Tag Archives: Graduate students

Conservatism of Expectations

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about graduate writing. That process is now drawing to a close: Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be published in June! Between now and then, I’m going to use this space to share brief excerpts. In addition to my discussion of principles, strategies, and habits for effective academic writing, the book has short ‘asides’ that allowed me to engage with topics outside that main narrative. Over the next four months, I’ll share my favourites of those asides. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Cover showing title: Thriving as a Graduate Writer

Conservatism of Expectations

It’s hard to talk about meeting reader expectations as a graduate writer without attending to the conservative implications of prioritizing established expectations. Rather than conform to expectations that feel allied to outdated and inequitable systems, some graduate writers may wish to write differently, in ways that confront or subvert the norms of standard research communication. Resisting those expectations can take many forms: normalizing World Englishes; refusing white supremacy in language; understanding subjectivity in research imagination; drawing upon Indigenous research epistemologies; integrating multimodal research into doctoral theses. Any one of those endeavors could easily be hampered by the replicative nature of doctoral education. And writing in a manner that requires adherence to existing academic practices can be demoralizing; making changes to those practices is central to why some people undertake graduate work. As a result, some writers may choose to discount those norms during graduate work. It’s worth noting that some writers may share those critical commitments while being uninterested in challenging existing norms. Despite wishing change to happen, these writers may feel that their academic work is already unfairly scrutinized or that it isn’t their job to transform academic writing practices. What’s more, some writers in this situation may feel particularly anxious to gain access to a hidden curriculum that others seem to assimilate more easily. Given that range of attitudes and pressures, I think there is value in laying out established conventions in a way that leaves the writer the freedom to choose their own path. Certainly, working around norms—or making norms work for you—is easiest when those norms are well understood. I don’t want the ideas contained within this book to be an impediment to writing in ways that support the work that feels urgent to you; instead, I hope they can be deployed in the service of the academic work that you want to do in the way you want to do it.

Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be available in early June from the University of Michigan Press. To pre-order your copy, visit the book page. Order online and save 30% with discount code UMS23!

Nobody’s First Language

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about graduate writing. That process is now drawing to a close: Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be published in June! Between now and then, I’m going to use this space to share brief excerpts. In addition to my discussion of principles, strategies, and habits for effective academic writing, the book has short ‘asides’ that allowed me to engage with topics outside that main narrative. Over the next four months, I’ll share my favourites of those asides. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Cover showing title: Thriving as a Graduate Writer

Nobody’s First Language

If you’ve had any graduate writing support, you may have heard a version of this saying: “Academic writing is nobody’s first language.” This sentiment is generally used in a manner that is meant to be empowering. If you are a multilingual graduate writer, it tells you that everyone struggles with academic writing. If you are writing in your first language, it tells you that your struggles with graduate writing are still legitimate. In short, since academic writing isn’t simply about language, linguistic status shouldn’t be seen as the determining factor in your ability to thrive in this area. While this principle seems accurate, it shouldn’t be used to suggest that every novice academic writer is in the same boat. Any such flattening of different experiences of academic writing acquisition risks diminishing the challenge of learning to communicate a complex research agenda in a subsequent language. And it also risks minimizing the implications of social capital for academic writing acquisition. The original quote from which this saying derives makes this nuance clear: “Academic language is a dead language for the great majority of French people, and is no one’s mother tongue, not even that of children of the cultivated classes. As such, it is very unequally distant from the language actually spoken by the different social classes. To decline to offer a rational pedagogy is, in this context, to declare that all students are equal in respect of the demands made by academic language…” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1997, 67). Acknowledging this “unequal distance” is crucial. Academic writing may be nobody’s first language, but some graduate writers will have more familiarity with and access to academic modes of expression. As such, each graduate writer will need to expend a particular amount of emotional and cognitive labor to develop their academic writing fluency. (I’m grateful to Alex Ding for providing the actual quote underlying this saying and for his insightful discussion of the broader implications surrounding this issue.)

Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be available in early June from the University of Michigan Press. To pre-order your copy, visit the book page. Order online and save 30% with discount code UMS23!

Advice Translator

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about graduate writing. That process is now drawing to a close: Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be published in June! Between now and then, I’m going to use this space to share brief excerpts. In addition to my discussion of principles, strategies, and habits for effective academic writing, the book has short ‘asides’ that allowed me to engage with topics outside that main narrative. Over the next four months, I’ll share my favourites of those asides. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Cover showing title: Thriving as a Graduate Writer

Advice Translator

Since graduate students are so often on the receiving end of advice, some of you might find it helpful to be able to engage in a quick translation process.

Advice: You should do X. 

The person telling you to do X is probably suggesting a way to achieve something (let’s call it Y). Unfortunately, they aren’t talking about the importance of Y or telling you how you might achieve Y; they are just telling you to do X. If all you do is attempt X, without understanding its connection to Y, you might actually make your situation worse. A little further investigation on your part can help translate the advice into something more helpful: 

Translation: You should do X because Y

Once you have that formulation, to can adapt the advice to your own purposes:

Advice you can use: You should do something to achieve Y. 

To make this more concrete, let’s consider a perennial favourite bit of writing advice: 

Advice: You should write in the morning.

This advice is fine if you are a morning person; however, if you are not, you may end up struggling to force yourself to write according to someone else’s temperament. Or maybe you are a morning person, but your life circumstances–the demands of paid work or care work–prevent you from using that time for writing. To avoid the frustration of advice that doesn’t work for you or your life, you can try to understand the underlying reason for the advice: 

Translation: You should write in the morning to avoid wasting your best energy of the day.

Advice you can use: You should find ways to avoid wasting your best energy of the day.

Now the ball’s in your court. You need to identify when you have the most energy and find ways–within the context of your life–to preserve that time for writing. This translation technique has the potential to help you to use supervisory advice, especially when you find it overly attuned to the specificity of someone else’s writing situation. The cliché that all advice is a form of nostalgia can be true. But it’s possible to translate such advice into a more suitable form, thereby deriving the benefit of advice in a way that makes sense in your writing life.

Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be available in early June from the University of Michigan Press. To pre-order your copy, visit the book page. Order online and save 30% with discount code UMS23!

Display Work

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about graduate writing. That process is now drawing to a close: Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be published in June! Between now and then, I’m going to use this space to share brief excerpts. In addition to my discussion of principles, strategies, and habits for effective academic writing, the book has short ‘asides’ that allowed me to engage with topics outside that main narrative. Over the next four months, I’ll share my favourites of those asides. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Cover showing title: Thriving as a Graduate Writer

Display Work

A persistent challenge in graduate writing is the demand of what I call ‘display work’: explaining things that the typical reader already knows in order that they will recognize you as a fellow-knower of those things. A certain portion of graduate communication involves relaying information in a manner that is performative rather than purely communicative. This activity is an unusual reconfiguration of normal communication in which you tell people things precisely because they don’t already know them. This performative feature of academic writing can be puzzling and painful to the novice writer. I am frequently asked a version of this question: ‘How much should I say here, when my reader already knows all of this?’ Since this display work is generally obligatory, it’s a good idea to recognize the tension and learn to work with it. During graduate coursework, it can be helpful to think of the audience as someone who has finished the relevant course or program; you won’t have to explain everything, but you will have to cover lots of ground that you may worry will be overly familiar to your actual reader. During thesis writing, the tension becomes more challenging; a thesis is a blend of display work (extensive literature review, expansive methods, comprehensive research results) and the crucial communicative work of conveying your own research contribution. Being aware of the imperatives of both elements of graduate writing can help with establishing the right balance, one that displays your disciplinary competence while also communicating the novelty of your research.

Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be available in early June from the University of Michigan Press. To pre-order your copy, visit the book page. Order online and save 30% with discount code UMS23!

Authorial First Person

There’s one issue that invariably comes up in a graduate writing class: the permissibility of using the first person. No matter what aspect of academic writing I am covering, someone will pose this question. My basic answer is simple: ‘Yes, you can definitely use the first person in academic writing’. To clarify this point, I like to reframe the first person as the ‘authorial first person’: the use of the first person to position yourself as the author of this piece of research writing. Research is done by researchers; scholarly writing is produced by writers. Excluding that agency is no longer required in most spheres of academic writing. This advance has interconnected philosophical and stylistic roots. Academic writing is not a disembodied practice representing a view from nowhere; instead, it is better seen as an evidence-based situated practice. The evidence-based element is crucial, but so is the recognition of positionality. All writing is done by a person, and that person necessarily writes from a particular perspective. Since you are the author, you ought to be visible in the text; the authorial first person is crucial to that visibility.

The style of your writing is also likely to be improved by judicious use of the authorial first person. Framing what will happen in your text as actions that you are undertaking will generally lead to stronger writing. The simplest version of this framing is straightforward signposting: ‘In this chapter, I will discuss …’. In some cases, the first person can act as a crucial transition. Imagine that you have been talking at length about other people’s views on a particular issue; to signal a return to your own perspective, the first person might be beneficial: ‘Despite the prevalence of [some] viewpoint, I argue that …’. Another variant of this pattern is using the first person for emphasis. When you switch to the first person from a passive construction, for instance, the reader will pay particular attention to your point: ‘[Something] has long been done in our field; in this paper, however, we decided to do [something different]’.

Despite the acceptability and value of the authorial first person, its use must still be managed carefully. In the first place, the use of the first person is disciplinary. Learning to deploy it appropriately is one of many things that will make you a convincing member of your discourse community. Learning those patterns requires engagement with solid publications in your field; in my experience, many graduate student writers express greater conservatism about the use of the first person than do gatekeepers in their field. Attentive reading can ensure that you are not making your decisions about the first person based on outdated precepts garnered at earlier points in your education. 

A second note of caution: consider how using the first person might lead to unsupported pronouncements. Such statements sometimes happen because the writer genuinely lacks evidence (‘I just believe that …’); obviously, such statements have little role in academic writing. I find it helpful to think of these as ‘editorial first person’ rather than the authorial first person we are discussing in this post. Although this type of editorializing is rare in the writing that I see, I mention it because concerns about editorial first person can lead to the avoidance of much-needed authorial first person. In my experience, most things that look like editorial first person are actually functioning like training wheels: ‘I think stem cell therapy is the most promising …’ can easily become ‘Stem cell therapy is the most promising … (plus evidence and/or citation)’. The use of I think as a scaffolding phrase shouldn’t necessarily be avoided. Since the point of writing is to convey your thoughts, it may make sense to use that phrase to help yourself discover what you think. Once you’ve got that clarity, you can remove it to avoid wordiness.

A third potential concern with the first person is that its use can become monotonous. Using the first person at the beginning of multiple sentences may distract the reader from what you are saying. ‘In this chapter, I will discuss …’ can be a strong opening for a roadmap. However, you will probably want to avoid following this opening with a long series of I-statements. You might choose instead to explain the stages of your paper with a sequence of impersonal formulations–starting with ‘the first step will be …’–before returning to the first person for a more emphatic closing: ‘Overall, I will develop …’. 

Any discussion of the authorial first person also needs to consider the use of I and we. When we is simply the plural form of I–referring to multiple authors–then everything said here holds true. To be clear, if there is only one of you, don’t refer to yourself as we. Some writers wonder if we is somehow more formal than I, but that is a misapprehension. We can also be used as an engagement strategy: ‘As we will see below, …’. This usage is based on the conceit that the author and the reader are on a journey together; this strategy is only common in some fields. In any discipline, the use of we can become problematic when it is used to refer to an unspecified group of stakeholders: ‘Over recent years, we have learned more about …’. Who is the we here? That degree of presumption or imprecision can be unhelpful. If the context doesn’t make the referent clear, you may wish to replace the we with the actual group in question, possibly with relevant evidence or citations.

Despite being the source of some anxiety, the authorial first person is an integral feature of most academic writing. It can take time to figure out the nuances of its role in your writing; as a crucial first step, make sure that you are not relying on unverified prohibitions against its use. To build your confidence in your use of the authorial first person, you may wish to run a search on I/we in your text during your revision process. Doing so will show you what your patterns are: whether your use has been monotonous at any point; whether you have underused the first person at crucial junctures in your introduction and conclusion; whether you have relied too heavily on I think as a scaffolding phrase; whether you have been imprecise in your use of I and we. When reviewing your usage, keep in mind what you have learned about current disciplinary practices. Embracing the careful use of the first person is a crucial developmental stage in academic writing; the end result of this embrace is writing that embodies current disciplinary norms and evinces a strong authorial presence.

Available for Revision

Revision is a frequent topic on this blog: how it is foundational to the academic writing process; how it so easily gets neglected; how it can be organized into a systematic process. But I haven’t talked much about how revision is connected to decisions about technological platforms and formatting. Revision is, of course, a conceptual activity, but it is also a physical activity. When we revise, we aren’t just thinking about the ideas contained in our text, we are engaging with the physical manifestation of those ideas: words and sentences and paragraphs laid out on pages. That layout–how our text looks–makes a difference to our revision process. Needless to say, every type of technology leads to its own revision workflow. There’s no need for nostalgia for any particular technologies, for handwriting, typewriting, actual carbon copies, carets, or whiteout. It is crucial, however, to look at the cycle of revision that is afforded by your current technology and make sure that it supports an optimal revision process.

To start, I want to reinforce the importance of physical engagement with your text. How are you manifesting your concerns and clarifications as you revise? On screen, you can annotate with the tools available in your writing platform. In hard copy, you can underline or highlight to emphasize what you want to focus on. If necessary, you can even simulate annotation with your voice. When reading aloud, you can direct your attention to a particular aspect or pattern; basically, you are using your voice to mimic annotation when you aren’t able to mark up your writing. Revision ultimately requires all of us to change the manner of our interaction with our texts, from passive reading to active engagement. The kinesthetic act of highlighting the patterns in your own writing–using cursor, pen, or voice–can help to shake up your familiarity with text that you are seeking to improve. 

In order to allow that engagement to happen, however, we need to have formatted our text in such a way that we are able to see it as ‘available’ for revision. Writers can easily short-circuit revision by moving too quickly to something that looks finished. A text must look recognizably like a draft, so your brain can see it as ready for revision. I often switch to a ‘light’ version of my writing font when revising because that looks noticeably unfinished to me. Obviously, ‘looking like a draft’ is a relative concept; it has to look like a draft to you. In general, I recommend being wary of features that allow you to turn an early draft into something that looks like a final draft; I often see student writing that is still very rough but is dressed up to look more finished than it actually is. Some writers feel empowered by creating something that looks more polished–it makes them feel like a finished text is within reach–but I think the downsides are significant. Revision is hard enough without sending our brains mixed signals. 

Once you have committed to tactile engagement with your text and have created visual cues to reinforce the need to revise, a question still remains: Will you be revising on a screen or on a hard copy? I’m frequently asked about the relative merits of the two, but it’s a question without a definitive answer. Some people need to revise on paper; others can manage the full writing-revision process electronically. Again, the important issue is whether your choice supports the act of revision. Working in hard copy is inherently disruptive; we are no longer able to interact with our text in the way we were during the composition process. Instead, our textual interventions become limited to those we can manage with a pen. The advantage of working in hard copy is the way that it prevents an unwanted blurring of writing and revision. By looking at your words on the page, you are forced to think about how you wish to alter them, rather than just doing it. While ‘just doing it’ might sound more efficient, that approach makes it hard to bring your attention to issues beyond the local. In order to think about the text more broadly–possibly by doing a reverse outline–you need the ability to evaluate the full text without immediately altering it. 

While revising on paper may facilitate the ability to see the text anew, many of you prefer to work on screen. The reasons for this may be practical; hard copies may feel wasteful, or printing may be inaccessible. Or the reason could be more substantive; working on screen may feel so natural that it has become essential to your ability to engage with your text. But if staying online is hampering your ability to do substantial revision, the changes in formatting that we’ve been discussing here might help. Before revising, you can change the font to one that signals your commitment to revision. Or you can change the layout on the screen. You can even turn your text temporarily into a PDF and make your annotations on screen that way. Revision requires extra discipline when being done online. We can so easily be distracted by our ability to tinker; reading in an evaluative manner can absolutely be done online, but doing so requires interventions to boost our good intentions. Since willpower is often insufficient to keep us on task, using formatting to create tangible reminders to revise can be invaluable.

In sum, maintaining a physical engagement with text during revision is challenging because we so easily lapse into a simplerand speedierform of reading. In order to resist that tendency, whether you are working online or on paper, you need to use formatting to remind yourself that your writing is, in fact, available for revision.

“Yes, you are a writer!”

I recently gave a talk for the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education about the importance of claiming our identity as academic writers. This topic is one that I have returned to repeatedly in this space. I am sharing a revised version of the talk in this post because it covers an aspect of the topic that I haven’t addressed in much detail here: the practical implications of having an incomplete identity as an academic writer. I’m also sharing this talk because it gives me an excuse to include this delightful drawing that an audience member did during my talk.


“Yes, you are a writer” by Giulia Forsythe is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I can’t tell you how much I love this drawing. I spoke for over an hour and the artist, Giulia Forsythe, captured the essence of so much of what I said. Since I’m completely lacking in artistic skill or the capacity to arrange ideas spatially, I’m in awe of Giulia’s talent. I’m grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce it here. Her website explains more about the intersection between her pedagogical work and her artistic work; in particular, I recommend this video describing her process.

It comes as no surprise that writing is intimately connected with identity: writing is obviously one of the ways in which we tell people who we are. At least to some extent, our discomfort with writing is a discomfort with the process of fixing our identity; what we say in writing will endure, meaning that our exposure to critical assessment may also endure. If this is an accurate depiction of the underlying dynamic of writing anxiety, it is easy to believe that this anxiety is exacerbated for graduate writers. If writing fixes identity, we may naturally hesitate to undertake that activity when we are unsure of our identity. Graduate school is many things to many people, but it is almost never a time of fixed and comfortable identity. In fact, it tends to be a time of porous boundaries between work and life and a time of significant scholarly uncertainty.

All of this means that writing in graduate school often becomes something fraught, which in turn means that it is something you may not do enough of and something that you may not share willingly with others. Not feeling able to write or, worse, not feeling able to share what you’ve written is a serious contributing factor for time to completion and attrition challenges. It also makes graduate study way less enjoyable than it might otherwise be. To combat these very real graduate writing challenges, we need to talk about the debilitating impact of an incomplete sense of scholarly identity during graduate school. Raising awareness can make graduate students feel better about the way that writing has become more difficult, just when they need it to be getting easier. But raising awareness only helps in the long-term: it takes considerable time to become comfortable as an academic writer. Most graduate writers also need short-term solutions to their writing challenges.

In my view, those solutions need to involve explicit writing instruction that can tackle specific issues. We know that scholarly discomfort is often instantiated in academic texts in predictable ways, and it makes sense to talk to graduate writers about those potential weaknesses in their writing. In particular, I’d like to highlight three concrete ways in which an incomplete identity can hamper graduate writing: insufficiently explaining the contribution; insufficiently managing the scholarly literature; and insufficiently crafting an authorial voice.

Insufficiently explaining the contribution. One of the things that I most often see in graduate student writing is introductory material that neglects the author’s own research problem and its significance in favour of focusing heavily on the work done by others. This elision may result from a lack of confidence, but it can also result from a lack of familiarity with the generic features of academic writing. Learning the essential moves involved in introducing a research problem can help writers to overcome the tendency to under-emphasize their own contribution.

Insufficiently managing the scholarly literature. Another common issue in graduate student writing is a literature review that lacks a coherent argument about the need for the current research given the existing state of the field. Again, it is easy to see how a lack of confidence in the identity frame of academic writing makes writers hide behind the work done by others. Learning more about structuring a literature review can help writers manage the existing literature in a way that consistently supports their own eventual contribution.

Insufficiently crafting an authorial voice. Finally, I find myself talking frequently with graduate students about the problem of what can be called writer-less texts. Needless to say, being reticent about inserting ourselves into the text is often a by-product of feeling less than confident about our status as writers. It can also reflect deep uncertainty about the question of voice in academic writing. Learning more about metadiscourse and the factors that inhibit its usage can offer us tangible guidance on how to raise our own profile within our texts.

(In all three of these cases, I would recommend using highlighting to come to a better understanding of how visible we are within our own writing.)

These strategies are meant to improve graduate writing while acknowledging the underlying problem of incomplete identity. By offering concrete strategies for improving writing, I am seeking to help graduate writers improve their writing and thereby perhaps improve their sense of self as writers. At the very least, writing instruction can help us pinpoint common problems and help us to produce stronger prose. At a deeper level, however, writing instruction for graduate students can offer a greater sense of efficacy, which then contributes to a feeling of comfort with the role of academic writer. That feeling of belonging can start to strengthen scholarly identity and thus lessen identity-based writing challenges before they take root.

The title given to me for this talk was ‘Yes, you are a writer!’; I was initially hesitant about that level of exuberance but decided to go with it anyway. (One exclamation mark wasn’t going to kill me!) Embracing our writerly identity may be painful at times—it is natural to prefer identities that make us feel competent rather than ones that emphasize our status as novices—but it is ultimately valuable, both for the technical proficiency that can flourish and for the eventual feeling of comfort with the ongoing and crucial demands of academic writing.

Can You Have Too Much Writing Time?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former student, asking for some advice about managing a summer of writing. With her permission, I am sharing her email and my reflections on our conversation.

Dear Rachael:

I’ve taken the summer off teaching with the aim of making considerable progress on my dissertation. I’ve only once had a big block of time for writing during the degree (very early on), and it was terribly unproductive. And terrible. Although I’ve made progress with writing, I’m oddly nervous that I won’t maximize my time and will have forgone a summer of income for nothing. I’ve made a writing schedule for the summer that I believe is ambitious but reasonable, but I would like to have another pair of eyes on the plan. I’m especially interested in your feedback, as someone who thinks extensively about dissertation writing and productivity.

My first thought upon receiving this note was that the student was right to be afraid of too much time. A generous block of writing time is an opportunity, not a solution. As with any opportunity, you need a sound strategy in order to take full advantage. If you find yourself thinking that time itself is the solution, you may not be engaging in the planning necessary to make the most of that time.

At this point, you may be thinking that having too much time is better than having too little: if we simply don’t have enough writing time, all the strategic planning in the world won’t remedy that problem. But just because too much time can be a good problem to have—and I’m sure some of you are desperate for more writing time—doesn’t mean that it can’t still turn into its own productivity challenge. The student’s letter had a telling detail: she had already experienced the perils of having too much time with not enough to show for it. Until we have had that experience, we may think wistfully that more time would be better. Unfortunately, far too many of us are familiar with having failed to take advantage of ample time.

Think of all the conversations that take place among academic writers in late August. “Yes, I had a good summer, but I didn’t get all the writing done that I had hoped.” Sound familiar? This reflection is often followed by one of three different sentiments:

But I needed a break, so I’m okay with how I spent my time.” In other words, there may be times when foregoing writing in favour of recharging is the best decision.

But my goals were unrealistic, and I’m happy with what I did get done.” In other words, if our goals are truly disproportionate to our time, we may fail to meet those goals while still having been productive.

And now the term is about to start and I can’t believe that I let the summer get away from me.” In other words, I needed to write and I had the time to write and still I didn’t meet my goals.

The first two sentiments are good moments for self-reflection. When deciding how to use our time, we should definitely be aware of the need for real breaks and of the tangible limits to what we can accomplish in any given time. The third sentiment requires a deeper kind of self-reckoning. Having had time to write and yet having not taken full advantage is a profoundly frustrating experience. Since it is still April, I thought now would be an apt time to reflect on the process of devising an effective summer workplan.

If you want to make sure that you maximize the benefit of a significant expanse of writing time, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Create a timeline: What needs to be done and by what date? By explicitly defining your goals, you can move from a hope to a commitment. “I’m hoping to finish chapter three … ” can easily lead to “I didn’t get as much done on chapter three as I’d hoped I would.” Starting instead with “I’m going to finish chapter three …” puts us in a much stronger position. Of course, we must be realistic and rational about our timelines; however, once the timeline makes sense, we should endeavour to treat it as a commitment.
  2. Create a realistic breakdown of the task: The next step is to break the task down into composite parts. (This breakdown may show us that our original timeline was flawed; if that is the case, you can tweak that timeline before proceeding with this step.) “Three months should be plenty of time” becomes This number of days means that I’ll have to do that amount of work every day.” At this stage, it is crucial to resist any sort of magical thinking. A summer is never endless and it rarely involves a complete cessation of all other tasks. We need to count the number of weeks, subtracting those weeks that will be spent on crucial, restorative leisure. We need to count the number of days per week that we can realistically write, subtracting those days that need to be spent on other sorts of work or relaxation. Most importantly, we need to count the number of hours per day that we can write, subtracting those hours that need to be used in other ways. Not only do we need to leave time for all the other tasks that comprise our work lives, we also need to account for the fact that we can only consistently write for a certain number of hours per day.
  3. Create concrete interim tasks: With our committed timeline and our realistic breakdown, we are then able to define the constitutive tasks of each working session. Without this third step, it can be way too easy to let our writing time slip away. Let’s say you have four hours a day to write. First, make sure that you also have a couple other work hours in which to do all the writing-adjacent things that will need doing; needless to say, if you have four work hours per day, you won’t actually have four writing hours. If you have an open expanse of time, you can divide it up into writing time, non-writing work time, and leisure time. If you legitimately have four hours for writing, you will need a plan for how to ‘spend’ those hours. You won’t be able to do this all at once, of course. In April, you can’t know how you will use your time on the afternoon of August 16th. But it is a crucial habit to get into, at least for the near future. Its value works in two ways. One, if we have a concrete goal for our writing time, we can’t be satisfied with just having put in the time. And, two, the accomplishment of the concrete goal can give us a sense of satisfaction. If we have general tasks—of the ‘work on chapter three’ variety—we can end up doing very little or we can can end up doing lots while still feeling like we haven’t accomplished something specific. It is crucial to be flexible about these goals: writing is a mysterious process and you may be wrong in what you think you can or should be able to do in a particular time. This flexibility, however, shouldn’t be allowed to turn into imprecision. Precise interim goals are tremendously useful, even when they ultimately need to be revised in the face of the vagaries of the writing process.

This planning process is designed to help those of you with an expanse of writing time in the near future make the most of it. But what if, as is likely for many of you, you are looking at a summer with writing pressures and a lack of writing time? Perhaps you have to teach or work over the summer or perhaps your family responsibilities will ramp up as school ends for the year. As you face this tension, it can be helpful to remember that a shortage of time can be a manageable problem. Just as we sometimes err in thinking of time as a straightforward solution to writing problems, we can err in thinking that a lack of time must be an insurmountable obstacle. To be sure, a complete lack of time is a legitimate obstacle, but a shortage of time need not be fatal to our plans. When writing time is scarce but writing is still essential, it makes sense to think about how you will fit writing in without waiting for stretches of time that may never come. The planning process laid out here can help writers manage long stretches of writing time, but it can also help you maximize scarce writing time within the confines of a full and busy life.

A Productive Process

As I prepare for an upcoming dissertation boot camp, I find myself frequently returning to a central question: How do I talk about productivity without seeming to suggest that my audience is somehow at fault for being insufficiently productive? There’s no getting around the fact that self-improvement schemes often rest on a basic notion of inadequacy. Why else would we need to improve the way we eat, exercise, communicate, or store our socks? Obviously, many such suggestions are benign; even if you’ve been bundling your socks all wrong, it’s unlikely that any suggested improvement could make you feel particularly bad. You may even feel good about your existing sock storage regime and be happy to roll your eyes at those who advocate dramatic new approaches. But chances are that you lack the same insouciance when on the receiving end of writing productivity advice.

Advice about writing productivity is a sensitive topic for two reasons: one, because writing is an inherently hard activity that is intimately connected to our sense of self and, two, because writing often elicits our very worst tendencies. If it were just the former, things would be much simpler. Advice would scarcely be necessary: support and encouragement would be sufficient. But the truth of the matter is that most writers struggle to write enough. Our writing struggles are emphatically not a superficial issue: all this not writing isn’t freeing us up for more leisure or more sanity in our work-life arrangements. If anything, inconsistent writing habits are making it harder for us to achieve some sort of balanced allocation of our limited time. The promise of writing productivity is that if we learn to manage our distractions and use sound strategies to harness our good intention, we might spend less time writing and still get more done. While that sounds entirely good, advice about writing productivity can still often feel very wrong.

One of the reasons that productivity gets such a bad name in academia is that it often seems as though even good productivity advice fails to take into account the complex context in which academic writing takes place. Self-improvement, after all, puts the focus firmly on our self, leaving very little room to treat that self as subject to a wide range of social, economic, emotional, and physical pressures. When the individual is seen as the sole author of their own productivity woes, they are likely to experience a sense of personal inadequacy, regardless of the structural barriers that they face. However, while productivity can be a pernicious framework, productivity itself can be amazing. The ability to get things done is generally a significant factor in the happiness of a writer. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that a writer who isn’t writing because they have caregiver responsibilities or administrative duties or teaching tasks or a desire to enjoy these last days of summer vacation is doing anything wrong. There are so many reasons for not meeting externally determined goals, and I have no desire to contribute to the view that we are only doing right when meeting those goals and conforming to standardized productivity approaches. But while productivity can be a poor master, it can still be a good servant. Despite my reservations about the hazards of the discourses surrounding productivity, I’m still going to talk to graduate students about having a productive writing process.

My hope is that the shift from talking about productivity to talking about having a productive writing process will undercut any hint of guilt or blame. Being productive can mean meeting external demands in a way that is detrimental to our sense of ourselves and to our ability to live a full life. But having a productive process is something that naturally benefits us. We aren’t focused on producing a certain amount or on meeting disembodied requirements, but rather on what we need in order to be productive writers. To develop that self-understanding, we have to be reflective about all aspects of our writing process. What does being productive mean to us? What does a good day of writing look like for us? What sorts of things stop us from realizing those goals? What roles do guilt and anxiety play in our ability to write? What sort of writing support community do we want? What specific pressure points tend to push us away from writing and towards distractions? What might we do differently to change the patterns of our writing practice? These types of questions are a way of starting a conversation about building a productive writing process into our lives. And while that conversation needs to be critical about the conditions of academic labour and highly attuned to individual circumstances, it also needs to acknowledge the power of building a productive writing process.

Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students

The work that I do on this blog is generally designed to support my work in the classroom, which involves teaching academic writing and speaking to graduate students. When graduate students attend these sorts of workshops or courses, this undertaking is often characterized as professional development. In order to understand that characterization, it’s essential to think about what is meant by the term ‘professional development’. Most of us first became familiar with the term as something designed for already-working people. That is, professional development was necessary precisely because the original training or education was complete. After a number of years in a job, we benefit from professional development because it can offer us innovative ways of approaching what we do, thus making us more confident, competent, or engaged. When we start thinking of professional development for graduate students—that is, for people who are currently in school learning how to do something—we have to confront an obvious question: Why do we need ‘professional development’ for people who are still in school? Isn’t that what the school is for? If we are to offer professional development for graduate students, we clearly have to be reflective about the process.

Whether or not professional development initiatives act as an implicit rebuke of existing graduate education, the growth of such initiatives highlights what generally isn’t happening within graduate programs. Traditionally, graduate programs have been good at training students to do a certain sort of academic work, but less good at supporting a wider range of ancillary skills. Before looking at these ancillary professional skills in more detail, I’d like to make a distinction between professional development and professionalization. My anecdotal sense from my own university is that professional development tends to be offered centrally while professionalization initiatives are coming out of departments themselves. While the two things are similar, they are also significantly different. Professionalization is something that happens to the field of study whereas professional development is something undertaken by the individual. That is, professionalization reflects an awareness that graduate departments themselves have an obligation to offer initiatives—that are often part of a degree program and possibly even compulsory—to support students’ eventual ability to thrive professionally. In contrast, professional development has an individual dynamic: the student can decide to develop their professional skills on their own time and away from the department. While I think the structural integration of professionalization is valuable for a range of reasons, I’m going to focus in this post on the training offered centrally under the auspices of professional development. In what follows, I am going to divide these skills in three categories: integral; professional academic; and professional non-academic.

Integral skills are those that allow us to communicate our research effectively. The ability to explain research to a wide range of audiences in a wide range of formats must be seen as integral to the educational goals of a graduate student: research that can’t be conveyed to others in an appropriate fashion is inherently lacking. These integral skills—writing effectively, understanding how to make presentations, being able to communicate research to different audiences—will indubitably help students in their professional lives, but they are different from other forms of professional development because of their inherent connection to being a successful student. You can’t thrive as a graduate student without developing these skills, which makes them different from the skills necessary for moving from being a student to being a professional.

Professional academic skills are those that prepare students first for the academic job market and then for an academic job. The key element here is, of course, teaching; as so many have observed, a PhD is often expected to prepare us for teaching despite the fact that the actual teacher training component of doctoral education can be pretty hit and miss. Supporting graduate students as nascent teachers rather than just fostering their research skills is a crucial way to prepare them for academic jobs. Similarly, talking about how to apply for funding and how to prepare for scholarly publishing can help with the transition from student to professor. However, given the current state of the job market, preparing for the job of being an academic isn’t sufficient; graduate students also need to be prepared for the travails of an increasingly fraught job search process.

Lastly, professional non-academic skills are those that bridge the gap between graduate training and the jobs that many graduate students are going to find—by choice or by necessity—outside of the traditional professorial role. We know that doctoral training is often extremely transferable, but we need to clarify those pathways and facilitate the translation that allows graduate students to frame their existing skills as valuable for a wider range of professional opportunities.

These three species of professional development obviously involve a great deal of overlap. Some of the skills will operate in all three areas because they are fundamental skills. Some of the skills will be readily transferable: a good understanding of oral presentation skills, for instance, will allow us to make many different sorts of effective presentations. And some of these skills themselves will assist students in understanding the very nature of transferable skills. As an example, when I teach students about writing for different audiences, they are learning two things: at a basic level, they are learning to adjust their writing to suit its potential audience; at a higher level, they are also potentially learning to be more reflective about the nature of the skills that they are developing in graduate school.

Accompanying all these species of professional development, of course, is the need to provide holistic support for graduate students. Supporting graduate students means acknowledging both that they have issues—financial, familial, medical, emotional—affecting their graduate experience and that the task of building the necessary research and ancillary skills is inherently difficult. We need to give graduate students access to the skills they may lack while also acknowledging the complex stress of graduate study. While it doesn’t replace providing concrete emotional support for graduate students, providing these three types of ancillary skills can have the effect of normalizing their challenges. Graduate students, who so often struggle in their dual role as advanced student and novice scholar, can be reassured by the very existence of this sort of professional development. I’m often surprised by the fact that a frank discussion of the intellectual and emotional challenges of graduate writing is met by relief from many graduate students. Despite the prevalence of that narrative, many graduate students have often internalized a different and more damaging narrative about their own deficiency vis-à-vis the expected work of a graduate student. These psychological costs have tangible implications for the students themselves and also play an important role in rates of attrition and lengthy time-to-completion.

As we think about these three species of professional development and the complex demands of graduate study, we also need to think about the diverse needs of different graduate student constituencies. We can divide graduate students by discipline; this division can be a broad one between the sciences and the humanities or something finer that recognizes the unique professional demands of different graduate programs. We can divide graduate students by linguistic background; some students are learning to write suitable academic prose in their first language while others are accomplishing the same task in a subsequent language. We can divide students by degree; the needs of doctoral students are often different from those of Master’s students, especially from those in terminal Master’s degrees. In order to tackle needs spread along so many different spectrums, it is very helpful to have a deeper understanding of the types of things we are trying to impart. Clarifying our understanding of what professional development might mean for graduate students can help us to design suitable offerings and explain those offerings in terms that make sense to the many constituencies involved. In the end, offering these professional skills is one way of ensuring that all graduate students—each of whom represents a unique spot among many overlapping measures of identity—can have the chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

I would like to thank Dr. Jane Freeman for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.