Our discussion panel, Researching Identity, will resume next fall. For now, read advice from two of our panelists while you do your research remotely.
Dealing with the Unexpected
Describe a time when your research did not go as planned. What went wrong and what did you do? How did you make the best out of unfortunate circumstances and what would you do differently?
Rosanne Liebermann: Towards the end of the fifth and penultimate year of my PhD program, I found out that my US visa was no longer valid and I had to rapidly apply for permanent residence (a very time-consuming process). This meant I couldn’t work or leave the country for some time. I was supposed to be on a fellowship in Israel that fall before completing my dissertation. Fortunately, I had enough savings and family support to last about six months without an income if I made some big changes. So, I filed the residency application, moved states, changed
my fellowship dates, and wrote my dissertation as fast as I could so I didn’t have to spend additional time in my program.
It was discouraging to cancel the plans I’d made and spend time I had planned to work on my dissertation filing for permanent residency and moving. It was a stressful time and I wish I’d been kinder to myself by allowing space to decompress and say goodbye to friends properly instead of beating myself up for not getting work done.
But once all the practical aspects of my life were in order again, I had a stretch of several months to just write my dissertation. The unexpected change in my circumstances highlighted to me the need to do my research as efficiently as possible whenever I have that opportunity. By being very strict with my schedule, I was able to finish my dissertation (including going to Israel a few months later than planned) within my original timeframe. It was also important for me to realize that even without the unexpected changes, I was never going to have been able to do all the things I originally set out to do or complete a perfect project. To have any hope of getting it done in a reasonable amount of time, I had to learn to focus on what was most important and leave the rest for a future project.
Trevor Sangrey: When I was working on my dissertation—think biggest research project ever—I had a really hard time narrowing down to a good topic. I was all over the place and while I knew that my ideas were related, for the life of me I couldn’t explain how or why to anyone else. My advisor suggested I just get started and start small. So I poked around the library catalogue and found something I hadn’t seen before. I could get it sent to me through Inter-Library-Loan, so I asked for it. A small pamphlet showed up in my campus mailbox about a week later and everything changed. I ended up writing my dissertation about these pamphlets and I never would have even known to look for them had I not been sent to start on something small.
Managing Your Time
When you have a research deadline but no set structure to follow, what methods have helped you stay organized and self-reliant? How do you follow your passion & curiosity while staying efficient and ensuring progress?
TS: I am a big proponent of setting small amounts of time for work and then taking a break. I call these my “units” and I usually do about 45-min units. I find it hard to start a big project or start from a blank page. But I can almost always convince myself to sit down and do a quick 45 min (especially if I give myself a reward afterwards!) Almost always after I have finished one unit I know exactly what I want/need to do next, so the next 45 min (after my little break) is much easier to start! I try to get a few units in and then a bigger break for food or a good walk. Units are something I still use when I have trouble motivating. I think to myself that I’ll just do a little bit and then do whatever I would rather be doing, but once I start I find I have a much easier time continuing. My other tool is writing really ugly drafts of things. I love ugly drafts because they let me get out all the parts of thoughts that I have stuck in my head. Big secret: I don’t actually like writing and I am not sure that I am any good at it. I am, however, a decent editor and I like editing much better than writing. So if I can get something on paper, then I get to do the part that I like better—moving things around and trying to make sure that what I am writing actually communicates my ideas to other people!
RL: I have to-do lists for the year, month, week, and day. I organize all my work days according to a similar schedule and decide what work I will do at each time. For example, I try to always start work at 9 am and begin with my current research project, because mornings are my most focused time. I try (emphasis on try!) not to look at emails or social media until I’ve completed at least a few hours of good research. If I don’t prioritize my most difficult, long-term work, it will always get pushed aside. That also means not allowing other appointments to creep into that time if I can possibly help it. In the afternoon, when I find it more difficult to focus, I do administrative or other tasks that require slightly less concentration.
In terms of getting my projects completed to schedule, I set ambitious goals for myself. For example, this year I aim to complete one project per month. For January through May at least, I made a commitment to someone else that it would be done. I could easily have spent more than a month on the projects I’ve completed so far, but I didn’t have that option. Just like with my dissertation, I had to make myself focus on the most important part and do it well in the time I had.
It’s tempting to try to read everything, especially if you love a topic, but then the writing will never happen. I’m constantly revising my to-do lists to account for real life. If I don’t get enough done in a week, I have to find time in the following week to schedule what’s left over (and most likely pare down my original expectations). My year-long to-do list is obviously the most changeable, but it’s invaluable. If someone asks me to complete a journal article by the end of August, for example, I can immediately see how many projects I’ve committed to before then and whether it’s possible to add another one.
Making Sources Work for You
How do you know which secondary sources to rely on when you don’t have time to include them all, and how do you incorporate that material into your own argument while staying true to its original context?
RL: Anything that’s been peer-reviewed is most likely to be a reliable source. That means articles in academic journals and most books from academic presses. But if you’re reading materials like this and they’re not convincing or relevant to your topic, just skim through the rest to see if you can salvage anything useful, such as another, more relevant source.
It’s difficult to know which sources to focus on when you’re first starting a project. Sometimes you have to begin by reading around a topic until you see a gap which your research can fill. Once you have enough background information to know where your research fits in to what’s already been done, you can focus your reading on what you need to support your argument.
I find the best way to incorporate material from secondary sources into my work is to make notes from useful books and articles in my own words. That forces me to make sure I understand those sources properly before I think about using them. Then, when I come to planning out my argument, I copy and paste selections from these notes into a long, organized outline. When I write my paper, I select the notes from my long outline that best support my argument and acknowledge the original sources where I found them. It’s rarely necessary to use direct quotations from secondary sources but it’s always necessary to show where you encountered an idea. Once my paper is written, I go back and check all the secondary sources I did cite to make sure I represented their argument fairly and used the correct citation (including page number).
TS: I often find that I can get lost in a source when I am trying to use it in my own work—I find that I am just repeating what the source says and not able to clearly articulate my ideas. One thing I do to avoid this is to put space between my work with sources and my own writing and then bring them together when I am editing. For example, I will spend a unit (see above) looking over a text and taking some notes. These notes might include what the author’s main argument is (a summary in my own words) and then pulling out some quotes and freewriting/brainstorming on how and why I think these quotes are particularly useful/insightful/interesting. Then, in another unit at a later time, I will write out (in an ugly draft) my ideas/my argument/my evidence. In this draft I might point to where I would incorporate a text or I might write “add supporting evidence from xyz,” but I would do so without having that other text in front of me so that I am sure that this is my own voice and ideas. Then, when editing, I would pull the two pieces together and make sure that I am accurately representing my source material, but also making my own, original argument.