Write Through is a series of articles highlighting the processes of writers who found their way through the dissertation process in a timely fashion. While everyone's process is unique, we hope you'll carry away some productive ideas and feel a little less isolated as you hear the voices of individuals who've been where you are and emerged triumphant in their dissertation journey.
Michelle K. Linder, a recent medicinal chemistry PhD graduate from UB, has a central piece of advice for STEM students entering PhD programs: when choosing a program, look for research projects that align with your interests. Don’t solely choose based upon the prestige of the institution or the principle investigator. “You are going to be working on the project for four to seven years,” she notes, “you have to have a passion for what you do.” Linder declined offers from other universities and chose UB because of her interest in their research. During her time at UB, she truly enjoyed her work synthesizing colorful rhodamine dyes, which have applications for cancer therapies and alternative energies. Linder describes her research with enthusiasm, “In collaboration with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, I not only learned how to synthesize light-activated chemotherapeutic agents, but I was able to test them in vitro myself.” In addition to her obvious fascination with the research, Linder was also motivated by her desire to improve the treatment outcomes and lives of patients through pharmaceutical or disease research. This level of authentic interest and motivation was key to getting through the long and stressful PhD journey.
The timeline of a PhD in chemistry, as Linder describes it, involves not only drafting a synopsis of research that has been conducted to date, but also proposing a novel research idea in year three. Experimentation follows, and when enough data has been acquired to give results that can be explained, a thesis is written. This process is not without obstacles, especially in the experimentation phase. If a project fails, there is little to write about. Linder notes that she did have a small project that went awry, and so she had to regroup and begin again. She describes the conceptual work of writing a dissertation as telling the complete story of your research — what it means and how it will impact the field. At first Linder tried to write in the lab environment. As much as she enjoyed mentoring MA and PhD students in the lab, she found there were too many distractions for writing. She pulled herself out of the lab and developed a routine in which she got up early, grabbed some coffee and found a quiet spot in the library. “I was amazed at how much I could accomplish in a few hours with fewer interruptions.” She tended to work in three to five hour intervals, rewarding herself with time off, perhaps to watch a favorite television show.
After beginning to write, Linder experienced an unexpected interruption. She was offered a position as an intern at a pharmaceutical company in Georgia. Conventional wisdom might suggest that breaking up the momentum in the final stages of a PhD could be a costly mistake. Nevertheless, Linder, who aspired to work in the pharmaceutical industry, knew that this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up and her advisor wholeheartedly supported her. Moving to Georgia for three months did slow her down, but she is glad she did it. Experiencing industry was one of the best experiences she had during her PhD process. Falling a bit behind her cohort in terms of completion, ended up actually creating a bit more ease for her, as she realized that her timeline was her own. In addition, having colleagues who were just a bit ahead of her in the process, was a great source of support and motivation.
When asked about her experience being a woman in a STEM field, Linder considers herself lucky. Not only was she in a majority female research group, but she had many strong women to look up to in her research environment as an undergraduate student, graduate student and intern. Thus, she never felt isolated.
Linder acknowledges that completing her dissertation was tremendously stressful and difficult. It required considerable time and effort, but when you work so hard for something, it is exhilarating to finish. After graduation, Linder taught organic chemistry at UB during the summer and accepted a position as a scientist at a clinical research organization. She looks forward to a career of loving her projects!
Michelle K. Linder is a recent medicinal chemistry PhD graduate from Michael R. Detty’s group. Her research focused on the synthesis and evaluation of chalcogen-containing rhodamine dyes as photosensitizers for light activated cancer therapies, and dye sensitized solar cells. She is currently working in clinical research.
Upon meeting Phil Schneider, you notice that he is full of kinesthetic energy. As such, locking himself away to write a dissertation was not a comfortable fit. However, Schneider managed to finish his dissertation in a timely manner, by adapting his writing strategies to align with his personality and strengths. Schneider’s dissertation is a project at the crossroads of many disciplines and fields, including electrical, chemical and biomedical engineering, computer science, law, and even business.
Having completed his undergraduate studies at UB, it took Schneider about four years to complete his PhD. His work involved the creation of technology that mimics the human body in such a manner that renders it an excellent replacement for human test subjects. For example, technology from Schneider’s project can be found in fake arms that enable researchers to explore small fluid scales (e.g., networks of capillaries). His dissertation began with an idea, followed by the creation of theoretical models. The models were then constructed and sent to industry to be tested, involving legal complexities. Because his project involved a variety of disciplines and fields, Schneider had to rely on subject matter experts, and a team of undergraduate and master’s level research assistants. Schneider created a timeline of his project and set aggressive goals. He admits that neither he, nor his team, usually hit those goals on time. Still, those ambitious goals seemed to create a motivating propulsion which moved the complex process forward. He told his team, “Shoot for the moon and land somewhere in between,” and “If we meet 70 percent of this goal, we will hit it out of the park.”
Schneider enjoyed the research much more than the writing. “I am not a writer,” he admits. “Give me some presentation slides and let me talk to industry, and I’ll talk to them until I’m blue in the face.” Sitting and writing was a tough thing to handle, but he applied the same kind of “gut it out” strategy that he had applied to the research and testing phase. He outlined the whole project first, “If you can see the end, you know how to get through it.” Then, he tackled the project chapter by chapter, breaking each into smaller chunks, in order to create more frequent moments of closure and accomplishment. At first he wrote in the lab, but after a while he found it too noisy. He started moving between libraries and home, finding it productive to switch up his writing environment frequently. By chapters three and four, he began to lose steam. As a result, he began to make use of a voice-to-text app, which did a pretty good job of picking up his technical terms. He found small conference rooms where he could pace back-and-forth while talking to his computer, accessing the communication context that seemed most comfortable to him — moving and presenting, rather than sitting still. Schneider admits that the writing process was not easy for him. He developed a twitch in his eye from stress. Some days he would just lock himself in a room “grinding it out,” as he would say. When he wasn’t writing, he would feel guilty. He realized this process was not healthy, so he started swimming three times a week as a way to relax. He got through it. As a natural presenter, the defense was the easy part. With such a fascinating project and knack for presenting, it’s no wonder that he won the Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition!
Schneider is currently working for the company that tested his models, furthering his research in an industry setting. In the future, he is also open to creating a start-up to launch his inventions, or returning to a university setting to continue his research. One thing he knows, is that he would like to stay in Western New York where he grew up, and where he has had such positive educational experiences. Schneider offers this advice to others entering PhD programs: “Make sure it is something you want to do. You have to love what you are doing to get a PhD, or you will be absolutely miserable along the way. Make your process as tangible as possible — timelines and projections. Don’t spend all of your time thinking — execute.”
Philip Schneider graduated with his PhD in electrical engineering. As a member of the university’s Sensor and Micro-Actuators Learning Lab, Schneider’s research included the development of wearable technologies, biometric technologies in the mobile consumer market, and the creation of test phantoms for medical sensor testing. Schneider has a true passion for bringing STEM to the local community. He is the founder of Project FIS, mentors a local FIRST Robotics team, and is part of the Westminster Charter School initiative. He aspires to be a successful business owner, bridging his backgrounds in science and technology with his business acumen to directly contribute to the economic resurgence in the Western New York region.
David Strittmatter, a historian who received the Teaching Excellence Award from the College of Arts and Sciences, defended his dissertation in May 2018. He finished the project 26 months after his prospectus was approved, which is pretty speedy for his discipline. His dissertation looked at the development of heritage sites in the U.K. and involved archival research abroad in London and Edinburgh. Strittmatter was highly motivated to get through the PhD process in a timely manner and was kind enough to share some of his strategies.
His central tenet? Don’t work at home. But you say you have an amazing home office? Strittmatter has heard that before. “It may be completely anecdotal,” he notes, “but from what I observed, the people who completed their dissertations quickly did not work from their home office.” There are just too many distractions at home and too little accountability. Strittmatter made it a habit to put in regular, long hours at his TA office on campus. His typical schedule involved a leisurely morning drinking coffee, checking emails and taking care of TA responsibilities. Despite his disciplined approach, he found that this type of morning, especially sleeping as much as his body seemed to require, set him up well for an alert, productive day at work. At about 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., he would leave the house and head to his office at UB. He found the change in location to provide a sort of intellectual reset to get him focused upon dissertation writing. The final eight months of dissertation writing was crunch time for Strittmatter. At least three days a week, he was the last person on the fifth floor of Park Hall (where the history department is located), working until about 6:45 p.m. and then catching the final campus shuttle to the lot where he parked. So focused on putting in the time, he started bringing a lunch rather than going to the Student Union or The Commons, thereby reducing the lunch hour to a 20-minute meal.
Many writers might perceive such long hours as grueling, but Strittmatter points out, “It isn’t so much about time management, but rather task management.” He recognized that in a full day of work, one’s mental capacity will fluctuate. Therefore, one must align activity to those patterns. “What tasks require more brain power than others? Do those during your peak productivity hours,” he advises. “There are always tasks that don’t require innovative thought which can be done when you start to get tired or unfocused: applying to grants, grading, answering emails. Don’t spend your best hours grading world civ responses. You may be exhausted near the end of the day, but don’t go home. Instead, stay that extra 45 minutes and do something productive, whether it be fixing footnotes or proofreading. All of it needs to be done.”
Strittmatter advocates for on-campus work not only for its lack of distractions, but also for its collegiality. He advises that even during the independent phases of graduate study, it is important to be seen in your department. Also, having colleagues around to bounce an idea off or to get quick feedback on a puzzling paragraph, can keep the momentum moving forward. Strittmatter recalls that a group of three or four colleagues in his department formed a writing group to hold what they called “mutually assured productivity sessions.” While he rarely wrote with them, just knowing they were right down the hall being productive helped motivate him.
Strittmatter emphasizes the importance of taking control of one’s own productivity. “Just because you send a chapter to your advisor doesn’t mean you have to wait for feedback to continue on. You can still start on the next chapter while you are waiting.” In other words, set your own pace rather than let your committee dictate your pace. An encouraging detail is how Strittmatter experienced a kind of snowball effect while writing the dissertation. “Chapter one and two will take a lot longer to write than subsequent chapters,” he says. As the project takes shape, a writer will start to automatically apply feedback to later chapters, fueling momentum. “Your writing just gets faster and better as you go along.” He shares that he wrote his final chapter in a mere 15 days.
Strittmatter advocates not delaying the writing process. A history dissertation, of course, requires a lot of research, but Strittmatter has witnessed some of his colleagues falling into a research hole, pouring over huge amounts of research when they may not even use two-thirds of it. He urges writing alongside the research process and vice versa. “You can always do additional research as needed. Be aware of what story you are telling; start putting the timeline together. ... You can always flesh it out later.” In other words, a dissertator does not need to feel they have it all figured out in order to start writing. Writing is a process of discovery. “Allow yourself to figure it out along the way.”
Though Strittmatter worked intensively during his dissertation process, he emphasizes that there comes a time when it is important to decompress and refresh. A productive day is bookended at one end by a full night’s sleep and a leisurely morning, and at the end, some celebration may be in order. After working a full day at the office, Strittmatter would often find himself a bit wired, so he enjoyed going out for beer and burgers with colleagues a couple of times a week right after work. “These are some of my best memories of writing my dissertation,” he notes.
So what’s next for Strittmatter? He is currently a visiting assistant professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College, in Washington, Pennsylvania. Strittmatter is teaching three classes this fall at the small liberal arts college a half hour south of Pittsburgh and he notes a difference in academic culture from his time at UB. “I wasn’t asked a single question about my dissertation project during my day of interviews at Washington & Jefferson College,” Strittmatter says. “They were solely focused on my ability to teach, which is considerably different from an R1 [research 1] institution.” His experience supports the old adage that the best dissertation is a done dissertation.
Before coming to UB for his PhD, David Strittmatter worked for an education organization in South Florida for three years. His journey in higher education began at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he majored in journalism and history. Then, the Iowa native earned a master’s degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Every dissertation writing process is unique, but when considering tips and strategies for timely completion, we might get discouraged when we hear how efficient and motivated other writers can be. Our own process might seem lacking by comparison. A story we hear less frequently is one of a successful dissertation journey that is messy and protracted and does not conform neatly to outside advice and time management techniques. Process stories often do not highlight the ebbs and flows in productivity, and the shifts in method and perspective that writers experience. Randi Moore, a consultant for the Center for Excellence in Writing, recently finished her PhD in linguistics and will be graduating this week. She completed a fascinating study working with participants from Oaxaca, Mexico who are speakers of a Zapotec language. She wanted to know if cognition patterns were related to features of the local landscape, but discovered that local community was the most influential factor affecting the way people think.
Moore’s journey was not a quick one. She defended her proposal in December 2013 and had to apply for a number of extensions to arrive at the point of successful completion. There were many delays and knots to untangle along the way. For example, Moore’s research progress included applying for and waiting for grants to fund her data collection and analysis stages. She received a “Dissertation Improvement Grant” from the National Science Foundation which allowed her to travel to Oaxaca and to pay her participants, of which there were over 200 total. With so many participants, her data analysis process was daunting, especially since each recording had to be translated from Zapotec to Spanish before data coding could even begin. She received a Humanities Institute Fellowship to help her while she processed and analyzed the data. While these efforts were time-consuming, the upside is that Moore has preserved a sizeable sample of the Zapotec language and her data has potential for shedding light on many research questions beyond her dissertation focus.
Moore describes the process of writing her dissertation as having many ups and downs. There were many parts of the work that were tedious, viewing data produced by the same discrete task over and over again, inputting data into an Excel spreadsheet, and then finally graphing the data and running it through statistical modeling software. However, the process was also punctuated by moments of discovery and insight as interesting phenomenon would pop up in her data. She chugged along, motivated to get through the tedium in anticipation of such moments.
Things were about to get even more complicated. Moore and her husband welcomed a baby girl into the world in June 2016. Prior to and even during her pregnancy, Moore had optimistic visions of hitting “send” to deliver her finished dissertation to her advisor right before her due date. Examples of others’ such legendarily productive pregnancies were offered to her as attempts at support, but she discovered that dissertating while pregnant is not what it’s cracked up to be and that all pregnancy and parenting advice should be taken with a grain of salt. The time leading up to the birth of her baby was a blur of reading baby books and trying to fulfill co-authoring commitments while being in a somewhat foggy, distracted state of mind. In other words, there was very little space for dissertating. Then another unrealistic narrative arose, “I’ll do little bits of data analysis when the baby is sleeping.” Cue all the mothers of the world laughing compassionately. Guess what you are really doing when the baby is sleeping (if your baby sleeps)? Taking a shower. Eating something. Sleeping!
“It is not advertised enough just how difficult the first year of having a baby turns out to be,” Moore said emphatically. Even though she had a very supportive spouse with a flexible schedule, Moore found it difficult to make significant progress. The year was an exhausting emotional rollercoaster. Of course, there were times when Moore contemplated giving up. She could opt to be a stay-at-home mom or take an alternate career route. “When people talk about work/life balance,” Moore said, “they tend to frame it in terms of time management. But really, it’s also identity management. When you have a baby, you suddenly have this whole new identity. You start to define what kind of mom you are going to be: there are lots of options and they are all right and they are all wrong.” This new identity overlays the traditional scholarly identity in uncomfortable ways. Throughout all of this introspection, Moore realized that it was important to her to have a space of her own outside of her identity as a mom, a space for solving puzzles, thinking new things and challenging herself intellectually. And so, she pushed through.
So what did work? “Well, simply put, we put our daughter in daycare,” Moore replied. Luckily, the family found a quality daycare that provided funding support and her daughter, a confident and social child, really enjoyed it. Knowing her daughter was happy and well cared for, Moore could apply herself to her dissertation with a clear mind. Moore also emphasizes that she could not have gotten through the process without the support of her partner, who allowed her to devote significant chunks of time to her work. Like many dissertators, Moore finds herself particularly susceptible to distraction. So, she found it important to leave her house to work and spent a significant amount of time at cafes. Dissertation retreats provided Moore with the necessary accountability to stay focused and produce writing in significant bursts during the home stretch. She noted the simple power of being in a room with other people who could see if I was goofing off. Another supportive community for Moore was a private Facebook group for “Scholar Moms.” This group served as a “safe space” for talking out how to juggle scholarship and motherhood, as well as working through some of the more delicate issues of identity. Another factor that buoyed Moore’s motivation was seeing the exciting activities of other scholars and receiving positive feedback at conferences.
Moore’s story reminds us that there are many external factors that influence the timeline of research and the successful writer is able to weather the chaos, frustration, and uncertainty and ride out the process to completion. This honest narrative also emphasizes the importance of community, persistence and self-compassion throughout the challenging process of achieving a significant scholarly goal while traveling through the milestones of life that coincide with graduate school. Such a journey has its rewards.
Randi Moore recently received her doctorate in linguistics at the University at Buffalo. Her research interests include spatial semantics and cognition, semantic typology, field work and documentation, and language and geography. In her time at UB, she was active in the UB Center for Cognitive Science, served as research assistant for the MesoSpace Project and worked as a writing and multimedia consultant for the Center for Excellence in Writing.
Monica Ridgeway is an inspiration for the busy dissertator. She completed her dissertation in a span of 2.5 years from proposal to defense. Her dissertation is a critical race ethnography focused upon students who participated in the highly ranked drop-out prevention program that Ridgeway directed. Focusing upon science education, Ridgeway explored the question, “how does race and racism operate in these educational systems to perpetuate marginalization?” Her commitment to the lives of the children in her program and the responsibility of telling their story led to a broadening of her scope, an increase in the amount and type of data collected, as well as an evolution of her theoretical framework. In addition to the cumbersome nature of her project, Ridgeway was also working full time as director of the program she was studying. She was accustomed to such an intense lifestyle. As a PhD student funded through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), she had to carry a full load each semester and also worked as a graduate assistant in her program. On top of this, she is a mother of an active daughter who, among other things is a competitive dancer. As a full time director, a PhD student and a dance mom, how did she power through her dissertation process, maintain her wellbeing and emerge triumphant on the other side?
Ridgeway shared that she starts each day creating a to-do list with her morning coffee. “In a perfect day, what would I like to get done?” she asks herself. If she doesn’t complete something, it simply gets put on the list for the next day. However, Ridgeway notes that she keeps an eye on her list. If something keeps rolling from one day to the next, she asks herself why she’s putting that task off. This keeps her from the subconscious avoidance behavior that plagues so many dissertators.
Ridgeway also carries her backpack with her everywhere she goes. So, wherever she may find herself, with whatever block of time that presents itself, she can make some progress. If she is stuck in a doctor’s waiting room for an extended period of time, instead of getting frustrated that valuable time is being wasted, she can pull out a draft to review or read an article. When driving her daughter to her many activities, she listened to you-tube clips of scholars she admired, to absorb their way of speaking about the issues she cared about. And if she wasn’t working, she made sure to appreciate and be enriched by the company of others, whether it be her family or her fellow dance moms cheering at a competition.
While Ridgeway developed many practical strategies for remaining productive, much of her success can be attributed to larger conceptual moves. Throughout her process, because of her busy schedule and multiple responsibilities, she was led to a productive form of streamlining. “Instead of putting everything in buckets, how does all this go together?” she asked herself. In her coursework, she was strategic in aligning the material of the course with her developing research interests so that all her efforts could contribute toward her final goal. And finally, to help her to maintain the pace of this intensive period of her life, Ridgeway had to examine commonplace attitudes about work/life balance. “How can I redefine what a break is? What if I’m relaxing, drinking my tea and enjoying reading Gloria Ladson-Billings?” In reminding herself of her genuine interest in her subject, Ridgeway could re-infuse her work life with enjoyment and ease. She also emphasized the importance of community for keeping herself upbeat and fulfilled in her process. She developed a practice of “reading the same article as friends; then let us talk about it.” She credits her participation in a writing group for teaching her to write for publication.
In terms of her writing process, Ridgeway writes in the early morning. “I’m not a long distance writer,” she added, “you’re only going to get a few hours out of me – of good writing. But, I can read later in the day.” Ridgeway shared that she starts by thinking about the work that needs to be done in her paper, then creates the headings that will get her there. Then, she will free write within any one heading. “I find the part of the paper that I can get traction on and I start there.” Starting with the part of the paper she can write best at the moment and allowing herself to use a free-writing approach is a great way to establish fluency and momentum.
While it is striking how Ridgeway’s practices facilitate an easygoing forward momentum, she does acknowledge there was a time when she felt bogged down. She shares that at a pivotal point she was “having a hard time emotionally with what her participants were going through. Is this work going to change their reality?” she wondered. “Maybe I should not write but go and do something about it.” At this time she realized that she needed to leave her position as director. “The burden and the weight of not being able to make changes that were needed to change the students’ realities was becoming too much.” It was at this time that her research motivation surged forward. “I began to write through social justice. No one is really going to be able to tell the stories of these kids that I love so much … and if I don’t write it then somebody’s going to write that narrative about them. I had to write to advocate for them. I can sit through these emotions or I can write with those emotions. My language became strong and I positioned myself within it. I was using very clear language.” This was a transformative moment for Ridgeway as she discovered that what made her unique and effective as a researcher was the life of her emotions. “That was tapping into my humanity. Sharing stories that honor who they are. Writing in a dominant narrative. I had to learn how to. Sometimes it was as simple as ‘I’m not going to use that word anymore.’ I found myself using my writing as a way to resist.”
Ironically, it was the experience of losing momentum and the subsequent deep questioning that led Ridgeway to the strongest source of motivation that carried her through her project. And that momentum keeps rolling forward! After her PhD conferral, Ridgeway was awarded a prestigious post-doctoral opportunity – a Chancellor’s Academic Pathway fellowship at Vanderbilt University. She has now shifted her research focus from K-12 to higher education, studying how race and racism operate in engineering and computing disciplines.
Ridgeway offered some comforting advice to ease the pressure of the dissertation process: “A dissertation is just a thing that says ‘I can do a study’. You’ll look back at your dissertation and see how you’ve grown and evolved. No one is going to do it like you. Nobody is going to approach that problem, look at that problem and analyze that problem like you will. Your work will contribute. No one else like you has come through this door.”
Monica L. Ridgeway is a Chancellor’s Academic Pathways postdoctoral scholar for diversity in STEM education at Vanderbilt University. She is a part of the Explorations in Diversifying Engineering Faculty Initiative (EDEFI) research team led by Drs. Ebony McGee and William H. Robinson (BlackEngineeringPhD.org). Ridgeway received her PhD in curriculum and instruction and the science of learning with a concentration in science education from the University at Buffalo. As a former science educator, she is concerned with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning for historically and contemporarily marginalized students of color. Her research focuses on the role of identity, racialized experiences and marginalization in K-12 and higher education STEM spaces. Ridgeway’s work seeks to challenge and problematize traditional notions of STEM teaching and learning and present solutions for marginalized groups to have access.
The Graduate School’s 2017-2018 Outstanding PhD Dissertation Award went to Laurie Rich for his dissertation “Photoacoustic Imaging of Head and Neck Cancer: Preclinical Optimization and Clinical Translation.” Rich received his PhD in February 2017 while conducting research at the Roswell Park Graduate Division’s Molecular and Cellular Biophysics and Biochemistry department. Using photoacoustic imaging during radiation treatment, Rich measured the blood and oxygen levels of head and neck tumors – which constitute the sixth most common types of cancer worldwide – to develop less expensive and invasive treatment monitoring protocols. A clinical trial based on Rich’s work has been initiated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Working in the sciences, an experiment-driven and collaborative discipline, Rich emphasizes that deadlines, community and preparation were key factors in successfully completing his dissertation. After having painstakingly set up a research plan and conducting his experiments, Rich finally received permission from his committee to start his dissertation. This intense writing period lasted approximately three months and included steady benchmarks of accountability during which Rich talked to his mentors about his progress and process. Although – like many dissertators – he initially felt overwhelmed by the vast amount of work, Rich managed to productively stay on track by creating an outline that offered focus and direction. In order to keep his information organized and remain aware of points of connectivity to other research, Rich crafted annotated bibliographies to map his readings. According to Rich, one of his colleagues had advised him to write short three to four sentence-long paraphrases of articles. This habit allowed him to effectively and efficiently navigate various forms of contextualization in his own project.
In terms of daily habits, Rich emphasizes that writing and research always go hand in hand. This does not only refer to one’s individual journey through a sprawling network of books and articles but also means exploring other methods: predominantly communicating with other people who have gone through a similar process. In the initial stage, he would write new material or as he calls it “raw ideas,” in the morning, and refine these in the afternoon. Rich consciously sought isolation at home to concentrate on his first chapter. After this part of the project was completed, he changed his routine. He would work at his lab for two or three hours in abandoned offices or conference rooms. One of the main advantages of working in a lab is that it automatically facilitates a sense of community. Rich said that if he had been “on his own,” he would have been “lost.” By virtue of working in the same building, having lunch together, participating in seminars, and presenting parts of his project to his peers and mentors, Rich consistently interacted with others about strategies, best practices, and the fact that writing a dissertation is a real struggle. Rich also found this combination of practical and emotional support online. He would often search Google for forums discussing formatting problems, how to write a methods section and general writing advice. Who would know that the highly critically acclaimed journal, Nature, also features information on how to write a dissertation? Rich additionally learned a lot from reading other people’s dissertations and using these as models for clarity, the use of detail and analyzing genre conventions.
But how do you keep yourself motivated during difficult times? How do you wade through those infamous, unwieldy and unfortunately repetitive cycles of feeling stuck? When he was struggling with the clarity of one particular section, Rich decided to send it to his mother. Although he would generally first consult colleagues before sending his material to his mentors, at that moment he felt that he needed the opinion of a different kind of reader. Someone for whom logical flow would be the major concern. Her feedback allowed him to get the basics of his argument in good order. Rich, however, points out that a pragmatically driven problem-solving approach often needs to be accompanied with understanding and the willingness to acknowledge and validate people’s emotional experiences. Rich notes that writer’s block is “a real thing.” Apart from talking about it, Rich found that taking a day off when feeling frustrated allowed him to process things better. But during the most stressful writing period – three weeks before his defense – when he was chained to his desk from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., he craved Oreos and junk food. He would indulge himself occasionally but tried not to go overboard. Moreover, despite often seeking isolation, he still needed something else in order not to “feel trapped” in his “own mind.” He would often play ambient noise or listen to strange talk shows that filled up a type of void that he needed but also functioned as an oppressive presence in itself.
What has Rich done in the past year and how does he see his future? He is currently a postdoc at Roswell and finds a lot of gratification in mentoring PhD students. He tries to function as a mentor and accessible partner in conversation. Although writing the dissertation was challenging, he feels that it has prepared him well for the myriad of papers he has produced since. He argues that currently 80 percent of his writing tends to be solid with 20 percent needing further refinement. Especially in the competitive field of grant writing, you need to come to the point quickly and efficiently while being confident and clear about the novelty value and necessity of the proposed research. Two of the most valuable lessons that Rich has learned were being prepared and being able to adapt to circumstances. Although he ideally wants to pursue a career in academia, increased competition has made him aware that he also needs to consider alternatives. Rich is therefore also open to the idea of working in the science industry or even non-traditional career paths such as patent law or performing data analysis in the finance industry.
Laurie Rich received his PhD in Biophysics from UB in February 2017 and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY. His work focused on the application of a novel imaging technique, termed photoacoustic imaging, for fast and safe prediction of head and neck tumor response to radiation therapy. The positive findings from his work lead to a pilot clinical trial in head and neck cancer patients currently ongoing at Roswell Park. In the summer of 2018, Rich will be transitioning into a new post-doctoral research position at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dolonchapa Chakraborty, a recent department of biological sciences PhD graduate and adjunct professor at Mercy College in Bronx, New York, will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the NYU School of Medicine in June 2018. Perhaps surprising to those not trained as scientists, writing a biology dissertation entails more than facts, figures and data – it also entails “figuring out which story needs to be told,” according to Chakraborty. During the writing process itself, this means as much organization geared to this “larger story” as possible. This means beginning writing as early as possible. For Chakraborty, her larger story was considering how her research challenges pre-existing notions about pathogenic E. coli outbreaks by interrogating its associated viral element. Her research has identified two molecules that can finally shed some light on treatment options.
Furthermore, students need to think about when actual writing should begin and that should be earlier in the program than they think. Students can run experiments perpetually, but the craft of “putting facts and figures into a paper form that might later become a dissertation chapter or scholarly publication should be a key focus, not just striving for continued success in laboratory experiments,” says Chakraborty. Writing a manuscript with organized sections, even if certain ones still need to be filled in, provides a template to continually get writing done rather than waiting to start it all after the fact. This also helps because experiments can take time to reach fruition and hypotheses can fail given the unpredictability of living organisms. “When in the laboratory,” she reflects, “writing should still be a priority and this was an area where I could have been more efficient upon reflection; pick a time to write and write only where no experiments (and people) will get in the way. Time management is key!”
To ensure writing efficiency for those just starting the dissertation process: get a structure, put your dissertation together typographically – “go ahead and make the cover page to make it feel real,” recommends Chakraborty – and begin work on the introduction. “The introduction can be more difficult to write than people think and students aren’t always adept at technical writing,” she says. Students can then structure the subsequent chapters from that starting point. Even before experiments end, students should consider trying to divide time equally into experimenting (when still conducting them), reading and writing. She stresses for students to still continue to read to keep their vocabulary sharp and to take a writing course early in their PhD.
Towards the end of the writing process, students need to prioritize writing over other things especially as the graduation date looms near. For example, “try to schedule the best periods you can set ample time, like a five-hour block, to write,” Chakraborty recollects. Send chapters to your advisor piece by piece rather than the entire dissertation document because this makes the revision process more convenient and efficient. In addition, try the best you can to focus on solely writing the dissertation, bracketing what might be applications to faculty and post-doctoral positions for other writing periods. External stimulation can also be productive: consult and join professional networks of biologists outside of academia, like those in the private sector, to learn about non-academic opportunities so you know all your options and where you stand. “Learn how to talk about your research to people from all backgrounds and have an elevator pitch ready. There is life outside of a PhD, you should do that and it helps writing productivity too,” Chakraborty reflects.
Dolonchapa Chakraborty is a Molecular Biologist and currently wears many hats. She freelances as a consultant for a biotech start-up, helping them with brand management, marketing and product development. She is also an adjunct professor at Mercy College in the biology department. Chakraborty has also recently begun developing a website focusing on STEM PhDs, career options (both traditional and alternate) and troubles faced by STEM graduate students. It will be fully ready in a month. It includes a blog, “PhDs - Do’s and Don’ts.” In her free time she likes to blog about various topics pertaining to biotechnology.
Dieuveut Gaity recently finished writing his dissertation in social work and will defend in March 2018. Gaity’s dissertation is titled “An Ontology of Hope” and focuses upon street children in Port Au Prince, Haiti, Gaity’s home country. Gaity was in Haiti during the earthquake. He recalls, “I felt my soul run out of my body.” He recognized, in retrospect, that “hope was one of the protective factors” which allowed him to collect himself and move forward into the future. Gaity is determined to focus on the strengths and potential of the people of Haiti, preferring to call his young subjects “resource-seeking children” rather than “street kids.” For his study, Gaity interviewed these children to better understand “the characteristics, elements and conditions” that come together to form the protective state of hopefulness, so crucial for survival.
Gaity wrote his dissertation within an admirably tight time frame. He submitted his proposal in the spring of 2016, and put the final touches on his manuscript in January 2018. This pace is even more impressive when one considers the obstacles that he encountered along the way. Sadly, his mother passed away while he was in the midst of his comprehensive exams. While it was very hard not to be able to share the joy of his dissertation completion with his mother, Gaity notes that her desire to see him complete his degree was a powerful motivator for him to pull himself out of his grief and keep working.
Of course it was challenging to write in English while thinking in French and Creole, but Gaity also experienced challenges relating to focusing his research in his home country. For example, there was a general lack of research and literature on his subject. His biggest struggle occurred when he returned to Haiti in 2016 for his data collection. Though he came armed with letters giving him introduction and permission to interview children at a particular agency, he found he was met with an attitude of suspicion and resistance, which was not only deflating, but also made the logistics of his project more daunting. Many people did not understand his purpose and did not cooperate. Ironically, Gaity found, in order to move ahead with his research in such conditions, he had to adopt the “resource caravan passageways” model of the children he interviewed. He did not take on the role of the arrogant, entitled researcher, but instead scrambled to build necessary social connections and find ways around roadblocks to interview the children for his study, to uncover important meaning about the children’s construction of hope. On top of that, as an international student, Gaity was under a heightened time pressure for this process of building rapport and trust with his organizations and subjects. He had to return to the U.S. before his Visa expired or risk not being able to return at all.
Considering the rocky road Gaity had to travel, we were especially curious about the strategies that he employed to keep up his momentum and avoid getting blown off course or losing hope. The first and perhaps most impactful strategy that Gaity communicated to us was to “set goals and set them well.” What he meant by this is that you have to be very clear about what you want to accomplish and not to allow your project to expand, drift off course or get out of control. Vibrant interaction with peers and advisors can be great for sparking ideas and sharpening analysis, but when other people get excited about your work, they may suggest lenses that tempt you to stray from the original focus of your research. Dialogue may lead you to a more expanded sense of the potential of your data, which is wonderful, but can result in an increase in the original scope of your research question. Gaity found it crucial to keep his eye on the specific purpose of his study. He knew that he wanted to focus on seeds of flourishing and resilience of the children of Haiti, and he kept standing his ground on that intention.
Gaity also emphasizes that along the way, it was important to remind himself to relax – to listen to music, eat and sleep well, and watch comedies – his favorite entertainment genre. He also tried to take short weekend trips, like to Lewiston or Gowanda, even just to look at the trees to refresh his spirits.
One of Gaity’s dissertation strategies is particularly creative and ingenious, and it was discovered by accident. He relates that during his master’s coursework, he tried to turn in a paper, but discovered it was not due until the following week. He experienced a feeling of relief and lightheartedness. “I have time to relax and play some basketball,” he remembers thinking with delight. Since then, he developed a habit of creating this space for himself by routinely completing work before a deadline, even if he makes that deadline himself! For example, he might tell his reviewers, “I’ll get you chapter two by next Friday,” even though he already has completed that chapter. Then he will get started on chapter three. So, when he sends chapter two off, he is well into completion of chapter three! It creates for him a feeling of always being ahead of the game and never having that feeling of working with his back up against a deadline. Not only does it positively affect his mental state, but it also improves the quality of his work, as he feels he doesn’t have to rush something when he is already ahead of where he wants to be!
It wasn’t an easy journey, but his dissertation process is complete and we can learn a lot from his experience. What is next for Gaity? He wants to build a career that balances academic and field work. This scholar never wants to abandon his work helping children find healthy and legal pathways toward their goals.
Dieuveut Gaity was born and raised in Haiti. He had worked for several organizations, such as United Nations Development Program/CNDDR, CREFEC, FOHO, Doctors Without Borders and International Organization for Migration. He is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo and expects to graduate in spring 2018. His research focuses on services and support for street children in Haiti.
“Before you are a scientist, you are a person first.”
You may be familiar with the work of Randolph Singh, PhD, a recent UB graduate from the department of chemistry. Part of his dissertation research with his advisor, Diana Aga, was recently featured on the UB website homepage. The article highlighted fascinating research findings about anti-depressants found in the brains of fish in the Niagara River. That was only a part of Singh’s dissertation research into water pollutants. Singh has made quite an impact in his field already, so we wanted to know about his process and the habits and strategies that led him to successful dissertation completion. Behind the common stereotype of the serious scientist, we were pleased to interview a friendly, relatable person, who has a lot to say about how to get through a dissertation process with a smile.
Singh indicated that he has been fueled by several different sources of motivation during his time at UB. His first piece of advice? Love what you do. With this orientation, Singh found himself able to move through his graduate work with a spirit of authentic interest and enjoyment. He encourages prospective graduate students not to choose a school based solely on its reputation or prestige, but instead to make sure that there is a research group there that you would like to join. To add further zoom to your engine, he suggests cultivating a little ambition. “Don’t just settle for a so-so, PhD,” he advises. Be moved by your intention to really make an impact. Singh emphasizes the importance of being able to communicate scientific concepts beyond small circles of specialization toward wider communities. He enjoys gathering with friends from different disciplines and discussing each other’s work. Only through communicating research more broadly will it motivate positive change, he points out.
In this spirit, Singh creates a process that allows for quality work and wellbeing. He said, “I do not get high on deadlines and I don’t understand how others like to cram.” Instead, he is very thoughtful about creating reasonable steps in his process and managing his energy carefully. This allows him to work very hard without burning out. Singh notes that his advisor, Dr. Aga, encourages graduate students to start thinking about writing when the research process is about 50 percent complete. Singh took this advice to heart and integrated writing and research during his laboratory work. For example, during downtime while an experiment is running, he would download an article related to his research. Since he is interested in his topic, he found himself enjoying this reading, so it actually could feel like a refreshing break. He kept a clipboard and scratch paper with him during these times. He would note the title of the article, authors and date and then write a quick narrative take-away from the article. He uses Endnote to organize his research. Thus, during the experimentation process, Singh was chipping away at his literature review. As he collected research, he began creating an outline with short write ups of his references and as he progressed, text grew out of that outline. Thus, by the time the experiment was concluded, he had a substantial draft started.
Singh emphasizes that it is a waste of time to try to write with an overstressed brain, so, even though he spends long hours in the lab and works intensively, he takes care to integrate rejuvenation into his process. He has a policy to try, when possible, to avoid working on weekends. “The mind needs to rest. Before you are a scientist, you are a person first,” he notes. On weekends, he took the time to enjoy life: going to concerts, visiting Toronto or going camping with friends. Even just a coffee on a Saturday morning and a nice breakfast can revive the spirits, he adds.
For Singh, perhaps the most important element of maintaining wellbeing during graduate work was the creation of a supportive community. As an international student from the Philippines, leaving friends and family behind, he realized that he was vulnerable to isolation. Therefore, he made a concerted effort to make American friends who could introduce him to signature experiences of the region such as apple picking and skiing. He has made such good friends that he feels he has had a family in the U.S. For example, he spends Thanksgiving and Christmas with his friend’s family and he even cooks the Christmas dinner!
Community also has played a significant role in Singh’s work. In addition to having a supportive advisor in Dr. Aga, the lab is an inherently communal space as different researchers share methods in service of their various research projects. Mentoring relationships naturally develop as researchers gain experience and new researchers enter. The more senior researchers mentor their junior peers and initiate peer sharing of their work. The team makes the most of these relationships with group meetings each week. The research community creates a spirit of support and friendship by taking breaks to go for a walk or to play volleyball.
Graduate students in all disciplines might take away significant insight from Singh’s experience. Love what you do, guard your wellbeing, build a community and be a person first. The dissertation will flow from that! We will eagerly follow Dr. Singh’s research and thank him for sharing his wisdom with us!
Randolph Singh, PhD is currently an ORISE postdoctoral fellow at the US Environmental Protection Agency (Research Triangle Park, NC).
He is passionate about the ocean and actively supports protection of marine wildlife and bridging the gap between scientists and citizens. His research at UB involved understanding the fate and transformation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment. This includes work on antimicrobial pollution from wastewater treatment plants.
"I don't need time. What I need is a deadline."
-- Duke Ellington
As a mother of two children, ages three and six, who commutes from Rochester to participate in UB’s PhD program in social welfare, Jackie McGinley has had to get serious and creative about keeping her dissertation on track. McGinley is deep into data collection and analysis for her retrospective study of the last year of life for people with intellectual disabilities, a multi-case study that will inform end-of-life care for individuals in this demographic. She anticipates that she will defend her dissertation in the spring of 2018.
McGinley appreciates how the School of Social Work’s curricular structure has supported her timely progress. She came into the program with a clear sense of the type of project she would do and she was able to refine that topic throughout her coursework. Her department structures the process so that the dissertation proposal ends up being your first three chapters. Thus, after the proposal stage, half of the dissertation process is already done. McGinley also attributes her efficient pacing to her approach to the IRB process. Working with her advisor, she designed her study and selected her subjects in a manner that would allow her to do important work, while avoiding roadblocks and delays through the IRB process. Her advisor gave her plentiful advice on her IRB protocol prior to submission, avoiding time consuming back-and-forth interaction during the approval process.
McGinley’s PhD program director encourages students to create a five-year plan early in their course of studies. McGinley was able to identify her desired end-point and then created a backward timeline with specific milestones along the way. She communicated these milestones with her committee and gained their support and guidance toward achieving those goals.
As a mother and partner, McGinley has realized that she can’t just take for granted that her priorities will naturally accommodate her graduate work. The needs of family can often seem to be of higher priority than a distant, individual goal. In order to keep her research near the forefront, she makes a habit of scheduling meetings with her committee members and giving presentations of her ongoing research. She also applied for grants that forced her to leap forward to synthesize and articulate her ideas during the research process. “If I use deadlines that I’m only accountable to myself to, I will not adhere to them. If it’s a committee member or a group of respected scholars, or if it’s a grant, I will stick more closely to my deadlines,” McGinley notes. She also creates accountability through peer support. Once a month her cohort meets to share their progress. Members text each other weekly to share their goals and whether they have accomplished them. All of these strategies provide this busy mom with a steady stream of accountability and motivation.
With all she is juggling, McGinley must be thoughtful and strategic about every unit of time in her day. She rises between 4 and 5 a.m., to get two hours of uninterrupted work time before her children wake up. Sometimes she works in the evening after her children are asleep, but she tries to preserve this time to rest and be with her partner as often as she can. An exhausted and isolated dissertator is not a productive one. She finds communication to be key to harmony during this challenging period, negotiating childcare responsibilities with her husband explicitly. Lots of communication is required! With her eye continually upon her timeline, McGinley emphasizes anticipating deadlines and planning ahead, whether it be arranging an extra shift of childcare or even a period of intensive work, thanks to a willing and helpful mother-in-law. To negotiate work time with her children, McGinley sometimes employs a timer. “Mom has to work for twenty minutes,” she will say as she points to the timer. She also uses a timer to keep herself from jumping up to attend to some beckoning household task. She will set the timer for an hour and tell herself she cannot get up until it dings. She even makes her commute between Rochester and Buffalo productive by recording ideas for projects or practicing presentations as she rolls down the thruway!
When asked if she could keep up this intensity as she builds her career after the dissertation process was complete, McGinley was thoughtful. In the long term, balancing the demands of work, family and self will continue to be a challenge and inform her choices as she embarks upon a career of making a compassionate difference. The strategies that have helped McGinley to achieve her goals will surely be useful to dissertators in a wide variety of circumstances. Thank you for sharing, Jackie!
Jackie McGinley, LMSW is a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Jackie has been supporting and advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 15 years. As a researcher, Jackie has drawn upon her experiences in practice and focused on improving care for aging adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are nearing life’s end. She is the author of several articles on this subject including “From Nonissue to Healthcare Crisis: A Historical Review of Aging and Dying with an Intellectual and Developmental Disability”, which was published in the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Jordan Besek, assistant professor of sociology at UB, recently completed his doctorate at University of Oregon. He describes how students can improve the writing process via significant preliminary organization. “Dedication to preliminary organization can reduce writing time, leading to a completed dissertation,” he reveals, “because, ideally, more time will go toward organization than the writing itself.” This organization can begin once a student identifies a dissertation topic/research question. Students can tailor coursework papers and projects towards the dissertation proposal and even the dissertation itself.
Furthermore, “Identifying the scholarly literatures you will be responding to, where and how they intersect, and what your significant contribution to them might be,” he notes, “creates a scaffolding that holds the project together throughout the writing process.” After collecting data, analyzing documents, and understanding the dissertation’s argument/narrative, Besek recommends to outline chapters to break the writing process into smaller, more manageable portions; additionally, also outline each chapter into portions (introduction, literature review, methods section, analysis, etc.).
Then, when the writing stage begins, Besek advises to take copious notes. Whether on the scholarly sources creating the intellectual foundation for the dissertation, the data being collected, or the texts being analyzed, notes can be refined into professional prose. This, combined with a strong proposal, gives students a base from which to start the actual dissertation document. Besek also advises to consider note-taking, as opposed to just writing, as a way to generate ideas into words on a page: students should take notes on paper, on screen or on a voice recorder when a great thought pops into their head unexpectedly. This generates momentum during the writing process, particularly during stalled periods.
These informal notes can then be fit into the organizational scaffold already constructed and then refined over time, both argumentatively and organizationally, as the overall dissertation structure takes further shape. As students delve deeper into the writing process, Besek also has advice for not getting lost. He says students should reflect: “What story am I trying to tell?” This allows students to remain cognizant of what their significant scholarly contribution might be. Writing can also be stimulated, Besek recollects, through continually “reading the best work in your field/subfields to create a model in your mind of what you want your work to look like and read good prose in other outlets like The New Yorker.” As a lasting note, Besek counsels to “write whenever time allows, even to just generate ideas: students may have other jobs, teaching duties, academic job applications and children running rampant.”
Jordan Fox Besek is an assistant professor of sociology in the sociology department at the University at Buffalo, whose research focuses on the interplay between social, ecological and historical processes. Jordan has published articles in journals such as Environmental Sociology, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and the International Journal of Sociology, and has taught courses on sociological theory, animals and society, organizational sociology and American society."
It's an open question as to whether there exists a truly well-balanced dissertation writer, but each successful writer has discovered a process that works for their own unique style. Shayani Bhattacharya, who received her PhD in English from the University at Buffalo in 2017, tried a few different strategies before she came upon a process that worked for her.
“For my very first chapter of the dissertation, I literally read everything ever written on the novel,” Bhattacharya says. Going through all of that scholarship was exhausting, however, so on the advice of her dissertation advisor for the second chapter, she tacked in the opposite direction, trying to focus on reading and writing about the primary text itself. Only then, the worry kept creeping up on her that she might be treading the same ground as other scholars. It wasn’t long before she was diving back into the secondary literature, but it was no longer the first thing she did.
Going back and forth between the primary text and secondary scholarship, Bhattacharya would create an elaborate system of annotations: first a pass through the novel trying to get a handle on the relevant themes, then a second pass to solidify the points she would address in her writing. These annotations were aided by a color-coded sticky-note system. The process left Bhattacharya’s books looking like the victims of some bright, floral explosion and even caught the awed attention of one of the authors she was reading. After this, Bhattacharya would type her annotations into a 80 to 90 page document.
"Efficient?” Bhattacharya asks. “No.”
As for the writing itself, Bhattacharya says, her method is binge writing. After compiling her notes, she’d take the massive document and, in about two weeks, transform it through editing, revision and elaboration, into clean, thoughtful prose.
“I work best under intense pressure,” Bhattacharya says. For Bhattacharya the exciting part of the dissertation was the research. With so much of her process devoted to pre-writing, she was able to keep research at the forefront of her work. When it came time to sit in front of the computer and write, she could almost trick herself into thinking that she was just presenting her findings. Her process was a way to help build up and sustain that pressure until the prospect of an imminent deadline meant that some writing needed to happen. “Nothing is peaceful in my life,” she says, “Nothing is calm. It is not a peaceful process.”
All things being equal, perhaps it is not the method one would choose to write a dissertation (“It is a terrible, terrible, terrible process,” Bhattacharya says). But she found what worked for her.
Shayani Bhattacharya’s dissertation, “Memory in Absentia: The (Im)Possibility of Representing Memory in Post-1945 Anglophone Fiction,” examines the relationship between the function of memory and narrative structure, arguing that reconceptualizations of memory after 1945 required fiction that would tell stories in different ways. Bhattacharya is now an assistant professor at Lebanon Valley College in global anglophone literature and English.