Post Academic


Transforming your diss chapter into an article

Picking up on last week’s post on how to work through writer’s block, I thought I’d cover the process of how I have excerpted essay-length pieces out of dense, lengthy dissertation chapters.  In my own case, this process has met with mixed results, so take my advice for what it’s worth: On the one hand, it did culminate in a published article that went through multiple self-imposed revisions, but, on the other, it also yielded an essay submission that was in limbo forever before I decided to give up on it.  Still, even with the latter, I think that the revised essay was an improvement over the original chapter, in part because the writing was much tighter, due to constraints on length as well as the need to find a more focused argument for a proposed article.

""BotCon 2006 Costumes" by Bedford (Public Domain)

Of course, this works from the assumption that you are starting with a big chunk of a diss chapter to begin with and not the other way around, where you start with an essay that you turn into something bigger and better.  So if that’s the way you work, please feel free to chime in and let us know how you go about things!

Be practical: Before you start to look for a coherent essay in the midst of a tangled jumble of a diss chapter–whether in progress or completed–know what the parameters of your end goal should be.  That means figuring out the length requirements for the journal you’re planning on sending a submission to, so that you have a target to aim for.  It’s probably not a bad idea to try to compose a 20-25 page essay out of your source material, since that’s a good length for an article and useful, too, for job application writing samples.  I know from experience that there’s nothing more nervewracking than having to tailor a 30-pp proposed article down to 20-pp essay on the fly when you receive that email from the search committee with a writing sample request.

More conversion tips below the fold… (more…)

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Dissertating and writer’s block

Following up on reader SH’s wish list of topics (Thanks, SH!), I’m tackling the issue of how to deal with writer’s block, particularly while you’re dissertating.  It’s kind of a timely topic too, since some of you are dreading dealing with the tangled mess your research has become as the summer progresses.  I’m not going to be able to give you a magic bullet or anything, since I was hardly efficient in finishing my diss and everyone works differently.  But I’ve come up with some tips from recalling some of the pitfalls I encountered, as well as looking around the corner at some logistical things that get obscured by the intellectual project that tends to come first and foremost.

"typewriter typebars" by Mohylek (Creative Commons license)

Know Yourself: Like I said, I don’t have a magic bullet for how to finish the manuscript, because everyone writes differently.  I’m not gonna give you a gimmick that writing 15 minutes a day will yield you X hundreds of pages over X period of months.  It worked for some people I know, but I never tried it and all the time it would take me to convert to that mindset would take a lot longer than 15 minutes a day.  Instead, I was the sort who needed huge blocks of time to go with the flow of my research and writing, which really only the summer could provide.  Some days were not very productive, while some hours more than made up for the lost time.  That’s just the way I worked, and I’m using my own personal, idiosyncratic approach to say that you should do what you need to do.  By now, you know how to write and you know your habits, so don’t change when you’re in the home stretch.

In short, go with what brung ya: If you can pace yourself, that’s great.  If you need to sit in front of the computer all day to get a few good hours, that’s fine, too.  If you need a block of time to crank out as much you can, make room in your schedule.  If you need carrots or sticks or both, do what it takes to fool yourself into writing a little more than you planned to.  If you write best under pressure right at the deadline, why change now when you’ve only got one really, really big paper to finish?

More advice, after the jump…

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Taking a time out *after* grad school: The professional benefits? (with poll!)

"Neon Sign: Time Out" by Justinc (Creative Commons license)

Caroline’s post about taking time off between undergrad and grad school got me to thinking about the far-fetched and not-very-practical idea of taking time out from academia *after* completing your Ph.D.  I know, the last thing a new Ph.D. wants to do is delay making sure that tenure-track position wasn’t all a mirage and finally earning grown-up money at least 5-10 years after most of your college friends did.  Plus, there are matters like knowing where you are going to live for a while and maybe moving on with a “life” life.  And a lot of folks finish their Ph.D.s after lining up a job, not vice versa, so they’re already pursuing the next stage of their professional lives.

But let’s say that there was some kind of magic or funding source that enabled you the time and freedom to consider what they wanted to do after your Ph.D. and just to recharge your batteries, like if you had a year of dissertation fellowship at the very end, but you were already finished.  It might help someone like myself and the pseudonymous “Eliza Woolf”, who addresses her own career crossroads in a new Inside Higher Ed column, “On the Fence”:

Why? What’s so great about academe?

I can think of quite a few things, but my inability to abandon ship boils down to these five factors:

1) Academe is the devil I know, and being a professor is what I’ve trained to do.

2) The promise of autonomy and a flexible schedule is awfully tempting.

3) Research and teaching feel like a career, not a job (service not so much).

4) How else will I pay off my hefty student loan debt?

5) I am terrified of starting over when a tenure-track job could be around the corner.

These are as good as any reasons to stay in academia, I guess, but having some space to deal with these uncertainties and mental blocks might help folks like us unthink some of the career assumptions above and rethink our expectations of life-as-an-academic.  Those of you who are sure that being a prof is all you ever wanted can stop reading now, although maybe that destiny is a prophecy fulfilled after the fact, since I probably wouldn’t have thought about this if I had a tenure-track position.  For a lot of us, though, it’s probably not an awful idea to have some distance from academia, especially since many of our people (like “Eliza Woolf”–and like myself!) have never or barely left a college campus after age 18.  It might not be a bad idea to look at what else is out there between our late teens and our early-to-mid 30s, huh?

Below the fold are some considerations on how I could/would/should use my (ahem, not-so) hypothetical year off…

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Our turn: Some thoughts on reanimating the Ph.D. (with poll!)

"Classic Comics: Frankenstein" by Chordboard (public domain)

Over the past few days, we’ve discussed how MLA President Sidonie Smith has put forward some provocative ideas for reforming the dissertation process.  We’ve been “admiringly skeptical,” as I put it on the MLA Twitter feed–admiring because Pres Smith seems committed in her attempts to make the lives of very vulnerable MLA members better, but skeptical because we’re not sure what will end up happening and when.  So while the MLA seems sincere in responding to the concerns of grad students and recent Ph.D.s, help can’t come soon enough for those facing the Worst. Job Market. Ever.

I think the main reason for skepticism–or at least, anxiety–has to do with whether or not recent Ph.D.s and current students are going to be made even more obsolete in any kind change over to a new way of doing things, unless the MLA has come up with the academic equivalent of a digital conversion box or something.  I’d wonder what would happen in the transitional phase, if it gets to that: Practically speaking, how would changing the system affect both those playing by the new rules or those playing by the old rules, the latter who have dutifully finished a long, long dissertation as they have been expected to?  This might be too petty on a personal level, but I wrote a 400+ page dissertation that included some very thorough argumentation and extensive research.  What took me a long time was to figure out the connective tissue within and between chapters, so am I going to be penalized for the time and effort I spent above and beyond the “suite of essays” approach PresSmith mentions that doesn’t seem to put a premium on thinking of the dissertation as a holistic thing?

On the flipside, I might also be somewhat hesitant of being the guinea pig for composing a whole new kind of dissertation, although, considering what the market is like, what would you have to lose, especially if you finish your Ph.D.a few years earlier?  The reason why I wouldn’t be so sure I’d want to be in the vanguard here is that I wouldn’t have confidence that the folks–i.e., long-time tenured faculty–judging my scholarship or even advising me on what to do would know how to evaluate new forms of scholarship.  In any case, I guess what I’m saying is that any kind of transition should have a principle of fairness built into it, even if that sounds naive.

We’re not really sure how to resolve these issues, but nobody voted us to represent anyone else either!  Below the fold, we’re–finally!–offering some suggestions on how to streamline the process that might not require the daunting task of overhauling the entire conceptual structure of what the Ph.D is.

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The latest from the MLA: Is the diss extinct?

"DMSN dinosaurs" by Luke Jones (Creative Commons)

Last week, we explored MLA President Sidonie Smith’s discussion of the role that the lengthy dissertation process has played in the latest crises in the humanities.  Over the weekend, we answered a Tweet by MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal soliciting responses to Pres Smith’s thoughts on the dissertation, telling her of our “admiringly skeptical” view on the possibility for reform.  And we also committed ourselves to considering her solutions to the problem, a promise we keep below.

Before we go into greater detail about our admiring skepticism as to how plausible the possibility of change is, we do have to give Pres Smith credit for her foresight in attempting to take on the most ingrained and daunting of academic hazing rituals, the dissertation writing process.  Beyond any issues folks have at a personal level maintaining their own sanity, balancing their finances, and figuring out their day-to-day lives through grad school, Pres Smith identifies the consequences the dissertation process has on the profession as a whole, stunting the development of young scholars at the start of their careers who may be investing too much into the diss manuscript as the end-all, be-all first book:

“They have brought with them a demonstration of expertise, not the draft of a publishable book, no matter how bold or sophisticated or deftly written. They must refine the project’s conceptualization, condense the research apparatus buttressing their arguments, pare down those arguments to the essentials, and subordinate disagreements with theorists of reference. When all this is done, the assistant professor in pursuit of a book may be left with the equivalent of one or two articles worth salvaging, anxiety about not yet knowing the large argument, and a sense of disappointment that more of his or her work hasn’t entered scholarly conversations.”

In turn, the overly specialized dissertation has a broader impact on scholarship as a whole, both in terms of research that has become too self-referential that even specialists in other sub-fields can’t understand it (much less the public) or pedagogy that hasn’t kept pace with the times.  So what Pres Smith is proposing would require reform of the whole grad school process, from changing the expectations of students starting Ph.D. programs thinking that they need to write a diss that’s a future book to the tenure requirements when/if someone needs to turn that faraway vision into a reality.

Below the fold are a few alternative forms of the dissertation that Pres Smith proposes…

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The latest from the MLA: Acknowledging the problem is the first step

"Dinosaurs Attack!" by akaalias (Creative Commons)

I know it’s totally lame that I’m reading the MLA Newsletter (registration req’d) with more gusto than before, even though my status in the profession is more precarious than ever.  But with all the various crises facing humanities doctoral programs–from the existential crisis of being and extinction to the mundane day-to-day crisis of  funding to second-order crises like academic publishing–it’s interesting to see how the biggest academic professional organization is dealing with these problems.  In particular, current MLA President Sidonie Smith of U Michigan has been focusing on ways to rethink the dissertation and how that might reshape graduate education.  As Smith sees it, one of the main hurdles to timely time-to-degree (see that NYTimes article on humanities Ph.D.s taking 9.3 years on average to complete their degrees) is the unwieldy dissertation process as it is now, which impacts not only the personal lives of grad students, like those who might want to start families and have no idea where they will live, but also professional development in delaying time-to-tenure–if you’re even lucky enough to get on the tenure track, I might add .

It’s great that Smith is taking such a sincere and proactive stance challenging one of the sacred cows of the Ph.D., the dissertation, so it’ll be interesting to see how her words translate into actions.  While I hate playing the naysayer–OK, maybe I don’t hate it so much!–conceptual solutions can only go so far in a profession that is, in many ways, defined by looking backwards and not forwards.  Below the fold, I walk through what Smith identifies as the problems and possible solutions to the syndrome of crises that converge in the literature Ph.D.

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