advice · enter the confessional · supervision · writing

The Terror Curve: A Theory of Motivation, Accountability, and Writing

Riddle me this. Why does everyone start their PhD telling me that they’re going to finish in four years, but no one does? Why does almost everyone finish their coursework on time, but then go two years without producing a dissertation chapter? Why do students with cogent and workable dissertation proposals utterly fail to write their dissertations?

The answer, I suggest, is largely structural rather than individual. I have ideas, ideas that have to do with structure and accountability, just like all my other ideas.

Let me present you with Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing, as a chart. I drew it on a piece of paper:

Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing

The vertical axis measures fear. The horizontal axis measures time. The blue line is the baseline fear of writing that most of us have–you know, the reason we scrub toilets instead of writing because we are more scared of writing than we are put off by unpleasant household cleaning tasks. The red line is deadline pressure, which grows in a non-linear fashion from “meh, I’ve got LOADS of time” to “BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS AND HAND ME THAT CASE OF RED BULL WE ARE WRITING A WHOLE BOOK TODAY, PEOPLE.” I call this line, “The Terror Curve.”

Writing happens where Baseline Fear and Deadline Fear intersect: this is the point for many writers where the fear of consequence for not writing exceed the fear or writing.

This is not ideal. If you want to get the writing started sooner, one of two things has to happen: either you reduce the base line of writing fear (which we’ve discussed, mostly by lowering your standards and cultivating a daily writing habit), or by dramatically accelerating the crisis points in the Terror Curve.

Consider coursework. Each seminar lasts a mere 12 weeks. Every single week, students have to show up in class, and demonstrate that they’re read the material. Often, mid-semester, students have to produce a formal proposal for their final paper, and hand it in for grades. They might have to do an annotated bibliography a few weeks later, and then there is a hard deadline for the paper shortly after the semester ends. Courses usually culminate with a research paper, but the weekly reading deadlines, and scaffolded writing assignments mean there are lots of shorter and less dramatic Terror Curves, with lower stakes, that may in turn reduce the Baseline Writing Fear.

In chart form: Note how manageable this looks. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is lower because the stakes are lower. Note that writing happens at many points in the semester. Note that the Terror Peaks are not at very high fear threshold points.

The Terror Curve in coursework

But how do we organize dissertation writing? Proposal complete, students are set entirely loose, with an injunction to “write something” and then, when they deem that something is somehow ready in some way for some kind of feedback, to turn it in. The only real deadline is Dissertation Defense, which isn’t a date until the thing is actually done, but there are other deadlines that are squishier or aspirational like “finish within four years.”

Here is the dissertation in chart form. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is high to start, because no one has written a dissertation before and doesn’t know how, and also this is the Main Goal of the PhD. Note that the Terror Curve is dramatically bent — the timeline, usually about two years, is very long, allowing for major non-writing to happen, with dramatic shooting up of terror level right at the end. The Baseline Writing Fear is usually much higher for the dissertation project than for any other writing the student has ever done, because it’s not only a huge piece of writing, but in a genre the student has never written in before, with the added bonus of being incredibly high stakes.

The Terrifying Dissertation Curve

What I often see but wish I didn’t is students writing the entire dissertation in the red zone of the terror curve: trying to do a whole dissertation in 6 months, rushing it, miserable, producing poor work. What I want to see is steadier writing, more enjoyably, with real time for revision and rethinking and savoring the process (really.)

So here is Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror. I am the terror curve for my students. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not scary and I’m not mean. But I *am* the deadline that their work otherwise lacks. I push the moment of reckoning dramatically forward, and lower the stakes, so that the writing gets done sooner and better and more easily.

Map it like this:

Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror

Note particularly the shaded areas: these are zones of continuous writing. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear diminishes over time before rising again before the defense (a new hurdle, with new readers). Note that there are LOTS of little deadlines, and that the difference between the fear of writing and the fear of not writing are pretty short, which means less procrastination and fewer mood swings.

The details are unique to each student, and negotiated. Some students book regular office visits with me. Some send me writing every week that I don’t read. Some produce detailed timelines of chapter deadlines and revision schedules. The key thing is, we determine what kind of push or prompt they need from me to ensure that they will stay accountable to their own projects.

It works at the program level too. Annual progress reports where students really account for their year of writing, and a meeting to make plans, that can work. Once-per-semester meetings with students beyond program limits, to discuss progress and celebrate it and plan it. Anything that lets students know that we expect them to get some writing done, and we will be discussing it sometime in the next couple of months makes it more likely that it becomes scarier NOT to write than it would be TO write.

Can I tell you? I failed more than one class in my undergrad because I just didn’t write the essays. I didn’t write them because I’m an anxious perfectionist with time management problems. This is why, incidentally, I like sit-down exams and in-class essays so much. Anyhow, these classes I failed usually had a mid-term essay, that I didn’t hand in and was told to just hand it in whenever, and a final essay, that I also didn’t hand in, because I still had to write the mid-term essay and I was full of shame and loathing. If the class also had a final exam, I would ace it, and then the prof would call me and wonder why why why I just didn’t get the writing done, because I was obviously so damn smart and had clearly read and understood everything. When you fall so far behind, and no one is really holding you to it, it’s easy to get rid of all the shame and fear by just not doing anything at all. I don’t want my students to suffer like this. This is not an uncommon problem among academics.

Ultimately, it would be better if we wrote without fear. That comes, eventually, from making writing a habit, being steady, and seeing the results. Most of us don’t get there without some training, and some practice, and that comes from accountability. We need more training and mentoring too, obviously, but a really easy piece is the accountability.

Oh — about the charts? I was going to do them all fancy on the computer, but I didn’t have time, because I need to finish this blog post and do some writing on my book chapter. My writing coach and I set a deadline, and it’s only three weeks away …

advice · grad school · supervision

How to Find a Supervisor

As I’ve been tracking graduate student progress through our degrees, it very often happens that students don’t secure a supervisor by the required date. Invariably, when I contact them to ask what’s going on, they admit to embarrassment and confusion about how, exactly, they’re supposed to get someone to agree to be their supervisor.

Hence this post.

Securing a supervisor is hard. And you have to do it on your own, taking charge of a process where you’re asking people, basically, to be in charge of you for a couple of years, but you’re in charge of asking them to do this and so it all feels weird. You may have the sense that you yourself are an unimportant worm. You may feel that profs are unapproachable gods who are too busy and remote to meet with you (some profs may cultivate this feeling, which doesn’t help). You may feel your project is underdeveloped and you have no right to talk to an expert about it since you will be revealed as a fraud. You may be afraid of rejection. You may be afraid of office hours. You may just generally be afraid.

I have a formula for you! Just follow the script and you will be favorably impressing everyone with your professionalism, and you won’t have to wonder if you’re doing it wrong!

Important things to remember:

  • You and the supervisor ultimately choose each other: you both have agency
  • A conversation is not a commitment
  • You will likely have to talk to several potential supervisors before choosing one
  • Begin as you mean to go on: be prepared, take feedback, meet deadlines
What you need to begin:
  • A one-page description of your proposed dissertation project
  • Access to the department web page
  • A dose of courage and self-efficacy
Choosing a supervisor is your first real act as a truly independent researcher: it takes courage to tell the world, or some small portion of your department’s tenured or tenure-track faculty, that you have a book length project to create and you would like their help with it. Acknowledge your nerves as natural, but don’t let them stop you. You will need the description of your project to share with prospective supervisors so that they can get a sense of what you want to do. Bonus: if you get nervous talking with authority figures, a document is a great thing to hold onto with your hands or to let speak on your behalf. You will need access to the department web page in order to scour profiles to drum up the maximum number of people to consider as potential supervisors.
Next, write some emails to ask for a meeting. Here is a template for that email:

Dear Prof. Morrison,

I am a first year PhD student, and I [took a graduate course with you / am taking a graduate course with you / read your profile on the department web page / know your research].  

I am in the process of looking for a dissertation supervisor, and I am trying to meet with faculty members whose research interest intersect with my own. I am proposing a dissertation on the use of fake mustaches as a pre-text for duck-face-making in Instagram selfies among 8-10 year old boys. Your own work on digital autobiography, particularly addressing methodology, seems relevant to my own work. I have attached a one-page description of my project (in very early stages!) if you would find it helpful to understand what kind of work I’m interested in. 

Might you be available to meet with me to discuss my project? 

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request,
Full Name

Please note:
  • This email is short and direct and a little bit formal
  • You can write to profs you’ve already met, as well as those you haven’t
  • You want to be clear you’re not asking them to commit to being your supervisor by return email, but just asking if they’re willing to meet with you to discuss the possibility
  • You want to be specific enough in noting why you’re interested in meeting this professor that she doesn’t feel you’re just emailing everyone.
  • Don’t send more than one page of writing, because nobody has time for that.
I encourage you to write to several professors at the same time. It will take time to arrange meetings, so you just fritter away time meeting everyone sequentially. Do a blitz of all the likely candidates. When you meet with each of them, you should … oh hold on. I’ll make a list.
Discuss this at your meeting:
  • Are they interested in your project?
  • Would they be willing to take on any more students than they have?
  • What kind of working relationships do they tend to have with students? This means:
    • frequency of meeting
    • mentoring support for the degree
    • help with writing as well as research
  • Would they be willing to work with you, as a supervisor or as a committee member?
  • Can they suggest anyone else as a possible supervisor or a committee member?
After you’ve met all the faculty members on your list, as well as any suggested by any of the faculty members you’ve asked, you should have a good sense of who you click with and who you don’t, what their availability might be like, and if they’re willing to work with you. Then you can send another email to the faculty member you’d like to choose as your supervisor:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 

Thank you for meeting with me last week to discuss my proposed dissertation project. Your comments were very helpful. I feel like your expertise is a really good fit with what I want to do: would you be willing to be my supervisor? 

If yes, I have a form for you to sign, for my file. If no, thank you very much for your time in meeting with me. 

Best wishes,
Full Name

Please note: no one is going to be heartbroken if you meet with them, but choose a different supervisor. Many of us know very well when your project is a better fit with someone else. Many of us already have a ton of students and aren’t pinning all our dreams of supervisory fulfillment on you. Really, it’s totally okay. No one is going to take this personally. They will be impressed by your professionalism, and probably ready to serve as a committee member on down the line.

So there you go. It’s a formula, and it’s got form letters. Get used to being in charge: you’ve got a whole dissertation to write, that you’re going to have to take the lead on everyday. Securing a supervisor is the first step: put your best foot forward. You can do it!

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · advice · grad school · supervision

#Alt-Ac 101 for Supervisors

While I’ve never been a supervisor of graduate students, a big part of my job is working with supervisors to give them the resources they need to ensure that their graduate students and postdocs succeed in and out of their research. And supervisors, I see you. I see how hard it is for you to not want for your graduate students what you found, the academic career you were told you were training for when you started graduate school. I see the ways you work to fight against the indoctrination that plagues both you and the people you supervise, that says that an academic life is the only challenging and worthy one. I see you struggle to know what to do, what to say, in the face of numbers like these: that only 18.6% of the people you supervise who finish their degrees will get full-time academic jobs, and about half of the people who start out with you won’t finish at all. I see you avoid the topic of non-professorial jobs because you’ve never had one, and you don’t know what one of those might look like or how you might best help your students and postdocs prepare for one.

I don’t think that supervisors need to be everything to all people. I don’t expect you to be career counsellors as well as brilliant writers, researchers, teachers. I don’t expect you to know the ins and outs of every career your students and postdocs might be interested in. I don’t expect you to stop doing the work of being a researcher and teacher you’re doing. But I do expect you to acknowledge reality, and to do what you can to ensure that all of your students and postdocs succeed, not just those very few who follow in your footsteps. And I’ve got some practical ideas about how.

1. Talk about all kinds of career paths and valourize none. 

Ask your students where they want to end up. Ensure that they know the numbers, nationally and within your program, of tenure-track placements. Encourage them to think about a variety of post-degree career paths. Never talk as though the assumption is that everyone will become a tenure-track professor, and never denigrate non-professorial careers. Talk about all kinds of careers as equally valid, and equally valourous. 
2. Keep track of your graduates, and not just the ones that become professors. 

Know what your supervisees are doing with their PhDs. Be able to point to specific careers when your current students and postdocs ask what people with a PhD in their field could do. Know at least a little about your former students’ transition stories, how they got where they are, what they did to get there, and so that you can help your current students decide what they should be doing to prepare for their post-PhD lives. You already know how to help your students prepare to become professors, but learn how to help them to become other things as well. 
3. Know where to refer your students when you’re out of your depth. 

Almost certainly, your university has a graduate professional development program. It also has a career centre, one that has at least some capacity to support PhDs in their career development and preparation. It has people like me, whose job is to help both faculty and students navigate the changing academy and what comes after. There are also tons of skill and professional development resources open to students and postdocs looking to diversify their skill sets. Good ones to know about include: 
  • online professional development workshops in career development, communication, entrepreneurship, research, teaching & learning
  • Mitacs STEP: one and two day intensive workshops in leadership & management, communication & relationship building, personal & professional management, entrepreneurialism 
  • over 3,500 online skill development workshops which are free to people with library cards in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and many other Canadian cities.  
4. Give your students and postdocs things to read. 

The number of resources out there for PhD-trained job seekers has grown exponentially since I was conducting my own job search, and being tapped into the higher ed web will help ensure that your students are aware of the realities of the academic job market and glorious variety of places PhD holders happily end up. Some good resources include: 
Some really, really do want to become professors, and some will. Some see their PhD as a six year contract job that can pay reasonably well. Some want to return to a past career with enhanced credentials. Some don’t know anything beyond the fact that they want to spend a few years immersing themselves in a subject they find fascinating. All are valid, and all should be openly acknowledged. But faculty should also be aware that the culture of academia is such that many people who start not wanting to become a professor will end up internalizing that desire by osmosis. Do what you can to keep that from happening: 100% of people desperate for the thing that less than 20% will find is a recipe for misery. 

6. Be open about what a professorial career is actually all about. 

Your supervisees see you do very few things. They see you teach and supervise (them). They might see you do limited parts of the research part of your job. They read your finished publications. They rarely see the service, the paperwork, the administrative minutiae, the hours of class prep, the shitty first drafts, the lonely hours writing along with your cat, the struggle to stay funded and keep your lab running, the politics, the meetings, and on. Being an academic is a job like any other, with its good and its bad, and you owe it to your students and postdocs to ensure that they understand the reality (not the fantasy) of doing what you do. PhDs often choose to pursue a professorial career without actually knowing much about what that job will be like, and I’ve seen the reality of a professorial career be an unpleasant surprise more than a few times.