2010 leaving, 2011 rushing forward

2011 begins much better, in many ways, than did 2010. At this time last year, I was involved in helping to put on some events that scared me and my companions witless. My vacation time had been spent working on a paper so I could finish an incomplete. I had a full load of classes ahead of me and still no clear idea of what I was doing. January 2010 would finish with me at probably my lowest point of the entire year, wondering what had gone wrong.

The year evened out. I had the support and help of good friends and advisors and decided to leave the PhD program and finish my masters. I ticked off that earlier incomplete, staggered through the rest of the semester (which included a statistics class -- blearrrgghh) with only one incomplete, and helped execute a weeklong conference that, by all accounts, went very well.

I spent the summer finishing an incomplete from the spring (I wish I could have written that paper faster, but...). I spent the fall executing a hard-copy, hand-delivered questionnaire to my neighborhood and taking a Chekhov course that was a long, cool drink of water, and for which I wrote one of my best-ever papers.

I read, in the book Dirty Words of Wisdom, a good quote from Alanis Morrisette, that everyone has times when they go through s--- and that you always get through them. So don't worry about them. Nice thought, though it's hard to keep that perspective when reality bombards you with reasons not to get up in the morning. One of the things I learned this year were various tools to help me get through those times so that I can make it to the other side.

Other learnings:

  • Accountability gets me up in the morning. Knowing people are depending on me, or that I've committed to a deadline, spurs me to get stuff done. Filthy dirty deadlines -- hate 'em, but they work.
  • My mentor, The Unclassifiable Cassidy, advised to commit to the deadline before you're ready -- it's the only way to make sure you get the work done. If you wait till you have the data analyzed, the conference will have already taken place. In other words: you'll never be ready, so just get on with it.
  • This means, setting personal or arbitrary deadlines for yourself can work too, if I make them personal enough. For my questionnaire, I knew they needed it to be delivered at least 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, because once the holidays started people would be too busy to respond. For my Chekhov paper, I aimed to have it done the weekend before it was due and so worked on it bit by bit over several weeks (one of the few times I've done such a thing). This turned out to be a good thing, as I had two great insights occur to me in the shower the day before the paper was due; I spent that evening bolstering the paper with those insights and it really strengthened the whole thing.
  • This means, relatedly, disassociating the deadline from the project's completion, as explained by Cal at Study Hacks. He recommends starting on a project within 24 hours of receiving the assignment. I must admit, I like the idea.
  • My advisor last year had a few core principles that stick in my ind, even if I've not fully adopted them. Among them: it takes as much time to do a big project as it does a small project, so go for the bigger win - make the effort mean something. She also emphasized that no one ever told her what to do; she had to decide what were her priorities and what she wanted to accomplish with her energy, time, and career. It's about being independent rather than being a student -- or an employee.
  • I need structure. When I don't have structure (as expressed by deadlines, accountability) then I flounder and flop and end the day feeling worse rather than better. This, although there's often a voice within that screams not to be chained by these dreary and boring rules. I have not worked out trade negotiations between these voices yet, but it's coming.
  • It has to be the journey and the destination. I heard several times during my year in the academic vineyard, that if some part of you isn't perversely enjoying at least some of what you're going through, then that isn't the job for you. I'm all for delayed gratification, but it needs to come sooner rather than later in some form.

I ended 2010 way more upbeat then when I started. I spent my Christmas break reading a wonderful book and not even checking my email. There is still, at the back of my head, that niggling puritanical whisper "but you aren't accomplishing anything." I begin 2011 less sure of my path -- say what you will about the academic experience, it's run by the calendar and the pace ensure you're productive. I certainly never wrote or created as much in a short period of time as I did while working full-time and going to school. (In fact, I see now that the academic expectations of research, teaching, publications, and service formally externalizes what employees are always told to do -- but rarely do -- in their careers: work hard, network, be active in your professional association, keep your resume updated.)

I am joining with a few other people in creating a mastermind group, admitting which in public makes me feel like I'm coming out of the closet as a Kenny G fan or Republican or something equally shunned by society as simple-brained and noxious. Still, 2010 taught me that my old ways of believing and living were not enough to cope with the stress of what I went through. I want to experiment with and play with new methods to express (and maybe form) new beliefs.

I've set myself a deadline of January 31 to have my masters paper drafted, with the data entered and crunched, and the literature updated. It's an aggressive schedule and it's the kind of spur I need to get things done. Even if I'm not finished, I'll have accomplished more than if I'd waited for the mood to strike me.

Other goals for the year include finding work, making some money, networking, raking the leaves, cleaning my office closets from 4 years of neglect, etc. As I look at my calendar book for January, and think about what I need/want to do, I want to see how much benevolent pressure I can put on myself such that I get done what I want without stressing out too much. Journey and destination.

Another tool I plan to use is Christine Kane's Word of the Year. I've not gone through her worksheet, but I want this year's word to be ACTION. As I look back over 2010, much of my distress was caused by my worrying over a problem, journaling about it, brooding, sitting and looking out the bus window while morosely spinning dark futures about it, when only a few minutes of action was enough to dispel about 90 percent of the gloom. Taking action -- even and especially -- when I don't feel like it, is what I want 2011 to be about. I want to look back on 2011 and marvel at all that I did, all the people I met, all the things I wrote, and wonder at how I did it all while feeling on top of things the whole time.

Of course, there may be a problem with FOCUS or CLARITY. If I take action on all things, large and small, won't that dissipate my effectiveness? Maybe, but that's a problem to deal with when I'm actioning all over the place (and it's something I hope the mastermind group would help me to rein in).

Today, for example, I have 5 things written down that I'd like to accomplish by the end of the day (writing a blog post is one of them), yet I see that the dishes need to be washed and the clothes need to be put away. Do I put them on my list? Do the other more important things first? Whoa, Sparky, slow down. Those are my thought processes running amuck again, and not serving me. The thing to do is simply to take action -- wash the dishes, put away the clothes, clean my desk, take a nap, even. Don't let my thinking get in the way of taking action.

Here's to 2011.


The day I got no research done

  1. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry [1] and start researching.
  2. The Maternalistical Cassidy wheels in with Anastasia and asks if I have lunch plans.
  3. I pack up my stuff and we go to lunch (very pleasant).
  4. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry and start researching.
  5. People people people walk by and want to chat. Very pleasant but no work is done. [2]
  6. I get an email from Dr. T saying I've been accepted into SILS' doctoral program (!) and I was granted a DigCCurr II Fellowship (!!).
  7. I sit there stunned and forward her mail to various folks, like Liz and Cassidy. I also send her a thank-you mail.
  8. Not really knowing what else to do, and wanting to settle myself down, I go back to my research. About a minute later, Cassidy comes down and hugs my neck and is giddier and more excited about the news than I am. We chat a bit and process the news.
  9. She leaves to go back to her work and I return to my research. It's a little after 3pm.
  10. Dr. T finds me in the liberry and wants me to walk with her over to Daily Grind so she can get a coffee-booster before her 3:30pm talk.
  11. I pack up my stuff and we walk and talk about the offer.
  12. I finally give up and go home after getting about 20 minutes of research work done. This will be a hard semester.

[1] Many and many a year ago I worked in one of the tech-writing gulags of Northern Telecom. A young Southern lady who managed the Interleaf publishing resources often told us about the templates and files stored in the "liberry." Sorry, but that pronunciation just stuck in my head and I don't want it to leave.

[2] Lori says I should get used to this.

Is grad school a good idea?

Penelope Trunk trots out one of her regularly visited themes: why grad school is a bad idea. It rankled me a bit but I do have to remember that she's talking to twenty-somethings and I'm a forty-odder. Her advice would be right-on to my 23-year-old self: I had very little direction, a graduate degree would have been wasted on me, and my next 25 years or so would be spent working (or not), gathering experience. and developing as a person.

The comments to her post are as opinionated, so she succeeded in stirring up some thoughts and opinions (much of it taking her to task--rightly--for her crack about the military.) Though I kind of understand her point -- if you don't have a direction, then entering grad school or the military could lead down paths that may not be right for you -- it was a carelessly thought out remark.

As many of the commenters note, a graduate degree can bump up your pay grade (that's what my employer does) and, after years of job-hopping, it can be useful to get a degree that tells the world -- your bosses, your peers -- that you do in fact know what you're doing.

My manager is getting an MBA through NCSU and it's been a transformative experience for him: he's made great local contacts, he's extended his skillset, and he now has a degree that qualifies him for bigger and better-paying jobs. Had he simply read the books and gone to local networking meet-ups, he would never have received the validation that he gets when he meets with his managers and with local executives in meetings set up by his school.

For myself, I have enjoyed my master's experience tremendously. One of the most important things I learned was that I can apply my odd agglomeration of skills and abilities to more than the narrow band of activities I've grown accustomed to. The other important thing was that it awoke my intellectual side, which the last 25 years of work has rather successfully smothered (except when it was useful to the project, of course). And I've found my professors to be up to date on what's happening in the big ol' world outside of Manning and to be very generous with introductions to people they know in academe and industry, thus extending my personal network.

Still, her article is one of those goads that my reticular activating system has been sending my way as I contemplate the PhD. Does it make sense to leave a guaranteed paycheck to go to school full-time in this economy? Will I be able to find work as a 50-something PhD when I graduate? What, really, do I want to do with my life and will grad school help me get there?

That's the real question I think Penelope means for her readers to ask themselves.

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What's ahead for ol' Mikey?

Inspired by Rani’s post about her upcoming work (hope that’s going well for you, Rani), it’s probably a good idea for me to look at the months ahead.

  • The spring semester starts tomorrow. I’m spending today cleaning up my office, recycling pages and pages of article printouts, putting away the CDs we used for the road trip, filing away end of the year stuff, etc. I’m working this project a little at a time.
  • I noodled on the fellowship essay over the Christmas break, trying to find my way into the material.  I want to work on the essay this weekend, also. I was advised to emphasize that I want to teach and also talk about my research areas of interest. The former is easy, the latter is more difficult. Digital curation covers a lot of conceptual and technical ground, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s a conundrum that will never be solved, only chased. Still, I find actually having to write out and make a case for myself forces me to confront many of these still-nebulous issues. The thinking and writing also provide me with the words, phrases, and thoughts I need when talking to advisors about my plans.
  • I’m taking the Research Methods class; generally, you take this the semester before you work on your master’s paper (which is usually your graduation semester), but I wanted to take it early. I have an idea for a neighborhood survey and wanted to get it started.
  • I’m also taking an independent study to be supervised by my friend Carolyn. We opted to go for the 3-hour option, which means about 9 hrs/week of outside work. We decided to go for a research study; I did some reading, sent her some ideas, and we’ll discuss them next week. The goal is to create a paper, a poster, or a product of some kind that can be published. I’m hoping the Research Methods class and the independent study activities dovetail. I view the independent study as a road-test for my interest in research and in digital curation; if I really have to flog myself to get to the end of the track, then I should reconsider the PhD in this field.
  • UNC is hosting two conferences this spring I want to attend: the iConference and the DigCCurr 2009.  The former is interesting to me as a place to see academics in the wild, so to speak. and how I resonate to their discussions and concerns. Same for the DigCCurr, though I’m more interested there in talking to folks, introducing myself, and getting a general buzz from the attendees on the state of play in the field. Since I'm targeting that field for my doctoral studies, I need to get familiar with it. I registered for the iConf and volunteered for the DigCCurr, but am wondering whether registering for the latter would give me more free time to roam and mingle.
  • I opted not to sign up for the full-level of coaching this year, mainly because I didn't have the money. I will have enough, though, to sign up for a lower-level membership that still gives me all I need. Since starting my coaching in 2006, I’ve noticed big and small changes in myself that I can’t imagine having made on my own and so I want to continue my association with PJ Eby, especially with the book he’s writing that seems to be drawing together into a single narrative all of the myriad tools he’s refined over the last two years. PJ has the goods.
  • I’m beta-testing Mark Forster’s latest time/task management scheme, dubbed AutoFocus. You can sign up to be a beta-tester here. It’s not an application, more a set of instructions and simple rules to create a structure that balances the rational and intuitive parts of your mind to help you decide which tasks to do next. He recommends implementing it via pen and paper (which I prefer) but many users on the forum are describing electronic ways of implementing it. All that's needed is a lined notebook or journal. Radically simple and I’m finding it very effective for shaking loose a lot of tasks I’ve procrastinated on. The danger that some of the beta-testers are experiencing is in overthinking the system, adding more rules, creating exceptions, etc. Will be interested to see how it copes when school starts!
  • And I suppose I need to think about the PhD, too, don’t I? Yes, well. I’m hoping the independent study and my general immersion in study and research this semester will illuminate things for me. I’m going to have to make some decisions very soon, perhaps by February, that will affect what happens to me in the fall.  My manager and I expect that by June the wheels will either be in motion for me to leave my job and start my doctoral studies, or I’ll have decided that a PhD (or this PhD) is not for me at this time. After spending the last 2 years getting to this point, I am still unsure of what I really want out of this experience and where I will be when it’s over. I do still struggle between the academic and the practitioner roles; they seem to be at loggerheads, though they shouldn’t be. But there seem to be more days when I want to be the latter than the former.
  • I'm noticing that lately I say "no" to myself a little more easily when it comes to spending discretionary time to read another news feed or do a web walkabout. I'm foreseeing the next 5 months being as intense as I want to make them. So if I can't wholeheartedly say "yes" to something, I'm inclined to turn it down.
  • Assuming I do leave my job, then our household income takes a mighty hit. So we're starting to hunker down and get frugal, in preparation for the lean times.
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Status of the Ph.D.

  • I interviewed with two prospective references at SILS, who agreed to write letters of reference (still waiting on the third to write hers and the application is done). They were good, tough interviews that asked the simple questions--Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it here? What do you want to do with a Ph.D.?--that are always hard to answer. Fortunately, my work on the entrance essay had primed my head with some thoughts to trot out and show off, so I didn't fum-fuh my way through the conversations.
  • As I settle into the idea, the big question of course is the economy and the prospect of leaving my job to focus on my studies. On the face of it, it seems pretty foolish to leave a guaranteed job to go to school for an outcome that is not at all certain. But my holistic spiritual side tells me that this fear is one of the guardians of the gates whose job is to scare me off the path. The only way through is to confront the guardian and continue walking.
  • As my friend, The Indecipherable Cassidy, reminds me, don’t say no before the school says no. I still have until late next summer to decide whether or not this is the path for me. In the meantime, keep taking my classes, keep thinking and writing, and let the wheels of the academic bureaucracy grind along.

Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.

Late night thoughts on getting a Ph.D.

Aquatint of a Doctor of Divinity at the Univer...

Anthonio. In sooth I know not why I am so sad, It wearies me: you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuffe 'tis made of, whereof it is borne, I am to learne: and such a Want-wit sadnesse makes of me, That I have much ado to know my self.

(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)

OK, OK, it's not that bad. I dramatize. I soliloquize. But that lament pretty much reflects my state of mind for most of August and into September, where I had a storm in my head as I debated why I was in school and what I wanted out of it. It was all I could think of or talk about, and I look back at myself now and wonder at the mental and emotional fits I was giving myself. I'm sure I became a bit of a bore to my friends as this topic drove other more earthly concerns out of the limited crawlspace that is my head.

Ever since I started grad school, I've collected various links in my delicious account tagged gradschool and academic. I've been bemused by the number of writers who describe the PhD experience as depressing, dispiriting, a slog, something to be managed rigorously or die, etc. (Maybe only the folks who really hated the experience blogged about it?) At the very least, it's a serious business. Here are links to what I mean:

Now, to be fair, the advice most of these folks have runs along the same lines and it sounds pretty sensible: Know what you want and why you're there. You're on your own. Be focused. The job market is tough and getting tougher. Manage your adviser. Be prepared to be frustrated.

The first person who suggested the idea to me was a professor from Spring 2007, who ended his email with, "Stop laughing! I'm serious!"

My mentor, The Indefatigable Cassidy, makes it a point to bring it up in conversation at least once a semester and she has promised to step up that cycle as time goes on.

And when I mention the idea to peers at the school or even to civilians, their response is very positive. (See my earlier post on hallway conversations.) My social reality is echoing back to me, with a puzzled expression on its face, "I thought you were already a doc student. It suits you." For whatever reason -- my posture, my insane good looks, my carelessly thrown together wardrobe -- I give off the doctoral vibe like cheap aftershave. So maybe the folks around me know something about me that I don't.

But ever since I've started grad school, my reply has been a firm "No." The PhD involves work and activity far beyond what I thought I wanted to or could do, beyond what I thought I wanted out of a degree, and beyond my chosen performance level. Why make life harder by investing immense hours and energies for what may be only marginal value? Why bang my head against an ivory wall for 5 years and then face the cold cruel world of academic careerdom, where my previous 20+ years of workforce experience would add little to my reputation?

Some of my friends and advisers are saying, "You think too much. Just do it." That's a valid point. But I do feel I have a little more to lose by doing a PhD now than in, say, my 20s or 30s. Apart from the monetary loss, there is less time to make a course correction if I make the wrong bet.

I have many reasons why I should say "Yes."

  • My current career has sputtered to its end. My jobs over the last decade carried me away from the latest technologies and trends, so I'm very much out of step technically and methodologically.
  • My current job, though perfectly OK as a job, and was there for us when I really needed work, has not much more to offer me these days. Advancing in the company means selling out more of myself.
  • I think the risk of staying where I am is greater than the risk of trying something new. This is a prime motivator.
  • The professor I would be working with has basically invited me to join her and her team. This is hugely flattering and validating to me. I would still have to apply and compete for a position, of course, but I'm a known quantity and I'm sure I would make a strong candidate.
  • Honestly, I'm in my natural element in a classroom. Also, I've acquired very good self-management and other skills that enable me to make the most of my talents and skills without also fighting against myself so much.
  • I've always seen myself as a lifelong student. This transition would certainly solidify that image.
  • The friends I'm starting to make and the people I come into contact with are all tremendously supportive of me. So while the PhD is a solo effort, I'm not going into this alone.

Why am I hesitating?

  • Is this the subject area I want to pursue? I'll know more in the spring, when I take an independent study.
  • Can I picture myself doing professorial/research-y things? I'm having trouble with that. I had hoped to have 6-12 months to settle into the idea (I'm a slow learner).
  • It's hard for me to decouple the idea of acquiring the degree from how to pay for it. Yes, there's the fellowship, but I'm not living in an apartment with 3 other roommates. There's our personal infrastructure (car, house) to maintain.
  • My coach had a great question for me when I started this master's project. He asked me what my goal was. "To get my master's degree," I said. "No," he said. "That's what happens on the way to your goal. Who will you be the day after you graduate? What will you be doing? That's your goal." I must admit, I never had a clear picture of what the day after would look like until recently, when I'd decided that, yes, the PhD looks better now than it did before.
  • I'd long decided that I'd graduate in May 2010. The robes, the hat, the family pictures, everything. But. Fellowships for this program have been announced that run from 2009-2011. I've been advised (and it's good advice) to skip the master's, transfer in the hours I've already completed, and I'll be more than halfway done with the course requirements. This means giving up the 2010 plan, which provided us time to get things ready for the day after graduation. The timetable has moved up and my plans have to be shifted, and I'm traditionally ill at ease when things don't go according to plan or I feel that I'm rushed.

One of my advisors (I have an informal board of advisors -- friends who I can talk to about serious decisions and who provide a range of valuable advice on these matters) said to take the opportunity, hide out in academe while the economy sorts itself out, and get started on the next phase of my life.

There is also the feeling that the wave is cresting. I need to ride this wave while it's building and let its energy sweep me along. I need to trust that the resources I need will be there when I need them.

That said -- why do I not feel excited? This scenario is what I was welcoming 18 months from now -- why is it not so welcoming today? Because I feel I'm not ready? Because it seems too big of a step? Because because because...

Thinking too much! The curse of the late-night intellectual...

Update: Hill reminds me of something I should add: I have absolutely no illusions that the academy offers a workplace that's any different from the workplaces I've experienced over the last 25 years. There will be different stressors, friendly and difficult personalities, arbitrary authority to answer to, etc. I've worked as a staff member at both a small and a large college, and when you pass through the veil from student to staff (and faculty are staff, in my opinion), you start seeing a lot of activity that was hidden from view, rather like the way Disneyworld elves surreptitiously clean up after you on Main Street.

As Hill reminds me, the sooner I kill the romantic illusions that academe fosters, the more I'll benefit from what the experience can offer.

Update: "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to do it." Also: "Ride the horse in the direction it's going."

Update: (You know, at some point, I should just start a new post...) NCSU (my alma mater -- LWE, 1983) offers some juicy graduate programs through its College of Humanities and Social Sciences , especially this one, which looks quite exciting. This is one I should investigate, simply on its own merits.

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