Sunday, March 4, 2007

List-ing (Listless?)

One of the difficulties of grad school is negotiating time, especially once you go ABD. Everyone seems to assume you know what you’re doing by this point: here, go off somewhere and write your dissertation and bring it back to me when you’re done. This leaves you with vast uncharted amounts of time and a massive to-do list that paralyzes you through the sheer unstartability of it all. (You might, for example, go off on a huge OED hunt for the history and usage of words like “unstartability.” Trust me, it’s a less exciting word history than you think.) This problem ironically becomes especially acute if you secure a fellowship for your “dissertation writing year” — and I usually do not say that grad students on fellowship have it harder than those teaching or scraping together other forms of work, but in this one respect it is more difficult.

In the early years of grad school, your schedule might seem quite self-evident, if not manageable (and how quickly the nostalgia for those seemingly “tough times” sets in!), because there are distinct tasks with easily identifiable deadlines. For example, a typical day’s to-do list might look like this:

- frantically finish reading the novel for today’s section
- prepare something to do in section
- teach section
- attend lecture for TAship
- read everything for tomorrow’s seminar

See? A pretty decent amount of tasks that you know must be done by a certain point or else the whole thing is moot. (Note to actual grad students: you’ll notice that the big deadline of passing the quals next year is not reflected in this list — it’s better to add one reading list item a day to your to-do list than try to read them all at the last minute next spring. Cramming doesn’t really work in grad school. Maybe I’ll post on this later.) On the other hand, after you pass all those exams and qualifiers and have nothing to do but write your dissertation, your to-do list typically looks something like this:

- wake up
- write the dissertation
- find a tenure-track job

With a list like this, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. It’s even hard to get out of the fetal position you’ve been in, whimpering on the floor. The temptation, if you’re teaching, is to revert to the much-easier-to-peruse-without-imploding first list, minus seminar reading (I could write a dozen posts about grad students and the teaching trap and time management if you’d like). Eventually, though, you learn that you have to break down the project into smaller and more manageable tasks and make more pragmatic to-do lists (Note to advisors: telling your advisees that they should only think about writing a chapter instead of the dissertation is still a bit big. Could you give us a few more focused suggestions about how to leap in and start tackling a part of the project instead?).

However, I have recently developed an unhealthy relationship with my to-do lists. Making lists makes you feel soo good. Crossing off items gives you such a rush that you just want to do more things so you can cross them off too. But like a coke addict, I’ve become habituated to my usual list-making and doing that line just doesn’t last as long as it used to. I need more and more, and my lists have gone in the opposite direction as the ABD list, from overwhelmingly vague to minutely petty:

- wake up
- breakfast
- feed cats
- catbox
- shower
- dress
- sit around drinking my tea
- make to-do list for chapter
- fix those three transitions in part 2 of chapter

So, while I may feel productive and successful every day and tell people, “Wow, I did 10 thinks on my to-do list today!” I ask you, am I really getting done what needs to be done? As Tenured Radical put it in one of her earlier posts,
one of the things I have learned over the twenty years since I finished my dissertation is that hard work isn’t such a big deal, but figuring out how to direct it even semi-efficiently can be.
I think that this is now what I need to work on: keeping my Eyes on the Prize (i.e. will this to-do list item actually help finish the dissertation or get me a job?) and making sure that my “productivity” is actually productive. That and keeping a balance between the small and overwhelming list and the long list of picayune details.

Thoughts? Helpful suggestions? Got any magic fairies or wands that instantaneously complete your work for you? And could I borrow 'em?

1 comment:

drsharna said...

Sisyphus honey, I feel your pain. Your to-do list looks a lot like mine but without the taking the kiddo to & from high school and having intellectual debates with her about music her questionable taste in clothing and why she should avoid from people with penises until she's at least 30. -Oh, and my mid-day nap. We mustn't leave that off the list.

The worst parts of the whole dissertation process for me are the lack of structure and lack of real guidance. Sure, the committee members can tell us "just write a chapter," but they've all done it before. Then there are the nasty surprises lurking around any possible corner. My chair asked me to get my IRB paperwork together at the last minute last Wednesday night because the due date for this month's cycle was Thursday.

My spouse doesn't get it AT ALL and like everyone else in my world, I can't talk about my research because it's so far over their comprehension. For every milestone I cross, all he wants to know is when I'll be finished.

The overwhelming feeling from the enormity of the project and the guilt are two of the biggest productivity killers for me. All I can tell you is to take baby steps. Writing a dissertation is like eating an elephant. It can be done, you just have to take one bite at a time. Even if I just do a little bit, I try to do SOMEthing to my dissertation every day. If something comes up and I can't physically write or read something to contribute to the work I've already done, then I consider the endless thinking about it as my contribution for the day and don't allow myself to feel guilty about it.

That said, my proposal is almost ready to submit to full committee and I'm shooting for a June 1 completion date so I can get the fuck out of PhD school in July.