What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Grad School

After I wrote my last post, Confessions of a Struggling [PhD Student] Writer, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what I’d written was helpful to people! One of my friends even shared it with her students, who were (reportedly) comforted by the idea that good writers are made through painstaking and heartbreaking labor, not born. As I was reading about the uses of epideictic rhetoric in the service of war, a few other things were rattling around in my brain as well.

One is that I’m over the halfway mark on my PhD program – huzzah! But now I am faced with the fairly terrifying task of getting everything lined up so I can write a dissertation and graduate without taking a whole decade to do it. And that got me thinking – what do I do now that I really wish I’d started doing the day I began grad school? Predictably, I thought this might be fun to write up in a list.

  1. Write a quick summary of EVERY SINGLE THING that you read – include the main points, the theoretical contributions by the author, and key words – and keep it all in the same place. I am intensely envious of people who seem able to recall the highlights of everything they’ve read in the past, but my brain does not work like that. My brain is very fond of keyword-searchable banks of information, especially when I have to write a lit review.
  2. Use some kind of citation management system. I use Zotero, which is a free, open-source program that you can use across operation systems and access from the web. Even after my institutional affiliation changes, I’ll have access to this.
  3. Figure out how to take notes – fast. I can’t even begin to say how hard this was for me. I rarely studied anything in high school; in college the only things I studied for were chemistry and organic chemistry (my downfall!). So when I got to grad school and found that the volume and complexity of the work before me were actually a challenge, I had to figure out how to take notes. I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. I experimented with typing up my notes, but found that handwriting was better because it forced me to summarize and make decisions on the fly about what was really important about an article or a seminar lecture. I am still working on some kind of decent note-conversion system and I suspect I will be for quite a while.
  4. Prioritize self-care. American culture tends to glorify busyness and that bleeds over into grad school. If you let it (and I have – sometimes I still do) it will eat up ever moment of your life, cannibalizing your sanity, your relationships, the non-academic parts of yourself to fuel the pressure to be doing something all the time. For me, self-care looks like no-guilt trips to a spa on occasion, drinking quality tea and coffee while staring into space, snuggling with world’s most adorable man and the world’s most adorable dog (see below), and riding my motorcycle. If I don’t have these things, my sanity starts to crumble and I can’t even string together sentences. The point for me is that I need to remember to put these things first, I won’t be able to achieve much academically. IMGP0083
  5. Build friendships within your program, but don’t neglect friendships elsewhere. My friends in grad school have helped me through when I felt like quitting, inspired me to do better, and sympathized with me when I felt like an incompetent idiot. My friends from outside grad school reminded me that in the grand scheme of things, grad school is a very privileged position to be in, and to stop whining please, because most folks don’t give a damn about the rhetorical significance of anything Foucault wrote.
  6. If you lend books out, take a picture of the person you lent it to holding said volume. I still have no idea who has my copy of Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. If it’s you – can I please have it back?
  7. How to ask good questions. This one is still really hard for me. It takes me a while to formulate a careful question that is relevant to anything. I’m not an instinctively critical person, and I usually tend to agree with academic articles.

So, that’s my list! For now, at least. Maybe I’ll write an update when I’m finished with my dissertation. What things do you  wish you’d known – either before you started grad school, or before you started some other major undertaking?

Love, peace, and 20/20 hindsight,
Sumiko

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Confessions of a Struggling [PhD Student] Writer

I’ve come to the conclusion that we (go ahead and formulate that ambiguous pronoun to suit your own ends) don’t talk about the process of writing as much as we ought to. Of course, this isn’t news to writing teachers and professors or those who conduct extensive research on writing. I have fairly frequent conversations with people who doubt their writing abilities and hold others’ writing abilities in high esteem, as though a well-written essay is something of a genetic gift, much like being beautiful or having a photographic memory. So I thought maybe this would be a good thing to talk about (and I really do welcome conversation on this particular topic, since I spend a good deal of my time writing, thinking about writing, or reading the products of many hours of writing labor.

Nobody expects to be brilliant at the violin, or racquetball, or painting, or cooking without any practice. So why do we expect ourselves to be great writers without decades of practice?

2012-08-26_16-11-53_738

Exhibit A: I wonder how many hours worth of writing went into these?

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Hemingway, who despite his many flaws, was admittedly a hell of a writer. It goes something like this: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” I think he may have also compared writing to bleeding into a typewriter – thank goodness we don’t have to use those behemoths anymore. My wrists hurt just thinking about it. And while there may be some truth in those analogies, they are both irritating because they make writing seem effortless. For me, it is anything BUT effortless. So here are some things – confessions, lessons, what-have-you – that I have figured out about writing for myself.

  1. There are some things that I am really terrible at writing. And by this, I mean that there are some genres or formal conventions of writing that I struggle with mightily, to the point where I avoid them if I can. For example, the academic literature review makes me want to stick myself in the eye with a pencil. It’s like slogging through thick mud for miles on end, and when it’s over there isn’t even a shower to wash the mud off.
  2. There are some things that I am less terrible at writing. Such as academic theoretical pieces on some arcane topic. I get nerdily excited at the chance to speculate wildly, erm, I mean theorize seriously, about stuff like radical heteroglossia or rhetorical subjectivity or mediated representations of domestic violence. Everyone (I hope) has things that they are naturally drawn towards. And usually when I’m drawn towards something, I am better at it than I would be if I were forced to do it (see #1).
  3. There are plenty of “rules” of writing that I am bad at remembering. Commas are one of these; apostrophes are another. I have to look up the rules for plural possessive its’/its all the damn time. (Fortunately, hilarious writers like The Oatmeal have given me illustrated comics by which to remember this stuff. Or at least give me a laugh while I’m looking up the difference. Why are the shortest words in the English language the most troublesome?) Luckily, humans have produced the internet and many websites on grammar to save our asses when these things come up.
  4. The difference between a shitty piece of writing and a good piece of writing is time and drafts and editing and revising and proofreading and maybe some more coffee, please. In no particular order.
  5. Spell check < proofreading. Point in case. At the end of #3, I had originally written “to save our assess” instead of “to save our asses” and spell check was supremely unhelpful. Of course, being able to proofread depends on setting aside time for it…which leads me to…
  6. Although last-minute “panic inspiration” the night before a deadline is helpful as far as adrenaline goes, it’s not really a sustainable writing practice. You know what is a sustainable writing practice for me? Writing. Even if it’s dreadful and terrible, the act of pounding out words on a keyboard is something that somehow (magically, I suspect) leads to decent work. And then of course, there’s all the stuff in #4.
  7. Sentence structure is still a bitch. Something that makes perfect sense in my head sounds grotesque when read aloud. I frequently find myself going back and revising tortured sentences. There’s some perverse part of my brain that apparently really loves multiple clauses in a sentence.

It only looks easy from the outside when nobody talks about their writing processes! During my time in grad school I’ve received the most beautiful gift of honest feedback from my fellow writing group members, and I’ve learned to be a better reviewer and commenter on other people’s work in progress. Just simply SEEING other people’s drafts was a revelation at first. When I learned that one of the people whose writing I really admire was once an outline/prose mix studded with “write about XYZ here” and “need something else” and “this is a terrible word choice” I was immensely comforted. Suddenly my works-in-progress, replete with phrases like “blah blah blah” and reminders to “CITE THIS!” didn’t seem so shoddy, so unintelligent, so unworthy.

I’ve also learned to do a word search for “blah blah blah” before submitting any drafts to professors.

Love, peace, and honesty in writing,
Sumiko

P.S. In an effort to be honest, I must also admit that as I write this, I’m procrastinating a research project proposal that is due in less than 24 hours. I am also terrible at taking my own advice. I’m going to rationalize this by saying that I’m following my advice from #6 instead…and now that I’m done pounding these words out on a keyboard I will go back to my other work. No, really. I totally will.

What I’ve Learned in Grad School

To celebrate surviving the first two and a half weeks of my 21st year of school, here is a post about what I’ve learned in grad school! No, this is not going to be about anything actually academic, but I love writing lists and I think all of these things are pretty funny on some level.

  1. Not only is “dissertating” a word, it’s a word that inspires envy in those of us who aren’t even thinking about comps yet.
  2. Also, “comping” is a word. And it has nothing to do with comp time.
  3. Many people go for days at a time without reading or responding to emails.
  4. A few people go for weeks at a time without responding to emails.
  5. Pretty much everyone in grad school agrees that there’s a special place in hell for the person who drinks the last of the break room coffee without starting a new pot.
  6. Having a department mailbox and checking your mailbox are two vastly different things.
  7. If you want grad students to attend (anything), you’d better have free food there.
  8. Grad students will spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about things that only they (and perhaps fifty other people in the world) care about.
  9. Hanging out with your fellow students is not only fun, it’s necessary to survive. This goes double if you’re in a PhD program.
  10. A Clif bar is a perfectly acceptable dinner when you have the 6 – 9 pm class and you’ve been at work/teaching since 7:30 am.
  11. Everything you ever read on PhD Comics is actually true.
  12. Despite all the madness and the sleep deprivation and the stress and the pressure, the chance to study exactly what you want to study – in nauseating detail – with brilliant, passionate people, is an amazing opportunity.

Love, peace, and thanks to all my fellow U of U Comm grad students for being amazing,
Sumiko

And Now, for Your Auditory Enjoyment: Music/Homework Pairings

It’s another Monday! Hooray! And today, as I was reading my homework before class, it occurred to me that I was listening to…a Mozart requiem. While reading “Violence and the Philosophical Imaginary.” (By Ann Murphy, in case you were wondering.) Oh, the coincidence!

Naturally, this prompted a list of some other strangely appropriate music/homework pairings…not as tasty as a wine and cheese pairing, perhaps, but just as relevant!

Alicia Keys, Fallin’/Newtonian physics
M.I.A., Paper Planes/critique of neoliberal economics
Frank Sinatra, Luck be a Lady/statistical analysis of how often meteorology turns up right
Bizet’s Carmen/Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Cien Anos de Soledad
The Beatles, I’ve Just Seen a Face/research on the anthropology of facial symmetry
Beth Hart, Baddest Blues/Jane Austen…anything, really

What’s on your list?
Love, peace, and humor in unexpected places,
Sumiko

Late-Night Posting!

There are lots of things my doctor tells me I should do in order to get more sleep (because apparently six hours a night isn’t adequate). I routinely ignore this advice. Because it’s 12:05 am, and I am a little obsessed with writing lists of things, here’s a list of “Stuff I Shouldn’t Do Right Before Going To Sleep.”

  1. Look at bright lights, or (heaven forbid) a computer screen. Oops. 
  2. Get worked up about anything.
  3. Read anything about neoliberal economics, because…see #2.
  4. Read anything about America’s appalling hypocrisy on the topic of social justice, because…see #2.
  5. Read anything about domestic violence, because…see #2.
  6. Read anything about the current state of women’s reproductive health rights, because…you guessed it! See #2. (It goes on, but I think four topics illustrates the point.)
  7. Drink anything caffeinated. (Actually, the doc says I oughtn’t do this after 3 pm, but that’s just not going to happen. Sorry. I’ll switch to herbal tea at 10 pm, how’s that?)
  8. Having snacks! Like the crackers with the delicious homemade jalapeno mint jelly from my lovely friend Nicolette that I just scarfed down? Uhhh…
  9. Ruminate on stressful topics. Like the PhD program I’m currently thinking about ALL THE DAMN TIME.

In contrast to the first list, here’s what I should be doing every night.

  1. Enjoy a nice bedtime routine. I thought that “homework til 12:30, then crash til 6:30” counted as a routine? 
  2. Do something soothing, like a lavender foot soak. That sounds lovely, but usually by the time homework is done I barely have the energy to wash my face properly.
  3. Have a twenty-minute wind down period. HA. That’s twenty minutes of precious sleep.
  4. Go to sleep at 10 pm. I must ask you – if you are a person who goes to sleep at 10 pm, HOW DO YOU GET EVERYTHING DONE? I cannot figure this out. Please help me.

Next time a professor tells me that grad school isn’t as stressful as what happens after grad school, I think I’ll probably start crying.

Love, peace, and disobeying doctor’s orders,
Sumiko

Wait, it’s December?

Holy cow, how the hell did that happen? Just kidding. I know it’s December because I remember this time of year…from the last time I was in grad school! I recognized early December based on these similarities:

  1. Uncontrolled, spontaneous bouts of laughter, usually at highly inappropriate times.
  2. Realizing that I am annoying the hell out of my family, friends, and co-workers, but being mentally incapable of keeping my mouth shut.
  3. Uncontrolled, spontaneous bouts of crying.
  4. Coffee consumption up 178% over other months.
  5. Pretty sure my hair is falling out.
  6. Sleeping less than five hours a night.

The sum of these six things all together leads me to one conclusion: it’s finals time. It’s the only time of year that I don’t like my own company very much. I’m even aggravating to myself. This. Must. Stop.

As a token of repentance for being so thoroughly irritating for the last two weeks, here is a list of things I love about some of the people in my life (in no particular order).

  1. My beloved: he does the laundry. He mops floors. He looks unbelievably sexy in a white t-shirt and jeans. He rides motorcycles with me. He always knows when I’m sad, and gives me extra-good hugs. He goes for walks with me sometimes, even though he hates going for walks. He works really hard. He is one of the most loyal human beings I have ever met – if you are lucky enough to gain this man’s friendship, you have it forever.
  2. My mama: she is courageous. She is honest. She taught me how to be the woman that I am, from riding a motorcycle to baking to being (okay, aspiring to be) a good listener. She is compassion incarnate.
  3. My littlest brother: this kid is a total clown. Unfortunately, he is also taller than I am now. He’s a smart cookie and a good-hearted person, and it’s been CRAZY watching him grow up. I’m so proud of all he has accomplished.
  4. My sister: she’s waaaaay smarter than I am. Scary smart. And she always edits my papers because I have a tragic addiction to the word “which.” She sends sporadic text messages which absolutely light up my world. We have the same speech patterns when we are talking on the phone, which is both hilarious and annoying, because we always pause exactly the same amount of time, and then both start talking at exactly the same time.
  5. My Numero Tres brother: when we were little, we used to do something at the same time and then look at each other and say, “It’s an odd thing!” Because I’m the first child and he is the third…get it? Get it? Okay, maybe that’s an odd thing too. He’s wise enough to swallow his pride even when I can practically hear it choking him – and he’s still awfully young. This guy’s going places.
  6. My colleagues: Michelle, Anna, Bryan, Nate, and our beleaguered boss Steve (aka Captain America). Good lord, these people have the patience of saints for tolerating me. (See #1 in my list: lately this has been occurring in meetings where we’re really trying to get work done.) Thank you all collectively for: throwing only soft, squishy stress balls around our office, going on daily coffee runs with me, getting pedicures with me (this is definitely more for Michelle and Anna), and being generally hilarious and enthusiastic and fantastic. Most importantly, I love that none of you have decked me with an office chair/laptop/monitor when I have one of those uncontrollable fits of laughing at an inappropriate time. I can’t even tell you all what a difference that makes.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list, but I will repent more at a later date. Small doses, you know.

Love, peace, and patience,
Sumiko

Distractions, With Some Writing In Between

Ahhh, the last week in November/beginning of December. This time last year, I was happily baking pretty much everything I could think of in an effort to share as much edible holiday cheer (read: butter) as possible.

This year, I’m writing this blog post whilst “taking a break” from writing. The “real” writing, that is. My grad school writing. Admittedly, I do love writing, which is convenient since I’m the idiot who signed up for grad school again. On the upside, I have 26 pages of which I am reasonably proud.

On the downside, 15 pages (for a different class) have yet to materialize. This is entirely my fault. My writing process goes like this:

  1. Get coffee or tea. Lots of it. Preferably a whole pot. 
  2. Take pot of caffeinated beverage down to desk and sit in chair.
  3. Decide that chair needs to be adjusted. Spend three minutes adjusting chair to perfect height and tilt for optimal intellectual activity.
  4. Realize I forgot a mug. Go back upstairs for a mug.
  5. Open up draft of paper. Read through paper. These usually have lines saying “Write something brilliant here!” and “You need to find proof of this, dolt.” I find that such self-cheerleading is very useful.
  6. Go to internet browser to look up academic articles.
  7. On the way to clicking the bookmark for the library’s journal database, somehow open up Facebook.
  8. Spend ten minutes reading through friends’ updates on Facebook.
  9. My coffee is cold. Need to go warm it up.
  10. Return to desk. Remember that I’m supposed to be doing research and writing.
  11. Go to draft of paper and write a paragraph. Realize that paragraph sucks and delete most of it – will keep the nicely phrased argument and figure out how to use it later.
  12. Go back to library website and find an article.
  13. Accidentally click on bookmark for my favorite cooking blog.
  14. Realize I’m very hungry, and after all, it’s lunchtime, and my brain needs healthy food to work properly.
  15. Go upstairs and cook something. Get distracted and make a whole bunch of things that I don’t have room in the fridge for!
  16. Return to desk with lunch. Write a few more paragraphs. Keep these and leave them for the editing process that will (possibly) take place at some indeterminate time in the future.
  17. Need to find another article to support my use of a particular term. Back to the interwebz! I mean…the library website.
  18. Nope. Got sucked into Tumblr. Waste another 30 minutes…

…and so on. You get the idea. I have the attention span of a hyperactive flea on days like this. My brain prefers to wait until 11:30 pm when I’m exhausted from sitting in front of a computer all damn day to come up with any good ideas. My brain has a rotten sense of humor.

In order to save me from myself, I have devised the following punishments for my distractions.

  • Every time I go to Facebook, I must do five push-ups.
  • Every time I go to a cooking blog, I must do lunges up and down all the stairs in my house.
  • Every time I see a picture of an adorable fluffy animal on any photo sharing website I must do five crunches.
  • Every time I go to a comedy blog, I must do a sets of 12 bicep curls.

I’m hoping that my dislike of push-ups, lunches, crunches, and curls will keep me from getting distracted on the internet while I write. Or at least, that if I can’t help getting distracted at least I’ll have some muscle tone to show for it! So far today, it’s working…except that I didn’t preemptively devise a punishment for coming to my OWN blog and writing inanities such as this! Mwahhaahah. I left a loophole. That was clever of me!

What’s your writing process? Your favorite distractions?

Love, peace, and productivity to my friends in school,
Sumiko

Applying for Scholarships

Usually I don’t post about such work-related topics on this blog…after all, I have plenty of opportunity to write about them on my company blog. But since I’m going back to grad school, and since I’m not overly fond of paying for things if I can avoid it, I’ve been applying for scholarships lately.

And I am lousy at following my own advice! In my professional capacity, my advice is as follows:

  1. Apply EARLY and OFTEN for as many scholarships as you reasonably can.
  2. Recycle essays whenever possible (and for heaven’s sake, proofread)!
  3. Don’t ever, ever, ever miss a deadline. Always submit your applications at least a week in advance of the deadline.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg…given the proper motivation and an audience of restless high school students, I can wax poetic about the finer points of scholarship applications for at least an hour.

I found out in March that I had been admitted to the PhD program. Of course, by then most of the February 1st scholarship deadlines had passed with nary an application from this corner. So did I jump right in and search for all the remaining scholarships I could? Heck, no! I put it off as long as I could. In my own words, I’d have to describe myself as “a slacker” on this particular point. I didn’t start looking for scholarships in earnest until, oh, about mid-May.

One of the interesting things I have discovered is that many scholarships are open to people under 25 (dammit, I just missed that by two months!) or to incoming college freshmen. There are comparatively few open to student in grad school; apparently something about people pursuing their fourth degree just doesn’t inspire people to donate money. Bummer.

So, about that whole “recycle essays” thing…yeah. In theory, this is great advice. But when the field of scholarships has been narrowed down by looming deadlines, eligibility based on which degree you’re studying for, and stuff that I might actually stand a chance of winning, it turns out that the types of essays are pretty varied. In the last week, I’ve written about what I want for my epitaph, the most interesting person I’ve ever met, how a clutter-free workspace impacts productivity (this is heavily ironic because the kitchen table at which I am writing now is a DISASTER), my academic goals, my career goals, why I deserve to win a scholarship, and who I would like to connect with on social media. The worst part of it all is that none of these have been longer than 500 words.

500 WORDS!

For a graduate student, it’s hell on hockey skates to read the requirement “500 words or less.” I can’t even properly start explaining my topic in 500 words anymore; it’s completely insufficient to do justice to the complexity of the piece! Some of them were 120 words or less. I won’t even bother trying to list all the expletives that used trying to whittle down a decent response to less than a bleedin’ paragraph.

And then there’s the whole deadline thing. I just submitted three applications today (June 26th) which are due on June 30th. Definitely not meeting my “week in advance” mark.

So here’s to hoping that one of these applications will pay off in terms of winning…they’ve all served as a great reminder of what a royal pain in the neck searching for scholarships can be.

Love, peace, and now-I-have-to-write-two-more-essays,
Sumiko

 

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