Saturday, March 31, 2007

PhD Attrition

According to this article, PhD attrition rates are around 50%. The article is undated, but its points are well worth review if you're thinking about grad school, or if you're already there.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Make a decision, now!

Sometimes one needs to make a decision.
Sometimes one reaches a point where any decision is better than no decision.

Is it better to debate over two possible ways to write your paper, or to write it the wrong way and submit it to your professor or committee? Chances are it's better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing.

Is it better to debate which editor to use, or to choose the wrong one? Better to choose the wrong one--then you continue to move forward. (I had to advise someone on this point today.)

If you make a mistake, you can learn from it, profit from it. If you vacillate and choose no course of action, you spend your energy and time without as much potential for gain.

Of course careful consideration of options can lead to discovering the best option. Of course, one can decide precipitously, leading to an improper, impetuous decision. But that is hardly the problem of most academics.

So, if you're vacillating, make a decision, now!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Abstract

I'll just start by saying that writing a good abstract is difficult.
Difficult and frustrating and humbling.

OK, and there you have all the reasons not to write an abstract.
In favor of writing an abstract, or at least trying to, are many factors.
I find that I'm often pushing these factors on those who resist writing the abstract.

First of all, there's the very obvious fact that you need an abstract.
Academic papers have abstracts. If you're writing an academic paper--especially a thesis or a dissertation--you need to have an abstract.

Secondly, the abstract helps the author see the overall structure of the work (the forest) instead of just the details (the trees).

Third, it only takes about an hour to write a draft of an abstract, so it's a good exercise.

Fourth, it's easy to get feedback on an abstract, even detailed feedback, in a way that you can't if you have a fifty page draft.

Fifth, the abstract helps the author see the overall structure. What? I said that already? Of course I did, but it's so important it bears repeating. Authors get lost in the details and lose sight of the general intention of their project, thereby wasting time and effort rather than moving towards the goal of completing the work.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The forest and the trees

It's easy, when you have been studying the same subject for a long time, to get used to how ideas relate and how parts of the subject relate to other parts.

Then you start writing, and you want to look at and discuss all the cool details and neat subtleties of the subject you describe. Each tree is special for its own unique characteristics and for its relationship with the other trees.

And so, you write about each individual tree. And the forest, implicit in your understanding of the project, gets little attention in the writing.

But the reader is not familiar with the forest in the way that you are. And thus may not be able to see the forest for the trees.

As the author of a long academic work (this set of comments is not appropriate for works where one might not want the reader to see the forest--like a mystery novel), you can avoid bewildering your reader by providing occasional sentences and paragraphs that help the reader orient him or herself in the forest. By reminding the reader of the current location in the argument, as well as how that part of the argument relates to the whole, then the reader begins to understand the larger structure of the argument--the reader can see the forest and understand the forest as a whole, not just as the individual trees.

The practice of putting in indications of the location in the argument is particularly useful when making transitions in the document. And a certain degree of redundancy is ok in these indications of place: you're helping the reader orient him/herself, so some reference to a familiar place is appropriate.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What are you afraid of?

This is a good question to ask yourself. Or at least it can be if handled correctly.

One doesn't want to unduly dwell on fears, but by identifying fears one can choose how to respond to them, rather than just reacting.

What do I mean by this?
If you are stuck in a situation and fear is blocking you from taking some course of action that you know you desire, then you need to think through and understand what you face.
While not all fears are unfounded or inflated, more often than not it is possible to see
1. that the outcome we fear is not as bad as we fear
2. that the outcome we fear is less likely than we fear
3. that the fear is warranted given the potential positive outcome--you can't win if you don't play. Some risk is justified.
Recognizing any of these three can help one look at the problem in a different light, and by looking at it right educe or eliminate the anxiety creating the block enough to move forward.

It's no good to dwell on one's fears--it's much better to focus on positive outcomes and how to create them, but by facing one's fears, they can be put in their place. It's not that one should be without fear, only that one should not be needlessly blocked by unnecessary fear.

A person feared that her committee chair would decide not to work with her. This was impeding her ability to do any work and to do more than apologize for her limitations.
But the chair had never given any sign of an inclination to do so. And professors, by and large, would rather have their students finish than not.
Beyond that, however, one can see that entertaining the fear does not help the situation: it prevents exactly the sort of action that would mitigate the situation. To the extent that the fear interferes with concentration, thus hampering research and creativity, it is itself an obstacle.
Instead of dwelling on the fear, one focuses on the courses of action that are most likely to bring about a positive outcome.

Sometimes people's fears are completely unjustified. For example, fear of using or citing the work of a professor with whom you work. I find this one surprising, but I've met more than one person with this fear. I suppose one might fear looking like a flatterer or sycophant?
As a general rule, if you are using work sincerely, because of your interest in it and understanding of it, this can hardly be the case. After all, the professor in question is supposed to be teaching you something, so it makes the greatest sense in the world that you would refer to that person's work as a model or as a foundational authority.

Anyway, while one doesn't want to get lost dwelling on fears, it can be productive to ask: "What are you afraid of?"

It's your life

Writing a dissertation can be a disorienting process. What people lose sight of is that they’re not just writing a dissertation, they’re living a life.
The writing of the dissertation should not just be compartmentalized.
And in a way it cannot.

So one has to ask: “how does this project fit in with my goals for my life?”
By understanding what those larger goals are, one can more easily see the purpose of finishing the dissertation (or other project).

One of the greatest struggles that I see people having is that their dissertation has become disconnected with the rest of their life—they lose desire and interest, they become apathetic because they begin to view the project as nothing more than a meaningless academic exercise.

Once, they started pursuing an idea that they thought was important, but for various reasons got led down some other track, and suddenly find the inertia of months or years of research pushing them and dominating their ideas.

First off, it should be noted that people change—sometimes what seemed important no longer seems important—values change—desires change—one who starts out thinking of a career as a professor may decide that something different would be better. It’s always a realistic question to consider whether one should finish the degree.

If one has a reason for finishing the degree, but no longer cares about the subject, then the project has become an academic exercise in completing a formalism. But if viewed in that light, one can see direction. For instance, one can eschew perfection and seek the most direct and, perhaps crass, route to completion: finding out exactly what the committee desires and making a paper satisfy that. In other words, if you’re completing the project just for the degree, then one should, logically, do the minimum necessary to obtain the degree in the most efficient manner possible. Since many people get stuck trying to make the project good enough, recognizing your goals in this way may help remove some blockages. If you’re writing a dissertation on integrated circuits or on electronic music and you’re planning to go live off the grid and raise sheep, why lose time trying to make your dissertation a great work? Get it done and go do what you want.

But if you really do care about what you’re saying, if you think it’s important and needs to be said right, then refocus on why you think that it is important and begin to build the project with respect to those aims—give the project meaning again.

I worked with someone who had become apathetic about the subject of his/her dissertation. It was a sadly ironic situation, as the topic was “Hope”. But what had happened was that the academic exercise of writing about the topic had become disconnected from the motivations that had given the project its initial drive.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Study sketches

One can see an analogy between writing a dissertation and making a large scale visual art project.

To prepare for making a painting or other large work, artists have drawn studies of their works.

When they draw these studies, they are comprehensive--they shows the whole of the work in a rough form. They allow the artist to explore different relationships of elements, to explore how the work will appear when complete.

If the writer of a dissertation tries to perfect a part of the dissertation, a chapter, for example, without working on the other parts he or she cannot be aware of how the piece relates to the whole. It's like a portrait painter trying to paint the eyes perfectly without painting any of the rest of the face.

Like any analogy, this one is of limited use. But it is not uncommon for writers to get stuck because the chapter they are working on isn't "done."
The point of the process is not to write one chapter, but to finish an entire thesis. Understanding the overall structure--seeking to find or construct that overall structure--greatly facilitates the writing of an academic work.

Draw a study sketch of your work--sure it's rough, sure each piece is poorly defined, but it creates a vision of the overall work that you can't get any other way.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Focus on specifics

Following up on the idea of focusing on strengths, one can also try to focus on specifics.

Rather than try to engage a whole school of thought--pick a specific writer/thinker in that field.
By doing so, you reduce the amount that you have to research and you create a more focused discussion.
A whole school of thought will be characterized by a wider range of ideas than a single author.

Or try to focus on a specific premise instead of a whole school. Rather than focusing, for example, on Marxism, focus on the class dialectic; instead of focusing on Post-Structuralism, focus on the premise that Truth structures are related to political power.

And these are not cheap shortcuts--they are ways to focus and strengthen an argument--rather than dealing with broad strokes and generalizations, you focus on the important specifics that are the central issues.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Focus on your Strengths

There’s a world of knowledge out there and it all intertwines—to study one subject, one begins to touch on the boundaries of others—and then does one study that new subject, too? There’s too much knowledge out there for any one person to know everything there is to know and to read everything that has been written.

At some point you have to stop looking for something new to learn, some new answer and start trying to figure out what answer works for you—the shift from merely accepting the work of others to beginning to explicate your own voice.

If you are trying to write a dissertation or thesis, that time is now.
The faculty do not set you on a dissertation expecting you to read—they expect you to write. The criteria for getting your dissertation accepted is not based on what you’ve read, but on what you have written. Of course they expect you to have done some reading. But the dissertation is about writing—it is about completing a written work.

Think of it this way: which person is more likely to have their dissertation accepted:
person A, who has read everything there is to read on his/her subject, and has written only an incomplete dissertation draft
person B, who has written a complete work that only uses a handful of sources?

The answer is obvious: person A has no chance of having a dissertation accepted, while person B, has a real chance of getting his/her dissertation accepted.
At some point you have to stop reading and researching and start writing—and what you use to write is your strengths—those things that you have studied, and especially those things that you know best.

None of which is to suggest that you don't need to do some research and some reading--there's got to be something to serve as a foundation for your strengths--something beyond personal conviction. But once that foundation is there--try to use it!