Archive for Grad School

The Scoop on School: or, Five Fun Facts Every Graduate Student Should Know

“So, any idea when you’re going to finish your dissertation?” my brother asked innocently toward the end of our conversation yesterday. Why, after three and a half years, people persist in asking this question is beyond my powers of comprehension. Quite frankly, you have a greater chance of getting a straight answer out of the president on any given day than you do if you ask me that question.

I’ve written before about the drudgery of dissertating and the direct correlation between the units of alcohol I consume and the number of times someone asks the above question in any social context. I even went so far as to commiserate with my committee chair over the nails-on-a-chalkboard effect this conversation has on my nerves. “They don’t understand. You’re doing fine,” she assured me several weeks ago.

Then last week, I was filling out my mandatory annual progress report and feeling reasonably accomplished with a forthcoming book chapter publication, a conference presentation, and my work for the English Graduate Organization…until I came to the question: “projected date of dissertation defense?”, and I just might have scribbled the words “buggered if I know” before realizing that this probably wasn’t the professionally-minded response the department was looking for. Then I remembered that in just a few hours, I would be sitting in a room full of fresh-faced, undergraduate English majors, extolling the virtues of graduate school (in other words, perjuring myself).

Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The truth is, I love what I do. Not only do I get to read, write about, and (if I’m lucky) teach literature I love, but I occasionally get the chance to legitimate my fangirlish tendencies as “academic interests”. How many people can watch BBC 1’s “Sherlock” multiple times and call it research? But then there are the sleepless nights, the heart palpitations as a result of overcaffeination, and the threats to drop out of school and join a traveling circus as the wandering freak who can recite random passages from Bronte novels while balancing on one leg and spinning around with her eyes closed. (I’ve been contemplating adding a “special skills” field to my CV just to make room for that). The question that the uninitiated (in other words, non-academics) invariably ask is: how? How do you survive this masochistic mental torture?

So, I present for your edification: survival strategies: five facts every graduate student should know.
1. You will inevitably fall into at least one of these three categories: functioning alcoholic, caffeine addict, or chain-smoker. IF you do not fall into at least one of these categories, you are in denial.
2. You will learn quickly that any grocery list is incomplete without three staples: peanut butter, cereal, and vodka. Running out of any of these items constitutes a nutritional crisis. Running out of any or all of these items the night before a seminar paper is due constitutes declaring a state of emergency. IF you think you can write a paper in twelve hours without the sustenance of protein, fiber, and alcohol, you are deluding yourself.
3. Six hours of sleep will be a record-braking maximum from now until, basically, the end of your living existence, and you will learn to settle for half that on a good day (see number 1).
4. If, like me, you choose to live alone, assign at least one friend to be what I have affectionately termed your “Bridget Jones buddy”—the person who forces their way into your apartment when they haven’t heard from you in at least three days to make sure that you haven’t been devoured by wild dogs. Ideally, this should also be the person you would trust to clear your computer history in the event that you are eaten by wild dogs, or, in a twisted tribute to your love for Oscar Wilde, carried off by a severe chill. You don’t want your anonymously published fanfiction falling into the wrong hands. Trust me.
5. You will occasionally burst into tears for no apparent reason. This is normal, and as long as you have item number 3 on your grocery list staples near to hand, you will get past the moment.

Note: the above is presented as much for entertainment as edification. Evidence that these are universal truths applying to all graduate students remains inconclusive. All facts should be taken with a grain of salt…plus a slice of lime and a shot of tequila.

Related Posts:
Never Give Up on Your Dissertation, for It is Crunchy and Goes Well with Ketchup
“Are You Still Dating that What’s-his-Name?”: and Other Awkward Holiday Part conversation Killers


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So Much for Not Procrastinating in 2012: Better Late than Never

“So, I think my resolution for 2012 will be to stop procrastinating,” I declared.
“And what else?” prompted my friend.

“Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t made my resolution list for this year.”

“Really? So how’s that not procrastinating working out for you?”

Here we are with another year at our backs. I have to give myself at least a bit of credit for having made such an ambitious resolution list for 2011, even if there’s a part of me that’s now thinking we ought to tear a leaf out of cellphone providers’ books and institute resolution rollover plans. There’s something to be said for the argument that we need to set realistic goals for ourselves in life, and that whatever we might say, a year is sometimes insufficient. Then the voice in my head that reminds me that procrastinating has been one of my watch-words on nearly every new-year’s resolution list for as long as I can remember, and I find myself scribbling yet another resolution reminder on my list: note to self- stop rationalizing resolution rollover.

I refuse to let myself think that starting a full week into 2012 will make my resolve any weaker, and as always, I plan to challenge myself in ways both fun and fulfilling, combining pleasure and personal enrichment with professional advancement and self-improvement.

1: Complete my dissertation. I’ve been carrying this thing round with me for exactly two years like a burdensome pregnancy, and I often find the love-hate relationship I have with it not unlike the way singer/songwriter Robbie Williams once described fame: it’s “like having a little baby. It’s really great and really lovely and it takes its first steps and you’re there and you cry, and then it dances a little bit, and you’re there and cry too…and then it shits itself and it pukes everywhere and it goes through the terrible twos when it pulls things off shelves and it burns itself and all that stuff, and you just want to go: ‘This is great. Can I give it you back for a little bit while I do this?'”
I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that completing my dissertation will in any way constitute job security—not in this cut-throat academic market—but I covet that sense of personal accomplishment, and all the more because I’ve moved beyond the desire to prove myself to anyone else (or so I say). What true fulfillment is there in walking across the stage in a vindictive victory dance, proclaiming to the world, “Who says a blind girl can’t get a PH.D.? In yo face!” If I’ve really dedicated the last four years of my life merely to proving a point, I might as well quit now, because where’s the true sense of accomplishment in that? (Never mind the fact that quitting is practically impossible, because, as they say on Avenue Q, what would I do with a B.A in English?). Note to Self: marginal resolution- stop listening to “It Sucks to be Me (What do you do with a B.A in English) on loop on my Mp3 player, as I suspect this might be a large contributing factor to my academic depression…that and having no visible means of livelihood.

2: Make a habit of writing down at least five things that made me smile each day, as long as the things that make me smile don’t involve witnessing someone I intensely dislike falling down a flight of stairs.

3: accept that in each moment of each day, I am precisely where God wants me to be, and learn to recognize the touch of his hand in every situation, even those that inconvenience me. I recently read a story about a man who discovered on his way to work one morning that he’d left his metro card at home and turned back on his way to the subway. He worked at the World Trade Center. That morning was September 11. Over a decade later, he’s probably supremely grateful that he forgot his metro card. The Lord is my navigator. I’m merely along for the ride.

4: read at least one biography of Queen Victoria (unfortunately this is a rollover from last year. I discovered while watching “The Young Victoria” and “The King’s Speech” last year that I really ought to have been better at identifying historical figures, particularly given my chosen career and field of specialization).
5: Read at least ten more titles on the BBC’s list of 100 books everyone should read that I still have yet to cover.

6: Watch at least five films in my pet project: “Catching up with Colin”—you know, the one I promised I’d finish last year. (This, admittedly, comes under the heading of pleasure, with border-line cross-overs into the professional…yes, I do in fact list “adaptation studies” as one of my research interests on my CV). Sadly, I only watched 2 more in 2011 that I hadn’t previously seen, but in my defense, the Firth filmography is impressively lengthy and constantly growing.

Admittedly this list isn’t nearly as extensive as last year’s, but I think that item 1 at least will keep me fairly busy. I do have plenty to look forward to this year, namely a trip to Boston with K in April to present our Sherlock Holmes paper and the forthcoming publication of that paper in /Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century/.

So, 2012, give me all you’ve got—I’m ready!

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Never Give up on Your Dissertation, For It is Crunchy and Goes Well with Ketchup

A little over a year ago, my dissertation committee chair shared a link to a blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website: The Rule of 200 by Erin E. Templeton. She presents what I think is a practical, accessible approach to the challenge of balancing the varied demands of a career in academia. She writes that in the swirl of semester activity,

We have to find a way to balance research with teaching and service, and that can be very difficult to do.

Often, because the research goals are long-term rather than immediate, they get the short end of the stick.

OK, I thought; she and I are at least on the same page; someone who actually gets it. After laundry-listing several techniques for increasing productivity in the writing department, including the “first half hour of the morning” and 750, Templeton admits

I am simply not a morning person, and I’m often so busy that 750 words seem insurmountable when I finally do sit down to write. At the end of the day after my teaching and service obligations have been met, I’m usually fried. So in order to maintain my writing pace (which is, albeit, slow), my
system is slightly different. Instead of writing 750 words, I follow The Rule of 200. It has gotten me through my dissertation and the writing that I have done since. There is no website or digital tool (save for your trusted word-processing program), and rules are pretty straightforward.

The Rule of 200 works like this: my document word count must increase by 200 before I am done for the day, no exceptions. 200 words is a modest goal. It isn’t even an entire page of double-spaced 12pt font. It’s a grocery list, an email, a series of text messages.

I could accept this; I probably write more than 200 words a day collectively via text message, Twitter, and Facebook complaining about the drudgery of dissertating; why not redirect that energy into a more productive channel? So I vowed to give Templeton’s tip a fair try, and a year later, I still follow the “rule of 200,” albeit with a few modest adjustments of my own. Firstly: I make whatever writing project I’m focusing on—dissertation, journal article, etc.—the first priority on my to-do list each day. While I am not a morning person and firmly believe that there should be a tax for perkiness, by the time I sit down at my desk, I’m usually too overly caffeinated to grumble about being vertical and mobile. Secondly: I usually allow myself one day—what I like to call my “get out of jail free card” day each week to set my project aside, mostly because, like my mother’s spaghetti sauce, all good ideas need time to simmer, and I’ve found that, at least for me, stepping away from something—covering the pot and turning down the heat, if you will, on the mental burner—allows me to return to it later with renewed energy, or at the very least, graceful resignation.

I found myself struggling to recall Templeton’s practical advice a few mornings ago when I noticed that as I went to update the file name of my current dissertation chapter with the date, I’m approaching the six month mark; that is, I’ve been working on this chapter, off and on, for nearly six months. Excuse me while I rummage in the pantry for my emergency chocolate supply; I’m dangerously approaching the depression point. The draft is, as a dearly-beloved professor of mine once described the difficult draft, “like a very slow, painful bowel-movement”. Normally recalling this analogy makes me laugh; that day it just induced the urge to cry, vomit, and cry some more. (I once described the process of writing a dissertation as like being pregnant; all I do is eat and cry). Obviously, I realized I needed some fresh inspirational material. I turned to Anne Lamotte’s visualization technique in “Shitty First Drafts” of taking all of the negative voices in my head, pretending they were mice, dropping them into a jar with a nifty little volume control, and pressing mute. This unfortunately proved ineffective. I took a walk to the lady’s room to relieve a non-existent urge to pee; I coaxed my guidedog outside for a few minutes of fresh air (as it turned out, he didn’t need to pee either). I returned to my desk and checked the word count on my document; I still had 130 words left to write before I could close the document for the day. I considered calling my boyfriend until, in a horrifying, Bridget Jones-worthy realization, I remembered that I don’t in fact have one. I rolled my shoulders a few times, said a quick prayer, put fingers to keyboard, and tried again. It was Friday, I told myself; if I could just write 130 more words, I could move on to bigger and better things. I tried Anne Lammote’s visualization technique again; no go. I tried pretending that if I wrote my 200 words, I would win a coffee date with the celebrity of my choice. This only inspired unproductive fantasies and a humiliating imagined scenario involving an uncoordinated me spilling hot cappuccino in Colin Firth’s lap. Closing my eyes and massaging my temples, I waited patiently for the word fairy, who had apparently gone on holiday. Well, I’d just have to manage without her prolific pixie dust then. Laboriously I began to type, experiencing a sensation not unlike that of upending a nearly empty ketchup bottle to squeeze out what little there is left. I typed; I paused; I squeezed; I typed again; lather, rinse, repeat. OK, so this description is conjuring up the bowel movement analogy yet again, but I think my visualization is equally colorful and perhaps slightly less offensive.

In short (and because this post is considerably more than 200 words and funnily enough took far less time than the above exercise)I did in fact produce my 200 word count for the day, and I am now considering keeping a ketchup bottle on my desk to remind myself that however empty I might feel, sometimes all the brain-bottle needs is a little shake to get the juices flowing.

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