Staying Organized = Success

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Right off the bat, I want to dispel a common myth going around. This is the myth that your messiness and disorganization is a sign of higher intelligence and/or creativity. Now it’s true that some research has shown that messy and untidy individuals typically have a higher IQ and are more creative (though I’m not sure how one rates creativity). Unsurprisingly, this idea has floated all across social media as a justification for being messy. Without a doubt this new idea brought great joy to the droves of disorganized folks across social media. Science has seemingly proved that smart people are untidy! After years of shame, there’s finally scientific evidence to justify one’s messiness! In fact, I wouldn’t put it past some folks to intentionally be more messy and disorganized just to prove they’re smart! After all it’s all a sign of higher intelligence, right? So let’s leave a few more papers around in hopes that it’ll spur our imaginations! Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not how creativity works. Your messy and disorganized desk, work area, and/or computer doesn’t make you a genius. It might only be a sign that you need to straighten up a bit.

Many people find justification for being messy using Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” This sure sounds great, but let’s face it. None of us are Einstein (no matter how messy our desk is). Einstein would’ve been Einstein with or without a messy desk. Moreover, it’s your writing and research habits that you need to worry about. Einstein isn’t going to be writing your dissertation, you are! And just because messiness worked for Einstein doesn’t mean it will work for you. Now it may be true that messiness might be a sign of intelligence and high creativity. However, this doesn’t give you a license to be untidy or to excuse messiness. Moreover, certain types of writing don’t work well in a messy environment. Messiness may not matter so much when writing a novel, but it will definitely hinder progress with a dissertation or thesis. Academic writing (especially when it’s for a professor or committee) often requires more organization than others. Part of this is due to the requirements you’ll need to adhere to for your committee, professor, school, etc. Furthermore, academic writing typically involves strict deadlines. You’ll want to stay on schedule when writing a dissertation (especially if you need to graduate at a certain time). Consequently, disorganization isn’t going to work in your favor. 

Messiness isn’t a virtue, and it definitely won’t help you finish your dissertation. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that your own messiness is somehow special (it’s not). Writing a dissertation necessitates careful organization and planning. It requires the ability to find information and research quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, it requires long-term planning over the course of months and years. You may believe that your organizational “system” of paper stacks, USB drives, and books strewn across the floor is working, but it won’t a year from now. A dissertation requires the use and citing of dozens of articles and books. Depending on your field, you may also have mounds of qualitative and/or quantitative data to sort. As such, it’s imperative that this information remain organized and accessible. Nothing will set you back further than missing qualitative/quantitative data.

None of this means that your desk, writing area, or computer must be spick and span. We all have our own own quirks and methods when it comes to organization. That being said, any organizational system must actually be a coherent and logical system. Therefore, don’t think about it in terms of only remembering where things are. Remembering where you put and/or saved an article isn’t a system. You should instead know where an article, book, or file is because it has a designated space (either physically or virtually). Simply put, you don’t need to waste time remembering where something is. Ultimately your memory will fail you. Rummaging through papers, flipping through books, and checking USB drives for missing information wastes time and is mentally exhausting. Trust me, you’re not going to want to search for that missing article you found a year ago when you’re near the end. You’ll need all that mental and physical energy just to finish (especially when working against the clock—i.e., graduation deadline).

It was always a struggle to keep things organized. But it’s well worth it. Over the next two posts I’ll give you some tips for remaining organized. Today it’s important to remain both digitally and physically organized. Organization is more than just papers and books. It involves a concerted effort to keep your digital files easily accessible and safe. The first post will be on digital organization where I’ll share some tips on how cloud storage and desktop management can help keep you on track. This will be followed by how to keep your old-school papers, articles, and books organized. So stay tuned for more soon! 

 

 

 

 

Working With Your Committee

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Dissertation and thesis writers, have you talked to your committee lately? When was the last time you met with your committee chair (either in-person or online)? Do you receive good feedback and support from both your chair and committee members?

Probably one of the most underestimated factors in writing a dissertation or thesis is your committee. They’re often the X-factor. A good committee will be the motivating force that will encourage and support you. An inattentive committee will provide little to no feedback or support, thus leaving you completely on your own. A bad committee will slow you down, sabotage your confidence, and increase the likelihood that you’ll never finish.

The possibility of working with a bad committee is scary. There’s not a lot you can do about a bad committee. The best strategy is to choose your chair carefully and remain fully involved in the building your committee from the get-go. There are certainly ways to improve a toxic relationship with your committee, but the goal is to never get to that point.

Despite the danger posed by a bad committee, I believe the most dangerous situation is an inattentive or “busy” committee. Why is it so dangerous? It’s dangerous because it’s prevalent and common for dissertation and thesis writers across disciplines. It’s also incredibly easy for a good committee to become an inattentive one. Committee relationships require complex cooperation between you, your chair, and your other readers. Thus, it’s easy to allow time and circumstance to impede those relationships. An inattentive committee is costly. A lack of feedback, relationship, and conversation can lead to isolation, apathy, and a lack of progress.

Over the years, I’ve had both professional and personal conversations with Ph.D. and Ed.D. candidates who complain about their lack of progress. Inevitably I’ll ask about what kind of feedback they’ve received from their chair or committee. In reply, it’s not unusual to hear, “I haven’t talked to my chair and/or committee lately.”

Contrary to belief, a dissertation or thesis is not a solitary affair. In fact, isolation is disastrous to your progress. The benefit of a committee (at least in theory) is having a built in community of your soon-to-be peers. It’s your committee’s job to support, offer critique, and review your work. Writing a dissertation is an enormous undertaking. Thus, the purpose of the committee is to evaluate, judge, and support you during this crucial time of your life. No one is completely prepared to write a 100-250 page (or more!) document on his or her own. Therefore, the committee is designed to help you step-by-step and chapter-by-chapter until you’re done.

This is why I’m usually shocked to hear when a doctoral candidate hasn’t spoken to or heard from their committee chair and/or committee members. Going it alone is a recipe for disaster. Without a committee’s confirmation, there will remain a lingering doubt as to whether you’re on the right track, making enough progress, or completing everything correctly. And slowly but surely, infrequent communication and feedback will create a situation where writing either slows or completely stops.

Having an inattentive committee is neither the doctoral candidate’s or the committee’s fault. It’s often the result of a break down in consistent communication between the candidate and the committee. As a result, candidates don’t realize they’re in such a situation before it’s too late. Sadly, many candidates even expect their committee to not be involved. I’ve heard of a number of candidates who believe that it’s typical to not have regular contact with the committee chair and/or committee members. Sometimes these relationships require a little more work on effort on part of either the student or faculty, but it’s not normal to go it alone!

So, what can you do about an inattentive committee? Fortunately, there are a lot of easy things that you can do to get back on track (or stay on track) with your committee. None of these things are particularly hard. However, lapse in any of these and you’re likely to find yourself going alone. Remember, isolation is not your friend!

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A meeting with your committee doesn’t have to be boring! Invite them for coffee or even lunch. Campus coffee shops are great places to meet. 

Communication. I can’t stress this enough. Stay in constant contact with your committee! Especially your committee chair. Keep them apprised of your progress or struggles. Never, ever, let more than a semester go by without either checking in or meeting with either your chair or a committee member. If you’re struggling, say so! Many candidates tend to withdraw or even avoid their committee when things are not going well. You don’t have to feel guilty about a lack of progress! Your committee isn’t there to shame you or make you feel bad about not completing a chapter or section by a certain deadline. Share with them (again, especially your chair) if you’re struggling with the agreed upon goals for your work. Most importantly, don’t wait to communicate until you’ve made definable progress. Regular updates, meetings, and emails will let them know that you’re serious about finishing (even when progress is slow). Committees are more willing to work with students who act seriously about finishing. Take the initiative!

Flexibility. Faculty are busy folk. They’re usually balancing a full teaching load, meetings, research, and other dissertation candidates. Remember, your chair is probably chairing a number of other doctoral candidates. The same for your committee members or readers. It’s likely they’re involved with a handful of other candidates. This means that you must be willing to adapt and meet in their schedule. You must be willing to meet on days that might be inconvenient for you. Typically, an accommodating chair or committee member will make time for you. He or she will work with you to find a time when it’s convenient for both of you. However, always be willing to bend your schedule! Present yourself as adaptable and sensitive to your chair or committee member’s needs. And always express gratitude to him or her at every meeting!

Your chair is the key. I can’t stress how important your chair is to your success. A good relationship with your chair makes all the difference in staying focused and making progress. Your chair is your advocate, defender, and chief motivator. His or her role is to speak on your behalf, defend you during meetings with your committee, and offer plenty of support. Thus, it’s essential that you keep in close contact with your chair! Frankly he or she should know your work better than anyone else. Therefore, your chair should be the first person you seek whenever you’re struggling with ideas, research, and writing. Of course, relationships with the rest of your committee are important. However, those relationships are contingent upon the kind of relationship you have with your chair. You should never go more than a few weeks without checking in with you chair. You’ll need someone who knows your work well. Think of your chair as your anchor. It’s the chair’s job to keep you grounded and focused on the task when you start to drift away. Consequently, your chair can help if you’re getting off track, losing focus, or unsure about what to do next. Furthermore, your chair’s knowledge of your work will be valuable on your defense day! It’s always nice to have someone in the room who knows your work as well as you do!

Ideally, your chair is already someone you know very well. In many programs you will choose the person who you feel best knows you and your work. Furthermore, he or she is also a person that you’ll get along with easily. However, some programs assign you to a chair. In such situations it’s advisable that you build a relationship with that individual. Schedule a face-to-face meeting, ask to have coffee together, or take a walk with him or her across campus. Make your chair your new best friend!

Issues to consider for distance students. More and more students are completing their doctoral degrees off-campus. Consequently, many students don’t have the luxury of dropping by to see their chair or committee member in-person. Thankfully, technology is making distance less of a barrier for maintaining a relationship with your committee. Obviously, you’ll need to email them often. In fact, you’ll need to work harder to stay connected in order to build and maintain a relationship with your committee (a face-to-face meeting is worth 10 emails in my opinion). However, frequent updates via email are helpful, and you’ll want to email often.

In addition, learn how to use Zoom, Gotomeeting, or Skype. If possible, schedule monthly or bi-monthly video chats with your committee. Video conference really helps to reduce the feeling of distance and disconnection. Most faculty are now comfortable using these tools for both meetings and classes. And don’t forget, there’s always the old-fashioned telephone! Above all, stay connected!

You want to succeed right? And you want to finish on time? Of course you do! You owe it to yourself to have good working relationships with your committee. Use them to your advantage. So what are you waiting for?

 

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Do You Love Your Dissertation?

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I know this sounds crazy, but do you love your dissertation? You probably have plenty of reasons to hate it. In fact, hating a dissertation sounds more reasonable than loving it. Let’s try a little thought experiment. Name five reasons why you hate your dissertation. Think about it and write those reasons down. Did you have trouble coming up with your five? I’m willing to bet that you probably didn’t. I imagine that you likely came up with reasons similar to the following: 1) I have writer’s block, 2) It’s keeping me from graduating and moving forward in life, 3) I don’t like my topic, 4) I spend all of my time on it, and 5) I can’t find sources or my research isn’t working.

How does your list compare? You probably had a few items similar to mine. Furthermore, each of us have personal reasons as to why we hate our dissertation. Looking back over my experience, I didn’t need to spend much time on my list. In about 30 seconds, I had my five reasons. I only had to think back on the frustration my dissertation provoked before a flood of anxiety inducing feelings came back to me.

Now think of five reasons why you love your dissertation. Were you able to come up with five? It’s a little harder right? It takes a little longer to find reasons to love your dissertation (assuming that you found any at all).

It’s easy to think of the things that you hate about your dissertation. Given enough time, those negative things can easily form the narrative that you tell about yourself. Thus, the dissertation becomes a barrier to your own happiness. Consequently, your narrative becomes one of anxiety and guilt. The dissertation acts as the focal point of all of your ills and misfortunes. For example, there’s the constant nagging guilt of knowing that you should be writing (most poignant when you’re having fun). Then there’s the dread of the work you still have left to do (edits and re-writes, research, and forthcoming chapters). Finally (not really, but you get the point), a hatred of the barrier your dissertation represents. Literally, it’s the only thing between you and graduation. It’s easy for that barrier to become a sharp divide between depression and happiness.

It deeply worries me that it’s so easy to redirect those negative feelings about your dissertation to yourself. Dread, anxiety, guilt, and even anger have powerful implications for our overall health. No one can adequately handle writing two or more years on something that provokes such negative feelings. Those feelings are inevitable going to come back to you!

It’s natural for those feelings to affect you. Your dissertation is an extension of yourself. It represents your work and knowledge as a scholar. This work is a key capstone of your academic career. As a result, negative feelings toward something so deeply personal will undoubtedly influence the narrative you tell yourself. I can vividly remember the things I used to tell myself when my writing was slow or non-existent. Thoughts such as: “You’re not good enough” and “You’re not smart enough” regularly worked their way into my brain. Unsurprisingly, it became a self-fulling prophecy. I told myself I wasn’t good enough and (surprise!) my writing slowed or stopped altogether.

We’re generally expected to hate our dissertation, but hardly ever are we expected to love it. And it’s that expectation, that narrative, which becomes so detrimental to our own progress. How can you finish something that you hate? I don’t know about you, but I usually avoid things that I dislike or hate. It’s crazy to expect yourself to complete something that brings you anxiety, stress, and even depression. I believe it’s time to change the narrative! It’s time to change your narrative about your dissertation and (by extension) yourself.

It’s crazy to hate your dissertation. Consequently, it makes far more sense to love it. A change in attitude can make a remarkable difference in your own personal and scholarly outlook. This means that you need to tell yourself: “I love my dissertation.” Not “like” or “it’s okay.” No, say it to yourself, “I love my dissertation.” Say it out loud. Really, I mean it. Give it a try. Now, say it louder.

Did anyone look at you funny? I promise it’s okay. There’s no need to be embarrassed.

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Shout it: “I love my dissertation!” You can jump up and down too.

Seriously, love your ideas and your work. Believe in the work that you’re doing. Embrace your thoughts and theories. Every dissertation is unique and special. It represents years of hard work, dedication, and a creative scholarly spirit. Remember that only you could do the work that you’re doing now. Your dissertation is important (you must always believe this).

Before you write, tell yourself that, “I love my dissertation.” Make this a daily part of your writing ritual. Remind yourself that it’s important to have a positive outlook about your dissertation. Negative feelings and attitudes will come (it’s impossible to block them). However, you can choose your response to them. Counter those feelings instead of accepting them. We are the stories that we tell. Therefore, change your narrative, choose to love your work, and start to enjoy writing!

Loving your work is the key to finishing!

Photos by Michael Fenton and Andre Hunter on Unsplash