“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…”

Album Cover for Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music”

Originally, I was going to use this title for a pithy list of challenges and opportunities related to the dissertation process for the Spring semester (which is, indeed, no disco).  Upon reading feedback from my students for the Fall semester, I decided to take this title in a different direction, and that is expectations of work and readings in college.  College is serious business, and while there are so many opportunities to enjoy in college, there is still a deeper meaning for why you have dedicated four years and many economic resources to undertaking this education.  The title is not meant to be dismissive, but rather a unifying lyric for the amount of work it takes to get through it all.  What you will find below is some honest and helpful advice to manage expectations for students entering the world of higher education for the first time.  Sometimes it seems daunting, and even overwhelming, when faced with the syllabus and reading list for the first time.  There are also some protocol lessons that you just do not realize as a newbie.  Here are my best “lessons learned” to share with you:

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Vendela Vida: “Jump and a Net Will Catch You”

As we count down to 2013, I think this is sage advice for all of us who feel a little stuck or in a place of transition. As I try to get through the dissertation process and decide what the path forward looks like, I have had many a sleepless night wondering “What if?” and “What’s next?”. No one knows that answer. But the best we can do is to jump enthusiastically and purposefully forward with the hope that if we follow our internal compass, the net will be there to guide us safely to the ground.


Chasing the Heffalump

Photo Courtesy of the Walt Disney Company

This post is a little late, but I feel like it’s still important to share…

After the comps extravaganza, I became a candidate.  I felt flustered and happy.  I felt a little bit like this.  However, knowing the dangerous chasm that lies between accomplishment and satisfaction (or, rather, resting on one’s laurels), my advisor and I had a meeting almost immediately to start planning next steps.  Don’t get me wrong, there was a little happy dance of celebration.  But, “student” to “candidacy” means that I have hit the stage where dissertation will be the sole focus.  It is a milestone, not an endpoint to the journey.

In that meeting, we discussed many things: timeline, logistics, and the next steps in firming up a dissertation committee.  We also discussed the need for self-motivation and the huge swing in self-efficacy that must take place in order to keep yourself on deadline when no one external is assigning due dates. To sum up the sometimes intangible nature of the dissertation, my advisor compared the process to Winnie the Pooh chasing the Heffalump: a process filled with mystery, some hysterics, misperceptions, and ambiguity.  You have to have faith that the Heffalump exists, and moreover, be persistent in your pursuit.

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Fall Rituals: Back to School

Courtesy of school-game.com

Aisles of school supplies, shoes sales, and seven-thirty am school buses on the streets – all September signs of that most familiar fall ritual – back to school for kids of all ages.  My youngest nephew turned five this summer, so, armed with a new Spiderman backpack, he started Kindergarten this week.  The 22 thousand students in the Bethlehem Area School District started school last Tuesday.  Lehigh’s campus, so quiet and sleepy all summer, is suddenly alive with a wave of undergraduates, almost five thousand of them.  As for Lehigh’s graduate students, over two thousand of us, well there’s really no “back to school” for us – grad school never really stops.   Courses may end; exams may be taken, passed or not, even retaken; deadlines may be set, extended, or shifted; but the dissertation has a life and a timeline all its own, more dependent upon the motivation, enthusiasm, and sheer persistence of the author than on arbitrary dates.

So, as much as I’m tempted to get juicy new highlighters, fresh notebooks, and a spiffy new book bag, there’s really no need.  The old will do just fine, as I try to put the dissertation process back on track after a summer of teaching, researching and writing curriculum, vacationing and moving.  Don’t get me wrong, I have great advisors, a wonderful support system, and a shelf full of books on how to “do” dissertation work.  The sage advice in the latter runs the gamut from how to structure the work itself to how to manage and motivate yourself in the process.

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Fall Rituals: Move It!

Courtesy of Move.com

As a little kid, the end of the summer was marked by shopping trips for new shoes, replacement school uniforms, and new pencil crayons.  Labor Day weekend meant one last flurry of summer fun and  my mother trying (in vain) to get us kids to bed earlier. And even though I protested vociferously to the contrary, I was secretly relieved to be going back to school and to see my school friends after a long summer spent in the company of my brothers and sisters and the neighborhood kids.   As an adult, the end of the summer still means new shoes, perhaps a new fall outfit or two, and definitely some Labor Day fun.  However, as a doc candidate, fall also signals that most perennial of student experiences – moving.

Although I often joke that I wish Scotty could beam my stuff over in the transporter room, I actually enjoy moving.  Yes, there’re things about moving all of your possessions from one place to another that range from irritating to infuriating – making yet another trip to the liquor store for boxes, cleaning out the oven, and movers that turn out to be not so professional after all.  However, there’s also the novelty of a new place, the chance to gift, donate, recycle, or just plain get rid of stuff you don’t need or want, and the small, unexpected pleasure of finding things you’d thought were gone forever.

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Mapping a Path Out of the Information Overload

Concept mapping is my go-to tool when fighting the inevitable “brain wander” that I experience when planning (and sometimes even writing) a research paper. It’s not that I’m not focused or dedicated to the task at hand. Rather, brain wander is the practice of unveiling new and interesting topics that you then want to jam into your research paper. With all the information that you amass while doing literature reviews and preliminary work, there is a tendency to get so wrapped up in the excitement of learning new things and making those connections that you end up trying to fit pieces together that don’t quite mesh.

So, imagine yourself planning a research project or a publication, and you are just overwhelmed with information and ideas, connections and conclusions. How do you work through it? My answer is the concept map. Concept mapping is the practice of using graphical representations (thought bubbles, arrows, and icons) to chart out ideas and topics for a task at hand.  Read the rest of this entry »


Hemingway’s Hack & Smiley’s Hot Water

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day.

Ernest Hemingway on writing

Keeping the dissertation on track

There are days when the dissertation writing flows.  You’re excited, intrigued or just plain obsessively detail-oriented and determined to track down that one last obscure reference to round out your brilliant prose…  Yeah, right.  And how about those days when you’ve hit a wall and can’t remember why you chose your research topic in the first place?  That’s when you might consider a Hemingway Hack.

Hemingway reportedly didn’t like to talk about writing: he wrote.  Prolifically, as it turned out.  And his advice, aka the Hemingway Hack, remains timely for dissertation writers.  Simply put, as you get up from one writing session, mentally plan where you’re going to pick up the next time.   Whether the next step is tracking down that obscure reference or transferring your notes on a critical article or writing the very next paragraph in draft form, to ease re-entry have a plan for how you’ll begin writing the next day.

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