Grant-Writing Diary: an old school productivity app

There are a million apps out there to help keep you motivated and on track. To-do list managers like Wunderlist, and Trello to visualize what you need to do, and note-takers like Evernote and Google Keep so you can actually do it in an easy and organized way. And I like that kind of junk, but when I’m actually struggling, organizing myself with electronics really doesn’t help. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but those tools often make me feel more isolated or like I’m wearing blinders and that just doesn’t help me of Sam Grace's Grant Writing Journal

What does help, at least 85% of the time, is keeping a grant-writing diary. I started this back in comps. Every day, I’d start by writing the date (not just the date-date, but also the grant-date*), then write a little about how I was feeling (e.g. tired, annoyed, ridiculously animated), then eventually my goals for the day. Then, as the day continued, I would check in with my journal. Tell it what time it was, how well I’d been working, how the goals were shaping up (or not), how much longer I planned on working. Basically, a bunch of crap that is wayyyy too boring for an actual diary.

And throughout the day, whenever my inspiration flagged, I’d keep looking over at my day’s entry and know that I wasn’t working alone. It’s like the main conceit in Inkheart, that written things come to life in the writing, taking on identity and backstory. That self I put into the journal was there with me, feeling my pain. Added bonus: every time I look at that blank page filled with my ideas and goals, I feel productive.

So if you find that the apps aren’t doing it for you, maybe it’s time to take it back to a bulkier technology. Any other recs for getting from “to do” to “done”?

* in my dorky head, this is like the Stardate in the Captain’s Log. I write “Grantdate: Day 8 (NSF)” and occasionally I’ll add “T-3 days” or whatever it is until my most significant deadline.

Grant Tip #14: Take notes on your awesomeness

Most Interesting Grant Writer in the WorldToday’s post is brought to you by my frankly tepid Intellectual Merit section in my current NSF application.

As it turns out, intellectual merit is pretty much my thing. Interest in how the theoretical implications of my work is going to Revolutionize Anthropology* is my main motivation for this project and I AM excited about it. But being excited about the project and writing like I’m excited about the project (particularly in the emotionally sterile style of grant writing) are two different things. But there’s help! In her excellent feedback on my application, my adviser left the comment,

This section should try to capture the enthusiasm expressed by your committee members at your comprehensive examination. Did you jot any notes in your defense re: our comments on the contributions made by your dissertation?

And the answer is, not really. I tried to make sure I wrote down all the areas that needed improvement, but while I certainly enjoyed the praise I received, I didn’t keep it for posterity. And now I really wish I had. Because if I had good notes about what I did right? They would be pretty much directly ripped off for these sections trying to demonstrate my worthiness for thousands of dollars worth of support.

So! If you have yet to hear from your committee on your work, be prepared!

* okay, okay, maybe just age and citizenship

Comps Strategies: Write fragments, take naps

nap-time with the pup

nap-time with the pup

As careful readers of this blog may have already surmised, I rely heavily on structure for writing. I organize my note-taking with a rubric, each entry carefully tagged and labelled in Evernote, I brainstorm with the mindmapping software VUE, and painstakingly outline in Opal. When it comes time to write, I like to have both the forest and the trees held firmly and mind and move forward. Towards this end, I spent the first day of comps carefully outlining all my essays.

But for whatever reason, this time the blank page defeated me. I felt stuck, despite my careful outlines. What saved me was a strategy that many people use already, but my friend had to remind me of: “don’t be afraid to write fragments that you can work at connecting later.” You know what you want to say about some pieces, he reminded me, even if you’re struggling to hold the whole thing in your mind. It worked.

It is also true that when I feel stuck, I often try to “keep pushing” and get nowhere. Advice from a highly practical friend* provided the solution: take naps. Not only do they keep me from wearing myself out doing nothing, they are also obviously the best thing ever on their own merits.

Any other advice for surmounting moments of stuck is welcome!

* She wears “eating pants” to big dinners. ‘Nuff said.

Comps: Day 1

There are many different ways to do comps*, but in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona students have 3 weeks to write 50 double-spaced pages in response to questions asked by the members of their committees.**

My three weeks started about 15 minutes ago. Following my advisor’s advice, I am spending my first day outlining all of the questions. That way, when I start the Serious Outlining that proceeds Real Writing, I won’t be stuck after finishing my last question but will have a clear direction already set (and open to adjustment). In more detail, here’s what that will look like.

Step 1. Break down each question into its constituent parts. If there aren’t constituent parts inherent to the framing of the question, attempt to add them your self.

Step 2. For each part of each question, make note of all the citations you think you might want to draw upon in your answer. This is in response to my advisor’s suggestion that, fundamentally, you need to show you have a good grasp on what you’ve read.

Step 3. For each committee member’s question, identify 2-3 key examples from the appropriate bibliography to illustrate your argument and use as a connection point for the other readings. This is also a response to my advisor’s point that there’s really not enough space for more examples than that, and while its good to gesture at the scope it is also (maybe more) important to demonstrate depth.

Step 4. Watch a movie. In my last bit of asking around, a few people told me that lots of people watch a lot of movies during comps – something about intense focus for long chunks of time needing inversely intense passivity when not writing. Also naps.



* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** It is understood that they have spent a significant amount of time preparing for this (indeed, bibliographies and statements must be submitted in advance). Also, this is followed by an oral examination a couple of weeks after the written portion ends.

Comps as Rite of Passage

I was planning on writing a follow up to my last post on comps* preparation tips, but there was really one one thing I wanted to say:

Try not to stress out. 

Of course, I wanted to say it because I was totally failing. Despite efforts to keep up with the basics**, enlisting the help of a caretaker***, and getting other people to help me with my non-comps work****, I was still feeling sick with stress and generally struggling to stay on track because I was psyching myself out. What actually did help was reframing the comps process for myself as a rite of passage.

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

And, amazingly, it has helped a lot with managing my stress. Whereas I can – and do – always second guess my academic preparedness and the adequacy of my self-discipline, this frame refocused my attention on completely different aspects of the process. I’ve been through a few major rites of passage in my life – I got married in 2006, I had a maidenhood ceremony in 1996, I got baptized in 1994 – and there are commonalities that I found very soothing.

  • You can’t ever really be prepared. That’s kind of the point. You can center and ready yourself, but the rite itself is beyond your control. Since a great deal of my stress around comps comes from trying to control it, I find this to be a major relief.
  • Some challenges aren’t that meaningful. It’s not just about testing your knowledge, the structure of the thing also introduces challenges that have nothing to do with whether you are qualified to be a PhD candidate. Whether it’s 3 weeks of nonstop writing or a day of fasting, some of the challenges are just arbitrary, and for me that provides some respite for feeling intimidated by them.
  • The rite is actually for me. Even though other people are participating, helping, guiding, and ultimately judging me, the point is creating a ritual that marks my transition into another stage. I need to not lose sight of the forest (yes, I’m prepared to be a PhD candidate and do my fieldwork) for the trees (what if I don’t say what this professor expects to hear!?).

One final thing I realized is that, because of my particular background, I have had a lot of agency in the structures and practices of all my rites of passage up until this point – why stop now? Instead of just trying to control myself to meet their expectations, I want to think about how to make this really mine. Maybe I’ll spend some time designing a comps outfit for orals. Maybe I’ll go to happy hour after I finish each question. Maybe I’ll take a ridiculous photo of myself every day of the process and post it. If you have other ideas, please share them! Help me make this a ritual worth loving memory.

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** exercise, food, and sleep
*** You know what stuff you let drop when you get stressed (in my case, eating healthily and getting exercise), so ask someone else to help you stay on track – maybe even bring you food like you just had a baby. Maybe take regular walks with you.
**** This tip came from my adviser, and she was talking about my TA responsibilities and encouraging me to ask my coworkers to help me with grading and even cover my classes while I’m in comps.

Comps Preparation Tips

I will be taking comps* in about a month and so these days my full attention is on making sure I’m as prepared as I can be. Now you, hypothetical reader, can benefit from my reflection on the process. Here’s what I think a person starting to think about preparing for comps will need to know and do:

  1. Ask your peers. Before I started the process, it all seemed really opaque to me, so I informally interviewed some friends (ok, with a notebook) and realized that it was confusing because in fact it was not exactly an entirely uniform process. Along the way, I was also able to identify what elements ARE actually uniform here (but which vary from department to department, so I won’t bother mentioning here).
  2. Design your committee. Some people may not have as many choices about who to have, but I had the privilege of having a bunch of brilliant people to choose from. Things I considered included:
    • how much time/attention each professor would provide to guide me (based off of their personality type, workload, and reviews from students – it is probably not a coincidence that most of my committee is younger faculty)
    • the interpersonal dynamics of the group (things go more smoothly if everyone likes talking to each other)
    • what topical overlap we have and, more importantly, whether our theoretical orientation to the topic overlapped (while stretching myself intellectually is a good thing, I don’t want to find myself in the profoundly frustrating position of writing against my own theoretical inclinations because of a fundamental difference in approach with my comps questioner)
  3. Talk to your committee. That was a challenge for me. I think it would have helped if I had scheduled out how many conversations I wanted to have and how often. Planning a schedule of when I wanted to ask specific questions (e.g., “how do you design a comps question?” or “how many drafts of a comps statement do you usually ask for?” or “here’s where I am in the reading preparation, how does this sound to you?”) would have helped.
  4. Organize the crap out of your preparation. Figure out the last possible date for you to take comps and work backwards filling in the dates (I needed my adviser to make this calendar). Figure out how much you are going to have to read for each professor and create a syllabus for yourself – ideally you can do this as an independent study. Create internal deadlines, and include preparatory assignments. My adviser asks me to synthesize groups of books rather than simply creating an annotated bibliography and I have found this incredibly useful. I expect to take full chunks from that writing later.
  5. Read like the wind. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to read everything you want to in the detail you had hoped. But this is advice for the preparation stage, so I think it’s still valid.
  6. Take notes on everything you read. I use a notetaking rubric that helps me stay on track that I already wrote about.**

If you are reading this and you are post-comps, please leave me your advice!

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** edited to add this because Mr. Masson was totally right, it does make it a million times easier later, but it is really tempting to skip.