Tag Archives: grad student

The dissertation coach and writing mastery

I think most of us can relate to the utter panic that sometimes seizes us when we sit down at the computer to write. It might be one of those ultimate schadenfreude experiences; when the words are flowing and the document is scrolling ever upward, it’s a crazy rush of success, and yet when the cursor blinks and nothing is moving the experience is excruciating.

coaching I may have finally found a stride with my writing. But it has taken several years of denial, avoidance, regret, and over-scheduling myself professionally to find a way to make it happen. Not to mention lessons in project-management and a dissertation coach.

That’s right. I said it. Dissertation coach. I still feel my shoulders slump a little when I type it, I may have even felt an urge to look over my shoulder. I hired a dissertation coach. Do I have a bad advisor? Nope. But he certainly is busy with his own things. Have I forgotten how to write a paper? Nope. But I still wasn’t making progress in a way that I found satisfactory.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym or having a cognitive-behavioral therapist (psychology folks, I’m winging it with that term). The trainer or therapist does not lift the weights or make the changes in your life that are necessary, but they teach you how to do it safely, responsibly, and in that act empower you.  Once upon a time, when I was a youthful masters student gallivanting around New Orleans, I hired (at a profoundly reduced rate) a personal trainer to help me become more fit. Why? I had never lifted weights before, and I was smart enough to know that I could seriously injure myself.

My experience with a dissertation coach is no different. I have found (sadly, and ironically) that my mentors are extremely bad at providing writing advice (not editorial feedback, but mentorly advice). What a dissertation coach has helped me find is the smartest way to go about writing a dissertation (which, unless you’re part of a very small amount of scholars who hold multiple doctorates, we only do once).

You have developed a very good writing habit. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.

The other day, after nearly a month of coaching she said to me, “You have developed a very good writing habit now. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.” Those of us who have looked into the self-help literature on dissertation writing know that they all preach the same thing: habit. The more frequently we do it, the better we are at it, the more measurable progress we make. The path to progress has come through a series of project-managing techniques that are so simple, it’s almost embarrassing. I’ll share them here.**

  1. Inventory your chapter and identify a portion that is either the most executable to you right away or that you’re enthusiastic about
  2. Break down each element or task into a manageable task. (i.e. not “write section on XYZ” but rather, “draft on this restricted topic for XYZ for 25 minutes,” / “read article on ABC for topic XYZ for 25 minutes”)
  3. Have a daily writing/researching plan for every day, both aspects are important. The plan should be laid out in advance of working. If you push to exhaustion, you will be less likely to work or make good progress the next day.
  4. Have dedicated time off from writing.
  5. Recognize that writing at the doctoral level cannot and should not be done like other writing you’ve done (undergraduate, graduate seminar papers etc.) You cannot sit down and write it line by line and expect good work. The stakes are higher and the approach should be different. Exploratory and draft writing is crucial to producing subsequent versions that are readable and sound.

Some of you might have gotten to this point faster, and that’s great. What has certainly helped me the most is having a feedback mechanism. Our faculty are often far too busy to manage us the way we wish they would. The coach assists me in developing daily plans for an entire week each week, and comments on my plan daily as I make progress, delivering feedback and advice about approaching tasks.

The take-away? I’m developing project-management skills that can apply to both professional and personal goals. There is no pressure from the organization I work with to continue services. When I feel I’ve grown beyond them, they’re thrilled for that development.

What does your writing habit look like? I’d love to know.

** I’m a great fan of using the Pomodoro technique.

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Spread of Doom

Students, grad students, junior faculty – I think we’re all known to have absurd eating habits. Some of us eat nothing but crap, some of us eat once a day. We justify this to ourselves by maintaining that we have no time, we have no money. We eat and live hand to mouth. Hey, I tow the party line. There is a new item on my shelf that I found at the store that fits right into the category of grad student crap.

Biscoff Spread.  First, you may find Biscoff cookies familiar if you’ve taken an airplane in the last five years. They go pretty well with airline coffee.  So, seeing this name in the store, I bought this jar of peanut-butter-looking spread and took it home. I set it on the table and stared at it for a little while, which of course then fascinated my cat, so he stared for a while too (perhaps I was expecting it to sing, or reveal its mysteries to me).

Having read the jar, Biscoff is a Belgian product. Now, I begin to think about non-American spreads.  Nutella – rocked my world when I was 16 and en France for the first time.  Marmite rocked something and it wasn’t my taste buds.

Finally, I twist the thing open and get a spoon. Viscous crack, the spread has the consistency of peanut butter (capriciously advertised so for Americans), tastes exactly like the airline cookie and is apparently made of the cookies.  Now, the logic game begins. Well, it looks like peanut butter. “They” say peanut butter is somewhat healthy – protein or something. This will not, then, instantly turn my ass into a helipad.  Run, don’t walk, out today and get yours.

** Trader Joe’s has made a rival spread – apparently made of the more sugar-filled American variety of cookie, crumbs present and all.  Aren’t we so industrious.


Help! My students ate my doctorate

or.. it was my cat. Or… my printer jammed. Or.. gay mafia.

It is true. I am (yet another person) blogging to chronicle the slow churn to insanity that teaching full time and trying to finish a PhD has put into motion. I have convinced myself that holding a full time lecturer position is very good practice. (of course, the salary is convenient).

Yet, this wonderful exposure to department duties (re: I’ll do whatever you ask because I want my contract renewed!) leaves my “real work” (aren’t we all so pithy in the tower) on the table waiting to be read, waiting to be written… waiting to be attempted.

And so, almighty Gods of Research, I confess before you that I am indeed a Sinner. Absolution has been granted by my committee who finds this position to be “extremely important” to my professional development.  “You’re on schedule” one says.  Yet another joins: “You can slow down because you’ve never dallied”  Enablers!

In truth, I’m so very grateful for this job, enjoy my colleagues and I’m thrilled when my students achieve. Yet, there are four (forty?) books on my desk that are starting to accumulate their own dust – I”m not sure if they’re generating it or collecting it but I am positive life may sprout soon.

I want to engage them. I want to know their dry, methodical secrets. But the 90 chapter exams sit next to them saying: “You hate us, but we pay your rent. We win!”

And so, the good intentions of keeping the job, paying the rent and giving students (moderately paced?) feedback pave the way to Academic Sins.  Mea culpa.

Any one in the same boat with some wisdom on fighting the fatigue and meeting personal goals?