Love the List

Over the years, I’ve espoused the importance of lists over and over again as a vital resource for the busy grad student. Today, once more, I find the need to cry out the wonderful benefits of list-writing. So, if you’ll indulge me as I get meta for a brief moment, here’s a list of reasons why lists are important:

  • They keep you organized. Pretty self-explanatory. The key here is understanding you own work habits and figuring out how to support them; “organized” means different things to different people. We all have our own individual ways of working and lists are going to function differently for each of us. Love your list, understand your list, allow your list to understand you.
  • They keep you from forgetting things. If you write it on the list, it’s there for you to see when you’re panicking about it later. Boom. Like magic.
  • They help you relax at the end of the day. Often if I’m in a real panic after work hours, sitting down and writing a list of the “need to do” things for the next day will alleviate this because it helps me see how much I actually need to do and keeps me from getting anxious that I’ll forget any of it. Lists also help me consolidate tasks for the day and see where I am in my work progression and what I need to do next to get where I want to be. If I follow my list, I can’t go wrong.
  • They keep you on track. Before I leave my desk at the end of a very busy day, I write a brief list for myself of what I need to do the next day. This allows me to free my mind for the evening, devote attention to other things, then dive in in the morning right where I left off without thirty minutes of figuring out where exactly that was. At-a-glance information is always better than “I put it somewhere” information; it’s all about trimming minutes off the edges of your many tasks so that you can fit as much as possible into one day’s work.
  • They give you a concrete look at what you’ve accomplished in a day. When you’re working on a giant, seemingly endless project that moves like the desert sands (like… say… a dissertation…), you need this. Without a hard look at the physical facts of what I’ve done with my daytime hours, all too often I feel like I’m spinning in a giant hamster wheel: running hard but never really getting anywhere. Incidentally, treadmill running also feels this way… but at least that gives me a good endorphin kick as a reward for my troubles. If I keep a hard copy list of tasks that I need to do in a day (or period of time), then I can see how much I’ve crossed off the list. I also get to give myself an awesome feeling of accomplishment when I tear up/cross out/scribble over/destroy by fire this page of notes. Boo-yah!

There it is; lists. Trust me on this. You’ll live a better life once you’ve taken their power for your own purposes.

Keep Calm and Soldier Forth

One of the hardest things about the Dissertating process so far has been acceptance. Specifically accepting that there will be things that happen in and around my life which have a direct impact upon my ability to work on a given day, but over which I have no control.

One of the many issues that plague us grad students is the constant drive to keep working. Because we are masters of our own time, and because there is ALWAYS something more you could be doing, it’s very easy to live with the constant guilt that you could be working right now. Weekends, evenings, much-needed sanity breaks; it doesn’t matter. There will always be that feeling that you could be doing something “more productive” than whatever it is you are currently doing. Even worse, since most of us work from home offices, there’s no sense of “leaving work at work”; my work is always with me just a click away.

What this means is that when life gets in the way, you feel doubly guilty. When you have to spend an hour or two taking your car to get fixed, or you need to go to a doctor’s appointment, or any number of acceptable semi-urgent life situations that just need to be taken care of during “regular business hours” and could throw a giant monkey wrench in your work day, you can feel pretty terrible about it.

For instance: right now, they are doing some major construction on my apartment complex. It’s disruptive, noisy, and means that there are generally workmen staring me in the eye through my office window even though I’m on the second floor. At some point during the next several weeks, there will be workmen in my apartment who I will be required to accommodate by essentially disassembling my office so they can get done what they need to get done. I also will not have access to my own home for at least two days during work hours since they will be in it.

This is not an ideal situation. It keeps me from being as productive as I could be (or “should” be). But I have almost no control over it. I can’t stop it, I can’t make it better, all I can do is work around it as best I can.

It would be easy to throw my hands up and say “I can’t work today because of this thing I have no control over.” The much more difficult path, and the one that I have to take if I hope to ever complete this monster project, is to cope.

Dealing with writing a dissertation is stressful and overwhelming. Dealing with the academic job market is stressful and overwhelming. But this doesn’t mean that the world is going to stop around me; if I want to finish (and oh man do I want to finish), I have to find a way to work through the outside distractions and inconveniences. Adaptability is my friend; finding ways to vary up my routine that won’t prevent me from getting things done just needs to be a way of life.

It’s not easy; but if I wanted “easy” I wouldn’t have gone for a PhD. It’s definitely not convenient. But it is what it is; and I just have to soldier through to reach my goals. Nobody ever said that walking to Mordor would be a tiptoe through the tulips.

Take it Away

Hello, gentle readers. I am currently writing you from my spot holed up in a hotel room in quiet and scenic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; a place I had only ever heard of before because of the Billy Joel song that I’ve had stuck in my head since we arrived.

My partner has been traveling a great deal for his job lately. One of the many benefits of my insanely flexible schedule is that, since most of my work is reasonably portable, I can often pick up and ship out with him. As it turns out, being alone in the house with my computer, my books, and my fish for days on end isn’t the best thing for my sanity. As a result, whenever possible I take the opportunity to move my work with me. The crazy thing that I’ve found is that my gypsy life has made me much more productive. This is for several reasons:

  • Distractions are at a minimum. Since there’s not much to do in a hotel room other than the things I bring with me, I am forced into a situation where I have to focus on checking items off of my to-do list. I don’t look around and feel the urge to clean or straighten anything. I don’t have to cook, so I don’t blow off early to start an overly complicated dinner routine just to be away from the desk. I do go for runs still, but those are necessary. It’s a pretty great win-all.
  • Since I’m not at home, the usual at home requirements are on hold. I don’t have to suddenly go to a doctor’s appointment, or take my car to be inspected, or do a grocery run for some weird thing we forgot over the weekend. I don’t have to take out the garbage or recycling, or get the mail which might turn into a 20 minute distraction that takes an hour to re-focus from. I don’t have to deal with any household responsibilities that might take time away from writing. Again, I’m forced into a pressure-cooker situation with my work; my options are work on research or work on writing rather than work on work or work on life stuff.
  • While the hotel is comfortable, it’s not my comfort zone. I don’t feel the siren call of my bed beckon to me at 3:00 PM because my bed is several states away. I don’t have a comfy couch to lounge on with some Netflix at lunchtime. If I want coffee, I can grab some in the lobby; but this doesn’t turn into a spontaneous round of let’s do dishes. I have everything I need, without having any extras.
  • Any bad work-related habits I have are thrown off due to the lack of routine. Since my normal flight patterns are disrupted by not being at home, this means that I have the opportunity to create better ones in this space. When I find myself in a situation that strips me of my habits, I try my hardest to create new ones that are better than the old ones. This is particularly true when I’m in a space that’s temporary; I can be extra super diligent about working (you know, more than even usual) for a span of a few days and not allow myself the small distractions which can turn into big distractions because I can always go back to those “when I get home”. Being away gives me the unique opportunity to work out the kinks in my routine by completely scrapping the routine.
  • Since I’m not exactly in a hopping, bustling city, I don’t have the kind of after-work distractions that can lead to fatigue or illness the day after. It’s not like I’m going bar hopping in Bethlehem Pennsylvania (or doing much of anything that will keep me out late). I can go to bed at a reasonable time, not feel like I’m being “lame” or missing out on something because of it, and wake up refreshed and ready to work the next day.

In short, if possible, I highly recommend taking your work on walk-about. Break up your routine in any way that you can (coffee shop visits, libraries, etc.) just to get yourself out of the house and observing your work habits. You might find that such “work-cations” lead to increased productivity and overall betterment of sanity.

Write strong, my brethren!

Don’t Let it Win

Some days, the dissertation wins.

There are days when I walk away from the keyboard with a feeling of triumph. I’ve conquered some little corner of some little mountain, but oh man does it feel so good. There are days when I feel like I’ve accomplished something major like reading through my stack of allotted books, finishing a draft and being happy with it, or closing a chapter of research and being ready to prepare it for its next stage.

Those days, I win.

But some days, the diss gets the upper hand. I get burnt out, I can’t communicate my thoughts clearly, I get so wound up in the tiny things that I’m unable to accomplish anything of substance. There are days when I feel like an unmitigated failure for not getting through that last 250 pages of reading, for not muscling my way through red-penning those last ten pages, for finding myself with not enough brain functionality left to do anything significant after 3:00 PM.

I’m told it’s a common phenomenon.

So here’s the thing: you’re never going to have a perfect string of days no matter what you’re doing. You’re never going to always feel like the top of the world; you’re never going to always consistently succeed at every tiny task. There will be setbacks. There will be days when the stupid writing project wins the battle.

So long as you have more days when you win, you’re still at a net positive.

The important thing when you find that you’ve lost the arm wrestling match for a day is that you do what you need to do to recover. Exercise, drink a beer, sleep, watch some Netflix; whatever it is that will reset you and get you prepared to fight another day. Do it. Avoiding it when you’ve hit the bottom of the bucket is just going to do more self harm than good. Taking the time to self-care and recover is going to give you more productivity in the long run, so just put the red pen down and back away from your desk.

Then, get back on the horse. You need to keep going back into the fray if you ever expect to win. Begin each day fresh with new research goals, new word count objectives, and a new attitude. One bad day does not have to mean a failed project; it just makes you human.

Don’t let the dissertation win.

It can have the battle; don’t give it the war.

Tools of the Trade

Writing a dissertation (or any long project; particularly one that involves research) is a specialized skill that requires specialized training and (not to be ignored) specialized equipment. While I suppose in theory you could write a dissertation on a single laptop with nothing but Microsoft word and an internet browser, doing so would be a great disservice to yourself and make your life needlessly complicated. In the digital age, technology is plentiful, relatively inexpensive, and generally easy to operate. There’s no reason to do without certain vital tools that can make your writing days more productive.

With that goal in mind, I thought I’d take a minute to share the tools of my trade; the things I use to write and research that make my life infinitely easier. I would go so far as to say that I probably wouldn’t have made it to this point in the process without them. For me, these tools are simply necessary to productivity; I think you’ll find them equally useful.

For reference: my primary machine is a basic model Macbook Pro from 2012. Nothing fancy, but definitely gets the job done.

External Monitor 

The only “excess” technological asset that researchers have found actually increases productivity is increased monitor space. It’s not the speed of your hard drive or parallel processing capabilities, but rather how much (literal) digital space you have to lay things out. For me, the external monitor is key to almost everything I do. It allows me to open a text on one screen and my notes on a second, thus transcribing with ease. It allows me to open my notes on one screen and my writing document on a second, thus allowing me to write from research with ease. It allows me to open multiple images on a large scale and compare them side-by-side. It allows me to have my citation manager available for reference during note taking and writing. My external monitor has been key to my work as a Graduate student, academic, and person in the world. And, when you’re taking a break for lunch or what have you, you can play your YouTube videos on one monitor while browsing the web on the second. It’s a win/win. If you’re not writing/researching from two monitors, you’re basically living in the dark ages. Invest in this not-terribly-expensive but terribly-useful tool now; I promise you won’t regret it.


Anyone who works on any serious project needs to have a backup strategy. While e-mailing yourself copies of your work might be one way to do this, there are easier and more consistent methods. I use a combination of Dropbox, Crashplan, and Google docs to save my work in triplicate both locally and in the cloud. No matter what you decide to use for backups, make sure that your plan includes: redundancy, frequency, and version history. You want to know that your work is being backed up on a regular basis, to several places, and that you can roll back a version should you need to.

External mouse and Keyboard

Because I’ve basically created a docking station for my mac, the external mouse and keyboard have become necessary. I’ve found, over the years, that I much prefer a conventional mouse to the built-in track pad that most laptops have. Additionally, an external fully sized keyboard makes it easier for me to type ergonomically. A few clever re-programs of the hotkeys on my Mac and it’s just as good as using the built-in keyboard. I use a Logitech wireless mouse/keyboard, and have since purchased several external travel mice for use when I’m on the go. 

Writing Tools 

I’ve previously gushed about the ease and functionality of Scrivener to my writing process.  If you are interested in Scrivener, here’s my affiliate link for windows, and here it is for Mac.  I will take this moment to emphasize how necessary the program has been to the continued success of my work. Additionally, this project is the first time I’ve used automated citation management software and I’m never looking back. I use Zotero because it’s free, integrates seamlessly to Word (where I do my composing; Scrivener I use for note-taking), and has a Scrivener work-around if I REALLY want it. If you do choose Zotero, make sure you know how to back up your library; it’s only a tiny bit tricky and requires an extra step every now and again to accomplish. Totally worth it for peace of mind.

Caveman Tools

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

This is not a technical tool whatsoever, but when I’m working with actual books (which I do with a surprising frequency), I use a bookstand to hold them up for ease of transcription. I seriously don’t know how I did without this thing. When I’m editing by hand (which I also do with a surprising frequency), I use a clipboard and many different colored pens. It’s crazy how much easier this has made my life; for years I’d edit on large hardcovers, notepads, or binders…. I finally broke down and spend the $5 on a clipboard and look at that! The rudimentary technology works exactly the way it’s supposed to!

So…. What tools are you using for dissertation writing that you simply can’t do without?

Soloist: Dealing with Isolation

One of the big challenges that we grad students (particularly non-resident grad students caught somewhere between late dissertation writing and the job market) face is isolation. Going from a structured schedule that involves a highly-social job (teaching and or learning) to sitting at home alone with your research every day can be extremely challenging. If you’re not the type of person that deals well with large tasks to perform in unstructured time, then you’ll face even worse troubles at this stage of the game (and frankly it’s a miracle you got this far). I’m not going to say that I’ve solved the many problems of academic isolation, they are definitely demons I face every day, but I’m coping and I certainly put a lot of thought into how to cope with these issues. Here are a few of my better brainwaves for methods I use to help deal with academic isolation.

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University's "Richard III"

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University’s “Richard III”

Get a Job

I’ve tried to keep a hand in teaching as much as I can, even when that means taking on alternative teaching jobs. I spent a few years teaching continuing adult education which was extremely rewarding and gave me somewhere to be once a week to make human eye contact and discuss things I was passionate about with other people. Though this program didn’t pay “the big bucks”, it was a worthwhile use of my time in that it got me out of the house, gave me a forum in which to try out new teaching materials, and gave me teaching experience that I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to acquire. But even when there are no teaching jobs available (this happens sometimes and it’s not your fault), consider taking on a very part-time, very temporary position somewhere near your beaten path. A few hours of responsibility, social activity, and paid work every week can do wonders for your self-esteem at this highly volatile time. Finding the right fit for this can sometimes be challenging, but think about things you’d actually like to do and see if you can’t monetize them. Remember: not every job you work has to go on your resume and you never know when you’ll meet someone who may just be a useful connection for your true professional calling.

Reach Out

I am not a highly social creature during the best of times, and my social energies get sapped very quickly when I’m under a lot of stress. What this has generally meant is that the dissertation process has made me not just an academic hermit, but a social hermit as well. At the end of the day, the last thing I tend to want to do is go out and be social. Despite this, I try to make an extra effort to see people who I know will 1) understand the process I’m going through, and 2) put positive energy back into my bucket. There are a few friends I have who I know are low-key to be around, will support me if I’m feeling not so great about my work life, and will understand if I just don’t want to talk about much of anything. Being around these people as much as possible (which, let’s face it, is not much when you have a demanding professional schedule) is important to keeping the lonelies at bay. I’m often pleasantly surprised at what an evening in the right company can do for my mood; and my mood in turn effects my productivity. In short: the right amount of time with the right people will help you be a better writer.

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Vitamin D

Sometimes, just leaving my house to go for a walk can help to improve a dismal mood brought on by dissertation-related isolation. Fresh air and sunshine are mood-lifters, and endorphins will give you an extra kick to boot. If you’ve been keeping up with Dani Dash, you know that I tend to go running rather than walking these days, but whatever your speed taking a break outside is definitely worth your while.

Have a (Small) Treat 

While we grad students live on a notoriously tight budget, now and again a special treat can help you support yourself. Sometimes, this treat can be productivity related; if I’m stuck in the “I don’t wanna” phase of editing, I’ll take my draft to a favorite coffee shop and grab myself a drink (I almost never buy coffee, so this is a great little treat). Sometimes, it can be self-care related; if I’m feeling extremely stressed or strung out, I’ll find a groupon for a massage and take an hour just to refuel and unwind. The pitfall here is obvious: too much of a good thing can break your budget and self-reward structure. Just be careful about how frequently (and how much) you are treating yourself; but don’t feel guilty when you do on occasion (especially if you plan and budget for this). You are worth it.

Remind yourself Why 

This one is the biggest challenge. Facing down today’s job market, it can be difficult to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. If you can find any way to remind yourself, any trigger to reinvigorate the passion which led you down the road you’re traveling, revisit it as frequently as you need. Often I get so caught up in the writing portion of dissertating that I can’t see the forest for the trees; it’s in these moments that I need to go see a show, or look at old journal entries, or re-read particularly glowing course evals from former students. Find a touchstone that will help key you in to what you love about the work and never let it go. I’m not saying you need to moon like an adolescent love poem, but without taking the time to reinvigorate your passion now and again you’ll slide into the doldrums of the grind and that is soul crushing. Fortify with frequent doses of vitamin L(ove) and try to ignore the vampiric voice of futility.

Get Help

I know many people (myself included) who are likely to thank their therapists in their dissertation acknowledgements. If you’re feeling stuck, depressed, or just unable to shake your mood, there is no shame in seeking professional help. The right person will be able to talk you through your troubles and inject some new light on the subject. If your issues seem to be mostly grad-school related, I highly recommend seeking out a therapist with a PsyD. Since this person has been through the process of getting a Doctorate, they are much more likely to understand your journey and be able to offer insight without you having to explain every step of the way. They have first hand experience with the stakes and stresses of exams, research, advisors, and the myriad of other field-specific stressors that academic life entails.

Whatever you do, don’t let isolation impede your progress. Breaking the cycle is a pivotal piece of “getting it done” (which, at the end of the day, is really what you need to do).


We All Make Mistakes

Over the past several years, I’ve had the enormous opportunity to do a great deal of teaching. I’ve had some extremely smart, talented, and driven students come through my classroom and I genuinely loved working with every single one of them.

I’ve also made a few observations about some of the most common mistakes that students make in a university setting. Between mentoring my own students, listening to my mentors tell stories about their experiences, and discussing teaching with colleagues, I’ve come to recognize a few basic patterns that students can develop which are ultimately destructive to their success in the classroom.

This is not to say that every student will make the same mistakes (far from it), or that

Jumbo: Tufts' Mascot and one of my favorite things to teach about

Jumbo: Tufts’ Mascot and one of my favorite things to teach about

avoiding these mistakes will guarantee top grades, but certainly remedying these issues can nip failure in the bud. Because I am discussing student patterns in general and not the behavior of any specific student (mine or otherwise), I don’t feel like I am betraying confidences to share these patterns in hopes that thinking about them might benefit university students in general. Please do note that I am not referencing any single incident or individual at any time, but rather a series of observations made over the years in dealing with many bodies of students.


If I had to pinpoint a single thing that could increase classroom success, it would be communication between student and professor. Instructors genuinely want their students to do well and are (on the whole) fairly generous with their abilities to help students do well. Student communication is key to unlocking this. If you feel you are struggling, reach out to the instructor. Chances are they have noticed and have a few ideas for how you can improve, or what you might do to remedy your situation. They also might know about university resources that can help you outside of the classroom should your issue be persistent/long term.

Office hours are a severely under-utilized resource. I can’t count the times I’ve sat in my office available and willing to help anyone who dropped by with no visitors to help. Simply taking a moment to stop by office hours with a clear problem in hand is the first step towards solving it.

This goes double if you know that an issue is brewing. If you know you are going to miss class for some reason, be late, or arrive in a state that isn’t best suited to learning, communicate this with your instructor well in advance of the conflict. Most of us are much more willing to be lenient when the students plans for a problem than we are to be forgiving after a student has a problem.


 Look at your schedule for the semester as a whole; do you have several assignments due in one lump “crunch time”? Are you going to be out of town unavoidably for a long weekend? Do you foresee any reason why you might not be able to execute what the instructor asks of you? Then discuss this with your professor. I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan well in advance; this shows your professor that you care greatly about your success, that you have the skills to deal with managing your own time; and that you can be trusted with privileges such as extensions and extra credit. Your instructor wants you to take your success as seriously as they do, and proper planning can help assure them that you are doing everything in your power to succeed.

This can also apply to your assignments; leave yourself ample time (particularly if you’ve never before completed an assignment like what your instructor has asked for). This way, if you run into a hitch, you have plenty of time to ask for help or clarification. Remember: instructors do not answer e-mails 24/7. If you leave your big paper worth a significant chunk of your grade to the last minute and are held up because you need input from your instructor, you might be putting yourself in a bad situation that could have been entirely avoided.

Not Reading the Syllabus 

The syllabus is designed to be your go-to resource for pretty much anything you might want to know about the course. There’s a reason that they can be so long! Chances are, if you have a question, the syllabus will have your answer. Before e-mailing or taking class time to ask your professor what day something is due or how your grade will be calculated, check the syllabus. If your answer isn’t there or is unclear, then you can definitely feel free to ask the question. Always look at the syllabus first; your instructor spent a lot of time crafting it to help you out in situations like this one!

Always remember: your instructor is someone who loves learning, loves the subject matter, and is invested in helping you succeed. We are on your side, and we are always hoping to help you improve over the course of the semester. We can’t carry you to the finish line, but we can definitely coach you there!


Hello, all!

It being summer, it also happens to be a time of year when us educators are faced with the frustrating situation of explaining away certain myths about our jobs. One still prevalent is the “summer off”.

I know that the university calendar tells you that there’s no class over the three-month span between June and September. I am also aware that conventional ideas about summer equate to vacation, beaches, volleyballs, and children frolicking in fields of free time.

But let me assure you, simply because school’s out for summer doesn’t mean that we get “three blissful months” of sitting on our couches binge-watching Netflix. I can’t speak for everyone (especially because primary and secondary education are two different ballgames really). That said, I would like to give you a sense of what my summer, as an adjunct, a PhD Candidate, and a working artist, consists of:

I Write

So all that time during the “working semesters” when I’m not actually standing in front of a classroom teaching is generally reserved for teaching-related tasks. I have to prepare lessons, grade, deal with administrative issues, answer emails, meet with students, prepare exams, prepare projects, and monitor attendance (amongst other things). Since I am not in a situation where I am guaranteed work semester-to-semester, I also have to submit resumes, look for work for the coming semesters, and also work a few spare jobs on the side just to make ends meet. This means that my time to research and write is at a premium. As a PhD candidate, my primary focus needs to be finishing my dissertation. Summers mean that classroom-teaching-related-tasks go away and I can reclaim that time specifically for my dissertation project.

I Look for Work

As I mention above, I am not in a situation that guarantees work semester to semester (this is true for many adjuncts, by the way… having a long-term relationship with an institution makes your chances at acquiring work better, but does not guarantee you anything no matter how good you are at your job). This means that summertime is spent fervently applying to as many universities as possible hoping that enough of them will throw me a writing 101 or Theatre History class for the next semester. What with the way universities hire, I may not know whether I am, in fact, teaching a class until the week (or even days) before I step into the classroom. In some rare instances, I may be asked mid-semester to take over a class on a rush basis and come in same-day or next-day to teach someone else’s curriculum from someone else’s slides off of someone else’s syllabus.

I Work as Much as I Can

 Since teaching as an adjunct is not a guaranteed thing, and since the pay is generally poor enough that eking a living out doing it is nearly impossible, I have several side jobs. During the summer, in addition to the above-tasks, I also take on as much extra work as possible in hopes that I can squirrel money away to pay bills should next semester prove a bit lean.

I Battle my Mental Demons

Dissertation work is very isolating. Since summertime means that campus is very empty and I’m not generally leaving my house on a regular schedule to teach or run errands, it also means that I have a lot of time to spend by myself with my thoughts and my work. This can lead to some very unhealthy mental habits and thought patterns including (but not limited to): workaholism, depression, anxiety, and the host of physical complications which come with these troubles. Because of items 1-3, summertime can be extremely tough on a PhD Candidate, and a great deal of maintenance is required to ensure that we keep ourselves healthy. For me, this generally involves a high level of athletic activity (I’m currently training for a half marathon and a Spartan race); running several times a week ensures that I have micro-goals unrelated to my stressors which I can accomplish, that I leave the house and get some vitamin D with frequency, and that endorphins give me a little boost when I need it. I can’t recommend some kind of intense physical training in combination with dissertation-writing more; it has seriously changed my Diss-game dramatically.

All of this is not to say that Dissertation work is not rewarding (it is) or that I am not lucky to be where I am with my career path (I am), but to ask you to think a bit about some harsh realities. Particularly before you remark to your teacher friends that they are so lucky to have the summer off, or that you wish you could have three months of guaranteed vacation every year.

And on that note, I suppose I should return to my top priority: the ever-present dissertation. Cheers, all! Stay cool!

The Marathon

In case you’re not tired of this metaphor already, writing a dissertation is like running a marathon.

Now let me be clear: I am a runner. I’m slow, but I’m persistent. That said, my longest distance goal at the moment is a half marathon (which I should hit in the next few months if I keep at it; I’ll be running a 10 Mile race on March 7th; the Salem Black Cat 10 Miler in case you want to join me).

Training to run a long-distance race has many striking similarities to the research and dissertation writing process. First: it comes in chunks. Neither a Marathon nor a Dissertation are finished the day after you decide that you are going to complete them. They take time, dedication, and commitment to accomplish. When you finally do cross the finish line, you will have done something that an overwhelmingly small portion of the population will ever have the opportunity to do.

They both require training and diligence. Increasing your running distance is a matter of patience, fortitude, and attitude; just like increasing your research banks. In both cases, you need to train both hard and smart to accomplish your goal. In both cases, you will often find yourself in vast swathes of the unknown unsure what to do next. In those instances, you need to look to others who have come before; trainers, other athletes, colleagues, friends; people who have been where you are and can advise you accordingly. You’ll need periodic check-ins with professionals; advisors, mentors, and coaches to ensure that you’re on track to meet your goal.

Marathon running, just like dissertation writing, can be an isolating sport. After all, much of the training you do is solitary and so specialized that few will be able to connect with it. But it is precisely for this reason that you need to keep in touch with your community of supporters.

Because not every day is a good day. Not every run is a good run, and not every research session is productive. While some days you’ll be crushing your book stack or your long run with relative ease, other days just putting on your running shoes or getting to your desk will feel like a marathon in and of itself. Some days you’ll be engrossed in what you’re doing and feel invincible; other days you’ll have to take frequent breaks and go so slowly that you’ll wonder if you’re getting anywhere at all.

But that’s where the cheerleaders help. On bad days, they’re there to remind that

At the finish line of the Super Sunday 5 Mile race last weekend

At the finish line of the Super Sunday 5 Mile race last weekend

tomorrow will be better and that just by getting up and going for it, you’re getting somewhere. They’re there to reality check your foibles (I mean, really, who should rightfully complain about being able to run 2/3 your final target distance EVEN IF it was slow as molasses and felt awful; or spending an “unproductive” day rooting through archival material older than your country?). They’re there to support you in those bad moments and remind you of the good ones. And you have to learn to trust them and treasure them, no matter how crazy the things they tell you sound in the moment (“What do you MEAN I’m not a failure for missing my deadline/run!? I haven’t missed one YET and thus I FAILED my perfect track record! Never mind that I haven’t missed on yet!”).

Distance running, like dissertation writing, is about micro-goals. Getting out there and doing your short run in a week is just as important to crossing the finish line as your BIG LONG TRAINING RUN before you taper. Getting that first vomit draft out of the way is just as important a milestone as getting the final advisor “Okay” on your last chapter. If you don’t set and meet your micro-goals, there’s no way that you’ll be making it to the finish line.

Dissertation writing, like distance running, is inevitably something that has to give you independent fulfillment. At the end, you will be a leading (if burgeoning) expert in a field of your own devising. This means that few, if any, outside sources will be able to validate the worth of your research in way that will satisfy you if you can’t find that validation within yourself. If you don’t get validation or feelings of elation from running, you will stop before you ever make it close to that finish line.

At the end of the day, dissertation writing, like distance running, is hugely fulfilling. It will mess up your mind as bad as running will mess up your body. It will require self-care and heavy doses of aspiration, perspiration, and determination to conquer. It demands sacrifice, time management, and a strong dose of priority mindedness. But if you can manage it, you can (and will) walk away rightfully feeling like biggest winner the world has ever known.

The Doctrine of Kindness

I want to take a moment to touch upon something that should seem so logical it needn’t even be said. In my experience, however, that doesn’t guarantee that it has already been discussed: being nice.

Look; let’s face it; having a pretty face just isn’t enough to get you by in academia. For that matter, neither is having a pretty CV or the best publications or the most accomplishments or the most prestigious fellowships. It’s a tough world out there, and it’s a world full of pressure and stress. It can be really difficult not to let this get to you; but at least in public you need to have a smooth, unbreakable mask of niceness.

Being a nice, helpful person absolutely will take you far. Remember that tenure-track means an institution is ready to stick with you for the long haul (and that haul can be pretty long). They want to work with you; they want to see your smiling face in every faculty meeting; they want to share a hallway with you. Nothing will keep them from wanting to do that quite like being someone who isn’t pleasant to be around.

I see every interaction with other academics as an opportunity to be the kind of person that I would want to work with. Whether this interaction is via e-mail, skype, or face-to-face conferencing, each touch provides me the unique opportunity to make a good impression. That being said, I’ve had to learn how to put my bad day aside so that I can present a clean, professional image no matter what’s going on in my life.

Of course, this is sometimes easier to do than others. It’s a lot easier to be “on” in an e-mail than it is at a conference. Particularly if you are an introvert, finding the social energy to present the kind of image you need to can be rough. Make absolutely certain that you take the necessary measures to ensure success for yourself on this front (whether that means scheduling some off-time during a conference weekend, sleeping in a little later on days when you have big presentations or job talks, or making sure that you eat a good breakfast to fuel up for being your best professional self).

It should be noted that this extends to lateral networking as well as vertical networking. Networking with your peers is just as important as networking with senior academics. After all, these are the people with whom you will be looking to collaborate on book projects, grant proposals, and conference panels. These are also the people with whom you will have the most personable war-stories to tell. Knowing who else is out there doing the kind of work you are interested in also involves getting to know those people; and when you get to know those people you want to be the kind of person they want to connect with. There’s no call or need for off-putting theatrics or peacocking in lateral networking; nobody wants to be around that guy who can’t stop telling you about his AWEEEESOME most recent GIANT fellowship or job opportunity. Yea, you’re great, but networking with your peers is less about impressing and more about impressioning. Let your work speak for itself whenever possible; be proud of it, but don’t flaunt it.

Find yourself some good attitude role-models. Think about people you’ve encountered in the field who you want to see again not just for networking-related items, but also for drinks at the conference bar. What kind of qualities do these people have? What makes you want to be around them? Like I tell my acting students, keen observation is the first step to replication. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve encountered good models in this regard, and I’ve encountered bad ones. The trick is not to let the bad ones ruffle you; the more people who choose grace under pressure, the better we can make the ivory tower of the future. Try to be like the ones who kept you going and lifted you up rather than the ones who pushed you down. Imagine what it would be like for our students if we all chose to be “lifters” rather than “pushers”. It may sound idealistic, but I do think that we grad students have the tremendous power to shape the future of academia. It’s up to us to determine what things will be like round these parts when we grow up to be the people in charge. If we start practicing the doctrine of kindness now, think about how much easier all of our lives will be.

This is not to say that we should all be pushovers; you can be firm without being unkind. But taking that extra moment to think about your actions may save some student years of class-induced angst, and will definitely improve your cosmic karma score. And it will make you look better to potential employers and colleagues.

It comes down to a few basic precepts: be kind without reason, be smart without arrogance, be helpful without patronization. These qualities, if followed, will definitely leave an impression (…and not the kind that will have folks running in the opposite direction).