advice · book · from dissertation to book · research · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem–in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”–is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.


Books


Articles


Webinars

 

 
Know of any great resources that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
advice · defense · PhD

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I’ve had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it’s been six months and I’ve got some perspective on it, it’s time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I’m in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We all hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It’s not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney’s snake fight? And what do people mean by defend–is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And they’re going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from that other people in your field are doing, and why? What’s the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don’t worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation–on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits–and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it’s optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared, but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing it is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you’re working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.

 

4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don’t need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases, and happily there’s lots of evidence out there–in the form of their scholarship and public writing–that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn’t get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person–is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there’s a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well–talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you’ve learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don’t be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn’t anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. (The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual, and often-denigrated, approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just more subtly. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off–I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.)

6. Know to Stop

It’s two days before your defence. You’ve prepared your statement. You’ve anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you’ve practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There’s nothing more you can do. It’s time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation, but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you’re going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague, like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student.
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it–your clothes cannot be a distraction.
  • It must make you feel AWESOME.
I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn’t matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect.
Other things to bring:
  • a bottle of water
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down)
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to — methods, results, a key experiment or analysis–flagged
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring — it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) — STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He’s been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.)

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you’re going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also–and you should to–figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm cool and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory–a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was no.big.deal. when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you’re prepared and and you come at it as a discussion that’s intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that’s intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence.
advice · compassion · solidarity

Embracing and Resisting Mediocrity

It has been twenty-five days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States. We’ve already seen a spate of hateful and discriminatory decrees perpetrated by the Trump administration in rapid-fire succession, and a beautiful uprising of resistance manifesting in a variety of forms, including mass protesting, calling representatives, donating to the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, or CAIR, disrupting town halls, punching nazis, and other acts of defiance. Źižek, whatever you might think of him, certainly had a point when he said the election would spark a kind of awakening; imagine how apathetic we’d all be if Hillary Clinton were elected president, even as she in all likelihood furthered Obama’s mandate of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and dropping 26 171 bombs on predominantly Muslim countries. I’ve seen many of my liberal friends transformed into progressivist activists, and the Women’s March I attended in NYC was full of newbie protesters whose outrage was expressed more through their signs than their chants. At the same time, in spite or perhaps despite of these developments, studies are showing that productivity has been decreasing across the board.

I feel that. Like some of my cobloggers, I’ve had to back away from social media a little bit because it was filling my head with too much despair (ok, really, I deleted Facebook from my phone a week ago and now can’t seem to redownload it, so not all of this distancing has been by choice…). And how can I reasonably focus on writing about dream interpretation practices in the late fifteenth century when the mothers of fourteen-year-old girls are being deported? (speaking of dreams…I hope you all read Lily Cho’s beautiful post from yesterday)

But who am I kidding, I haven’t even been trying to work on my own stuff. I’ve been teaching three classes, all entirely new prep, and continuing to apply for jobs. Dealing with the emotional toll of continuing not to have any idea where we’ll be next year, even which country, requires quite a bit of scheduled downtime—reliance on friends, intentional social or cultural outings, TV ok. I simply can’t work 12 hours a day like I used to…and nor, of course, do I think anyone should.

I don’t feel like I’m doing much right at all these days, I thought to myself as I tried to brew up an inspirational post for this esteemed blog.  I’ve been teaching well, and even getting liiiiife from teaching, but by this point I’ve settled into enough of a routine that I have no major streaks of inspiration to write about. I can’t blog about the job market, except to say that, uhh, I’m still on it. I keep meaning to do more yoga, more meditation, more blogging, more (or any) creative art projects, more leisure reading, more protest-y things. All of these mores that accumulate and weigh on my psyche, making me feel unaccomplished and worthless. Maybe you’ve been feeling that way too.

So I guess I’m back to that classic lesson about the good enough professor – maybe mediocrity, or less-than-perfectionism, is sometimes okay. For me, now, this means simply accepting that what I’m already doing is good enough, and recognizing and honouring the things that are going well. I may never be able to do a handstand at yoga, but at least I’m there, wildly kicking my feet in the air and spending some meditative time in my own head. I’ve been prepared for all my classes, getting the grading done in a reasonable amount of time, submitting applications, and cultivating some meaningful relationships. And I’ve been doing what I can to resist political normalization, aiming for one Thing a day, big or small. Sometimes that can just be sending a friend a text to see how they’re doing.

Paradoxically, if I accept that I’m already good enough, an unintentional side-effect might emerge of becoming better. Wallowing in guilt and productivity FOMO doesn’t get us anywhere; it fills us so full of self-hatred that we keep refreshing Twitter or pressing snooze. So being realistic about goals and grateful for the opportunities and achievements that naturally unfold throughout the daily realities of life might just boost my spirits enough to help me find time for more of the things whose absence I’ve been ruing.

Something that’s rarely mentioned when self-care strategies are discussed is that self-care can actually help you become more intentional about taking action in other areas, perhaps without you even realizing it. It helps you become more grateful, a better person. I hate to hover near the productivist argument that being kind to yourself will help you become more efficient, but…it’s true? Or, at least, it will help you better identify and reward the tasks and hurdles you are completing, to realize a more concrete schedule that will allow time for care, time for work, time for protest. Again, I don’t think becoming better should necessarily be the goal–because then you’re caught back in the trap of unreasonable expectations and disappointments. Perhaps embracing mediocrity can also count as a form of resistance against it.

And I want to echo some of the thoughts of Margeaux Feldman’s post about the Women’s March and intersectionality. Just as we need to struggle through our mistakes to land at a more inclusive movement, we need to fight against our tendency to judge others on their chosen mode of resistance. To be sure, everyone should be resisting in some way. I am not okay with apathy or wait-and-see-ism, not while people are being deported (to our Canadian readers: you too can make phone calls! You too can be vigilant against injustice! Surely I don’t need to cite certain recent events to underscore this point). The time to wait and see has long passed if it ever existed in the first place. But for those of us who are stretching ourselves to make a difference, I echo the words of this smart post by Mirah Curzer:  

The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, ‘you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment’ or ‘you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.’That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.

Focusing on the things where you have leverage and the possibility of shifting policy (even at a local level) requires not getting involved in everything. And we all make our choices and don’t owe the world our reasoning–if you’re out at a protest and you see your friend posted an Instagram of her cat at home, try not to jump straight to the conclusion that she must not care enough to come out; perhaps she was feeling fatigued and is focusing her energies elsewhere.

Be kind to yourselves and each other, readers! And thank yourself for the awesome humans you are, fighting for manifold worthy causes during a difficult and uncertain time. In sum, this blog might not be the best blog I’ve ever written, but I’m happy to have pushed past my uncertainty to produce something. And this counts for my daily Thing right? 🙂 Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Christopher Michael Roman for this timely image share. 

advice · enter the confessional · supervision · writing

The Terror Curve: A Theory of Motivation, Accountability, and Writing

Riddle me this. Why does everyone start their PhD telling me that they’re going to finish in four years, but no one does? Why does almost everyone finish their coursework on time, but then go two years without producing a dissertation chapter? Why do students with cogent and workable dissertation proposals utterly fail to write their dissertations?

The answer, I suggest, is largely structural rather than individual. I have ideas, ideas that have to do with structure and accountability, just like all my other ideas.

Let me present you with Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing, as a chart. I drew it on a piece of paper:

Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing

The vertical axis measures fear. The horizontal axis measures time. The blue line is the baseline fear of writing that most of us have–you know, the reason we scrub toilets instead of writing because we are more scared of writing than we are put off by unpleasant household cleaning tasks. The red line is deadline pressure, which grows in a non-linear fashion from “meh, I’ve got LOADS of time” to “BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS AND HAND ME THAT CASE OF RED BULL WE ARE WRITING A WHOLE BOOK TODAY, PEOPLE.” I call this line, “The Terror Curve.”

Writing happens where Baseline Fear and Deadline Fear intersect: this is the point for many writers where the fear of consequence for not writing exceed the fear or writing.

This is not ideal. If you want to get the writing started sooner, one of two things has to happen: either you reduce the base line of writing fear (which we’ve discussed, mostly by lowering your standards and cultivating a daily writing habit), or by dramatically accelerating the crisis points in the Terror Curve.

Consider coursework. Each seminar lasts a mere 12 weeks. Every single week, students have to show up in class, and demonstrate that they’re read the material. Often, mid-semester, students have to produce a formal proposal for their final paper, and hand it in for grades. They might have to do an annotated bibliography a few weeks later, and then there is a hard deadline for the paper shortly after the semester ends. Courses usually culminate with a research paper, but the weekly reading deadlines, and scaffolded writing assignments mean there are lots of shorter and less dramatic Terror Curves, with lower stakes, that may in turn reduce the Baseline Writing Fear.

In chart form: Note how manageable this looks. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is lower because the stakes are lower. Note that writing happens at many points in the semester. Note that the Terror Peaks are not at very high fear threshold points.

The Terror Curve in coursework

But how do we organize dissertation writing? Proposal complete, students are set entirely loose, with an injunction to “write something” and then, when they deem that something is somehow ready in some way for some kind of feedback, to turn it in. The only real deadline is Dissertation Defense, which isn’t a date until the thing is actually done, but there are other deadlines that are squishier or aspirational like “finish within four years.”

Here is the dissertation in chart form. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is high to start, because no one has written a dissertation before and doesn’t know how, and also this is the Main Goal of the PhD. Note that the Terror Curve is dramatically bent — the timeline, usually about two years, is very long, allowing for major non-writing to happen, with dramatic shooting up of terror level right at the end. The Baseline Writing Fear is usually much higher for the dissertation project than for any other writing the student has ever done, because it’s not only a huge piece of writing, but in a genre the student has never written in before, with the added bonus of being incredibly high stakes.

The Terrifying Dissertation Curve

What I often see but wish I didn’t is students writing the entire dissertation in the red zone of the terror curve: trying to do a whole dissertation in 6 months, rushing it, miserable, producing poor work. What I want to see is steadier writing, more enjoyably, with real time for revision and rethinking and savoring the process (really.)

So here is Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror. I am the terror curve for my students. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not scary and I’m not mean. But I *am* the deadline that their work otherwise lacks. I push the moment of reckoning dramatically forward, and lower the stakes, so that the writing gets done sooner and better and more easily.

Map it like this:

Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror

Note particularly the shaded areas: these are zones of continuous writing. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear diminishes over time before rising again before the defense (a new hurdle, with new readers). Note that there are LOTS of little deadlines, and that the difference between the fear of writing and the fear of not writing are pretty short, which means less procrastination and fewer mood swings.

The details are unique to each student, and negotiated. Some students book regular office visits with me. Some send me writing every week that I don’t read. Some produce detailed timelines of chapter deadlines and revision schedules. The key thing is, we determine what kind of push or prompt they need from me to ensure that they will stay accountable to their own projects.

It works at the program level too. Annual progress reports where students really account for their year of writing, and a meeting to make plans, that can work. Once-per-semester meetings with students beyond program limits, to discuss progress and celebrate it and plan it. Anything that lets students know that we expect them to get some writing done, and we will be discussing it sometime in the next couple of months makes it more likely that it becomes scarier NOT to write than it would be TO write.

Can I tell you? I failed more than one class in my undergrad because I just didn’t write the essays. I didn’t write them because I’m an anxious perfectionist with time management problems. This is why, incidentally, I like sit-down exams and in-class essays so much. Anyhow, these classes I failed usually had a mid-term essay, that I didn’t hand in and was told to just hand it in whenever, and a final essay, that I also didn’t hand in, because I still had to write the mid-term essay and I was full of shame and loathing. If the class also had a final exam, I would ace it, and then the prof would call me and wonder why why why I just didn’t get the writing done, because I was obviously so damn smart and had clearly read and understood everything. When you fall so far behind, and no one is really holding you to it, it’s easy to get rid of all the shame and fear by just not doing anything at all. I don’t want my students to suffer like this. This is not an uncommon problem among academics.

Ultimately, it would be better if we wrote without fear. That comes, eventually, from making writing a habit, being steady, and seeing the results. Most of us don’t get there without some training, and some practice, and that comes from accountability. We need more training and mentoring too, obviously, but a really easy piece is the accountability.

Oh — about the charts? I was going to do them all fancy on the computer, but I didn’t have time, because I need to finish this blog post and do some writing on my book chapter. My writing coach and I set a deadline, and it’s only three weeks away …

advice · book · dissertation · self care · writing

From Dissertation to Book – Part I: The Break

It’s been about a month since I submitted the final, revised version of my dissertation, and I haven’t looked at it since. My committee and I talked a lot about what my plans were for the dissertation prior to the defence: what presses I should think about pitching it to, if I should go trade or academic, who we know at the various presses and how that might be an advantage in crafting a proposal. But since submission? Nada. My cursor hasn’t even strayed toward the file.

I’ve done plenty else in the meantime. As Catherine Ayres notes, at the bottom of the PhD cliff lies all the stuff you’ve been putting off in the dash to submission, and oh man is that true. I’ve submitted the manuscript for a book of poetry I’m editing, started laying the groundwork for a new advice column series for another publication, ordered new business cards with my new title on them, and registered for CAGS. I’ve taken off the dissertation blinders and made a looooong list of all of the projects I’ve been putting off that are going to keep me busy this winter around our very old and very high-maintenance house.

After five years of thinking and writing about a single project every day, purposefully ignoring my dissertation feels wrong. It is, however, precisely the right thing to do right now. I have zero chill when it comes to my dissertation. I am both its biggest cheerleader and its biggest critic. Neither of those perspectives are conducive to frankly and honestly assessing its flaws and strengths with an aim to revision, nor are they useful for doing the kind of strategic assessment that is necessary in order to convince a press that this is a book they want to publish because it fills a market need, might make them some money, and will help burnish their reputation.

But because not doing something I feel like I should be doing is the surest road to amping up my anxiety levels, I’ve made “take a productive break” the official first step in my dissertation-to-book process. I’ve also tried to plan a break that is purposeful, productive, and prescribed in length. I’m giving myself a full term, until the end of 2016, and then I’m back at it. I’m also doing things in the meantime to help me move forward in the monograph publishing process even as I don’t properly start it, things like:

  • getting to work on another long writing project (fiction this time!) so that I’m maintaining my writing schedule, continuing to refine my style, practicing my ability to write engaging and accessible prose, and continually reinforcing those hard-won pathways in my brain that connect writing and revising with feeling good and accomplished
  • doing some preliminary market research — what presses are publishing work similar to mine? what professors are teaching books like mine? Is there a significant non-academic audience? Who do I know who has a BookNet account and can run me sales reports on similar titles?
  • starting to collect resources on the dissertation-to-book process so that I have a trove of advice at my fingertips whenever I need it
  • pulling together a bunch of successful book proposals that I’ve either worked on in my freelance life or have solicited from friends and colleagues so that I have a model to work from when it comes time to write my own
  • reading and rereading books that are similar to what mine will become–Sandra Djwa’s Journey with No Maps, Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter, Frank Davey’s aka bpNichol–so that I can start teasing apart what makes them work and what ideas I can borrow when it comes time to craft a plan for revisions
But mostly I’m doing other things–cooking, running, spending time with my people–in an effort to relax, reset, and get some perspective. It feels good. I’m hopeful that if nothing else, by the end of the year it will have sunk in that I did indeed finish, defend, and submit a dissertation. That would be a good start!
advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

From the archive: How to ask for reference letters

This is a repost of a timely how-to. Just this morning I noticed it zip across my Twitter mentions again. It’s reference letter season, and once more I’m coaching students on The Ask. This post is one of the most-read pieces in the archives, with nearly 18,000 page views as of this morning.

Refinements always welcome, so add your advice in the comments, and please share!

Cheers,
Aimée


I’m writing/rewriting/polishing five different SSHRC reference letters today (hi there, my PhD students!) I’ve obviously been asked for letters by all of them, and in my position as Grad Chair, as well, I’ve talked to a LOT of other students about the “ask.”

It seems that many of us do not know how to ask for reference letters.

I understand. It’s awkward: “Dear Professor? Can you write a glowing report attesting my awesomeness, if you’re not too busy, but I know you’re busy and I’m not sure I’m awesome anyways?” Or, worse, in your first semester at a new school, add to end “And you have never met me but I read something about you on the internet?”

I thought I would put in a post what I’m repeating to everyone who comes to meet me. Maybe next year, I’ll just link the post so people can check it out in their pyjamas instead of trying to summon the nerve to admit a lack and ask for help in person.

The ask

Do not feel awkward about asking for a letter. Use a form letter. This is a routine academic transaction. Get good at it. The letter (usually an email) should:

  • clearly state what you want,
  • graciously ask for it,
  • note why you’re asking this person and who you are
  • indicate all relevant deadlines and include all relevant paperwork,
  • offer enough context for the potential assessor to make a reasoned judgment

The form letter

Dear Prof. [insert name here

I am writing to ask if you would be willing and able to write me a positive reference for [specific job / specific scholarship / specific award]. I am asking you for this reference because [I took XXX class with you and got XXX grade or received XXX comment / I am new here and hope we might eventually work together, and your work in XXX intersects with my interests / you are my supervisor and know my work the best / I did an RA/TA for you and I hope you can speak to XXX parts of my work for you]. 

The letter is due on [specify date, and it had better not be the day after tomorrow]. It is to be [submitted electronically / mailed directly to the sponsor / returned to me so that I can submit it in my package]. I have [attached a PDF / linked to the online reference form] at the bottom of this email, should you agree to provide the reference.

I have also attached my [abstract / proposal summary / PDF of the job ad / link to the award criteria] as well as my CV. I am happy to send you any further documents, such as my unofficial transcripts, or [a longer writing sample/ a copy of the feedback you gave on my final paper / my other application materials] should you wish to see them. 

Please let me know whether or not you can provide the reference. Thank you in advance for your time and your consideration of this request. 

Best wishes,
[Your full, legal name, plus a nickname if useful,some context like 2nd year MA student, BA English XXXX, etc]

Some key points:

  • Note that this is a little formal: you are asking for a favour
  • Note that this puts all the relevant info in front of the prof to both write the letter and to determine if she wants to
  • It is often the case we can’t remember you: giving this info reminds us
  • Give your reference plenty of lead time: minimum two weeks
  • This does not assume or demand; it asks and it offers
  • Do not send giant oodles of writing; this is incredibly off-putting
Please, take this form letter and use it. If all the requests I got were filled-in versions of this template, I would be very happy. Also, can I be honest here? The letters would get written a lot sooner. You would not believe some of the requests I get, that are framed as ransom letters (“I MUST HAVE THIS LETTER BY THE END OF THE DAY”). Or that give me so little context I have to expend serious effort to figure out what’s happening (“Hey! Remember me from that class I took sometime in the last ten years? I won’t tell you which one, but can you write me a super specific letter about how great I am, based on what you remember from that? Sincerely, Katie” [no last name whose email is warriornerd@gmail.com][whose legal name is actually something like Caitlyn, so I can’t figure out who she is or when in the last ten years I might have taught her, or in what class]). Or the weird grandiose ones (“Hi, I’ve attached my 125 page MA thesis, so if you could look it over and tell everyone what an honour it is that I’ve joined your program that would be great.”) If you make it hard for me to like you because you’re so cavalier with my time, or you make it hard for me to help you because you don’t give me enough information, it’s going to be really hard to get a good letter out of me.
My feelings of frustration evidenced in the slightly (but not much) exaggerated characterizations of the last paragraph are understandable but not fair: maybe you don’t know how to ask for a letter the right way. Believe when I tell you other professors have exactly the same reactions that I do. So that’s why I wrote this today.
Hook & Eye hive mind: if you are the writer of the letters, can you suggest any alterations or edits to what I’ve suggested? What’s your experience? And if you are an asker for letters, can you offer any comments on the process? And are there other academic letter genres you’d like me to do a post on?
advice · chronicle vitae · feminism

Ladies, Let’s Negotiate

Did you know that Hook & Eye is now on Chronicle Vitae? We’re excited to be able to expand our audience, and Erin, Aimée, Boyda and I have posts up over there.

My first, on negotiating while female, discusses what the research says about the best strategies for negotiating as a woman, strategies that help to counter the unconscious bias that has contributed to the gendered wage gap.

I was annoyed at negotiating advice that just told women to ask for more, as research suggested that asking for more in the wrong ways could have significant negative social and financial impacts for women. But what I didn’t know at the time–for new research has just come out–is that women do ask. In fact, they ask as much as men–they just don’t get what they ask for. You can check out that study from the University of Warwick here.

I still stand by my advice about how to ask in ways that may get you what you want more of the time. But the fact that asking more doesn’t seem to be part of the issue at all makes me even more angry than I already was.

You can read the full post over at Chronicle Vitae.


Image: vintage photo of women boxing (via Creative Commons

adminstration · advice

#sorrynotsorry: getting it done, unapologetically

Doubly cursed a woman AND a Canadian, I have a tendency to apologize for everything. Someone walks into me while I’m standing still? “Sorry!” (for not having made myself more visible, maybe.) Someone at my doctor’s office has left me in the waiting room for 40 minutes because they actually didn’t check me in? “Sorry to be a bother …” (because when I gave you my card and appointment details I thought you would tell the doctor I was here). Someone hands a paper in late? “Sorry …” (because I have to give a late penalty.)

Once I became grad chair, the opportunities to apologize became more numerous, because not only did I have a lot more opportunity to make mistakes, and I have made plenty, I also had to enforce a lot of rules and make a lot of decisions that invariably made at least some people unhappy.

There are three kinds of apologies I have heard myself and others make, in leadership roles:

  1. Apologizing for mistakes is a leader thing to do: it shows responsibility and humility at once. While it would be better not to make the mistake at all, if you make it once,  just own it: “I’m sorry none of this paperwork made it to your office by the deadline. I didn’t realize how much time it would take me to process them on our end, and that was my error.”
  2. Apologizing for making decisions is a not-leader thing to do. It undermines confidence in your leadership: “I’m sorry that you have to serve on that committee in the spring” makes it sound like not even you think it’s a good idea.
  3. Apologizing for someone else’s behaviour and/or the consequences of that behaviour is even worse, and plays into the mommy or nurturer stereotype many people seem to expect from women. It also makes you look like a pushover. “I’m sorry, but you failed the exam” makes it sound like the failure is your own, for example.

We should all continue to cultivate the practice of Apology Number One: a heartfelt “sorry” and commitment to not make that mistake again is a learning opportunity and a relationship-builder. Or at least a relationship-mender, in cases of serious blunders. The trick here is to make the sorry unequivocal and clear. In my example above, I avoided the “I’m sorry … but … ” formulation that says, basically, “I know I have to say ‘sorry’ but it actually wasn’t my fault.” A more egregious failure of category one apologies comes in the form of “I’m sorry … if …” as in “I’m sorry if some found my language offensive,” because that lays the ultimate responsibility for the people choosing to be offended instead of at your own feet, for saying something insensitive.

Apologies Number Two and Three are deadly, though, and we must stop with that. Luckily, I have some suggestions that keep the empathy and kindness I think we’re all aiming for when we apologize in those ways, without actually apologizing.

Make Decisions Without Expressing Regret!

If you have decided something, say so without regret or equivocation. “I’m sorry, but our meetings must take place on Friday afternoons” sets people up to complain. This is better: “Our meetings have all been scheduled for Friday afternoons this term. We are a big committee, with many obligations, and that time slot is the only one in which all of us are free to attend.” Here, I just took the sorry right out. If you want to empathize, you could add, “I know it’s not your preferred time-slot–it’s not mine, either!”

If you have decided something unpopular, the tendency to apologize to the inevitable complainants will be near overwhelming. I suggest giving structural context but no apologies. Let’s say you have to assign someone to teach at 8:30 in the morning, and they ask to change to 9:00 or 9:30 or 10:00 or anything and you say no. Don’t apologize. Briefly explain why: “The registrar’s office mandates class timeslots. Start times for graduate courses are 8:30am, 11:30am, 2:30pm and 5:30pm. So your class time cannot be shifted for that reason, and even if we arranged such a thing informally, it would conflict with the courses starting at 11:30, thus diminishing student choice, and, potentially, the enrolment in your own course.” It is an advanced manoeuvre to give the right amount of context, but not too much. Overexplaining is simply another version of apologizing and undermining your own authority.

If someone asks you to do something, like an invited talk, or a workshop or some such, and you have the feeling that you are supposed to feel honoured AND that saying no would mean that person has to go back to the drawing board to find someone else, you can still say no without regret. The word you want here is “unfortunately.” The word “unfortunately” is a magical world. It suggests bad luck, without agent or transitivity. “Unfortunately, I will not be able to accept your invitation, owing to constraints on my schedule. Thank you for thinking of me.” Not sorry. You did nothing wrong in turning down discretionary work.

Do Not Apologize for Being the Bearer of Bad News

I deliver a surprising amount of bad news: no, you can’t have that transfer credit; no, I cannot sign that course override; no, you cannot graduate without the language requirement milestone; no, your dissertation is not ready to defend; no, you did not win that scholarship; no, you did not receive admission to the program.

In some these cases, I’m just the decider of something: like transfer credits, or course overrides. These are actually category two situations.

The harder cases are when you have to hold someone to account for their own failings. It is crucial not to apologize here–that can give false hope, or inculcate a sense of grievance that will lead to the filing of a grievance. It is possible to deliver bad news with empathy, but without apology. If someone has failed an exam: don’t apologize. If someone has been caught plagiarizing: don’t apologize. If someone has failed to hold office hours for an entire term and needs to be disciplined: don’t apologize.

Here are the phrases you need: “I understand this is not the news you were hoping for,” “I understand this is unexpected,” “I am sure this is distressing to hear,” “I imagine you must be upset by this news.”

Some more phrases: “If you need some time to think about this, we can meet at another time,” or “Here is a Kleenex,” or “This might be a lot to take in, please feel welcome to ask me questions about what comes next.”

Also important: be quiet and wait for the person to say something. Sometimes an awkward but empathetic silence is better than rushing in with a bunch of words while someone’s head is reeling. The key is to be clear and direct with the bad news and the consequence if there is one, while expressing a sensitivity to the recipient’s likely distress.

In conclusion

We apologize sometimes from empathy, sometimes from insecurity, and sometimes from a squeamishness about our own decisions. Unless you’ve made a mistake, though, there are better ways to express kindness and understanding, more productive ways, than saying “sorry.”

I’ve been really kicking my non-apologies into high gear since I’ve had to make so many decisions and enforce so many rules in my administrative role. But the same rules apply to being asked to serve on committees, or to perform service or volunteer work, or to give a talk or a workshop.

Do you apologize more than you want to? Do you have strategies to help with that? I’d love to hear them.