for abby: find a boss

Before I left for Cs, I got a rather frantic email from Abby, a PhD student who is stagnated in her program, unable to take the first bite out of that elephant:

I am so afraid or unwilling to get started and I don’t totally understand why. I try to break it into do-able pieces. Like I tell myself, today I am going to do an outline for the intro section. or today I am going to list the articles I know I have for my lit review… How did you get over the getting started hump? Do you have any advice?

The problem is here is that it’s clear Abby already knows the answer to her own question. That is, the advice I have, the advice that was given to me, is to make big nouns and tasks into small verbs: make an outline, make a list.

Although as I go back through her email, I think what she needs to do is to start WRITING. That is, if the outlining and listing is not making forward motion, than she simply needs to force the motion by making herself sit down a write a paragraph. Just one paragraph.

Something that I did not learn (about myself, or about writing) until *very* recently is that it is enormously difficult to do something if there is no “presence” to be responsible to concerning that writing task. When I was preparing for my exams, I had a moment where my chair essentially sat me down in his office and didn’t let me leave until I’d revised it. Actually, he was much kinder than that, giving me time and space to work that freed me from negotiating countless distractions. However, there was one distraction: him sitting in the office with me, being a presence that I was accountable to.

Abby, I would try to construct some kind of accountability structure. What we sometimes need is someone standing over us, waiting for the thing we’re doing to be done.

Some of us don’t need much external structure and discipline–and those of us who are like that can thrive once finished with coursework in the world of exam-taking and diss-writing. Those same people among us will get up every day and run without the pressing responsibility of having someone WAITING for us at the end of our driveways, too.

This person is not me. I do have self-discipline, but it comes in fits and starts, and sometimes the multiple (and important) draws on my time and attention make it easy for me to procrastinate. I have a whole menu of choices when it comes to excuses for not getting stuff done.

This may or may not be Abby’s case, but in my case, the fix for getting started was to be frank with my advisors about how I worked best with external pressure. That is, my advisors know I need deadlines, and meetings, and goals. They set them for me. And while I knew at the back of my mind that the deadlines and goals were imaginary, to an extent (because often I did have to push them back or change them), they were also real enough that I could write them on the calendar in the kitchen and the other people in my house could see them.

I talk in the past tense here about my exam process (which I believe Abby is still working through), but it translates into pretty much any project. I’m using this strategy right now for my dissertation. Find someone who will boss you around some–make your advisors schedule you some deadlines. This seems simple but for me it really was the answer. And in setting deadlines with your advisor, you’ll necessarily break your large noun (dissertation) into small verbs (write one page [paragraph, sentence] of the lit review).


3 thoughts on “for abby: find a boss

  1. I really needed to read this today. I have two papers to write and despite having all the readings done, I haven’t started.

  2. WOW! Thanks! I have a less than willing to help me advisor, but I am going to set up a meeting or two with my other committee members and ask for their help. Here is one more question… I fear in confessing that I need deadlines that I will seem like a bad student. I am afraid they will judge me for not being able to do this on my own motivation. I think that is why I haven’t asked for help from them (as I know I can’t get help from my advisor–and that is a whole-nother story)… I am guessing based on your advice that I am not the only student who needs external pressure and that my professors will see that my willingness to ask for this help shows some level of responsibility… So I think I answered my own question. Thank you for taking the time to help me and give me advice. I really appeciate it. I am going to set up appointments with them this week. I will try to update you as I make progress (because I WILL make progress… someday… hopefully sooner rather than later). Thanks again!

  3. Fabulous advice! From someone who is very much the same–and who really had plenty of time free of loved ones and obligations to work, but didn’t–I endorse this wholly. Two things I would add:
    1. Goals are great, but to help you just write, get a writing buddy. I had a few last summer, and if you have to meet with them one or twice a week someplace, you gotta show up. You will get *some* writing done, regardless of how productive it is. And the momentum helps.
    2. Meet with someone you trust, even if not your chair, weekly. Turn over what you’ve done with specific questions on the text about your concerns. Note that I say TURN OVER WHAT YOU’VE DONE. It doesn’t matter how much or how little or how crappy or how brilliant. Just let it go. Then work on something else for the next week. (Once you’re farther along, you can make the weekly goals more precise. The point is to meet, face-to-face, and get the reassurance and guidance you need.
    3. Talk to your therapist. If you don’t have one, think about getting one. Or, think about hiring a dissertation coach for a short period, which I did last summer. Pricey, but worth it.
    4. Did I mention that after years of moving at a snail’s pace, I’m about to defend? And I’m a total mess as a writer–procrastinator, perfectionist, self-doubting, no discipline, yadda yadda yadda. So if I can do this, any smart girl can!

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