Find Your Inner Professor

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The response to my article on Mind Mapping last week was huge. Lots of people have told me that they used that strategy and that it was helpful to them. I’m starting to get addicted to it – that’s how I wrote today’s article. If you missed my Mind Mapping article, you can find it on my site. I LOVE hearing from you so please keep the feedback coming.

Find Your Inner Professor

One of the most difficult parts of writing the dissertation is speaking in your own voice. By this, I mean clearly stating your point of view and being comfortable with it. (I am not addressing your style of writing.) I like to think of it as “finding your inner professor.”

You know the kind of professor I mean. When they talk about their ideas, their eyes light up, they get all excited, and they sound very sure of themselves. If their theories are questioned, they seem to welcome the dialogue that will take place. They may even freely admit that there are holes in their argument, which they are still exploring.

There are even graduate students who are like this. You’ve seen them. You may even hate them. Actually, we are often drawn to people who are confident and able to articulate their theories.

Being ABD Without an “Inner Professor”

The majority of graduate students find it difficult to achieve such a level of self- confidence. You may have first noticed a lack of “inner professor” when you tried to think up ideas for your thesis topic. Everything you think of seems banal or trivial. When you think of a bigger idea, you negate it by assuming it’s already been done, is about to be published, or that it must be a stupid idea, or someone else would have already thought of it.

Later, lack of an “inner professor” shows up as procrastination in coding your data, hesitancy to talk about your ideas with peers or professors, breaking out in a cold sweat when some kindly but evil person asks the dreaded question, “So, how’s the dissertation going?” It also shows up when you get part way through your literature review and you realize that you have to choose which sources to quote and spotlight, and which to (gasp) leave out. These decisions are all part of finding your own voice.

Reasons for the Problem: From Regurgitation to Creation

A dissertation is, as you are well aware, an original and substantial contribution to the field. This very awareness is part of the problem. Most people have little idea of how original or how substantial the contribution needs to be.

As an undergraduate, you are taught how to read with a critical eye, to compare and contrast, to answer specific questions, to understand how an author came to a particular hypothesis. Your thinking skills were further honed during your graduate school classes.

What is often missing from this training, though, is the encouragement to have an original thought. As a matter of fact, it is sometimes discouraged. It comes as a shock to the nervous system to be faced with this “original and substantial” contribution that you are supposed to be making.

Added to this is the fact that the process is like playing “hot and cold.” As you try out different ideas, your advisor says, “you’re getting warmer. . . warmer. . . now colder.” You feel like you’re out on a limb, guessing what is wanted from you. And some advisors won’t even play. They just tell you to come back with your nicely finished chapter so that they can inform you that it wasn’t what they wanted from you at all.

Yesterday I received a response to a question I pose on one of my assessments: “. . . [what is one area] that you would most welcome some advice, information or help on?” The response was, ” I would like to have more of an idea of what is expected of me.” I think this person was speaking for many.

Myths You Must Combat

There seems to be some underlying mythology to the dissertation process that has been passed on through Mendelian genetics to create a vast Jungian collective unconscious. (Wow, did I really write that? And does it make any sense?) Anyway, this collective unconscious has produced some myths that I will now dispute.

  • The Dissertation As Magnum Opus. Nope – your dissertation does not have to be all that. It should be good enough to let you get your degree. (Ironically, by letting go of the Magnum Opus myth, you will probably write a better dissertation.)

  • It’s all been said before. No, it hasn’t. And probably not in the way you plan to present it.

  • You need to make sure that your literature review covers every last secondary source. No: part of your contribution is to make the selection of what stays and what goes.

  • Only very special people can go from ABD to Ph.D. No, No, NO! If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got what it takes. You just need to keep going.

The Goal: Become One with Your Inner Professor

Before I give you some tips to help you with your reticence to express your own your ideas, let me clearly state the goal. Your goal is to actually ENJOY thinking about your topic, to openly discuss it with all who will listen, to be eager to hear criticism so that you can refine your thinking, and just generally not hide out. This is “engaging in the scholarly dialogue,” and is the main set of tools that you will need to be a confident, happy and productive professor (or professional.)

The Cure: Fake It ‘Till You Make It

If you wait until you feel sure of yourself, you’ll wait forever. The only “cure” is action. As you perceive your own success, you will develop your “inner professor.” If you have been hiding out, this won’t be easy. But it WILL work. Here are some steps:

  • Read completed dissertations, particularly those written by former students of your advisor. This will give you some idea of what is expected of you.

  • If you are at the pre-proposal stage, take brainstorming very seriously. This means writing down ALL the ideas that you can think of. Carry around a notebook and jot down thoughts when you are not working. When you are reading, write down any idea, however absurd. Purposely write down the ideas that are really bad or even silly. This is a proven technique that will shake your brain up. Do not self-censor at this stage.

  • TALK TO OTHERS. This is the most important action you can take. The whole point of your career will be to communicate your ideas to others, so now is the time to start. Of course your first ideas will not be as good as your later ones. But that is how growth happens. If you’ve been really holding back, start by talking about your ideas with one trusted peer. You will find that these interactions refine and crystallize your thinking.

  • A corollary to the latter point is to set up regular meetings with your advisor. Let him or her know what you have been thinking. Get used to having your ideas shot down. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Of course, you don’t feel like doing this. Do it anyway.

  • A second corollary is to realize that you are not the best judge of whether your ideas are good or not. You need feedback from more objective people to find out what is sense or nonsense.

  • In preparation for more interaction with others, write a little summary, for your eyes only, of your ideas or work so far. Practice saying it, so that you are prepared to put your thoughts into words.

  • Prepare an answer to those people who ask how the dissertation is going. Here is what I suggest, “It’s going great! How are you?”

  • Join a dissertation group. See suggestions regarding this in the FAQ section on my web site.

  • Sign up to give papers and talks within your department and at conferences. (Notice a theme?)

  • Observe the people who seem to be in touch with their “inner professor.” It really isn’t that their ideas are better. It’s that they are more excited, more confident, and more open. Notice how people react to their confidence by giving their theories more credence?

  • Mind Map! OK, I’m a little obsessed, but I really thing Mind Mapping spurs creativity.

I hope these hints will help you find ways to let your “inner professor” run free. It will be difficult at first, and will cause anxiety. That’s OK, because eventually it will get easier and you will actually start to enjoy it. And writing your dissertation will be a much better process for it.

“Many a man is praised for his reserve and so-called shyness when he is simply too proud to risk making a fool of himself.”
— J. B. Priestley, All About Ourselves and Other Essays

Book of the week:

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, By Susan Jeffers

This is a book about becoming powerful despite your fears. I believe that the only way to conquer the fears that threaten to paralyze you is to find action techniques and apply them. If you are too afraid to take the actions I suggest in my article, read this book.
Read other reviews…

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