These are scary times. Each of us faces a different set of hurdles right now. Some of you are teaching online without the preparation time necessary to learn the pedagogy. Others of you are trying to do your own classwork while now also being expected to homeschool your children, or to care for them while you work. Many of you are doing all three at the same time: teaching online, your own classwork and taking care of your children full time. This is the time to do whatever it takes to get you through the day, and not to worry about making progress on that Master’s paper, publishable research, or dissertation. Your health, your kid’s happiness, your family, your community, all come first. Give yourself a break. If you feel overwhelmed, identify which tasks must be done today, and then reward yourself for doing them. Forget the rest. We also all need time to process the fear that comes with living through this crises.
I’ll say it again. Give yourself a break. If you are just managing to juggle that “must do” list, good for you. Take one day at a time. Put one foot forward after the other, and rest. Stop reading here…. the advice below is for people who have some empty moments in their days and psychic time to spend on their writing.
There are some of you without kids, or with partners who share the child-care, without too many classes to teach (or take) and you have more time on your hands than before you were locked into your homes. And there are others, like me, who feel better if you can hammer out an hour or two of writing a day. Now, I haven’t been very successful at this, I’ll admit. But when I am it makes me feel as if at least something hasn’t changed, that some part of my life is uninterrupted, and that helps me feel better about the rest of the bizarre changes that have affected my life. If you are like me, and moving forward on writing projects increases mental health and well-being, this column is for you. And you may also be interested in my up-coming FREE online writing community where I'll be hosting a FB accountability group Mondays in May. Details can be found here https://www.facebook.com/events/549427612660899/
Everyone with a doctorate shares one life experience: writing. For some of us, the dissertation is the most major writing project of our careers, for others it is just a launching pad for a career as a writing professor. But for everyone, it is a hurdle that takes incredible work to jump. And while you are writing the dissertation, the end is never assured. Even in the best of times, this is a struggle. And we are in the worst of times.
The first step in getting on with writing a Master’s thesis or dissertation is accepting that it is going to be a struggle. Writing is always a struggle, staying focused enough to write when the world is falling apart around us is even tougher. But writing about your research shouldn’t break your spirit or dampen your enthusiasm for your discipline. You’ve chosen your topic because you care deeply about it. If you have the time and energy, your writing be an escape from the chaos that swirls around us now.
Reach out for the mentoring that you need. If you need an extra year, to easy your anxiety right now, ask for it! Our Ph.D. program decided to give every student an extra year to meet their deadlines. Make your needs known. You might be surprised at how humane the faculty gatekeepers really are. In any case, you need to contact your major advisor and assess the situation and make a plan together. That plan may be to put your fieldwork off for 6 months, and to focus on the archival aspect of your dissertation. It may be to ask the IRB to allow you to do interviews online instead of in person. But the world has changed, and so must your plans. Be proactive, make a plan, and be on the same page as your advisor.
Every student deserves helpful respectful and reasonably prompt feedback. Do remember, however, that your major professor is living in the same moment of chaos as you are. He or she may be sick, or have children to home school, so don’t feel neglected if a response to your request for a virtual meeting doesn’t come quickly. Be persistent, after two weeks of silence, it’s OK to reach out again. It is important to schedule a meeting to talk about a way to move forward during these painful times. If you need deadlines to finish a chapter, ask for them. If you’d like to know what you got right, as well as what needs to be improved, ask your advisor to be sure to point out what’s on-target as well as what needs improvement.
If your major professor responds in ways that undermine your confidence or self-esteem, perhaps this isn’t the best advisor for you? One way to begin in this moment of self-isolation is to reach out to other potential mentors by zoom or skype. Request a meeting to talk about your research project. Now, formalizing a change in mentorship might need to await a return to campus but finding other faculty who might help with your research project does not have to wait until we are once again face to face.
If you don’t have the time or energy to write at the moment, that’s fine. Give yourself a break. But if you do, try to create a schedule. Decide how much time a day you have, 30 minutes, an hour, two hours? Perhaps one afternoon a week. Whatever it is, put it in your schedule and follow that schedule religiously. Life is chaotic now and your writing time might be just a little island of structure in a moment of uncertainty. It may be that some days the only “writing” task you can manage is listening to a podcast of a book you need to “read” while you take your daily walk around the neighborhood. That’s moving forward. Within a few weeks, I’m going to begin an on-line writing community, a free resource. Once a week I’ll give a few writing tips, set the clock and hold an hour writing session. A second time each week, I’ll do a “Writing Tips” zoom workshop for up to ten people to talk about different phases of the writing process. Check the Risman’s Writing Retreat page for times and dates.
Think about it this way: when a college graduate becomes a full-time worker, all financial advisors suggest saving a very small amount of money every month, having it taken out of their paycheck before it gets deposited into a checking account. If someone does that, they just may have savings for a down payment on a home. Even if you save just $10 a month, that is a start. So too with writing. Even though you are scarce on time, and mental energy right now, pay yourself first. By the end of your imposed solitude, you will have something you have created.
The time you spend writing during this time of physical distancing can help you answer one of the most important questions about choosing the correct path forward for your career. Do you enjoy it? Do you look forward to the time each day you escape from the news, (perhaps) the kids, the focus on the illness all around us? Do you like to write? Think about it, seriously. There are a variety of jobs open to incredibly well-educated Ph.Ds. And only some of them mimic the job of your major professor. Most of them do not. Now is the time to take stock and really pay attention to what part of your work makes you want to get up in the morning. Do you take most joy from interacting, even online, with your students? Is writing something that brings you joy, or is it primarily a hoop you are jumping through for your degree. Be honest with yourself.
Do you love research, but really dread writing it up? Maybe a career as a research scientist in a big lab or major research or policy Institute is right for you. Do you just love to teach but dread writing? Perhaps a full-time tenure track community college position would make you most happy. Do you just love to do research, write and teach, but prefer to spend more time on the research and writing? If so, you are probably someone who should take an extra year or two to build up your vitae to be competitive for a research intensive university. If you love to teach, and research and writing is something you enjoy but don’t want to spend too much time doing, build up your expertise as a scholar-teacher. Even here, however, writing matters. But try writing something about pedagogy, or make yourself an expert in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Very few academic jobs are going to exist next year, the pandemic will leave a stalled economy, so this is a long term strategy.
As you write during this terrifying and isolating moment in history, why not keep a journal about how you are feeling. Write a set of field notes after each writing session, and when it’s time to think about job-hunting, use those feelings to steer your course into the job market. But first, remember, a good MA thesis is a finished one, a good dissertation is a done dissertation. The work you are doing now is only the start of your career and not the measure of your worth. Remember that what is a measure of your worth is how you manage to survive, and help others survive, this pandemic. If writing helps you to stay focused, to feel good about yourself then move forward with your writing. Make yourself a writing schedule and engage with the process. If you want some additional structure, write with me. It’s free. Stay healthy and sane throughout these times.