PhD Reflections/Tips After Year 1

Row of Books in Shelf

I recently completed my first year of a PhD in French. There are two major reasons why I have decided to post the following reflections/tips.

First, I believe that it is healthy to reflect periodically on one’s progress when undergoing a long-term project.

Second, my reflections may help current and prospective graduate students who come across my blog.


Now on to the reflections. I have made a list of 10 PhD-related things that I have discovered about myself and about graduate school in the past year. All tips are inspired by personal experience:

1) Being a PhD student is very much like being a wannabe actor who has recently moved to Los Angeles, California. The odds of “making it” are slim but thousands of us try every year. PhD students and newbie actors are in their industries for one single reason: they love what they do.

2) Constructive criticism is so valuable. Most professors (across institutions) do not grade term papers, so take seriously any constructive feedback you receive. Constructive criticism from a professor who has taken the time to read and mark up a paper should be received with gratitude.

3) On the flip-side, nonconstructive criticism is not only demotivating but also utterly useless. Try to ignore anyone who criticizes you or your work without telling you how you can improve. They are not worth your time or mental energy. They don’t care about your success.

4) Make friends with the other PhD students in your program. Support each other. You are all in this together.

5) If you have been following my blog in the past year, you will be familiar with the following advice: Academic writing IS your job. This is especially true if you are in the humanities or the social sciences. Start thinking of yourself as a writer because you are one.

6) You are an apprentice learning a craft, not an artist trying to harness a Muse. In popular imagination, the image of an apprentice evokes practice and determination. The image of an artist, on the other hand, evokes a born genius who effortlessly produces one masterpiece after another while sipping a latte at Starbucks. The apprentice takes concrete steps to improve her craft. She knows that a poorly-constructed table is not a reflection on her character, and that practice means progress. For more on this, check out Joli Jensen’s excellent book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (I also made a video about it here).

7) Participate regularly in activities that take you outside of the academic bubble. You need frequent reminder that there is a world outside of academia and that this world can be just as fulfilling as the one in academia.

8) Mental health matters.

9) Attend local conferences in your field even if you are not presenting. You will learn a lot and meet other academics.

10) When a family member asks you what you study, try to explain. The act of trying to explain what you do to someone outside of academia will teach you a lot about yourself and the importance of your work for wider society. What you study matters, so share it.


Writing Introductions

I probably spent about three hours today writing a 450-word introduction for a 15-page paper due next Thursday. This isn’t the first time that it has taken me so long to write an introduction. For longer papers, I usually start with a key scene in the text that demonstrates my argument. French literature tends to love the mise-en-abyme narrative technique, so I often know what passage to start with. Still, it takes me forever to determine the structure for my introductions. How should I transition between the scene and the thesis statement? What exactly does the scene show? In the paper I’m currently writing, I will be referencing the face-to-face philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In the novel, the face is the locus of orientalist discourse. French and Algerian companies exploit images of Idriss’ face to sell products. La goutte d’or by Michel Tournier hits you over the head with its anti-orientalist message. I’ve been told that Tournier wanted to be a philosopher.

Introductions are hard because they are so important. The first few paragraphs of a paper are the most important because they set the tone. They help prepare the reader for what’s to come. The introduction is also important because it must grab the reader’s attention. In graduate school, the reader is the professor. She may or may not read the entire paper before giving it a grade, so the introduction matters a lot.

Finally, introductions are hard to write because arguments are hard to formulate. What am I trying to show in this paper? Why should the reader care? Questions such as these are hard to answer in a few sentences.

I was reminded today that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about even though I had marked many important passages and had identified key themes. I knew the basics of Levinas’ philosophy and could apply it to certain scenes in Tournier’s novel, but I couldn’t explain why it mattered in the context of the book’s overarching message. I wrote and deleted sentences for hours before settling for an argument that I think is acceptable. I will probably revise it again after writing the body of the paper.

Good introductions signal good papers. They also remind the writer to stay on point. A professor once told me that it often takes him weeks to write a strong introduction. Well, I certainly don’t have weeks to write this paper, but I don’t regret spending three hours to write a decent introduction. I’m sure the rest of the paper will be easier to write, now that I know my argument.


I Blogged Every Day in November!

computer, hand, laptop

So today is the last day of my “Write 500 Words a Day” blogging challenge. I made it 🙂

I would like to reflect a bit on my experience. The hardest part of daily blogging is coming up with new ideas every single day. I wrote on a diverse range of book-related topics. Perhaps, that’s why readers haven’t been bored by my content (from what I gather, anyway). But I don’t always have interesting ideas. Even though I came across a lot of thought-provoking content in my school books, I often chose to write about “easier” things. I enjoy reflecting on themes in the books I read, but such reflections are definitely the most time-consuming posts to write. I’d rather vent about my day.

My readers probably learned more about me in the past month than ever before. I certainly don’t regret anything I’ve posted, but I am aware of this shift, and so should you if you are an aspiring daily blogger. Because I want to keep my blog book-related, I will not be continuing daily blogging in December. I will certainly blog regularly. But I am not interested in making public every last detail of my life.

Above all, this challenge taught me discipline. I had to write every day, even when I didn’t feel like it. Some of my posts were written at 1:30 am. Not ideal, since I’m a morning person. But I did it anyway. No one who is successful works only when he/she feels like it. Success requires discipline. Writers have to develop a writing habit.

I consider myself a writer because I am a graduate student in the humanities. I am not simply a professional reader. I encourage all graduate students to start a daily writing discipline and to consider themselves writers. Not all writers are novelists. If you want to know why I call myself a writer, read my recent post on writing in graduate school.

Although I will not be daily blogging in December, I will continue to write 500 words a day. Most of my writing will admittedly be school-related. I have a number of term papers due at the end of the semester. Writing 500 words a day is probably not enough to reach my word counts, but it’s the writing habit that matters. How many students binge-write their papers a few days before they’re due? I am not accustomed to writing drafts, but no one writes a good paper on their first try. I would like to have the time to rewrite my papers if need be, but that’s definitely a long-term goal that I may not meet in December.

Finally, I will try to schedule in my daily writing in the late morning when I’m the most awake and have the most free-time. We often tell ourselves that we will get to an activity when we have the time, but we never have the time. We have to purposefully make the time. I am not a great writer, but I now feel a need to write every day. I accomplished a self-directed and self-imposed project. I feel motivated to try new things.


Combating Elitism Through Education

It’s midnight. I realize that I have no blog post ideas. I could analyze something, but that would take too much brain power. This is the time of the semester when every graduate student finds him/herself in an existential crisis. Thank God for the medieval section of the research library. When I am down, I browse the third and fifth floors of the library for medieval books. I found a secondary source on medieval interpretation for my medieval course. Medieval rhetoric is fascinating. I hope to make more posts about it in the future – when I’m more awake.

It doesn’t help that my 20th century course is all about existential novels. The French sure love their absurdist fiction. While browsing the shelves for a good monograph, I was reminded of why I decided to do this program. A couple of students recently defended their dissertations, which has also given me encouragement. I love attending Works in Progress sessions because I learn indirectly about the dissertation writing process. I am also consulting self-help books and articles more than ever before. I need reminding that it’s possible to climb the mountain of academia.

I’m glad that the month is almost over. I’m sure many of you are tired of reading me complain about various aspects of graduate school. But some days, I can only think about the most obscure topics. My mom asked me last weekend what I study. She has asked me before, but I usually change the subject. How can I explain what I do? I only realize that I have obscure, highly-abstract interests when I try to explain my studies to non-specialists. This time, I taught my mom about the Algerian War and the resulting Algerian independence from France.

I am reminded that most people don’t share my interests. It’s not their fault. I know and don’t know why I am interested in late medieval rhetoric. It clearly excites and motivates me. But if I can’t explain to others why it matters, then I have failed as an educator. Professors can be excellent scholars and poor educators. I have, unfortunately, had my share of bad professors.

Academia tends to be elitist. I don’t like admitting that because legislators often cite academic elitism as a reason to stop funding the Humanities. Scholarship isn’t the problem, though. Scholars do some interesting work, but they only publish for a very small group of people. They have to publish for a small group of people, otherwise they can’t get tenure. The elitist culture of Academia looks down on popular nonfiction and humanistic outreach. It’s better to write about obscure things in obscure journals.

I don’t think the Humanities are dying. The old model might be dying, but hopefully a more public model will replace it. In the future, when my mom asks what I’m learning, I will tell her. I may not be able to tell her everything. I may even make some generalizations. But through teaching, I will remind myself that what I am studying matters.


On Graduate School (again!)

Every Thanksgiving, I intend to catch up with my work but I never do. I read a few things, but only one book was course-related. Tomorrow, my colleagues will also complain that they didn’t get anything done during the break. But it was an American holiday. I got to spend some much-needed time with my family.

I returned an hour ago from the Philadelphia airport. Thankfully, I caught the last trolley for the night. I forgot that public transportation is limited on Sunday nights. Although I can’t say that I have jet lag, flying always makes me tired, no matter how short the flight. I am also extra-alert during security and on public transportation. You never know who you’ll encounter.

But I’m back.

And now, I have a million and one pages to write by the end of the December. I’m glad that I have been writing daily for the past few weeks because I need the self-motivation to write every day in December. Of course, I am still in the planning phase. I barely know what topic I will be writing about, let alone what sources to cite. The writing marathon occurs during the last few weeks of each semester. I’ve been doing one for years, but this year’s will be the hardest one yet. NaNoWriMo participants don’t have to edit their writing, but graduate students have to write 15-25 pages for multiple classes AND write them well.

Marathon writing just doesn’t seem very efficient or practical. Why are we assigned so many books?

The truth is that I’m kind of tired of taking courses. I just want to start my dissertation research already. Most of us can learn from reading lists. It’s impossible to balance the writing marathon with regular coursework. Texts are still assigned during the last few weeks of classes. Of course, no one can balance everything. Something has to give. What matters more? Writing final papers or reading an assigned book that will never appear on an MA or a PhD exam list?

I know. I know. I’m complaining. Courses aren’t completely useless. I’m just frustrated by the inefficiency of the American graduate system.

Undergrads need to pass courses so that they can obtain a degree. Their professional development mostly occurs in the workforce. They are thrown into the “real” world with some skills and basic knowledge of their field. Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are supposed to receive their professional development in graduate school. Isn’t that why we get a master’s or a doctorate?

Programs should emphasize writing throughout the semester. Writers improve through practice. Humanities students are supposed to be writers. Maybe English students have more training in that area than foreign language students, but I am increasingly alarmed by the number of fifth and sixth year students who have never published a paper. I worry that graduate programs are so course-centered that they are blind to the academic market. In a publish-or-die industry, graduate programs should train their students to publish their work. Students should also be encouraged to write for non-university publications.

True, graduate students are adults. They need to be self-driven. But graduate schools should also care about the professional development of their students. We are more than cheap labor.


Reviewing Books by Fellow Bloggers

I am currently reading a book authored by a fellow book blogger. I am not going to disclose its title here out of respect for the author, but I am not enjoying the book. The prose is uninspiring and the dialogue flat. As a book reviewer, I feel a responsibility to review the books that I read. In the past couple of years, however, I have stopped trying to review every book I read. Not only do I not have the time to review everything, some books are so mediocre that I simply don’t see the point in reviewing them. Negative reviews can be very valuable, however. I have often been inspired to try a book because of a negative review. And of course there are only so many hours in a day. I don’t want to waste my time slogging through a terrible book. Debut authors need book reviews the most. An established author will be read by her fans, but a debut author doesn’t have any loyal fans.

I purchased the book blogger’s work a few weeks ago because I was intrigued by the premise. In fact, I had pretty high expectations going into the book because I had read some of this author’s writing elsewhere. Unfortunately, the book has been disappointing. I don’t want to recommend it to anyone, although the Goodreads reviews are generally quite positive (4 and 5 star ratings), so there’s clearly an audience for this kind of fiction.

I am very conflicted over how I should review books by authors I know. This blogger is not exactly a debut author, but this book is the author’s first major work of prose fiction. I feel a responsibility to review the book since I will be one of the few people who will have read it. I am also quite suspicious of books that only receive positive reviews on Goodreads. While I don’t know this author intimately, I feel uncomfortable reviewing negatively a book someone has written in the book blogging community. Shouldn’t we be in solidarity with each other?

This blogger is traditionally published and award-winning, which is why I had pretty high expectations. It is quite common for bloggers to self-publish, but self-published books tend to be poorly edited. I own a handful of self-published books, but I don’t expect them to be any good. I bought the books to support the author financially. I am honestly in no rush to read them. But regardless of how a book is published, it’s hard to be a reviewer when you know the author. I suspect that the reason why so many indie and self-published authors get so many positive reviews for their books is because readers don’t want to post negative reviews. Or maybe those readers feel compelled to give positive reviews to otherwise mediocre books. I don’t know.

I don’t think I will be reviewing the book I’m currently reading on this blog, but I will give it a star rating on Goodreads. It’s so much easier to give a negative review to a popular book. Won’t my silence on this blog and on YouTube be just as effective as a negative review, but less painful for the author?

Let me know how you approach books by authors you know. Do you review them? Are you more positive than you would be otherwise?


A Best of All Possible Worlds

First, a Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating!

Since finishing Ken Miller’s upcoming book The Human InstinctI’ve thought a lot about humanity. The history of the Earth is unique. If we could rewind time, the history of life would not repeat itself. Even with the same early conditions, evolutionary history would be very different. We probably wouldn’t exist. There is a lot of uncertainty inherent in evolution.

Humanity is far from perfect. People suffer from incurable diseases and every kind of poverty. Nations war with other nations without any peace in sight. Still, it’s a biological miracle that we even exist. We are a young species, and possibly the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And have you seen the size of the universe?

In the 18th century, Voltaire ridiculed Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism in a satire titled Candide. Pangloss, the quack doctor and pseudo-Leibnizian in the novel, suffers every kind of atrocity imaginable, but he somehow survives them all because this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire employed vivid descriptions of rape, murder, and natural disasters to ridicule Leibniz’s optimistic view of humanity.

But in a way, isn’t this the best of all possible worlds for humans?

My understanding is that Leibniz’s theory developed in an attempt to reconcile divine freedom and divine goodness. In his model, God created this particular universe out of an infinite number of possible universes (God was free to choose a different universe), and it was the best universe because God can’t create anything less than perfect. All sin is a product of human free will, a faculty God gave to his intelligent creatures. It’s complicated.

But possibility could also refer to the many Earths evolution could have but did not create. We don’t know what could have happened, but if conditions had been even slightly different at any point in evolutionary history, we would not be here. There is a lot of suffering in this world, but this is the only possible world in which we could exist. On a biological (not ethical) level, this is the best of all possible worlds for humans.

I believe that societies can improve. This is not a call for inaction or indifference. But I am thankful that I exist. I am concerned about the future of the planet because I know how miraculous our existence is. We are dust – like bacteria, ants, and giraffes. But we are self-aware dust.

Today, I am thankful for my existence as an individual and our existence as a species.