Write Through is a series of articles highlighting the processes of writers who found their way through the dissertation process, and strategies to do so in a timely fashion. While everyone's process is unique, we hope you'll carry away some productive ideas and feel a little less isolated as you hear the voices of individuals who've been where you are, and emerged triumphant in their dissertation journey.
Interviewing Dr. Ashley Byczkowski, who completed her dissertation in the field of French Literature in April of 2022, was particularly enlightening for the Write Through series because of the acute attention she paid to the process of writing the dissertation. At the core of her rich process, was a practice worth sharing: journaling.
Byczkowski’s dissertation titled “Feminine Selfhood” examined four autobiographies of French feminist figures with a particular emphasis upon “the primary feminine relationship between mother and daughter.” Having entered a PhD program without an MA, Byczkowski’s coursework provided her with a satisfying and lengthy period of intellectual inquiry within a supportive community. However, the shift from coursework to reading lists and independent writing was a sharp turn into isolation. Prior to the pandemic, she coped with this loss of community by auditing coursework relevant to her project, working on campus, and taking part in dissertation retreats so she could interact with peers and colleagues on a regular basis. However, the pandemic changed those conditions radically, and like many of us, she experienced a dip in motivation.
Serendipitously, Byczkowski saw an advertisement for a product called The Clear Habit Journal around this time. The journal provides a structure for creating daily routines and suggests a few methods to enhance productivity-- one stood out: The Ivy Lee Method*. Byczkowski used the journal and adapted the methodology to serve her writing process. Her first entry was April 26, 2020.
Byczkowski’s daily journaling practice consisted of two simple steps.
1. In the morning, she listed the next six dissertation-related tasks she planned to work on.
2. At the end of the day, she returned to her journal with a simple prompt: “How’d it go?”
Byczkowski came to learn that these tasks needed be as specific and manageable as possible. For example, rather than “work on Chapter 2,” a better goal would be something with more defined boundaries and a smaller scope such as: “Finish a close reading of X” or “Type out and expand on the notes you have taken from Y.” Breaking dissertation work into small actionable steps creates a lower stakes way to engage with the material so that you don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged by the enormity of the project. This is especially important in the Humanities since scholarly work sometimes feels ephemeral and may lack a systematic progression of actions that is implicit in other disciplines. Identifying discrete tasks also encourages you to do focused work and complete each task rather than getting lost in a Wikipedia rabbit hole or being distracted by other tasks meant to be completed later on.
Tracking specific tasks also has the benefit of making us recognize and value our actual accomplishments. For example, if your goal was to “Work on Chapter 2,” you might emerge from the day dissatisfied with the amount of progress you made, measured primarily in word count. If you do not identify the specific tasks making up your work, you might not recognize what you actually did complete, such as composing a pivotal close reading of a passage or synthesizing notes that transition you from reading to writing. The act of returning to the journal at the end of the day to ask, “How’d it go?” in relation to the tasks, not only provides the writer with an opportunity to assess the quantity of work accomplished, but also captures the experience of the day’s process.
Byczkowski recalls, “The journaling helped me articulate the actual tasks I was completing as well as be in touch with the kind of ebb and flow of moods that we’re in.” In this way, she began to exteriorize her inner narrative. For example, she noticed that when she pivoted to bibliographic research, she would find herself beginning to question whether she had anything new to contribute to her subject area. These negative thoughts would snowball into a feeling of imposter syndrome and often a gap in productivity. Keeping a journal and going back and rereading it allowed her to recognize patterns of thinking and then empowered her to insert a space between herself and that narrative. This necessary space allowed her to subscribe to new narratives such as “A finished dissertation is a good dissertation,” when she began to fall prey to perfectionism, or “Just begin again,” after an unproductive day. She found that the journaling process began to feel like a dialogue with herself, a form of community which offset some of the harms of the loss of community she had experienced.
Additionally, Byczkowski found that her end of the day reflective writing would serve as a pivot to the next day: “Yesterday I felt like this, so tomorrow I’m going to try this.” Sometimes, in response to “How’d it go?,” specific tasks or intentions for the next day would take shape, giving her further momentum for working on the project again the next day. For dissertation writers, keeping up a daily practice is often one of the hardest goals to achieve, making such a journaling process valuable for maintaining forward momentum.
Byczkowski’s timely completion is especially impressive when we consider that she was also working as a full-time French teacher and Associate Director of the Northeast Modern Language Association. However, she also considers this lively and rewarding work to be one of the factors which helped her cross the finish line. Her students and colleagues were supportive, setting up countdowns, cheering her on, and ultimately celebrating her defense with her.
Byczkowski’s journaling process was at the core of a dissertation process that was uniquely intentional, creative, and efficient. Beyond the significance of her research, she characterizes the personal growth and insight that she developed in her process as an especially valuable outcome of her dissertation journey. Through her journaling, Byczkowski created a rich artifact that she can return to remind herself of— and to build upon— the transformative experience that is the dissertation journey.
Ashley Byczkowski received her PhD in French Literature at the University at Buffalo in June 2022. Her dissertation, “Feminine Selfhood: Mothers and Daughters in Francophone Women’s Life Writing,” explored the psychological effects of the complex mother-daughter relationship on women’s sense of self in autobiographies by George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, and the fiction of Marie-Célie Agnant. She is a French teacher at Nardin Academy, an all-girls independent high school in Buffalo, NY, and is Associate Director of the Northeast Modern Language Association.
As an undergraduate, T.J. Krzystek was aimed toward medical school, a natural direction for a student interested in biology. However, upon entering an undergraduate research program in which he was introduced to cell biology and microscopy, Krzystek experienced an immediate shift in direction toward a research career. He found himself gazing into the microscope fascinated by the beauty of cell activity.
As a PhD student in UB’s Biological Sciences department, Krzystek bridged his fascination with cell activity with an intention to make a positive social impact. He joined a lab focused on the cell biology that underlies the Huntington protein, which is the protein that ultimately manifests Huntington’s disease. In this process, Krzystek began to see how the beautiful images of the cell, captured through the microscope, have an important story to tell. Looking back, Krzystek realizes that centering his research around his intrinsic curiosity and the emotional attachment he had to cell biology helped to give him the energy and endurance for the PhD program, a journey which is time consuming with low financial rewards.
Moving from participation in an already established lab to identifying the focus that would be his dissertation was a gradual and recursive process. As is a common experience in his field, one doesn’t know in advance which experiments in the lab will pan out and ultimately become part of the dissertation. His dissertation experience was a continual mixture of reading, experimenting and writing, but the percentage of time writing gradually increased until the dissertation was complete. He describes the relationship between experimentation and reading as a sort of feedback loop in which you can only get so far in your research project before you have to read more papers so that you can make a little bit more progress. That progress, in turn, propels you into more reading. Careful attention to results and data chapters in the reading help you to create sound experiments. Overall, Krzystek found it important to pay thorough homage to the approximately 30 years of research on the cell biology associated with Huntington’s Disease, adopting the philosophy that “everything was relevant” even though it may only be a sentence or two.
After two to three years in the lab, as the contours of his dissertation began to reveal themselves, all of this reading became the basis of the introduction of his dissertation which he conceptualized as “setting the scene for why your research matters” so that you can move from a textbook style understanding of your topic into “the story of your research.” He modestly and realistically visualized his goal with the dissertation as “stretching the field a bit.”
Along the way, Krzystek found that attending conferences became an important element of his dissertation process. He viewed the process of composing and getting feedback on the abstracts and proposals from those conferences as moments of “coming to an agreement” between himself and his PI which served as stepping stones for moving forward. Adapting his research to meet the different emphases of the conferences caused him to see his research from different angles and perspectives that ultimately enhanced his dissertation.
Krzystek credits his ability to stay on track and complete in a reasonable amount of time to his philosophy of focusing upon small goals. Rather than setting up year-to-year goals or having a fixed completion deadline in mind, he conceptualized his progress in the near future, such as preparing for a presentation to the lab. Even when he neared completion, he tried not to get fixated on a particular date. A rigid approach to deadlines, he notes, just created self-imposed stress that compromised the rigor and quality of the work. Instead, he adopted a softer view, thinking of his timeline as a range. While he may have finished a couple of months later than originally intended, the ability to work in a healthier manner was worth the minor delay and led to a more rigorous final product.
Krzystek’s daily work routine also reflected this philosophy of moderation as he strategically arranged his time for endurance and quality of life and work. In the last year of his program, as his writing activity increased, he established a habit of writing in the morning on weekdays. As a morning person, he found his mind was freshest for writing early in the day. A typical day would include getting up at 4 a.m., putting on the coffee and settling himself at the computer. There, he would re-read what he last wrote to get his mind into position, grab his coffee, and then begin writing. When he found himself getting hungry, he would stop for breakfast, and then write again until his mind told him he’d had enough, which might be about noon or 1:00 pm. Then he would spend the rest of his workday at the lab “grinding out data.” Since his experimental design had largely been perfected, this lab work was not as mentally taxing as the writing and almost served as a mental break. After approximately six hours of lab work, he would call it a day, head out to the gym, or meet up with some friends for dinner and recharge for the next day. He rarely wrote on the weekends, but did do some work in the lab. He kept himself centered and refreshed by appreciating those little moments in which he stepped away from work.
Social interaction was integral to Krzystek’s dissertation process. He found that the need to talk out his ideas only increased as his dissertation journey progressed. Fellow students were great for venting to and commiserating with, while professors were there for talking out ideas and working out the kinks of the research and writing process. Throughout his program he had frequent collaboration with his PI, and in the last year met with his entire committee once per month. During the pandemic, especially, when interactions with peers diminished, he found himself reaching out to professors who were not on his committee, finding that each interaction enhanced his ability to bring together the corners of the dissertation.
When asked what advice he has for incoming PhD students, Krzystek re-emphasizes the importance of centering your work around something you care about. If you choose a lab that overlaps with your intrinsic curiosity and follow that trajectory, you’ll be in a position to make a difference and to contribute to your field.
Dr. T.J. Krzystek is a neurobiologist PhD, currently a postdoctoral research fellow affiliated with Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health. His expertise combines a fundamental love for cell biology with live-cell imaging, advanced microscopy, neuron indication from patient-derived iPSCs, cell culture, proteomics, and gene editing.
Customize Your Community
For a long time, I struggled on my own, avoiding my advisor, hoping no one would notice how little progress I was making. I fell into periods of complete inactivity, blaming the workload of my profession or the responsibilities of family life. Periodically, in a panic, I would embark on an energetic bout of binge writing and often got stuck in near-obsessive loops of writing and rewriting a chapter, reluctant to send the out-of-control draft out for feedback. I would wake up in the middle of the night with the anxious thought, “What if I never finish?”
A turning point occurred when I gathered a small group of similarly busy, isolated and anxious fellow dissertators in my program, and we started to meet weekly, mostly writing together, but breaking occasionally to work through a common dilemma, commiserate or even celebrate. I realized that my peers were just as busy and their drafts also felt “out-of-control” to them, but they were sending them to their advisors and getting feedback. Suddenly, I was no longer alone in a shame spiral.
So, I discovered that writing groups were my community of choice, but I also got a lot out of the larger dissertation retreats as well. This also worked during the pandemic as we assembled over Zoom. I started making regular progress, and I defended in the summer of 2021. After interviewing dozens of dissertation completers for the Write Through series, I realized that individuals have different purposes and needs for community, but that community seemed to be always an element of a successful dissertation process. Therefore, I encourage people to customize a community structure that works for them.
What do I need from community? For me, it was primarily support and camaraderie, so I liked to work side-by-side with others and make some time for conversation. Others might find that accountability is key. In that case, groups that share goals and report progress are important. These might even be asynchronous, such as a shared Google document in which participants publicly chart their progress. It can even be agreeing to present at conferences to have a sense of audience accountability. Others might need feedback to keep them moving forward, so a relationship with an advisor, a feedback partner, or regular visit to a fellow graduate student in the Writing Center might be key to your success. You might find that you have a combination of these needs.
What environment is best for me? Some writers do like to work alone in the quiet and comfortable environment of their home, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need community. Working together over Zoom can be a nice option in that case. Others find that even being around strangers working in a coffee shop can provide a sense of community and accountability that is empowering. Others enjoy the in-person experience of a writing group or retreat. Already have too many places to be? Digital platforms can also be communal spaces. A daily check in text with a fellow dissertator could be just what you need, logging your process on a shared spreadsheet or a social media group page are additional options.
While the Center for Excellence in Writing has been doing writing groups and retreats for a while, we want to refresh our ideas about creating community around dissertators. That’s why we are launching a new Dissertation Café program. This is an informal space where we can meet others, talk about our dissertation process, explore the community structures that would be helpful, and to connect each other with those structures. We expect to learn new strategies from you and to make our dissertation support programs responsive to your needs through this program. Dissertation Café will start next week 9/16 and will run every Friday from 11:00 to 12:00 in Capen 128, The Writing Lab, inside of TASS. Enjoy coffee, tea and conversation. We will roll out a Dissertation Café on South and Downtown campuses later in the semester.
We also have our weekly Writing Group programs up and running and Dissertation retreat plans in the works. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get information and get on our Dissertation Support Listserv. We always seek your feedback when designing our Dissertation Support programming.
Rhonda K. Reid, PhD
Director, Center for Excellence in Writing
Smart strategies help Dr. Luisa Angeles to the finish line: A dissertation journey in the field of Chemistry.
Luisa Angeles recently earned her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Buffalo. Advised by Dr. Diana Aga, Angeles studied the phenomenon of environmental antimicrobial resistance which results from antibiotics spreading from wastewater into surface water that is consumed by wildlife and humans. Angeles’ experience of a PhD program is quite typical in some ways. She found it to be a stressful process that at times challenged her determination and self-confidence. However, her journey is remarkable for how she consistently applied strategies that helped her roll through obstacles day-by-day and emerge from the process a timely dissertation completer.
As an international student from the Philippines, Angeles found her first year particularly challenging because she was far away from friends and family and in an unfamiliar environment. Angeles shared that in her discipline, the first year is taken up by coursework and then you pivot to research in the second year. With this shift, she found a supportive community with her lab mates. She noted that Dr. Aga often threw social events that encouraged her advisees to form friendships. In the lab, PhD students worked alongside each other on independent projects, which she found helpful when she had a question or wanted another perspective. Sometimes her lab community took a break to take one of the yoga classes offered by UB Campus Living’s Health and Wellness program. Here, Angeles’ experience demonstrates that stressful situations are best handled in the context of community rather than in isolation.
In the field of Chemistry, the journey to the dissertation begins with the conducting of multiple, related experiments. Angeles notes, “I think one of the most important things to know about chemistry is that not all of the research that you do is going to work. Most of your experiments are going to fail, but you just have to keep going and keep trying new things, because that’s science. Sometimes it gets really discouraging because you’ve done a lot of work and the experiment didn’t work and you can’t publish it. But it’s just important to know from the beginning that this is normal and happens to everyone.” The nature of scientific research requires a spirit of resilience and persistence that Angeles was able to successfully cultivate.
Angeles found it productive that her advisor required the publication of two papers to get the degree. With the encouragement of Dr. Aga, she ended up publishing six articles prior to her dissertation. When asked about her writing process, Angeles shared that while some students might prefer to conduct their experiment and collect all the results before starting to write up the publication, she preferred to conduct the experiment and write simultaneously, a practice that helped her avoid feeling overwhelmed during the writing process. “For example,” she explained, “before I start my research, I might start writing an outline. Then, there are multiple parts of the paper that are not dependent upon the data such as the introduction and the literature review. So, I would start writing those parts while the experiment was ongoing. Sometimes in the lab, for instance, you might be waiting for an experiment to run and that would be a space of time for writing.” This way, when she had all her data, she only had the calculations and findings to complete. She also kept her writing continually moving forward by continuing to write even after sending a draft out for feedback. Many dissertators report experiencing significant delays or idle periods in their process as they wait for feedback. Angeles kept her progress within her own timeline by continuing forward.
Submitting papers for publication was stressful, but the process ultimately helped Angeles to achieve timely degree completion. She shared that it is common in her field to get straightforward and negative feedback from reviewers with messages like “this paper is not fit for publication.” This kind of feedback of course raises negative emotions and can trigger imposter syndrome, making one doubt their ability to contribute to a scientific field. In addition to these evaluative comments, however, the reviewer also likely provides a list of specific critiques. Angeles learned to counter the tough nature of the publishing process by creating a positive inner narrative, reassuring herself that her research was important and worthy and that she had conducted it correctly. Then she would respond to and counter each critique in her communication to the reviewers, and often they would be convinced to publish the paper. The process of defending your research ultimately makes the dissertation defense much more familiar and less daunting, she pointed out.
When it came time to pivot to the final dissertation, Angeles had her six published papers as material to synthesize and shape. This final writing process took her five to six months. During this time, she did some small side experiments, in some ways to freshen up her mind, but it was mostly long hours of intensive writing. During this time, she asked her advisor if she could take two days a week and spend them writing in a coffee shop. On these days she would spend an entire workday, with breakfast, lunch and coffee in between, writing. She enjoyed the atmosphere, sitting amid strangers with the background noise and the coffee keeping her alert.
Angeles acknowledges that in a scientific PhD program, it is always a temptation to “Master out,” or exit the program with a Master’s degree. However, when her motivation dipped, she thought of the finish line of PhD completion and became determined to get there. Her writing schedule grew more and more intensive during those final months. Knowing that her family would be present to celebrate her degree conferral with her gave her the extra motivation to bring her project to completion.
Angeles’ dissertation journey highlights valuable principles that can help any PhD student: find community, keep moving forward, create a productive mindset, and tap into your positive motivation. Sound familiar? These days Dr. Luisa Angeles is a senior scientist at Merck where she works on analytical method development of drug products. We thank her for sharing her dissertation journey to inspire up-and-coming UB researchers.
Luisa Angeles earned her PhD in Chemistry from the University at Buffalo. Her research focused on the study of environmental antimicrobial resistance and the analysis of contaminants such as antibiotics, antidepressants, and pesticides in water and surface water. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and is working as a Senior Scientist at Merck where she works on analytical development of medicinal products.
You are working on your dissertation, but then an email notification pops up. It’s not a pressing issue, but you automatically find yourself navigating off your dissertation. After all, having that hanging over your head will just distract you, you might as well answer the email now.
While you reserve mornings for dissertation writing, you teach in the afternoon and find yourself preoccupied thinking about your upcoming classes. As a result, you have difficulty concentrating during those morning work sessions and often revert to class planning.
After a busy week, it’s dissertation work time, but with all of your other responsibilities your apartment is a mess and you can’t concentrate, so it is best to spend the day cleaning and organizing in order to be able to focus.
Waking up to write at 6:00 am seems like the most logical way to carve out time for dissertation writing, but who can concentrate that early?
One of the topics most discussed in our workshops, writing groups, and retreats is how difficult it is to find time to focus upon our dissertations amid all the demands competing for our attention. When we do set aside time to physically sit in front of our laptops and get to work, it isn’t a guarantee that we’ll be productive as our minds aren’t as easy to corral as our bodies. The origins of this problem reach across the categories of dissertation project management (mindset, wellbeing, time management, as well as general social conditions outside of our control). However, there are strategies we can adopt to make the most of the units of time that we find. Finding focus not only moves us forward on our dissertations, but, like any mindfulness practice, it also enhances our general sense of well-being.
Here are some tips for finding focus within a writing session:
By instituting these practices, achieving focus within your work periods will become easier. Dissertations are written in a series of focused time increments. In addition to productivity, such focused work sessions increase wellbeing, confidence and motivation that enhance all areas of our lives.
Consider taking part in CEW’s dissertation support activities. On Monday May 28 at 7pm, our Productivity Series continues with a deep dive into time management strategies for dissertation writers. If you would like to take part in this workshop, weekly writing groups, or our Spring Break virtual retreat, email email@example.com to register.
The Magic of Coworking: Strategies for Reducing Isolation in the Dissertation Process
“As a parent and full-time worker, I spent nearly two years accomplishing next to nothing on my dissertation. It was my shameful secret. I would frequently wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, and I took to avoiding my advisor, engaging in compulsive rewriting, feeling as if the work was never good enough to share. My inner voice kept insisting, ‘I can’t do this. It’s impossible.’ Everything changed when I joined a writing group with a few other members of my department. Many of these fellow dissertators were as busy, if not busier, than I was. We were all in different places and were struggling in different ways, but as we worked together, I found my anxiety diminishing. On we worked, occasionally breaking into dialogue, sharing useful perspectives, helping each other to resolve our dilemmas. After that, I hardly ever worked alone again. And I finished.”
While there may be something romantic and appealing about hiding away in one’s home office, surrounded by books and with easy access to the coffee pot, the reality of an isolated dissertation process can have a significant shadow side. Of course, the settings of doctoral work vary. Many are collaborative and social (such as lab environments or gathering data in the community), but most dissertation journeys involve periods of intense individual work. In some disciplines, such as those in the humanities, the graduate student may be propelled from the community of coursework into a sudden and extended period of isolation which may begin with reading lists for qualifying exams and continue through to the final draft of the dissertation. Like the dissertator above, isolation can leave the writer prone to long periods of inactivity, followed by guilt, self-reproach, and anxiety. The writer might over-individualize the common challenges of the dissertation process and create damaging mental narratives. And finally, without outside perspectives, writers may have difficulty pulling themselves back from the common pitfalls that allow the dissertation process to careen out of control.
The concept of coworking has been part of the entrepreneurial zeitgeist of this millennium with roots in the creative work cultures of San Francisco, California and Austin, Texas. The coworking movement was born out of a recognition that traditional work environments are often not places where individuals thrive in that they tend to be hierarchical and competitive. They are also often homogenous in that people with similar roles and backgrounds are grouped together to increase efficiency. Dissatisfaction with such work environments led many workers toward freelance or “gig work” which allowed them to work in home offices. That environment, however, tended to be isolating and lack the creative inspiration that comes with working in an environment of multiple perspectives. So, freelance workers who found themselves seeking out tables at coffee shops became the creative inspiration for coworking arrangements in which people, who didn’t necessarily work for the same company or do the same kind of work, could share a space, and build an informal community in which they worked alongside each other.
An ideal coworking environment is egalitarian, diverse, non-competitive and is organized to leverage community to increase worker wellbeing. It might even involve a structure such as group coffee breaks, meditation, or intermittent walks. Researchers have been interested in how workers tend to thrive in such environments and have found that they tend to increase work satisfaction, stimulate creativity, and boost productivity. For these reasons, it is productive to connect the concept of coworking to the dissertation journey.
Coworking arrangements, such as the writing group described in our opening vignette, offer some significant benefits to dissertation writers:
Coworking can take a variety of different forms for dissertation writers:
Writing Buddies: Pairing up with one or more fellow dissertators, participants keep in close touch about their research process, perhaps sharing daily texts or a weekly goal setting/goal reporting email. They may meet on a regular basis for coworking sessions in informal settings. Buddies regularly engage in dialogue about their writing process. These arrangements are great for ongoing support and encouragement and informal mediation (talking out common dilemmas).
Writing Groups: Multiple participants make a commitment to meet on a regular basis, usually one to three times per week, for a productive amount of time (90 – 180 minutes is ideal). These participants need not be working on a related project or in the same discipline. Their writing time may be structured with goal setting/reporting or a specific discussion question to break up or frame the individual work time, or the interaction might be spontaneous. These groups facilitate ongoing forward momentum and reduce periods of inactivity.
Dissertation Retreats: In this format a group of dissertators gather, committed to intensive work over a longer period of time, such as a weekend or a week. Often larger and more formal than writing groups, writing days are usually framed with discussion, especially sharing of daily and longer-term goals. These events are good for facilitating significant bursts of progress and breaking through conceptual blocks and stagnancies.
Finding spaces for coworking can be a challenge, but dissertation groups can gather in a variety of places including seminar rooms, sections of the library, graduate student spaces within departments, and of course there’s the popular coffee shop option. Finding times of the week or year in which spaces are not in use (such as evenings, weekends or spring/summer/winter breaks) can also be a good strategy for making coworking happen. During the pandemic, many of us were surprised to find that virtual platforms such as Zoom can deliver many of the benefits of a coworking environment while allowing one to simultaneously enjoy the comfort of a home office. However, we all look forward to gathering again safely in person and collaborative working spaces are very beneficial to the graduate student community.
You can set up coworking arrangements within your department or your circle of acquaintances. The Center for Excellence in Writing also facilitates weekly writing groups, week-long retreats and one day “mini-retreats.” To register or learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website https://www.buffalo.edu/writing/Students/graduate.html
“I’m doing something different here, but I don’t know what it is yet.”—Dr. Stanzi Vaubel’s dissertation journey in media study.
Dr. Stanzi Vaubel’s dissertation journey highlights the vibrant work being done in UB’s media study department in which art and theory engage dynamically with each other, creating a sense of emergent possibility. As founder of the Indeterminacy Festival, which involved the production of large-scale community events, Vaubel’s dissertation focuses upon participatory art practice, the politics of aesthetics and the potential of indeterminacy. Throughout her dissertation process, Vaubel discovered a productive flow between academic rigor and artistic freedom. With a background as a classical cellist, Vaubel was well prepared to negotiate these two poles.
Vaubel started at UB as an MFA student, transitioned to the PhD program for another three years, and then completed her dissertation as a Fulbright fellow in Montreal. Interdisciplinary by design and unfettered by a long history of conventionalization, Vaubel notes that her professors in media study allowed her to engage in a process in which practice informs theory, which then transforms practice in a feedback loop, as opposed to the usual academic order of operations in which practice arises out of theory. She worked within a “hybridity of mediums, ideas and theories” which she describes as “a rigorous interweaving of these frameworks into something new.” The chapters of her dissertation were organized around various social art projects and the “world of ideas” related to those projects.
Vaubel shares that when she felt bogged down in her dissertation writing, she would put it on the back-burner, often in favor of an art project. For example, in 2016 she became interested in the indeterminate space of Buffalo’s Silo City and wondered what it would be like to fill the space with inflatable bubbles. This shift in attention propelled her into a communal, logistical frame of mind as she engaged with building the bubbles, collaborating with musicians, dancers and choreographers and handling the practical tasks associated with event organization. In other words, an unproductive lull created a space for something new to happen, which ended up propelling her dissertation work forward.
At points in her process, she worried that her dissertation was becoming too practical; in other words, too much concerned with narrating what she had done. However, she had a breakthrough when she wrote a prospectus for a dissertation fellowship and had to confront and express the meaning of her work as an alternative to aesthetic politics. Sometimes communicating our research to others can be a powerful way of creating order and meaning from our exploratory work.
In terms of maintaining well-being during the arduous PhD process, Vaubel admits she was terrible at this at the beginning. But as she moved through the process, literally aging as we do as dissertators, she had to pay more attention. She focused upon making sure she had nutritious food and made it a habit to limit her work schedule to 9 to 5 daily. She found ways to get herself out of a bad headspace by diverting her mind with physical activity, a funny movie or reaching out to a friend.
She notes the importance of community in the dissertation process, but acknowledges that, in the transitional space of academia, community may not necessarily be stable. Instead of putting pressure upon a small number of social support contacts, whom we could easily overwhelm with the intensity of stress involved in the dissertation process, she found it better to maintain a wider network of connections that she would allow to naturally change over time as projects came and went and colleagues graduated or moved on. She also mentions that while academic advisors are invaluable resources, they cannot be expected to be leaned upon for all of the support needed throughout the dissertation process. Thus, her approach to community can be described as nimble.
When asked what advice she might give to students entering a PhD program in her discipline, she emphasized that the PhD journey is a long one, and you have to be oriented out of an intrinsic joy of discovery to get you through all of the obstacles that you will have to overcome in the process. The PhD journey is a “slow and reflective time,” she adds, in which you can witness how discoveries will assimilate over time.
Stanzi Vaubel is a director, curator, and founder of The Indeterminacy Festival (IF) (2016-present) training participants how to “re-discipline” in the 21st Century. The festival has been hosted by The University at Buffalo, McGill University, suoni per il popolo, and forthcoming in 2022 with The University of Malta. Vaubel is educated at Northwestern University and The University at Buffalo, she is media and film faculty at Ohio Wesleyan's New York Arts Program and Special Events Coordinator for the Arts at Alfred University where she is inaugurating a new summer festival and residency program. www.indeterminacyfestival.com
Gamify Your Way to Dissertation Completion
“How’s your dissertation going?” they ask.
Cue sigh, shoulder slump, and let the tale of woe commence: “Slow, but I’m getting there.”
Writing your dissertation is heavy stuff, right? No doubt it is a challenging, high stakes endeavor. However, within the mass that is the dissertation project, there are a thousand little chunks of activity that vary widely in intensity and feeling. It’s not always, or even usually, genius spilling out on the page. In many ways, successful dissertation completion is more about project management than intellectual prowess.
We usually have a plan when we are managing our dissertation projects. But what if, rather than just schedules and deadlines, you used your creativity to inject play into your process to keep you moving forward, shifting your mindset and energy when you get bogged down?
Gamifying your dissertation doesn’t have to mean creating some elaborate universe that you will live in from start to finish, although it could. It more likely means looking at the work in front of you for the day, week or month, identifying discrete tasks and creating a fun way to move through them.
Think of your favorite games—they often are structured as steps in a journey with milestones and rewards and often involve some element of chance, facilitated through the roll of a dice. Games may involve pursuing streaks, collecting points, hitting milestones and hopefully gaining rewards.
As a person who actively avoids playing board games of all sorts, I’ll give you the simplest, and for you gamers, the lamest, of examples.
The Job Jar Game
When I start to feel stuck or overwhelmed, for some reason it helps me to release some control over my actions—to leave it up to chance. So I type up a list of little tasks related to where I am in my project, and then I grab a pair of scissors and chop them up and put them in a jar. For example:
Note here the variety and the different feeling of each task. It wouldn’t be much of a game if all the items on the list were challenging and anxiety provoking. For those that are, I set limits—a single paragraph, a time limit of 15 minutes or an approach like free-writing or skimming. To mix it up and increase my stamina and focus, I add in some self-care items:
Once all the items are in the jar, the game commences. I pull them one by one and complete the assigned task. There is one immutable rule. If you pull it, you must do it! This is the constraint that makes it a game! So if you pull all three of your self-care items in a row, do them! The universe is merely telling you that you need to prioritize your wellbeing for a bit. If you pull out the most challenging/anxiety provoking items all in a row, rejoice! You got the most difficult ones out of the way early! Usually, the game results in nice variety, but whatever it is, it always seems as if luck is on my side and I have the satisfaction of that empty jar at the end. If I wanted to gamify it further I could have a reward for completion, but getting unstuck is usually enough of a reward for me.
I know what you are thinking, a job jar is not a game! To which I respond, if it feels like a game, it is a game. Ways to gamify your dissertation project are highly individual. For example:
The reason that games work to organize our behavior is because of their structure, visibility and concreteness. Once you establish the rules of the game, hold yourself to them. This is why it might be best to start with a game plan that has a shorter duration, like a few hours up to a week. Create an accountability system that might look like a game board, an arrangement of sticky notes on the wall, a scoreboard or use a digital tool. If you do an online search for “gamify your dissertation,” you will discover a multitude of ideas.
And what about friends? Don’t games usually involve other people? Well, my job jar game is pretty much a game of solitaire, but friends increase fun and accountability so it’s a great idea to create a game that multiple people can play and inject an element of competition.
Just remember—your gamification strategies should be moving you forward. If they start serving as a form of procrastination or become another way of highlighting your inadequacy, switch tactics quickly. Remember our goal: keep moving forward. Add to that, keep a smile on our faces.
Rhonda K. Reid is Director of the Center for Excellence and Writing and after NOT completing a PHD in English in the late 90s, recently completed a PhD in Curriculum Instruction and the Science of Learning (CISL) with a focus on writing instruction in higher education. She has developed a keen interest in creating communities and programs to support dissertation writers.
Khloe Barlow’s Successful Journey Through the Doctor of Nursing Practice Project: “Teamwork makes the dream work during a pandemic.”
Khloe Barlow is a recent graduate of the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at the University at Buffalo. The program culminates with a final project that students design and execute to fill a current gap in research. Barlow, who has an enduring commitment to the field of women’s health, examined the barriers to breast and cervical cancer screening for African American women through the nurse practitioner’s perspective.
In spring 2020, she identified her area of research interest and refined it in collaboration with her advisors. That summer she conducted a systematic literature review. In the fall and throughout the winter of 2020 she conducted interviews. In spring 2021 she wrote and revised her study, and then graduated in May. Barlow notes that completing the project within this tight timeframe felt daunting, but the way the DNP program breaks the project into stages made it much more manageable. She also credits her advisors Pamela Paplham and Loralee Sessanna, for buoying her through the process. She notes that they were always available to meet when she had a question or dilemma, and went above and beyond to support her.
As is the case with many students in the DNP program, Barlow pursued her degree while working as a night-shift nurse in the area of partum and postpartum women’s health. For the first two years of the program, she worked full time and for the last two years, she worked part time. The night shift cleared her schedule for her coursework, but working at night and studying by day could be exhausting.
In addition to drinking a lot of coffee, Barlow got through it by framing this period of her life as a short-term sacrifice for a worthy end goal. She frequently reminded herself that she wouldn’t be doing this forever. In addition to remaining organized and following a strict schedule, she remained mindful of the quality of her downtime. Barlow enjoyed activities that gave her mind rest, like reading or watching movies and spending time with family.
When looking at Barlow’s timeline, we might notice that her DNP project coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. This affected both her work and her writing process. While she was not on the front lines of the pandemic like intensive care unit and emergency room nurses were, the pandemic still changed the nature of her work and added anxiety. As for school, her clinical rotations were canceled and she was not able to execute her DNP project in the manner she had anticipated—she had imagined herself posting flyers and conducting interviews in person, offering donuts and coffee to set the stage for a rich and personable conversation. Also, she had been accustomed to writing in the library on campus, an environment conducive to focused work. In the reality of the pandemic, she found herself conducting interviews on Zoom and writing in the distracting space of her dining room table.
One of the most significant assets of Barlow’s project journey was that her roommate was also in the DNP program and in a parallel stage in her process. Her roommate’s project, while on a different topic, had a similar structure. Therefore, they were able to organically talk out the dilemmas and obstacles they encountered. “She understood, because she was going through the exact same thing,” Barlow notes. They were also able to serve as excellent readers for each other’s work. “When you read your own writing over and over again, it just kind of blurs together. You don’t really know what makes sense anymore.”
While her writing process went relatively smoothly, especially with the fresh set of eyes provided by her roommate and fellow researcher, she encountered the natural challenge of moving from writing in a conversational style to shifting toward a more professional, academic register. That process involves tinkering with wording and style, and she found Grammarly an effective tool for helping her with adjustments. She also monitored her writing to make sure that it remained grounded in evidence, continually looping back to her references and literature during the writing process.
Her program cohort of 10 fellow students also maintained a group chat to provide support. Between her excellent advisors, her roommate and her cohort, Barlow had a strong sense of community to support her through her journey of completing her DNP project in the midst of a pandemic.
When asked what advice she might have for a new DNP student, Barlow offers, “Sometimes when you’re in the thick of things, it can be really overwhelming and you may question why you took this step from being a nurse to a nurse practitioner, but you just have to remind yourself that it’s worth it in the end. Just one day at a time.”
Since graduating, Barlow has relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where she is working as a nurse practitioner in a high-risk maternal fetal medicine practice. She looks forward to teaching in the future and is currently pursuing publication of her DNP project study.
Khloe M. Barlow is a recent graduate with her doctorate of nursing practice from the University at Buffalo School of Nursing Family Nurse Practitioner program. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, she recently relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, to begin her career as a board certified nurse practitioner. Barlow was a recipient of the Anne W. Sengbusch Award for Leadership in school and community activities award at her commencement ceremony in May 2021. She hopes to successfully publish her project and continue her work in women's health and minority communities.
Trust the Future You: The Recursive Nature of the Writing Process
By the time we reach the final stage of our program, the idea that the writing process is recursive is probably not news to us. Writing is not linear. Rather, it is comprised of a variety of steps that we return to repeatedly. Writing a dissertation is a complex process of looping back and moving forward. This process could be endless, except that at some point we decide to stop.
The way that we approach the recursive nature of the writing process can be either productive or limiting. Let's look at the limiting approaches to the recursive process.
Resisting. This approach involves trying to make the process more linear by attempting to achieve completion or perfection each step. For example, resisting moving on to a new chapter until the prior chapter feels complete, or staying in the literature review stage until you feel you achieved expert mastery and are "ready" or even "qualified" to write.
The problem with resisting the recursive writing process is that you spend inordinately long periods of time on each step. Despite attempts to be perfect, writers often find that subsequent steps in the process develop their thinking and understanding, motivating a desire to return. To achieve your most developed and coherent work, you will likely go back anyway and wish you hadn't spent so long perfecting the prior step. Many of us have agonized over sections of writing that end up excised from the final manuscript.
Succumbing. This approach is the opposite of resisting, but it often has a similar result. That is, we go back too soon and too frequently, which can result in a tight loop that can often feel impulsive—or even compulsive. Sometimes writers describe this as "falling into a rabbit hole." This approach might manifest itself as going back and rewriting a particular section several times or switching from writing to reading, repeatedly. In one case, a writer reports an intensive period of trying to reorganize their theoretical framework, impulsively cutting and pasting until the section resembled an unappetizing chopped salad. Another symptom of succumbing to recursion often occurs when we sense a deficiency and want to fix it right away without allowing for contemplation time or that natural development of our thinking that will influence future work on the draft.
The resisting and succumbing approaches to recursion have the same effect—they both limit forward momentum and delay completion. While you are trying to achieve perfection, you can actually be doing some damage to your existing text.
The key to a successful approach to recursion is timing. Don't go back when you recognize the flaw, go back when the solution comes to you. You are going to grow as your write. You will be much more of an expert in the latter stages of your dissertation writing than you are in your early days. You can trust the expert that you will have become to be well prepared to go back and strengthen the dissertation in ways you could not have anticipated at the beginning. Trust in the future version of yourself and allow yourself to begin writing before you have an exhaustive grasp of the literature. Even if you feel a little bit uncertain about your grasp of a theoretical concept you are trying to employ, do your best and move on. If your organization feels a little unwieldy, let it be until the right structure unfolds before you—which can sometimes happen suddenly and unexpectedly. As your project unfolds, clarity will come to you. Flow forward, allow yourself to leave wobbly or uncertain places as placeholders. Draw attention to these uncertain places with marginal comments to remind yourself to return to them.
The dissertation is a complicated process that stretches over a length of time. Go back in moments when you are clear and ready. In the meantime, make notes for yourself. Trust the recursive process.
If you would like to join our community of dissertation writers for retreats, writing groups and workshops, email email@example.com to be added to our email list.
Proposals, Presentations and Applications: Their Role in the Dissertation Process
In our writing groups and retreats, when individuals report on their writing goals for the day, it is evident that attendees aren’t always working on their dissertations. Instead, we might hear reports of conference or article proposals, grant or fellowship applications, or a research presentation. Many dissertation retreat attendees have spent the five-day retreat fussing over a slideshow presentation. However necessary, are these interruptions in our ultimate goal of dissertation completion? Not necessarily—they might actually be a source of acceleration.
In the Write Through series, we’ve encountered many metaphors to describe dissertation writing. One metaphor describes the massive amount of background work it takes to produce a dissertation. The words that end up on the page of your dissertation are just the tip of the iceberg of the reading and writing one has done to produce it.
As dissertators, we spend a good deal of time and effort underwater, in the submerged part of that effort—and that’s expected. It might take a lot of background reading and exploration to arrive at our point of focus and to define our scope. Unfortunately, some of us can remain bogged down in the weight of our research and have difficulty moving to the apex. This is when stepping out of the isolating, individual process and making a gesture toward sharing your work can help launch you forward toward the goal of completion.
Proposals, applications and presentations all share in common that they are attempts to communicate our ongoing research to an outside audience. In boiling down our research to the very essentials, we often make quick discoveries about our scope, the relationships between parts or an overarching theme or insight. We also gain the natural communicative momentum that comes with the presence of a vivid rhetorical situation—the speaker, the audience and the message.
Upon completion of these ancillary materials, we may have new-found energy for what’s really at stake, what’s important and how the parts relate to the whole. As a result, we may have a new line on our CV or even a grant or fellowship. It’s a balance between the due diligence of our underwater work, punctuated with trips to the surface to perceive the work in the fresh air of community that gets us to completion. Go after that grant. Consider applying to that conference. That slideshow that you create, with its concrete boundaries and data visualizations, might just provide you with the contours of your final dissertation chapters.
Tap Into Your Positive Motivation
Monica Ridgeway (profiled by Write Through on April 17, 2018,) discussed a time when she felt bogged down and discouraged with juggling full-time work, motherhood and a dissertation. She describes how she broke through this barrier by activating an internal energy that fueled her to completion:
“I began to write through social justice. No one is really going to be able to tell the stories of these kids that I love so much … and if I don’t write it then somebody’s going to write that narrative about them. I had to write to advocate for them. I can sit through these emotions or I can write with those emotions. My language became strong and I positioned myself within it. I was using very clear language.”
Motivation is an internal energy force that is required for the direction of effort in our pursuit of a goal. It is natural that we will have ebbs and flows of this energy in the prolonged dissertation journey. However, as with all elements of the dissertation process, it pays for us to be mindful and intentional about our sources of motivation.
Fear is a powerful motivator, but it is stressful and can wear on us over time, eventually leading to paralysis and inertia:
If I don’t finish, I’ll have wasted a lot of time and money.
If I don’t meet the deadline, my advisor will be angry at me.
If I don’t finish, I won’t get the job.
If I don’t finish, I’ll be a failure.
As much as these messages might run through our minds, we likely entered a PhD program with bountiful positive motivation. Ridgeway was motivated to give voice and support to marginalized students, and she continues doing that today.
Think back to the reason you entered your PhD program. Were you motivated by intellectual curiosity? Drawing attention to a problem? A desire to solve a problem? Personal achievement? Starting a new profession? Making a positive impact? Empowering your leadership potential? Giving voice to the silenced? Being a role model?
Different forms of motivation can energize you at different times and in different ways, but one may be more powerful than another for you. So, how do you marshal the power of motivation?
First, pay attention to your inner narrative. When you think of your dissertation, is your energy to move forward mostly fear-based?
Second, get in back touch with your positive sources of motivation. Recall them, visualize them, journal about them. Begin each writing session reminding yourself in some way of this positive source of energy. Instead of beating yourself up, try rewarding yourself for your forward progress.
Fear and avoidance grow in isolation. Make sure to be connected. Email your advisor, reach out to a fellow student, join a writing group, schedule an appointment with a writing consultant in the Center for Excellence in Writing.
To get on the Center for Excellence in Writing’s graduate student mailing list and be notified about programs to support graduate students, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Write Through: Keep Moving Forward
We call this series “Write Through” for a reason. A common experience for dissertators are periods in which we get stuck. We feel as if we are spinning our wheels in one place, or going down a rabbit hole. Choose your metaphor, it happens. We may get stuck in a loop of compulsive rewriting, reading, or long periods of anxiety-filled avoidance. Our goal in this series is to help writers write through these stuck places and get back on the path toward completion.
Writing—and especially dissertation writing—is a recursive journey. You’ll move forward, but you will also be continually going back. What you discover in your writing process will inevitably influence your revision. For example, when writing a theoretical framework and a literature review for a qualitative study, you can always count on the fact that your data analysis will tell you what theoretical frame, and what literature, ends up being most relevant for your project. It’s important to lay the groundwork, but know that you can always go back again. Similarly, as you make your way through your chapters, your ideas, the depth of your analysis, and insights building upon each other, will develop the power to enrich and shape your earlier writing. So, if something feels a little bit thin and unsteady in the early stages, you will find that it will grow more solid through revision. It may be that your research questions even evolve in the process of pursuing them. The point is that the process of writing a dissertation requires going forward and backward.
The perfectionist mindset can keep us stuck in one place. It’s never quite good enough. There’s still more reading to do. I’m not ready to write. There are still tensions unresolved. Well guess what? Even when you complete the dissertation, that will still be the case. In addition, the process of moving forward into unknown territory can also trigger anxiety in us, so we can experience the double whammy of perfectionism and anxiety avoidance. So, the dissertator would be wise to develop an awareness of the forces that can get us stuck and stockpile strategies that will keep us moving forward. Here are some ideas:
Remember, getting stuck is an experienced by nearly all dissertators. The difference between a dissertator who completes in a timely manner and one who drifts off for a decade is that the former has strategies and support for getting unstuck on a regular basis. Enjoy this recursive journey, shuffling backward and forward you will eventually reach the end of the line. There comes a time when you will leave your perfectly imperfect dissertation, gather up your well-deserved degree, and move on to the next project.
Writing Through Pandemic and Protest: Monica Johnson Activates Community to Achieve Dissertation Completion
Monica Johnson completed her PhD in counseling psychology in May 2020. Abruptly transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson’s dissertation story emphasizes the complex factors of community, adaptation and individual will which can inspire many of us to finish our dissertations during turbulent times.
Based upon an utterance from one of her research participants, Johnson’s dissertation is titled, “You got five minutes to be upset, then you got to be a gangsta: A qualitative understanding of the strong Black woman phenomenon through the lens of African American acculturation.” However fun the title, the topic of the strong Black woman phenomenon (a concept coined by Regina E. Romero in 2000), and how it shapes mental health, is of enduring concern for Johnson, rooted as it is in her lived experience. While qualitative research is not the norm in the field of counseling psychology. Johnson wanted to capture the direct voices and perspectives of her research subjects as “quantitative data about Black people has often been misconstrued.” Therefore, Johnson’s data was comprised of interviews with 10 African American women analyzed through the theoretical lenses of Critical Race Theory and Black feminist thought.
Johnson recalls her mother telling her, along with her three sisters, “You know, we have to be twice as good to get half as much,” and adds thoughtfully, “We were taught that from a young age, and now that I say it out loud, it’s toxic in some ways, but it’s necessary in other ways.” Johnson enjoyed sitting down with her participants in the pre-COVID-19 era, engaging in rich, dialogue. She was motivated to contribute knowledge about the strong Black woman phenomenon to the dearth of research on this topic in the field of counseling psychology.
Johnson entered the PhD program in 2015, began her dissertation research in 2018, and defended her dissertation in May 2020. That’s a pretty steady trek through a PhD program. She felt that her program really helped doctoral students to break the stages of research into manageable chunks starting from her first-year course on measures in which she discovered the acculturation scales that she would later use to analyze her dissertation data. Her advisor, Amy Reynolds, created a structure for steady progress and collaboration by holding a meeting with all of her advisees every week from the beginning of the program to the end. This mixed-level group kept participants accountable and also poised to mentor and learn from each other. Reynolds also asked her advisees to do a mini-proposal prior to submitting their formal proposal to sketch out the basic contours of their project and receive feedback on their direction before they poured too much time and effort in.
One of Johnson’s main pieces of advice for early researchers is to try to establish the main focus of your research early on so that you can feed that focus and develop expertise throughout all of your doctoral courses and experiences. “Whenever I was doing coursework, I was always keeping the dissertation in mind. So whenever there was a project, I wanted to make sure I was exploring Black women’s issues or African American issues so that I could potentially use that work for my literature review or as a building block throughout the PhD process.” In addition, Johnson shares her “fill in the blank” approach to drafting. Rather than slowing down to support and cite each of the assertions in her draft, she allowed herself to create a little “blank,” knowing that she could go back to fill in the research. Confident that she had developed the expertise in the contours of the research landscape, she allowed herself to move forward to achieve momentum in her writing.
Despite these process assets, however, the dissertation journey is rarely without disruptions. Johnson’s data collection, for example, was interrupted by a major move when she was assigned a clinical internship at the University of Delaware. While she was now doing clinical work from nine to five on weekdays, and she had to focus on her dissertation work mostly on weekends, she found that her clinical work created a productive synergy with her scholarly work. The analytic lens of her dissertation helped her to understand her clients more, and learning about their concrete experiences fed into the themes that were emerging from her interview data.
Johnson was on track to graduate in May 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit. While the pandemic definitely impacted the timeline and experience of the final stretch of her dissertation journey, Johnson was determined not to put her anticipated graduation on hold and created several shifts in her writing process that kept her on track. No longer did she have the luxury of writing in convivial public spaces such as coffee shops and bookstores. Like many of us, she was now home with her family, a surreal crisis unfolding around her. To adapt, she created a “dissertation zone” in her home. This would be the place that signaled focus on her goal. She posted transcripts of her data around this space and even put up dry erase wallpaper so she could jot down ideas and keep them front and center of her mind when she needed them.
She also integrated family into her dissertation writing. For example, she found that just announcing her daily goals to her family would help keep her accountable and create a bit of productive social pressure. Thinking of her family as an audience also helped keep her moving forward. For example, Johnson found that explaining her research to her father, who is the business world, was especially useful as it helped her with conceptualization as she translated the academic concepts into a business paradigm. As a result, she said, her “metaphor game was on point.”
Johnson emphasizes that working on a dissertation is not a linear process that is all about sitting in front of a computer, generating word count. Rather, ideas come to you when you are moving about in the world. She recalls once driving with her mother when a dissertation thought came to her mind. She asked her mother to hit the record button on her phone while she talked out the idea. “As long as you write it down later, the dissertation writing process can happen anywhere,” Johnson notes.
On top of the new isolation and worry brought on by the pandemic, Johnson found herself grappling with the series of deaths of Black citizens such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, which led to widespread social protest in 2020. In addition to the support of her family during this period, she and her friends and colleagues took to sending each other inspirational quotes and words of encouragement. Johnson also found that the words of her research participants served as another form of support during this challenging period, strengthening her resolve to finish a dissertation which was growing more relevant by the moment.
Johnson is now a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University, doing clinical work with students virtually for the time being. Having sent a copy of her dissertation to each of her interview subjects, she is also working to turn the manuscript into numerous publications. We thank her for sharing dissertation inspiration with us in a time when we need it more than ever.
Monica J. Johnson, PhD recently graduated from the University at Buffalo, in the combined counseling psychology and school psychology program. Johnson is currently completing a clinical post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University. Johnson’s research and clinical interests include African American acculturation, religiosity, social justice, advocacy, multiculturalism, and minority mental health. Additionally, she has been working on research involving the infusion of multiculturalism into the curriculum in various counseling psychology PhD programs. Johnson has also conducted research regarding factors that influence academic success in African American woman. Ultimately, Johnson plans to practice clinically and continue research, in an effort to add to the dearth of research involving BIPOC populations.
After reading last month’s Write Through, maybe you have come up with a schedule for your writing. Perhaps you have set aside the time. But with all that’s going in your life and in the world, you might find it hard to focus. Maybe you sit down to write but your mind is tired or distracted. We’ve all had times when we were putting in lot of hours, but we just felt like we were spinning our wheels. So, in our investigation of the habits of successful dissertation writers, what have we learned about maintaining clarity and focus?
First, it’s not a bad idea to establish a daily meditation practice to get you in the habit of being fully present in the moment. The earlier you develop this practice, the more you will be able to stay centered during your writing time. There are plenty of phone applications that make a meditation practice accessible to all, and even ten minutes a day can make a big difference. When you land in your scheduled writing time, here are some ideas for making the most of it:
Align your tasks with your mental energy. The dissertation process is an amalgamation of different tasks. Some of it is writing, and some of it isn’t. Even the different elements of writing can be quite different and require different levels of mental acuity. For example, writing up a description of a protocol is quite different than applying a theoretical concept to data. Some tasks are more cognitively challenging than others or require different cognitive capacities. If you break down the dissertation process into the variety of different tasks required, you can match up those tasks with your expected mental energy reserves to make the most out of your time. Laurie Rich from the field of biophysics, for example, found that he was in the best state to generate raw ideas in the morning and then had the focus to refine them later in day. Educational scholar Monica Ridgeway-Miles liked to keep articles in her handbag to read and annotate while she attended her daughter’s dance practices. This is something she could accomplish in a more distracting environment.
Knowing that you may be tired or distracted at a certain time of day, you can plan to do less cognitively taxing tasks then, such as organizing your Endnote library, and save the brilliant writing for the time of day in which you are your sharpest and least distracted. For many, such as medicinal chemist Konstantinos Plakas, that time is first thing in the morning. It can feel especially empowering to get the most taxing work out of the way early. Each week, try making a list of all of the dissertation related work that would contribute to your forward progress, and schedule those tasks strategically thinking of your mental energy and focus.
Create productive boundaries. Overwhelm occurs when we have too many things crowding into our mental space. Dissertations are big projects, and all of the elements and connections can tangle together until we feel too paralyzed to even begin work. For that reason, it is important that each time we sit down to work, we identify a specific task to accomplish and bracket out everything else. For example, you could tell yourself, “In the next hour, I’m going to write a vignette for my introduction.” That is a lot more manageable than thinking, “Today I’m going to work on my dissertation.”
Few have the luxury of having dissertation writing as a sole priority. Many of you are teaching, have busy family lives, or even a full-time job to juggle with your graduate work. When we do have writing time, our other responsibilities can impinge upon our thinking and our emotions. In order to be fully present with our dissertation work, we need to create not only temporal boundaries, but also mental ones. One strategy is to keep a notebook or folder handy. When another priority or task intrudes upon your thinking, perhaps sending a little jolt of adrenaline through your system, take a moment to jot it down on a to-do list to be attended to after your writing time. Getting it out of your head and onto paper can help to assure yourself that it won’t fall through the cracks, creating feared negative consequences. It may be that you need to arrange your schedule to create a better separation between your responsibilities. Historian Shanleigh Corrallo, for example, made Monday, Wednesday and Friday “work days” for her teaching and tutoring, and Tuesday and Thursday were “dissertation days.” This prevented her from feeling torn between these two roles on any one day.
Try a timer. Many writers make great use of timers. You might feel daunted or overwhelmed, leading to anxiety avoidance. But if you set a timer for a specified time, say 20 minutes, and work on a discrete task, this is a way of setting boundaries that make you feel safe. Anyone can focus for 20 minutes, right? The Pomodoro technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is popular among dissertators for how it helps maintain mental freshness over longer periods of time. In this method, a Pomodoro is a segment of 25 minutes of work on a specific task, followed by a five-minute break. After four “Pomodoros,” you take a 15- to 20-minute break and then start the cycle again. While initially you might find that you don’t need a break after 25 minutes, taking the breaks keeps your mind fresh so that you can work for longer periods. There are now many phone applications which facilitate the Pomodoro technique and even can let you log your accomplishments.
It seems to be the simplest idea about dissertation writing: to successfully write your dissertation, you must sit down and write your dissertation! And yet, translating this into practice is perhaps the most difficult part. If you get a group of dissertation writers together, they will fill the air with self-reproach, detailing failures to establish a regular writing routine. They will talk about falling prey to long periods of inactivity followed by deadline-driven bursts of exhausting, long hours. More frequently than not, we have to revise and lengthen our intended timelines. While our scheduling attempts often fall into a heap of best intentions, anyone who has ever finished a dissertation has had some sort of writing schedule. It’s best to get thoughtful, intentional and experimental with scheduling your writing time!
Jan Allen, associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell University, and author of the book The Productive Graduate Student Writer: How to Manage Your Time, Process, and Energy to Write Your Research Proposal, Thesis and Dissertation, and Get Published, has a smart approach to scheduling that every writer should be encouraged to try. She advises committing to writing at least 90 minutes every day. Why 90 minutes? Because, she argues, that is about the time that a person can endure intensive writing, physically and mentally, until they need a break. She wants you to try writing for 90 minutes without getting up from your chair. Secondly, when just starting out with this scheduling strategy, she recommends writing every day for two weeks in order to establish daily writing as a habit. Some days you are tired, sick, or unreasonably busy. In such cases, Allen recommends that you sit down and write for at least 15 minutes anyway, lest a bad day turn into an unproductive week. She urges you to schedule writing sessions first thing in the morning, to avoid getting caught up in an avalanche of other responsibilities. If we write in the morning, we can assure ourselves that there will be time to do tasks such as grading or answering emails. Allen also suggests putting your 90-minute writing block on your calendar to formalize your commitment, and to create a measurable and realistic goal for each writing session. With such a plan, you will easily finish your dissertation in a reasonable time frame.
And yet, what we’ve learned from talking to so many dissertators through our retreats and our writer profile series is that effective scheduling strategies differ from person to person and within stages of the dissertation writing journey. Allen’s strategy might work like a charm for specific periods, but if you find yourself failing to rise to the 90-minute morning challenge, don’t beat yourself up. It’s okay to shift to a different writing schedule. In addition, nearly every successful dissertator does have times in which they are less productive than other times. The goal is to limit the duration of these less productive times, shake off the shame and avoidance, and continually jumpstart your writing productivity.
So here are some other ideas about writing scheduling to consider. David Strittmatter, for example, tried to conceptualize his dissertation writing as a traditional full-time job. He went to campus Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. he wrote his dissertation and attended to his responsibilities as a teaching assistant. As 3 p.m. rolled around, sure he might have been cognitively depleted, but did he go home? No, instead he saved that time for doing less cognitively demanding work such as working with his references or inserting footnotes.
But what if you already have a full-time job? Irene Holohan-Moyer worked in challenging roles in higher education administration while completing her dissertation. She proved that it is possible to write a dissertation on the weekends. She reserved three- to four-hour blocks on Saturday and Sunday, went to a coffee shop and plugged away. It might have taken her longer than it would have if she were not working full time, but the important thing is that she kept up steady progress with her realistic schedule.
Shanleigh Corrallo realized it was difficult for her to effectively mix different kinds of responsibilities, so she scheduled teaching and writing center consulting duties three days a week, and wrote her dissertation the other two days. Knowing that she also had to prioritize her own well-being, Corrallo tried not to work on the weekends.
Looking back through the Write Through profiles, there are as many different approaches to scheduling as there are writers, and all of these writers successfully finished their dissertations. What they have in common is that they had a scheduling strategy in mind and they held themselves accountable within their own individual strategy.
Not doing so well at keeping up a writing schedule? Tomorrow is a new day. Come up with a strategy that is realistic and works with your temperament and situation and try it out. Commit to it and hold yourself accountable! But don’t stop there—create a community of dialogue and accountability around your dissertation process.
“There are many paths to the same goal. The experiences and hardships you have are seeds for your growth.” — Jeeyoung Min, PhD in CISL, 2019
If there is one thing we have learned over the years, it is that no demographic group at the university engages more intensively with the writing process than the dissertation writer. Through our own dissertation writing experiences, our interviews with successful dissertation writers, and our regular discussions of common dissertation roadblocks and challenges during dissertation retreats, we have gained a rich sense of the complexity of the dissertation writing experience. In these discussions, certain themes have emerged, and we often hear end stage dissertators expressing sentiments like, “I wish I’d known this earlier in my dissertation process.” We want to gather up these themes and spend some time focusing on each in turn to provide some food for thought to others entering the dissertation stage. We know that writing a dissertation takes more than individual genius—a whole matrix of physical, psychological, social and environmental factors lead to successful dissertation completion. So, in upcoming editions of the Write Through series, we will be focusing on thematic topics related to the dissertation writing process. Acknowledging the uniqueness of each writer, discipline and dissertation project, we seek to identify some commonalities, share some strategies, and raise issues for contemplation that will help you to navigate the dissertation process. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s also a huge developmental experience. If you embrace it, you will maximize the growth and transformation the process has to offer. We suggest a mindful and reflective journey through the dissertation writing process, and the earlier you get proactive, the more momentum you will achieve.
What are some of the themes that we will be exploring? Topics such as scheduling your writing time, maintaining focus and mental clarity, a productive mindset for dissertation writing, the role of social interaction and community in your writing process, environmental facets of the dissertation writing process, the quirky habits of successful dissertators, and more! And if you miss the writer profiles, don’t worry, we will be sharing more of those too.
Looking for more writing inspiration? Consider taking part in our writing workshops and dissertation retreats this fall. Email email@example.com to register for any of the following events.
Some Forks You Take, and Others You Pass By: Shanleigh Corrallo’s Smart Journey to Dissertation Completion
Shanleigh Corrallo, a Western New York native and writing consultant at the Center for Excellence in Writing (CEW), defended her dissertation in history in spring, 2020. In this project, she shed light on two indigenous and locally focused black power organizations: Build Buffalo and Rochester Fight. Corrallo’s dissertation process exemplifies the importance of staying focused and building forward momentum, but at the same time remaining open to opportunities which increase the value of a terminal degree.
A serious and focused scholar, Corrallo moved through her program at a steady clip. She made her own deadlines and stuck to them. She started her comprehensive readings in her second year, took her comprehensive exam, and then defended her dissertation prospectus two months later. Her research was a year-long process and the part she enjoyed the most. She went to five different archives across the country, each for a week or so. During those trips she would be in the archives each day for five or six hours, taking photos with her phone, of the voluminous material she needed to capture. As she went, she created notes to accompany the photos so that she would not lose the context.
"It’s so much fun to travel and to look at these documents. The people who you are writing about actually touched them. As funny as it sounds, I love the smell of an old archive; it’s just so great to open these documents that so few people have ever even seen.”
Corrallo returned to Buffalo with tens of thousands of photos to pare down. “It was a few months of just looking through these photographs. I didn’t transcribe every document, of course, but I made sure that there were notes for each one, so that took a long time. After I transcribed everything, I looked through the notes, and that’s when the argument started to develop.” She notes that as she processed her research, it was important to make sure she cited everything along the way, so that she wouldn’t have to go hunting back through her data during the writing process.
After being immersed in the data, Corrallo was able to create an outline of her intended dissertation. She started with descriptions of the founding histories of the two organizations.
Beginning with narrative—which felt less daunting than analysis—helped Corrallo to achieve momentum. Once narrative structures were established, she could go back, integrate secondary sources and analysis. She emphasized that the process is recursive.
Corrallo’s advisor, Victoria Wolcott, was supportive of that practice and gave her this advice: “You’re going to want to keep struggling and try to perfect each chapter, but if you are going to get this done, you’ve just got to get something for me to look at.” In other words, get used to sending your advisor early stage, imperfect work.
So far so good, but after her second chapter, Corrallo encountered a fork in the road to dissertation completion. She was offered a Women in Public Policy Fellowship in Albany, through Rockefeller College at SUNY Albany. While she knew it would slow her dissertation progress, Corrallo decided to take the risk and go for it. Her experience with the fellowship broadened her experience beyond archival research into quantitative and qualitative methods. “It helps to put your work in perspective; how will you be able to translate your skills outside of an academic context, and how is your work applicable in a different work setting?” Of her fellowship experience, Corrallo notes, “It was very helpful and enriching, and it provided me with a lot of connections.”
Ready to get back to her dissertation after the fellowship, Corrallo encountered another fork in the road. She was asked to take a position working closely with the governor of New York for two years. It was an amazing opportunity, but Corrallo realized that it would completely derail her pursuit of the PhD for which she had worked so hard. This time, she chose her dissertation. She returned to Buffalo, and got right back on track.
Even for the most self-directed scholar, community is essential. In addition to having created a productive and mutually respectful relationship with her advisor, as a writing consultant herself, Corrallo recognized the value of conversation and feedback in the writing process. She regularly met with CEW colleague, Patricia Chaudron, who had also recently completed her dissertation, to discuss ideas and to get an audience perspective from outside of her discipline. “I really appreciated the sharpness of her eye, and she helped me with my analysis in many instances, leading me to think about how to take something a step further that I wouldn’t have thought of.” Corrallo also was part of a writing group with colleagues in the history department. They would share their dissertation process, exchange tips, but mostly just encourage each other through the challenging effort and the uncertainty ahead.
Corrallo’s writing schedule is surprising in light of her quick progress. Apparently, the key to her success was in her steadiness, not necessarily her intensity. Her writing days were the weekdays that she didn’t have to be on campus. So for example, she might work five or six hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She didn’t get up and try to write early in the morning, she didn’t come home from teaching and try to write, and she tried not to write on weekends. Of course there were times when she would put in more hours, but she put her emphasis upon the quality of her writing time. “If I burned myself out; I wouldn’t produce anything worthwhile,” she reasoned. She further kept her mind fresh by going to yoga classes and walking her dog.
What advice would Corrallo give to an incoming doctoral student in her discipline? In addition to being open to opportunities that might arise that might diversify one’s options, Corrallo adds, “I would tell them to enjoy their colleagues, fellow students and faculty as well. Even though you have to put your head down and get to work to finish quickly, enjoy a bit of the camaraderie and the experience that you can have.”
So, what’s next for Corrallo? Graduating in the time of a pandemic isn’t ideal, but Corrallo has been interviewing steadily and has several promising opportunities in front of her both in the policy arena and in academia. These opportunities seem to be a direct result of good choices made at those forks in the road.
Shanleigh Corrallo earned her PhD in history from the University at Buffalo in 2020. Her research examines Black Power organizations in the Rustbelt, with a focus on Buffalo and Rochester, New York. She has worked in a variety of professional sectors, teaching American history to formerly incarcerated individuals and refugees at Houghton College, working in Albany for the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and for the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, which is located in Buffalo. She currently lives in Buffalo proper with her dachshund Franklin.
From Academic to Applied Sociology: The Dissertation as a Stepping Stone
Paul Durlak completed his doctoral dissertation in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Sociology in spring 2018. He currently works as a research associate at KJT Group, an evidence-based consulting firm conducting healthcare market research, in Honeoye Falls, New York. At KJT, Durlak uses the qualitative research skills he learned in his graduate program—and employed in his dissertation research—but in a more applied setting. Durlak conducts interviews and focus groups for pharmaceutical and other healthcare providers, such as medical device manufacturers, to assist with their marketing strategies and help them find improved ways to accommodate their clients.
While he has now settled outside of academia, Durlak was steeped in it while writing his dissertation. As a full-time visiting faculty at The College at Brockport, Durlak taught four classes per semester, and realized he needed structure in order to finish his dissertation. “How do I carve out pockets of space and time where I know I can just work on writing?” he asked. Brockport provided financial stability and a collegial atmosphere, but it also created a dissertation conundrum. “You really feel like you don't have much time, and that's because you actually don't have much time…it's not just a feeling, it's a reality,” Durlak recalls. The teaching requirements of temporary full-time faculty can be demanding. “When you're teaching so much, you don't get to spend as much time just kind of sitting, thinking, and reflecting on the writing, and possibly going back through and really trying to make it perfect. Teaching forced me to not have my head in the clouds and be overly idealistic about what I wanted to write. It forced me to realize that ‘perfect’ can be the enemy of the good, especially as I was transitioning into a position based more on my research skills than my research findings.”
Durlak’s reflection on his writing process reveals not just how to finish a dissertation amidst other commitments, but also how to think about its marketability. How can the dissertation writing process be most useful for those with social science or humanities doctorates pursuing non-academic careers? Durlak began thinking about how his dissertation mattered to non-academics after deciding to pursue employment opportunities within Western New York. His dissertation research was based on 40 in-depth interviews of employees with a disability. The interviews aimed to gather information about workplace experiences in order to understand how these employees perceived discrimination in their workplace, and to what extent the Americans With Disabilities Act had an impact. When interview respondents inquired about how his research was to be used, by whom, and if it would have any sort of policy impact, Durlak began to consider the non-academic utility of his research. What did he learn? What skills did he acquire? How was it a professionalizing experience? Considering what KJT saw in him as an applicant, Durlak recalls, “One of the biggest talking points in particular during my interview was how I found my interview respondents and conducted my interviews all on my own.” Interestingly, what one doctoral student often does independently might be done by multiple people in a different setting. At KJT, teams of people take on a project similar to social science research, and as a result, responsibility becomes dispersed. “Seeing that I had done these things largely on my own, and troubleshooted things on my own, was—I think—the big selling point for them because I could show a tangible form of experience useful for this organization.”
For those interested in pursuing non-academic employment with an academic doctorate, Durlak recommends considering the various types of organizations that might value the skill sets you can bring to them as an employer. This, he feels, was something he could have considered throughout the writing process, not as something to include in the dissertation but as a way of talking about it with future employers. In his case, the specific social science knowledge Durlak uncovered in his dissertation was not as relevant as how he uncovered it. The interview, transcription, coding, and analysis skills he used to complete his dissertation are now put to use in a similar fashion with potential clients, and in focus groups. His work with health insurance and pharmaceutical companies “bears similarities to setting up and writing a dissertation,” he remarks, “but it’s different than the output.” He still collects and analyzes interview data just like in his dissertation, except now he produces a report for his clients on the research questions they provide, rather than his own.
One reason Durlak pursued a posting for an open position at KJT was because it provided an opportunity to do what he loves about research—find a problem, formulate a strategy for understanding it deeper, and then solve the problem—but in a setting where he enjoys the camaraderie of a team, and frequently changing projects. He actually describes what he does now as—perhaps surprisingly—quite fun. “It's a similar to setting up and writing a dissertation but different in the output because the research questions are given to us from the beginning from our clients—no more digging through endless scholarly literature!” Compared to a dissertation of a few hundred pages, Durlak and his colleagues produce a thorough, scholarly PowerPoint for their clients about their research findings. “A PowerPoint seems so small compared to what I accomplished with my dissertation, but this position allows me to do something very similar to what I would be doing as academic faculty in terms of using my research skills, and I find that personally and intellectually rewarding.” While enjoying his current projects, Durlak hopes to engage with the more scholarly writing skills evident in his dissertation by becoming more involved with a different section of his organization responsible for publishing formal research memos for healthcare researchers and providers in the future.
Prior to joining KJT Group in 2019, Paul Durlak worked in higher education as a visiting and adjunct instructor in sociology, where he taught a range of courses at several institutions. Most recently he taught at The College at Brockport. Paul earned his Bachelor of Arts in history, in 2004, from SUNY Geneseo. He earned his Master of Arts in 2011 and PhD in 2018, in sociology, from the University at Buffalo, where he focused on the workplace experience of people with a disability. Paul brings experience in qualitative research design and analysis, with a special interest in in-depth interviewing.
The Relationships That Cultivate Writing Practices and Environments
This past spring Kellie Jean Sharp defended her literary studies dissertation, “Experimental Intimacies and Biopolitics: 20th-Century Women’s Writing and the Politics of Bodily (Ex)change,” which focused on the intersection of feminist philosophy, queer theory, biopolitics and experimental writing. Sharp’s work engages with provocative writers of the twentieth century: Kathy Acker, Margaret Atwood, Djuna Barnes, Octavia Butler, Nella Larsen, Clarice Lispector, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison and Sylvia Townsend Warner. These authors critique the ethical limits of intimacy and its potential to shape bodies, identities and political organization. Sharp’s writing process emphasizes the relationship between writing, relationships and place.
Sharp’s close working relationship with her committee helped create a reflective practice that enabled her to evaluate her available time and resources for accomplishing immediate and long-term research, professional and personal goals. Teaching as many as four classes while writing, Sharp recognized—as many academics do—that keeping a boundary between different work responsibilities is a big challenge. Teaching responsibilities often take precedence over writing goals. To create balance and keep writing momentum, Sharp relied upon her committee to keep her “a little bit under pressure” to get things done. She established goals to reach during different parts of the academic calendar. These goals inspired her; communicating them kept her committee engaged and helped her map out how to reach them. In order to ensure a sense of positive accountability, she kept her committee updated by email, at the end of every semester. As important as long-term goals are, Sharp is also a firm believer in having quantifiable, daily writing tasks, such as reaching a word limit or spending a set amount of time actually writing.
Sharp also stresses the importance of cultivating informal writing groups. She finds writing groups provide a structure of accountability and moral support fundamentally distinct from one’s committee. In writing groups, one gets useful feedback and encouragement. Sharp finds that dissertation writers are in the same boat, and one can find support when they likewise support their peers. She maintains that one has to put support out into the world so others can respond in kind.
Sharp also thinks about the role of space in the writing process. She points out that the theoretical nature of her project opened up possibilities for work spaces. Rather than having to visit specific archives or locations to interview field subjects and navigate library hours or interviewee schedules, she had more power to decide when and where to work (she humorously says it’s often a matter of “schlepping books”). As she determines writing goals and daily tasks, Sharp puts great thought into cultivating dedicated work spaces. She recommends having a consistent writing space that evokes the feeling, “I’m in writing mode when I’m in here.” For days when she needed to be on campus to teach, she appreciated the availability of reserving a library carrel for the semester. She also encourages writers to schedule writing retreats that remove one from routine distractions. She and her partner would rent a cabin at a state park during some weekends or academic calendar breaks. These retreats gave Sharp an opportunity to set up a cozy, productive environment (candles, music, a pot of coffee) that fostered fresh focus. Though these trips were planned around writing, they also served as rejuvenating times for her and her partner, away from campus life and the pressures surrounding dissertation work.
Sharp’s final guidance for writers, by way of one of her master’s program mentors: your dissertation should not be your magnum opus. “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” There should be room to grow after the defense and in one’s early post-doc career. Spending her first year as a clinical assistant professor in the English department at the University at Buffalo, Sharp is finding her dissertation research—specifically the intersection of feminism and biopolitics—being further explored in a forthcoming chapter in the collection, Feminist Connections (University of Alabama Press).
Kellie Jean Sharp is a clinical assistant professor in the English department at the University at Buffalo, SUNY where she received her doctorate in 2019. Her research is at the intersection of feminist philosophy, queer theory, biopolitics and experimental writing. Her dissertation is titled, “Experimental Intimacies and Biopolitics: 20th-century women’s writing and the politics of bodily (ex)change.” Her work at the intersection of feminism and biopolitics is further explored in a forthcoming chapter in a collection, Feminist Connections (University of Alabama Press). She lives in Buffalo, NY with her partner, Martin; and cats, Wednesday and Sophie.
“Get busy my friends, and help your neighbors!” Balancing Solitary Struggle With Community Spirit Leads to Dissertation Success
Jeeyoung Min recently graduated from UB’s Graduate School of Education with her PhD in curriculum instruction and the science of learning. As an international student from South Korea, Min’s experience with her dissertation process is an important illustration of the variables that shape the experience of doctoral research.
When she first arrived at UB, Min was a master’s student in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), working alongside many other international students. The curriculum and expectations were modulated accordingly, but when she entered the PhD program, it was quite an adjustment. An article that would take a domestic student one hour to read might take her three hours. When asked what she did to cope, she replied, “What could I do? There is no way around it.” She invested the extra time, read actively and annotated just as other students would—it just took her triple the time. She also had to adjust to expectations; she did not just have to comprehend complex texts, but also actively respond to them. Over time, her intense effort was rewarded with rapid development. Still, the added layer of difficulty was wearing on her, physically and mentally—something relatable for many international graduate students.
Min’s dissertation examined how fifth graders in a socio-culturally and economically disadvantaged population construct meaning and experience growth through the process of digital, multimodal composition. Through her research, Min enjoyed a meaningful experience observing, interacting and ultimately assisting children in their classroom environment. Coming from a South Korean educational environment, Min was initially shocked by classrooms in which students were often talkative and moving around, instead of being quiet and still. She spent much of her days—from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.—following the active children around with a handheld video camera and asking, “What are you doing right now?” Luckily, she was able to establish good rapport with the children. She found that being Korean was a surprising advantage with this population of kids who happened to be enthusiastic about the popular Korean boy band BTS. When they found out where she was from, they asked “Do you know BTS?” It was a great icebreaker. Min developed a deep appreciation for the community of teaching and learning that she observed, especially the collaborative spirit captured by the teacher who would frequently chime, “Get busy my friends, and help your neighbors!”
Min focused on creating a good relationship with the classroom she studied, being of service in whatever way she could. The students anointed her with the role of designated pencil sharpener, for example. Her advisor, Ryan Rish, emphasized the importance of positive relationships in field study, which would pave the way for subsequent researchers. “You don’t want to create the impression that you collect the research and run away.” The end of the data gathering process was marked by a heartwarming cupcake party. “Hopefully they remember me as a cupcake,” Min remarked with a smile. After her intense data gathering process, which yielded hours of video data and interview recordings, Min reached a point of feeling overwhelmed with the quantity of her data and how long it was taking her to process it. This caused her to go into a slump of inactivity. Rish assured her that her extensive data were not wasted; she could use it for future projects. But, it was important to narrow her scope and focus in order to make her dissertation project manageable. He told her, “[t]he dissertation is not the end of the world; it’s a ticket.” A ticket to the next phase of her career. That advice buoyed Min, launching her back into action. She engaged in a data reduction process, sticking closely to her research question, letting go of interesting data that might be relevant for a future project. This process ultimately led her to narrow down to a cohesive and manageable five focal students for her final dissertation.
Like all dissertators, Min grappled with time management. As is common, she set up an ambitious timeline and felt very concerned whenever she felt she was falling behind schedule. When she didn’t meet her goals, she would engage in self-reproach, which drained her morale and her energy. Realizing that this was a self-defeating process, she resolved not to push herself into a corner this way. Instead, she adopted a stance of intentional patience and generosity with herself, much like the way she treated the children in her classroom research. She found that this orientation helped to build her self-confidence and keep her moving forward.
As a Graduate Assistant, she usually worked in the morning. By the time she returned home, had lunch and reset her energies, she might start working on her dissertation around 3 p.m. Then she would work into the early morning hours, often until 2 a.m., depending upon her energy level. She generally would work on campus and liked to move to different locations. Sometimes she would work in her office, other times in the libraries of Capen or Lockwood.
Rish advised Min not to get isolated. However, her personality is such that she didn’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing her struggles. “I don’t like to turn other people into my emotional trash can,” she remarked. “I want to be someone that, when you meet me, you can feel a delightful, enjoyable energy.” So, she needed to find another way to release her stress. She discovered that walking really helped. She walked along the Creekside Trail between one and two hours on many days. “It made me feel really refreshed and gave me some time to clear my head or think about the writing.” Another self-care strategy was taking long baths, which she found was conducive to having unexpected dissertation insights.
Looking back at her journey, Min advises dissertators to trust themselves. There are many paths to the same goal. The experiences and hardships you have are seeds for your growth; they will help you to be a better researcher. Min looks forward to a career in research, always thinking back to the teachers and children who formed the basis of her dissertation. She remembers one more piece of advice given to her by Rish: “When you do research, you have to disseminate it because it is the way you honor your participants for their efforts and their time. So, I want to be a really good researcher, and wherever I go identify myself as a social being.” Parts of Min’s journey may have been solitary, but she carries the spirit of “Get busy my friends, and help your neighbors!” with her.
Jeeyoung Min obtained her PhD in curriculum, instruction and the science of learning in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the University at Buffalo. Her research investigates digital literacies and mobile learning in and out of school to close the digital divide and achievement gaps in literacy and science education. She is currently working at SUNY Fredonia as an adjunct instructor.
Making Molecules and Eating Frogs: Konstantinos Plakas Brings Playful Energy to the Serious Business of Completing a PhD in Organic Chemistry
Konstantinos Plakas is a recent PhD graduate in the Department of Chemistry. His dissertation involved using organic chemistry to make dyes that allowed collaborators to study the human body, primarily geared toward detecting cancer. Plakas journey is notable for its balance. He was able to work intensively but at the same time cultivate a lightness and ease that kept him moving forward.
The process of completing a dissertation in organic chemistry involves an extended period of experimentation, followed by a shorter burst of writing. Plakas notes that it took him about 4 1/2 years to make all of the molecules necessary for his project. Most cannot imagine this process, but Plakas illustrates how it is not a linear one: “So, you might have an idea...I’m going to make this molecule, then you discover something else. And so, all of a sudden, you’ve made this, but now you want to learn how to get to here. So it adapts and changes pretty frequently. You have to be able to cope with that.” He notes that even toward the end of his writing, he found himself back in the lab “doing synthesis, mixing some chemicals, trying to get those critical last pieces of data” to strengthen his dissertation.
Plakas started actually writing in December and completed in April. There were several factors that helped him to achieve this relatively quick turnaround. First of all, he notes how his program is structured to front-load much of the work of the writing stage. For the qualifier, he had to create a thesis-sized version of the dissertation, which allowed him to come into the process with quite a bit done on the introduction and literature review. As he did his experimentation, he tried to update his literature as new research was conducted in the field. While he found the qualifying process stressful, he was grateful for the ground it laid.
Knowing that his work had potential lifesaving clinical translation provided a motivating backdrop that carried him through the PhD journey. In addition, as it became time for the final push of writing, Plakas found he received a significant boost by thinking about the job market. As he would peruse the postings, he realized he would have to complete within a certain time frame to be able to take advantage of the array of opportunities in front of him.
Week-long dissertation retreats in December, January and over spring break, presented opportunities to make significant leaps in his work. “For the first retreat, I got most of my first chapter done, and then turned it over to my advisor, got it back and was able to gear up for the second chapter. In the second dissertation retreat I was primarily focused on getting my second chapter done in a similar turnaround.” Once the semester started up, of course things got a bit more hectic and distracting, but Plakas kept on track by breaking the project up into small chunks.
Being a scientist at heart, Plakas noted that, though there was space in the lab, he found himself pulled to mixing chemicals instead of writing. So, he found it important to take himself out of the lab. He liked to work in the small adjacent office to enjoy some natural light, but also found the scholarly decor of the library inspiring. “It gives you an air of doing something important,” he noted with a smile.
In terms of maintaining mental freshness for the intensive work of dissertation writing, he ascribes to Mark Twain’s “eat a live frog in the morning” philosophy. Plakas, an early bird who gets up around 5:30 a.m., explained how this simply means that if you start the day off with the most taxing chore, it can make the rest of the day seem easier. He made it a point to start the day with a burst of energetic effort whether it be making his bed, going for a run, or showing up at the hockey rink at 7 a.m. After such a good start, Plakas found he could settle in and be present in his writing. Plakas emphasized that since the dissertation process is a grueling one, it was important to give himself recovery time and not to inflict guilt upon himself for not accomplishing as much as he set out to do.
Though he found hard deadlines motivating, Plakas also applied what he calls an adaptive mindset. He tried not to set unrealistic goals and to rebound quickly from delays or less productive times. Plakas resisted what he calls the “culture of presentism” which he has found prevalent in academia. This is a culture in which the pressure to be constantly on task, in this case in the lab, can lead to burnout.In other words, Plakas kept the pressure on himself, but also exercised self-care. “There are going to be tough times,” he advises. “ So, you drop a week’s worth of work in a flask onto the floor? It’s going to sting for a little bit, but you’re going to get through it. Laugh at yourself, go out for a cold beer and move on. Everyone goes through it.”
Another aspect that buoyed his progress, was Plakas’ positive approach to his advisement team, whom he calls the “all-star PhD committee” because of their support and investment in his project. “I can’t let my advisor down,” was a thought always in his mind. He also had two members of his committee who were earlier in their careers, so he knew, as collaborators, that his success was connected to theirs.When it came to his committee, Plakas had the philosophy, “If they ask me to jump, I’ll ask how high?’” He knew his committee would stick their necks out for him in return should he ever need it. The friendships and strong bonds he found within the research context were important aspects of Plakas’ graduate study experience.
In keeping with his upbeat approach, when Plakas heard about the Three Minute Thesis competition hosted by the Graduate School, he said “Why not?” He received great insight from his coach Neel Patel about how to speak about your research to people who do not share the same background, a skill that has definitely come in handy on the job market. While he found the competition very nerve-wracking, he found challenging himself in this way to be a tremendous learning experience—and hey—he won second place!
What’s next for Plakas? Well, after celebrating his PhD completion with his friends and family in Buffalo, he has recently been fielding numerous job offers. Wherever he lands, his ability to balance serious, hard work with lightness and joy will likely be the secret to his success.
Konstantinos (Kosta) Plakas recently completed his PhD in medicinal chemistry in the chemistry department at UB. His research used organic chemistry to create molecules to help clinicians detect cancer, and evaluate treatment efficacy. Plakas will join the chemistry department at St. Bonaventure University where he hopes he will be able to teach and inspire his students to have an appreciation for science and science literacy.
The Airport Lounge Dissertation: Laurel Root Completes Meaningful Dissertation While Frequently on the Go
This spring, Laurel Root defended her dissertation in cultural anthropology. Her dissertation focuses on community building through entrepreneurship among female refugees in Buffalo’s West Side. Her project offers a needed perspective in both studies of entrepreneurship and the refugee experience in the United States. She developed her project while volunteering for the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI). Her advisor established a level of trust between Root and WEDI early on, easing the challenges social scientists often face when conducting field research. WEDI is known in the West Side for offering opportunities for entrepreneurship to resettled communities through a small business incubation space (the West Side Bazaar), business coaching and low-interest microloans.
In the process of field research, Root interacted with women whose stories were compelling, leading her to focus her project on the experience of female refugees. She found that the women she talked to were welcoming and warm and provided crucial information for her project. While writing and gathering qualitative data (through a combination of participant observation, informal interviews and formal interviews) at WEDI, it was important for Root to know she was giving back to the organization and the women who had taken the time to speak with her. She served on WEDI’s Development Committee, composed of experts in finance and the refugee experience, attending monthly meetings to provide guidance on fundraising and other financial development strategies.
During her three years volunteering at WEDI, Root actively wrote notes and recorded her thoughts on her phone when leaving the field site, trying to capture everything. She had a wealth of material to work with when beginning a more focused composition and found that the material she wrote for her advanced exam was helpful as an initial structure for a chapter. This is a crucial advantage for any dissertation writer, an advantage she says that is built into the anthropology department’s approach to the exam.
When considering the time-management involved in any dissertation writer’s life, Root is the first to say that her experience working full time as a recruiter for undergraduate international students was not typical. However, she found strategies to stay productive during the months she spent traveling to locations in North America, South America and Asia for her job. She maintains she probably wrote the majority of her dissertation in airports, in hotels and in between meetings. Airport lounges became one of her best tools. Anyone who has traveled knows the challenge of working while waiting for flights. To keep herself in a frame of mind to work, it was crucial to create a clear plan of what she needed to accomplish, dissertation or non-dissertation related. She would stick to a schedule when traveling, clearly communicating to herself what she needed to accomplish before having dinner or socializing. No matter where she was going, whether for work or for holidays visiting family, she would make sure she had her materials accessible online. She would keep to-do lists on her phone and would keep everything on Google Drive, including a working chapter.
A key factor in organizing her time was clear communication with co-workers, family and advisors. Throughout her dissertation journey, she found support from her advisor who stayed in close touch through email during her writing process. Her husband was also very supportive; she would make a list of things for her husband to handle, carving out more time for her to dissertate. He was also a crucial source of motivation. She says he “definitely kicked me along a little bit” and would challenge her when she hadn’t sat down to write in the past few days. Even when she had to miss holiday gatherings, she found support from her husband’s family who would send food back,wishing her luck with the writing.
Root also found motivation from the subjects of her field research, the women that were involved in the research whom she stresses helped her along the way. She would often think of them when writing or when looking at her research materials. She thought about the challenges these women have faced, leaving their home countries and coming to the United States and finding the motivation to become business owners. Root found herself wanting to make sure that her work was honoring the time that they spent to speak with her. It was important for her to actually do something with the conversations, rather than taking forever to finish her dissertation.
Root emphasizes the importance of having confidence in one’s self during the dissertation writing phase. Having completed the journey, she sees how easy it is for writers to set up roadblocks in their minds. This self-doubt must constantly be resisted. She notes that it helped that those around her had faith in her ability to write her project. Getting in touch with personal confidence and the confidence others have in you, however, helps to clear such obstacles.
She has found that the dissertation process has helped foster a deeper engagement with the recruitment work she was doing while a graduate student. Since graduating, she has taken on the role of manager of recruitment and international enrollment services at the UB School of Law. She likes this new administrative position because it involves more strategy and because she gets more face time with the students,allowing her to engage the skills she developed in field research. While staying in recruitment and enrollment, she hopes to move beyond administration to forge a path into strategy within higher education, especially with international students. She hopes to get involved with shaping global education opportunities.
Laurel Root is a cultural anthropologist dedicated to utilizing her formal education in real-life situations. Having spent a considerable portion of her undergraduate and graduate studies abroad as an international student, she now works with incoming international students studying law in the United States. She defended her dissertation and graduated with her PhD in May 2019. Prior to her dissertation defense she ran a market research consulting company and was recognized as one of Buffalo Business First’s 30 Under 30. She later worked as an international student recruiter for the University at Buffalo and recently joined the School of Law as the manager of recruitment and international enrollment services. Laurel continues to stay connected to her dissertation research on the West Side of Buffalo as a resident, and contributes to community causes in the neighborhood with her husband Steve.
A Process for Intense Times: How Lynne Klasko-Foster Finished a Dissertation and Built a Family
Lynne Klasko-Foster recently graduated with a PhD in public health from the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at UB. Her dissertation focuses on risk perception and how it informs prevention behavior related to sexually transmitted diseases.
Klasko-Foster’s department uses the “three manuscript model” in which a dissertation is built around three different, but related studies, which are then brought together by an introduction and an extensive literature review followed by a general discussion that ties the three studies together. One advantage of this model is that the writer emerges with three manuscripts that are essentially ready to be sent out for publication. Now a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, Klasko-Foster shared with us her dissertation journey—one that had its unique challenges, but illustrates the range of tools a dissertator can use to keep momentum moving forward.
Klasko-Foster, who had one child during her PhD program, discovered that she was expecting a second bundle of joy during her final dissertation writing stage. This really kicked her motivation into high gear. “I knew that I had the year ahead of me to complete my dissertation, but I needed to get all of my studies done before her July due date. I had to focus on all of the things that I couldn’t do from home,” she recalled. This included all of her data collection for her experimental studies, including surveys and interviews with participants.
After the baby arrived, now with two small children, her writing process took a surreal turn. Klasko-Foster emphasizes that she has a very supportive partner, but nonetheless, this is an overwhelming time in a person’s life even without a dissertation to write. “I felt a lot of personal guilt. If I was in the house and I heard one of the kids crying, I felt that I should attend to them. Maybe it’s some kind of procrastination tactic too … I don’t know … but I felt like in order to write I needed to remove myself from everybody and just be in the office.”
So, Klasko-Foster would put her kids to bed and then head to her on-campus office and work from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. At this time of night, she had her shared office to herself. It was quiet. She could put on relaxing music and just write. She wrote until she felt she was writing “real garbage.” Then she would go home, get two hours of sleep until the baby woke up at 4 a.m. Then both kids joined her in bed where they would doze until it was time to go off to day care.
When asked how she wrote in a state of sleep deprivation, Klasko-Foster referenced Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott advises that sometimes you just have to “barf on paper” and not worry about whether it’s good writing. You just have to get it out.
That eloquent advice became part of Klasko-Foster’s process. “Even if it is something you would never show to somebody, at least it’s there. You’ve attacked it, and later you can fix it.” She wrote in this spirit in the wee hours of the night, and then during the workday, if she had a couple of hours between meetings, she could look at what she had written and revise it.
One can imagine that during this time Klasko-Foster put her own well-being on the back burner, but she emphasized that you can only take that so far. “By January, I realized I wasn’t feeling well at all,” she recounts. So she started packing healthy snacks, going to yoga or doing another form of exercise when she could, realizing that this sort of self-care was not optional, but essential for her circumstances.
Klasko-Foster made use of a number of tools to propel her writing process. For example, to kick-start her writing process after completing her comprehensive exams, Klasko-Foster decided to enter the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition hosted by the Graduate School. “It was so beneficial for me as a starting point to think, what is the root of what I am doing? How would I explain it to someone else, and how is this relevant to the general population? It really helped me to frame my thinking before I started writing my introduction,” she remarked.
Klasko-Foster then made use of the extended, protected time of a weeklong dissertation retreat to write the majority of her introduction. In addition, she joined two accountability groups which combine social pressure with social support. One met Tuesday mornings and the other Friday afternoons. “The idea is that you set an intention and you share it with the group. Then you sit for an hour and write, and afterwards report about whether or not you met your goal.”
While finishing her dissertation and interviewing for postdoctoral positions all over the country, Klasko-Foster made use of quiet time at airports and hotels to work on her dissertation. When she landed the position at Brown University, knowing that it started in July and that she wouldn’t want to miss out on the opportunity, gave her the extra push she needed to finish.
Klasko-Foster also credits the quality of mentorship she received from her committee as being key. “They motivated me in a coaching way rather than a breaking your spirit way,” she commented, supporting her forward movement. When she thought of extending her referral date, they discouraged her, assuring her that she was almost there.
Ultimately, Klasko-Foster got through the intensive years of writing a dissertation and starting a family by recognizing that circumstances always change. There are times you have to prove yourself. Through her efforts and her proactive spirit during this difficult period of time, Klasko-Foster created a powerful springboard into the future of her choosing. She is looking forward to her work at Brown University, well-poised to make positive contributions in the sphere of community health.
Lynne Klasko-Foster is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Brown University School of Public Health in the Center for Health Equity Research. She defended her dissertation and graduated with her PhD in May 2019. Her work focuses on how patient-provider communication around risk perception for sexually transmitted infections influences prevention behavior. Klasko-Foster has won awards for her work from the Delta Omega Honor Society, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, and the Center for AIDS Research at the University of Rochester. She was one of 12 selected finalists at the UB 3MT competition.
Working on the Weekends: Irene Holohan-Moyer Successfully Juggles Career, Family and Dissertation
Irene Holohan-Moyer recently finished her PhD program in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Graduate School of Education. Her dissertation explored the important vantage point of students in “finish in four” programs. Holohan-Moyer’s dissertation story is notable for how she was able to complete a PhD program while simultaneously steering significant developments in her career. During the time that she was a PhD student at UB, Holohan-Moyer worked on the massive HUB implementation project that many of us remember so well. She stayed on at UB, first as an associate registrar supporting the student information system, then in the creation and direction of the HUB Enrollment Systems Support Office. After that, she moved on to become registrar at Daemen College, and more recently she was named assistant vice president of institutional effectiveness and systems integration at Daemen. Her experience of working on these two demanding tracks at once can be food for thought for those who are pursuing a PhD while working full time.
Adding to Holohan-Moyer’s full plate were the ingredients of family life. Her children were six and eight years old when she started her PhD program, and now one just recently graduated from high school and the other is finishing his sophomore year. So, she notes, her children basically grew up alongside her PhD. Holohan-Moyer emphasizes that her journey was not a result of superhuman focus or endurance. The program did take her 10 years, start to finish. There were times when “life happened” and her progress stalled and she had to start up again. During the dissertation phase, after her proposal defense, she began to intensify her progress and finished the project within 2 1/2 years.
While her advisor gave her the excellent advice, “You need to stay in touch with your writing and your research every day,” it just wasn’t feasible to try to write after a long day at work, so Holohan-Moyer made the most of weekends. She found that her home environment was too distracting, so she made it a habit of spending three to four hours on Saturdays and Sundays at a Spot, Panera or a Starbucks, buoying herself up with tea and snacks along the way. Her family grew accustomed to giving her this space for her dissertation work. There were times, as deadlines loomed, that she had to get more intensive, putting in longer hours or even using vacation days from work for writing, but for the most part, her dissertation was completed on weekends.
Often dissertators are motivated by a prospect of increased power on the job market, but what about those, like Holohan-Moyer, who have already landed in a satisfying career? What is the source of motivation? She admits that there were times when she considered not finishing. At times like those, her husband would chime in “Are you kidding me? After all this time that you’ve put in?” His voice echoed her internal conviction. The investment of time that she had made, and her natural tendency to want to finish what she started, kept her moving forward. Also, she realized that her PhD journey was a powerful model for her children. So, she kept going.
When asked about factors that contributed to her success, Holohan-Moyer emphasized a community of mentors and fellow students, especially those who were one step ahead of her in the process. Whenever she encountered an obstacle, she had the resource of others who had successfully gotten through the stage in which she found herself and they could give her guidance, whether it was reading a draft or helping her to figure out how to navigate the system. Their support was so vital that she became determined to give back in the same way, and sharing her story here is a great way to do that.
In that spirit, Holohan-Moyer had two significant pieces of advice to share. The first is that at some point you have to assert control over your own project. In the process of formulating her project, she naturally followed the lead of her advisor who was immersed in the research and pointed her in interesting directions. So, she found herself being led through four of five different iterations of her project, which sometimes made her feel as if she was going in circles. At this point, she realized that she needed to take the lead and manage the direction of her own research, a sign of her development as a researcher. “I think from [the advisor’s] point of view, until you start fighting back and take control, they don’t think you’re ready,” she remarked.
Holohan-Moyer also emphasizes keeping the dissertation project in perspective. “It’s not your life’s work. It’s a project that’s teaching you how to be a researcher. You’re just beginning to be one. You are not going to be perfect or an expert at research. That is why you are doing this.” There are additional directions and related projects that you can delve into down the road with your research passions, but for the dissertation, stay focused. “Bite off a piece that can be reasonably accomplished,” she advises.
After having worked toward the PhD for 10 years, giving much of her weekends toward this goal, I wondered how Holohan-Moyer felt, having now accomplished it. She admits it has been a bit disorienting. She no longer has a reason to tuck herself away in a coffee shop for bursts of time over the weekend and has had to reintegrate herself in the day to day of family life. But she’s started to open herself up to the possibilities of that newfound time. Read a book for fun? Go to a movie? A day at the beach with family and not worry about the work waiting for her at home? These things that many take for granted strike Holohan-Moyer as a tantalizing luxury now. And well earned!
Irene Holohan-Moyer received her PhD in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. She defended her dissertation in December 2018. Her work focuses on how undergraduate students participating in college retention programs describe their experiences. Irene has over 17 years of experience in higher education administration. She currently works at Daemen College in Amherst as the assistant vice president of institutional effectiveness and systems integration.
Passion and Discipline: Saeede Eftekhari Emphasizes Synergy Between Life and Academia
You may remember Saeede Eftekhari, PhD candidate in the Department of Management Science and Systems, for her remarkable presentation at UB’s Three Minute Thesis competition in 2017. She won the People’s Choice Award. Eftekhari’s story about dissertation writing reminds us that passion and discipline can be productively combined and balanced. Eftekhari emphasizes that a “dissertation topic should come from your heart so you should be emotionally connected to it,” but equally stresses how carefully she manages her daily writing routines and checks her progress on a weekly basis.
Eftekhari will defend her dissertation in May 2019. The aim of her research is to examine the effectiveness of health information technology on the cost and quality of care. Eftekhari is specifically looking into the impact of Health Information Exchange (HIE) on the U.S. healthcare system. HIE is a managerial program implemented in 2008, to securely share patient information electronically among doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers, and ensures a continuum of care. Her research has shown that HIE contributed to reducing unnecessary repetitions of medical procedures, as well as facilitated communication among HIE member physicians.
It is not always easy to find a research topic that resonates with one’s passion. Yet, for Eftekhari, this is the first essential step. “You should be the main driver on the road to completing your dissertation,” she emphatically says, “so it is vital to first ask yourself why you want to do this and where you want to go with it.” While Eftekhari found her initial interest in the topic of healthcare during her master’s program, it was through collaborating with her PhD advisor and colleagues at UB that she came to develop a specific research focus for her dissertation.
Eftekhari highlights the importance of breaking down the dissertation project into smaller, workable segments. She suggests aiming for conferences and publications, as they set up specific goals and deadlines which help to stay motivated. “If you look at my calendar,” Eftekhari says, “I have not only created deadlines for myself to submit my work to my committee, but also marked the submission deadlines for several important conferences in my field.” Conferences and publications also enable her to stay aware of audiences outside her research committee, from journal editors to fellow scholars at conferences. This strategy has turned out to be very productive for Eftekhari.
According to Eftekhari, writing a dissertation is about asking yourself the right questions, as much as trying to find answers to them. She starts every chapter by writing down three questions: What am I trying to accomplish? Why is this important? What do I already know? With these questions clear at the beginning, she was able to more cogently write her chapters because she could connect specific sections back to the chapter’s central goals. When faced with confusion, she tries to raise questions and write them down as clearly as possible before seeking help from her research committee. Through this exercise, she often succeeds in solving her problems on her own.
In terms of writing habits, Eftekhari tries to write at a constant rate, making sure of her progress on a weekly basis so as to keep her emotional momentum. “Emotion impacts the tone of your writing,” she emphasizes. “When you feel stuck though,” Eftekhari advises, “you should never feel ashamed to reach out to your advisor and colleagues for help.” Eftekhari learned this lesson from her own experience. When she started to write her dissertation, she was reluctant to communicate her concerns with her research committee because she believed that she first needed to solve the problems on her own. She soon realized that communicating with her advisor and colleagues lead her to find solutions more efficiently. By talking to others, you will be able to find out which parts of your story are clear and which need further clarification. She also regularly visits the Center for Excellence in Writing when she is working on chapters and publications.
Finally, being an international student has shaped the way she approaches her work in the U.S. “Coming here from my home country, Iran,” Eftekhari emphasizes, “my first objective is to finish my degree.” Eftekhari mainly works toward this goal by creating a synergy between her daily life and work. Doing research and writing are not so much work, as they are sources of joy. “I love doing my research and writing, so doing this in itself is pleasant for me.” Eftekhari tries to arrange her daily activities to work more productively and maintain her well-being. For instance, she sets time aside weekly, to go swimming or walking, which helps her to focus on writing better. Eftekhari also enjoys spending time with fellow international students who share common goals, interests and experience in studying abroad. Emphasizing the importance of these connections, she says: “Don’t forget to hang out with your friends and classmates!” These conversations often inspire her to stay focused on her primary goal—not just graduating, but graduating in an outstanding way.
Saeede Eftekhari is a PhD candidate in the Department of Management Science and Systems. She will defend her dissertation in May 2019. Her work focuses on how Health Information Exchange (HIE) can make the U.S. healthcare system more effective and efficient. Eftekhari has won several awards honoring her academic achievements, including the 2017 People’s Choice Award at UB’s Three Minute Thesis competition. Starting fall 2019, Eftekhari will join Tulane University in New Orleans as a tenure-track assistant professor.
More Than the Sum of Its Pages: Computer Scientist Sharath Chandrashekhara Reflects on the Role of Audience in His PhD Journey
Sharath Chandrashekhara received his PhD from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He worked in the Reliable Mobile Systems Lab, focusing on building personalized storage for mobile platforms. A central goal in his dissertation was to provide a framework to give end users more say in the control of their own data, across multiple apps, on one device. Prior to the PhD program, Chandrashekhara was enrolled in the master’s program in computer science at UB. He interned with Amazon during the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Upon completion of his master’s degree, Chandrashekhara contemplated whether he wanted to pursue an industry position or a PhD. Prior to graduate study, Chandrashekhara admits that he was never really into research, but after two semesters in his master’s program, he found himself thinking, “How can I hang out in this academic system a little longer?” Complicating his decision was a strong full-time job offer from Amazon. However, after considerable reflection, he decided he wanted to stay in the academic and research environment. He didn’t take this decision lightly. He wrestled with the implications of walking away from a good opportunity. Years later though, he’s sure he made the right choice.
Chandrashekhara’s dissertation story isn’t a tale of individual achievement. When describing his research—whether it be publishing articles, presenting at conferences or writing his dissertation—he tends to use the pronoun ‘we,’ as in “what we worked on,” or “what we wrote.” While he certainly deserves credit for his own hard work, Chandrashekhara also acknowledges that he was never alone. Early on, Chandrashekhara spent a considerable amount of effort focusing the scope of his research and convincing his advisors and the research community that the problem he was working on was worth solving. Throughout the process, his advisors encouraged him to submit to prestigious conferences, small workshops and high-impact journals. Their feedback, paired with the feedback of the research community, gave Chandrashekhara the confidence to move forward with constant curiosity and drive to refine the impact of his study.
Chandrashekhara’s understanding of his process as iterative, further reinforces his appreciation of collaborative research. Anyone who has engaged in a long-term research project is familiar with the seemingly never-ending process of drafting and rewriting. Chandrashekhara’s experience illustrates how it is not only helpful, but essential, to let other voices into the process. Chandrashekhara admits that at first, all of the feedback and questioning was a bit overwhelming. Through the process of presenting his research formally and informally, he was continuously pushed to refine his ideas, his research questions, and his conclusions. Ultimately, Chandrashekhara realized that research was not only about solving a problem, but communicating the problem and its significance. "The more you learn about who your readers are and the research group you’re targeting, you refine the way you present it. What I realize was even to cross the first level is to make sure the description of the problem and what you’re solving is very clear.” Getting to that point of clarity in his work came from the questioning of members of his research community. Those many iterations of drafting, refinement and revision were meaningful steps that narrowed the scope of his work, and helped him foreground the importance of his research to both academic and industry researchers.
Chandrashekhara’s dissertation, like most, is more than the sum of its pages and more than just the final written artifact. Rather, it represents all of his diverse experiences at UB and the community that helped to propel him. Word counts or number of pages per day didn’t drive his success. Instead, presenting his work through publications and conferences, and getting feedback seems to be the real meat of the experience. Chandrashekhara’s story helps us remember that the dissertation is the culmination of a varied set of challenging and rewarding experiences. Being mindful of that journey can only intensify our success.
Sharath Chandrashekhara received his PhD in computer science in Feb. 2019. His work at UB focused on mobile-systems, cloud-storage and flash-based storage on mobile devices. After a successful internship with Amazon he is now leveraging his new expertise for Samsung research. Currently, he is working as a senior research engineer in Samsung’s Digital Health Labs department. He is currently focusing on creating an advanced software platform for digital healthcare.
“Dive In!” A Culture of Research Activity Propels Exercise Scientist to Quick Completion
It took James Sackett just three years to complete his PhD in exercise science, but it was an intense three years. Sackett’s research focused upon how water immersion affects the human body. Funded in part from grants from the United States Navy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the University at Buffalo, Sackett’s research group produced research of benefit to the Navy Seals as well as other groups such as scuba divers and astronauts.
Sackett offers a lot of credit to his mentors, Blair Johnson and Zachary Schlader, for a positive research experience. Young and relatively new to the field, they invite new PhD students to immerse themselves in research activity from the get-go. Sackett seized the opportunity to get involved in studies already in progress and get acclimated to the energetic, highly motivated research environment. He benefited from the active part he took in the collaborative “publish as you go” writing culture.
Shortly, Sackett developed his own research interests under the larger umbrella of the research team and began piloting data and writing up results. One and a half years into the program, he had already written a paper and presented at several conferences. By the time he was ready to submit a dissertation proposal, he had two publications under his belt and had completed two pilot studies in which his dissertation would be akin to the third in a series. The dissertation didn’t feel like a beginning to a research journey; instead it was more like a culmination. Much of the material that went into the final dissertation manuscript had a previous life in his earlier publications. Therefore, the actual completion was a lot less daunting than writers might experience in other disciplines. His mentors communicated to him that many more people would read the publications than the dissertation, taking some of the pressure off the final completion process. He had been doing the challenging work all along.
Even still, the three-year process of completing his PhD was not an easy one. Sackett worked hard. Right from the beginning, he put long hours in at the lab, often seven to eight hours daily. Again, he credits the lab culture created by his mentors, noting his personal philosophy of looking up to and following those above him. His mentors were constantly working, pushing out publications. “If they’re doing it, why shouldn’t I?” he asked himself. Sackett also realizes that his individual situation was conducive to this level of intensity. He wasn’t from the Buffalo area; his fiancée (now wife) was in California, so he didn’t have friends and family to compete for his attention. The lab became his life.
Lest we paint too idealistic a portrait, Sackett admits that the entire process of research and publishing is fraught with challenges. From equipment malfunctions to manuscripts returned with overwhelming edits required, the necessity of problem solving and overcoming obstacles is continual. Luckily, problem solving is one of Sackett’s favorite aspects of research and he feels he learned the most from working through the many problems he encountered. In fact, instilling problem-solving skills in students is a central part of his teaching philosophy.
As researchers in the field of exercise science, Sackett and his lab mates did not have to be convinced about the importance of health and wellness for getting through the intense work of graduate school. Students in his program played on a softball league and Sackett even started a broomball team for the winter months. And of course, his cohort was known to gather at a local bar on a Friday night where they found themselves talking about their research, not because they were unable to disconnect, but because they had in common that they genuinely enjoyed their work. Sackett’s story definitely illustrates the importance of a positive community for dissertation success.
When Sackett was defending his dissertation, the scholar who was filling his spot in the PhD program happened to attend. He took the opportunity to address some words of encouragement and advice to her: “Dive in!” he advised, “What you are going to learn from mentors and the lab environment is incredible, but if you don’t put yourself out there and get heavily involved, you are going to miss so much. If you skip a day in the lab you are going to miss something. Dive in, absorb everything, have an open mind, have an open attitude. Be committed, be involved.”
Upon completion, already having publications on his CV, Sackett quickly found himself with a faculty position at Cornerstone University, a small Christian College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he teaches and continues to engage in research, in many ways, “for the fun of it.”
Born and raised in Michigan, James Sackett attended Adrian College where he played four years of varsity baseball. His passion for exercise science was sparked at Adrian College by his undergraduate mentor. This encouraged Sackett to pursue a path in academia, which included obtaining a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Ball State University and a PhD degree in exercise science from the University at Buffalo.
“I was never writing a dissertation, I was writing a book.” Literary Scholar Shosuke Kinugawa Reveals His Personal Journey Through Dissertation Writing
My dissertation experience was great. It was tough financially and physically, but the writing and researching part was bliss. I’d do it again if I could. I’d just eat better and exercise more.
I finished my dissertation in my sixth year in the program, but that was a matter of coincidence. I had no real sense of a deadline. Just a cycle that I followed: take notes, organize them, write them out as an essay, find this or that missing or wrong, go back to taking notes. I repeated this cycle until I accumulated enough material for a dissertation. That just happened to be my sixth year.
I also had an extremely supportive dissertation committee. My chair, Professor Carrie T. Bramen, was brave enough to take me and my weird project on. She let me do my thing while keeping me realistic in terms of my claims. You need a committee that you feel comfortable with and I was lucky enough to have that.
Ever since I was a child, I’d always wanted to write a book. I really, really wanted to write one. Literature was my favorite kind of book so I wanted it to be related to that, but I had no talent or desire to write fiction. So writing about fiction seemed like the best option. I saw the dissertation as a step towards that goal. So in a sense, I was never writing a dissertation, I was writing a book. And I was motivated like anything from start to finish.
I also wanted to really understand Mark Twain’s writings. I’ve always found fiction interesting and have spent my life reading my fair share, but the primary impression I always come back with, is a sense that I don’t understand. I understand the plot, the characterization, themes, etc., but fiction consists of so many different elements, and relationships between the elements, that I always end up feeling overwhelmed when I am done reading. So for my book I wanted to see if I could finally get a good grasp of even a few works. I’m not sure if I did, but this feeling that I’m always missing something really important keeps me motivated to read on and write about what I read.
I wrote my master’s thesis on Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper. As I was doing research for the thesis, I realized that Twain had an affinity for codes, ciphers and other kinds of encrypted writings. It was all quite strange to me because I couldn’t figure out what this affinity with codes and wordplay was doing in Twain’s literature. I didn’t really intend to write a dissertation on Twain. He wrote a lot and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to deal with that much Twain. But I did want to finish what I started so I kept at it through my coursework. As I continued to do research, I kept finding more and more material linking Twain’s interest in encryption and wordplay with his fiction. By the time I finished my coursework, I had decided that this should be my dissertation.
So there weren’t any recognizable “stages” to the writing. I had a question that I was interested in and I just kept trying to find the answer to it.
Time management: Looking back, I was able to finish in my sixth year, primarily because I had—in a sense—started writing my dissertation from the first year in the program. In addition to the stuff I did on my own, I did an independent study with Professor Neil Schmitz on Twain in my second year. This helped me get a sense of how my project looked from the perspective of a Twain scholar. It also helped boost the speed of my writing after my third year, because it let me concentrate on developing the content of the project, rather than spending time formulating its framework.
Starting early helped, too. But more crucially, it gave me time to reflect on my project and to give it a good hard skeptical look from time to time. Every few months I’d have moments of doubt, where I feel like the connections I was “finding” and the questions I was asking were just figures of my imagination. Starting early gave me time to face these doubts rather than avoid or push them back for later.
Maintaining well-being: So this was the most difficult part. I had more or less ignored well-being for the first half of the PhD program. I liked what I was doing, so I didn’t really feel tired or stressed and just worked around the clock. Then in my third year, my body just kind of gave and I came down with a chronic illness that basically made me nauseous all day. This continued for more or less until I finished my dissertation, and I still have it. In addition to the physical aspect, the condition took a psychological and financial toll. I was a broke student from abroad that had minimal healthcare, so paying bills worried me to no end.
Overcoming obstacles and writer’s block: My obstacles were mainly health related and financial. Overcoming my health issues just meant enduring them. In terms of financial obstacles, I applied to scholarships and fellowships. Looking back, starting the dissertation project early helped on this front too, because I had concrete things to say and fairly developed chapters to offer, when it came time to apply for dissertation fellowships.
I’ve never had writer’s block.
Social interaction and community were crucial. I came to the PhD program to read and write, so I didn’t really actively seek interaction or community. It wasn’t that I didn’t want interaction and community. I just felt that I needed to prioritize my research in order to finish it. So I appreciate all the people that extended their friendship and included me in their community, despite me being me. I’m especially grateful for the community of international students and my cohort in the PhD program.
To me, the crucial part of writing the dissertation is figuring out what you really, truly care for. Your ideas and emotions about your project fluctuate as you write. So it’s good to have something solid inside you that stays the same. But it’s not always easy to find a topic like that. And in a way, writing about what you really care for makes the task harder.
If I could redo the PhD program, I’d begin by getting a thorough medical check-up. I’d also routinely exercise, prioritize sleep over everything, and just take it more easy overall. In the long run, taking a day off once a week or sleeping seven hours instead of five will not make much difference for the dissertation. But being tired and sleepy and wanting to throw up all the time will.
I’m still trying to finish my Twain book. I’m also working on a project on detective fiction.
Shosuke Kinugawa teaches American literature at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies in Japan. He received his PhD in English in 2016 with his dissertation “Mark Twain’s Secret Writings,” which was selected as the winner of the UB Graduate School’s 2016-17 Outstanding PhD Dissertation Award. The dissertation focuses on the nineteenth-century American author Mark Twain’s lifelong interest in encrypted writing and wordplay.
“Have a passion for your project.” Intrinsic Motivation Propels Michelle Linder to Dissertation Success
Michelle K. Linder, a recent medicinal chemistry PhD graduate from UB, has a central piece of advice for STEM students entering PhD programs: when choosing a program, look for research projects that align with your interests. Don’t solely choose based upon the prestige of the institution or the principle investigator. “You are going to be working on the project for four to seven years,” she notes, “you have to have a passion for what you do.” Linder declined offers from other universities and chose UB because of her interest in their research. During her time at UB, she truly enjoyed her work synthesizing colorful rhodamine dyes, which have applications for cancer therapies and alternative energies. Linder describes her research with enthusiasm, “In collaboration with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, I not only learned how to synthesize light-activated chemotherapeutic agents, but I was able to test them in vitro myself.” In addition to her obvious fascination with the research, Linder was also motivated by her desire to improve the treatment outcomes and lives of patients through pharmaceutical or disease research. This level of authentic interest and motivation was key to getting through the long and stressful PhD journey.
The timeline of a PhD in chemistry, as Linder describes it, involves not only drafting a synopsis of research that has been conducted to date, but also proposing a novel research idea in year three. Experimentation follows, and when enough data has been acquired to give results that can be explained, a thesis is written. This process is not without obstacles, especially in the experimentation phase. If a project fails, there is little to write about. Linder notes that she did have a small project that went awry, and so she had to regroup and begin again. She describes the conceptual work of writing a dissertation as telling the complete story of your research—what it means and how it will impact the field. At first Linder tried to write in the lab environment. As much as she enjoyed mentoring MA and PhD students in the lab, she found there were too many distractions for writing. She pulled herself out of the lab and developed a routine in which she got up early, grabbed some coffee and found a quiet spot in the library. “I was amazed at how much I could accomplish in a few hours with fewer interruptions.” She tended to work in three to five hour intervals, rewarding herself with time off, perhaps to watch a favorite television show.
After beginning to write, Linder experienced an unexpected interruption. She was offered a position as an intern at a pharmaceutical company in Georgia. Conventional wisdom might suggest that breaking up the momentum in the final stages of a PhD could be a costly mistake. Nevertheless, Linder, who aspired to work in the pharmaceutical industry, knew that this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up and her advisor wholeheartedly supported her. Moving to Georgia for three months did slow her down, but she is glad she did it. Experiencing industry was one of the best experiences she had during her PhD process. Falling a bit behind her cohort in terms of completion, ended up actually creating a bit more ease for her, as she realized that her timeline was her own. In addition, having colleagues who were just a bit ahead of her in the process, was a great source of support and motivation.
When asked about her experience being a woman in a STEM field, Linder considers herself lucky. Not only was she in a majority female research group, but she had many strong women to look up to in her research environment as an undergraduate student, graduate student and intern. Thus, she never felt isolated.
Linder acknowledges that completing her dissertation was tremendously stressful and difficult. It required considerable time and effort, but when you work so hard for something, it is exhilarating to finish. After graduation, Linder taught organic chemistry at UB during the summer and accepted a position as a scientist at a clinical research organization. She looks forward to a career of loving her projects!
Michelle K. Linder is a recent medicinal chemistry PhD graduate from Michael R. Detty’s group. Her research focused on the synthesis and evaluation of chalcogen-containing rhodamine dyes as photosensitizers for light activated cancer therapies, and dye sensitized solar cells. She is currently working in clinical research.
“I am not a writer.” Electrical Engineer, Phil Schneider, Invents His Way to Dissertation Triumph
Upon meeting Phil Schneider, you notice that he is full of kinesthetic energy. As such, locking himself away to write a dissertation was not a comfortable fit. However, Schneider managed to finish his dissertation in a timely manner, by adapting his writing strategies to align with his personality and strengths. Schneider’s dissertation is a project at the crossroads of many disciplines and fields, including electrical, chemical and biomedical engineering, computer science, law, and even business.
Having completed his undergraduate studies at UB, it took Schneider about four years to complete his PhD. His work involved the creation of technology that mimics the human body in such a manner that renders it an excellent replacement for human test subjects. For example, technology from Schneider’s project can be found in fake arms that enable researchers to explore small fluid scales (e.g., networks of capillaries). His dissertation began with an idea, followed by the creation of theoretical models. The models were then constructed and sent to industry to be tested, involving legal complexities. Because his project involved a variety of disciplines and fields, Schneider had to rely on subject matter experts, and a team of undergraduate and master’s level research assistants. Schneider created a timeline of his project and set aggressive goals. He admits that neither he, nor his team, usually hit those goals on time. Still, those ambitious goals seemed to create a motivating propulsion which moved the complex process forward. He told his team, “Shoot for the moon and land somewhere in between,” and “If we meet 70 percent of this goal, we will hit it out of the park.”
Schneider enjoyed the research much more than the writing. “I am not a writer,” he admits. “Give me some presentation slides and let me talk to industry, and I’ll talk to them until I’m blue in the face.” Sitting and writing was a tough thing to handle, but he applied the same kind of “gut it out” strategy that he had applied to the research and testing phase. He outlined the whole project first, “If you can see the end, you know how to get through it.” Then, he tackled the project chapter by chapter, breaking each into smaller chunks, in order to create more frequent moments of closure and accomplishment. At first he wrote in the lab, but after a while he found it too noisy. He started moving between libraries and home, finding it productive to switch up his writing environment frequently. By chapters three and four, he began to lose steam. As a result, he began to make use of a voice-to-text app, which did a pretty good job of picking up his technical terms. He found small conference rooms where he could pace back-and-forth while talking to his computer, accessing the communication context that seemed most comfortable to him—moving and presenting, rather than sitting still. Schneider admits that the writing process was not easy for him. He developed a twitch in his eye from stress. Some days he would just lock himself in a room “grinding it out,” as he would say. When he wasn’t writing, he would feel guilty. He realized this process was not healthy, so he started swimming three times a week as a way to relax. He got through it. As a natural presenter, the defense was the easy part. With such a fascinating project and knack for presenting, it’s no wonder that he won the Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition!
Schneider is currently working for the company that tested his models, furthering his research in an industry setting. In the future, he is also open to creating a start-up to launch his inventions, or returning to a university setting to continue his research. One thing he knows, is that he would like to stay in Western New York where he grew up, and where he has had such positive educational experiences. Schneider offers this advice to others entering PhD programs: “Make sure it is something you want to do. You have to love what you are doing to get a PhD, or you will be absolutely miserable along the way. Make your process as tangible as possible—timelines and projections. Don’t spend all of your time thinking—execute.”
Philip Schneider graduated with his PhD in electrical engineering. As a member of the university’s Sensor and Micro-Actuators Learning Lab, Schneider’s research included the development of wearable technologies, biometric technologies in the mobile consumer market, and the creation of test phantoms for medical sensor testing. Schneider has a true passion for bringing STEM to the local community. He is the founder of Project FIS, mentors a local FIRST Robotics team, and is part of the Westminster Charter School initiative. He aspires to be a successful business owner, bridging his backgrounds in science and technology with his business acumen to directly contribute to the economic resurgence in the Western New York region.
“Don’t go home!” Historian David Strittmatter Reveals Strategies for Speedy Dissertation Writing
David Strittmatter, a historian who received the Teaching Excellence Award from the College of Arts and Sciences, defended his dissertation in May 2018. He finished the project 26 months after his prospectus was approved, which is pretty speedy for his discipline. His dissertation looked at the development of heritage sites in the U.K. and involved archival research abroad in London and Edinburgh. Strittmatter was highly motivated to get through the PhD process in a timely manner and was kind enough to share some of his strategies.
His central tenet? Don’t work at home. But you say you have an amazing home office? Strittmatter has heard that before. “It may be completely anecdotal,” he notes, “but from what I observed, the people who completed their dissertations quickly did not work from their home office.” There are just too many distractions at home and too little accountability. Strittmatter made it a habit to put in regular, long hours at his TA office on campus. His typical schedule involved a leisurely morning drinking coffee, checking emails and taking care of TA responsibilities. Despite his disciplined approach, he found that this type of morning, especially sleeping as much as his body seemed to require, set him up well for an alert, productive day at work. At about 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., he would leave the house and head to his office at UB. He found the change in location to provide a sort of intellectual reset to get him focused upon dissertation writing. The final eight months of dissertation writing was crunch time for Strittmatter. At least three days a week, he was the last person on the fifth floor of Park Hall (where the history department is located), working until about 6:45 p.m. and then catching the final campus shuttle to the lot where he parked. So focused on putting in the time, he started bringing a lunch rather than going to the Student Union or The Commons, thereby reducing the lunch hour to a 20-minute meal.
Many writers might perceive such long hours as grueling, but Strittmatter points out, “It isn’t so much about time management, but rather task management.” He recognized that in a full day of work, one’s mental capacity will fluctuate. Therefore, one must align activity to those patterns. “What tasks require more brain power than others? Do those during your peak productivity hours,” he advises. “There are always tasks that don’t require innovative thought which can be done when you start to get tired or unfocused: applying to grants, grading, answering emails. Don’t spend your best hours grading world civ responses. You may be exhausted near the end of the day, but don’t go home. Instead, stay that extra 45 minutes and do something productive, whether it be fixing footnotes or proofreading. All of it needs to be done.”
Strittmatter advocates for on-campus work not only for its lack of distractions, but also for its collegiality. He advises that even during the independent phases of graduate study, it is important to be seen in your department. Also, having colleagues around to bounce an idea off or to get quick feedback on a puzzling paragraph, can keep the momentum moving forward. Strittmatter recalls that a group of three or four colleagues in his department formed a writing group to hold what they called “mutually assured productivity sessions.” While he rarely wrote with them, just knowing they were right down the hall being productive helped motivate him.
Strittmatter emphasizes the importance of taking control of one’s own productivity. “Just because you send a chapter to your advisor doesn’t mean you have to wait for feedback to continue on. You can still start on the next chapter while you are waiting.” In other words, set your own pace rather than let your committee dictate your pace. An encouraging detail is how Strittmatter experienced a kind of snowball effect while writing the dissertation. “Chapter one and two will take a lot longer to write than subsequent chapters,” he says. As the project takes shape, a writer will start to automatically apply feedback to later chapters, fueling momentum. “Your writing just gets faster and better as you go along.” He shares that he wrote his final chapter in a mere 15 days.
Strittmatter advocates not delaying the writing process. A history dissertation, of course, requires a lot of research, but Strittmatter has witnessed some of his colleagues falling into a research hole, pouring over huge amounts of research when they may not even use two-thirds of it. He urges writing alongside the research process and vice versa. “You can always do additional research as needed. Be aware of what story you are telling; start putting the timeline together. ... You can always flesh it out later.” In other words, a dissertator does not need to feel they have it all figured out in order to start writing. Writing is a process of discovery. “Allow yourself to figure it out along the way.”
Though Strittmatter worked intensively during his dissertation process, he emphasizes that there comes a time when it is important to decompress and refresh. A productive day is bookended at one end by a full night’s sleep and a leisurely morning, and at the end, some celebration may be in order. After working a full day at the office, Strittmatter would often find himself a bit wired, so he enjoyed going out for beer and burgers with colleagues a couple of times a week right after work. “These are some of my best memories of writing my dissertation,” he notes.
So what’s next for Strittmatter? He is currently a visiting assistant professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College, in Washington, Pennsylvania. Strittmatter is teaching three classes this fall at the small liberal arts college a half hour south of Pittsburgh and he notes a difference in academic culture from his time at UB. “I wasn’t asked a single question about my dissertation project during my day of interviews at Washington & Jefferson College,” Strittmatter says. “They were solely focused on my ability to teach, which is considerably different from an R1 [research 1] institution.” His experience supports the old adage that the best dissertation is a done dissertation.
Before coming to UB for his PhD, David Strittmatter worked for an education organization in South Florida for three years. His journey in higher education began at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he majored in journalism and history. Then, the Iowa native earned a master’s degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Scholar Mom: A Real Story of the Dissertation Journey
Every dissertation writing process is unique, but when considering tips and strategies for timely completion, we might get discouraged when we hear how efficient and motivated other writers can be. Our own process might seem lacking by comparison. A story we hear less frequently is one of a successful dissertation journey that is messy and protracted and does not conform neatly to outside advice and time management techniques. Process stories often do not highlight the ebbs and flows in productivity, and the shifts in method and perspective that writers experience. Randi Moore, a consultant for the Center for Excellence in Writing, recently finished her PhD in linguistics and will be graduating this week. She completed a fascinating study working with participants from Oaxaca, Mexico who are speakers of a Zapotec language. She wanted to know if cognition patterns were related to features of the local landscape, but discovered that local community was the most influential factor affecting the way people think.
Moore’s journey was not a quick one. She defended her proposal in December 2013 and had to apply for a number of extensions to arrive at the point of successful completion. There were many delays and knots to untangle along the way. For example, Moore’s research progress included applying for and waiting for grants to fund her data collection and analysis stages. She received a “Dissertation Improvement Grant” from the National Science Foundation which allowed her to travel to Oaxaca and to pay her participants, of which there were over 200 total. With so many participants, her data analysis process was daunting, especially since each recording had to be translated from Zapotec to Spanish before data coding could even begin. She received a Humanities Institute Fellowship to help her while she processed and analyzed the data. While these efforts were time-consuming, the upside is that Moore has preserved a sizeable sample of the Zapotec language and her data has potential for shedding light on many research questions beyond her dissertation focus.
Moore describes the process of writing her dissertation as having many ups and downs. There were many parts of the work that were tedious, viewing data produced by the same discrete task over and over again, inputting data into an Excel spreadsheet, and then finally graphing the data and running it through statistical modeling software. However, the process was also punctuated by moments of discovery and insight as interesting phenomenon would pop up in her data. She chugged along, motivated to get through the tedium in anticipation of such moments.
Things were about to get even more complicated. Moore and her husband welcomed a baby girl into the world in June 2016. Prior to and even during her pregnancy, Moore had optimistic visions of hitting “send” to deliver her finished dissertation to her advisor right before her due date. Examples of others’ such legendarily productive pregnancies were offered to her as attempts at support, but she discovered that dissertating while pregnant is not what it’s cracked up to be and that all pregnancy and parenting advice should be taken with a grain of salt. The time leading up to the birth of her baby was a blur of reading baby books and trying to fulfill co-authoring commitments while being in a somewhat foggy, distracted state of mind. In other words, there was very little space for dissertating. Then another unrealistic narrative arose, “I’ll do little bits of data analysis when the baby is sleeping.” Cue all the mothers of the world laughing compassionately. Guess what you are really doing when the baby is sleeping (if your baby sleeps)? Taking a shower. Eating something. Sleeping!
“It is not advertised enough just how difficult the first year of having a baby turns out to be,” Moore said emphatically. Even though she had a very supportive spouse with a flexible schedule, Moore found it difficult to make significant progress. The year was an exhausting emotional rollercoaster. Of course, there were times when Moore contemplated giving up. She could opt to be a stay-at-home mom or take an alternate career route. “When people talk about work/life balance,” Moore said, “they tend to frame it in terms of time management. But really, it’s also identity management. When you have a baby, you suddenly have this whole new identity. You start to define what kind of mom you are going to be: there are lots of options and they are all right and they are all wrong.” This new identity overlays the traditional scholarly identity in uncomfortable ways. Throughout all of this introspection, Moore realized that it was important to her to have a space of her own outside of her identity as a mom, a space for solving puzzles, thinking new things and challenging herself intellectually. And so, she pushed through.
So what did work? “Well, simply put, we put our daughter in daycare,” Moore replied. Luckily, the family found a quality daycare that provided funding support and her daughter, a confident and social child, really enjoyed it. Knowing her daughter was happy and well cared for, Moore could apply herself to her dissertation with a clear mind. Moore also emphasizes that she could not have gotten through the process without the support of her partner, who allowed her to devote significant chunks of time to her work. Like many dissertators, Moore finds herself particularly susceptible to distraction. So, she found it important to leave her house to work and spent a significant amount of time at cafes. Dissertation retreats provided Moore with the necessary accountability to stay focused and produce writing in significant bursts during the home stretch. She noted the simple power of being in a room with other people who could see if I was goofing off. Another supportive community for Moore was a private Facebook group for “Scholar Moms.” This group served as a “safe space” for talking out how to juggle scholarship and motherhood, as well as working through some of the more delicate issues of identity. Another factor that buoyed Moore’s motivation was seeing the exciting activities of other scholars and receiving positive feedback at conferences.
Moore’s story reminds us that there are many external factors that influence the timeline of research and the successful writer is able to weather the chaos, frustration, and uncertainty and ride out the process to completion. This honest narrative also emphasizes the importance of community, persistence and self-compassion throughout the challenging process of achieving a significant scholarly goal while traveling through the milestones of life that coincide with graduate school. Such a journey has its rewards.
Randi Moore recently received her doctorate in linguistics at the University at Buffalo. Her research interests include spatial semantics and cognition, semantic typology, field work and documentation, and language and geography. In her time at UB, she was active in the UB Center for Cognitive Science, served as research assistant for the MesoSpace Project and worked as a writing and multimedia consultant for the Center for Excellence in Writing.
“No one else like you has come through this door.” Building Ease and Momentum Into the Dissertation Process
Monica Ridgeway is an inspiration for the busy dissertator. She completed her dissertation in a span of 2.5 years from proposal to defense. Her dissertation is a critical race ethnography focused upon students who participated in the highly ranked drop-out prevention program that Ridgeway directed. Focusing upon science education, Ridgeway explored the question, “how does race and racism operate in these educational systems to perpetuate marginalization?” Her commitment to the lives of the children in her program and the responsibility of telling their story led to a broadening of her scope, an increase in the amount and type of data collected, as well as an evolution of her theoretical framework. In addition to the cumbersome nature of her project, Ridgeway was also working full time as director of the program she was studying. She was accustomed to such an intense lifestyle. As a PhD student funded through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), she had to carry a full load each semester and also worked as a graduate assistant in her program. On top of this, she is a mother of an active daughter who, among other things is a competitive dancer. As a full time director, a PhD student and a dance mom, how did she power through her dissertation process, maintain her wellbeing and emerge triumphant on the other side?
Ridgeway shared that she starts each day creating a to-do list with her morning coffee. “In a perfect day, what would I like to get done?” she asks herself. If she doesn’t complete something, it simply gets put on the list for the next day. However, Ridgeway notes that she keeps an eye on her list. If something keeps rolling from one day to the next, she asks herself why she’s putting that task off. This keeps her from the subconscious avoidance behavior that plagues so many dissertators.
Ridgeway also carries her backpack with her everywhere she goes. So, wherever she may find herself, with whatever block of time that presents itself, she can make some progress. If she is stuck in a doctor’s waiting room for an extended period of time, instead of getting frustrated that valuable time is being wasted, she can pull out a draft to review or read an article. When driving her daughter to her many activities, she listened to you-tube clips of scholars she admired, to absorb their way of speaking about the issues she cared about. And if she wasn’t working, she made sure to appreciate and be enriched by the company of others, whether it be her family or her fellow dance moms cheering at a competition.
While Ridgeway developed many practical strategies for remaining productive, much of her success can be attributed to larger conceptual moves. Throughout her process, because of her busy schedule and multiple responsibilities, she was led to a productive form of streamlining. “Instead of putting everything in buckets, how does all this go together?” she asked herself. In her coursework, she was strategic in aligning the material of the course with her developing research interests so that all her efforts could contribute toward her final goal. And finally, to help her to maintain the pace of this intensive period of her life, Ridgeway had to examine commonplace attitudes about work/life balance. “How can I redefine what a break is? What if I’m relaxing, drinking my tea and enjoying reading Gloria Ladson-Billings?” In reminding herself of her genuine interest in her subject, Ridgeway could re-infuse her work life with enjoyment and ease. She also emphasized the importance of community for keeping herself upbeat and fulfilled in her process. She developed a practice of “reading the same article as friends; then let us talk about it.” She credits her participation in a writing group for teaching her to write for publication.
In terms of her writing process, Ridgeway writes in the early morning. “I’m not a long distance writer,” she added, “you’re only going to get a few hours out of me – of good writing. But, I can read later in the day.” Ridgeway shared that she starts by thinking about the work that needs to be done in her paper, then creates the headings that will get her there. Then, she will free write within any one heading. “I find the part of the paper that I can get traction on and I start there.” Starting with the part of the paper she can write best at the moment and allowing herself to use a free-writing approach is a great way to establish fluency and momentum.
While it is striking how Ridgeway’s practices facilitate an easygoing forward momentum, she does acknowledge there was a time when she felt bogged down. She shares that at a pivotal point she was “having a hard time emotionally with what her participants were going through. Is this work going to change their reality?” she wondered. “Maybe I should not write but go and do something about it.” At this time she realized that she needed to leave her position as director. “The burden and the weight of not being able to make changes that were needed to change the students’ realities was becoming too much.” It was at this time that her research motivation surged forward. “I began to write through social justice. No one is really going to be able to tell the stories of these kids that I love so much … and if I don’t write it then somebody’s going to write that narrative about them. I had to write to advocate for them. I can sit through these emotions or I can write with those emotions. My language became strong and I positioned myself within it. I was using very clear language.” This was a transformative moment for Ridgeway as she discovered that what made her unique and effective as a researcher was the life of her emotions. “That was tapping into my humanity. Sharing stories that honor who they are. Writing in a dominant narrative. I had to learn how to. Sometimes it was as simple as ‘I’m not going to use that word anymore.’ I found myself using my writing as a way to resist.”
Ironically, it was the experience of losing momentum and the subsequent deep questioning that led Ridgeway to the strongest source of motivation that carried her through her project. And that momentum keeps rolling forward! After her PhD conferral, Ridgeway was awarded a prestigious post-doctoral opportunity—a Chancellor’s Academic Pathway fellowship at Vanderbilt University. She has now shifted her research focus from K-12 to higher education, studying how race and racism operate in engineering and computing disciplines.
Ridgeway offered some comforting advice to ease the pressure of the dissertation process: “A dissertation is just a thing that says ‘I can do a study’. You’ll look back at your dissertation and see how you’ve grown and evolved. No one is going to do it like you. Nobody is going to approach that problem, look at that problem and analyze that problem like you will. Your work will contribute. No one else like you has come through this door.”
Monica L. Ridgeway is a Chancellor’s Academic Pathways postdoctoral scholar for diversity in STEM education at Vanderbilt University. She is a part of the Explorations in Diversifying Engineering Faculty Initiative (EDEFI) research team led by Drs. Ebony McGee and William H. Robinson (BlackEngineeringPhD.org). Ridgeway received her PhD in curriculum and instruction and the science of learning with a concentration in science education from the University at Buffalo. As a former science educator, she is concerned with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning for historically and contemporarily marginalized students of color. Her research focuses on the role of identity, racialized experiences and marginalization in K-12 and higher education STEM spaces. Ridgeway’s work seeks to challenge and problematize traditional notions of STEM teaching and learning and present solutions for marginalized groups to have access.
Prepare, Collaborate and Repeat: Writing a Dissertation in the Sciences
The Graduate School’s 2017-18 Outstanding PhD Dissertation Award went to Laurie Rich for his dissertation “Photoacoustic Imaging of Head and Neck Cancer: Preclinical Optimization and Clinical Translation.” Rich received his PhD in February 2017 while conducting research at the Roswell Park Graduate Division’s Molecular and Cellular Biophysics and Biochemistry department. Using photoacoustic imaging during radiation treatment, Rich measured the blood and oxygen levels of head and neck tumors—which constitute the sixth most common types of cancer worldwide—to develop less expensive and invasive treatment monitoring protocols. A clinical trial based on Rich’s work has been initiated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Working in the sciences, an experiment-driven and collaborative discipline, Rich emphasizes that deadlines, community and preparation were key factors in successfully completing his dissertation. After having painstakingly set up a research plan and conducting his experiments, Rich finally received permission from his committee to start his dissertation. This intense writing period lasted approximately three months and included steady benchmarks of accountability during which Rich talked to his mentors about his progress and process. Although—like many dissertators—he initially felt overwhelmed by the vast amount of work, Rich managed to productively stay on track by creating an outline that offered focus and direction. In order to keep his information organized and remain aware of points of connectivity to other research, Rich crafted annotated bibliographies to map his readings. According to Rich, one of his colleagues had advised him to write short three to four sentence-long paraphrases of articles. This habit allowed him to effectively and efficiently navigate various forms of contextualization in his own project.
In terms of daily habits, Rich emphasizes that writing and research always go hand in hand. This does not only refer to one’s individual journey through a sprawling network of books and articles but also means exploring other methods: predominantly communicating with other people who have gone through a similar process. In the initial stage, he would write new material or as he calls it “raw ideas,” in the morning, and refine these in the afternoon. Rich consciously sought isolation at home to concentrate on his first chapter. After this part of the project was completed, he changed his routine. He would work at his lab for two or three hours in abandoned offices or conference rooms. One of the main advantages of working in a lab is that it automatically facilitates a sense of community. Rich said that if he had been “on his own,” he would have been “lost.” By virtue of working in the same building, having lunch together, participating in seminars, and presenting parts of his project to his peers and mentors, Rich consistently interacted with others about strategies, best practices, and the fact that writing a dissertation is a real struggle. Rich also found this combination of practical and emotional support online. He would often search Google for forums discussing formatting problems, how to write a methods section and general writing advice. Who would know that the highly critically acclaimed journal, Nature, also features information on how to write a dissertation? Rich additionally learned a lot from reading other people’s dissertations and using these as models for clarity, the use of detail and analyzing genre conventions.
But how do you keep yourself motivated during difficult times? How do you wade through those infamous, unwieldy and unfortunately repetitive cycles of feeling stuck? When he was struggling with the clarity of one particular section, Rich decided to send it to his mother. Although he would generally first consult colleagues before sending his material to his mentors, at that moment he felt that he needed the opinion of a different kind of reader. Someone for whom logical flow would be the major concern. Her feedback allowed him to get the basics of his argument in good order. Rich, however, points out that a pragmatically driven problem-solving approach often needs to be accompanied with understanding and the willingness to acknowledge and validate people’s emotional experiences. Rich notes that writer’s block is “a real thing.” Apart from talking about it, Rich found that taking a day off when feeling frustrated allowed him to process things better. But during the most stressful writing period—three weeks before his defense—when he was chained to his desk from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., he craved Oreos and junk food. He would indulge himself occasionally but tried not to go overboard. Moreover, despite often seeking isolation, he still needed something else in order not to “feel trapped” in his “own mind.” He would often play ambient noise or listen to strange talk shows that filled up a type of void that he needed but also functioned as an oppressive presence in itself.
What has Rich done in the past year and how does he see his future? He is currently a postdoc at Roswell and finds a lot of gratification in mentoring PhD students. He tries to function as a mentor and accessible partner in conversation. Although writing the dissertation was challenging, he feels that it has prepared him well for the myriad of papers he has produced since. He argues that currently 80 percent of his writing tends to be solid with 20 percent needing further refinement. Especially in the competitive field of grant writing, you need to come to the point quickly and efficiently while being confident and clear about the novelty value and necessity of the proposed research. Two of the most valuable lessons that Rich has learned were being prepared and being able to adapt to circumstances. Although he ideally wants to pursue a career in academia, increased competition has made him aware that he also needs to consider alternatives. Rich is therefore also open to the idea of working in the science industry or even non-traditional career paths such as patent law or performing data analysis in the finance industry.
Laurie Rich received his PhD in Biophysics from UB in February 2017 and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY. His work focused on the application of a novel imaging technique, termed photoacoustic imaging, for fast and safe prediction of head and neck tumor response to radiation therapy. The positive findings from his work lead to a pilot clinical trial in head and neck cancer patients currently ongoing at Roswell Park. In the summer of 2018, Rich will be transitioning into a new post-doctoral research position at the University of Pennsylvania.
From Lab to Dissertation: A Biologist’s Practical Magic
Dolonchapa Chakraborty, a recent department of biological sciences PhD graduate and adjunct professor at Mercy College in Bronx, New York, will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the NYU School of Medicine in June 2018. Perhaps surprising to those not trained as scientists, writing a biology dissertation entails more than facts, figures and data – it also entails “figuring out which story needs to be told,” according to Chakraborty. During the writing process itself, this means as much organization geared to this “larger story” as possible. This means beginning writing as early as possible. For Chakraborty, her larger story was considering how her research challenges pre-existing notions about pathogenic E. coli outbreaks by interrogating its associated viral element. Her research has identified two molecules that can finally shed some light on treatment options.
Furthermore, students need to think about when actual writing should begin and that should be earlier in the program than they think. Students can run experiments perpetually, but the craft of “putting facts and figures into a paper form that might later become a dissertation chapter or scholarly publication should be a key focus, not just striving for continued success in laboratory experiments,” says Chakraborty. Writing a manuscript with organized sections, even if certain ones still need to be filled in, provides a template to continually get writing done rather than waiting to start it all after the fact. This also helps because experiments can take time to reach fruition and hypotheses can fail given the unpredictability of living organisms. “When in the laboratory,” she reflects, “writing should still be a priority and this was an area where I could have been more efficient upon reflection; pick a time to write and write only where no experiments (and people) will get in the way. Time management is key!”
To ensure writing efficiency for those just starting the dissertation process: get a structure, put your dissertation together typographically – “go ahead and make the cover page to make it feel real,” recommends Chakraborty – and begin work on the introduction. “The introduction can be more difficult to write than people think and students aren’t always adept at technical writing,” she says. Students can then structure the subsequent chapters from that starting point. Even before experiments end, students should consider trying to divide time equally into experimenting (when still conducting them), reading and writing. She stresses for students to still continue to read to keep their vocabulary sharp and to take a writing course early in their PhD.
Towards the end of the writing process, students need to prioritize writing over other things especially as the graduation date looms near. For example, “try to schedule the best periods you can set ample time, like a five-hour block, to write,” Chakraborty recollects. Send chapters to your advisor piece by piece rather than the entire dissertation document because this makes the revision process more convenient and efficient. In addition, try the best you can to focus on solely writing the dissertation, bracketing what might be applications to faculty and post-doctoral positions for other writing periods. External stimulation can also be productive: consult and join professional networks of biologists outside of academia, like those in the private sector, to learn about non-academic opportunities so you know all your options and where you stand. “Learn how to talk about your research to people from all backgrounds and have an elevator pitch ready. There is life outside of a PhD, you should do that and it helps writing productivity too,” Chakraborty reflects.
Dolonchapa Chakraborty is a Molecular Biologist and currently wears many hats. She freelances as a consultant for a biotech start-up, helping them with brand management, marketing and product development. She is also an adjunct professor at Mercy College in the biology department. Chakraborty has also recently begun developing a website focusing on STEM PhDs, career options (both traditional and alternate) and troubles faced by STEM graduate students. It will be fully ready in a month. It includes a blog, “PhDs - Do’s and Don’ts.” In her free time she likes to blog about various topics pertaining to biotechnology.
How Hope Led Dieuveut Gaity Through His Dissertation Writing Process
Dieuveut Gaity recently finished writing his dissertation in social work and will defend in March 2018. Gaity’s dissertation is titled “An Ontology of Hope” and focuses upon street children in Port Au Prince, Haiti, Gaity’s home country. Gaity was in Haiti during the earthquake. He recalls, “I felt my soul run out of my body.” He recognized, in retrospect, that “hope was one of the protective factors” which allowed him to collect himself and move forward into the future. Gaity is determined to focus on the strengths and potential of the people of Haiti, preferring to call his young subjects “resource-seeking children” rather than “street kids.” For his study, Gaity interviewed these children to better understand “the characteristics, elements and conditions” that come together to form the protective state of hopefulness, so crucial for survival.
Gaity wrote his dissertation within an admirably tight time frame. He submitted his proposal in the spring of 2016, and put the final touches on his manuscript in January 2018. This pace is even more impressive when one considers the obstacles that he encountered along the way. Sadly, his mother passed away while he was in the midst of his comprehensive exams. While it was very hard not to be able to share the joy of his dissertation completion with his mother, Gaity notes that her desire to see him complete his degree was a powerful motivator for him to pull himself out of his grief and keep working.
Of course it was challenging to write in English while thinking in French and Creole, but Gaity also experienced challenges relating to focusing his research in his home country. For example, there was a general lack of research and literature on his subject. His biggest struggle occurred when he returned to Haiti in 2016 for his data collection. Though he came armed with letters giving him introduction and permission to interview children at a particular agency, he found he was met with an attitude of suspicion and resistance, which was not only deflating, but also made the logistics of his project more daunting. Many people did not understand his purpose and did not cooperate. Ironically, Gaity found, in order to move ahead with his research in such conditions, he had to adopt the “resource caravan passageways” model of the children he interviewed. He did not take on the role of the arrogant, entitled researcher, but instead scrambled to build necessary social connections and find ways around roadblocks to interview the children for his study, to uncover important meaning about the children’s construction of hope. On top of that, as an international student, Gaity was under a heightened time pressure for this process of building rapport and trust with his organizations and subjects. He had to return to the U.S. before his Visa expired or risk not being able to return at all.
Considering the rocky road Gaity had to travel, we were especially curious about the strategies that he employed to keep up his momentum and avoid getting blown off course or losing hope. The first and perhaps most impactful strategy that Gaity communicated to us was to “set goals and set them well.” What he meant by this is that you have to be very clear about what you want to accomplish and not to allow your project to expand, drift off course or get out of control. Vibrant interaction with peers and advisors can be great for sparking ideas and sharpening analysis, but when other people get excited about your work, they may suggest lenses that tempt you to stray from the original focus of your research. Dialogue may lead you to a more expanded sense of the potential of your data, which is wonderful, but can result in an increase in the original scope of your research question. Gaity found it crucial to keep his eye on the specific purpose of his study. He knew that he wanted to focus on seeds of flourishing and resilience of the children of Haiti, and he kept standing his ground on that intention.
Gaity also emphasizes that along the way, it was important to remind himself to relax—to listen to music, eat and sleep well, and watch comedies—his favorite entertainment genre. He also tried to take short weekend trips, like to Lewiston or Gowanda, even just to look at the trees to refresh his spirits.
One of Gaity’s dissertation strategies is particularly creative and ingenious, and it was discovered by accident. He relates that during his master’s coursework, he tried to turn in a paper, but discovered it was not due until the following week. He experienced a feeling of relief and lightheartedness. “I have time to relax and play some basketball,” he remembers thinking with delight. Since then, he developed a habit of creating this space for himself by routinely completing work before a deadline, even if he makes that deadline himself! For example, he might tell his reviewers, “I’ll get you chapter two by next Friday,” even though he already has completed that chapter. Then he will get started on chapter three. So, when he sends chapter two off, he is well into completion of chapter three! It creates for him a feeling of always being ahead of the game and never having that feeling of working with his back up against a deadline. Not only does it positively affect his mental state, but it also improves the quality of his work, as he feels he doesn’t have to rush something when he is already ahead of where he wants to be!
It wasn’t an easy journey, but his dissertation process is complete and we can learn a lot from his experience. What is next for Gaity? He wants to build a career that balances academic and field work. This scholar never wants to abandon his work helping children find healthy and legal pathways toward their goals.
Dieuveut Gaity was born and raised in Haiti. He had worked for several organizations, such as United Nations Development Program/CNDDR, CREFEC, FOHO, Doctors Without Borders and International Organization for Migration. He is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo and expects to graduate in spring 2018. His research focuses on services and support for street children in Haiti.
Randolph Singh Highlights Well-Being in His Story of Dissertation Completion
“Before you are a scientist, you are a person first.”
You may be familiar with the work of Randolph Singh, PhD, a recent UB graduate from the department of chemistry. Part of his dissertation research with his advisor, Diana Aga, was recently featured on the UB website homepage. The article highlighted fascinating research findings about anti-depressants found in the brains of fish in the Niagara River. That was only a part of Singh’s dissertation research into water pollutants. Singh has made quite an impact in his field already, so we wanted to know about his process and the habits and strategies that led him to successful dissertation completion. Behind the common stereotype of the serious scientist, we were pleased to interview a friendly, relatable person, who has a lot to say about how to get through a dissertation process with a smile.
Singh indicated that he has been fueled by several different sources of motivation during his time at UB. His first piece of advice? Love what you do. With this orientation, Singh found himself able to move through his graduate work with a spirit of authentic interest and enjoyment. He encourages prospective graduate students not to choose a school based solely on its reputation or prestige, but instead to make sure that there is a research group there that you would like to join. To add further zoom to your engine, he suggests cultivating a little ambition. “Don’t just settle for a so-so, PhD,” he advises. Be moved by your intention to really make an impact. Singh emphasizes the importance of being able to communicate scientific concepts beyond small circles of specialization toward wider communities. He enjoys gathering with friends from different disciplines and discussing each other’s work. Only through communicating research more broadly will it motivate positive change, he points out.
In this spirit, Singh creates a process that allows for quality work and wellbeing. He said, “I do not get high on deadlines and I don’t understand how others like to cram.” Instead, he is very thoughtful about creating reasonable steps in his process and managing his energy carefully. This allows him to work very hard without burning out. Singh notes that his advisor, Aga, encourages graduate students to start thinking about writing when the research process is about 50 percent complete. Singh took this advice to heart and integrated writing and research during his laboratory work. For example, during downtime while an experiment is running, he would download an article related to his research. Since he is interested in his topic, he found himself enjoying this reading, so it actually could feel like a refreshing break. He kept a clipboard and scratch paper with him during these times. He would note the title of the article, authors and date and then write a quick narrative take-away from the article. He uses Endnote to organize his research. Thus, during the experimentation process, Singh was chipping away at his literature review. As he collected research, he began creating an outline with short write ups of his references and as he progressed, text grew out of that outline. Thus, by the time the experiment was concluded, he had a substantial draft started.
Singh emphasizes that it is a waste of time to try to write with an overstressed brain, so, even though he spends long hours in the lab and works intensively, he takes care to integrate rejuvenation into his process. He has a policy to try, when possible, to avoid working on weekends. “The mind needs to rest. Before you are a scientist, you are a person first,” he notes. On weekends, he took the time to enjoy life: going to concerts, visiting Toronto or going camping with friends. Even just a coffee on a Saturday morning and a nice breakfast can revive the spirits, he adds.
For Singh, perhaps the most important element of maintaining wellbeing during graduate work was the creation of a supportive community. As an international student from the Philippines, leaving friends and family behind, he realized that he was vulnerable to isolation. Therefore, he made a concerted effort to make American friends who could introduce him to signature experiences of the region such as apple picking and skiing. He has made such good friends that he feels he has had a family in the U.S. For example, he spends Thanksgiving and Christmas with his friend’s family and he even cooks the Christmas dinner!
Community also has played a significant role in Singh’s work. In addition to having a supportive advisor in Aga, the lab is an inherently communal space as different researchers share methods in service of their various research projects. Mentoring relationships naturally develop as researchers gain experience and new researchers enter. The more senior researchers mentor their junior peers and initiate peer sharing of their work. The team makes the most of these relationships with group meetings each week. The research community creates a spirit of support and friendship by taking breaks to go for a walk or to play volleyball.
Graduate students in all disciplines might take away significant insight from Singh’s experience. Love what you do, guard your wellbeing, build a community and be a person first. The dissertation will flow from that! We will eagerly follow Singh’s research and thank him for sharing his wisdom with us!
Randolph Singh, PhD is currently an ORISE postdoctoral fellow at the US Environmental Protection Agency (Research Triangle Park, NC).
He is passionate about the ocean and actively supports protection of marine wildlife and bridging the gap between scientists and citizens. His research at UB involved understanding the fate and transformation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment. This includes work on antimicrobial pollution from wastewater treatment plants.
Commuter Student and Mom Finds Dissertation Writing Success
"I don't need time. What I need is a deadline."
- Duke Ellington
As a mother of two children, ages three and six, who commutes from Rochester to participate in UB’s PhD program in social welfare, Jackie McGinley has had to get serious and creative about keeping her dissertation on track. McGinley is deep into data collection and analysis for her retrospective study of the last year of life for people with intellectual disabilities, a multi-case study that will inform end-of-life care for individuals in this demographic. She anticipates that she will defend her dissertation in the spring of 2018.
McGinley appreciates how the School of Social Work’s curricular structure has supported her timely progress. She came into the program with a clear sense of the type of project she would do and she was able to refine that topic throughout her coursework. Her department structures the process so that the dissertation proposal ends up being your first three chapters. Thus, after the proposal stage, half of the dissertation process is already done. McGinley also attributes her efficient pacing to her approach to the IRB process. Working with her advisor, she designed her study and selected her subjects in a manner that would allow her to do important work, while avoiding roadblocks and delays through the IRB process. Her advisor gave her plentiful advice on her IRB protocol prior to submission, avoiding time consuming back-and-forth interaction during the approval process.
McGinley’s PhD program director encourages students to create a five-year plan early in their course of studies. McGinley was able to identify her desired end-point and then created a backward timeline with specific milestones along the way. She communicated these milestones with her committee and gained their support and guidance toward achieving those goals.
As a mother and partner, McGinley has realized that she can’t just take for granted that her priorities will naturally accommodate her graduate work. The needs of family can often seem to be of higher priority than a distant, individual goal. In order to keep her research near the forefront, she makes a habit of scheduling meetings with her committee members and giving presentations of her ongoing research. She also applied for grants that forced her to leap forward to synthesize and articulate her ideas during the research process. “If I use deadlines that I’m only accountable to myself to, I will not adhere to them. If it’s a committee member or a group of respected scholars, or if it’s a grant, I will stick more closely to my deadlines,” McGinley notes. She also creates accountability through peer support. Once a month her cohort meets to share their progress. Members text each other weekly to share their goals and whether they have accomplished them. All of these strategies provide this busy mom with a steady stream of accountability and motivation.
With all she is juggling, McGinley must be thoughtful and strategic about every unit of time in her day. She rises between 4 and 5 a.m., to get two hours of uninterrupted work time before her children wake up. Sometimes she works in the evening after her children are asleep, but she tries to preserve this time to rest and be with her partner as often as she can. An exhausted and isolated dissertator is not a productive one. She finds communication to be key to harmony during this challenging period, negotiating childcare responsibilities with her husband explicitly. Lots of communication is required! With her eye continually upon her timeline, McGinley emphasizes anticipating deadlines and planning ahead, whether it be arranging an extra shift of childcare or even a period of intensive work, thanks to a willing and helpful mother-in-law. To negotiate work time with her children, McGinley sometimes employs a timer. “Mom has to work for twenty minutes,” she will say as she points to the timer. She also uses a timer to keep herself from jumping up to attend to some beckoning household task. She will set the timer for an hour and tell herself she cannot get up until it dings. She even makes her commute between Rochester and Buffalo productive by recording ideas for projects or practicing presentations as she rolls down the thruway!
When asked if she could keep up this intensity as she builds her career after the dissertation process was complete, McGinley was thoughtful. In the long term, balancing the demands of work, family and self will continue to be a challenge and inform her choices as she embarks upon a career of making a compassionate difference. The strategies that have helped McGinley to achieve her goals will surely be useful to dissertators in a wide variety of circumstances. Thank you for sharing, Jackie!
Jackie McGinley, LMSW is a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Jackie has been supporting and advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 15 years. As a researcher, Jackie has drawn upon her experiences in practice and focused on improving care for aging adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are nearing life’s end. She is the author of several articles on this subject including “From Nonissue to Healthcare Crisis: A Historical Review of Aging and Dying with an Intellectual and Developmental Disability”, which was published in the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Writing the Dissertation: Fitting Notes Into a Broader Scaffold
Jordan Besek, assistant professor of sociology at UB, recently completed his doctorate at University of Oregon. He describes how students can improve the writing process via significant preliminary organization. “Dedication to preliminary organization can reduce writing time, leading to a completed dissertation,” he reveals, “because, ideally, more time will go toward organization than the writing itself.” This organization can begin once a student identifies a dissertation topic/research question. Students can tailor coursework papers and projects towards the dissertation proposal and even the dissertation itself.
Furthermore, “Identifying the scholarly literatures you will be responding to, where and how they intersect, and what your significant contribution to them might be,” he notes, “creates a scaffolding that holds the project together throughout the writing process.” After collecting data, analyzing documents, and understanding the dissertation’s argument/narrative, Besek recommends to outline chapters to break the writing process into smaller, more manageable portions; additionally, also outline each chapter into portions (introduction, literature review, methods section, analysis, etc.).
Then, when the writing stage begins, Besek advises to take copious notes. Whether on the scholarly sources creating the intellectual foundation for the dissertation, the data being collected, or the texts being analyzed, notes can be refined into professional prose. This, combined with a strong proposal, gives students a base from which to start the actual dissertation document. Besek also advises to consider note-taking, as opposed to just writing, as a way to generate ideas into words on a page: students should take notes on paper, on screen or on a voice recorder when a great thought pops into their head unexpectedly. This generates momentum during the writing process, particularly during stalled periods.
These informal notes can then be fit into the organizational scaffold already constructed and then refined over time, both argumentatively and organizationally, as the overall dissertation structure takes further shape. As students delve deeper into the writing process, Besek also has advice for not getting lost. He says students should reflect: “What story am I trying to tell?” This allows students to remain cognizant of what their significant scholarly contribution might be. Writing can also be stimulated, Besek recollects, through continually “reading the best work in your field/subfields to create a model in your mind of what you want your work to look like and read good prose in other outlets like The New Yorker.” As a lasting note, Besek counsels to “write whenever time allows, even to just generate ideas: students may have other jobs, teaching duties, academic job applications and children running rampant.”
Jordan Fox Besek is an assistant professor of sociology in the sociology department at the University at Buffalo, whose research focuses on the interplay between social, ecological and historical processes. Jordan has published articles in journals such as Environmental Sociology, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and the International Journal of Sociology, and has taught courses on sociological theory, animals and society, organizational sociology and American society."
It's an open question as to whether there exists a truly well-balanced dissertation writer, but each successful writer has discovered a process that works for their own unique style. Shayani Bhattacharya, who received her PhD in English from the University at Buffalo in 2017, tried a few different strategies before she came upon a process that worked for her.
“For my very first chapter of the dissertation, I literally read everything ever written on the novel,” Bhattacharya says. Going through all of that scholarship was exhausting, however, so on the advice of her dissertation advisor for the second chapter, she tacked in the opposite direction, trying to focus on reading and writing about the primary text itself. Only then, the worry kept creeping up on her that she might be treading the same ground as other scholars. It wasn’t long before she was diving back into the secondary literature, but it was no longer the first thing she did.
Going back and forth between the primary text and secondary scholarship, Bhattacharya would create an elaborate system of annotations: first a pass through the novel trying to get a handle on the relevant themes, then a second pass to solidify the points she would address in her writing. These annotations were aided by a color-coded sticky-note system. The process left Bhattacharya’s books looking like the victims of some bright, floral explosion and even caught the awed attention of one of the authors she was reading. After this, Bhattacharya would type her annotations into a 80 to 90 page document.
"Efficient?” Bhattacharya asks. “No.”
As for the writing itself, Bhattacharya says, her method is binge writing. After compiling her notes, she’d take the massive document and, in about two weeks, transform it through editing, revision and elaboration, into clean, thoughtful prose.
“I work best under intense pressure,” Bhattacharya says. For Bhattacharya the exciting part of the dissertation was the research. With so much of her process devoted to pre-writing, she was able to keep research at the forefront of her work. When it came time to sit in front of the computer and write, she could almost trick herself into thinking that she was just presenting her findings. Her process was a way to help build up and sustain that pressure until the prospect of an imminent deadline meant that some writing needed to happen. “Nothing is peaceful in my life,” she says, “Nothing is calm. It is not a peaceful process.”
All things being equal, perhaps it is not the method one would choose to write a dissertation (“It is a terrible, terrible, terrible process,” Bhattacharya says). But she found what worked for her.
Shayani Bhattacharya’s dissertation, “Memory in Absentia: The (Im)Possibility of Representing Memory in Post-1945 Anglophone Fiction,” examines the relationship between the function of memory and narrative structure, arguing that reconceptualizations of memory after 1945 required fiction that would tell stories in different ways. Bhattacharya is now an assistant professor at Lebanon Valley College in global anglophone literature and English.