Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Act Confident

Yeah, we all have doubts about our abilities and our worth (ok, maybe not all of us, but most of us).
Yeah, sometimes self-doubt is justified because we haven't read what we should, haven't talked to whom we should, etc.

If you are one of these people who is feeling a lot of doubt about yourself and about your work, this blog entry is for you.
Act with confidence.
You may not be confident, but you can act that way.

This can be crucial in managing an academic committee, like the committee for an oral exam, or just your committee chair.

When you act fearful, people can pick up on that. If you act fearful and focus your conversation on your weak points, people will think about your weaknesses. But you don't have to do that. You can focus elsewhere.

You can focus, for example, on your strong points, on the things you do know, on the things that interest you the most, on the things that you have done recently (rather than the things you haven't).

You may not be able to fully control a conversation, and your interlocutor(s) might guide the conversation to a point of weakness--but why force it to go there before it is necessary?

This is not dishonest; it is not manipulative. But it does help get good results from the people you're dealing.

I've framed this all in a very general sense because this is not something that is limited to the world of academia. Yes, my main focus and my main experience are in the world of academia, and I'm mostly thinking of academics as the audience for this blog, but it is not a limited strategy.

Even if you don't feel it, you can act it and plan it. Confidence sells. And fear inspires others to look for the reason for the fear.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beliefs and Politics

As an editor, it can often be difficult to separate out the different levels of criticism that are appropriate.
I work for people--working on helping them express themselves and their ideas clearly. And it is not my role--as I have chosen to define it--to try to change their ideas. I work for academic clients--the whole point is that they are generating the ideas. This is unlike an editor at a publishing house or a newspaper whose concern is to make sure that all writings meet the editorial standards of the organization.
But sometimes I don't agree with those ideas.

And then a conflict ensues: at what point does a poorly expressed argument become just a poor argument?
I try to separate the premises from the conclusions.
The premises have to pass one of two tests: either 1) I think they're sound and academically defensible on their own merits, or 2) they are supported by some outside authority.
When it's the second, I can have problems.

For example, working with Freudian theories is difficult. It's not that I've ever studied Freud extensively, but ideas like penis envy or the oedipal complex--ideas that are presumed to be true for all people or all of one group of people--such theories strike me as highly problematic--they reduce the complexity and variation of human experience to a single model--and, in Freud's case, these ideas often involve specific important experiences--e.g. the "primal scene", in which a child sees/hears his/her parents making love--that may not happen to everyone.

Nowadays, of course, there are plenty who reject many aspects of Freudian thought--but what about working with those who do accept it?
I think Freud's logic is problematic--he uses inductive logic in an inappropriate fashion--from the cases that he studied, he extrapolates to all humans--or perhaps those who use his theories extrapolate from his case studies to all humans. And that just ain't good logic.
It's not good science. As Karl Popper points out in the Logic of Scientific Discovery, induction cannot be used to prove a point--it can only be used to disprove a point--No matter how many white swans you may see, it does not disprove the possibility of a non-white swan.
This is the principle of falsification that has led to the use of null hypotheses is science annd statistics--once you disprove the null hypothesis, you are free to suggest an alternative hypothesis that has not been rejected.

But how do I break the critique of Freud's logic from a critique of a work that uses Freud as a premise?
Despite my dislike of Freud's logic, I don't want to reject work that accepts his theory--that's not my business. But I do want to keep that work from doing things that might get it rejected by a faculty committee or a peer review board.

It's an especially situation if I attempt to critique the structure of an argument and that is perceived as an attack on the premises or the conclusion of the argument itself.
Sometimes I can't quite be sure if I have been attacking the argument, not the structure of the argument.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Motivation part2 -- stopping yourself

Everything we do is wrapped up together in our lives.
It's impossible to completely separate out the different parts.
Finding positive motivation to move forward with a project is essential--making the project something we believe in, something that seems important--without the sense that what you are doing is important, it's very hard to find motivation when the going gets tough.

Therefore, it is important to recognize the negative motivations that are influencing your actions.
If you think of your Ph.D. as nothing more than bullshit Piled Higher and Deeper, then you're creating a psychological space in which the work you've chosen for yourself is equated with shoveling manure. If that works for you, hey, right on. But most people aren't that excited about shoveling shit.
But you can do something about that: you can try to refocus on the things that you felt were important, the things that got you into the world of academia in the first place.

But even if you believe in your project, you can still kill your own motivation by focusing on your weaknesses.
What? You haven't read all the relevant articles on your subject?
You don't speak a certain language well enough?
You don't think that you can do work as good as the people whose work you want to emulate?

That kind of thinking will kill a project. It takes time and emotional energy and leaves one in a state of doubt.

Motivation grows when you focus on your strengths and on what you believe is important.
So try to recapture the enthusiasm that came at the start of the project: what were the big goals that you hoped for? What were your abilities that made you enter into the project? By looking for your strengths, by focusing our attention on them, you have the dual benefits of developing your project in the path most likely to lead to a fruitful result, and bolstering your emotional state by focusing on things that you can do.

Does a sprinter try to prove his/her prowess by running a marathon?
Sure, versatility is great, but if you want the gold medal, doesn't it make more sense to run a race that you have excelled in in the past?
Use your strengths and work from them.
Don't tell yourself you don't know as much as person X; don't tell yourself that you haven't read the entire material. Instead, focus on what you do know, on what you have read, and look for the ways that you can bring positive motivation to your project.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Sometimes it may not be clear why you're writing a dissertation.
I've had people tell me that they didn't believe in their work, that they weren't sure whether they should try to finish, whether they wanted to finish, whether it would make any difference whether they finished.
Other people have been more clear on their desire to finish, but weren't clear on something about the paper itself—weren't clear what they wanted it to say, or even that they weren't clear why they had chosen the topic and subject that they had chosen.

Such questions of central purpose are crucial in writing a dissertation and benefiting from the experience. If the dissertation is an exercise in overcoming apathy about a project that doesn't matter to you, to create opportunities that you don't want to explore, then why do it?
If you have an answer to that, of course, then you should do it—but then it would also make sense to stop wondering whether you should.

A good place to start is to take a moment—or a few hours, for that matter—to think through the whole project. If you're wondering whether you should, then think about why you think you should, and what else you would do if you didn't.
And then, once you've gone through that exercise—really seriously put your heart and head into thinking about whether you should finish—then if you decide to finish, you can stop wasting time asking yourself whether you should, and you can focus your energy on figuring out what it takes to finish.

Once you've decided to finish, then you have to find a reason for the project.
Even if you've already committed yourself to a specific project, there may be aspects of that project that you can focus on that will make it more appealing and more interesting.

One good way to get there is to find something that you believe in—some point or issue that you think is important, maybe a problem that you see in the world—and to use that as the focus of your work.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Turned upside down

I had been working with a professor at Berkeley on a book project--trying to fix up the transcript of some seminars given 40 years ago by one of his colleagues. We had nearly finished working through all the seminars and doing our best to correct all the errors and clean up all the rough spots.

And then he finds, in a box in his office, the full set of notes made by his colleague for the seminar as well as an annotated copy of the original transcript from which we had been working.

Suddenly, instead of being almost done, we're just at the start all over again--or if not at the start, at least we've got a significant piece of work ahead of us.
But we're both excited about this reversal. Whatever the inconvenience to ourselves, we know that our final result will be much better.

You can't really predict what is going to happen over the course of a long project. And one cannot let the thought of future work deter one from the work that is present now.

Which is easy for me to say--there is nothing big riding on the completion of this book project.

I had an inquiry from a potential client, and I fear that the best thing for her is to rewrite completely. The project would be better, and it might even be the quickest path to completion, but that is a frustrating and difficult thing to accept. And she has deadlines, and academic fees and a degree waiting at the end of the line.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Conflict of interest

As a service provider, it is in my interest to have people hire me for my services.
This is true even if I am not the best service provider qualified.

But, in order to provide the best possible service, I have to be able to recognize how someone will be best served, and I have to provide them with that knowledge.

Recently I told someone they made the right choice in not hiring me.
They wrote back that I shouldn't take it personally.
I want to tell them "really, I didn't take it personally; I believed you made the right choice."
But why?

Sometimes it's easy to pass on a project--even an enjoyable one--for various reasons.
But the conflict of interest is a subtle, insidious thing: in cases that are not clearly defined,
it is easy to rationalize, or to fail to see important aspects of the conflict of interest.
It's easy to say "I'm looking for a win-win situation--we'll both profit from an arrangement."

Of course, every service provider arrangement is founded on a conflict of interest: the provider has two conflicting interests: to provide the best service, including the best price for the service (the interest of the client), and to receive as much compensation as possible (the interest of the provider).

But that would be unfairly limiting this problem to the realm of capitalism--and this isn't a political matter--it is a natural human condition.
The basic problem of whether to have one cookie now or two later is inherently one of a conflict in internal interests: having a cookie now is a good thing; having two later is also a good thing. The two interests conflict.

As a graduate student writing a dissertation and thesis one has conflict interests: finishing quickly and producing the best product.

We do not usually talk of such internal conflicts as conflicts of interest; typically a conflict of interest is discussed where there are multiple parties involved.
When you add additional parties to the equation it only gets more complicated.
Then the interests of the different parties are likely to conflict--even if the different parties are working towards a shared goal.
The extreme example of this is the person who sacrifices his or her life for others: the interest of the individual is at odds with the interest of the group.

We hold up as noble those who choose the interest of the other over the interest for themselves.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Ph.D. graduation rates--less than 50%

A potential client today told me that less than 50% of those enrolling in Ph.D. programs complete their degree, and most of those who do not, fail to do so because they do not finish their dissertation. I don't know what sources she had for her claim, but this seems to be in line with what I can find online--for example, the report on Ph.D. graduation rates by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Office of Institutional Research. (Updated: this article puts rates at between 50% and 66%, depending on field of study.)

And that's a terrible shame for those who have invested their money, time and effort only to fail in the final hurdle.

But those statistics are not predictive: no individual is doomed to this failure simply because so many have gone astray in the past.

Getting help and direct support can be key. And even if hiring someone--an editor or coach--is expensive, it may well be worth it in terms of time saved, increased future earnings and decreased future tuition/registration costs.

One potential client who called me had maxed out all her possible student loans and still was looking at another year or more of work. But what does she do now? The key is always to find the most productive response to the situation you face.

Thought Clearing

Any writing project can gain momentum.
By writing, we grow accustomed to the practice and we can find our words more easily.
And when we can find our words more easily we can often--but not always--find our ideas more easily, too.

Ultimately the practice makes the difference--our facility grows, and as it does so do the pleasure and the reward from the practice. It can start an upward spiral.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get myself and others onto that upward spiral.
This blog is a record of my thoughts and struggles with trying to get others onto that upward spiral, and myself, too.

With a little luck, someone will find what is said here useful and it will help them in their endeavors.