Thursday, June 16, 2011

How To Write (And Finish) A Dissertation In 9 Months

I started writing my dissertation in August of 2010 and I finished the first draft February 2011 and submitted the next to final draft in April of the same year.  The April submission was the one I defended one month later in East Lansing, MI to an audience of 12 or so people.  How did I do it?  Simply put...I sat my ass down in a chair and wrote.

And I wrote and wrote and wrote until my behind grew a bit bigger and the pages increased in numbers.  But, there was a game plan to my madness that I found worked for me and maybe it can work for you (depending on your committee and requirements).

I decided to stay in the UK to write as I had a job as a researcher and social policy analyst.  My partner was also with me having given up his job in the US and obtaining a 3 year work permit.  We wanted to make a new life in the UK and I had no intentions of returning to the US (well at that time).  Come the summer of 2010 I discovered one my committee members was leaving the university at the end of the 2011 school year so I knew I really needed to get my dissertation in before he left or risk putting someone on my committee who I did not know at a late stage in my degree.  This ended up happening anyway - and lucky the person who came on was amazing and didn't try to change anything.

Given all of this I made a work plan and stuck to it like white on rice (cheesy but effective).  After doing an outline of the chapters and what should go into them I focused on a chapter a month.  Really, this is do-able if you have transcribed your interviews along the way and written out your field notes (this I HIGHLY recommend you do). 

Each chapter was reviewed by my major adviser the following month and we had a phone meeting scheduled in each month to review the submitted chapter.  This meant a continuous write, hand-in, phone meeting, revise routine. But this allowed me to be accountable to someone and to get feedback early enough in the process to stop me from going in the wrong direction.  I wrote chapters out of order as the theory and methodology chapters were much easier to write then the data or introduction.  And really, the conclusion won't come until you have done multiple drafts of the other chapters. 

But, I was not just writing full time. I also had my job.  This meant my brain and fingers were always going and my ass was always glued to a seat.  Not my ideal situation, but it made me keep to a schedule as I had no time to just wallow solely in dissertation misery.

Seven months later I had enough of a draft to send out to the full committee.  By March 1st I was sitting in my home office on Skype with them to discuss my work.  I was full of hope since I had been revising along the way but that hope was quickly crushed by the onslaught of critique I endured (mainly from members of my committee who had refused to give me feedback along the way).  Multiple things were not up to par for members of committee- primarily in the way I wrote up my findings.  I was not strong enough in the delivery and too timid in the use of the information I presented.  I agree with most of it - I was too tired to argue much and I just wanted the damn thing passed.  I said give me a month and I will give you want you all want.  Everyone was skeptical I could turn it around in time to defend.  I wasn't though  -I wanted to be out of school and working so I took a month off of work and just wrote.

I wrote and wrote and wrote, working 12 hour days in my office.  Rockstar energy drinks and popcorn became my new best friends and I was permanently in sweatpants and t-shirts.  I focused on the critiques I was given and made sure to address them in my revisions.  I added two new chapters and fixed the hell out of my others.  In 31 days I produced the document that would allow me to defend. But - and this is KEY - I also submitted with the dissertation a one-page document outlining the 5 major issues the committee found with the first draft. I then said how I addressed each of those issues and gave the exact location in the dissertation where those changes could be found.    This made my committee happy and as they all say - happy committee happy life.

So there you go - writing a dissertation in nine months, or less, is do-able.  But before I go I just want to impart a few lessons I learned along the way, some of which  you might (or most likely) have heard already. 

1) The dissertation is NOT your life's work - it is the BEGINNING
        I think too many times grad students think that dissertation has to be perfect and is the culmination of your life's work.  That is ridiculous - you have never written a dissertation before (unless you have already received a PhD and then if so you are ridiculous for getting another).  This is a learning process and the dissertation is evidence that you know how to conduct a research project and write up the results in a suitable manner for you field.

2) Your dissertation topic DOES NOT HAVE TO BE your life's work

        After spending anywhere from 3 to 10 years on one topic you just might become sick of that topic. It's normal and apart of life.  Your future research, if you choose to still remain in research, does not have to be on the same topic(s) as your dissertation.  Again, the dissertation is about showing you can do research and the skills you learned should be transferable.

3) You DON'T HAVE TO GO INTO ACADEMIA if you don't want to....and you are not a "failure" if you don't

      This is a topic that comes up again and again amongst people I know.  When you started as a grad student you were most likely full of energy and hope.  You had some amazing vision of sitting in an office with books all around talking with students and coming up with theories.  This was heaven and you were working towards it.  Fast forward 5 to 10 years later and you are tired, annoyed, and trying to just finish your degree before you debt becomes astronomical.  Then, when you are done you realize you might not want to go right into the academy.  Maybe you want to take a few years and work in the public or private sector, for an NGO, or just bum around the world.  You know what - that's OK.  Again, how are you to know what you will feel in the future?  So, if your plans change roll with it.  But, don't allow others opinions to influence your life decisions once you have the diploma in hand.  Take what you learned during your studies and find the path that is right for you. 

4) You are MORE THAN your dissertation

     It's funny how easy this is to forget.  You are you and you is a multifaceted being.  What you research is just that - what you research. It is not who you are.  It's simply what you do, and only one aspect of what you do.  You also may sing, paint, run, read, tell funny stories, drink, smoke.  But your dissertation and graduate school is simply one aspect of what you do.  Remember that the next time someone is bragging to you about all the articles they have drafted while writing up 4 grants and reading Foucault on the side for fun.  Tell yourself that's what they do and be happy you do other things. Most of the time the talk is all for show. 

5) Check your EGO at the door

      Let's face it - if you want to complete a PhD you need to check your ego at the door.  You will be critiqued, critiqued and critiqued some more.   I found that you have to separate your personal feelings from the task at hand, which is to learn the necessary skills that will allow you to say you are an expert in a particular academic field.  This means you have to learn when and how to pick your battles and let your work, and not always your mouth, speak for itself.  Now, I have heard horror stories of committees not getting along and advisers not passing students.  I had my fair share of committee drama during my Masters defense.  But, if you can navigate the egos you will encounter in these processes then when you are done you can navigate just about anything.

So, this is just my two-cents on how I navigated the dissertation write-up.  Feel free to share your own experiences.  But to all those writing up I wish you well.  Keep truckin and remember...

Monday, May 23, 2011

I'm Back...And Moving To The USA!

Well after a five month hiatus from blogging I've done a few things.

I got a German Shepard puppy named Whiskey:

I went crazy finishing my PhD:

I become a Project Manager at work:
Lost, gained and then gained some more dissertation weight:

And now after 2 years in the UK Mike and I are moving back to the US of A at the end of June to start anew.

My friends Ally and Sam at my graduation
It's been an interesting time in my life. I spent 12 years working towards the goal of becoming a doctor. Through all the moves across the world, writing assignments, grants, conference talks, late nights and heartache I never really thought it would end. It's hard to see the finish line when there are so many obstacles to cross beforehand. But, this past school year it all fell into place. The research ended, the words began to flow, my ass became glued to my desk chair and the weight piled on. After nine months I gave birth to a 170 page document that showcased my "expertise" in the field of anthropology. I defended my work, received my hood, drank my whiskey in celebration and now I can put the big "Dr." before my name. What now?

That "what" is a move - it's what I do best. My next move is back to the good old USA to figure things out. I am determined to get into social policy and research and stay out of the academy for a while. The best way to do this is to make my way to the nation's capital and the surrounding areas. It's not what I envisioned, or what I thought I wanted. Yet, if I have learned anything in the last decade of my life is that life is a funny bitch and it's all about the hustle:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When I just don't want to move...

When I get the urge to sit on my backside in front of the computer and not move my body like it should be moved I look at this ad and promptly my backside is out the door.

What gets you out when all you want to do is stay in?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Body

It's the New Year.  As we all know the new year brings with it new (and old) resolutions.  Some people want to stop smoking, others learn yoga, travel, meditate, find a partner/break up with a partner...the list goes on and on.  But the number one resolution that seems to be pouring from newspapers, TV, the Internet, and people's lips is to...wait for it...LOOSE WEIGHT!  Now, I can't lie.  That is kind of one my resolutions as well and has been for the past 2-3 years.  But, being inundated with constant messages about loosing weight to feel great in the New Year got me thinking about my relationship with my body.  If I had to give it a Facebook status I would say "it's complicated."

I'm 6'3" - I've mentioned this before I'm sure.  I am also a female (just in case you forgot).  My hair is curly, my skin is brown, and my mouth is loud.   Over the years I have loved, hated, despised, embraced, hated, despised, loved, embraced, hated, get the body.  During the down times I realize I detested my body because I felt it did not look or feel feminine enough.  My body was too tall, my shoulders too broad, my hair too short - or if long it was too curly and big, my weight too high.  OH WEIGHT - really it mostly boiled down to that fact that I was just too damn big to be feminine.  To be a female and be comfortable in my femaleness.  Even at my leanest I still, at times, felt too big because my body was strong and muscular due to long sessions at the gym and on the trail and the woman around me small and petite and able to fit into a size 6

But, it's a new year after all and so I decided a new year needs new ideas and beginnings.  For the past three years I have belittled myself internally for gaining and loosing weight.  For starting and stopping training programs.  For allowing stress and school/work to get in the way of my body's well being.  But all that has left me with is frustrations, self-doubt, and a pain in my ass (from the sciatica).  Then I read two interesting articles that, after letting them ruminate in my mind for a bit, made me rethink this whole resolution thing.

The first was a blog post from Jezebel called "A Call to Arms (and Abs, Quads, Calves and Shoulders)."  The author writes about her own frustrations with lady fitness magazines always having articles about loosing weight - and not about being ft and healthy.  For a woman, working out = loosing weight and looking good FOR OTHER PEOPLE.  But what about all the women who work out to build muscle, jump higher, run longer/faster, climb better, swim harder.  What about women who work out cause they want a strong body that allows them to keep moving into old age?  What about woman who want to challenge their mind, body and soul?  Who want to push their limits and see what they can do?  What about all the women who dont' give a rat's ass about being a size 2 but want to see if they can bench 200lbs?

Reading that article over and over again I realized...shit that's me!  I want to see how long I can run for, how much I can push my physical and mental being.  I want to see muscle replace fat in order to make my body move in ways I can only imagine. I want to be 70, 80, hell maybe even 90 and running ultramarathons in random places around the globe.  I realized, finally, I just want to be me.

But, I was only half way there.  I still saw myself as a fat slob, a blob, that was doomed to repeat this damn cycle over and over again.  During the holiday season I was gluttonous - eating whatever was in front of me and drinking even more. I constantly woke up hungover, either from food, drink or both.  I told myself I was "relaxing," but really I was depressing (myself).  I ran once, lifted twice, and felt like shit three times over.

Then New Years Eve hit and I looked at Mike and said, "Dude after tonight I can't keep doing this.  Something's not right and I feel like crap."  Mike looked at me and replied, "That's good but you got to start loving yourself more for this to stick.  You got to love you for you now, and not what you want to be."  DAMN...the truth hurts.

Three days later, as if the universe wanted to smack my upside the head some more, I saw an article in the Daily Mail (yes I read it sometimes) about...loving yourself slim.  Basically it was the long form of Mike's advice - you can't reach your goals until you love yourself for who you are at that moment.  It makes sense really.  How am I going to lean out, and stay lean, if I am constantly critiquing and ridiculing my body?  How am I going to run longer if I keep telling myself I am to slow, to big, to knock-kneed to increase the miles?  It's self-sabotaging.  If I think I am fat and will always be fat and will never be able to run past a certain mileage or a certain time then I won't.  Why?  Because the slightest hick-up will be made into an end-all-be all, an all or nothing and I'll fall off the wagon (again).  It's with anything in life.

Finally, I saw an article (the same night) in The Guardian about bad-ass Ironman athlete Chrissie Wellington.  This woman has won Kona three times (the first win was her first time in the race), has set numerous records around the goal, and is just overall my hero.  She makes no qualms about her body and embraces her faults.  She strives to push her body to the limits and is considered by many to be the greatest female endurance athlete on the planet.  Not bad for a woman who didn't even start doing athletics until her 20s!

I guess the point of this long rant is that I decided to make a new, New Years Resolution.  Instead of striving to loose X amount of weight in Y amount of time and getting frustrated if that does not happen, I instead resolve to love my body more.  Just pure and simple LOVE.  LOVE every inch of my height, every amount of flesh, every strand of my curly (quickly greying) hair.  In doing so I make it a priority to treat my body with respect - and respect for me is washing it, caring for it, watching what I put in my body, and working it out so it does not become stiff and underused.  The more I love my body the more my body will love me.  I think that's a resolution I can, and should, stick to.

What do you resolve to do in 2011?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Goodbye 2010...Hello 2011

As the New Year closes so does my brain.  I have been on "holiday" since December 18th from my job and since the 23rd from my dissertation.  During this time I have ate a lot, drank a fair bit, worked out a little and overall felt tired, bloated, annoyed, anxious, excited and...dare I say hopeful!

2010 has been a year of ups and downs, like more years.  I started the year hiking a mountain in the snow in Northwest Wales. By March I had run a half marathon in Prague and trimmed 25 lbs off my frame.  April hit and with it a hip injury that only progressively got worse over the year due to my stubbornness and not properly resting.  By late June I visited the States, saw some family and friends, and met my advisor who told me my initial outline of my dissertation was crap.

It was here that I began my anxiety ridden second half of the year.  July was full of festivals, data transcriptions and theoretical readings.  By August I had turned the big 2-9, wrote my first chapter, and I dropped out of my second half marathon.  September thru December was more of the same same, but different.  I continued to write, work, work out less, went on a few walks, became more irritated, dabbled in yoga, and then wrote some more.

Now I sit here on December 30, 2010 writing some more and planning to stop soon because it is just making me more annoyed.  But, the good thing is the dissertation is there. I am really just now making massive edits to the five chapters I have and plodding through until February 7th when I submit the first full daft to my entire committee.   For the New Year I intend to write a bit more, run a hell of a lot more, get a dog, graduate with my PhD and finally....just finally...maybe I can just be and enjoy my life.

But really Katt Williams says it best...

What do you hope the new year will bring you?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stroke, Float, Sink...Repeat

The cold weather is slowly setting in throughout the Southwest over here in the good-old UK.  Barefoot running is more like numb foot running and my hips are acting up to much for me to even enjoy the sport at the moment so my runs have become minimal.  So I am trying to make the pool my friend at least once a week to take the pressure of my joints while I get the blood flowin and the heart pumpin.

Problem is...the water and I aren't friends or really even associates yet.  We have this weird relationship.  If I don't visit the pool on a regular and consistent basis then when I do get in I feel as if she is going to swallow me whole and then spit me out.  It's like she is back handing me and making me feel bad for cheating on her with the rowing machine or free weights.  I then feel I need to tell her it's not her...but me.  My confidence in the still body of water is still minuscule.  I can kick and stroke but not for very long or very far and if I can't put my feet on the floor then I don't go in...PERIOD.

However, that has to change because I have gotten this crazy idea in my head that I want to learn how to row next year and I want to join the Bristol women's rowing club.  But to take the learn how to row class I need to be able to swim 100 meters in light clothes - makes sense if I am to be in a BOAT in the middle of a BODY of WATER.

Now some of you might be thinking "Why would you want to learn to row if you don't necessarily like the water?"  Answer: "Why the hell not?"  See I miss a team sometimes.  I miss the camaraderie between teammates and the fun of being active with a group of people.  Plus, it's a good way of making friends in a new place where I am still learning the local ways of...making friends.  Besides, it just looks cool.

I mean let's face it - I taught myself to run long distances even when doctors told me I might not be able to even walk properly again.  I jumped out of a plane twice in one day attached to another person.  I got myself on a bike at age 27 and learned to not fall of.  I made myself get in the water and learned to at least get my feet off the floor and kick not long after.  I even found myself on a side of a mountain in snow on a new years morning with no crampons and a bad fear of heights, and got back down without killing myself.  So I figure if I can get myself to make the water my friend then I can find myself one day in the middle of a lake in a row boat with 5 other women working up a sweat and getting some definition back into my shoulders and back.

Today I got back into the pool.  Second time in two weeks.  I said hi to the water, took a deep breathe, and pushed off the wall all by myself.  I had Mike stand next to me instead of in front and I made it down and back again - stopping only 7 (ok maybe 8) times.  6 lengths total which is a nice start for me.  It's a shallow pool. I still have problems learning how to breathe, and my body gets tired quick with the new movements but dammit I will be able to swim 100 meters in light clothes so I can at least see if I can learn how to row a bit farther.  I'll keep you updated.

Oh and HAPPY AMERICAN THANKSGIVING to all...and to all a good day.

Monday, November 15, 2010


My dad was a man who use to tell stories.  Stories oozed from his lips like smoke from a cigarette.  Long drawn out stories from days gone past, my dad taught me about life through his elaborate tales.

I learned how to drink by listening to my dad recall his days of old.  My favorite? The time he says him and  two friends "accidentally" drank his grandpas potato moonshine.  From the "old country" my dad's grandpa liked to brew his own drink. To great-granddad beer was always room temperature and alcohol always homemade.  My dad was a skinny red head who didn't realize the difference between moonshine and regular vodka.  The only thing he remembered was drinking in the basement of his grandpas house and then waking up in his room in a rocking chair naked.  His car was on the front lawn and the front door wide opened.  His dad asked him what the hell happened and my dad replied "Well I was drinking grandpas vodka.."  His dad cut off by saying "that shit is pure moonshine.  Surprised your not dead."  The hangover lasted 3 days.  Lesson: Don't drink shit you don't know.  Easy enough.

My dad also taught me the fine art of enjoying my liquor.  To him a good woman should know how to drink whiskey straight and play blackjacks.  When I was 10 he sat me down with his good Jack Daniels cards (ones we were NEVER allowed to touch without him being present) and instructed me on the fine art of blackjack.  He showed me when to hit and when to call, and tried to guide me in the practice of bluffing (or what it also know as bullshitting).  These transferable skills of bullshitting are ones  I call upon often in academic writing.  I use my understandings of whiskey on the weekends to recover from the bullshitting performed during the week.

I also learned to appreciate the musical artform known as country.  A hard core country (and Elvis) listener, my dad always had 99.5 US 99 blasting from the radio on all car trips.  Brooks and Dunn, Garth Brooks, Wynona Judd, Reba MacEntire, and Trais Tritt were all some of my favorite singers in the 80s and 90s.  As the years went on I leaned away from my country roots, letting the opinions of others influence my music preference.  But then I moved to the South and my relationship with country was mended.  One of my dad's proudest moments was when I called him to tell him I bought my first real pair of cowboy boots at a cowboy store in Baton Rouge.  He told me "good job" and then proceded into another story about his first part of cowboy boots.  Apparently they were a bitch to break in and the first few times he put them on he looked like he was crapping his pants cause he was walking so bad.  So his advice was to start off small and break them in.

Being a know-it-all I didn't really listen to the story and its lesson until it was to late.   I was on the streets of New Orleans during Halloween in so much pain all the whiskey in the world wouldn't cure.  I still have the scares of the multiple blisters that appeared on my feet that night.  But I broke them damn boots and have been stompin in them every since.

I loved my dad's stories as they took me to other places and times.  When I was kid all I could every dream about was getting out of the Southside of Chicago and into the world.  Books, school and my dad's stories let me escape.  When he died I decided I needed to stop living in book and through his stories and make some stories of my own.  So I took a little backpacking trip to Guatemala 6 months after the funeral and it was there, in the back of a chicken bus on a old mountain road that I realized something that I have kept special in my heart to this very day.

I realized that I am my father's daughter...and I wouldn't have it any other way.