as well.
Four years have come and gone, and taken their toll. I know what it’s like to struggle, succeed, fail, meet deadlines, and watch them go whooshing by (in case you didn’t know that it was possible to cancel/reschedule your quals 5 times, it is). I know what it’s like to be depressed, and to relate to all of those articles about PhD students and depression. I know what it’s like to have such thankfulness in your heart for life circumstances that seem ideal for being a PhD student, and then have those other things happen…those things that completely shake you and you wonder how you’re going to make it through the night, let alone a PhD program…
Life happens, and it doesn’t stop happening so that you can graduate. You have to live the life that’s happening, and re-evaluate your plan… you have to let dreams die, and find the courage to let yourself dream new ones. It takes strength that you didn’t know you had (mine comes from friends, family, and Jesus). It takes humility…sometimes to admit defeat, but to ask for another chance…or to somehow ask for help, or at least take it when it’s offered. It takes community…I would never have made it this far without my fellow PhD students and academic mentors pushing me forward, or without the prayers and support of friends and family holding me up. It takes an eye-on-the-prize determination and grit that I don’t even know if I have, because I haven’t even finished yet.
My mom likes to remind me that getting a PhD requires sacrifice. When I’m sad when I can’t do that fun/responsible/grown-up/normal-person thing because I don’t have the funds/time/energy…when my life plan takes a nosedive and I find myself back at the drawing board and with no plan at all (a scary place for me to be) …I need to be reminded that it’s worth it. That I’m called to it. That it will be over soon. That I can do it. Every time I get to that low place, and I get afraid, a beloved mentor says to me: When was the last time you did something worthwhile that wasn’t hard?
Anything worthwhile is worth sacrifice.
Getting a PhD is hard.
I’m so thankful that I get to do this hard thing.
Four years later…
Oh.em.gee. I can’t believe I’m in what looks to be my final semester of the PhD. You guys…I’m writing a dissertation! I know, you can’t believe it either. Or maybe you can. Personally, I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around how to write a dissertation, which might be the reason why it is not going very smoothly at all (*insert nomination for understatement of the year*).
I’m so thankful that the Lord has gotten me this far, but wow– there’s still a long way to go before I defend my dissertation in December (I hope and pray and hope and pray)!
It’s after midnight, and I came to my desk three hours ago to get to work. Instead of work, I found procraductivity. The first hour was spent organizing my files (how am I supposed to write about research that is digitally strewn all over my laptop?!). The second hour was spent on Facebook and Instagram, chatting with friends over text, and reading another person’s blog (which is basically how I feel like I spend most of my life lately). In the third hour, I finally decided that if I’m not going to get any actual work done, I want to at least do some writing (I set a goal this week to write 4-5 pages per day…let’s all laugh together). That’s when I remembered my own blog.
I started this blog four years ago as a new PhD student for the purpose of writing practice (and to complete a final project requirement during my first semester). People in the PhD world always say that the best way to make progress on writing is to write…ANYTHING. I guess the theory is that it is like Drano for the pipe that goes from your brain to your fingers: cleaning out the bits of your life that get stuck inside of you, flushing it out so that those beautiful-but-sticky academic thoughts can make their way down stream.
So, here I am…trying to get the pipes working again.
Four years ago me, on this blog, sounds so different than what I hear my narrative voice sounding like today. She was stressed out but determined; a little rambling yet to the point; kind of funny, and even “sunny” (a way my friend and PhD colleague describes my academic writing). Optimistic, some might say. She always had a lesson to learn or a poignant take-away for her reader. Aww. She was so cute, clueless, and had no idea what was about to hit her.
She knew something was coming, but she could have never guessed what…
Writing: It’s a Process
Today at 6:45pm I finished my first academic paper of the semester– the first in my PhD career. If you looked at the clock and imaginary video of me, you would have seen that I started writing said paper at approximately 2:30pm today. However, the video would be lying to you; I actually started the paper two weeks ago. Today, as I was finishing up my concluding paragraph, my roommate came in to talk over a grad school crisis of her own. I patiently listened and responded, until she asked if I had finished my paper. I explained that I had 20 minutes until class and no, it wasn’t finished yet, while she just stared incredulously at me and yelled for me to get back to writing. This started a discussion (wasting another five minutes of my precious deadline-looming time) about our writing processes, which turned out to not be such a waste of time at all.
I explained that I was basically finished with my paper, but that I was still about 150 words short of the recommended word count—a very unusual occurrence for me. Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, I almost always magically arrive at the end of my thoughts and word count around the same moment. I think it must be a super power I was born with (my third cousin Lesa would tell you that all of my “super powers” come from the extra tooth that hides in my bottom jaw…and she would be dead serious about that).
Super power or not, I never have to go back and “fluff up” my paper to get to the word count I need. Today, the solution was to add a conclusion to the conclusion, if you will. It turned out fine, I turned it in on time, and I turned my attention to putting on a pot of chili to cook while I attended my online evening class.
The discussion on our writing processes led me to an important realization: I have a writing process. I really do. Also, contrary to what my mother and closest 15 friends would guess about my process, it does not begin four hours before the deadline; instead, my writing process begins the moment I get the assignment. I think. I plan. I research by reading articles and doing random web searches while procrastinating on other things that I should be doing. I outline. Yes, I actually pre-write. I pull up a Word doc and jot ideas, and maybe even make a rough outline of those ideas. I keep two Word documents open as I write my paper—my idea page and my writing page. By the time I actually sit down to pound out my ideas, they have already been cooking in my head for quite some time, and have likely even found their way, in some shape or form, to my “idea” document. I start writing my paper much before I actually start writing it.
My writing process also has to have a few particular aesthetic elements. When I actually arrive at the “pound it out” stage, I can’t just pound it out anywhere. I need to be in a comfortable chair, preferably one in which I can put my feet up (a couch, a desk chair with an ottoman, or even a coffee shop chair with another coffee shop chair pulled close enough for my short little legs to rest on). The ambient noise is also important; I need either silence, white noise, or music with no words. Coffee shop noise with obscure indie music is fine; coffee shop noise where they play familiar pop music is not. Pandora is my friend, but only if she’s playing Miles Davis or light classical. Pandora playing Diana Krall or Will Smith is not fine. The TV is not fine. Words distract from my writing, so the outside world must be wordless to my ears while I write. Snacking is not something I do while I write (I have a thing about messy fingers), but a beverage of some sort is a must. Wine makes me sleepy, so nothing as classy as that. A glass of water, a cup of decaf tea, a Diet Coke (if it’s not too late), or in cases of oh-shoot-I-have-12-hours-to-deadline-emergency, a cup of good coffee (no Folgers, please) are my companions.
Thinking. Note taking. Research. Outlining. Pounding it out. The only thing that my writing process lacks is revision. I am personally not a fan of revising my own work. For one, although I do start to plan out my writing in advance, I confess that the pound-it-out stage happens dangerously close to each deadline (I may or may not be writing this at 1am Wednesday night. My only excuse is that after writing one paper today/this evening, my brain needed a little time to take in “Modern Family” and “Honey Boo Boo” before it would allow any other productivity). In order for there to be significant revision, you need to have time to do that. You need space between when you pounded it out and when you revise, so that your brain reads things the way you actually wrote them, instead of reading things the way it thinks you wrote them. My best effort at revision usually is a once-over for basic mistakes. If it is a high-stakes piece of writing, that’s different. I send the important things over to a friend for review and suggestions. Then, I’ll take those suggestions under advisement and do a re-write, often grumbling to myself that I hate re-writing and revising. I much prefer to be perfect the first time around, thank you very much.
Sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort to write. Sometimes, though, I sit down at my laptop for a pound-it-out session for a simple reflection paper that I have only been thinking about for a half hour. I sit (still in my comfy chair), I put on my blogger hat (I used to have a blog when I lived a much more interesting life than I do now), I let my inner voice come out on the page, and I enjoy putting together a few pages for a professor I barely know. Most of the time, as I put the finishing sentences on each paper (or abstract or clever work email) I write, I think back to a poster that was in my high school English teacher’s classroom—Snoopy, I think. It read, “It’s exciting when you’ve written something that you know is good.”
Then, there are times when I sit at my computer for a pound-it-out session and…
Snoopy gets me. 
I would like to point out here that I did consider the possible complications of cooking a pot of chili while attending my online class, per my reflection paper from last week on the difficulties of simultaneous online learning and popcorn popping. This time, though, my roommate was there to watch the cooking so that I didn’t set off any smoke alarms. Goal for next week: Don’t cook anything while in my online class.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
From the beginnings of considering a PhD, my mentality has been to finish the degree as fast as possible. For one, starting a PhD at the age of 30 definitely feels like I’m in the category of “better late than never”. I feel my mental capacity to remember things slipping through my proverbial fingers, and already am realizing that it’s going to take a little more effort to finish this degree than it did to get either a bachelor’s or a master’s, simply because I’m going to have to work a little harder to learn the material. Does this really happen at 30 years old? Am I really already talking about feeling “older”? Evidently, yes and yes.
Secondly, I want to do other things with my life besides get degrees, like have a family, and make a difference in my career and field. I know it’s not entirely true, but the thought of simultaneously pursuing a PhD and doing either of those things seems like something only a crazy person would do. I do know a few “crazy” people, and know that it can be done, but still—let’s just get through this thing before I turn 35. That seems like a reasonable goal.
Being a planner, and having this goal of finishing my degree in Education Policy in under four years, one of the main frustrations is that I’ve yet to nail down my advisor for a meeting. Having been a faculty member (of sorts—I just held the title of Lecturer) for the past four years, I understand the barrage of emails and requests to meet. That being said, I need a little guidance here. So, I’m kind of shooting from the hip, signed-up for random courses, and through some elementary math of my own, have come to the conclusion that I can probably do it—all with the help and approval of my advisor (insert *sigh*…he’s a nice man, he really is). As I signed-up for courses and started making a degree completion plan, the obvious choice for me was to take as many credit hours as possible during my first two years so that I would be freed up to write my dissertation at the end. 16 credit hours? Sure. Dare I squeeze in 20? I mean, I’m only working 67% in my job (former job, current assistantship) right now. It could be humanly possible, right? Maybe just 16 credit hours. Ok, that sounds reasonable. I also put in many, many volunteer hours for my church and service projects on the side, but hey—I’m single, no children, and what else am I doing with my time? Must. Finish. PhD. ASAP. And, not to be forgotten—Must. Avoid. Grad. Student. Poverty.
Enter a panel of experienced grad students in my field during an intro course. “Work smarter, not harder”. I don’t remember who said it, and I remember hearing it before, but I don’t remember ever being so ready to take a random piece of advice from someone I don’t know. I was already feeling overwhelmed to the point of breaking. Two of my four classes are being taught online, which is definitely not a mode of instruction I’m comfortable with. Teaching online is different than learning online. My professors can’t see my facial expressions. I can’t interject my verbal opinions, or easily ask a question to show that I’m engaged, interested, and dare I say—intelligent. Learning to learn online has been tough. My third class, Ethnography in Global Context, basically has us reading one book per week plus teaching the class (“leading class discussion”) once per week, as there were only seven students in the class. I also quickly realized that I didn’t really know what Ethnography was when I registered for the class, and now that I know what it is, I know that I don’t want to do it. Eeek.
On top of that, my department called me in to say that they would like for me to teach a regular, full semester course. They would pay me 67% both semesters, but I wouldn’t have to teach at all the second semester. This would be in addition to my administrative position of Cultural Engagement Coordinator (which involves heading-up an internship, coordinating a volunteer program, and fun things like schedule a picnic for 250 people two times in one month because both dates got rained out). This would also be on top of an online class I teach with a different university during the fall semester. I must have had the look of death on my face when they asked me, because I got a call the next day asking if I really was ok with that assignment, and did I want to back out. Anxiety, stress, fear of disappointing my boss, afraid that my backing out would mean a very busy semester for someone else…I was truly at a breaking point and wanted to say yes, but couldn’t because of the crack in my voice.
“Work smarter, not harder.” Someone said that taking many courses at the same time would only mean having to go back at a later point and re-read the things that I would have only had time to skim. Going faster through courses at the beginning did not mean checking off my requirements; it could and would probably mean that I would have to add some time on later devoted to re-reading the material from the courses. At that point, I started scribbling long-addition (is that even a thing?) on my notebook. Could I actually only take 12 credit hours this semester and still graduate in under four years? Did I remember any of the readings I had done for my courses last week, not to mention learn anything through them? I was already on my way to skimming through the first two years of the PhD program. I decided then and there, after re-working my terrible addition and multiplication about five times, that I would drop my Ethnography course and that I wouldn’t teach this semester.
Then and there, I realized the one thing that would have to be different about this degree than my previous ones: I would need to remember what I read for longer than the next paper or test, because the “final” paper or test would actually not be for four years.
Work smarter, not harder. Thanks for the advice, whoever you were. I’m testing it out.
It’s a Project
- Started because of a final project in an “intro to grad school” course
- Continuing because I have to practice writing
- Content: Old posts, new posts, funny posts, academic posts, guest posts, contemplative posts, etc.
- Goal: Blog once a week until I deposit my dissertation