Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

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.

And finally, wheninacademia.tumblr.com‘s answer WHEN I AM ASKED FOR ADVICE ABOUT QUALIFYING EXAMS::

WHEN I AM ASKED FOR ADVICE ABOUT QUALIFYING EXAMS:

* 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.

Patron Saint of Grad Students

Caravaggio - San Gerolamo

Sometimes there is a bunch of stuff you can learn to be more successful in grad school*. But there are plenty of situations when you know everything you SHOULD do, and still can’t pull it all together and all that seems to be left is divine intercession**.

That is pretty much where I am at the moment.

With this in mind, I have identified five possible Catholic saints who whose patronage might be particularly relevant to grad students (and specifically anthropology grad students in one case):

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Josse Lieferinxe

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Josse Lieferinxe

  • Saint Jude ThaddeusPatron Saint of Lost Causes and Desperate Situations
    • called the Forgotten Saint because people stopped praying to him ‘cuz they mixed him up with Judas Iscariot, some people also say he was Jesus’ brother
  • Saint Catherine of AlexandriaPatron Saint of Libraries, Scholars, and Teachers
    • a pagan Roman princess who converted to Christianity and is often depicted sitting and reading or with a quill for writing since she was most known for her exceptional knowledge of the arts, sciences, and philosophy. Incidentally, she is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, aka the Extra Helpful Saints.
  • Saint JeromePatron of Archaeologists, Scholars, and Translators
    • born with the awesome name Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, this guy is the patron of archeologists because he spent a lot of time hanging out in crypts and tombs and restoring old stuff. Apparently he pissed off the Roman establishment by attracting a lot of women to the studious monastic life.
  • Saint UrsulaPatron Saint of Students and Teachers (particularly the education of women)
    Saint Joseph Calasanctius

    Saint Joseph Calasanctius

    • like Catherine, a martyred virgin princess (along with a group of other virgins who had the misfortune to run into the Huns at Cologne and get beheaded en masse), she is the namesake for the Ursuline Order, which takes as its mission the education of girls and women
  • Saint Joseph CalasanzPatron Saint of Universities and Schools for the Poor
    • opened the first free public school in Europe and had a lot of good ideas about pedagogy (like teaching in the vernacular, emphasizing math and science, and accepting all students regardless of religious identification or class)

The time I spent learning about these saints for this post was TOTALLY a good use of my time … and on a related note:


* Like pretty much anything posted on GradHacker
** Although this post is definitely meant to be taken lightly and is in no way an attempt to convert anyone (God forbid), I am totes going to actually break out the old rosary and chat with one or two of these guys after.