Diss-cembering to the End

Okay, I am actually feeling like Frodo, except for not standing on Mount Doom and being totally wrecked by an evil power. I am actually feeling like Frodo, sitting at my desk, enjoying some Christmas cookies, tea and writing this blog post, next to the wonderful Christmas tree I decorated with my dad.

So, I am just sitting at my desk, in front of my PC, listening to music and surfing the internet. Two books are lying next to me: one mystery novel to relax my mind and “The professor is in” by Karen Kelsky (for more info see her website!).

Well, I am almost done with graduate school – you know why? The Frodo-feeling I have is actually caused by my sending my thesis and my catalogue to my supervisors the day before Christmas.
So… actually, I am waiting now for their opinions. I have time for my corrections and revisions in January – and I can reach my goal of submitting my thesis in February. If you remember my first Diss-cember post, I actually planned to sent my text by end of December or the beginning of January, but now I am two weeks in front of my schedule and I am so relieved… well: I feel you, Frodo!

It was not easy to sent my thesis to my supervisors. I always panic in front of the sent-button. And I admit it, I had my mum on the phone – the only human being with the perfect ability to calm me down (next to my love, who empowered me with choclate before going to work). This is what I meant with asking people you love for help during the time of finishing your thesis. There were several occasions in the last four weeks where I stopped working in the evening, perfectly relaxed and proud of what I did that day – only to start crying or shaking nervously few minutes after going to bed.
These were no attacks of panic or fear, just signs of my stress level. My brain literally could not stand the pressure, so movement and tears were necessary for my balance. I acted like a maniac, but I know that a lot of people did so, even some of my peers told me not to worry – we are all mad when it comes to submitting your PhD thesis.

I had and I am still having a lovely Christmas break. I was in desperate need of this break, to be honest. I  have a little cold, I am constantly tired and I am not doing anything at all except for sleeping, eating and reading funny stuff I want to read. And I am not even thinking about my thesis. There is no need. To cite the last line of Harry Potter: All was well.

There was no reason to check it again for mistakes or filling in new literature quotes or for re-phrasing certain parts. There may be need to check it again and do corrections and revisions, but I am not able to do them now without the help of my supervisors; there are some points we have to discuss again, we all know this. I have collected my arguments and I have written them down and I liked it. Really.

Remember: A good dissertation is a done dissertation.
So, I am done, and I am eager to reset my brain for the corrections to be done soon, for I will be back at my work on Thursday. But that is okay, I can scroll over my things I have to do in January and I have two days to write a new plan for corrections and do some proof-reading before hitting the last miles of PhD-road again.

I thought it would be very hard for me to let all my thesis stuff be all this time after Christmas until the New Year will catch me in my cosy reindeer socks and cuddled on my couch watching Christmas movies. Actually, it was nothing near hard or stressful.
I made it clear to myself on the evening of the 23rd – I have done the best work I was able to do, I have written down all my good and precise arguments, I am sure that there are not too many nasty misspellings in my text (yeah, I grew really blind on them, I am sorry) and I was really brave for standing up against that enormous workload and getting all my sh*t done the way I wanted it. And I was able to let go an hit the sent button.

I am still too tired and exhausted to figure out how all that worked so well, but everything is good and I am concentrating on my health and my sleeping rhythm to re-collect my strength.

So, shoutout to all my dear writing buddies who are working on their thesis right now, or are thinking really hard about how to get back to work after Christmas break. The silver lining is real and the end is near. You can do it!

Enjoy the last days of 2019 and I wish you all the best for 2020 – make it your year, make your dreams come true!

Astrid 🙂

Why “just focus on your thesis” is not entirely good advice

Which doctoral student has not yet heard the infamous sentence “You just focus on your PhD”? Of course, this advice is given in all sorts of contexts and I can’t talk through them all here, but I will discuss one reason why it is good advice and two why it’s not good advice. It’s not particularly Christmas-y, but then again, this is a PhD life blog and not a Christmas blog 😉 


Pro: ‘Extras’ only count once you have the PhD

Extras are great and important (see point below). That peer-reviewed paper, being the head of the student committee, that stay abroad, a fellowship at a prestigious institution. All these things are assets on your CV, no doubt. But they only really count once you have that PhD. You won’t get a post-doc because of your nice CV unless the PhD is done. 

So while these extras are priceless once you have that thing in hand, they are practically worthless if you don’t get the PhD done. So the advice “Just focus on your PhD” is valid in a way, especially when you’re at a point where you already have so many ‘extras’ (which are also all around the same ‘value’) that new ones really won’t upgrade your CV any further. This is the point where the degree is the only thing standing in the way of applying to the next higher positions. 

But there are (considerable) negative sides to his (usually well-meant) advice as well: For example, when you don’t already have those extras hiring committes nowadays want to see beside the PhD, then it’s not good advice. (For more info, read: Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In.)


Contra 1: Nowadays, you need extras as well, so you can’t completely neglect them to really focus on the thesis

In The Professor is In (great book, review to follow!), Karen Kelsky writes in her chapter The Myths Grad Students Believe (23-28):

[Ph.D. students] rest all their hopes in the completed dissertation as a magical talisman of scholarly success, unaware that is is scarcely more than a union card – the bare minimum proof of eligibility […]. Certainly, they are encouraged in this by faculty advisors, who, when confronted with the anxious reports from the job hunt, offer the easy evasion “just focus on your dissertation”, as far preferable (for both advisors and advisees) to a hard conversation about an academy in crisis, on the one hand, or flaws in a student’s record, on the other. (Kelsky 2015, 23)

When reading Kelsky’s more-than-useful guide, it becomes quite obvious that the “just focus on the dissertation” advice, many times, is a lazy excuse. Sometimes it is well-meant advice because, after all, this strategy used to be really good and worked 30 years ago. So your advisor might not even have it in for you when they repeat this advice. But it is still bad advice for the job market now.

You need to add some other high-value items to your record which result in additonal quality lines on your CV. Kelsky’s tip is that you should try to add one (quality!) line to your CV per month. However, mind that not all lines are worth the same, so don’t only go for easy-to-get items. Rather go for easy-to-get items only if you really can’t help it one month. Otherwise, plan ahead which item you add to your CV every month. People will know which ones were not really great achievements. (A book review doesn’t count as a quality item, in case you were wondering.) Respect some basic rules while doing that, mainly well-known truths such as: Peer-reviewed papers should always be preferred to conference proceedings and excessive conferencing. But, of course, nobody’s expecting you to deliver a peer-reviewed paper per month, so you’re allowed to “fill up” with some of the above. Just remember to fill your time-planning glass with the big rocks first, then add the pepples around them.


Contra 2: It’s demotivating to not have goals ahead

Now for the first time in my life, I have no perspective. When I was in school, I worked for graduation as a “middle term” goal, but I always had going to university in mind as a long term goal. When I arrived at university, I worked towards a degree but I also always knew that I wanted to do a doctorate afterwards. So my long-term goal was the doctorate. But now, I have no real long-term goal. And I find it devastating. That’s the main reason why for me, recurring repetitions of “Just focus on your thesis” are hurtful and counterproductive. I don’t want to blindly focus on a writing text which might or might not give me a perspective for the future, in the future. I need a perspective now.


So dear advisors, well-meaning friends and loved ones,

the next time you think about saying “Just focus on the PhD” or similar sentences, do us all a favour and don’t. Just shut the fuck up. Thanks.

If you’re an advisor, think about what Karen Kelsky preaches: Your job is to prepare your advisees for the (current!) job market (not the job market from 30 years ago). And repeating “just focus on the PhD” just isn’t enough. If that’s all you do, you’re not doing your job.


So that’s it for now.





Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job, NY 2015. Do get that book, its value is priceless!




What’s your *one thing* which will move you forward in 2020?

Recently I witnessed a class at our climbing gym. It was about which strength training exercises you can do for antagonist muscles which are neglected in climbing. But those are not what I want to talk to you about. After having witnessed 10 minutes of this class while streching out after my climbing session, the trainer had already enumerated about 15 different exercises. I coulnd’t even recall them all. And all I wanted to do was yell over to him: “Can you please proceed to show us the *one thing* which will have an actual effect?” This will be a post about effective mini-habits, new year’s resolutions and some strenght training geekery.


Keep it simple

I find that many self-improvement measures, be it in the climbing gym or office productivity, tend to be too complicated and too much. But complicated and excessive things will not get done on a daily basis, especially as those things (such as strength training for antagonist muscles) are things you have to do aside from and in addition to your actual work. If these self-improvement routines are too complicated, too hard or too time-consuming, you will not keep them up very long. Like I have preached many times now: If you want to make it sustainable, do less than you could. Leave one in the bar, so it remains fun (or as fun as possible). Don’t ask yourself to do something which is maybe even harder than your main work. Keep the mini habits mini.

It is my experience that if you look close enough (sometimes you’ll need tons of reserach), you can always find the mini-habit which has a tremendous effect. For years, my ballet teacher screamed at me because my arabesque supposedly wasn’t good (=high) enough. But she also persistently failed to show me the *one* exercise which actually works. I found that only years afterwards on YouTube. (If you’re interested: The point is that lifting your leg higher than 90 degrees up requires a different muscle group than up to 90 degrees, but that muscle group is hardly ever used and difficult to even ‘find’ or activate when you haven’t really used it before. The trick is to do a développé-based strength training: You lift the leg to the knee and from there, lift not from the foot but from the hip – it’s just a tiny, hardly visible movement but gets hard after a few reps already – then you slowly open into the développé but only a bit, not even until the leg is (half-)streched because the stretched leg tends to evoke the wrong muscle group again. Do that only once you built that strength).


“What’s the *one* thing I can do?”

It’s not like I am the only and first person to realize this. Famous self-help gurus such as Tim Ferriss have made this the key piece of their philosophy. Tim Ferriss call it the ‘minimum effective dose’. For getting fit, he suggests you train with a 20-24kg kettle bell two times a week and do 75 kettle bell swings each time (work yourself up to 75 in sets while you can’t do them all at once). 10-20 minutes total training time. That’s all. He has proven that you can have amazing, replicable results with this technique. Or, if you don’t want to work out, try his “30 in 30”, that means having 30g of protein (such as in a shake) within 30 minutes of waking up. This charges up your metabolism and he was also able to show than you can achieve dramatic changes in your weight if you do just this morning routine, even if you change nothing about your other habits at all.


Simple is sustainable

Many people think running is a good way to get fit. But really, if you genuinely don’t really like it and you’re only doing it to keep yourself fit, it’s incredibly ineffective. The cost in time (and suffering for someone who doesn’t like it) is high and the results will stop coming in once you’re body has adapted to it a little bit, so you’ll have to do more and more. Human beings are very effective runners, so especially endurance running is probably your worst bet ever for getting in shape: rather try High Intensity Training (HIIT). Also mostly, I think running is just too complicated. You need to change – whereas you can kettlebell in you pyjamas. You need ‘equipment’ – at least I totally tend to go overboard with making running complicated because I used to train quite ambitiously in my youth.

So to get back to the trainer from the beginning: After ten minutes, so many techniques had been enumerated that I couldn’t even remember them all. The Tim Ferriss stuff has become so popular because it’s simple. And simple is sustainable. If you have trouble even remembering what exactly you have to do only five minutes in, it’s not “habit material”.

So what can you do? From what I’ve gathered from Youtube videos, especially “Grundkurs Bouldern”‘s Ralf Winkler offers the supplementary training trias of push-ups, pull-ups and squats. I think that sounds good. They are well-known, no-bullshit exercises pretty much everybody knows how to do and they plain work. 

Also, you always need to remember that training is highly specific. Often trainers will enumerate tons of exercises but the only thing an exercise really does is train exactly this movement, so it might not even be transferable to the skill you actually wanted to learn (!). That’s why push-ups are good. They train your whole body. People of different skill and fitness levels benefit from them, but they also don’t “pretend” to train bouldering – they only give you some additional fitness. They train you to do push-ups, not much else. Most “bouldering exercises” don’t actually do much for your bouldering. That’s why Louis Parkinson from Catalyst Climbing (London) suggests you do your boulder strength training directly on the wall.


The one thing and the Pareto principle (80/20)

Most of you probably have already heard about the Pareto principle. It’s probably already a bit dated by now, but the idea behind it is still universally good: 20% of your work will give you 80% of the results. The other 80% of work only give you the additional 20% of perfecting your output. Whether a PhD student can afford to just ditch the last 20% is another question, but the principle is still worth using at least with annoying everyday tasks. Often you just need to hand in *somehing* and perfection will give you no additional reward whatsoever. So dare to keep it simple and effective.


Make better new year’s resolutions this year

When you make new year’s resolutions this Christmas, please think of my post and come up with a way of simplifying what you were planning to do in the next year. Even if you think your resolution was already quite simplicistic – cut it in half and it will be perfect. Always be very concrete in forming your goals, have cues to trigger the activities (see the review on Atomic Habits, to follow) because unconcrete goals (like “Learn French”) don’t work. Come up with something concrete such as “Learn 20 items of vocabulary per day” or “Sit down to learn French, in a timer-timed timebox of 20min every day”.

So if you want to do something for new year’s resolutions, don’t just pick some classic line everybody else uses. Take time to reflect on your goals, what exactly it is that you want and especially take the time to research what the single most effective, super-simple mini-habit to achieving that goal is.

I’ll follow up with some more new year’s resolution themed posts to go with the holiday season over the next weeks.

Have a nice pre-Christmas panic attack at work and be sure to eat some cookies while you do 😉



How letting your inner feminist out will make you more successful

Today I wanted to tackle a common fear, i.e. that you will be disadvantaged and disliked once you let your inner feminist out. While I can’t speak for everybody and my environment certainly isn’t exceptionally conservative or ‘backwards’ in that regard, I think it is quite safe to say that becoming a feminist is likely to make you more successful rather than turning you into the universally-hated, notorious ‘feminazi’, like many womxn erroneously believe.

DISCLAIMER: I am neither a professional advisor nor actually qualified to give you any kind of advice! Apply this only after reflecting whether you think it’s appropriate in your workplace. It should be, but if you’re stuck in a clearly very backwards environment you might better not do anything to make the situation even more miserable and dire. Check with a local gender equality advisor how best to proceed.


Don’t “dial down” on the feminism, level up

For a long time, I felt that I was somehow ‘holding back’ on the feminism, even tough on the inside I really wanted to be more of a feminist. Society tends to tell you that it will make you look bossy, undesirable, etc. But at some point, I realized that this is exactly one of those subconscious habits which cause womxn to be less successful than they could be. Because not daring to displease some, trying to be universally liked, accepted and appreciated by everyone is a ‘trait’ which might end up making you seem less qualified than your male peers and  come off like you’re not leadership material (btw, it’s actually literally not possible to be liked by everyone, even though womxn are taught to strive for this goal!). Because being edgy makes you interesting. It makes you look like a leader.


Don’t swallow your pride – swallow other people’s expectations

Daring to be yourself, asking for what you want and deserve, and not giving a hoot whether some idiot colleague (who doesn’t even matter to your success) might end up disliking you for your feminism will make you seem confident. People who only like you when you’re miserable and disadvantaged really don’t deserve your worries! Standing up for yourself will actually increase your worth in other people’s minds and once you start drawing boundaries and saying no, they will respect you more. In the beginning they might be a little annoyed; nobody really likes change after all. Change is hard. Gendered discrimination used to be the norm and it will remain so as long as we’re accepting accomplices to it. Just recently, I have personally had the experience that I felt so much more valued in the workplace after standing up for myself and against sexualized discrimination.


Love yourself first

Maybe it wasn’t even other people who behave differently now, maybe it’s just my perception which has changed. But I feel so much more empowered for it and thus, ready to tackle all sorts of things, not only discriminatory colleagues 😉 I feel much more respected and valued now, but that might just be a by-product of me respecting myself more. Standing up for your rights is a sign of self-love and self-respect. And like they say, maybe you need to love yourself first before others can love you.


So show yourself some self-respect! Love yourself first and allow yourself to unleash your inner feminist – we all have one of those!




How to Diss-cember without losing your mind…

This is it. This is the last month of my intensive writing bootcamp to finish my dissertation. That was the reason why you have not seen any posts from me recently… I was busy. Busy with writing, reading, writing, planning my writing, … and nearly lost my mind on it.

The last phase of your PhD is the most exhaustive one in you career, trust me on that.

Oh, and it is December already, so, I have to get all my Christmas presents for my loved ones as well, next to finishing that dissertation.

But December also means candles, cookies, lights and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – and yes, I admit it, I LOVE that time of the year. The play on words “Diss-cember” is not that new, I know, but it totally seemd accurate for the first sunday in Advent. I even picked a nice image with a candle to provide you with some seasonal flair. 🙂 I hope you like it.

Here comes my list of how not to lose my mind – I hope it will help you, too:

  1. Make a plan.
    Okay, yeah, this is the most obvious thing, I guess.
  2. Stick to it, but be gentle with yourself.
    Allow yourself to miss some of your own deadlines. Calculate enough time spots for breaks. After all, you have to take good care of yourself, because you cannot afford to drop out for days or weeks beacuse of getting sick or ill or whatever stress can do to your body and mind.
  3. Ask for help and tell your friends about your last phase of writing.
    You may need some eyes to get through your text, doing corrections. I am just saying… I, myself, am perfectly unable to see my mistakes, and I want to thank all my dear test readers on this occasion for helping me with my corrections and revisions.
  4. Reward yourself when you finished a task or a bullet on your huge to-do-list. And YES, you have time for that, because you have your plan, right? 😉
  5. It’s allowed to shout, cry and being frustrated. This is actually called soul hygiene. It is allowed to say that you want to f*ck all this sh*t. Really, without such little controlled breakdowns you will harm yourself. I have them at least three times a week. If you are not working with Microsoft Word, there might be less occasions. 🙂 Sorry, not sorry.
  6. Celebrate your good days – good days are days where you get a lot of stuff done and can relax in the evening.
    This is also an opportunity to reward yourself with some self-care-stuff like watching a movie with a huge mug of hot chocolate on your couch. It is as simple as that. And it is so important, because you have to enjoy this feeling of being satisfied with your work.
  7. Be actually satisfied with your work.
    Yes, I know, I am a perfectionist myself and I am never ready to submit a paper, even if I had the time to review it at least three times. Therefore, tell one person about your good work and tell them that you need help to enjoy the feeling, too. Really, try it.
  8. Get fresh air and do some physical training.
    You need your body to be trained – and yes, just take a walk around the block, it’s 10 important minutes to get your mind clear again.

I am buried with books, in the middle of revisions and quotations still to check and verify, half through my writing plan, and highly desperate for the Christmas cookie season to start. (image: Pixabay)

Until now, everything just worked out fine for me. I try to keep moving, I try to stick to my plan and I try to be at least proud of me by doing so. Yes, the last thing is the actual hard work to do. I could spent another year on doing research, on writing, on reading, but: A good dissertation is a done dissertation.

There is a silver lining: I plan to submit my thesis in february at last. I am still good in time, I planned even a nice Christmas break and I am pretty sure to get enough work done to actually enjoy it without any bad conscience. 😉 And soon, I will have finished my good dissertation!

So, I am sorry that you have not heard from me and that I had no time to do any posts, but I guess you can forgive me. 😀

Have a very nice and not too stressful December, enjoy picking your presents for your loved ones, eat a lot of cookies and do not forget to celebrate the important things in life.

Stay tuned, dear fighters of academia!

See y’all,