My poor, neglected chronicle has been dormant for far too long. I still have quite a few photographs and stories of my adventures abroad, but would like to first reinvigorate this forum by means of a transition from a travel-like blog to a chronicle about games, medieval studies, and academia. In a way, this post is about coping with transitions, of staying happy and productive during uncertain times.
For most of my PhD experience so far I have encountered little stress; folks sometimes wonder how that can be the case. I had tremendous amounts of anxiety during my MA (2007-2008), which eventually led to burnout and 1.5 years working outside grad school. When I returned to pursue a PhD (2010), I vowed to make the experience as fun and stress-free as possible. I have certainly had stressful moments over the past three years, but most of them have been fleeting or had to do with situations beyond PhD work proper. Recently, a friend was sharing his experience with the all-too-common slump that most of us endure when we transition from course work to comprehensive exams and the dissertation. Indeed, a large number of students, suddenly faced with the daunting task of going through a rigourous comp exam and a 200-page study, withdraw from their program. Others fall into depression. Still other candidates become completely paralyzed and may go for months without writing (or, hyper-focusing on teaching). No matter where you are in the process, there are strategies you can do to help alleviate some of the anxiety, stress, and feelings of inadequacy. I have listed below ten strategies I use to keep myself focused, motivated, and, for the most part, happy. Whether you are just starting out or are in the last stages of your dissertation and feeling overwhelmed, may they bring you some relief and encouragement!
So here are ten actionable tips for staying happy and productive in graduate school:
Exercise helps reduce stress, combat anxiety, and help recharge mental faculties. Exercise also keeps you fit and healthy long after the PhD is done. It’s all about long-term gain. I row, run, lift weights, and play frisbee outside with my husband. Three weeks ago I started the P90X program, which provides an excellent one hour break to the day’s activities. Every time I feel overwhelmed, I go running. I also use a Fitbit to keep track of steps, activity, sleep, and other data. Dislike exercising? Here are some fun ways to get active:
- Rollerskating (or, for a cheaper option, ice skating)
- Dancing (blast music and dance around the house/apartment/trailer/etc or join a salsa class!)
- Play active video games: Wii Sports is a good start, but also explore games on XBox Kinect that require rigorous movement. For cheaper options, try apps like the ever-popular Zombies, Run!, Bulldash, and Teemo.
- Cross-country skiing (if possible — I really miss the Northern Ontario lakes and trails for x-country skiing!)
- Hiking and birding in the wilderness
Find something you like! If you feel self-conscious about exercising or running outside, just remember that most people are pretty busy and absorbed in their own lives/activities. For the most part, you’ll just be part of the scenery.
2. Go for long walks (on a beach or elsewhere!)
It feels good to get out outside, reflect, and relax. Inspiration also often strikes when we are surrounded by flora and fauna. In the distant past, humans had spent much of their lives following herds and living nomadically. We are designed to move frequently (low cardio). I find time to go walking everyday. Explore our beautiful world!
3. Write (ALmost) everyday
I started this list with exercise because it is not only important to maintain a healthy body (especially during grad school!), but it also gets you into a rhythm that can be applied to writing. Writing is like a muscle. If you want to run 10k, you typically begin slowly and work your way up. It happens over a long period of time. Good, productive writing follows the same training regime. If we write at the same time everyday (e.g. early morning), our bodies and minds come to expect it. Whether writing takes the form of notetaking, jumble of ideas, or things that look somewhat like paragraphs. Great writing is all about revision, feedback, and consistent rhythm.
4. Keep a Journal
I started keeping a “PhD Journal” at the beginning of my comps and it has been a lifesaver for gaining momentum, working through ideas, and providing comfort. I’ll often turn to it when I am staring at a blank screen and don’t know what to write. The journal is a ‘safe place’ where I can play with things without risk of failure or humiliation. I’ll also write if I am feeling anxious in order to work through the feelings; sometimes it can be quite enlightening. Writing in the journal can also count toward “writing everyday.” I don’t write in my journal everyday, but I occasionally ‘check-in’ with my journal and it keeps me on task or in the right frame of mind. Write as little or as much as you need; I am on my third journal this year alone!
5. Keep a Writing Log and Track time
I picked this tip up from Paul J. Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot. I use a spreadsheet and record project, start number of words, end number of words, total number of words, and notes. Just like you might use a sheet to record different weights for strength training, you can use a log to record writing. Begin by setting a goal for a low word count (say 300 words in one day). Once you reach that goal stop writing (unless you’ve gained real momentum!). Have a snack. Go to the park. Dance. You are free to relax because your goal has been reached–no need to feel guilty. When you start feeling comfortable with 300 words raise the word count. Sometimes you may experience off days where you may only write 280 words, but that’s okay. As exercising instructor Tony Horton would say, “Do your best and forget the rest!” Work toward the goal. I find it odd that we sometimes expect ourselves to be able to write 6000+ words in a day or two without writing for days, weeks, or months. We academic writers cannot compare ourselves to creative writers. Academic writing is a different animal. Through slow, incremental steps, though we can raise our word count. I’m happiest writing between 1000-2000 words/day, but when I haven’t written for awhile I don’t expect myself to write that much. I consider myself a slow writer, though, so your goal may be higher. Be honest with expectations for yourself.
I also recently began tracking my time using Toggl; it has been an eye-opener for the amount of time spent on a given project and will show productivity even if you don’t feel productive. I often think “I haven’t done anything productive,” but then fire up Toggl and realize I’ve worked over 30 hours in a few days. It is an excellent time management tool and motivator!
This tip should be self-evident, but I am often surprised that people will often forgo sleep and/or pull all-nighters in order to squeeze in more time for work. I am a night owl by nature and have battled with insomnia since I was six years old, but have realized since my undergraduate days that it is important to establish a sleeping routine in order to keep your body happy and healthy. Lack of sleep, like a lack of food and exercise, can create all sorts of health problems. Naps are also fantastic!
7. Be Curious
Learn something new–and often. Putting yourself outside your comfort zone can spark new ideas, reduce stress, and help you feel comfortable about the learning process. New things can be as small as learning how to make homemade applesauce to as a large as learning how to windsail. New things can also, in odd ways, provide a different way of looking at things. Cultivate your hobbies and interests. Enjoy life.
8. Be Social
Isolation can easily spiral into depression. Make time for people-related activities (whether that is once a week or once a month if you’re ‘hermitish’ like me!) Time spent with family, friends, and colleagues is vital for maintaining mental and physical health. Keep in touch with at least one person in your cohort or fellow graduate students — we are all in the same boat and it helps to have a network to support each other. Social networks are an excellent application for connecting with others (rather than, or in addition to, posting photos of cats ;))
9. Develop Strategies for Efficiency
A wise friend and former professor once told me that academia is all about ‘milking your ideas.’ His comment opened a whole new world for me: treating tasks as ongoing discussions provides a better paradigm for completing projects in a productive way. Too often, graduate students, as the persistent overachievers we are, become bogged down in our attempts at producing perfect papers. We want to be the best. But this often halts our ability to release our ideas into the world, whether through publications, conference talks, or dissertation chapters. Indeed, people may stay in graduate school for far longer than necessary because they are forever trying to improve their dissertation or, worse, avoiding the need to develop the skills necessary to handle an uncertain job market.
Another way to stay productive in a PhD program is to be efficient and effective with your time. One strategy for producing tremendous amounts of writing in a timely manner is what I call ‘talking through the dissertation.’ Presenting at conferences is important for establishing yourself as a professional in the field. If you are embarking on a new chapter or are wondering whether folks in your field will appreciate a your interpretation of a text, theory, or concept, then send an abstract off to a conference! You may fear speaking in public. Great! This gives you an opportunity to face your fears in front a small (and often sympathetic audience). When I did my first conference talk, I was shaking like a leaf the entire time. The great thing about delivering conference talks in graduate school is that you can make mistakes with little repercussion. Scholars understand where you are in the process–they were once in the same place as you. If you are nervous about speaking at your major conference, start in your department or go to a graduate conference and build your confidence from there. Attending conferences will not only reward you with plenty of writing for the dissertation itself, but will also provide an excellent opportunity to network with others–and sometimes even offer unforeseen opportunities for you. You can test your ideas with people who care about your topic and begin to gauge how to write for audiences. Additionally, all this writing can easily transform into dissertation chapters, so you can actually end up spending more time piecing things together rather than staring at a blank screen. If money is the issue, try to find conferences near your region. Departments and conferences also often provide travel money for students. I aim for 3-4 talks each year. Try to find the number most comfortable for you.
Another issue arises when we are not sure about our future prospects. Early on in the program, think about what you may want to do with your PhD (e.g. work in government, find an admin or alt-ac job, try to obtain a tenure-track job) and then take the steps necessary to get there. Realize that a dream of “becoming a professor” may not be realized, so it’s important to have a back-up plan. Begin networking as early as possible. Cultivate desired skills (e.g. editing, consulting, or programming). Having a plan in mind can keep you motivated and excited to pursue your post-PhD goals. Here are two exercises that may be helpful:
a. Write a 7-year Plan: This determines what you want to accomplish in 7 years, which can include completing a PhD and dealing with the job market. Things might change drastically during this time, but it is important to keep your goals in mind. You can be vague or detailed, but providing more information can help keep you on target, especially when you are in a slump. Personally, I schedule dissertation chapters, conference talks, and publications as much as possible and have a milestone success path for my future goals.
b. Write a Future Biography of ‘Yourself in 5 Years:’ This projection exercise is a bit more personal and you can get creative with it! Visualize what you’ll be doing in five years, whether that is defending your thesis, opening up a bakery, publishing a poem in an award-winning literary journal, or travelling to the interior of China. Write a brief biography of your accomplishments, both current and future, for an imaginary book dust jacket or conference. Then set goals to achieve them. Update your ‘future biography’ as needed.
Efficiency also entails knowing what is expected of you. This is difficult, but not impossible. Students sometimes spend a long time on their comprehensive exams because they are not sure about expected requirements for completion or cannot consult their committee about their ideas. In the English department at the University of British Columbia, we are required to write two “take home” papers that measure between 20-40 pages each. I completed mine in 6 months, allotting 3 months to each paper, but I am surprised to find some folks entering their 6th year who have not yet finished their comps. Part of the issue, I believe, is that students set the bar too high. On the whole, comps are a hoop you need to jump through in order to get onto better things. One way to sail through your comps is to think strategically about how comps are going to work for you in the future.
If you are taking an oral exam, divide the list into “absolutely required, might be required, and extra” and read (or at least skim) the texts in that order. Oral questions are typically open enough that few professors are going to fail you for omitting some obscure theorist or text (unless it coincides with their own research interests!) Read the texts that you may end up teaching or using in your dissertation; they are the texts that matter the most.
For written exams, treat them as living documents that you will turn to again and again for ideas. Indeed, your written comps can become an important resource as you write the dissertation. Or even better: turn your written exams into your dissertation chapters. While two of my dissertation chapters read nothing like my earlier comps papers, they both had their start there and I continually return to my qualifying papers to see how my ideas have developed over time. Making your exams work for you is a surefire way to finish your PhD quickly.
If you are worried about the lack of consultation that goes hand-in-hand with comps or cannot seem to finish your prospectus, take the initiative to write up monthly reports to your advisor letting him or her know where you are in the process. They might not be able to give you specific advice about an idea, but they can offer emotional support as you transition into an independent researcher. A good supervisor will stand by you as you make your way through the process, but the management of your project is ultimately up to you.
My last tip for developing efficient habits is to stay organized (or, as organized as you can!) Find the tools (e.g. Scrivener) and environments (e.g. café or home office) that work for you. Here are two screenshots of my files:
There is always some degree of messiness with a given topic or idea. That’s okay, too. When you have the tools, habits, and support to work through these rough patches you can find solutions to even the most difficult problems.
10. “You are already Successful”
Repeat after me: “You are already successful!” This is a mantra I tell myself when I am embarking on something new. The transition from course work to the dissertation is more than just ‘going through the motions,’ as it were; rather, you are transitioning from a student into a working professional. The difference is that we undergo this transition while we are still in school and sometimes don’t realize the transformation taking place. Stand by your accomplishments and let them propel you forward. PhD dissertations, like interaction design, are an iterative process. If something isn’t working, that’s okay. Lots of famous people had experiments that failed. Remember: you are still an awesome person whether or not a PhD is for you! Do not let this process define you. Be who you want to be.
As a final take-away, I have found the chart in Jonathan Fields’ book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance sums up creative projects beautifully:
I hope some of these tips will provide some inspiration and help you stay productive in your journey through graduate school. I would love to hear about any tips you have found useful in your own experiences!