Advice for Graduate Students II. When Researching and Writing Your Thesis

9. Professionalize, by which I mean invest time and money in tools and techniques that will boost your effectiveness, including not just a good computer and backup system (Chapter 3.6). Make abundant use of your university’s writing center; and if you need counseling or coaching, go right out and get it. Your institution probably offers it for free, but if it doesn’t or if it’s not working for you, do your best to pay for it. Group sessions are cheaper1, or you might be able to find a therapist who offers a sliding scale. Your school probably also has some graduate student support groups, or you could organize one using meetup.com – an empowering act that doesn’t have to take up too much time.

10. Jettison as many other responsibilities as possible. Reducing commitments not only frees up time, but reduces stress, so get your family to take on as many of your responsibilities and chores as possible, or hire someone. Also, take a leave from extraneous projects, committees and campaigns. Be ruthless and “overdo it”: even if you think you’ll be able to handle a certain commitment while writing, you’ll almost certainly be glad later if you give it up now.

If you have a spouse who can support the family while you write, give up the teaching gig. If a family member or someone else offers a gift of money or an easy-term loan, take it if you don’t think doing so will lead to uncomfortable family dynamics.

If there are responsibilities you can’t delegate, understand that it will take you longer to finish your thesis than someone without those responsibilities. This point would seem obvious, but I talk to grad students all the time who are kicking themselves for not working at the same pace as less-encumbered colleagues.

11. Be cognizant of your work’s activist aspects. Many research projects either intentionally or unintentionally challenge the status quo, and therefore can be considered activist as well as academic projects – and, often, graduate students get hung up because they don’t realize what that implies.

When you add activism to scholarship, you add layers of intellectual, emotional, and strategic complexity. Intellectually and emotionally, your work could challenge not just you, but your committee members or others. Strategically, it could limit your career options.

It’s wonderful if you want to combine academics and activism, but do so knowingly, and with abundant support from other scholar/activists. In particular, you will have to figure out how to balance your activism with your career goals, especially if you’re hoping for a job at a leading institution – which is not necessarily a sell-out, by the way, since we need radical viewpoints inside the system as well as outside it. It’s also not a sell-out to, (a) incorporate your radical views gradually into your works, so that your thesis might not actually be that radical; (b) collaborate with nonradicals; or (c) present a conventional / nonthreatening appearance that makes its easier for others to accept your message. In fact, those moves are often brilliantly strategic.

For more on what an activist mission entails, see my book, The Lifelong Activist; How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006; entire text available for free at www.lifelongactivist.com ). And, finally,

12. If you think academic writing is somehow special, and so the advice in the rest of this book doesn’t apply to you, get over it. Academics commingle with other writers in my classes, and the advice helps them as much or even more than the others. (More, because of the huge amount of perfectionism in academia.) Thinking your work is too complex, intellectual, esoteric or otherwise special to follow the basic rules of writing productivity is nothing but perfectionist grandiosity.

13. I offer online classes that are also pretty cheap. See http://www.hillaryrettig.com/workshops/calendar/