From ABD to Ph.D: 7 Rules that I think seem to work.

I've spent some time this morning hunting down and reading (quite closely, might I add) blogs of folks who have gone successfully from ABD to Ph.D. and blogged about the last leg of their journey since that's kind of where I'm at right now. [This exercise has been largely prompted by the realization that the chapter I was scheduled to finish today is not going to get done for no other reason than me being unable to get my butt in action for the last 3 days - not sure why but I think it has something to do with me telling folks that writing is going well and then it just comes to screeching halt...I think I'm jinxing it myself! Or to be more precise and not just shorthand it down to superstition, when I share with others the process that has been working well for me I think it sounds so much neater in the retelling that I end up setting ludicrous expectations for myself. So I'm back to square 1 - somewhat intimidated but largely overwhelmed as I wonder whether or not repeating this process will result in similar rewards. Of course it will but the neat story makes me wonder how I accomplished it in the first place i.e. I become trapped in my own neat narrative and forget how difficult and messy the actual experience was and expect myself to produce almost robotically and as effortlessly as the retelling makes it sound but isn't really the case.]

I'm happy to report that the tips and nuggets these ABD [All But Dissertation, for those of you wondering what the acronym stands for] bloggers shared that helped them just write "The-Darn-Thing" are all steps I've recently started taking and they seem to be working more often than not (when they don't it's entirely my fault for shying away and not making the effort...nopes I'm not lazy, just a bit intimidated every now and then). I'll admit that it feels kind of good to know that I've instinctively figured out some of this stuff from just doing it....of course I've probably also nagged my chair a great deal so the knowledge is not technically emanating just from yours truly.

The 7 most important realizations that have helped me gain some perspective and momentum (knock on wood) which is why I'm holding myself to them even when I don't want to. Thought I'd share with the blogosphere the rules I'm making myself obey henceforth till I defend after which I'll take a momentary break and then get back to it :-):

1. The "Good Enough" Rule:
As my chair put it in a recent e-mail exchange "letting good enough be good enough" is key. That doesn't mean I get it now - the perfectionist in me continues to want to go back and rework an existing draft multiple times. Still I remind myself of this when I notice my own obsessiveness getting the better of me. There needs to be an ongoing flow of "black words on white screen/paper".

2. The "Momentum Doesn't Just Happen, It Needs To Be Generated" Rule:
Allowing myself to stop when I still have "green points" in me has been very helpful. I was nervous initially about doing that since it is such a Herculean effort to get myself to sit down to write (as opposed to reading or taking notes for what I want to write eventually) and I was afraid I wouldn't remember the next day (my memory is awful when it comes to names or remembering all the intricacies of a thought). But if I kept going writing would almost always feel like I was punishing myself. Now I sit down each day and look at my outline to see which sections I can realistically tackle that day and just plod along. Sometimes I get it all done, sometimes it's less and sometimes more but there's stuff happening everyday.

3. "The Sky Doesn't Have To Be T-H-E Limit" Rule:
Part of the problem, especially if one has a tendency to procrastinate, is the notion that if no work got done on day X we'll make up for it tomorrow. It never works and the guilt continues to mount. So even if you know you're insanely behind draw up a new schedule that's actually realistic and stick to it. Once there's momentum I think one ends up working more than originally budgeted for but if we're setting ourselves up for failure writer's blocks will be fairly frequent and the vicious cycle of being stuck in ABDland will persist. Whenever I plan these marathon writing sessions I fall further behind because a) they're unrealistic, b) not conducive to good or, for that matter, any kind of writing, c) invitations to screw up so dissertating feels like even more of a pain. And so the vicious cycle spirals even further out of control. On the other hand, setting modest goals seems to work. If I finish what I've done for the day I look forward to the next writing session. Perhaps even get ahead. And eventually it starts to pile up so at the end of the week I feel like I've actually accomplished something. In other words, baby steps. For example, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon might not seem like much but that's definitely 2 hours more than what I would do if I plan to write for 8 hours. In the latter instance, nothing really happens. But 2 hours does happen and at the end of the week I've put in 12 hours, tackled the chapter section by section, and have a whole lot more to show for it.

4. The "There's Life Outside The Dissertating Cave" Rule:
Some folks can live and breathe their dissertation. I am not one of them and shouldn't aspire to go that route because I can sustain it for a couple of days after which I need to be "bad" in a manner of speaking. I should just stick to #3 above...I also think that works for most ABDers much better than the "retreat to the dissertating cave" strategy and resurface only when it's done. I say hiding in the cave a few hours a day is a good thing but that's about it. So do other things on a daily basis that make you feel good, that are fun, and have nothing to do with your Ph.Ding existence. In fact I think this is key because writing, unlike field research, is a very solitary endeavor. Staying in that state for prolonged periods of time at a stretch is, IMHO, unhealthy. Adding other activities to one's daily routine will make the dissertation feel less like punishment, especially if you happen to enjoy human contact. That could be chilling out with loved ones, cooking for your family, exercising, going for a walk, going to the gym, a spa visit, watching TV, going to the movies, calling your pals, going to the museum....whatever you like so long as you do something else during the day besides eat, sleep, and dissertate.

5. The "Sorry But I Can't" Rule:
Even though hiding in the cave for what might seem like an eternity isn't a good idea, saying 'no' to loved ones, friends, colleagues, acquaintances every now and then is necessary if it's getting in the way of writing. I'd say again that balance is key. So becoming a hermit isn't the solution but avoiding contact [read: distractions] during one's most productive hours is definitely a good idea. In that vein, I'm going to go on a daily social hiatus between the hours of 1 pm - 7:30 pm (EST). I've noticed that I work best during those times so I need to dedicate those hours to my dissertation during the week.

6. The "Small Steps" Rule:
Thinking about an entire dissertation or chapter is important when planning the argument. But when you're writing, I've seen that making an outline and then breaking it up into sub-sections is much more manageable when it comes to trying to make sure a certain amount of progress is made everyday. Of course it's extremely time-consuming to make an outline in such painstaking detail but I say this based on personal experience - it makes the actual writing of the chapter a gazillion times easier. Plus getting it done bit by bit, or let's say word by word or section by section, does wonders....it keeps you focused on what you've accomplished rather than what remains.

7. The "Don't Stop, Just Keep Going" Rule:
Yup things come undone. In fact, you can bet on it every time you figure out the neat version of your argument. Don't be afraid. If you need to start any part of it over, do it. If you need to walk away because you're confused, do that. Just remember to come back to tame "the beast" even if it seems uncontrollable.

As I review the 7 rules, the realization that hits me even harder is that while getting from MA to ABD requires more ability than discipline getting to the Ph.D. is a completely different animal. As far as ABD to Ph.D. is concerned, I think each candidate has already proven by the time he/she defends his/her prospectus defense that the project is worthwhile and that they're smart enough. All that remains is starting and finishing it. So the 'road to Ph.D dom' definitely requires substantive amounts of discipline in the vicinity of 99% discipline: 1% ability.

On that note, I'm going to plod along this chapter for the next few hours and see where I'm at. I have a social obligation that I probably shouldn't have committed to since it's bang in the middle of my "productive time" and the deadline to submit my first completed draft to my committee is imminent. But now that I have I'm just going to enjoy it....plus I'll get to celebrate a birthday, reconnect with friends I haven't seen in a while, and also meet up with some even older school friends whom I haven't seen since I graduated in 1992. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to enjoy some time off during the long Independence Day week-end as we're going away. When I come back I'm going to make sure I keep these 7 rules in mind. So to readers whom I know "In Real Life", if I disappear Mondays-Saturdays between the hours of 1-7:30 pm (EST) don't panic or get mad - I just really need to do this. Of course exceptions will be made if you need me for some reason and/or if you're visiting me :-). Overall, I'm dedicating July to the beginning of the end of ABD-hood. [Note to chair and committee members: this means that the chapters I've promised to e-mail you this month will be making their way to your inboxes for sure].

And so, in that spirit, here's to a productive July. And of course, Happy Independence Day in advance to those of you celebrating. Cheers!


Saturday Dissertation Thoughts

I'm trying to be more conscientious than usual this week-end for two reasons:

1. I had mild conjunctivitis last week and lost 3 days of dissertation work :-(.
2. Very dear friends of mine from school and undergrad will be in town from varying distances across-the-pond starting this week-end and through all of next week including my bestest friend on this planet and I'd like to have time to spend with them without falling too far behind. I would have tried to forge ahead if it hadn't been for #1 above.

Since I wasn't particularly feeling like I want to work - the gym at this point sounds like something I want to do more than sit at my desk or go for a walk outside since it finally (!) stopped raining after being grey and well this past week - I started reading online dissertation advice. Two things I came across that I wanted to post:

1. Someone out there provides the following quotation by Dag Hammarskjold who was a UN Secretary-General sometime in the early or late 50s if I'm not mistaken: "Never measure the height of a mountain, until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was." Chances are that he might have been talking about achieving world peace but my dissertation currently feels like an equally Herculean task. The writer using this quotation recommends breaking the dissertation up into tiny tasks and not thinking of it like a project till the first draft is complete to avoid being overwhelmed by it. Ok cool. Sounds good in theory but I can't seem to stop thinking of my dissertation like a dissertation - how else would you write it as such? I think it's important to remember that it'll get done chapter-by-chapter or even sub-section-of-chapter by sub-section-of chapter. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day. But I think seeing the broader picture is also helpful especially with working towards a consistent argument. I know it won't be perfect the first time round but I think remaining cognizant of that is inevitable and probably helpful.

2. "What do you call a graduate student who barely squeaks a lousy dissertation past her committee? Doctor!" Funny but puh-leez! I've heard the "a good dissertation is a done dissertation" bit but if taken literally it also makes me think that the end result would be something so lousy that even the minimal effort put into Ph.Ding was probably not even worth it. IMHO, you've got to have some passion to be here in the first place - why not dedicate oneself to the process as much as possible? Okay perhaps I'm being too harsh. I agree that a quest for perfection shouldn't get in the way of finishing because it can be debilitating but adages that seem to me to hint towards the other extreme seem just as useless. After all if I've given something so many years of my life and taken time out for it shouldn't I try to be produce something I know I'll be proud of and that will be respected?! On the other hand, the "good dissertation is done dissertation" bit can also be taken to mean "why don't you just concentrate on doing it?". If my advisor said this to me, I'm guessing it'd probably be an attempt to get me to focus on finishing rather than anything else - he probably has enough faith to know that I wouldn't submit something that wasn't substantive and worthy (of course all that keeping in mind my own capabilities). If that's what the whole "good dissertation = done dissertation" is taken to mean I'm all for it. I guess I ranted there for nothing ::sheepish smile::. Still, I see enough folks treating the whole Ph.Ding deal fairly cavalierly which is probably why I went off the deep-end for a bit. Why is it my problem what they do you ask? That's a whole other post for some other time :-).

Onwards to writing -only another 3-4 hours that I can afford to work today and I'm determined to exploit those to the fullest so that I'm closer to both a "done" and a "good" dissertation :-).


Envisioning The Finish Line

The two questions I get asked most:

1. When will you finish this Ph.D?
2. When will you get married? Do you even want to?

More on question 2 some other time but yes I want to but I'm not prepared to get married for the sake of crossing it off some to-do list that I'm convinced society-at-large maintains...or at least the one I find myself in. One quick note - it's intriguing how most people around me see the two as connected especially when I'm not so sure if going down one of those routes precludes the other. Having said that, the short answer is - I'll get married when I find the person I'd like to spend the rest of my life with. I'm n-o-t looking for Mr. Right/Perfect but there are certain things I don't think I can compromise on given that I tried it that way and it was sheer misery. I find it fairly amusing when female friends (not sure if men do that - maybe they do but no-one I know has ever made such a statement in my presence) of mine declare that year X or age X is when they'll "settle down" (a phrase I find bizarre because it has fairly depressing connotations if you ask me - why down? why settle?)

But back to question #1. I think that's the one I get asked most of late.

I'll be the first to admit that it bothers me when it is attached to "well why can't you just write it and be done?" Umm if I could do it that way don't you think I would have done it, or at least attempted to do it?! Of course when it's people who take an interest in what I do - be it my parents, extended family, or friends - I don't mind primarily because the question comes from me having expressed my desire to them to be done or having declared I'd be done at an earlier time but feeling like I have to explain myself to people I meet once a year or who aren't really connected to my life in any significant way (irrespective of the actual frequency) or with whom I haven't really shared any Ph.D-related conversations it seems to me like an intrusion.

I read an article in The Chronicle today titled "Death and Dissertation" written by a husband whose wife was on the last stages of her Ph.D. It was quite amusing, and maybe somewhat disconcerting given the bleakness of the metaphor, to see the comparisons drawn between death and dissertating. But it did resonate for sure.

So, in that spirit, some quick rambling thoughts about where I'm at and hope to be by the end of this year.

1. I want to - and even need to for my own sanity - graduate in time to make the December deadline. This might seem a bit frivolous but I'd originally thought that I'd manage to finishing Ph.Ding by 30. Since I turn 31 in January 2007 if I can make it during my 30th year I won't feel like I'm completely off of meeting my own expectations. Having been a student for almost 28 years now I'm ready to switch roles. I did teach in undergraduate courses in between but I was still student-ing so it's not quite the same thing.

2. I'm working feverishly on my dissertation. For better or for worse, I'm saddled with some other work commitments right now that give me very little time to work on it Tue-Fri but if I can keep at it the way I have the past 2 weeks i.e. work my butt off during nights and week-ends I know how far the finish line is, give or take a few days here and there if I get stuck moving forward with the argument.

3. I'll be the first to admit that part of me is fearful of finishing. Dissertating can be strange in that you might not always have your dream job lined up when you're done depending on which point during an academic year you can actually manage to finish. [There are certain types of dissertations and dissertating styles that I think can be more predictable I don't seem to fit either of the two well which can be a downer at times but I honestly like what I'm producing despite the fact that it is fairly time-consuming. However, at this stage, I can see the finish line and so can my chair which is definitely encouraging.] Given that we tend to associate accomplishment with reward it's scary to think that I will most likely not have more than a degree-in-hand when I'm done. The fact that I won't have something concrete to do that I know of in advance is definitely one that induces a certain amount of procrastination on my part. But I'm determined to not let that hold me back. Still, it is scary. Luckily I do have some options in my back-pocket to help me move forward but since none of them are written in stone there are times I feel scared of having nothing to do. After all, having worked for so long and so hard you kind of expect some kind of job that is financially and personally (emotionally and intellectually) satisfying; not knowing what and where you're headed once this is over with seems to release an urge to hang on to it if only for the sake of some certainty which is definitely a precious commodity when you're ABD because the entire ride seems fraught with low-level persistent stress with no end in sight until you actually get to The End (which is really just A Beginning so it shouldn't become The Big Bad Wolf but it does).

4. The quest for perfection can be fairly elusive. I'm not sure where it is on most days. Some days it feels like I'm on that path. Of course one of the most-repeated phrases by faculty to ABD students is "don't get it right, just get it written". I still want to do both....maybe not right because who knows what that might look like but I need to be satisfied with what I've produced. Unless it feels substantive, I do have trouble moving on.

5. The thought of waking up and having nothing to do seems blissful yet bizarre, even daunting at times. What will I do with myself? Will it become a reminder of everything else I've had to ignore to get to this point? What does the future look like? What does it hold for me? All questions to which having some answers, even if provisional, would be comforting especially since I seem to have become increasingly incapable of having uncertainty during the Ph.D. process -not that the two are necessarily directly related. Or maybe, without the constant stress of having to dissertate life will seem to present itself as more manageable.

6. In some respects, Ph.Ding became a safe haven for me especially when I went through some personal challenges. That was a good thing in that it provided something for me to focus on when times were rough. The bad thing - I'm not quite sure what lies ahead and the at-times-remote-at-times-distinct possibility of facing demons again that I thought were buried a long time ago makes me somewhat apprehensive. Then again, maybe the thrill and pride of having actually finished is more likely to take over so perhaps I ought not to worry about it.

7. Till a few days ago, I was struggling with trying to locate my own voice within an argument in the chapter on which I'm currently working. Since it's the chapter that will set the tone for the ones to follow I've had this insatiable urge to get it right despite knowing that it's probably going to have to be rewritten once I write the conclusion because that's how it goes for pretty much everyone I know and respect who has a Ph.D. Luckily, I found a way to do it now that allows me to move on. But I've got the opposite dilemma now - there's so much of me to put in there and fashion a nuanced and substantive argument that I can be proud of that I'm having trouble wading through all of it. It would be nice if I could just write but obsessing over perfection is apparently quintessentially, possibly genetically and even astrologically (so I've been told), me. I'm definitely not complaining about this problem because knowing what to refine and fashion is more familiar territory for me. Still, I wish I had a magic wand to wave because I've been working on this chapter for eons and it would be nice to have it behind me.

Speaking of which I better get back to plodding through it. Have a small window of time at my current work commitment and I'd really like to exploit it to the fullest.

I'm sure there is more on finishing the dissertation that I could/should write about but for now this is what seemed pressing. I'd post my actual timeline that I'm working with but I just don't want to jinx it. That my chair, parents, and a dear friend/colleague have it on file is probably enough to ensure that I have enough folks on my case to push me closer to The Finish Line.

Still, I'd like to announce on the blogosphere that I hope to have made it from ABD to Ph.D. by the time the upcoming fall semester is over.


A Post About Not Blogging....

Just curious if fellow bloggers working on major writing/research projects find any of this familiar....

I keep promising myself that I'll blog more regularly. Sometimes I make that promise more publicly via a post. But, throughout the last year and a half, My Main Job aka The Dissertation has kept me from blogging with any kind of regularity that might be remotely referred to as some kind of posting frequency. Unfortunately, not always because I'm so busy being productive and writing out fascinating ideas one page after the other but mostly because I don't want to put any steam in any kind of writing exercise lest it take energy away from The Main Job which sometimes isn't easy to keep plodding along at.

I could of course start posting sections of dissertation chapters completed at a particular time but I feel protective towards the (quasi?) anonymity I have. I've also had frustrating experiences in the last 5 years with having had my work plagiarized to varying degrees so the Internet doesn't seem like a space where I want to post my chapters anytime soon unless of course The Dissertation becomes The Book. Given that I started this blog with the intention of talking about intellectual debates I grapple with and that most of my thinking has been very dissertation-focused we get back to the anonymity and plagiarism hang-ups I have. I could always post about my triumphs, trials, and tribulations re: dissertating - that takes the blog in a slightly different direction which is where I've been at with my last few posts but since I've been stuck working on my methodology chapter for what might seem longer than necessary it wasn't a particularly thrilling prospect to post about that.

So in other words, I don't blog because I don't have anything to blog about - or, mostly, because blogging is akin to writing and if I am going to write I should really channel all of that effort into The Dissertation.

Or maybe, just maybe, I could think of this as practice for writing multiple things simultaneously and staying on a schedule in which I write down what I think (how else will I evolve as a scholar?) which is probably the way life will be when I find my Shiny-New-Main-Job (touchwood, from this blog to the ears of search committees, Inshallah, God willing - what am I missing here in terms of rituals?).

I want to blog more frequently, I really do. Because it's one way that I can allow myself to write about things other than the dissertation and maybe keep my brain/mind happy and stimulated. I also like the idea that blogging is a way to put one's ideas out there for anyone with an Internet connection to see. Even more so, it's a space in which I'm forced to press thoughts I otherwise might not....something which certain classes I took throughout my college career especially a core seminar I took with my now-Dissertation-Chair always provided but now that I'm ABD and working long-distance from my institution I don't quite have regular access to. Plus it'll force me to get into the habit of getting things written without holding myself back from finishing because it isn't p-e-r-f-e-c-t!

Hmm guess I should get over this whole not-blogging-regularly deal? Maybe I'll get back into it now, maybe I'll end up waiting till the first complete draft of the entire dissertation is submitted to all committee members - an event that is imminent. We'll see - I do know that I started blogging because I enjoyed it and I want to make more time for it starting today.