How to Keep On Keepin’ On

PhDs in the humanities take a long time.  Even optimistically we in English expect at least five years, and most statistics suggest our degrees take seven or eight–and that’s in addition to the time spent on an MA.  A lot of life happens in those years, both to us and to the people we care about and care for: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, accidents, health complications, financial troubles, moving across the country…the list goes on. Every single graduate student I know has dealt with one or more of these major life changes in the course of our PhD years, and I can tell you (and you can probably concur) that sometimes it’s really hard to keep on keepin’ on.  I’m sure we have all asked ourselves at least once whether it would be easier just to quit school and pursue a different career, especially when other folks in our lives might be asking us the same thing.

I have been extremely lucky so far in that all my life changes have been happy ones: I got married (not much disruption there), and after the approval of my prospectus I got pregnant, moved with my husband to a new state so he could start his PhD program, and had a baby.  Even though these were all good, even wonderful things for my family, they brought about a sort of academic breakdown: for about year I (or at least my dissertation schedule) fell apart.  I know for a fact that I’m not alone in experiencing this; indeed, I’m convinced that for many folks, falling off the wagon for a semester or two is a reality of pursuing the PhD.  In this post, therefore, I’d like to start a conversation about getting back on the wagon. Three practical things have made a huge difference for me, and if you have similar experiences to share or any valuable advice to add, I hope you will post it in the comments.

1)      Find your support group, and stay in contact. This support group includes non-academics too, but school friends and advisers have been especially important to my academic motivation. These are the people I can bounce ideas off of, ask for feedback on my work, and even go to for hugs or laughs or tears.  They are the ones who remind me that my work is smart and interesting (rather than looking at me with slightly glazed-over eyes while I describe it), who provide useful leads and suggestions, and who cheer me on.  Watching them progress in their work helps motivate me to progress in mine.

I’ve been fotunate to find a number of these folks in my own cohort at my own university, and mostly in my own program of study (one who I know as my “dissertation buddy,” though, studies something totally different from Romanticism).  This might not be how it works for you, but there are other ways of finding your peeps, as I’ve learned since moving to a new state.  The NGSC is one, obviously—it’s the whole reason why we exist!  Facebook has also been a useful way for me to feel connected to my PhD friends as well as to old friends I made in my MA program who are now doing their PhDs or MLSs or MFAs in other places.  I don’t often converse with these FB-friends, but it still energizes me to see them post things like “I wrote three pages today!” Another idea is to join or form a reading/writing group: I meet every few months with a group of 18th-century scholars in central Ohio; they provide an important link to the academic world around me, especially since I’m not regularly wandering a college campus.   Online writing groups work too; for awhile my friends and I circulated short pieces of our writing to each other every other month or so…and though we trailed off, it was important to me while it lasted. Some universities offer dissertation support groups, where people in all disciplines can come together for discussion and motivation.  In short, there are a ton of potential ways to stay connected to motivating people…I hope you’ll share some ideas of your own.  The most important thing (at least in my opinion) is to fight isolation.  We are part of a group, a conversation.  We are in this together.

2)      Apply for things.  (Conferences, fellowships, articles, whatever).  Applications can feel like time-suckers, especially when you get those rejection letters weeks later.  And it’s true, you have to be careful not to let applications become excuses not to write your actual dissertation, but you also have to be careful not to let your dissertation be the reason you don’t apply for things!  Applications are useful for lots of reasons:  first, they have firm deadlines, meaning they will motivate you to actually produce something for others to read. That something often turns out to be really useful in terms of moving your thinking forward and clarifying your articulation of it. Plus, people DO read it–and even if you don’t “win,” your application has put your work on the radar screen of important folks you will most likely continue to interact with (say, librarians at key archives who have a remarkable memory for such things).  There is almost nothing I’ve regretted applying for, even the things I’ve not been granted.  Plus, it’s so thrilling and validating when you ARE awarded those things, and usually they open doors to more opportunities that moves your work along even further.  So just do it.  Apply.

3)      Attend (and present at) conferences.  This relates to #2 since you have to apply and then you have a deadline and a public audience (all huge motivators to producing actual sentences). But it’s also immensely important to #1, the fight against isolation.  If you are working in absentia as I am, or if you just don’t have a lot of friends in your program or in your specific area of study, conferences remind you that you are not alone.  You come together to geek out with similar-minded people, and it can totally refresh your interests—even your interest in your own project!  Conferences get even better as you make friends with people you don’t get to see in person anywhere else.  I cannot adequately express how much I loved NASSR 2013, for all of the reasons above.  It really helped pull me out of the academic funk I’d been in for months, and I fed on the energy it gave me for months afterward.

Conferences are expensive, so it makes sense to choose carefully.  If you can only attend one a year, make sure it’s one that will maximize the benefits. Usually, ones that are discipline-specific, well-established, and that you know some of your idols/mentors/friends will be attending are good choices.  For Romanticism NASSR is great, but ICR is awesome too…and a host of other conferences can be really useful for your more specific or wider-ranging work.  If you’re unsure of a given conference’s “worth,” just ask around.

So there you have it: these are the processes that currently keep me keepin’ on.  They are useful even when life’s running smoothly, but if you’re out there struggling to keep a grip on your academic goals—perhaps even afraid you’re falling (or have fallen) to pieces—take heart.  Baby-steps are still steps, and as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll get through it.  Most of all, remember you are not alone!  Life is going to happen to all of us, and that’s normal.  You may even decide to take a different path altogether.  But if you do decide the PhD is for you, you can most definitely do it!! I’m out here, cheering you on.