From my journal, halfway through my third year, April, 2016. On beginning my dissertation proposal.
For many people, a dissertation only encompasses a piece of your grad school work. Knowing that, how do I know what the right scope is for a dissertation proposal?
Feelings of paralysis, which I’m not very familiar with.
My advisor says, just start. Write an outline. Write a second one, trying something different. Keep trying things.
Less than a year later, I’ve been starting to talk and think about breaking ground on my actual dissertation. Quickly, I start to feel similar feelings: but where do I start?
I really enjoy Alain de Botton‘s website The Book of Life. While wondering what projects to write about for my dissertation proposal, I came across a helpful post: How to dare to begin. He points out: “In general, we can only start working when the fear of not doing anything finally exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”
He advises people to visit the studio, not the gallery. The gallery houses polished works, while the studio houses those in progress. This is hard to do for academic writing because people keep their unpolished work hidden, but it’s important to remember that when you’re reading the published work, you’re seeing the gallery products. But they all began in a studio.
de Botton also reminds readers that “the imperfect can still be very good, noble and admirable. For something to be loved and valued, it really isn’t necessary for it to be perfect.” This especially resonates with me right now because I often hear that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.”
Next, remember that in the grand scheme of things, like all human life on this planet, the thing you’re afraid to start is pretty darn small in scope. Actually, it basically doesn’t matter at all. And finally, scrutinize your fears. If you’ve taken his advice up to here, you’ll probably realize that your fears don’t have a leg to stand on.
Once you start, you just have to make sure you Keep Going.
I recently had a (teary) conversation with a mentor about my dissertation. I’ve done a lot of research, much of which I’m not even planning to include in my dissertation, but I know (and my dissertation committee said) that my dissertation could use more depth. I was attempting to pitch a new experiment to add in, and I received feedback that I was probably trying to squeeze moisture from a rock that might give me a few drops, but that other projects would probably result in better bang for my buck (more important results for the time I’d have to put in). She suggested I might be sacrificing quality for speed.
My first reaction was to feel defensive. I’m pouring effort in, churning out experiments, grinding the data as quickly as possible, and drafting up the results. There’s not much validation in the PhD process: there are no gold stars and criticism far outweighs praise.
Further, academic work often feels like a race. You get credit for the number of publications you have and the impact factors of those publications. Early on a professor commented, “You are now in the paper business. Every activity you do in grad school should geared toward that end.” I’ve embraced my role in the paper business, assimilating academia’s publish or perish mentality into my work, allowing it to drive the papers I read, the experiments I run, and how I frame those experiments, creating new stories to explain unexpected results. I’m playing the game, and I think I’m playing it pretty well, and now she wants me to slow down?
As our conversation (is it still a conversation if one person is struggling to make sentences amidst tears?) continued, I started to come around to what she was saying: yes, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself. Yes, I am hyper-focused on forward progress, and no, I haven’t thought too much about whether the work I’m doing is really the most impactful it can be. I’m staying busy and making sure I have things to show for that busy-ness. I cannot rest until I check something off a list, and at that point I’ve probably added a few more items to the list anyway.
But since I already have good research, and I’m not running out of funding, maybe it is time to take a step back. I need to pull away from the quest to find yet another p-value that’s less than .05, and think about bigger ideas: What important answers do we still not have about how metaphors shape cognition? And how can I work on those? As I started truly believing that I should slow down, I stumbled upon this great post on The Slow Grad Student – great affirmation.
One thing that helps me take a step back in evaluating my research is to truly take a step back from work. No one helps me do that quite like my best friend (whom I’m married to, coincidentally!), and I spent the past weekend visiting him (Steven lives in San Antonio and I live in San Diego).
I hope some of the time we spent jogging, cooking dinner, and working on our jigsaw puzzle has helped me recharge and put publish-or-perish pressures on the back burner to do the best work I can.
I’m going to advance to candidacy this week, which means I will propose my dissertation to my committee of five faculty members. I’ve already submitted a written proposal, but at the end of the week I’ll give a talk about my plans for about 45 minutes or an hour. I know all five of my committee members, and they all have a rough idea of the work I’m proposing. If they agree that my work is sufficient, I will be a PhD candidate, one step away from having a PhD (the size of that step varies though, so don’t be fooled). I’m not expecting intimidating interrogating or yelling or finger pointing, but it’s an event I’ve prepared thoroughly for, and things that require deep preparation are usually also at least a little anxiety-provoking. Normally when I have events like this one, I picture myself excelling – if I tell myself that I can give a good talk, I will!
On my bus ride home one day recently, I was listening to The Hidden Brain podcast, and heard an episode called WOOP, There It Is. The psychologist being interviewed, Gabriele Oettingen, wrote a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
Oettingen’s main point was that positive thinking can backfire. What’s positive thinking? She gave an example (both in the podcast and in this article she wrote for aeon) of an experiment she actually ran. College students came to her lab and imagined that they saw their current crush at a party. The researchers asked the students to fill in the rest of the scenario: what happened at this imaginary party after you saw your crush? Some students gave very positive endings to the story, imagining the start of a wonderful relationship, while others gave less romantic endings, for example that the crush started talking to someone else. Five months later, the people who had given the less positive responses were actually more likely to have attempted to strike up a relationship with their crush than the uber-positive dreamers.
Across a range of studies with diverse participants, Oettingen and her colleagues have found that people who think more positively about achieving their goals are actually less likely to achieve those goals than those who think less positively (more realistically?). These findings hold for professional, health, academic, and relational goals (detailed examples can be found on this site, WOOP my life).
Why is positive thinking so bad? Oettingen claims that it relaxes us and tricks our brain into thinking we’ve achieved our goal. This decreases our likelihood of actually acting on those goals. This relaxation is evident physiologically, she notes:
After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much. (via aeon)
Without digging extensively into her papers, I’m not sure that I buy her claim here about the “mechanism” – that lower blood pressure is a sign that thinking positively calms us too much and makes us think at some level we’ve achieved the thing we wanted to and now are less likely to act on it. I’m skeptical, but I do believe her claim that there’s a way to evade dooming yourself by positive thinking.
Oettingen notes that if people engage in a process that she and her team call WOOP, they’ll actually fare better on a range of health, interpersonal, and academic measures than people who don’t WOOP it up. Here’s an example of how I might engage in WOOP for my upcoming talk:
Wish: I hope that I will present my work to my dissertation committee clearly.
Outcome: I imagine myself focused but relaxed enough that my words flow, confident with my material but not over-practiced; my committee is clearly engaged in the presentation I’m delivering
Obstacle: Someone may ask me a question I don’t know how to respond to.
Plan: If someone asks me something that stumps me, I can do any or all of these things: ask them to rephrase it; take a second, a swig of water, a deep breath, and give it my best shot; or simply say, “That’s a really great question that I’ll have to find out.”
The researchers have tested WOOP against similar exercises, like stating your intentions to do something positive (for example, I intend to be calm, focused, and avoid getting flustered when I give the talk), and in contexts as different as low-income mothers’ likelihood of attending a vocational program and stroke patients losing weight, WOOP produces the best outcomes.
So throughout this week I’ll be running a mini-experiment on myself, WOOPing about my advancement as often as possible, and hoping at the end of the week I’ll have one more piece of positive evidence in favor of WOOP.