reader question on academia: tips for getting through grad school?

The Writing Life {an image snapped while dissertating a couple of year ago}

I recently received this email from a reader:

“I’ve been a long-time reader (and fan!) and I’m currently in grad school in the researching-but-not-quite-writing stage of my dissertation. Since you’re a recent graduation success story I thought you might be a good person to ask about resources for helping get through this part of the degree. I don’t know if there are any books you’ve read that helped, or just small pieces of advice from friends, or even other blogs of scholars dealing with the stresses (both mental and emotional) of grad student life. I’m finding this stage particularly challenging because I can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Any recommendations/sources you have would be greatly appreciated.”

After responding to her email, it occured to me that many of you (especially those of you in grad school or post-grad school) might have a lot more tips to offer than what I came up with. So I’m reposting her question here (with her permission) and asking you to please share your thoughts and advice!

Below is what I wrote:

**

Thanks for the email and for your kind words! I know exactly how you must feel right now, I’ve been there plenty of times myself. It’s so hard to see the end goal when you’re in the middle of grad school still. During the time spent researching, before I started to write, things were particularly difficult for me because I couldn’t actually see how my project was going to come together.

Honestly, if I could give one bit of advice, it would be to start writing already. Once I began trying to put into words what I wanted to express, I started to gain a much clearer understanding of where my project was going and where I needed to do more research. Unfortunately, by the time I finally mustered the courage to put words to paper, I was back in the US from my research stay in Germany and by the time I realized what I should have read more about or looked into more, I was no longer near the archives and couldn’t look those things up. It made the writing much more diffcult. This depends on your discipline and subject matter of course, but if you could start writing something and forcing yourself to commit words to paper (computer screen), it might help you with your research a lot too. And it gives you that added sense of finally being able to see a way out (or at least forward). And if it’s complete crap, at least you know what not to write. And no one but you needs to see it. (Although, don’t delete anything that COULD maybe work after all, it’s best to save even crappy drafts in a folder somewhere because you never know if there’s a good idea in there after all).

As for online resources, I didn’t really have any while I was writing. I haven’t really found many academia based blogs that speak to me. I’d be curious to hear if you find any that you really like. I recently came across The Thesis Whisperer and think that’s a pretty great site and you may especially like this post! I also see that there is a huge blogroll on the sidebar of The Thesis Whisperer that may lead you to other inspiring and comiserating reads.

Just remember that it’s normal to feel like there is no end in sight but the easist way to keep moving forward is by taking it one day at a time and chipping away at it for a little bit each day. And then you’ll get there!

Also, don’t forget to do non-academic stuff! I was most productive once I became a mother because I was forced to do other things and it allowed me mental breaks from writing that made me much more effective when I did turn to it. I have heard this from friends over and over again that the more they allow themselves to live outside of their work, the better their work is for it.

Best of luck with your studies! Let me know how it goes!

**

What helped you get through grad school and those long research and writing years? It can be such an isolating and overwhelming experience. What got your through it? Or, if you’re currently going through it, how are you coping? Please share your thoughts below!

Incidentally, I posted some thoughts on “surviving grad school” around this same time last year too. 

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21 Responses to reader question on academia: tips for getting through grad school?

  1. Marleah says:

    What I did while completing my masters degrees, was break things down into smaller chunks. Do one section at a time. I used a pomodoro timer app to help me- google it, it is great! Basically 25 min of work, then 5 min of break. After 4 cycles, you then get a 15min break. On my breaks, no joke, I would color in a coloring book. So mind-clearing!

    Another thing that helped was a premium subscription to pandora radio. The music kept me going. Weird, because in all my years of college, I hated listening to music while I worked. Suddenly with thesis and comps, I needed that.

  2. e says:

    Some general tips: Make friends outside of your program, and outside of your university. Read for pleasure. Take care of yourself. Take vacations. Exercise.

    Some specific tips: Make writing goals, write them down, and write about them. Find a citation management tool so you can keep track of your sources easily.

  3. Melanie says:

    I feel this! Last week my advisor was like “Stop reading books and start researching your dissertation.” Strangely after four years in a PhD program that makes me feel like I am starting from scratch.

    Something that’s hit me in the last year is that my life is happening in spite of grad school. Whereas before I would’ve been hesitant about nonacademic commitments, but seeing the PhD as part of my life instead of the sole focus of my life has given me clarity. It’s not the light at the end of the tunnel- the tunnel is gone and there’s just light.

    Getting out of the tunnel hasn’t been easy. For me, that meant getting a dog, investing in some long overdue therapy, and applying to conferences so I have solid deadlines to work toward.

  4. I ditto all of the recommendations so far. I also found it incredibly helpful to TALK through my dissertation (both big and small ideas) with my adviser. She was immensely helpful in getting me past my roadblocks just by listening. If not your adviser, think about reaching out to some of your colleagues. I know some people had writing groups or would peer edit. And breaks are so important. Running or walking to clear my head always ended up in some sort of breakthrough – even if it was how to organize my notes. I also agree with S., having a distraction of some sort helps. I wrote my dissertation after I had my son and knowing that I really, really needed to get it finished helped motivate me.

  5. susanify says:

    I totally remember all these frustrations, and I felt like I was floundering a lot after finishing my coursework. I recommend “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day,” a book that many of my friends who finished in 5-7 years (total) found very helpful. It does take more than 15 minutes, but the key idea is that when you’re stressed and can’t find time, than committing to 15 minutes a day makes a huge difference (and can be an important mental block to overcome). Also, I am good at not being a perfectionist. My friends who agonized over perfect sentences took a lot longer to finish than I did.
    Oh, and even during my writing fellowship year, I never worked more than 4 hours a day on writing. You really can’t do it for more than amount of time, so I would work 2 hours, run, work 2 more hours, eat, and then take off the rest of the day, guilt free (or maybe go back to some bibliography stuff, admin stuff, emails, printing out things afterwards, but no more writing guilt!) Good luck!

  6. Stephanie says:

    I would echo two things already said: 1) use writing as a form of thinking (and have a “cuts” folder or similar for crappy drafts–you’ll be surprised when these things come back) and 2) write in small time chunks around 25-45 minutes rather than set a page goal for the day. For me, knowing I could get up out of my chair at the end of the time inspired productivity, whereas the latter would make me stretch out the work to fill whatever time I had available

    Also: form a writing group to make things less isolating. Within budgetary reason of course, allow yourself to meet friends for lunch/drinks/etc. Not only does it help make life less isolating, but also outings give you a goal to work toward especially when you have an unstructured writing day. Most importantly for me, I needed to learn that at the beginning of the process that I needed flexibility with my writing goals, because I didn’t yet know what reaching a set goal might involve (and inevitability took longer than I thought). Good luck!

  7. Bettina says:

    I second the people who recommend applying to conferences. It sets you an outside deadline you won’t be able to procrastinate around (it’s a lot easier to move personal deadlines around – can’t do that with conferences!). It also forces you to write, which is great because it means before you even know it you’ve written something you can hand in to a journal or that will become part of your thesis.
    Also, I’m really not one for self-help books, but reading “Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” really motivated me. There are some very useful tips in that book (not everything is for everyone, but you’ll find something for you in there) and above all, it makes you realise your problems are completely normal and not the result of your personal inadequacy.

  8. An says:

    I never had a clear transition from research – writing. Instead, I was writing short papers from the very beginning on small topics. They were never intended for publication, only to help me shape my own thoughts and find my own voice. It was still a puzzle on how to bring it together, but at least I had a record of the research I had done, and after some updating and polishing a lot of it made it into the final thesis.

    I also found attending conferences invigorating, not only for the comments but also to meet others in the same area and to get other perspectives than those of the supervisors.

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  10. Karen says:

    I also ditto almost everything that has been said here. In particular, I’ve been part of a few different writing groups, and they have been incredible sources of inspiration and motivation. Motivation because when I need to share something with the group it requires me to have something to share – even if what I share is a half-baked idea. Inspiration because reading my peers’ work and seeing them finish has really pushed me, as well. In addition, I have a few ‘accountability buddies’ with whom I’ll either meet for some uninterrupted writing time, or with whom I check in every week or two with a progress report. It’s much less stressful than providing a progress report to an advisor or committee member but still keeps me on target.

  11. Dorie says:

    I’m a long way out from my dissertation (I was just promoted to associate professor) but the same advice I get now from my mentors is just as good for dissertation writing: stop researching/reading and start writing. You can research forever, but until you’ve written something down, it doesn’t exist.

    In my current grant writing seminar (for faculty pursuing R grants) we’re not even allowed to include citations until we’ve roughed out a proposal draft. Just a note saying “I’ll need a reference here.” That way we can’t spend time going down irrelevant rabbit holes, which is oh-so-tempting compared to the slog of writing.

  12. Bryna says:

    I’m on the tail end of my own dissertation, and I second much of what was already said. I especially found that friendships and relationships outside of academia were invaluable for giving me a sense of broader perspective. I still use pomodoros and when I’m stumped I utilize the website “750words.com” to quickly and sloppily jot down my ideas in a space that can be saved to return to later. Recently, I’ve also created an accountability document on google docs where I keep track of my daily progress; this has made me feel like I’m making progress even on the days when a chapter doesn’t seem to be moving forward. I share this document with a friend whose also at the same stage, and this has been an invaluable form of motivation. We’ve become each others’ cheerleaders, and it helps us to think about the project as a day-by-day process that slowly but surely develops.

    I’d also say – more broadly– that it’s important to keep in mind that each person’s life, project, pace, and process is different–some of us write more quickly, some of us more slowly; some have events outside their academia that need attention. Sometimes it’s hard not draw comparisons between your progress and others, but it never really matters, in the end, who “finishes first.” Like S., the act of having a child helped me to think differently about measurements of success and recognize the PhD as only one facet of a deeply fulfilling life.

  13. Natalie says:

    S.’s advice is great – the earlier you start writing, the better. It helps focus ideas, leads you down new research paths, and gives you the great feeling that you’re actually making visible progress. I’m 1.5 years from finishing my dissertation in the sciences, and starting to write my first chapter has really helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel. It has also helped me find flaws in my research that I can go back and fix – better now than in a year, when I’m too close to defending to do anything about them.

    Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten about how to finish a dissertation was from my dad, directed towards work in general: work smarter, not harder or longer. Do not think about accomplishments in terms of “I’ve spent 10 hours researching today.” Think about them in terms of what you’ve actually gotten done. Likewise, don’t say “I don’t deserve this weekend off to go camping because I’ve only put in 40 hours this week.” Rather, take the approach of “I’ve reached these goals, and need a weekend break in order to continue working efficiently.”

    Keep taking breaks. I spend less total time “working” than most of my grad student colleagues and friends, but get more accomplished (in terms of papers published, grant proposals submitted/funded, etc.). I firmly believe it’s because I allow/force myself to take time off. That lets me work more efficiently and productively when it’s time to work. It keeps me from getting burnt out. It keeps me healthy. And it keeps me excited about work.

  14. M. says:

    As it happens, I’m in the process of transitioning to a group blog about writing and goals (while continuing to do outfit posts because it’s become a compulsion). The best advice I got was in Paul J. Silvia’s _How to Write A Lot_, and that was recommended to me by another dissertating fashion blogger actually. Basically, you have sacrosanct writing times and stated goals and rewards towards which to work, you stick to that writing time, and you keep track of your progress. I have a system of a word count that I need to hit every day depending on how much scheduled writing time I have (and how much child care I also have). I also feel strongly about engineering my environment — clean, non-cluttered space, and NO INTERNET.

  15. Rachel says:

    I’m doing a thesis for my masters now and a lot of the things I found useful have already been mentioned: write early (and save them, even if they are terrible), do things outside of academia (in particular, exercise, do things for relaxation, including meeting friends/going for lunches and dinners), set externally controlled motivations (e.g. signing up for conferences, but also applies to setting deadlines with advisors etc), and don’t get obsessed by doing X in a particular day.

    I suppose a lot of it is very personal. For me I do lots of thinking while walking around and talking to myself, or lying in bed and thinking, with pen and paper on hand. Talking to people, both within your subject and out, is also helpful for just having to articulate what you’re trying to do and why, and make it clear. I also made a point to go to a variety of different talks, lectures and conferences, even if it was not within my specialisation at all, to see how people put together their ideas and present them and the different arguments that can be made and to pick up on effective ways of formulating and conceptualising ideas. But mainly that is because I tend to drift off in my own thoughts and become very reflective when in some public lecture – which means I listen to very little of what the person is saying, but get a lot of thinking done in a way I don’t when my ‘active’ brain is fully in control. Some sort of non-academic writing also helps – blogging, braindumps like 750words.com all count.

    Most importantly, try to stay positive and optimistic! In my experience it is very difficult to be creative and find breakthroughs when I am in a funk.

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  17. Susan says:

    I’ve got just over a year left on my PhD (Summer 2014 here I come!) and I’m just now breaking out of a no-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel dissertation funk. The last three semesters or so I’ve been really unmotivated and just DREADED having to go to school, working on my dissertation and meeting with my advisor. I think one thing that’s really helped me break out of that this semester is taking care of my mental health. I didn’t realize until last semester that I had a pretty big impostor syndrome complex happening. Talking about it in therapy and also reading the book “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women” helped a lot with that.

    Another thing regarding mental health is that my university mental health center actually has a Dissertation Support Group. We make weekly goals and talk about the difficulties of grad school, and it really helps with accountability and also just seeing that you’re not alone – people in a wide range of departments and areas of research often have the same difficulties with grad school, and talking about it helps so much.

    I’ll also agree with what a few people have already said: balance is key. You can’t work all the time. You’re more than just a grad student, and life is more than just grad school. Realizing that and being able to take the time to make sure my life stays balanced without feeling guilty about it has gone a long way in making my whole life (including the quality of my academic work) better.

  18. Ruth says:

    A lot of what everyone has already said, but, I think just writing is huge – take the pressure off of “writing the dissertation.” Brainstorming type writing can be really helpful to get things going – just write streams of thought, questions, observations, whatever is on your mind as you read, and/or think of chapters like a seminar papers (break it into smaller bits and set goals for those). I’ve set up a basic writing schedule for myself. Turning off the wi-fi on my computer is huge too because even just the one little extra step of turning it on will help me not check my email every 5 minutes. I have a Cuts and Outline document that I keep open so that I can easily cut and paste without overly cluttering my writing document. I try to keep my mornings (for which I have child care) ONLY for writing (ie I say no to other commitments), although I sometimes make exceptions for family-related things (NO academic commitments). Getting out of my apartment is huge, too.

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