Dissertation Help and Publication Tips From My Brilliant Clients

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Much of what I’ve learned has been learned from my brilliant clients. As I’ve helped them figure out what will work best for them, we have discovered some great hints and techniques that will help you in your academic work.

So many of my graduate student and faculty clients are in the humanities, and can express their ideas beautifully. Each of these techniques has worked for a certain person at a certain point – some will work for you and some won’t. Try them on for size! (And check out the teaching prep hints preview at the end of the article.)

  • From a Post Doc in Science: Make a schedule of what you will be working on and when. Don’t just write, “Work on x project.” Break it down into tiny steps and write those into your schedule; e.g., “Find the notes I took on x and make a list of what’s missing.”

  • Same Post Doc: Make a list of people you should network with. Every week, contact one person on the list and if possible set up a time to meet for lunch or coffee.

  • Afraid you’ll drop the ball on something? A professor client makes charts in Excel and in Word of her various projects. She further breaks the projects down into smaller bits, and creates a monthly schedule. Each project is color coded, making it easier to spot what needs to be done. We then work backwards from that chart, creating weekly and daily schedules or checklists.

  • An ABD who tends to want to put too much in his dissertation stated: “Tell yourself that ‘more’ is not good; ‘more’ is ‘less.'” Using this philosophy, he was able to finish his dissertation and successfully defend.

  • Several clients have noticed that one way to feel better about yourself is to reread any finished work that you’ve done. You’ll be surprised at how good it is, and will also be motivated to keep going.

  • Do your most hated task first thing in the day. Then it doesn’t hang over your head all day. Another ABD adds to this, “If I leave it until late — often I won’t do it.”

  • Handing a chapter in to your advisor or a reader feels really good. If you are not sure if it’s completely ready, hand it in.

  • “Writing is about making choices – it’s not always that one choice is better than the other…. Sometimes you have to make a commitment to one set of ideas, even if it seems arbitrary.”

  • When you’re trying to find your argument, don’t waste too much time writing about the ideas of other people. Another way to say this is, “Don’t take the secondary literature as primary when you’re trying to find your argument.” It’s easier and more pleasant to start with the primary literature. Criticism should remain helpful to you only when it’s helpful to your argument as it develops. (These hints are an example of something I personally never would be able to say from personal experience, never having written a humanities dissertation.)

  • Try reading your work out loud. As one ABD put it, “reading it out loud gives a purchase and clarity that wasn’t there before.”

  • Keep a journal for your free writing about your work – for notes and for clarifying. Read back over it occasionally. Keep the journal open when you work on your computer.

  • Ask yourself as you write, “What am I trying to say here? What is my main point?”

  • Get more comfortable with ” the painful act of writing imperfectly.”

  • In terms of generating ideas, writing is more powerful than reading.

  • Allow yourself to realize that writing can be a constant cycle of creating an argument, losing it, and then coming back to it. Also, you may come back to something different eventually.

And here are a couple of comments from my clients on teaching prep, to whet your appetite for next week’s article:

  • Give yourself permission to do less work on other things including your dissertation, as you prepare for the upcoming academic year. Feeling guilty doesn’t help you get more done.

  • Make a big list of everything you have to do to prepare for teaching. Make each step as small as possible. You can then break it into smaller chunks, and feel good as you check off each item.

  • Plan to have a lot of discussion time! Lectures are boring to many students. (More on this next week.)

This is just a small sample of the great ideas generated by my clients. If you have any tricks of the trade, send them to me and I’ll publish them in a later compendium. In particular, any hints on teaching prep will be put in next week’s newsletter. Let me know if you would like to be credited with your hint. If we all get together and share our wisdom, academia could be a less isolated place!

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