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Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliemleo


It’s an all too familiar story among PhD students. You exhaust yourself preparing for exams, finally pass and put them behind you, and then you… become dormant and non-productive for months afterward. 

Wait, that can’t be right, can it? 

Others have written helpfully about how to prepare for nearly every aspect of the exams, but it can be easy to forget about what comes next. The looming shadows of the prospectus and dissertation often leave grad students frozen in place after exams. While a short breather from work can be a much-needed, saving grace, it’s important to not let that breather turn into a rut. So, you’ve passed! Now what?

Return to Your Source Material:

Finishing exams means that you’ve likely spent months combing through secondary sources and renting out valuable head space to other people’s ideas. Sometimes those scholars’ works can be the inspiration for a great new direction in your work, but usually they just end up luring you away from your own good ideas. If you’ve found yourself worried that your project hasn’t covered all of its theoretical bases, or if your stack of library books is taller than a small child, it’s time to put down the Foucault and take a big step back. 

Going back to your primary source material (or initial notes, interviews, or experiments) means seeing it again with fresh eyes. You’ll remember why you chose this project in the first place, notice new things that you haven’t before, approach it from new angles, and  see how it connects to the vast web of reading you did in preparation for your exams. Most importantly, though, you’ll be able to really listen to what your source material is saying without looking to see how it fits in with the theory. Setting aside the secondary sources and your own desire to make the source material fit can help you reinvigorate your project and discover the next step on your own. Taking notes while you re-approach your material can also be a way to produce writing and get your thoughts down in a low-stakes way. 

Start a Messy Outline:

I’m sure we’ve all been told that the prospectus is really just an outline of your project. No pressure, right? But when it comes time to finally contribute to that document on your desktop labeled “Prospectus,” it’s easy to freeze up. If the stress of working on an official prospectus leaves you staring down a blank Word document, then it’s a good time to loosen up a little. 

Tackling a project through consistency is perfect for the long-term, but sometimes you just need to get a project moving again. In that case, take the pressure off! I recommend leaving all Word documents behind. Think about chapters that you could write or that you would want to write. Think about some of the questions that you want to address with your project or with individual chapters, how you might organize it to be most easily written or most easily read, and what primary source material you definitely want to include. And then grab some glitter glue and poster board. Seriously! 

Step away from your official work routine and start jotting down your thoughts on notecards, on napkins, and on sticky notes. Get some colorful markers and draw a mind map, or follow other authors’ similar suggestions for how to get your writing gears back in motion. Write out possible chapter titles and keywords in sparkly pen and make a collage of primary sources that you want to put in conversation together. Start a conspiracy-theorist-style cork board and string map of your project. Make your brainstorming and outlining approach as low-stakes and fun as possible to stop associating your work process with the frightening formality of submitting a prospectus or starting a dissertation. After you clear away the glitter, you may just find that you’ve ended up with a solid outline and the beginnings of a prospectus document after all, and, if not, you will have at least spent some valuable time sorting through your ideas. 

Steal Your Own Ideas:

After surviving exams it’s tempting to put the whole thing out of your thoughts completely since you probably don’t want to relive it. But if you’re feeling frozen in place, then now is the time to turn back the clock and re-read your past work. 

Re-reading your exam papers can be emotionally difficult, but it’s a great opportunity to revisit where you were with your project and make a comparison with where you are now. It’s also a great chance to lift some of your better-written passages for use in your prospectus. A lot of the work of a prospectus—the literature review, the broad overview and exigency of your work—is work that you’ve already dabbled in during your exams, so there’s no need to start from scratch. Looking over previous notes you’ve taken, old annotations, and even previous, seemingly unrelated, papers that you’ve written can inspire you, remind you of what you love about your project, and lend you some great, but forgotten sentences to revamp and revive in your current work.

Since you’ve passed your exams, you’ve already done an enormous amount of work, work that you could be using to help move your current project forward. Past you had some great ideas, and I’m sure they won’t mind you using them.

Talk to Your Advisor:

No one wants to hear it, but you can’t (and shouldn’t) do this alone. Even though we all dream of being the kind of students who only approach our advisors with perfect, finished products, the fact of the matter is that producing a project means struggling with it. Frequently.

If you’re stalling out, feeling uninspired, scared to make a mistake, or just generally feeling blue about your work then it’s time to reach out. Your advisor, your committee members, your peers, and your loved ones are all part of your support structure and while some will undoubtedly be able to give you better feedback about your project than others, it’s important to remember that you should be honest with them about where you’re at and what you’re struggling with. 

Your advisor, in particular, is there to help you move from shaky ideas to a firm foundation, but they can only help if you keep them in the loop. There’s no shame in an email that says that you’ve stalled, that you’ve been thinking about changing projects, that you have no idea what to do next. Whatever that email or meeting looks like for you, it’s important to remember that you’re not in this alone and that you have a team of people in your life and program who all want to see your project flourish as much as you do. Whether you’re going back to the beginning, lowering the stakes, revisiting your old ideas, or reaching out for help, any progress is still progress. The worst thing to do after exams, after all, is nothing. 

How have you dealt with stalling out in the past?


[Image by user Pixabay and used under the Creative Commons License.]