On Transitioning from Academia to Something Completely Different

My last post explained why I was planning to leave the academy after finishing my PhD. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after graduation, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a history professor. Although some aspects of grad school had been great, I was ultimately a lot more excited about leaving academia than I was about sticking with it.

That was a year ago. I’ve since defended my dissertation, walked across a stage while sporting a sweaty orange robe and poofy velvet hat, and moved on from the career I’d worked toward for eight years, but no longer wanted. Less than two weeks after graduation, I started a brand new gig as a grant writer for a nonprofit–a job which, in terms of content, had pretty much nothing to do with my academic training.

So. Now that it’s been a whole year, maybe it’s finally time to follow up? (Prolific blogging is clearly not my strong suit.)

It’s been an exhausting and fascinating and thoroughly life-changing year. Here’s a scattered assortment of thoughts about what it’s been like to switch from the ivory tower to the so-called “real” world outside of it:

Changing careers was entirely overwhelming at first. I’d done an internship before that had focused mostly on grant writing, so I had some understanding of how to conduct my basic responsibilities. But there was one problem: in order to write a grant proposal or just about anything else effectively, you have to have some idea what you’re writing about.

I started my job with zero knowledge of the industry my organization is trying to change, only the faintest idea of the methods it uses to do so, and no familiarity whatsoever with the terminology my coworkers use to describe all of that work. During my first few weeks, anytime my coworkers very kindly asked if I had any questions about the discussion I’d just (rather silently) participated in, I had no idea how to respond. I understood so little that I didn’t even know what to ask. At first I was entirely helpless, and not terribly useful.

I knew being a grant writer would be different, but I had no idea how much mental energy it would take to switch gears from something I knew to something I really, really didn’t know. The combination of being thrown into something completely new while still reeling from dissertation burnout was intense, to say the least.

Having no idea what I was doing was a lot harder than I’d expected. By the time I finished my PhD, I was an expert in my field, especially in the very specific and obscure subject matter of my dissertation. I probably know more than almost anyone in the world about that one itty-bitty topic. I TAed some classes on unfamiliar subject matter, and for my dissertation I often had to sort out bits of scholarship that I was totally unfamiliar with. Even so, I knew enough about my field and about history as a discipline that I could get by. This is something I hadn’t fully realized or appreciated while I was a grad student: I’d grown so accustomed to doing history that I had no idea I’d become an expert.

Quite suddenly, I went from being an inadvertent expert to having absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was humbling, to say the least. Sometimes it still is. Now that I’m ten months into the job I know a lot more, but I still don’t have anywhere near the level of expertise in this field that I did in the academic world. This is part of what makes my new career so wonderful and exciting, but I completely underestimated how tough it would be.

By the way, that ever-pervasive idea that choosing a non-academic job is the easy route? Pure bullshit.

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No, switching to a completely different career isn’t the “easy route.”

Switching careers meant starting over from “the bottom.” Not just in terms of knowledge and experience, but also in terms of hierarchy and pay grade. I think the skills I honed in grad school have enabled me to grasp and put into practice the key elements of grant writing a bit more quickly than I might have otherwise. In other ways, however, my PhD doesn’t mean much at my new job. Which makes perfect sense, of course: my in-depth understanding of the historiography of the Bourbon Reforms doesn’t contribute a hell of a lot to my current work, so there’s no reason it should qualify me to be a top dog in the nonprofit world. I am good with this, and it would be a bit ridiculous if I wasn’t.

Even so, every so often, being at the bottom of the grant writing totem pole makes some tiny voice inside me wonder why I bothered getting a doctorate. Granted, that’s not why I pursued a PhD: I did it because I wanted to, not for esteem or recognition or a fat paycheque. But as ashamed as I am to admit it, that ivory tower “I’m-a-doctor-so-I’m-too-good-for-this” elitism runs pretty deep. The experience has been humbling, but that’s probably a good thing. I’m proud that I finished my PhD, but elitism isn’t something I want to encourage in myself.

The challenge of learning a new field was exactly what I wanted. It’s been difficult and sometimes exhausting, but it’s also part of what makes my new job exciting. By the time I graduated, studying history felt old and tired. I knew there was plenty more to learn about my own field, but it just wasn’t exciting anymore. I craved something completely and utterly new and different, which is exactly what I got with my new grant writing job. I feel like I’ve learned more in the past ten months than I did in my last three years of my PhD.

My new job fulfills my need to accomplish something tangible. As I explained in my last post, I never felt terribly accomplished in academia: I felt like I was working for me and me alone, and that wasn’t enough. To make matters worse, the glacial pace of academic writing combined with its often-intangible progress made me feel like I wasn’t doing much of anything. As I wrote a year ago, “I need to finish something every so often–to have proof that I made something, and that it does something good.”

What I was looking for then, I’ve got in spades now. I normally finish and submit grant applications and reports once or twice a week, and as a result my organization receives funding to support a cause I believe in. It’s not uncommon for me to suddenly receive an assignment with a deadline only a few days away. I’m constantly finishing something, and it (often) does something good. I no longer wonder why I should bother.

My job strikes a satisfying balance between working alone and working with others. I’m an introvert at heart, and I need to be alone with my thoughts sometimes. But as an academic, working alone–both in the sense of working while physically alone and in the sense of conducting work that was solely my own–made me pretty unhappy.  In my new job I do a lot of the grant work alone, but it’s part of a strategy built by a team, it gets edited by a team, and it contributes to a team effort to make this organization work. I also spend a lot more of my day around (great) people than I used to.

I get to do challenging, interesting work with terribly smart people. My organization does fascinating, innovative and (I believe) important work, and the people who make our programming happen are intelligent, driven, and passionate about what they do. That makes work pretty fun. One of the best parts of my job is getting to learn about the creative methods my coworkers are using to effect change in spite of enormous obstacles. (Dear coworkers: I make weird, grumpy-looking faces while we’re meeting because I’m focusing on gleaning as much information from you as possible. Sorry about that. Once that part is over and I’ve thoroughly processed it all, I bask in the glory of how fascinating your work is!)

I get to spend my days learning about very interesting and important things, and using my PhD-honed writing skills to make sure those things gets funded. I think that’s pretty cool.

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Me, to my coworkers.

Having a structured 40-hour work week is awesome. It has its downsides: I’m not a morning person, and for some reason fitting things like laundry and grocery shopping into evenings and weekends is more difficult than I’d expected. (Yes, I’m aware of how silly that sounds, but I’d gotten used to being able to do these things at 3pm on a Tuesday.) But being able to leave work at work is wonderful. I no longer spend all my “free” time feeling guilty for not working. I only get paid to work 40 hours a week, so that’s all I work. It’s a much healthier relationship with labour than what I’d grown accustomed to in grad school, and I’m much better off for it.

So is getting to choose where I live. To be a professor, I’d have had to move to wherever I was lucky enough to get a job. (If I was lucky enough to get a job.) Although it’s important to me to have an enjoyable and intellectually-stimulating job, I don’t want to have to uproot and move to some place not of my choosing in order to do it. As it turns out, that isn’t necessary. I get to continue living in a place that both I and my partner like and have a great job at the same time. I am good with this.

I like who I am when I’m doing this work. Much better than when I was an academic, anyway. Working with others and during a set time prevents me from getting too obsessive, self-absorbed and absorbed in my work. There’s no time to be an insufferable perfectionist, or to be so self-deprecating and anxious that I can’t get anything done. Nor is there space, since I’m often surrounded by people. The version of myself that only came out occasionally while I was writing my dissertation–the one who, as I wrote last year, is “fascinated, confident, rigorous, helpful, caring and creative”–is gradually appearing more often. I’m still not 100% there–I think this is due largely to residual burnout, which I may write about in later post. But so far I like my grant-writing self a lot better than my dissertation-writing self. Of all the changes I’ve experienced as a result of switching careers, this one feels the most significant.

In short: I made a big change because it felt right, and I don’t regret a damn thing.

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Why I’m Leaving Academia

Don’t worry: this isn’t yet another rant about why academia is horrible and no one should ever go to graduate school. Yes, the ivory tower has its problems. But that’s not why I’m leaving.

Speaking openly, frankly and with optimism about “alt-ac” or “post-ac” careers is becoming increasingly common. But, with some notable exceptions, the conversation still seems focused primarily on how to use these careers as a back-up option when the academic track turns out to be terrible–the thing we do when we’re exhausted, buried under debt, and can’t get a good tenure track job. The thing we do only when Plan A goes horribly awry and gets too awful to deal with.

Even Karen Kelsky–who chose to leave her great tenured position because it wasn’t what she wanted–frames the decision to leave in this light:

It’s OK to quit. It’s OK to decide to move on and do something else. What started out as an inspired quest for new knowledge and social impact can devolve into endless days in an airless room, broke, in debt, staring at a computer, exploited by departments, dismissed by professors, ignored by colleagues, disrespected by students.

It’s OK to decide that’s not what you want.” (The Professor Is In, p. 385)

I can hardly fault her for this. For countless scholars, these are the reasons for leaving. Framing “leaving the cult” this way also makes a lot of sense in the context of Kelsky’s (excellent) book, which focuses in part on the exploitative labour relations inherent to academia. What she says here is absolutely, unquestionably important for academics to hear.

But I found this passage thought-provoking because, for the most part, the horrors Kelsky describes have not been my experience.

Over the course of my PhD, I’ve enjoyed plenty of funding, great colleagues, helpful professors, rigorous classes, useful resources, good TAship experiences, and a wonderful, supportive adviser. I’m about to graduate from the top program in the country for my field. I have no reason to believe my committee members won’t approve my dissertation. I’ve had the opportunity to study what I wanted to study, and to write the dissertation I wanted to write. I’m broke, but I have no debt. I’m no scholarly rock star, but I’ve done reasonably well for myself, and it’s possible that, with a few more additions to my CV, I could eventually snag a decent (or good?) tenure-track job. I have been profoundly lucky.

I have everything a graduate student could dream of, which I think is one of the reasons I’ve had such a hard time deciding to leave after finishing my PhD. Hearing about the horrific circumstances many graduate students and professors deal with makes me bitter about some aspects of academia, but they also make me feel a bit ungrateful and overly picky for thinking about calling it quits. I keep thinking maybe I should just give it a try for a little bit longer, and at least see what being a professor is like. Maybe turn my dissertation into a book, to make all that work seem a bit more worthwhile. Maybe not “give up” so easily, when so many scholars have endured so much more just for the privilege of writing and teaching.

…Which brings me to the Gilmore Girls.

(I am convinced that most of the important things in life can be explained via references to Star Trek or Gilmore Girls. Don’t judge. You know it’s true.)

Season two, episode three. Lorelai is about to marry Max. At her bachelorette party, her mother Emily fondly reminisces about her own wedding experience:

…the thing I remember most was that for the entire week before my wedding, I’d wait ’til my mother went to sleep, and I’d sneak out of bed and I’d put on my wedding dress and my tiara and my gloves, and I would stare at myself in the mirror and think how very safe I felt. How very right and wise and honored.

The next day, Lorelai suddenly cancels her wedding. When Rory asks why, she explains:

I didn’t want to try on my wedding dress every night.

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The delightful drag bar where Emily tells her wedding dress story.

And then Lorelai and Rory go on an amazing road trip involving a horrible bed and breakfast called the Cheshire Cat. Which I suppose isn’t relevant here, although I do like the idea of escaping my career path by way of a road trip to nowhere. Note to self.

The point is, there wasn’t anything terribly wrong with Max. He had no major character flaws; nothing to make him hate-worthy. He was generally good to Lorelai, and some might say she was lucky to have him. But the thought of marrying him wasn’t exciting or comforting. It didn’t inspire the kind of joy or anticipation she needed for a life-long commitment.

That’s more or less how I feel about being a professor. When I picture myself in a comfortable, tenure-track job, I feel no excitement or joy or anticipation or comfort. I don’t daydream about what a nice life that would be. It doesn’t feel right.

I’ve felt this way for quite a while, but I’ve insisted on remaining open to the possibility of the academic life anyway. This is in part because I’m stubborn and don’t like to quit things, in part because I don’t want my eight years of graduate school to be for naught, and in part because I couldn’t tell whether my occasional feelings of anxiety and dread were indicative of my incompatibility with academia, or just my fear of failure. Did I want out just so I wouldn’t have to find out, after years of work, that I’m not really cut out for this–that I make a decent graduate student but an awful professor? Was I just afraid of the inevitable impostor syndrome, and of the hard work it takes to get tenure?

The dissertation-writing process has been kind of miserable for me. I’ve found ways to make it more pleasant and more doable, and it’s certainly had its moments. But despite all that, it’s still mostly pretty miserable. But what if all the anxiety and dissatisfaction I’ve experienced while writing is just me? Maybe I’m just like this, and I’d feel the same way about any other job? Or maybe this is something I could fix. After all, I did successfully emerge from what from Inger Mewburn calls the “Valley of Shit,” and managed to make writing a bit more enjoyable. Maybe, with enough work, I could learn to really love it? I mean, sometimes I feel like I do. Every so often.

Before Lorelai decides to call off the wedding, she keeps trying to tell herself that marrying Max is the right decision. “People can evolve together, don’t you think?” She has to expend such effort to convince herself that marrying him is the right thing to do. There seem to be a lot of reasons to stay with him, but she keeps having to remind herself of those reasons because her gut is screaming at her to run the other way.

I think I’ve been doing this with my academic career. I keep going over and over the reasons to stick with it. Every time I think I’ve decided to leave, I’ll have a good writing day or a great class or a mentor I admire will praise my work, and I think… maybe I should just give it a shot. Maybe it will be better than it’s been. Maybe it’ll turn out that I love lecturing. Maybe I’ll feel more motivated when tenure deadlines are looming. Maybe I’ll like scholarly writing better when my job is so busy that writing is a luxury, rather than a thing I’m stuck doing every single day. Maybe I should stay just to prove that I can do it. I object ethically to some of the inner workings of the university system, but maybe I can help change that. Maybe I can make a difference in students’ lives. Maybe!

“Maybe things will be different.” I sound like I’m trying to fix my relationship by marrying the guy. I’m pretty sure that’s a bad idea.

And yet, the annoying, doubtful voice inside my head persists: “Marriage isn’t anything like your career! Becoming a professor isn’t legally binding. You can leave at any time. What’s the harm in just trying?”

But this isn’t the kind of career you try on for a bit because there’s a chance you might like it. It’s an enormous amount of work–not that I’m opposed to working hard, but I’ve learned that work-life balance is something I need. It requires you to move to wherever you’re lucky enough to get a job. If that turns out to be a university in rural Nebraska, that’s where you go. (No offense, rural Nebraska! You’re just not for me.) The road to tenure is grueling and stressful. Even just the process of applying for jobs is grueling and stressful. Some academic jobs are much better than others, but they pretty much all share these characteristics. It’s a labour of love, and for many people, it’s entirely worth it, because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

But I don’t love this job. I love parts of it, sometimes. But sometimes I don’t even like it, let alone love it.

A lot of the time, I don’t like who I am when I’m doing academic work. I don’t much care for this anxious, unmotivated, self-deprecating and somewhat self-absorbed version of myself who emerges when I don’t reach my own (often unrealistic) standards. But I also don’t much care for the obsessive, insomnia-ridden, and very self-absorbed person I sometimes become when I’m working 12 hours a day and can’t stop thinking about it. Every so often my academic self is fascinated, confident, rigorous, helpful, caring and creative. But that person doesn’t come out as often as I would like.

I think these less-than-pleasant versions of myself emerge mostly because I never quite feel like I’ve done enough. No matter how much praise I get for my work quality or productivity, I rarely feel like I’ve achieved anything. Whether I write zero words or 3,000, at the end of almost every day I feel unaccomplished. I know in theory that, little by little, I’m contributing to our understanding of our world and our past. Someone might even find it a little bit helpful for their own projects. But I need more tangible evidence that my work has some kind of small effect on the world. I need someone to say, “thanks, that thing you did was really helpful!” I need to finish something every so often–to have proof that I made something, and that it does something good.

Despite the fact that I like writing and I like my dissertation topic, I’ve had a really hard time motivating myself to write at all. For a long time, I thought I was just lazy. Then I thought I just didn’t like the way I was working, and needed to find a way to make the process more enjoyable. The latter turned out to be true, but even now–even after I’ve worked so hard to find a process I don’t hate–I still have trouble dragging myself out of bed to work on my dissertation. I think it’s because, whether I write a whole chapter or nothing at all, I know I probably won’t feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Let me be clear: I do think humanities research is worth doing (if any government agencies are reading this: please keep funding the humanities!). I know all those small contributions lead to big changes in our thinking, and I believe those changes are essential for humanity’s continued development. And I hope my dissertation will be a part of that in some small way.

But it turns out I need frequent, tangible affirmation that I’m doing something helpful. The thought that maybe, one day, the work I do today might have some tiny, intangible effect on the world just isn’t enough. Somehow, even doing one small thing that one coworker finds helpful feels more rewarding to me. I’m aware of how irrational that will sound to some, but I think that’s just the way I am. I can’t just hope I’m doing something helpful; I need evidence, and I need it often.

The internship I did last year as a nonprofit grant writer made me feel more fulfilled than graduate school ever has. I wasn’t changing the world or anything, but I was both helping my team and raising money for educational programs in underfunded schools. There was frequent, obvious evidence that I was helping someone, if only my coworkers, and if only in some small way. I went home every day with a sense that I’d done something. With the exception of the occasional frustrating day, I usually went home relaxed and happy, feeling like I’d earned my break that evening.

Not so with academic writing. Sometimes I’m pleased with myself when I have a good idea or when someone praises my work. But the sensation is often fleeting, and it almost inevitably leads to feeling like I need to work more, or I need to work harder, or I’m not sure what I’m doing really matters, or any number of not-so-positive reactions. When I won an extremely competitive national fellowship, I thought, “Do I really deserve this? Have I really done anything award-worthy?” I was glad to have the money, but I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished much.

I want to really care when I achieve something big. I want to like who I am when I’m doing my job; I want that to be the rule, not the exception. I want to be excited about my work. I don’t want to have to work so hard to love it.

After doing that internship, I think maybe I can have all this while also getting to choose where I live and take weekends off. Maybe also while feeling challenged and intellectually stimulated at work. I think that might be possible. At the very least, I feel like I owe it to myself to strive for that–to stop blaming myself for not enjoying academia enough and go figure out what I really want.

So, I’m going to be something other than a professor–not because I can’t or it’s horrible or it’s treated me terribly, but because it’s just not what I want. I know I can use what I’ve learned in graduate school in other settings, and I think I can find intellectual fulfillment elsewhere. I can’t just stick with this because it’s what I’m supposed to do, or because it hasn’t all been bad, or because I dislike the idea of “giving up,” or because there are some things I’ll really miss about it. Those are bad reasons to advance a relationship to the next level. They’re also bad reasons to stick with this career. Ultimately, I’m a lot more excited to see what I can do beyond the academic bubble.

Sorry, ivory tower. We’ve had a good run, but I don’t want to try on my professor suit every night. It’s time to call off the wedding.

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But thanks for all the daisies!

How I Went From Writing Nothing to Writing a Ton

For about two and a half years, writing my dissertation was an agonizingly slow process. In that whole time, I only managed to write a single chapter. But this semester, I’ve written two chapters in just a couple of months. This change is due in part to desperation: I have to graduate in May, so I have little choice but to get this thing done. But if I’d been in this position a year ago, I likely would have had to drop out. Desperation only works when you’re equipped to use it properly.

I’ve received no shortage of writing advice over the past few years. Create a schedule and stick to it. Set process-oriented goals instead of product-oriented ones, such as writing for a certain amount of time rather than producing a certain number of words. Write for four hours a day (or two or six or eight, depending on who you ask). Don’t be a perfectionist. Take time off occasionally. Just sit down and start writing. Butt in chair. Write.

My nails never look this nice, and there are usually snacks everywhere and my cat is in my face. Otherwise, this is sort of what my writing time looks like.
My nails never look this nice, and usually there are snacks everywhere and my cat is in my face. Otherwise, this is sort of what my writing time looks like.

But for nearly three years, none of this advice really worked. Occasionally it helped, but the benefits were always fleeting. I’d work happily for a week or two with my small and reasonable process-oriented goals that were tailored to my most productive times of day. But then I would suddenly fail to meet those goals, and get too discouraged to get much done. I’d create a schedule that seemed like it should work for me, but it would quickly fall apart. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t follow the seemingly simple steps to dissertation success. I was pretty sure I just didn’t have the dedication to do it. What other reason could there be?

What I failed to recognize was that I needed to alter these steps and my approach to them to make them fit my personality, my tendencies, and my circumstances. I thought I was tailoring them to my needs, but in fact I hadn’t even figured out what my needs were. Without realizing it, I had been trying to squeeze a circular peg into a square hole–to follow what I thought should work for me rather than what actually did work for me. Unsurprisingly, all this accomplished was to make me miserable and unproductive. There were steps I needed to take–things I needed to learn–before I could implement the advice I’d been given, and to implement it effectively.

Here’s what I had to do:

I learned to prioritize enjoying the writing process.
Or at least, not hating it. My therapist suggested that I needed to make writing more enjoyable for myself, and to prioritize that above all else–above all the instructions I thought I was supposed to follow. It took a while for me to believe that this made any kind of sense, since I had become pretty deeply convinced that my failure to adhere to the dissertation advice I’d received meant there was something wrong with me. But once I started to value enjoyment above any of those expectations I had of myself, I was surprised at how productive I could be.

On days when I just couldn’t focus, I’d take a break for an hour or two, or I just wouldn’t work on my dissertation at all. I set a highly flexible schedule for myself: I knew what times were generally best for productivity, but I forgave myself when I (very frequently) got little or nothing done during those times, or just gave up on it altogether for days on end. I worked in groups as often as I could, to make the process more fun and less isolating. Most other times I worked in my home office, which has tons of natural light. I bought a good monitor and chair to help with my back pain. But when pain got distracting and unpleasant anyway, I took a break to stretch for a while, go for a walk, or just do any activity that involved standing for a little while. At the beginning, sometimes I’d only work a couple of days a week, because that’s all I could do while staying reasonably happy. Some weeks I knit more than I wrote. But as time went on, I was able to write more and more often without making myself miserable–and sometimes, I even enjoyed it.

This blog post  (which I wish I’d seen years ago!) describes a similar approach, which I really like. It posits that we “knowledge workers” could focus a little less on the industrial age perceptions of work and productivity, because productivity isn’t just about getting work done.

My happy writing space.
My happy writing space.

I learned that others struggle with writing too.
As I mentioned above, I had become convinced that my inability to be productive was due to my own personal failings. I thought that I–not my process–was the problem. But then, once again on the advice of my therapist, I tried to make writing more social–to make it a group thing rather than just a me thing. I started working in groups more often and, perhaps more importantly, I started talking about writing more often. Both with strangers on Twitter and with friends in real life, I started to admit publicly that writing was hard for me. And, to my surprise, I found out that almost everyone else had similar troubles.

The straw man PhD student I’d built in my head who had no difficulty writing for a few hours every day turned out to be entirely imaginary. All I had to do to prove this straw man wrong was to talk about my writing openly and honestly. After practicing this regularly for a few months, I finally started to believe that I was not the problem after all. I had been going about writing all wrong, but that didn’t mean I was inherently incapable of doing it right. Ironically, recognizing–and believing–that it was ok to suck at productivity made me a lot more productive. Having trouble getting work done used to frustrate me so much that, after one little setback, I’d accomplish nothing for days. Now, I forgive myself, take a break, and move on. If others struggle with writing, then why shouldn’t I?

I learned that “ugly” writing is an essential step that I can’t skip.
My perfectionism is so deeply ingrained that telling me to just stop being that way doesn’t work. I have no capacity to understand what it means, or how to change it; you may as well tell a cat to stop meowing. It’s just the way I am. I thought I wasn’t being too picky about the quality of my work; it just seemed more efficient to edit as I went, so I wouldn’t have to clean it all up later. I’d never written any other way, and I didn’t know how to write any other way. But recently, I found out that many writers believe that writing requires two distinct steps. The first is to write a rough draft–not a decent draft that needs a bit of cleaning up, but a spectacularly bad draft with little structure and nonsensical paragraphs. The second step–entirely separate from the first–is to clean it up.

I found this blog post by Alan Klima enormously helpful because it describes these two phases in a way that makes a lot of sense to a perfectionist: it posits that the first draft is not for the eyes of others, and it should be written accordingly. During this stage, you’re not supposed to write words that the reader will eventually read, because it’s too early for that. Klima suggests that this stage is absolutely crucial, because it prepares you to write what the reader will read. In other words, horrifically bad writing isn’t inefficient–it’s a critical part of the process, and it’s meant for no one but me.

To describe this first fantastically awful draft, I’ve adopted a term that I’ve seen academics on Twitter use (particularly in the #WritePeasant writing group): the “ugly draft.” I’ve started using Scrivener  to write my ugly drafts, in part to remind myself that this writing is not for others–it’s a step I’m taking to get to decent writing. While I’m using Scrivener, it’s not only okay to ignore reasonable paragraph structure and write sentences that don’t make sense: it’s essential. Once I move the draft over to Word, it’s time to pretty it up–to write words that readers will read. I can hardly believe how much faster I write now that I’ve learned to make this distinction in a way that makes sense to me. If I have the time and I’m in the right mood, I can pump out 2,000 words in an eight-hour day. They’re ugly words, but that’s exactly how it should be.

Now that I’ve taken all these steps, I am able to identify what advice works for me and what doesn’t–and that nothing is going to work for me every single day. I know that I need to think carefully about what goals will be best for me on any given day, week or month–and whether goals are even a good idea at all at that moment. Some days I start writing exactly when I’d planned to and can focus for hours on writing hundreds of words. Some days that just doesn’t happen. Sometimes I get overly concerned about the quality of my work, but I’ve found ways to counteract that enough that I can usually get something done. In other words, I’m hardly the ideal productive writer, but I’ve found a flexible process that suits my ever-changing needs and my own weird perspectives.

The above three steps have been enormously helpful for me, but I can’t imagine they’d work for everyone. We all have different needs as writers and learners. And I know not everyone has the time to slow down and barely work for a month or two while rebuilding your entire approach to productivity. I was lucky to have that luxury. But I’ve shared my experience in hopes that it shows how important it is to identify our individual needs as writers, rather than trying to squeeze circular pegs into square holes. Don’t try to change yourself to fit your process; change your process to fit you.

Unsolicited Advice for New PhD Students

If you’re reading this, you probably know that mental illness is a common problem in academia. Thankfully, it’s becoming more acceptable for scholars to talk about this openly, and to acknowledge its power as a barrier to academic success. This is a big step, and I hope this trend continues.

But I’ve always felt that suggested solutions fall short of addressing the root causes. Go to therapy. Take days off. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Don’t be a perfectionist.

This isn’t advice isn’t bad so much as incomplete. There are reasons we don’t take enough time off and create impossibly high standards for ourselves–reasons that (I think) often arise from a combination of the way academia works and our own neuroses about who we’re supposed to be.

You can’t just erase all that by getting enough sleep.

What we need is a substantial shift in how we think about our academic work: how we should be doing work, how we should be coping with challenges, and the steps that should lead to academic success. If we’re going to stop working too hard and being perfectionists and overachievers, then we need to decide that it’s okay to alter our expectations of ourselves. We can’t just hear, “you should really take a day off”–we need to actually believe that taking time off is a good thing, so we don’t feel guilty and inferior when we do it.

We need to limit the power of the “shoulds”–both real and imaginary–so that we don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t match those expectations.

I’m not sure how to achieve this sort of shift, but I think being openly kind and understanding to ourselves and one another might be a good start. Try saying you’re glad you took that day off, because you really needed it. Tell a colleague it’s ok that they’re struggling to get that paper done; you had a similar problem, so you get it. When your whole department laughs at the fact that someone’s in their 9th year of graduate school, consider not joining in. Acknowledge out loud that it’s ok to be human and to neglect some of the “shoulds” if that’s what we need. (Kudos to the participants in #withaPhD chats on Twitter  for being pretty great at this!)

I hope that new PhD students might do this from the beginning. Those of you just starting out have the opportunity to help shape the culture of your graduate cohort. I hope you’ll choose to be kind to yourselves and one another–to help make that normal. It’s not just the decent thing to do; it might help you avoid the mental health issues that plague so many academics.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer incoming PhDs some advice (yes, we’re finally at the advice part!) that offers no “shoulds” or “musts”:

  1. Doing a PhD is hard.
    This should be obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re struggling to write a paper that your professor won’t drown in red ink. It’s not hard because you’re just not cut out for this; it’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard. Isn’t that why you’re in grad school to begin with?
  2. It’s hard for everyone.
    Yes, everyone. Even your annoying classmate who claims he’s never had trouble finishing a book in one day and already seems to have a solid grasp of the historiography. He might not admit it, but he’s struggling too. The others might just need a bit of coaxing: if you tell your fellow students that you’re having a tough time with something, they’ll probably reveal they’ve had similar experiences. And, yes, even the scholars you admire have trouble sometimes. That’s probably how they got where they are.
  3. It will be hard for you too, and that’s ok.
    You will likely struggle to produce that first chapter draft, or to write a decent book review, or to figure out how grant proposals work. Possibly all of the above. Sucking at these things won’t be fun, especially since there’s a reasonably good chance that you’ve never struggled with anything academic in your life. But you’ll learn more from sucking at something than you’ll ever learn from being perfect. Deal with the challenge in whatever way is best for you, but know that it’s entirely normal to find grad school really, really, spectacularly difficult. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it means you’re a human being.