The ticket to full steam ahead

image of list of things to remember throughout the dissertation writing processNearly a year ago I attended a workshop on maintaining healthy habits throughout the dissertation writing process. Boy am I glad I did. This fall I’m taking time off from teaching to focus solely on writing my dissertation–oh, annnnnnd applying for jobs. Fun stuff. It’s all writing-based, deadline-oriented and, at times, pretty stressful. So I’ve found myself putting some of the tips from the workshop into practice each day.

I’ve included a high-resolution image of the all-important workshop handout above. (Sorry it’s crinkled. It hangs above my desk and occasionally gets knocked about by a bored cat or two.) I reread the tips often. Among the most important and oft-used tips for me are:

  • Recognizing the dissertation writing process as stress laden. Once I get into the groove of writing I actually find it quite fun and satisfying. But the writing process contains both hills and valleys. Recognizing this as I begin each day is key to sticking to the task at hand without getting discouraged. As long as I work to the best of my ability each day, I know I’ll meet my goals and everything will be “okay.” P90X leader Tony Horton’s mantra ain’t no joke: “Do your best and forget the rest.” Worrying only hinders your work. Let it go as best you can each time you sit down to work.
  • Tips 1-4 are critical. Progress in writing requires an unwavering commitment to a well-defined writing schedule. Before I began writing I devised a very detailed plan of action. I committed to specific hours to be at my desk each day, distraction-free, and I hold myself to that schedule each and every day. My writing hours are my priority and everything else–dentist appointments, household chores, e-mail, extracurricular activities, other academic duties–yields to my writing schedule. Yep, my place gets pretty messy sometimes by week’s end. C’est la vie. I also take time each week to define and assess my daily, weekly, monthly, and semester-long goals. Of course, sometimes I get distracted or a new idea leads to the reorganization of a chapter or section and I need to readjust my goals. But again, hills and valleys. When I encounter setbacks, I remember to…

Tony Horton meme: Do your best and forget the rest!

  • Get support. For me this includes not only keeping family appraised of my work schedule so they don’t wig out because they haven’t seen me in a while and think maybe my husband murdered me (he wouldn’t); it also includes seeking out support and advice from others who know what the writing process is all about. Like many Twitterstorians, I am fond of using #writingpact and #TeamPhinisheD. Although, for privacy reasons, I don’t use the hashtags every time I sit down to work, they are wonderful options for maintaining accountability for daily goals and for both getting and giving support during the somewhat lonesome writing process.
  • Tips 16-19. For me, this set of tips is on equal ground with tips 1-4 because tips 1-4 aren’t possible to achieve without holding yourself to tips 16-19. In the current culture of overwork self-care all too often falls to the wayside. While I was completing my master’s thesis, I was simultaneously struggling with a tragic, untimely death in my family, many late-night/early morning phone calls to help family members through the difficult time, and feelings of not being understood/not belonging/not being accepted into academic culture based on my first-generation, low-income background. I had few healthy work habits and came very close to full-on burnout. Since then, self-care has become a high priority as I complete my PhD. I’ve worked hard to develop a wide variety of healthy habits to keep my history mojo flowing sure and steady. A well-defined work schedule IS critical, but it won’t get you anywhere if you’re too weak and stressed out to think. Self-care isn’t a distraction from writing or something only the uncommitted do. Self-care enhances your ability to do your best. Plus, massages, runner-highs, ice cream, and beer are awesome.

See you next time.

“Demystifying the Publication Process” workshop notes

Dr. Denise Cuthbert, Dean, School of Graduate Research, RMIT University, Australia
Dr. Denise Cuthbert, Dean, School of Graduate Research, RMIT University, Australia

Below are my rough notes from an excellent workshop I attended last week. The workshop, entitled “Demystifying the Publication Process,” was sponsored by UNL’s Office of Graduate Studies. Dr. Denise Cuthbert, Dean of RMIT University’s School of Graduate Research was the workshop’s leader. Few workshops I attend got me as excited to get started on a project as this workshop. I can still hear Dr. Cuthbert’s charming Australian accent, spurring us on to publish!

Demystifying the Publication Process, September 4, 2014

  • Your publishing plans:
    • need to consider what your article is about in tandem with where you plan to publish it (and why)
    • should have a mindmap of the key journals in your field
      • which are prestigious, which will reach local/national/regional audience, which are more theoretical, etc.
      • go to the editorial page and/or website of journals to help map out your field
        • particular approaches, research will be good for one journal and not another
    • too late to begin thinking about all of the above after your paper is finished
  • Workshop goals:
    • learn more about the academic publishing system & how to target the right journals
      • big reason articles get rejected
    • talk about a range of writing techniques to help you refine your abstract (important writing tool) and get your paper to draft form
    • how to handle the submission and peer review process
  • publication = “the ultimate destination of all of your work” “It’s really not research until it’s published.”
    • “Research seeks to advance the stock of human knowledge and academic publishing is the key way in which knowledge is disseminated and shared amongst researchers. This occurs primarily through peer refereed scholarly journals, books and conferences.”
    • key feature of academic articles:
      • contain original research/findings or reviews
      • are blind peer-reviewed or validated
    • Cuthbert believes reach of journals = better than edited volumes, book chapters due to the digital reach of journals, potential and ability for “generating citations” of your work
  • Why publish during the doctorate?
    • Major change over time, within the last 30 years – changes in the purpose of the doctorate
      • leave grad school only with completed dissertation = no longer enough
      • 2-3 published papers whether published or “in the pipeline”
  • Academic publishing – Why is it so hard?
    • Kamler and Thomson (2006):
      • writing is a social practice → solitary nature of writing = deceptive. “We write ourselves, but we write for others.”
        • goes back to point of WHO are we writing for?
  • have an outlook that emphasizes writing for publication
    • to publish, you need to have something to say, but how will you know?
    • Discuss with your supervisor how to position your research
  • What makes a good paper? LESS is MORE
    • don’t make it more than it should be → keep it small, contained, focused, targeted
      • can briefly describe the larger project, but make clear which one to two major ideas/theses you’ll be focusing on
    • one great idea/significant finding/compelling argument = one good paper
      • see journals in your field, will see these examples
    • don’t make the mistake of attempting to put too much in a paper
    • a publication plan for a given paper should slice of ‘bits’ of the research and craft them into publishable papers
    • you cannot fit a whole thesis into a paper
  • “Fit the article to the journal, not the other way around.”
  • “Plan your publications before you start your research and experiments.”
  • Be prepared to go through many drafts as you exercise the “less is more” principle.
  • Making abstracts concrete:
    • through the writing process, the abstract is a living document
      • a very disciplined form of writing
    • concise “road map” of paper you intend to write/are writing – but modifiable as the writing process shows a better way through
    • a good abstract can keep you “honest” as a writer
    • on completion of paper, abstract needs to be revised and finalized to accurately reflect the paper now completed
    • good abstracts do not undersell or oversell the paper they describe
    • good abstracts will invite appropriate audience(s) to read paper
  • Responding to readers’ reports:
    • stay calm! → “blind review process = a brutally honest process”
      • also need to understand the “economy” of the reviewer process → reviewers not paid for their work – taking papers on a volunteer basis, on top of all their other work and duties
    • Accept – rarely happens that a paper is accepted outright (only twice in Cuthbert’s personal experience)
      • minor revisions
      • major revisions
    • reject (for that particular journal = the end, move on to another journal)
    • highlight main criticisms (major vs. minor)
    • criticisms versus suggestions for improvement
    • scope of journal, IF etc.
    • re-read the next day (not the same day you get the paper back)
    • send to co-authors (assign tasks with deadline)
    • track changes
    • usually several weeks to revise – thinking time!
  • building your C.V.
    • aim for both breadth and depth
      • get some runs on the board – not all need to be high-ranking
      • don’t ignore quality though
      • conferences
      • book chapters – can open a wider range of publication options (but often less accessible for citation purposes)
      • look for opportunities to publish different kinds of articles – i.e. review, methodological, results, etc.
    • consider time to publication (often longer than journals estimate; usually about a year)
    • cast a wide net
  • Finding the right journal
    • about 25,000+ peer reviewed English-language academic journals
    • different categories:
      • peer reviewed/non peer reviewed
      • subscription/open access
      • disciplinary/cross disciplinary audiences
      • special issues/standard issues
      • influential/not so influential
    • What are the journals that you’re currently reading, that you keep coming back to?
    • What are the key journals in your field?
      • Impact factor
      • average number of citations to articles per journal
      • journal rankings
    • particularly when you start out, consider not aiming too high and risking disappointment → take advice
  • look at the journal for:
    • aims
    • scope
    • nature of contribution sought
    • intended readership
    • editorial board members
  • also ask your supervisor(s) where they publish and why
  • Write early, write often:
    • from day one
    • “identify do-able chunks of writing that could form the basis of an article, say 700, 1000, 1500 and up to 3000 words on a specific topic or theme”
    • build up a body of writing by accretion – i.e. small bits at a time, one article after another
    • “Treat writing as research planning and development: Don’t turn what should be molehills into mountains.”
      • treat writing as exploratory, contingent, provisional → should always be able/open to revising, re-packaging for another process
      • every article is just another idea – not the whole thesis
    • get over perfectionism and masterpiece syndrome
      • good writing = heavily vetted writing
      • “there’s no such thing as perfect”
      • this is an attempt to give an account – the very best attempt one can give at a particular time, but an attempt nonetheless
  • Thinking things through:
    • many criticisms have merit, ask: Did the reviewer make a good point? Did you write clearly?
      • Sometimes reviewers miss the point, don’t appear to have read the paper carefully → if you really disagree with a criticism of the paper, you can argue your case—politely and respectfully—to the managing editor (be judicious, be polite)
    • keep a detailed list of all the revisions made, which reader (A, B, C) recommended → use when sending paper back to managing editor to explain what you’ve done
    • consider more experiments, major rewrite versus submitting paper elsewhere
    • bear in mind, overwhelming majority of the papers submitted through the peer review process are improved as a result of the process
  • What makes a good abstract?
    • “abstracts” key, salient features of the paper: it does not retell the paper in miniature
      • the what, why, how and so what statement of the research paper
    • What is the paper about? From what larger project does this paper arise?
    • Why is the research reported here necessary and important? So what? Why the paper addresses a significant gap in knowledge.
    • How was the research reported in the paper conducted?
    • Generally this statement is between 150-250 words
    • every word counts
    • consider vocabulary of abstract and keywords: accuracy and web searchability are key considerations (in BOTH abstract and the title of the paper)
      • you want people to find your paper
      • Cuthbert in favor of “non-poetic” paper titles – keywords, searchability over poeticism
  • examined abstracts submitted by workshop participants

“Healthy Habits During Dissertation Writing” workshop notes

Below are my notes and a handout from a workshop I attended yesterday morning on maintaining healthy habits while writing a dissertation. The workshop was sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Office of Graduate Studies and was hosted by licensed psychologist Dr. Scott Winrow, who did an excellent job summarizing some of the most recent research on stress management and wellness practices.

Managing Stress During the Dissertation Writing Process

  • highly recommend the book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis by Joan Bolker
  • your dissertation = unsupervised work
    • avoidance is a common problem, which is why 15 minutes per day is always a good starting point
      • even on days off, 15-20 minutes of work can be good to keep your focus on your work, keep your thoughts flowing
      • scheduling = also critical –> don’t let other things eat into the time you’ve set aside for your dissertation work
  • plan out goals of different lengths
    • daily, weekly, monthly, semester goals
    • focus just on daily goals can lead to tunnel vision and/or missed bureaucratic deadlines (keep your eyes on paperwork deadlines!)
    • milestone goals = when chapters are to be finished, drafts to readers, etc.
  • consider different writing approaches
    • e.g. don’t edit when just beginning to write your dissertation –> free-write and then go back, so that you can get your ideas flowing
  • be sure you can say “no” to other people to protect your writing time
    • look for balance, set priorities –> with friends, yes, but with your advisor too
  • get your writing space set up the way you need it –> figure out what you need
    • be aware of avoidance behavior and correct it when you notice it
    • communicate your needs to your advisor (especially if you are working from home and they may not see you around as much –> make sure they are aware you are working)
  • take some breaks – after one or two hours of work AND at the end of the week
    • but don’t reward yourself if you don’t do the work
  • break away from social media if you are the type of person who needs to do so
  • keep perspective: your dissertation is not your magnus opus!
    • most people average two years or more to write their dissertation
    • be hesitant about trying to add too much as you go and/or about going back and changing things –> this can drag the writing process out (and your expenses for attending graduate school, missed job opportunities)
    • get support from peers — especially if your family and/or friends have never been to graduate school
      • writing groups can also be good –> you may need people to “call you out on your B.S.,” on your avoidance behaviors (in a healthy way)
    • maintain contact with your advisor and/or committee members –> be active in seeking out support from these people and also be aware of avoidance
      • find other mentors if you need to, if you aren’t getting what you need from your advisor
      • follow up if you don’t hear back in a reasonable amount of time –> can also be proactive by setting a timeline when send e-mails
      • keep track of your advisor’s ideas for your dissertation
        • taking notes helps clarify the changes they want you to make (and whether or not you’ve done what they want)
    • take the time to take care of yourself: you will be more productive in the long-run –> all research supports this
      • taking care of yourself is NOT competing for your time — it HELPS you
      • this includes exercise, eating well (especially breakfast –> otherwise your brain doesn’t have the glucose it needs to move things into long-term memory)
      • adequate sleep = crucial –> even 1 night of less than 6 hours of sleep impacts your brainwaves for 3 days (takes 3 full days to recover from 1 bad night)
      • plan rewards but ONLY for getting things done
    • keep in mind that it’s normal to feel inadequate, overwhelmed from time to time: “imposter syndrome”
      • “you know more than you think” so give yourself credit for it
      • these fears^ = healthy as long as you keep them in perspective
    • come see the folks at CAPS if you need help
      • about 40% of their clients = graduate students (perhaps in part because assistantships make student health insurance visits “free”)

Q & A session:

  • What if your dissertation is done but your advisor keeps getting “ideas?”
    • enlist the help of Graduate Studies in reminding your advisor (as a 3rd party) that there are time limits involved, financial burdens to you taking more time to finish your program
    • sometimes profs get used to you being here, doing things, don’t want to let you go
    • can ALSO turn drafts of your dissertation in extra early, may give them the time they need to suggest revisions in time for you to graduate on target
    • also try stopping by your advisor’s office in person, rather than e-mailing
      • try sending e-mail first thing in the morning, cc other committee members, to increase the chances that your request goes to the top of their “to-do” list

Handout, Managing Stress During the Dissertation Writing Process

“Writing a thesis or dissertation,” UNL History grad student retreat workshop notes

Grad Student Retreat, Fall 2013

Notes, 8.23.2013, “Writing your thesis/dissertation”

  • starting with M.A. thesis
    • Dr. James Garza recommends beginning writing in your 3rd semester
    • defense dates come in March or early April
    • need time for revisions
    • gave his students about 3-4 weeks to write a chapter
    • some people on your committee will want the entire thesis all at once
    • don’t worry too much about the organization at first b/c you can change the organization around
    • the earlier you start the writing cycle, the better it will be
      • write a “skeleton” first chapter if you need to
      • hang your primary sources on it as you go
      • anything you write for a prospectus will eventually be part of your thesis/dissertation in some form – don’t think about it as a “throw away” writing exercise
    • remember that you’ll be preparing applications for the PhD programs too (and your professors will also have deadlines related to these)
      • M.A. thesis will be part of your application SO leave time to do corrections
    • be aware of all the technical things you have to do for your thesis
      • all the formatting is your responsibility to figure it out
    • Graduate Studies wants a copy pretty early –> doesn’t have to be finished
      • they are mostly checking the formatting
    • your M.A. thesis is also “for your future advisor”
      • it will reflect on you AND on your committee members
    • even if they aren’t all completely developed, write a few paragraphs per day
  • Dr. Carole Levin on dissertations
    • writing anxiety = something most academics suffer from (even at professional level)
      • “one of the most difficult obstacles to finishing a project”
    • she’s telling us how to write the “good enough dissertation” NOT the perfect dissertation
    • two mantras: (1) “It does not have to be great. It just has to be good.” (2) “You can always revise it for the book.”
      • you DO need to get publications out of your dissertation: either book or series of articles
      • chapters do NOT have to be ready as articles; nor does your dissertation have to be ready as a manuscript
      • dissertation = “a step, not the endgame”
    • finding a topic early in your grad career = good but it’s important not to latch onto a topic just to have a topic
      • you have to be excited about your topic, you will spend a lot of time on it
      • what are the questions you want to start digging around in?
        • think big, then narrow over time
        • think about how you can add to the scholarly conversation
    • “get a committee you can work with”
      • who will read drafts and give feedback
      • who will discuss your/their ideas with you
      • want to get the most out of your committee –> it is a multi-year committment
      • stay in contact with your committee and especially your advisor
      • don’t be avoidant even, especially if you are behind and feeling guilty about being behind
    • dissertation prospectus
      • Department requires this
      • preliminary bibliography, chapter descriptions
      • think of it as the first draft
        • you haven’t done all the research yet
        • no one ever writes exactly the dissertation they prospose
        • your committee is not going to pass/fail you on basis of this –> it will be about the dissertation
      • okay to pretend you know exactly what you’re doing but know that it will change
        • your material, as you do your research, will tell you where to go
    • recommends start writing within a semester of submitting your proposal
      • yes, research is so much fun – could do it for years
      • you won’t stop doing research, but start writing
      • often you won’t see the holes in your ideas until you start writing them down
      • if can do the dissertation by holding off then writing full-time for months at a time, okay – do what works for you
    • keep very careful notes on all of your research
      • helps get rid of anxiety come writing time
    • it’s tough, but “just start writing”
      • keep a notebook with you specifically for writing ideas that occur out of the blue, when you don’t have your computer with you
    • find a writing rhythm that works for you
      • figure out what rituals you need to write, what time of day works for you
      • if feel overwhelmed, break it into small parts
      • even if you only wrote a page a day, you’d have a dissertation in a year
      • even if can’t write an actual draft, write ideas, make outlines
      • Dr. Levin made herself write 5 pages per day on writing days
        • could stop whenever she finished writing 5 pages (early or late)
      • if get stuck in beginning, jump to another point
      • look at other people’s dissertations, get a sense at how they got started
        • good historians in your field
        • how did they set up their argument’s
    • form a dissertation support group
      • between 3-5 people
      • work out commitment of how often you will meet
      • will you read one another’s work?
      • figure out what will be most helpful for you
      • don’t necessarily have to be in your field
      • making a committment to your colleagues as well as to yourself
    • talk to your friends about your ideas
    • make appointments with your committee members
    • send an abstract to a conference
      • trying out your ideas
      • sets a deadline for getting a conference paper done
      • new people to talk with your ideas about
    • look at fellowships to support your work
      • is there a specific archive or library that you need to visit? they may well have travel grants
      • important on practical level, improves your c.v., helps with professional networking
      • Warren & Edith Day travel dissertation award = UNL award of $500
        • floating deadline
        • write proposal, letter from advisor
        • her student’s have had great success getting this award
        • means more on your c.v. than you might think, goes further than you think
      • UNL has Presidential, Fling, Dean’s fellowships
        • are incredibly competitive
        • but if you don’t try, you won’t get it
        • handful of students in our department have gotten these
      • UNL Department also has some fellowships
      • be open to applying for everything you can find
      • even the act of writing the proposal is significant – gets your ideas down
      • National Endowment for the Humanities has summer seminars with slots for graduate students
        • deadline = March 1
        • call posted in January (ish)
        • longshots, yes, but not impossible longshots
    • think about audience in your dissertation
      • don’t use competitive, combative approach to fellow scholars
      • not civil, bad habit to get into
        • and these will be people you will encounter later in your professional career
        • you want to think about your career in terms of building on work of those who came before you – not trampling it/pushing it out of the way
    • when get to 300 pages in your dissertation, think about stopping
      • if what you have yet to write is still valuable, you can return to it later
      • can put hopes of where your work can go further in future in your conclusion
      • no press wants a 600-page dissertation & you need to move forward with your doctorate
      • recommends reading Univ. of Chicago Press’s From Dissertation to Book
  • Dr. Jared Leighton
    • try out different writing strategies, be flexible
    • structure was important to him
      • certain amount of time dedicated to writing each day
      • kept track of this carefully
      • deadlines for each chapter – even if you don’t meet them, aim for them, know where you want to be at a particular time
    • “write through your process”
      • even if it doesn’t make it into the dissertation, it will be helpful
      • will give you momentum
    • keep your Grad Studies deadlines in mind or they will cause you AND your readers trouble
      • sessions for those planning to graduate held regularly
      • recommends going to these even if you aren’t graduating soon
      • construct backward calendar of your graduate goal date & deadline
      • you have to attend these once anyway before you can graduate
    • can register for 1 dissertation credit full time but only for 4 semesters
      • ONLY do this if you are confident that you can graduate in 2 years
    • leisure time is not a luxury when writing your dissertation; it’s a necessity
      • taking that leisure time will help you write, as will sleep
      • must think of these things as necessities for your writing time to be quality time
    • keep up on any new developments in your field
      • read programs of your major conferences
      • read most recent reviews in journals in your field
      • continue this process after you complete your prospectus until you are finishing
    • reading anyone you think is a good writer is a good idea
      • not just outside your field, maybe fiction too
      • best work is that which is also accessible to the general public
      • think about: who influences you as a writer?
    • dissertation bootcamps
      • can google and get idea how these are structured
      • perhaps Office of Graduate Studies needs to start doing these
      • 1-2 weeks of writing dissertations each day, usually 8:30-4:30
      • talk at end of day with fellow attendees where you are at

The new American Dream: Doing what you love

I recently stumbled across Paul Graham‘s 2006 piece, “How to do what you love” and find myself smitten. The ability to do what one loves for a living might accurately be described as the new American Dream, and Graham has some excellent recommendations for those of us in pursuit of our love. I keep a printed copy of his article above my desk and reread highlighted sections from time to time to remind myself of the bigger picture. Below are just of few of my favorite quotes, including some of Graham’s best–on prestige as the enemy of passion.

Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do?…If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do…conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things. What a recipe for alienation.

The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month. Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

You shouldn’t worry about prestige…This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if two [kinds of work] seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money…It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial.

You have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations.

In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media…It’s also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like.

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it.

Surviving the long research trip

Emerging from a long research trip with your sanity intact can be tricky. Anyone who’s traveled knows not only how quickly expenses add up, but also how quickly time flies when you’d desperately like more of it. Other factors associated with travel – like a disrupted personal routine, the potential digestional hazards of “road food,” the high correlation between an affordable hotel and a bad hotel, and delayed access to good coffee – can make the long research trip seem like something to first dread, then endure, and finally recover from.

Research trips are a critical part of grad school, at least if you hope to graduate anytime soon, and an extended research trip can be the best way to get the most bang for that buck you may or may not be getting reimbursed for, but lengthy research trips can be fun too. In fact, having fun is one of the simplest ways to put difficult tasks in perspective, reduce stress, and prevent burnout. Contrary to popular (academic) belief the long research trip need not be a grueling ordeal that you soldier through macho style. Over the years I’ve developed some basic strategies that help me not only survive the long research trip, but live the days in a way that enables me to make the best possible use of precious research time.

Plan ahead. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you must plan ahead to book your airfare, rental car, hotel, and so on but did you cover all your bases?  Most grad students know better than to show up to an archive without having at least searched the online catalog and communicated their research needs to an archivist or two well in advance. (For more on this see my post A good archivist goes a long way.) But you should also develop the habit of nosing around for potential sources whenever you travel in a professional capacity. I’m not advocating you disrupt a vacation by taking a research detour, rather that you should never go to a conference, attend a seminar, or give a guest lecture without checking for relevant holdings in libraries and archives nearby. Failing to do your homework in advance means missing out on easy opportunities to maximize your research time, stretch those travel dollars, justify your expenses, and reduce your overall stress about the research process.

Give yourself over to the idea and get organized. Yes, you’ll have to work really hard for long hours with on-the-go food, grossly abbreviated lunch breaks, limited sleep, and many demands on your attention but it will only be for a certain amount of time. Mentally frame the experience as an exception to your usual schedule, one that you will make the best of, benefit a great deal from, and thank yourself for later. Then work out a detailed daily schedule that incorporates the ways your travel itinerary and library/archive hours of operation will dictate your routine as well as the ways this schedule may need to flex to adjust to unanticipated events. Try to leave some maneuvering room for unexpected archival discoveries, delays from getting lost in an unfamiliar city, opportunities to network, morning/evening organization of photocopies/digital notes, and so forth. A well-planned schedule is key to effective time management, and recognizing in advance that you’ll need to make room for adjustments will help you set reasonable boundaries when you encounter new demands on your time.

Know thyself. Know your personal habits and preferences and don’t be afraid to assert them when you know it’s in your best interest. (This goes for grad school in general too.) You know what you need to perform at your best. Long research trips will stretch you to your max, mentally and sometimes physically as well. Acknowledge this and think about what tactics you’ll need to use to keep yourself in peak research mode. If it’s a quiet, calm evening at the end of an exhausting, busy day so be it. Occasional exceptions must be made, of course, when you recognize a unique opportunity to extend your professional network or examine an uncatalogued collection, for example, but be sure any exception is exceptional and not just a cave to someone else’s idea of a great post-research evening. Know when to put your needs first, and carefully communicate your decisions to any invitation-extenders, travel companions, or roommates.

Consider the wonders of a microwave and mini-fridge. Again, you have to know yourself here to decide if this is for you. I am personally in the habit of eating a good bit of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains every day. I feel “off” when I can’t. Same for exercise. Although my research trips usually end in me not being able to maintain anything close to my normal workout routine a microwave and mini-fridge go a long way toward helping me eat more of what I’m used to, which makes me feel good and in turn reduces some of the stress of travel. It also cuts down on expenses associated with eating out. Yes, you’ll spend on average an extra ten bucks per night to get a hotel room equipped with these wonder appliances, but you’ll save at least that much each day in restaurant tabs.

Do something new. Going somewhere new or doing something new is one of the primary ways I like to treat myself and take a breather while on a long research trip. Sundays are a good day for this since most research libraries and archives are closed on Sundays. If you’re on an extended research trip, chances are you’ll be out of town at least one Sunday and a brief excursion is generally a far better use of your time than just sleeping in or watching t.v. in your hotel room all day. Sometimes I plan something extra to do in advance; other times I wait until I’m in the area to find out what the locals recommend. I rarely miss an opportunity to integrate some personal travel and fun into my research trips, and I always emerge refreshed, refocused, and better for it. You can do more than merely survive your research trips. You can and should find ways to enjoy them too.

‘Tis the season…for comprehensive exams

It seems the Spring of 2013 is the season of comprehensive exams for a core group of history grad students at UNL, including yours truly. I can’t recall another semester during my grad school stint that witnessed so many people I knew comping at once. But it’s a good thing. We comp buddies have to stick together. Because being a grad student is one thing, and being a comping grad student is another.

If you’re a grad student who hasn’t comped, you likely view the compers with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and nervous anticipation. If you’re a grad student who has comped, a.k.a. a comp mentor, you probably experience a little shiver of schadenfreude when you encounter a comper — just before you quell your internal naughtiness and offer some helpful advice of course. I’ve received plenty of helpful tips from comp mentors and comp buddies alike. Below is a summary of the primary methodologies I’ve developed for preparing for comps, as well as pdfs of my three comp lists. I hope this pays forward some of the help others have provided me (and explains what’s going on if I miss a post or two in the coming weeks).

Summary of methodology for my comp prep:

  • Take notes on every reading using the following categories as an outline: main arguments, aim/goal/purpose of the work, methodology and sources, historiography, major criticisms/praise of the work.
    • Keep these notes as specific and succinct as possible. Strive for a one-page maximum.
    • Save these notes as searchable text documents in OpenOffice, in Google Drive, and (perhaps most importantly) as tagged entries in Zotero.
      • Apply tags in Zotero carefully and deliberately from a pre-established list. Tags on my list range from the generic, such as “pedagogy” or “transnational,” to very specific tags for subject categories and time periods. Be brutally consistent and do NOT over-tag. If you’ve never used Zotero before, I highly recommend giving it a try. Whether you use it for comp preparation or for organizing and storing your research, it’s one of the best research tools out there and will save you oodles of time in the long run. If you are hesitant, watch one or two of the demonstration videos, download Zotero, and play around with it for a couple of days before letting yourself bail. Remember: don’t be afraid to explore and poke around. You won’t break it – I promise!
  • Clearly label every reading at the top of each page of notes, in bibliographical formatting.
  • Place all notes in carefully and deliberately arranged folders on a usb for OpenOffice text documents, on Google Drive, and Zotero. The point here is to promote not just organization, but searchability as well. Use your comp lists as guides to help delineate categories for folders and subfolders. Again, be brutally consistent.
  • Set a goal for a set number of readings per day and hold yourself to it. Do what you need to do to arrange your schedule and balance your life so that preparing for comps comes first.

My comp lists:

(You can see the way the UNL History Department breaks down the comprehensive fields here, under “Degree Requirements.”)

North American Comps List

Urban and Social Comps List

  • Compiled and brought to you courtesy of my friend and colleague, Brian Sarnacki.

Transnational 19th Century Comps List

  • Please note that this list is still undergoing some reorganization.