At the start of this year I made the tough decision to phase out my dissertation coaching services. While I really enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with clients—and I worked with and learned from some awesome people—it wasn’t sustainable for my business in the long-term, especially as my editing services have become more focused on projects that require longer periods of my attention. Although I will no longer be coaching, I still care about helping people finish their degrees so I want to share this useful planning exercise for any PhD student who is ABD: a Dissertation Audit.
Many of the requests I received for dissertation coaching came from PhD students who had been away from their program or project for several months or more due to illness, family, or work related issues. The majority of my clients found restarting the thesis process overwhelming and just weren’t sure how to get back into their work. Across the board, most PhD students severely underestimate the time it takes to write a thesis, which makes it stressful and disheartening when they miss their original anticipated deadline. Since everyone has different demands on their attention, energy and available work hours, I developed a series of questions (below) to assess the state of the existing project and identify all the resources they had available (and the ones they still needed) in order to create a reasonable and achievable timeline for completion.
The first and most important question to ask is: “Do I want to complete my dissertation (and why)?” If your answer is yes, then go through this list of questions to reaffirm your decision to proceed and figure out the kind of time and resource committment that will be required to meet your goal of completion. Keep in mind that these categories overlap (e.g., the time you have available to complete your dissertation may be dependent on when your funding runs out).
- How much of the thesis have you already drafted?
- How much of the existing writing can be kept?
- How much still needs to be written?
- Do you have feedback for revisions from your supervisor and committee? How long will it take to revise your existing chapters based on the feedback?
- Do you have a detailed outline for the entire thesis? If yes, is the outline still relevant and achievable? If no, then take the time to create an outline, start by listing (by paragraph or by subtopic) all the elements in each chapter of your current draft(s).
- Which texts have you read? Are they still relevant to your project?
- What texts still need to be read/consulted?
- If you still need to continue researching, make a list of all the books and articles you need from library. How long will it take for you to read the books? Are there materials that must be requested from another institution (and require additional time to process)?
- Is there a firm institutional deadline that you must meet (before funding ends or before you need to re-enroll and pay additional tuition)?
- How much time do you have available to research and write (by the day, by the week)? Be honest with your limits and add extra time for unexpected delays and life stuff (e.g., if you think it will take 10 days to update your research resources, give yourself 13 or more days when you make your timeline).
- Have you discussed a timeline for completion with your supervisor and committee? Are there dates when they will be unavailable (at a conference or on sabbatical)?
- How long does it take for your supervisor and/or committee members to read and give feedback on drafts? Make sure you set clear expectations with them. You need to have your supervisor and committee on board with your timeline!
Supervisor and Committee
- What kind of support and time is available from your supervisor? Set up an in-person meeting with them to discuss expectations and your proposed timeline for completion. Request (at minimum) monthly progress check-ins in person or over phone/email.
- What kind of support and time is available from your committee members? Discuss with your supervisor about when to contact your committee members for feedback on drafts. How long will committee members have to respond?
- What are the institutional deadlines for funding and tuition costs (per semester)? Figure out the cost to remain in your program for at least one year past your ideal date of completion.
- How much personal savings are available to you? What are your financial supports outside of PhD funding?
- How much are supplemental materials and services necessary for the completion of the dissertation (e.g., childcare, copyediting, coaching, cost of paper for printing of thesis, interlibrary loan charges, etc.)?
Other Supports and Commitments
- Do you have familial commitments that require accommodation while working on the thesis (childcare, eldercare, spousal support, etc.)? What are your arrangements for dealing with these commitments?
- Does your family support your thesis efforts? Do they give you the necessary time to focus on your project? Discuss boundaries and expectations for a quiet work space with the members of your household.
- Are you working part- or full-time as you complete your dissertation? Is your employer supportive of your efforts? Can they allow you time away (if requested) to focus on the completion of your project?
- Do you require academic coaching or editing services? Have you discussed these options with your supervisor? Determine the cost of those supplementary services and set aside the necessary time to accommodate them.
- Are there any other resources that you require to finish your dissertation? Remember that making time for self-care (physical and mental) is important!
I'm a bit behind on this announcement but you can now buy ACCESSING THE FUTURE, a disability-themed speculative fiction anthology co-edited by me and Djibril al-Ayad (Futurefire.net Publishing, 2015).
Stories by Nicolette Barischoff, A.C. Buchanan, Joyce Chng, David Jón Fuller, Louise Hughes, Rachael K. Jones, Margaret Killjoy, Petra Kuppers, Toby MacNutt, Jack Hollis Marr, Kate O'Connor, Sara Patterson, Sarah Pinsker, Samantha Rich, A.F. Sanchez.
Internal illustrations by Fabian Alvarado, L.E. Badillo, Jane Baker, Comebab, Pandalion Death, Rachel Keslensky, Vincent Konrad, Tostoini
Cover art by Robin E. Kaplan
Preface by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Afterword by Derek Newman-Stille
Check out our press page over at The Future Fire, give us a like on our Facebook page. ACCESSING THE FUTURE is available for purchase (paperback or ebook) at Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu, and all other online retailers.
Two weeks ago, long time tweep, historian, and fellow Canadian Merle Massie (@merlemassie) asked me: “Do you recommend your editing/writing life to others? Twitter provides a mix of positive and draining notes.” My first response, in all honesty, was “no.” But that was because I’m feeling overworked, tired, and not at my best. I hesitated. There are so many different kinds of life situations and career paths, and, as a rule, I do not give blank statements on what people should do with their lives. For the most part, I really love what I do day to day. I thoroughly enjoy editing other people’s writing and independent scholarship is pretty darn fun. The truest answer I can give is “it depends.” A wholly unsatisfying response, I know. Instead of tweeting Merle all day long with my work/life reflections, I decided to write this blog post.
The biggest con of a freelancing editing/writing life is uncertainty. Of all the challenges involved in a freelancing life, uncertainty is at the top of my list. I would prefer to have a set amount of hours to work each week and know that those hours will remain in place for the foreseeable future. This is often not the case with freelancing. Some weeks I might only have 5 hours of paid work, while other weeks I put in over 30 hours. In terms of money then, that means my monthly earnings can vary greatly. There are many strategies to avoid long gaps between client work, but when you are just starting out, you will need to plan for inevitable lean periods. You can definitely make a good living doing freelance editing and writing, but you must be willing to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in work hours and income. The longer you are freelancing, the better you will become, hopefully, at networking and advertising, but it really isn’t a job you can just pick up and be immediately successful.
Being a Canadian makes a freelancing editing/writing life a lot easier (since we have government funded health care), but you are still entering a marketplace flooded with other people trying to grab the same customers as you. To be a successful freelancer, you will need to spend time developing a business plan, have a professional internet profile (i.e., personal website, etc.), and learn the art of networking. I actually think of myself as more of an entrepreneur than as a freelancer editor. When I can, I go to local business networking events and do what I can to positively get my name—and services—out there (in the community, on the internet).
The biggest pro of my portfolio career (academic editing, coaching, and scholarship) is that my schedule is flexible. Since I have some chronic pain issues that need managing to avoid debilitating flare ups, being in control of how much I work and when I work is essential to being as happy and productive as I can be. Take this month for example: at the beginning of October, I had several client projects on the go and was putting in full days of editing and coaching. And then I was glutened badly. I was out sick for a week…and then I came down with the flu. It totally sucked being unwell for two weeks but I didn’t “miss” any work because I was able to reschedule and reorganize my client commitments. The weeks I was ill, I made a point not to look for immediate work. I still checked email but simply scheduled any incoming work for the following weeks when I knew that I would (most likely) be well enough to work again. Having that kind of flexibility and ownership over my time is worth any uncertainty around workload and income.
So, to Merle and anyone else interested in pursuing a similar editing/writing life, I recommend spending time figuring out your top work priorities. How do you feel about uncertainty in income? How much money a month do you need to make to support yourself (and your family)? Do you have health issues that need managing? Do you like working by yourself? I have a partner who works full time, we have no dependents (just a spoiled cat), and we’re in a city that is quite affordable to live in. I chose my current career path because it made sense to me. I often tell people that my PhD has enabled me to make an excellent “part-time” career for myself. And for now, the writing/coaching/scholar life is the best fit for me.
I haven't been posting lately because I've been going back and forth between overwork and recovering from overwork. I really, really need to break this ridiculous cycle! Anyways, that's a topic for another post--this one comes courtesy of upcoming4.me, a great online magazine about speculative fiction. They invited me to write a guest post for their "story behind" column and this is what I wrote:
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When I left academia after the completion of my PhD in 2010, I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I did know, however, that my dissertation—Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk [available for download in my "about me" box above]—was not the end of my research into the ways that technology and the body intersect in science fiction. I was proud of my thesis, but there were avenues of inquiry that I wish I had been able to follow. One of those underdeveloped approaches was reading science fiction with a disability studies framework in mind. I was acutely aware of how little published (academic) work there was on reading disability and the disabled body in science fiction. Given the vast number of characters with disabilities (plus all of the plot devices of idealized “cures,” transformative surgical interventions, genetic therapies, and fantastic prostheses) in the genre, I was having a hard time watching and reading anything science fiction(al) without critically interrogating the representations of disability I saw playing out time and again. Unable to let go of my academic interests, I decided to transform myself into an independent scholar and jump into the world of academic publishing.
My edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, was a germ of an idea that finally took root during Renovation (the 2011 WorldCon). After receiving overwhelming positive support for the project from new friends and like-minded people, I returned home from the con and sent out a “call for papers” the very same week. By the end of the winter, I had 13 contributors preparing innovative and interdisciplinary readings of disability (with a focus on prostheses and the posthuman) in science fiction.
At this point in time, I should note, I had zero publications to my name. Dealing with chronic ill health and limited resources throughout my graduate career meant that I had no time or energy to pursue publishing opportunities while I was in academia. I wasn’t sure that anyone would want to publish an essay collection by a first time editor with no publishing track record. Nevertheless, I was determined to find the best press possible for Disability in Science Fiction because I believed in the value of the interdisciplinary critical analysis that it was presenting. After weighing distribution capability, promotional assistance, price point, and speed of the peer review process, Palgrave Macmillan was one of the first few publishing houses I approached. I sent my book proposal to them old-school style: I followed the directions for submissions listed on their website and, forking out the extra money for tracking and express post, mailed in my pitch. I was worried that some intern would simply shred my package on arrival, but my proposal was successful! Three weeks later the publishing house contacted me and told me they were interested in the collection (contract to be offered once the full draft was complete).
All in all, in took two years from conception to publishing the edited collection. The process of editing an academic essay collection is not a speedy one, but I think that my position as an independent scholar helped me move through the process faster than it otherwise might have gone. I selected essays that were on popular films and novels—such as George Lucas’ Star Wars, James Cameron’s Avatar, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark— and instructed everyone to write in accessible academic language, so that (non-academic) fans of science fiction interested in the topic would also be able to read and engage with the ideas in addressed in the collection. I kept in frequent contact with the book’s contributors, gave out a lot of direction and praise (the first is easy to come by in academia, the second…not so much), and went through several rounds of drafting. Each person who wrote a chapter for Disability in Science Fiction brought a unique perspective to the questions that I previously had been working through alone. Editing this book gave me the opportunity to collaborate with scholars from across the globe, and it is an experience for which I am grateful.
Throughout the two years I worked on this project, I received amazing feedback and advice from both the academic and fan communities of science fiction. It was that support that helped me write and edit through pain flares, injuries from overwork, and fatigue. Editing the essay collection taught me that it is possible to have a voice as an independent scholar and that there is a whole community of people out there who are as passionate about the same stuff as I am. Disability in Science Fiction is one piece of the on-going scholarship that brings together science fiction and disability studies. My hope has always been that the book brings greater critical attention to the all too often negative and damaging stereotypes of people with disabilities perpetuated by science fiction, a genre that, despite its flaws, I and so many others love and take comfort in.