enter the confessional · feminist health · risky writing

Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?

man-person-woman-face

I recently had a stark reminder of how hard it is to be a whole person in academia. I was sitting in a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship review meeting, which is one of my favourite committees to be on. Banting has strict rules about postdoc mobility: if you don’t move institutions and in some cases cities after your PhD you’re unlikely to get funded. Banting’s rules are more explicit and narrow than most, though no stricter than the spoken and unspoken ones that govern many postdoc awards, advice about where to take your next postdoc, and new faculty hiring decisions.

Like many of our postdocs, the majority of whom are in prime family-building years, the person we wanted to nominate for the Banting was tied to Toronto, where they had done their PhD, because their partner was employed here and they were expecting a child together in the spring. Banting requires nominees to write a “special circumstances” document making the case for their staying in the same place for a fellowship. A significant part of the first draft outlined the financial, family support, and childcare hardships this postdoc’s family would face if they were forced to relocate for a fellowship with an infant.

The committee had a real debate about whether or not to include that information. Would it not be better to use that space to articulate the strength of our institution as a research environment and justify staying in Toronto that way? The committee, longer embedded in academic culture than the fellow or I, felt strange about letting the non-academic parts of the fellow’s life into an otherwise very scientific, research-focused document. They worried that talking about parts of the fellow’s life outside their research would be to their detriment, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher if the Banting Secretariat knew about their child-to-be and their decision to choose stability and family support over a postdoc in a far-flung location that looked better on paper.

The postdoc and I both felt the same way about it: not only did that explicitly need to be in the statement, we both felt this would be a good moment to suggest to the Banting Secretariat that if the proposed location of research is excellent, they shouldn’t otherwise have any say in the geographic or life decisions of postdocs. Postdocs have complex lives that include lots other than just research, and they know best how to manage those lives.

The committee’s concerns didn’t surprise me. But something that happened to me recently, and relatedly, did.

Not long before this Banting meeting, I walked into my senior manager’s office and told her that my in-office hours would be a bit wonky for the next few months as my partner and I pursued fertility diagnostics and treatments. (Despite my best efforts to avoid infertility by not waiting until I had a tenure-track job to try for a kid, here we are anyway. It happens for so many people, but we so rarely talk about it in academia. I have nothing to lose by being open, in large part because I am no longer a full-time academic, so I’m going to use this platform to help destigmatize discussions of reproductive health.)

Coming from academia and having seen how pregnancy is often treated there–as a disruption, an intrusion, something to be ignored–I expected judgment, resentment, and concern from my colleagues about how this decision and a possible pregnancy were going to negatively impact my work and that of our team. Not because of anything I think of my colleagues as people–they’re awesome across the board–but because that’s the culture I’m used to.

Instead, I got delighted claps and nothing but encouragement. I was frankly shocked.

The rest of my team now also knows that my partner and I are trying to have a kid. Because we’ve all been open in various ways about pregnancy, miscarriage, and our plans for the future, I have no qualms about sharing news with them early and giving us the longest possible period to plan for my parental leave.

I know that my office, and my team, are somewhat unusual in this. We’re all women; we’re all born within 15 years of each other and all openly have or enjoy kids; we’re employed by an organization with a culture of work-life balance and staff support; we work largely with and for academics but are not full-time academics ourselves; our organization has some corporate aspects but functions most often as a hybrid non-profit/healthcare/academic space.

But I so appreciate getting to be a whole person at work, one who doesn’t have to pretend that she’s a worker and a researcher and a writer but not also a person. I can be a person who wants a kid and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who is sick, or hurt, or stressed out by a pending renovation and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who writes about infertility on the internet and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work.

Why can’t we have that as academics? It’s a genuine question: what does an academic culture that requires us to elide our personal lives, to treat our bodies as containers for our brains (even with broken feet), to elevate intellect over affect, do that’s useful to the academy? Does it make academic work appear more legitimate–and if so, to whom? Does it gatekeep, for the benefit of those in power, the people who cannot wholly divorce their bodily/personal/affective lives from their work? Does it make stressful and onerous academic and administrative work seem simpler, even if it isn’t? Does it delegitimate certain kinds of labour, especially emotional, so that labour doesn’t have to be acknowledged or compensated?

I’m sure it’s a combination of all of these things, and more that I don’t know yet. But I want to know, because understanding better why we can’t be whole people in academia–and still get taken seriously–is going to be crucial to figuring out how to make things different.

 

altac · careers · research

Settling In, Setting My Sights

pexels-photo-289327When I decided not to pursue the tenure-track career path, one reason was my exhaustion with upheaval and change. I’d moved a dozen times in five years, gotten married and then divorced, changed jobs and schools and houses and hairstyles and partners and was just ready to be a bit more settled. I was not interested in leaving the place I wanted to stay long-term to take a postdoc in goodness-knows-where in hopes of getting a job back home.

What can I say? I’m someone who craves routine and stability, and I love being in my 30s and able to give myself that.

And I finally have. This fall is the first since I started my Ph.D. that significant change is not on the horizon. No new degree. No dissertation defence. No personal upheaval. Just the same great job I’ve had for nearly three years, all things Ph.D. wrapped up and put away, a house and a partner and pets in a city I love, and most of my family and friends within an hour’s drive. One book (a biography of Jay Macpherson that started its life as my dissertation) under contract and another proposal (for a book on life and work after the Ph.D.) under review.

And so I’ve finally got the headspace, and the stability elsewhere in my life, to figure out what’s next. I’ve got a solid foundation on which to try new things, build new skills, branch out. I did a good job of figuring out how to be a professional and a graduate student, but I did that knowing that being a grad student had an expiry date. Now I have to figure out what a career as a researcher/writer and professional looks like, in the long term. Like Erin, I’m thinking about five and ten years plans.

I’m also thinking about the obligation of artists and writers–an umbrella that includes academics–to be political. What does that look like as a researcher who writes mostly about poets and poetry in the 1950s? What does that look like when I bring my feminism and allyship to work? What does that look like on Hook & Eye, where the personal has always been political? I have ideas, and plans, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take me–take us.

So welcome to a new year of H&E, and to our beauty new site. We’ve got a new look, a ton of new voices, and some new projects up our sleeves. It’s good to be back.

 

careers · job market · jobs · networking

Try on Someone Else’s Life

 
I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they’re one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else’s life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You’ll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You’ll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!
 

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

peer review · writing

Learning to Love Being Edited

 

I had this professor in graduate school who was notorious for being a brutal grader. You would submit a paper for her class, and know that you would get it back with nearly every word marked up, plus a page of razor-sharp, painful comments at the end. We all dreaded the day we knew she was returning our work. We all learned to get our papers back, quickly check our final grade (they were often quite good, despite the reams of criticism), and then tuck the paper away until we could come back to the edits with the ability to actually process them, not just with tears and adrenaline.

Later in graduate school, I had a supervisor who didn’t want to see work until it was as close to polish perfect as I could get it. I was stuck on the first big section of my research project, and would have loved to share the draft work I had in hand so that we would work together to figure out why I was stuck and where to go next. But that wasn’t an option, because I was expected to figure it out on my own, and so I stayed stuck for a long time. It was a moment when I really could have used a generous editor to move things along.

My PhD supervisor gives her graduate students an article she’s submitted for publication, along with the peer review reports, and has them read and summarize the most useful feedback for her. It means that she doesn’t have to read the more scathing (and infuriating–we all hate the reviewer whose point is just “you didn’t do it how I would”) reviews, and her students learn how peer review works and how to respond to requests for revision. It also means that she never has to cry over reviewer reports so critical and uncollegial that their writers would never say those things in person.

Given my experience, it’s no wonder that I hated getting feedback and being edited when I was still in academia. As teaching assistants and professors, so many of us aren’t trained in anything like the way that substantive and copyeditors are–to give useful, kind feedback that the writers we teach will actually respond to and act on, not just shut down about. Some of our ranks hide behind the anonymity of peer review to provide feedback that is unnecessarily harsh and potentially damaging. We’re also (for those of us in traditional humanities and arts programs) trained in a system that privileges originality and sole authorship over so much else. We don’t learn how to see writing and publication as a collaborative act.

So it’s been a surprise to me how much I love being edited these days. Many of my current writing projects–selected poetry editions, articles for major online publications, ghostwriting–require me to work with professional editors, and to have my work go through at least one, sometimes many, rounds of substantive, line, and copy editing. Sometimes my editors are really happy with what I send in, and it gets a minor tweaking. Sometimes I’m told to go back to the drawing board and try again. In either case, I genuinely appreciate it, and that’s a huge change from my experience in academia.

Why is that? Here’s what I identify as the key differences from my past experience that make being edited such a generative process now:

  • By virtue of our working relationship, my editors and I are in this together. We’re both working toward the common goal producing high quality content for the publication or press that they ultimately for, so they’re invested in (and work to promote) my success.
  • Working with an editor takes the pressure of sole-authorship off my shoulders. While my name is (most of the time) still the one that appears on the cover or byline, I’m no longer solely responsible for how my writing turns out. It becomes a collaborative endeavour, and one that benefits from multiple perspectives and sets of eyeballs.
  • I’m working with consummate professionals who know and are good at their jobs. Academia doesn’t always do a great job of training us for key parts of faculty jobs (most parts of faculty jobs, some would argue), and editing (which is a part of grading, peer review, and providing feedback on thesis and dissertation writing) is certainly one of those things. I trust my editors quite a lot, and I know that they’ve been trained–both academically and on the job–to elicit from me the best writing I’m capable of giving them, in the most productive (which often means kind and generous) way possible.
  • My editors make my work so much better. It is such a surprising pleasure to write something that I’m already happy with, then have it come back to me tighter, more elegant, more on the nose, better structured. Often my editors are only suggesting minor tweaks, but they’re changes that I couldn’t see my way to on my own and that make a world of difference to the effectiveness and style my work.

What about you, dear readers? How are you feeling about the editors in your lives, good and bad? How can we do better at teaching people to give and receive useful criticism in academia?

advice · book · from dissertation to book · research · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem–in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”–is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.


Books


Articles


Webinars

 

 
Know of any great resources that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
#alt-ac · dissertation · from dissertation to book · writing

Why I Want to Publish My Dissertation (Even Though I’ll Never Be a Professor)

When I decided in 2012 that I’d never go on the faculty job market, progress on my dissertation stalled for, oh, three years. Sure, I took a demanding job in research administration not long after, which made dissertation writing harder in practical terms. But my real issue with dissertation writing was psychological. Without a good reason to finish this proto-book I was pretty sure no one was ever going to read, I couldn’t find the motivation to make progress on it. Sitting down to write was mental torture.

After I’d been in research administration for a couple of years, I came to the conclusion that while I didn’t care all that much about finishing my dissertation for its own sake, having the PhD as a credential was going to be necessary for the career path I was envisioning for myself. I moved into a similar but less overwhelming job with a walking commute (which helped a ton), and over the course of the next year I finished writing the last two thirds of my dissertation. All told, it took me almost exactly eight years to get my PhD: I started the program the day after Labour Day in 2008 and I defended four days after Labour Day in 2016.

It’s been six months since I defended, and after a long period of waffling, I’m actively pursuing the publication of my dissertation. One press is awaiting my proposal with interest, and I’ve got conversations in progress with another. The proposal will go out by the end of the month (I’m writing both it and this post on a little DIY writing retreat I put together in mid-March), and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m a little surprised that this is a path I’m going down, because like finishing my dissertation, I was resistant to the idea of publishing it for a long time.

It’s not the idea of holding a book I’ve written in my hands that I don’t like. In fact, I like the idea quite a lot–I got to do it recently with this beauty, and it feels awfully nice. It’s the idea of reentering the dysfunctional and exploitative academic systems that I purposefully removed myself from when I decided not to become a professor. I will perform a frankly offensive amount of unpaid labour to get this book out, labour that won’t even be compensated by academic capital that I can use on the job market. (I’ll have it, but I have no need or place to use it.) The press and editors I work with will be underpaid for all of their work. The book, if it does really well, might sell 500 copies. It will be too expensive for most people to buy, and the university librarians I so respect and love will have to balance purchasing it against their shrinking budgets and the demand to buy ever more expensive science journals. It might come out in paperback eventually, which will help make it more accessible, but people will likely have forgotten all about it by the time it does.

So why am I doing it, given all of these good reasons not to?

It turns out that I care enough about this research–this person, really, as I write about one woman, poet, publisher, and professor Jay Macpherson–to make all of that not matter. Macpherson came to Canada as a refugee in 1940. She was part of what we now know as the ‘war guest’ program, the one that placed British children who were in danger of being killed or injured by German bombs in Canadian foster homes. Separated from her family, not well treated by her foster family, terribly lonely, and terrified about the fate of a world that seemed on the verge of apocalypse (is this sounding familiar?), she started to write. And her poems helped her–and can help us–think through how we deal with living under the threat of annihilation, our culpability as members of a society that ignores and abuses children, what happens when we don’t see ourselves in the books we read, what its like to navigate one’s own queer desire in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. Perhaps most importantly, Macpherson wrote her way to a place where her poems became a gateway to a better imagined world, one where finding the common roots of our stories, myths, languages, and loves could break down the barriers that lead to violence, war, alienation, death.

Macpherson’s poems weren’t always so hopeful. After the loss of a great love (which I think was a combination of a total loss of poetic inspiration and the end of her relationship with Northrop Frye), she went silent for nearly twenty years. Her second (and last) major collection, Welcoming Disaster, calls upon her old myths and some new ones to think through how to rebuild one’s world after a personal sort of apocalypse. And yet, despite everything she suffered–being abandoned, abused, marginalized as a woman scholar and poet, cut off from her gifts–she never became wholly disillusioned. If anything, Macpherson turned her energies even more strongly toward using her verse to make the world better, to helping those with less love or power or hope than she had. She spent the latter part of her career mostly writing political poetry and protest songs aim at righting the wrongs she saw in the world.

It was the fifth anniversary of Macpherson’s death yesterday, and it’s time for more people to know these stories than me, to absorb them into their own personal mythologies and use them, as Macpherson did, to remake the world in new and better forms. That might not be very many people, given the reach of an academic monograph, but I want it to be more people than just my committee and me.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I’ll never be a tenure-track professor and there are all sorts of reasons not to, I want to publish my dissertation.

(Thanks to Lisa Munro, who is also doing the same kinds of thinking, for inspiring this post.)

academic work · contract work · disability · equity · job market

Guest post – Have they thought about what they’re asking?: the inequity of job applications

By Alana Cattapan
Dalhousie University

The highly saturated, incredibly challenging world of the academic job market is made easier, just a little bit, by the standardization of the documents requested by search committees. For the most part there are a few documents—the cover letter, the CV, the teaching dossier, the research statement, the writing sample (and increasingly, the diversity statement)—which are then tailored according to the job ad. It is not that this is a simple task. Writing each document in the first place is challenging and job applications are a genre of writing all their own. But once they are written, it is largely a matter of refining the documents for each application.

Some hiring departments, however, are going in the direction of less standardization, not more. I saw a job ad today that asked for two sample syllabi—not merely syllabi for courses previously taught—but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department, and I was outraged. Asking applicants to write full syllabi for courses not only requires an incredible amount of time for applicants who don’t make the cut. It also perpetuates a cycle of privilege in which only candidates with enough time to carefully put together syllabi (again, above and beyond the norms of regular job applications) are considered for the position. (And this is not even considering cases where there have been accusations on the part of job applicants that their sample syllabi have been used, without permission or pay, to develop actual course content.)

Let’s consider the labour. I’m not sure how much time other people spend on a syllabus, but I spend at least a week. I think carefully about the pedagogical goals for the class, and how they might be achieved through an examination of certain concepts and themes. I think about how each selection of course material intersects with others. I reread texts for ideas about connections that might emerge when we read them in a specific order. I think about how the flow of the class might be interrupted by holidays, and how to time assignments so that students will have adequate feedback to improve. In short, there are many considerations and it takes a while to put a good syllabus together. If fifty applicants each put together one syllabus (and the train from Chicago was going sixty-five miles per hour), then for one specific syllabus request, the hiring committee will have wasted nearly a year of unpaid academic labour.

And beyond the work involved, I think about who it is that has the capacity to fulfil these kinds of requests. If contingent faculty members are applying for this job (a group that includes a disproportionate number of women and people of colour), they will write these syllabi after long days of driving between campuses. They will do so while sacrificing time that they could spend publishing their research, painstakingly crafting a syllabus they may not ever get the chance to teach. Disabled applicants, parents, and those tasked with eldercare are also placed at a disadvantage, for they might have sufficient resources to tailor a job application but not enough to develop two new syllabi. Or they might sacrifice self care, or everyday tasks, to get the application in. And sacrifice they will, because applicants have come to think that if we are to obtain the elusive tenure-track position, it will all be worth it in the end. If we don’t make the time in our lives to write the syllabi, another rare opportunity for a job will pass us by.

These requests are now not just part of tenure-track job ads, but applications for visiting assistant professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and (gasp) sessional positions. When search committees ask for more documents—for more time-consuming, carefully constructed, well-proofread expressions of one’s commitment to the academy—they are asking for more unpaid, unseen academic labour that yet again falls more heavily on those already bearing the burden of disability, responsibility, and precarity.


Alana Cattapan is a CIHR postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research examines women’s participation in policy making, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, biotechnologies, and reproductive labour.















Image: unsplash

academic publishing · book · from dissertation to book · networking

From Dissertation to Book: Doing Your Research

 

I defended in early September, and after awhile spent ignoring my dissertation completely, I’m about ready to turn my attention to it again. Six months isn’t a terribly long time to put it aside–I know lots of people who have taken a couple of years before moving to the monograph stage–but I’m always looking for a new project. And happily, the next stage in this one is one that PhDs are already really good at: research.

Let’s assume that you’re at the same stage as me in the process of transforming your dissertation into a book. Your pre-proposal online sleuthing needs to get you the information you need about two key things: the presses that you’re interested in submitting your proposal to and the acquisitions editors at those presses to whom you’re going to direct your pitch (we’ll get to that in a minute) and then your proposal.

The first question you need to answer is the question of which academic (or non-academic but scholarly–think Routledge) presses have a mandate and a catalogue that most closely match to your manuscript. This might seem counter intuitive–don’t you want to pitch to a press that isn’t already publishing competing titles? Ideally, no. You want to find a press that has proven strengths in your field, and that’s going to see your book as fitting neatly with their strengths and priorities. Plus, you’re going to do such a good job in your proposal of explaining the distinctive value proposition and contribution of your book that it will be clear to the presses you’re sending your proposal to that your book will occupy a unique but complementary place on their list.

So your research is going to be aimed at helping you do some monograph matchmaking. The best ways to figure out which presses you want to date are to:

  • Scan your dissertation bibliography and remind yourself about the books that were the most important, and closely related, to your research. Which publishers did they come out with? Were there a number clustered with one press? Put that press on your list to explore further.
  • Talk to mentors and colleagues in your field. Who have they published with recently? Which presses are doing (and publishing) interesting and innovative work in your field or subfield? Which ones come highly recommended? Which acquisitions editors do they know and trust?
  • Review the online catalogues of the presses you identified in steps one and two, including recent and forthcoming titles. In which catalogues do you find your book’s textual kin (a term I love coined by academic consultant Cathy Hannabach)? (Make sure you take notes on comparable titles that you find during this stage of research, as they’re going to form a key part of your proposal).
Once you’ve done your research and narrowed down the presses to which you’d be interested in submitting a proposal, it’s time to begin researching those elusive and deadly creatures–the acquisitions editors (AEs). These are the people to whom you’ll submit your proposal, and their job is to acquire, as the title suggests, new titles (books) for the lists (subject areas) they represent and specialize in. (You find lots of PhDs in AE roles, because they come with built in expertise and academic networks that help them source and evaluate new book proposals and titles to publish). AEs are the gatekeepers, and in pitching or proposing to an AE, you’ll need to convince him/her that:
  • your book fits the press’s mandate and 
  • your research and approach is excellent and
  • your book has a strong market and 
  • you’re more worth talking to and considering than the next guy
Here’s where your online research and academic network comes in. Who do you know who knows the AE responsible for your subject at the presses in which you’re interested? What is his/her approach? What feedback have others gotten on their proposals? What kinds of things is the AE just not interested in at all? What books are in the press’s pipeline that haven’t show up in the catalogue yet but are relevant to your looking into comparable titles and fit? Use that information to customize how you frame your book in the next stage.
What that next stage is varies. You may choose to do the convincing above via your proposal and cover letter, which I’ll talk about in the next post in this series. Or, you might start with a less formal email or conference pitch, which is the route I’ve gone. The logic is this: you’re a busy person, as are the AEs to whom you’re sending your non-insubstantial (somewhere in the realm of 10 pages, and always customized to each press’s requirements) proposal. (You might be wondering why I’m talking in plural here. Unlike journal articles, it’s totally okay at this preliminary stage–right up to when a press asks for a full monograph–to be in discussion with, and to send your proposal to, more than one press.) Why do that work without knowing that the press is even interested? And why not send your proposal to an AE who is already interested in and awaiting (eagerly, one hopes) its arrival?
Many people pitch their books to editors during meetings that they’ve set up at the big academic conference in their field, and lots of people have great success doing it that way. Karen Kelsky (aka The Professor Is In) has a handy post on how to approach the conference pitch, and a fantastic script for exactly how to talk about your book to an AE. For those of you like me who aren’t always at our annual meetings because of non-academic work commitments, for whom the timeline of the conference doesn’t match up with our plans, or who would just rather write to someone than pitch in person, email is the way to go. Many editors also prefer email pitches to in-person ones, either because of personal preference or because their conference schedules are packed–your research into the AEs for your subject should help you figure out which is the case and allow you to plan accordingly.
The script for an email pitch is very similar to the in-person one Karen gives above, with the addition of the fact that you should always try to leverage useful connections when reaching out to editors. Has your supervisor published with this press, worked this AE, and recommended that you pitch to him/her? Mention that in your email. Did you work with the AE for your field during the gap year you both took between your Master’s and PhDs? (True story!) Then make reference to that prior connection when you reach out. As with hiring managers, AEs are likely to pay closer attention to people who are already in, or come recommended by someone in, their network.
The best-case (although unlikely outcome) of your research and pitch is an invitation to submit a full manuscript. More likely, you’ll be asked to submit a proposal, but with the advantage of it being a solicited proposal to which the AE is already kindly disposed. And because the research you’ve done at this stage is laying a solid foundation, your proposal–which I’ll talk about next time–is going to be stellar. So get pitching!
day in the life · productivity · writing

Going old school: the return of pen and paper

It’s not so long ago that I finished the revisions to my dissertation and submitted the final version–not even six months. And I developed a very structured and consistent writing practice during the years I was finishing it, one that relied entirely on technology. Because I wrote in short bursts in multiple locations–at home before work, on my lunch at work, in transit–I relied heavily on the ability of my Macbook, iPad, and iPhone to sync seamlessly so that I could write on anything, from anywhere, and (because I keep all of my research backed up to Google Drive) access my research at the same time.

But after I submitted my dissertation and tried to apply the writing practice I’d developed to other projects, and even to old ones–I’m writing fiction, working on the book proposal for my dissertation monograph, publishing articles with Chronicle Vitae and Inside Higher Ed, putting together three separate book chapters, and of course writing here–I failed. I’d sit down at the computer and come up empty. The white vastness of a blank Word document was paralyzing. My old strategy–sit at computer, write things–no longer worked.

But I had a thought. About halfway through 2016, I decided to abandon my 100% digital task- and time-management system (Todoist + Google/Outlook calendars) and go back using a physical planner/journal. I’d been pseudo bullet journalling for a long time before I decided to move digital, and so I went back to it in a slightly different form, using the awesome Hobonichi Techo Cousin planner, plus a Rhodia notebook for longer notes, lists, and my cooking and reading journals. (Yes, I’m a planner geek. But if you’re into “bujo,” as the kids call it these days, or into fountain pens and good paper, you know that Hobonichis and Rhodias are awesome.) I’d also been gifted a couple of gorgeous entry-level fountain pens (a lime green Twsbi Diamond 780 and a gold Pilot Metropolitan, for those of you who like pens) as graduation presents. And I found that I really loved the tactility of planning and recording my days on paper. The feeling of a super smooth fountain pen nib on Rhodia paper is really nice, and writing on paper is physically and visually pleasurable in a way that makes me want to find something to write just for the fun of seeing the bold black lines of my handwriting against the white sheet. Too, I loved the way that handwriting slowed and controlled my thoughts, narrowed my focus only to the words I was thinking and placing on the page before me.

My planner + case combo.

So I picked up a big Rhodia notebook and began working out my ideas for those bigger writing projects on paper. Articles for IHE and Chronicle Vitae that I’d been stuck on streamed out. I didn’t even need to write out the whole piece for the move to paper to be effective–handwriting got me over the hurdle of getting started and drafting the first few tricky paragraphs, and I could then outline the rest and type it up fast. Same goes for my book proposal–I was stuck until I put pen to paper–and all of my recent Hook & Eye posts, which I’ve entirely handwritten. I’m working toward drafting longer book chapters on paper, and to making this writing practice as sustainable as the old one was for me–I had to take a bit of a break after finishing my dissertation, but I’m ready to get back to the levels of writing productivity and consistency I had then, and indeed I’m nearly there.

Handwriting this post.

If you know me, you know I’m all for new technology where it makes my life better or easier. I love my Chromecast and my iPhone and my wifi-enabled lightbulbs. But in this case, old technologies–the smooth glide of ink, the delicious curves of cursive, the stark contrast of soot-black ink on snowy white paper–serve me better and give me more pleasure. I’m on the lookout for other places in my life where that might also be the case: I still do a fair bit of digital reading, but I’m trying to spend more time with actual books. I’m all for a newfangled loaf of Jim Lahey’s no knead bread, but I’m also baking sourdough with my own starter.

Just don’t make me give up my Instant Pot.

advice · defense · PhD

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I’ve had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it’s been six months and I’ve got some perspective on it, it’s time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I’m in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It’s not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney’s snake fight? And what do people mean by defend–is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And that editor (a.k.a. your committee) is going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from the work other people in your field are doing, and why? What’s the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don’t worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation–on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits–and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it’s optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing the opening talk is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you’re working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.

 

4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don’t need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases. Happily, there’s lots of evidence out there–in the form of their scholarship and public writing–that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn’t get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person–is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there’s a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well–talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you’ve learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don’t be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn’t anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual and often-denigrated approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just without directly acknowledging it. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off–I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.

6. Know to Stop

It’s two days before your defence. You’ve prepared your statement. You’ve anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you’ve practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There’s nothing more you can do. It’s time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you’re going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague: like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student.
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it–your clothes cannot be a distraction.
  • It must make you feel AWESOME.
I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a sleeveless blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn’t matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect.
Other things to bring:
  • a bottle of water
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down)
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to — methods, results, a key experiment or analysis — flagged
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring — it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) — STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He’s been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.)

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you’re going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided to frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also — as you should — figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm, cool, and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory–a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was no.big.deal. when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you’re prepared and you come at it as a discussion that’s intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that’s intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence.