Tip 3: How to Not Fail at Graduate School (Keith’s Dissertation Process Secret Technique)

July 5th, 2011

My third tip is probably what people expect to be the first tip. Here is how you can do your best in graduate school: a little at a time, every day. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, so momentum and consistency are far more important than intensity. Sure you could crank out a lengthy essay overnight, but the concentrated burst of work and change in sleep schedule will probably stop your productivity (and everything else) for the next few days. This strategy worked for undergrads because the assignments were smaller and scheduled with due date checkpoints spread out, like for outlines, rough drafts, etc.. In graduate school however there are fewer intermediate deadlines for the big projects, including your thesis or dissertation. The scheduling is left to you, the student, to figure out and the projects are simply too big for the Undergrad Way to be possible. You may have a semester or an entire year before your next mandated deadline, so you better make good use of these long tracts of time.

So here is the New Grad School Way. It’s an offshoot of the Jerry Seinfeld Way so read up on that for a different angle.

The key to progress in grad school is to make incremental steps toward a distant final goal. For example, as I worked on my dissertation I resolved to do just a tiny bit each day, including weekends. “A tiny bit” means a little block of text, a few statistical analyses, or a few tables of data, for example. When I was bored with one task, such as writing the Methods chapter, I would switch to something else to keep my attention and to keep the momentum, such as making tables for the Results. The most important thing is that everyday you are keeping in touch with your project, no matter how small the contribution. If doesn’t even matter if your next day’s work is deciding that yesterday’s work is junk and rewriting it all. As long as you’re doing work each day, you are moving forward. On days when you’re feeling really good about your work, you can do more than a little, but be careful about wearing yourself out from wanting to do too much in one day! It is more important to stop before you are so mentally tired that it impacts the following day, even if you have a strong urge to suppress your fatigue and keep pressing on.

While I said that I found this strategy to have been successful, and in my experience the easiest way to make genuine progress, I stress that this process is not easy. Perseverance is needed to keep making steps even when nothing seems to be changing day-to-day. Patience is important when you inevitably miss a day and you have to recenter yourself without giving up because you think you failed (remember tip 2?). Also, when you have multiple projects, you’ll be spending a lot of time doing a little for each one so don’t think that you can kick back every day after a little bit of effort; you’ll be jumping repeatedly from one project to another.

One last note, I have my own personal rule that planning the following days’s activities counts as work, but planning to plan the following days’s activities does not count as work. I have to draw the line somewhere!

Supplemental material:
PickTheBrain.com: 12 Fail-Proof Ways to Strengthen Your Resolve
PickTheBrain.com: Are You Taking Productivity Too Far?


2 Responses to “Tip 3: How to Not Fail at Graduate School (Keith’s Dissertation Process Secret Technique)”

  1. CaLynn says:

    Every day. Including weekends. For the next two years. What a downer!! Gimme more! I decided I AM going this fall. 😀

  2. Keith says:

    At least I didn’t say it was a lot of work every day! Ok I kind of said that at the end….

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