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!


Blogger Edward said...

This list is right on! I am currently languishing in dissertation hell, and it has taken me lots of mental anguish to realize the truth of these rules. At the expense of being too sappy or sentimental, the dissertation related posts I've found (such as this one) have helped keep me sane and productive. Thanks!

10:05 AM  
Blogger Genealogy Spice said...

Thanks Edward....and I agree with you re: dissertation blog-posts. I thank that it helps when you know you aren't the only one going through the same mixed bag of emotions, doubts, and anxieties. It's nice to know there's a community of folks out there shooting for the same thing and experiencing the same stuff...particularly since the actual dissertating process tends to be a fairly isolated process. Good luck with dissertating. and thanks for sharing.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Keep writing...good inputs

1:49 AM  

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