How to Handle Academic Deadlines, and Other Thorny Issues

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As many of you know, I highly recommend the software program and journal tool TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished!™. It’s a fantastic resource that coaches you through writing your thesis or dissertation.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Wendy Carter, the brains behind this academic tool. We touched on several areas that should be helpful to both new grad students and to professors trying to get a handle on their research and writing habits.

Set Your Completion Date and Intermediate Deadlines

GH: One of the unique features of the software is the setting of a completion date for your dissertation, with the dates of the intermediate steps automatically calculated. Why do you place so much importance on setting your expected completion date?

WC: My feeling is you can endure suffering if you have know you have a limited amount of time, but if you sense that there is no end to the suffering, you will give up more easily. The deadline provides some kind of adrenaline that this thing has an end to it – not a never-ending process that will go on forever. I want people to pick a date that they want to finish and focus on that. This works even if you don’t tell your advisor the date you’ve selected. It gives you a goal that you have in mind, and a goal to attain.

I think of deadlines as “purposeful suffering,” in other words, suffering with a deadline and a purpose. It’s when you forget the purpose of the suffering that you are more likely to give up and quit.

GH: So many academics get down on themselves because they set deadlines and then don’t meet them. Then they say things like, “Why bother setting deadlines, since I never make them?” How would you deal with this issue?

WC: I emphasize in the beginning the need to set a realistic deadline, one that takes into account your existing responsibilities, such as family, job, etc. Your family isn’t going to disappear, and your family members aren’t going to suddenly say, “That’s all right, I don’t need to celebrate a birthday this year.” Also don’t be idealistic about the amount of work you can do.

The intermediate deadlines that are automatically entered on your calendar help you evaluate how you are doing in working towards the overall deadline. If you don’t make your first milestone, you can push the other deadlines back, and re-evaluate your assumptions in setting your completion date.

GH: So setting a completion date and intermediate deadlines is still important, even if you don’t guess correctly at first.

WC: Exactly.

Make a Commitment

GH: Connected with this idea of focusing on your eventual goal is your emphasis on committing to the process. Why do you believe that this is important?

WC: It’s so easy to get lost in the details when you’re working on an advanced degree. You’re overwhelmed by the bad things that happen, like failing a question in your qualifying exam, or having a chapter returned with something bad written about it by your advisor.

Making a commitment means focusing on the big picture, and not getting lost in the hurdles along the way. You’ve just got to keep going. People say, “I know it’s going to be hard,” but when they get there they say, “I didn’t know it would be this hard!” It means committing to finishing before you see it unfold.

I was so committed to finishing that I bought my class ring when I started my program. I planned to finish in five years, and I finished in six. I might have had to change the date on the ring, but I finished. I got through as a single parent – so if I can do it, you can do it!

Use a “Methods Journal”

GH: You recommend that all academics have a “methods journal.” Tell me more about how this journal works.

WC: I think this is a crucial part of your success as an academic. Why carry something around in the back of your head and create all that extra stress? Make a note in your journal – you can go back and resolve that issue and move on. Or write down that brilliant thought, or make a sketch of an idea.

In the lab sciences they have a lab notebook. We don’t have that in the humanities, arts or social sciences — where you document every step of your thought process. It’s a place to note what you did, how, why and even when. Then you know that everything you are looking for is in that one place, even stickies. When you’re writing up your methods or appendices, you know where to look and you don’t need to recreate the process over again.

In our TADA methods journal, we have graphing paper, a column for issues to be resolved and a “to-do” list, and lines for free writing, which can help you get out of writer’s block.

I suggest that people carry the methods journal with them wherever they go. Bring it with you when you meet with your advisor, to take notes on the meeting and to have available to look things up. One student I talked to says that when her advisor sees her coming, he says, “Here comes ‘Miss Organized’!” That’s not a bad thing for your advisor to say about you!

Advice for New Graduate Students: Use Those Classes to Your Benefit

GH: I recently received an email from a graduate student beginning her nursing Ph.D. She wrote, “I am beginning my Ph.D. program and feel I should probably already be thinking about my dissertation, right? When is the best time to start and exactly how do you start?” I know this is a big question, but do you have any advice for new students?

WC: We emphasize getting informed and keeping the big picture in mind. Read whatever material you’ve been given about class and degree requirements. Then use the classes to pursue a possible topic for your dissertation. For example, if you’re going to write a paper in class, select a topic that could serve as a lit review for your thesis. Or use the methods part of a stats course to write your methods section for the thesis. This way you get a jump-start on your dissertation while fulfilling requirements, and you get the feedback from your class instructors, before your advisor even sees it. So use the classes to your advantage.

GH: Thanks so much for your time, Wendy. I’m sure many grad students are glad they got these products before it was too late!


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