Twelve months ago, I started my fellowship year to work on my dissertation. I was equally excited and nervous. Nothing to that point in my academic career, from preschool to comprehensive exams, had prepared me for a year without teaching, grading, or deadlines. I started looking around for any guide or advice on this year, but little appeared. I am certainly not an expert on the field of sabbaticals or fellowship years, but I hope these lessons are helpful for my comrades fighting to finish their dissertation or tenured professors working on their last book.
1. Make a schedule
This I know seems obvious. Everyone has some sort of schedule each day, even on days when you say you don’t have anything to do. That being said, a year with literally no regularity or rhythm is a different monster. The best advice I received on this is to treat your day, week, month, quarter, and year, like a business. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art – a must read for any writer – calls this “incorporating yourself.” In “real corporate jobs,” bosses set your to-do list with short, intermediate, and long-term goals (or so I am told.) Adopting that same strategy into a writing schedule is incredibly helpful. I did this with daily word counts, weekly word counts, a specific date to finish chapters, and a total sum of work to accomplish by the end of the year. Checking off something everyday from my to-do list gave me the tiny sense of accomplishment necessary to keep plugging along. A second part of making a work schedule is building in off time. Just like other jobs, I quit working at 5pm each day, only worked on the weekends if I didn’t hit that week’s deadlines, and enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas break. These breaks allowed me to stay fresh and sane (for the most part) throughout the year.
2. Have a work space
Building on point one of having a schedule, having a specific workspace helped me separate mentally and physically my work zones and play zones. My office is in my basement. Each morning at 8:30am, I walk downstairs into the office. I don’t have a TV in my office and Netflix is not allowed. I found that the physical act of going somewhere helped me to get mentally prepared for that day’s work. This is not a new idea to me. My friend T.J. Tomlin built an incredible writing shed. Others have home or departmental offices to work from. I realize that not everyone has these luxuries, but selecting a desk in the corner of your studio apartment or a work-only coffee shop will go a long way in creating a productive working environment.
3. No one feels sorry for you
I probably should have put this number one because I guarantee you at least one person read the first point and said, “Boohoo, this poor graduate student had a whole year to only write while I have been…[insert insane workload with little pay and personal tragedies sprinkled on the crying Jordan meme here]. But I learned this the hard way by how I answered the inevitable question, “How is your year going?” At first, I gave honest answers like: “It has been the loneliest year of my life standing in my basement talking to my dog all day.” “I really miss the rhythm of the semester schedule.” “Believe it or not, I really miss the classroom.” I can tell you from personal experience, people do not like these honest answers. Luckily, no one punched me, but I certainly got plenty of eye rolls and looks of anger. Fellowships are competitive and envied by all. Everyone, myself included, longs for a year where their only professional requirement is to research and write. So when someone asks you how your year is going just tell him or her that you are getting a lot of work done, then it is on you as to whether or not you are lying.
4. Find some sense of community
I learned this lesson late, but tis better to learn late than to never learn at all. About two months ago, my Mizzou colleague Cassie Yacovazzi started a writing group that meets every Friday morning for two hours. In our short time meeting together, this group has been a great support. They provide a small sense of accountability to see what we are all working on that week. There is no fine or shaming if you haven’t written anything since the week before, but just knowing that someone may ask provides a good push at the end of the week. The group also helped when I came to a sticking point in a project. While I love my dog a lot, her blank stares to my questions are not nearly as helpful as talking through different arguments with my brilliant colleagues. If a writing group is not a doable or appealing option, Twitter can be a good alternative. I know that John Fea and Art Remillard use Twitter or personal blogs to create a sense of community and accountability. Whether in person or online, finding a group of people to push you along this journey is important.
5. Have side projects
Going into my year, I told myself that I was only going to write my dissertation. I was only going to read for my dissertation. I was only going to think about my dissertation. After a week of this, I was really starting to hate writing, reading, and thinking about my dissertation. I realized that it was just too much of the same thing. So I started dedicating the first part of my day when my mind was at its sharpest to my dissertation. Then in the afternoon when I completed that day’s tasks, I shifted to work on whatever side project I had lined up. I signed up for some book reviews for different journals, I wrote some blog posts for different blogs, I applied to several conferences, and I developed some new course syllabi. Not only did this help me add a few lines to my CV, but it also gave my brain a break from constantly working on my project. It should be no surprise that as I worked on these smaller side projects that I also found some of the best ideas for my dissertation.
There you have it. These are the five lessons/tips from a year on fellowship. Again, these are not complaints and I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I just wanted to provide some sort of starting point for those just embarking on their journey. If you have something you would like to add, please put it in the comments. If you think I am just whining, I will paraphrase my fellow Texan Willie Nelson, “I write what I live and I live what I write is that wrong? If you think it is Mr./Mrs. Academic, Why don’t you write your own songs?”