Today and tomorrow, the shortest days of the year, we pack up 2 cars, pick up 2 kids after school, and drive from Boston (Newton) back to State College. We have loved our 6 months in Boston and will miss many things about it. There are also things to look forward to upon returning. I hope to write about it all soon. Until then, photos of our sabbatical home the day we arrived, and this week.
There are numerous techniques that people use for being successful writers. Profhacker has 677 posts about productivity (not all about writing, of course). Common advice is to write every day. Write first thing in the day. Put writing on your calendar just like a meeting/class. Set up a writing (support) group. Start with an outline. Write freely without editing as you go. Just write. We in HDFS know that individual differences require distinct contexts. Figure out the strategies that work for you and use them.
I spent much more time writing during sabbatical than I do in my regular life. Without teaching and meetings, and with decreased emails and responsibilities, I had many more long dedicated stretches for writing.
But sabbatical reminded me of something else about writing. I don’t need a full day ahead of me to get writing done. In my office, if I have a 1 hour break between meetings, I often fill that hour with email responses, a course-related task, or a task for someone else. But on sabbatical, with fewer of those obligations, I often filled small blocks of time with writing. And guess what? You can write a lot in one concentrated hour. I knew that – but I forgot.
I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how to leverage this reminder about the importance of using the time I have to write.
For the past 3 years, I have organized an exercise challenge. Everyone who participates comes up with a personal goal for the number of hours they will exercise that year. Each week, they log their hours exercised, and the system (I use a google spreadsheet for easy sharing and calculating) computes their percentage for the year so far. It has helped me reach my exercise goal each of these 3 years (though as with last year, I’m cutting it close at the end here). Thinking of it as a big picture annual goal, rather than only daily or weekly goals, helps me reach the goal without getting discouraged. Some weeks life slams you, which can interfere with meeting a weekly goal. By tracking annually, you can compensate for a crisis-filled week during a less busy week. It also helps that others are logging, too. The shared nature of it helps with some public accountability, and the weekly percentage helps me stay on track.
So, for 2014, I am going to try a writing challenge, and I hope that you will join me. Here are the parameters/guidelines. I can provide more details by email to anyone who joins:
I hope some of you will join me in this challenge. But I also know that this type of structure doesn’t work for everyone. When, right before I left for sabbatical, I showed a colleague my excel spreadsheet, structuring my tasks for my 6 months of sabbatical, he broke out in hives. This type of structure and external pressure won’t work for everyone. But if it might work for you, please join me!
“The post Join the 2014 Writing Challenge first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 18, 2013.”
The flaw with graduate student writing is that students often set up their writing by describing weaknesses in other people’s work.
Okay, if you’re a graduate student, what did you think when you read that sentence? You might have thought:
1. I don’t do that!
2. I do that, but it’s not actually a problem, because…
3. I do that, and I didn’t know it was a problem, but how rude is she?
When you set up any writing by describing the problems in others’ work, you are at a minimum inviting defensiveness from the reader/reviewer, and potentially opening yourself up to being corrected by the reviewer.
There are very few instances where you should make statements such as “the problem with prior research on this topic is…” or “Johnson and Simpson’s work on alcohol use was flawed in that…” If you make these types of statements, you actually increase the likelihood that Johnson or Simpson might be a reviewer on your paper – if you are directly criticizing their work, the editor might want their opinion on your work.
The majority of the time when I read student papers, theses, or submitted manuscripts that make statements about flaws/problems in past research, the writer is not actually describing a flaw. Instead, the writer is describing something that other researchers have not examined. It is not necessarily a problem that past researchers examined family conflict but did not include measures of family cohesiveness. They may have had different research questions than you do, and that’s okay. Perhaps your research is stronger, or more interesting, or more broad-reaching than their research, but that doesn’t make theirs flawed.
I was once a reviewer on a manuscript where, throughout the introduction, the authors wrote about the “flaws,” “problems,” and “lacunae” of a paper by Lefkowitz et al. I am not at all saying that the Lefkowitz et al. paper was perfect. However, the author was describing simply a topic of interest to her, that we did not address in our paper. Perhaps her paper expanded on or extended our work, but ours was not flawed because we did not ask the very specific research question she had. Her paper was rejected from that journal, not because she criticized me and I was mad, but because she was making incorrect statements and not providing a strong argument for the importance of her work. She submitted it to another journal, without changing any of the “flaw/problem/lacunae” language from the prior draft, despite feedback from the reviewers and editor to do so. And guess what – the second journal also asked me to be a reviewer, and it was rejected from the second journal.
What should you write rather than describing flaws and problems? Describe what past work has found, and discuss the research questions that you will address that past research has not addressed. Explain how your research is innovative, how it addresses an unanswered theoretical question, or how it will identify points for intervention. Or, if the innovation of your work is a different research method for studying a similar topic, discuss how your methods are important for examining this research topic. Again, you can make all of these statements without directly stating that past work is flawed.
Should you ever describe past work as flawed? Sure, if past work really is flawed. Let’s say you find a paper that argues that body image and testosterone levels are correlated, and doesn’t account for biological sex. Then please do say that a prior study on this topic is flawed because the authors did not account for biological sex, and you will examine whether body image and testosterone levels are associated after accounting for biological sex differences in testosterone. But please don’t say that someone else’s work is flawed because in their examination of body image, they did not include a sample of boys incarcerated for sexual offenses. You may have many great reasons for asking your research question in this sample, but it doesn’t mean that all prior studies on the topic should have.
“The post Write about what you are doing, not what others have not first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 16, 2013.”
Through the years, I have become more understanding than I used to be about student absences and late assignments due to illness and family emergency. If you are teaching 100 students Spring semester, a good proportion of those students WILL be too sick to come to class at some point (please keep your germs out of my classroom). Faculty may make jokes about mortality rates increasing near exam time, but grandparents really DO die.
I’ve become more understanding, because these events happen to everyone, not only undergraduate students in large classes. Sometimes Real Life interferes with real life. You get the flu. Your kid(s) get the flu. THEN you get the flu. The babysitter gets the flu. Schools are closed and suddenly you have no childcare on your busiest teaching day. Your pipes burst. Real life happens.
There can be a tendency during these times to feel guilty about all of the things you aren’t doing. You were supposed to hand back graded papers this week. You owe your adviser a draft of your thesis. You haven’t called your best friend. You didn’t eat enough vegetables. Or exercise. You ate a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Give yourself a break. Focus on the things that must get done right now. If you’re a parent, you must get your kids to and from school (if they’re healthy), feed them, and get them to sleep. What can you let slide this week on the family front given other pressures? Can you order takeout? Can you convince your kids to buy lunch at school? Can laundry wait another day? Or two? What work things can go this week? Are there non-mandatory meetings you can postpone or send someone to in your place? Are there work things that you would have loved to get done, but you can delay? Do you really have to reply to all of those emails tonight?
What can you fit in to improve your mental health right now? Are you getting a functional amount of sleep? If you feel better after exercise, can you squeeze that in?
And give yourself a mental break. Don’t beat yourself up for not accomplishing everything you intended this week. Go into survival mode. Lower your expectations for yourself. Remind yourself that there are things in your life more important than getting a manuscript drafted this week or writing the most perfect class paper ever.
And, so, it’s that kind of week at my house. With <2 weeks left in Boston, there was a long to do list. The work to do list of manuscripts to finish, a syllabus to draft, chapters to edit etc., etc., before moving back to State College. I had scheduled some final get togethers with good friends who live in the area. There is also the “pinky promise” list of things we’ve promised the kids we would do before we move back.
And Real Life struck. My husband unexpectedly had to leave town on Sunday. The kids are battling colds and the mood swings that seem to accompany yet another upcoming transition. Sunday night was a revolving bed (well, not so revolving – once someone entered they never left, so more like the Hotel California) of kids arriving at 12:30 AM and 3:30 AM and waking each other up and whining about stolen covers, leg pain, sniffles, bad dreams, coughs, thirst, and trouble sleeping. Monday I cancelled social plans and work plans. Monday night unexpected work plans arose. Tuesday I attended teacher conferences solo. Tonight I cancelled social plans to bring my kids to swim lessons and make pancakes for dinner. I’m unexpectedly doing the morning routine, lunch prep, the walk to school, school pick up, after school activities, dinner prep, bed prep, and clean up solo – and we have no childcare or large support system here. While watching snow fall. Shoveling. I’m cancelling and rescheduling work things that can be. I rescheduled Thursday’s department head candidate phone call to be at 11:00 PM my time. Kids are crabby. I’m crabby. And worried about what’s going on out of town. There are dishes in the sink. And I may have sent a child to school today with pen on her forehead left over from an unknown event yesterday.
This morning I woke up in a panic. I am late on a manuscript review. I was supposed to revise my book chapter yesterday. I have a manuscript I wanted to finish this week. My goal was to draft my syllabus this week. The good bye dinners are falling off the schedule. The pinky promise list is in jeopardy. I have to start packing. The list goes on. Not to mention my husband, who is also feeling guilty about his work to do list and my current family load while dealing with Real Life issues away from us.
But I need to give myself a break (as does he). The kids are fed. They are getting (some) sleep. I am getting them to and from school. I’ve gotten some work done, including sending someone feedback on a thesis. I’m replying to emails as I can.
At 4:00 AM, my child crawled into my bed. I was feeling exasperated and exhausted. Then he said, “Mama, you know what the definition of security is? Snuggling with you and Daddy.” So we both went back to sleep. I’m giving someone security, and some days, that’s enough.
“The post Give yourself a mental break first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 11, 2013.”
When I was in grad school, I started watching college basketball and specifically, March Madness. It makes sense -- I was at UCLA and they actually won the whole thing one year while I was there (then the next year they lost in the first round to Princeton, but no, I’m not still bitter or anything). Then I started watching tennis, which I still love today. But then, I started watching golf. An intervention was needed.
I believe it’s because I thought that when I had a ton of work (e.g., finals period), I must stay home all weekend without any breaks. It was before surfing the web was really possible (I had dial up in my apartment, and when a high school classmate sent me a link to something he wrote on a website, it took 30 minutes to download the one article. I’m not kidding). It was before smart phones (I didn’t get my first not-smart-cell-phone until I had been out of grad school for 4 years, and only because my car had broken down on the side of the 80 and… I had no cell phone). I thought staying home and working non-stop would be the most productive strategy, but by Sunday afternoon I was usually watching bad TV or playing solitaire on my computer (games weren’t as good, or as easily accessible, in the 90’s).
Maybe you are different. Maybe you are one of those people who is so focused, you don’t need breaks. I went to grad school with one of those people, and he’s still that way today. When you’re in a crunch, you can work straight through for days and not come up for air. Then feel free to ignore this advice.
I am not one of those people. I am easily distractible. These days, I take short breaks to check twitter or Facebook or feedly. Or, because I’m working at home on sabbatical, to grab a bite from the kitchen.
I do better when I have a bigger break (i.e., not a Facebook checking break) to look forward to. For the past 7 years, that break is basically automatic, because (back in my non-sabbatical life), every day I know I relieve the babysitter at 5:30, and generally don’t get back to work until 8:30 or 9:00 PM when the kids are in bed and the house is somewhat straightened. But during my grad school and faculty-pre-parenthood years, I would often sit in the lab/office from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, with little break. If I knew I had something to look forward to – dinner out, a movie, etc. – it made me more productive during the day because I knew I had to finish at a certain time.
So, in grad school, even on the busiest of weekends, I started making plans to do something on Saturday night so that I didn’t end up watching golf on Sunday afternoon. Often the plan was to go out to a movie (a big night out drinking is counterproductive to increasing subsequent productivity). On Friday night and all day Saturday, I could look forward to seeing my friend and going to a movie. And, on Sunday, I felt refreshed by the break and could hit my studying/paper writing anew.
Sometimes, a break just means a nap. Once, as an assistant professor, I was trying to finish a grant on a deadline. I had been working on it nonstop (except for teaching and other responsibilities). I called my then partner (now husband) from the office one evening, and said, “I just don’t know what’s happening, but I can’t do it anymore!” I had kind of lost it in my non-stop grant writing. He said, “I know what’s wrong. You’re not with me.” So he drove to my office (granted, it’s State College, so that took 5 minutes), brought me to his apartment, cooked me dinner, and insisted that I take a nap. Around 10:00 PM he drove me back to the office and I worked for a few more hours before heading home. The work from 10:00 PM to 1:00 AM was so much more productive than the same work would have been from 7:00 – 10:00 PM if I had not taken the break.
I’m sure there’s research out there that explains why taking breaks increases productivity. I just googled it, and the NY Times said so last year. So you can read that, if you don’t believe me. Better yet, do your own experiment. Text a friend and set up a movie date for this weekend.
“The post Increase your productivity: Give yourself a break first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 9, 2013.”
If you’re reading this post right now, it’s probably because you are procrastinating from end-of-the-semester grading. I’ve mentioned that grading is one of my least favorite things. Apparently I’m not alone (how much fun does a visit to “grading jail” sound?).
Grading is one of the tasks in academia where we need to provide feedback, and where good feedback can (potentially) affect not only the recipient’s current product, but his future writing. Some of this feedback is to people we know well, like when we edit a manuscript or grant proposal that a colleague or student has written. Sometimes we give feedback to people we do not know well, like when we grade papers or exams. And sometimes we give feedback to someone we don’t know, or we don’t know if we know, like when we review grant proposals or anonymous manuscripts. Today I want to focus on a specific aspect of providing feedback that is harder to keep in mind the deeper you get into a big stack of papers or the further you get into reviewing or editing a long grant proposal or dissertation. Always provide at least some positive feedback, even – especially – when it’s hard to do so. It takes more time, but it’s important.
You are providing feedback to a real person, who spent (hopefully) many hours on a class paper or a thesis or a manuscript. I know that there are instances where it’s hard to find merits in a particular final product. But keep in mind that the student worked hard to write the final paper, and has feelings too. A low grade is a tiny bit easier to take if the positive aspects are highlighted as well. A rejected manuscript is slightly easier to handle if the reviewer also described the strengths.
If you’re spending time providing feedback, you want the receiver to listen to your feedback (otherwise, why are you writing comments on the paper or reading the draft?). If you only include negative feedback, the author may disregard your feedback, deciding to write you off as angry or clueless about what she wrote. If you include positive feedback as well, the author is more likely to think you understand her paper and to listen to your constructive criticism as well.
I know what you’re thinking. You just read the worst paper ever written, and you can’t think of anything positive to say about it. I’ve literally read thousands of papers in my life, so I hear you. But you can always think of something positive to say. I’m a bit hesitant to give examples of things I do, in case the next time I give feedback to someone who read this post, s/he thinks, “oh no! Eva wrote about that on her blog, is she just placating me?” But I never give feedback I don’t mean. I always look for the strengths, and provide feedback on those strengths. Here are some things I do when it’s not immediately obvious where to give positive feedback:
On the margin of a paper I’m grading, I may physically mark a passage and write a comment like “good point” or “great!” or “interesting.” Again, only if I think it’s a good point or interesting.
In summary feedback for student papers, I try to give as detailed feedback as possible, such as specifics about the way theory was described well or the clear presentation of potential future directions in a research area. I also may use some of the following more general comments (on both stronger and weaker papers), when they’re true:
For a manuscript review, I usually start with strengths. If possible, I comment on other strong sections throughout the review (e.g., theory well summarized; methods clearly described; tables easy to follow). The strengths section is obviously hardest when it’s a weak manuscript. No matter how weak, I don’t think I’ve ever written a review without including some strengths. Some go to’s for weaker papers include:
Finally, when you’re giving a co-author feedback, before you jump into suggestions for changes, tell your co-author what you liked about the paper. This part of your feedback doesn’t have to be as extensive as the suggestions for change, but it’s equally important, whether providing feedback to your student, your adviser, or a colleague. That’s right – even your adviser wants to know what you liked about his paper. Your co-author will accept your feedback better if you’ve also highlighted the positive aspects, and more generally, you want to maintain a positive working relationship with him. Presumably you like him, and want him to feel good about his hard work so far. I once worked with a student who, every time she sent me feedback on a paper we were writing together, went right into the negative and never said a positive word about it. I finally gently replied to her feedback with a simple comment like, “did you like anything about the paper?” and explained why giving positive feedback is valuable. Ever since then, whenever we collaborate, she includes in her feedback what she liked about my writing, and it makes me feel much better about my writing and about our work together. I hope this advice has improved her collaborations with others as well.
Grading good papers (and writing positive manuscript reviews) is so much less work than providing feedback on ones that are poorly written. It’s easy to rush through, write an A, and be done when there is a big stack waiting for you. But take a moment to write something positive as well. Even in the best papers, you may not reach the Gottman 5:1 magic ratio, but you can include some positive. Sometimes my TAs laugh at me when I write smiley faces next to good exam answers – they argue that it’s the grade, not the feedback, that matters. But I still remember what my undergraduate stats professor wrote at the end of my final exam. It was something like “bellissimo. I’m halfway through grading 50 exams and you’re the only one who has gotten it all right. Treat yourself to something nice.” 25 years later and I still remember that. When I’m grading I remind myself of the long-lasting impact of one positive comment, and I take the time to give everyone the same courtesy.
“The post Providing good feedback: Include the positive first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 5, 2013.”
There is a huge sense of relief that comes with defending your thesis, having your committee sign off, and being able to file it. Sometimes an anticlimactic relief, but relief nonetheless. But unfortunately, this relief often comes with a desire to put it aside and not look at it for a while. “I’ll just wait until it’s fresh again.”
Once you’ve shelved it, however, it can become challenging to get back to it. If it’s a master’s thesis in a non-terminal PhD program, you move onto candidacy, comps, and new projects. If it’s a dissertation or a terminal masters, you start a post doc or a full time job, and it becomes harder and harder to pull it out of the proverbial file drawer. Everything else you are doing seems so much more interesting than the dusty old dissertation.
Fine, put it aside for a week. Go out for drinks with your friends. Watch some bad TV. But then pull it out, spiffy it up, and submit it for publication, preferably within 3 months of defending. Why?
Sometimes, I hand write myself notes, or jot notes on my computer in shorthand. If I look at the notes within a couple of days, I figure out what I meant. But if I wait a few weeks, sometimes I can’t read my own writing, or decipher my own shorthand (“fix paper topic”? What does that mean?). Often, your committee will provide edits you must do before you file, and improvements to make in order to get published. If you work on the document soon after the defense, that feedback will be clearer than if you wait a year to finally get back to it.
As you get involved in new projects, other people will rely on you to complete new papers. It will be harder to get back to the thesis when you are working with new people, whom you see every day, who want you to get these new projects completed.
As you get involved in new projects, the dissertation will start to seem weaker. You will be moving onto some of the “future directions” you talked about at the end of your dissertation. Now the dissertation seems somewhat flawed to you, and less important than your new work. Get it submitted right away, and you can build on it, rather than returning back to it when you’ve already done new projects that seem stronger to you.
I admit this one is self-serving. But here it is. Your adviser spent years working on your thesis or dissertation. In the amount of time it takes to supervise a master’s thesis, many faculty could write a first authored paper; for a dissertation, probably two. For me, a thesis or dissertation generally involves weekly meetings for a year or more; hunching over SPSS output for hours with the student; and reading many drafts of various pieces and of the whole. I’m not complaining (most of the time). Supervising graduate students is one of my favorite parts of my job. But it does lead to a sense of loss, in a sense, if that thesis or dissertation never becomes a product to disseminate. You worked hard on it, your adviser worked hard on it, so let’s get it out there.
The publication process takes some time. In a good case scenario, you get an R&R in 2-4 months, you submit a revised paper about 2 months later, you get a conditional accept about 2 months later, and the final version is accepted 2 months later. That’s 9 months, assuming the paper didn’t get rejected from the first journal, in which case you need to add on more months. So, it’s likely to take a year or more to move the paper from first submitted to in press. You want to space out the papers on your CV. If you are planning a tenure track career, this one year is critical. If you just defended your master’s thesis, you want to get it in the pipeline as early as possible so that when you apply for post docs or jobs, you have a paper published during the first half or so of your grad career. If you just defended your dissertation and are starting a post doc, it’s only 1 year or so until you apply for jobs, so you need to get it in the pipeline immediately. If you just started a tenure track job after defending, it’s less than 3 years until your first pre-tenure review, so again, you need to get it in the pipeline.
And here’s a place where I can brag about practicing what I (now) preach. I defended my dissertation in June, 1998. I moved to my new (and current) job in August, 1998. But before I moved, I shortened the central paper of my dissertation, and submitted it for publication. I received an R&R in October 1998, when I was quite busy with a new tenure track job and teaching for the first time. But working on revising a manuscript was the perfect task for that level of busy-ness, and much more doable than writing a new one. It was published in 2000. I have a number of papers I have sat on for long periods of time, or that have had more trouble with the publication process. But my dissertation was my life’s work for 2+ years, involved a project I was really proud of and spent an immense amount of time on, and I wanted to make sure to get it published as soon as I could.
In conclusion: File it, take a very short break, and get it out there. Your adviser will thank you, and your future job hunting self will thank you as well.
“The post Filed your thesis or dissertation? You’re not done yet first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 2, 2013.”
Eva S. Lefkowitz
I write about professional development issues (in HDFS and other areas), and occasionally sexuality research or other work-related topics.
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