From 65 to (Seemingly) 0 to 65 MPH: (Re) Defining Productivity, The Dissertation Year(s)

I am currently experiencing a phenomenon that I was warned about by friends who are farther along in their degrees that I am or who have finished their degrees, but never really believed could happen to me: I am doing so much work and yet it seems like my productivity has ground to “zero”!

In the interest of not terrifying new graduate students, I should point out before continuing that I did not go straight into grad school from undergrad, and that in the time between undergraduate and graduate school I taught for many years at a private boarding school that encouraged me to pursue my intellectual interests and participate in “the life of the mind,” so I came into graduate school with several research and publication initiatives already underway. This is not the normal way of things. Usually, you come into graduate school with ideas for those sorts of projects, and your professors and/or mentor(s) help you frame and develop them into conference papers and then articles, often beginning them as seminar papers for your classes. In other words, while you begin at 0 and very quickly work your way up to 65 MPH of academic productivity in your courses, generally you don’t come in already buried under a scholarly workload.

In my case, I came in with a few things already going out for review. What this means is that in addition to writing and presenting papers at three or four conferences each year, teaching a 2-1 and then a 2-2 load, and taking 3-4 courses a term and writing those term papers, for my first two years of doctoral work I was also revising and editing proofs and sending things in for publication. In other words, my productivity was highly visible to me. I always had something with a deadline attached to it looming directly before me: upcoming conference presentation, seminar paper due, revisions in by this date, galley proofs in by that date. I could point to the tangible evidence of all of the work I was doing, and I was always working on something that someone else was waiting on. In other words, I hit graduate school running at 65 MPH and kept going right through coursework and comprehensive examinations.

The thing is, I didn’t know what it looked like not to be always scrambling to meet deadlines. Since I had been so busy with multiple writing projects from the very beginning of my program, when the last of the extra projects was cleared off of my desk last spring and my adviser sternly said, “No more new projects until you’ve got your dissertation done! You have more than enough to do for now with comps!” I listened and heeded, but I had the idea going into that period that “more than enough to do for now with comps” would feel the same way as writing three seminar papers due within a week of one another while also dashing off a conference paper and some revisions to an article or two. That was my definition of “productivity.”

So, with coursework completed, and after the anxiety-riddled stress-a-thon of comprehensive examinations (which I promise to write about in a later post, but I’m not “there” in terms of having enough distance to do so just yet), when I received the “congratulations, you passed your comps!” email, I took a moment to celebrate and recuperate…. and then promptly launched myself into my dissertation prospectus. Because by this point the term had ended, and I had no revisions for publication or conference papers to write, that prospectus was the only thing I was working on… so it got done in very short order, and I fired it off to my adviser.

And that was the beginning of the grinding halt to what I had come to view as  “productivity.” I had no scholarly projects to work on besides the dissertation. No looming conference papers. No looming publication projects. No looming seminar papers to start prepping for the next term. My writing calendar was….empty. My adviser suggested that I take this time to relax and to get some reading in for my dissertation. “Take some time off! You’ve earned it!”

I confess that this suggestion was highly uncomfortable for me. When you have become accustomed to being very, very busy and having clear evidence of your productivity to point to, “down time” beyond a day or two feels wrong. Morally reprehensible, even. After about three days of binging on “Dr. Who” and “Grimm,”  I annoyed my adviser into letting me work on revisions for a piece I hope to send out within the next six months or so. I also started preliminary research for a dissertation chapter. And here’s where things got even stranger.

Suddenly, I was lucky if I made it through reading a full chapter, or an article or two, in a given day of “work.” I wrote two or three pages in a four-hour drafting period; at least two of them were utter rubbish. It took me two hours to scan and send chapters I needed to myself from the library stations. It took me all day to take copious notes from a given source. What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I seem to get anything done all of a sudden?

I complained to my friends. I complained to my husband. I didn’t tell my adviser, my committee members, or other members of my cohort, because I didn’t want to look like a total slacker. But really, suddenly everything took forever and nothing was getting done! All I was doing was reading and thinking. In the fatalistic, all-or-nothing world view that occasionally descends upon me when I am feeling particularly overwhelmed, this clearly meant that at this rate, I will never finish my dissertation. I had lost my mojo. My productivity had gone from 65 MPH to 0 MPH in the space of a month.

After wallowing in my seeming failure to maintain productivity post-comps (and remember, please, that I just finished comprehensive examinations in November, and turned in my prospectus draft in December, so it’s not like I’ve taken six months or more off; this seeming “slacker mode” is the particular delusion of driven graduate students used to being intensively busy all of the time, not actual reality) and another few days of limping along, reading here and there and not really getting anywhere, I started wondering WHY I suddenly didn’t have two decent thoughts to rub together and turn into a dissertation paragraph or introductory remarks for an article. I started thinking more reflectively about my past efforts and successes in this vein, and it was at this point that I had an epiphany:

All that earlier, rapidfire success at writing and seeming uber-productivity and ability to pound out excellent article drafts in a week which I had experienced in those first few years of graduate school had not happened in a vacuum. It was the product of many years of teaching and thinking about those particular issues in my other school setting. While I had only recently begun working those ideas into articles, the ideas, themselves, had been simmering and trotted out and discussed and reviewed and researched and re-thought in several of the classes I had taught and the graduate coursework I had taken prior to coming to university to pursue the doctoral degree. They were the product of the years of intellectual work that did and must happen before writing.




What I had utterly failed to take into consideration was actually something I already knew and had always cautioned my students to keep in mind: in order to have things to say about a text, you have to read the text. In order to have things to contribute to a discussion, you have to know what the discussion is. In order to write, you have to think; and in order to think, you have to read, and think, and write about what you are reading and thinking, and then research what others have said about the things you are thinking, and find your place in the conversation. This all takes time. My earlier seeming swift success at publishable writing had been deceptive. It hadn’t only taken me a few months or a year from start to finish; it was the product of many years of cumulative efforts that had simply heretofore gone unremarked.

Armed with this knowledge, I am re-examining my understanding of productivity. I am now beginning my dissertation–I haven’t even defended my prospectus yet. I am at the very beginning of a new scholarly project.

This means that I have to read, organize, synthesize, and enter into conversation with the work of several other scholars, in addition to close-reading the texts I intend to use. In my prospectus I confidently listed those works. I wrote down what I want to do in this project, and how I am going to do it. Now, though, I actually have to sit down and do it. I have to be able to confidently navigate and negotiate with the work of other scholars involved in this area of my field of study. I have to read each article a lot more closely and carefully than usual, making note of the conversations into which a given scholar has entered, considering and perhaps consulting the texts in his or her article’s bibliography, and determining whether and where this might fit in with my own, still-developing arguments. If I get through a full article in a day’s work, then, at this stage, that’s productive.

If I read through a chapter or two of a pertinent monograph, that is also productive.

If I locate and examine some sources I hadn’t considered before, that is productive.

If I scan and compile important research materials into Evernote all afternoon so I have easier access to them down the road, that is productive.

If I scribble some notes down and think of a connection and make a note of that connection, that is highly productive.

If I draft several pages and even one of them turns out to be worth considering, that’s highly-highly productive.

In short, this is the thinking stage. This is the embryonic stage. ANYTHING I am doing towards a first draft of this project is productive at this stage, because it means I’m actively engaging with the project in some way. Obviously, I can’t only read one article or one chapter or write one page each day and hope to finish my dissertation in timely fashion–but that’s not going to happen. Eventually, once I’m past these earliest exploratory stages, I’ll know enough about my topic to write more clearly and confidently on it. I’ll have thought and talked about the readings enough to know better how they fit or don’t fit within my project’s framework. I’ll get back to 65 MPH, and the dissertation will be written and revised and rewritten and ultimately, pass review and earn me my doctorate. But that’s not going to happen until I have navigated these earliest, exploratory stages.

Right now, even though it seems like nothing is getting done, in fact the most important stage of the work has begun. Right now, being “productive” means  reading, and thinking about what I’m reading, and writing about what I’m thinking and reading. The difference is that now, after several years of training in various seminar classes and after my earlier publication success, I know what the product of that work can and should be, and I have the skills and knowledge base that I need to get there faster than I could with my earlier scholarly efforts (like, in the year I have between now and my projected graduation date). I just have to be patient and remember that this is a process.

What about you? How do you view “productivity” at the various stages of graduate work? Have you struggled with the idea of what “productivity” means? What have you done to re-think or take steps to improve your productivity?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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5 Responses to From 65 to (Seemingly) 0 to 65 MPH: (Re) Defining Productivity, The Dissertation Year(s)

  1. Jaleta Clegg says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have to remind myself that surfing the library website looking for articles is being productive, even if I spend six hours and only find two or three articles that are really applicable. And it’s okay to not be 100% productive all the time. My brain needs to rest, too. A couple of hours of tv is usually plenty. Or doing something completely different, like playing games with my kids. The ideas need time to sink in, time when I’m not forcing the insights and connections.

    I think being older when you go to graduate school gives you a different perspective. I have different priorities than the most of the other grad students in my program. In some ways I’m more driven and more focused. I also had a topic pre-picked before I entered the program. But in other ways, I wish I had their energy and stamina. I wish I didn’t have the family drama that comes with adult children and teenagers. It’s distracting. Balancing my life is trickier.

    But overall, grad school is worth it. Hang in there and keep plugging away.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      I could have written your response to my post! I understand exactly where you are coming from. I also came into the program knowing what my topic was and what I wanted to do with it, but I’ve learned that even that doesn’t really get you far in the beginning once you actually begin working on the dissertation, beyond your having some preliminary thinking and bibliographic materials already in place to work with as you get started… you still have most of the work ahead of you. My family is younger–still in grade school–so I’m still navigating running a full household and multiple schedules as well as graduate work. I am very lucky in that my family understands and supports my work–but that doesn’t put reality on “pause” while I spend hours surfing the library website and reading a book! I have often felt envious of my younger colleagues who can go home to a quiet space and just focus on their scholarly activities. In many ways, I feel that they are so fortunate to have that time and space, and I’m jealous of the luck and talent that has allowed them to go straight through without taking a break and coming back to academia, as I had to do. On the other hand, I firmly believe that being a nontraditional student with a family, rather than a single and unattached graduate student, is actually in many ways excellent preparation for the professoriate. We already have multiple duties, obligations, and schedules to juggle. We already have the family that many graduate students will be trying to begin while on the tenure clock as new professors, or while trying to find a job, or while trying to negotiate adjunct schedules and pay, so we can place less emphasis and energy in creating a satisfying personal life for ourselves, because it’s already in place. We know what it means to juggle academic and personal lives at that level, to be responsible for several people and not just ourselves and, perhaps, a significant other, and how to still be highly productive as scholars. I have felt like I had to prove that I was a serious scholar, and to do so while attending to everyone’s needs, and I think that is a major part of why I am organized, driven, and focused in my graduate work (to an almost obnoxious degree, honestly). And finally, by not going straight through without pause but stepping out of academia and coming back to it, I am certain that I’m not just doing this because I happen to be good at it, or because I can’t think of something else to do for a living, or by default, or for other such reasons–I came back because it’s genuinely what I want and need to be doing with my life. Hang in there–as you’ve said, it’s absolutely worth it!

  2. nealbuck says:

    Yes and amen! I’m experiencing exactly the same thing right now. Unfortunately, I do have a deadline coming up (first draft of the first chapter by the end of the month), but I can’t seem to be able to write anything.

  3. Pingback: The Week In Review: January 26-31, 2015 | Melissa Ridley Elmes

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