Ashley Sanders is a doctoral candidate in the department of History at Michigan State University and Digital Scholarship Librarian at the Claremont Colleges. You can follow her on Twitter at @throughthe_veil or on her blog, Colonialism Through the Veil.
When I found GradHacker, I was living in Chicago, away from my home campus, frantically preparing for my last comprehensive exam, conducting pre-dissertation research, and only sleeping about four hours a night—or day—or whenever I finally collapsed. The honesty of GradHacker authors was refreshing: other people had faced difficult circumstances too! (And lived to write about it!) Some of the first posts still resonate as profoundly now as when I read them during those dark months in Chicago. Here’s just a sampling for those of you who have yet to discover the richness of GradHacker’s archive:
- The Daily Dozens – A Writing Exercise
- Cross-Train Your Graduate School Career
- The Myth of More Time
- Stripping Down the Writing Process
- Stoicism in Grad School
- Surviving Studying for Comprehensive Exams
- The Perils of Perfectionism
- Grad School Guilt
- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation
The posts reminded me to take care of myself and that there was life outside of graduate school. They made me laugh when I was on the verge of tears and helped me cling to hope that things might one day get better. Each post provided another affirming reminder that even though I felt lonely, I was not really alone.
As a result of months of traumatic writing experiences, I could barely write an email because of the terror I felt when sitting down at the keyboard. I knew that the only way to get beyond the writing paralysis was to continue to write—as much and as often as I could for a variety of audiences. As a way to face my fear of writing for other academics, I asked if I could submit a couple of guest posts to GradHacker. Writing for GradHacker, initially as a guest author and then as a full-time author, became the first step in my journey to recovering my self-confidence as a writer. It allowed me to write for other scholars in an environment that felt safe and to unravel some of the complexities of grad school in hopes of smoothing the path a little for other students.
My first post was a user’s guide to the Newberry Library, where I conducted my research in Chicago. While it should have been a simple post to write, I labored over it for hours, second-guessing every word choice and the construction of every sentence. Even now I can barely look at it, remembering how tortured the writing process felt at that time. At a snail’s pace, with each post on my personal blog and GradHacker, with each conference abstract and paper, with my dissertation prospectus and each chapter, writing has become easier, and the words now flow again. Academic writing still provokes anxiety that I continue to work through, but I could not have made it through grad school without the supportive community of fellow GradHackers and the opportunity to regain my confidence as a scholar through serving as an author. If you have ideas, experiences, or hacks to share about surviving and thriving in grad school, please contact the editors and become a guest author! Interested in joining the team? Look for the call for authors this summer! I can’t recommend it highly enough.
If you struggle with writing (and who doesn’t?), please know that it gets better. Here are a few tips to help you along the path to greater confidence:
1. Surround yourself with a support team that will offer constructive criticism along with heaping doses of encouragement. Several professors, my GradHacker comrades, and grad student friends formed (and form) mine.
2. If you are feeling paralyzed with fear and anxiety, don’t hide in the dark! You’re not alone. Visit your campus counseling center and work with a therapist to deal with any underlying issues that are keeping you stuck. Also see if they have, or if you can start, a grad student support group.
3. Take care of your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Get enough rest, eat well, exercise, and do things that bring you joy. You will be happier, more creative, and more productive as a result.
4. Write often. Write as much as you can in as many formats (i.e., blogs, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journal, music, playwriting, etc.) and for as many audiences as you can. The muse only shows up when you do. Make appointments to meet her frequently.
5. Explore new ways to express your thoughts and ideas through text, images, and sound. See what happens!
6. Journal about what you enjoy about the writing process and/or your writing topics. Journal about what makes your stomach knot up in dread as you sit at the keyboard. In short, write about writing to work through blocks and remind yourself of what you do enjoy about it.
After two years as a GradHacker author, it is with a mixture of sadness, gratitude, and excitement about what lies ahead that I say goodbye to this amazing community of scholars. I’ll still stop by as a reader and continue to promote the great work of the authors, but it is now time for me to take the next step into life beyond graduate school and my new career as the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the Claremont Colleges Library. Stay in touch and always feel free to contact me with questions about grad school, the job search, and life after graduation. You can reach me via Twitter: @throughthe_veil or email me at ashley_sanders (at) cuc.claremont.edu.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading