Graduate Writing Week
Welcome to the Writing Center’s virtual event, Graduate Writing Week. This event is designed to give you daily blogs, workshops, and tips to help jump-start your project. Blogs will feature authors at various stages of writing and illustrate their unique perspective on motivation, organization, and time management. Workshops are designed to support graduate students at various stages of the writing process. Whether you are just starting your research proposal or revising your thesis, these workshops are designed to help you stay on track. Daily tips will also serve as reminders or goals for you to try as you work.
Consultants are here for you along the way. Feel free to work with one as you continue to your project in the coming days or months. Thank you for joining us this week and feel positive about your decision to “start your summer write.”
Monday, May 11, 2020
It took a global pandemic for me to appreciate my humanity as a Ph.D. student
Brittnee Halpin, Ph.D. Candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering
As a millennial, computers and I have grown up together. At five, my family was gifted an old green-screen computer we used to make greeting cards and play Lemonade Stand. By ten, we had purchased our first new computer and connected it to dial-up internet. In high school, typed assignments became the norm. The Christmas before I started college, I received my first laptop. Then, shortly before graduating from undergrad, I bought my first smart phone. I had come of age as computers transcended from nerds’ basements to pockets worldwide.
As our society evolved to integrate computers into everyday life, I think we’ve also started to convince ourselves that we can be like computers. Computers – and especially the internet – have changed our expectations. We now desire instant gratification in both our personal lives and, often, in our work. It seems we are losing the ability to enjoy the process.
And yet, a Ph.D. is all about process.
The two main activities I engage in as a Ph.D. student are science and writing. Both are very human endeavors, fulfilling our needs for exploration, growth and discovery. However, it’s difficult to write or do science if you expect instant gratification. The processes of science and writing are inherently important, as process is for life in general. Just imagine how much we would lose if we cut instantly to the academic highlight reel: a publication acceptance, a great conference talk and a successful dissertation defense. Those are certainly things to take pride in, but they are not the meat of a Ph.D. program.
Since I have been stuck at home due to COVID-19, I have been reconsidering my approach to academic life. My desire for instant gratification has manifested in unreasonably high expectations for myself. I plan to complete tasks much more quickly than I can. This leads to taking on more tasks than I have time for. When I miss my own deadlines, I am awash with guilt, and the guilt leads to stress. Generally, a little bit of stress can be motivating, but when piled onto the stress of a global pandemic, the stress is crushing.
I’ve found that the solution to this problem is learning to focus on – and love – the process. But what does that really mean?
For me, it has involved shifting my daily goals from outcome-oriented goals to more process-oriented goals. Graduate school has taught me that outcome-oriented goals almost always set me up for failure. I am a hopeless optimist, and when I’m planning, I always think that certain tasks will take less time than they do. In fact, psychologists call this phenomenon the “planning fallacy,” and many people suffer from it.
To help you understand what I mean by “outcome-oriented” versus “process-oriented” goals, here are some examples:
- “Draft proposal introduction” became “spend at least 30 minutes writing proposal introduction.”
- “Write blog post” was traded for “Brainstorm 30 minutes on blog post topics.”
You might notice a trend here. When I convert writing tasks to focus on the process, I like to hold myself to only 30-minute time chunks. This is based on the idea that “progress begets progress.” Or, in more scientific words, it generally takes me about 30 minutes to overcome the activation energy needed to get started on a task requiring a lot of brainpower, like writing. It’s also very easy to achieve a 30-minute task, which helps me feel accomplished and avoid procrastination. Most of the time, 30-minutes leads to another 30-minutes, and so on, until more parts of the task are complete. This approach works well for some non-writing tasks, too.
Personally, I like to put my phone away while I’m working, so I use an egg timer to know when my 30 minutes of work are up. Pomodoro timers also work well for this. I have a pomodoro app on my PC as a backup.
In addition to modifying my goals and using timers, a morning routine improves my focus and productivity. I encourage you to develop a morning routine you love. I emphasize “you” because morning routines have become a trendy topic in recent years. (Just type “5AM wake up routine” in the search bar on YouTube to see what I mean.) But it’s important to come up with a routine that works for you and your circadian rhythm.
As a night owl, the most important part of my morning routine is to take it slowly. I wake up, drink a big glass of water, and make myself a cup of tea. Then, I set a timer for 30 minutes and enjoy my tea either on my balcony or by my bedroom window. That 30 minutes in the morning sets the mood for the whole day. I spend about half of it letting my mind wander and the other half reading something or journaling. There are absolutely no electronics in this part of my day. I read real books, and preferably books that are somewhat related to my work, to get the juices flowing.
I love this morning routine. On sleepy mornings, it’s usually enough to pull me out of bed. However, it also connects me to my humanity. It forces me to think about how I’m doing, what my goals are, and why I am where I am in life. It gives me time to focus on appreciating my life’s journey. This focus on the process overflows into my work and my writing.
Now, when I sit down to write, I try to remember that my task list is not a code to be executed, so I can spit out a final product. Some lines take longer than I think they should. Sometimes, entire parts of the list become obsolete. The process ebbs and flows. It’s imperfect. Like me, it’s human. And all scientists and writers are human. In this age of ubiquitous computers, our humanity is our greatest asset.
Author Bio: Brittnee Halpin is a fourth year graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines. While pursuing her Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering, Brittnee has mentored numerous undergraduate researchers and served as a teaching assistant for four different courses. Her research – funded by ReNUWIt – focuses on engineering small streams to clean stormwater runoff. When she’s not on campus, Brittnee enjoys exploring Colorado, cooking new recipes, and practicing yoga.
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Finding Writer’s Purpose
Rachel Sherbondy, Ph.D. Candidate in Materials Science
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I got all the advice that I could lay my hands on. “Write at the same time of day,” they said. “Make a writing-specific playlist,” they said. “Find a dedicated place with no distractions,” they said.
Well, I carefully identified a time and place that worked around my class schedule and met my location needs (there was unlimited free coffee in the study lounge!) and sat down with a blank document and some great tunes. But no words sprang forth from my fingers. I looked out the window. I checked which song was coming up next. I made the rookie mistake of checking my email… and did other productive but decidedly not-writing things until class. I got some new advice. “Turn off the WIFI on your computer and put your phone in airplane mode,” they said. “Don’t allow yourself to move until you’ve hit a word goal,” they said. All of it was fantastic advice that made me better at avoiding distractions, but didn’t actually make the writing thing happen.
It turned out that the first thing that really made the writing thing happen was deadline panic. I don’t recommend this approach, but I think we’ve all been there. I had set a goal for my first chapter, and had told my undergrad thesis advisor about it, so she held me accountable. I came out of the sleepless haze determined to do better. Besides, she said she had assigned the shortest and most straightforward chapter first, and I could not leave longer or more complex pieces of writing until this late. However, the question was, how?
I had a stroke of luck. My research advisor (who was not my thesis advisor) asked me about a choice that I made in the lab. I rattled off my reasons, and he thought about it for a moment and then asked me to write the reasoning up for others to view when I graduated. Not wanting another looming writing assignment, I sat down and immediately wrote out the reasoning from top to bottom, complete with the references and standards I had used to decide. At this point, I started to realize what had happened: I had finally used writing as communication instead of an exercise. Years of studenthood had left me thinking that technical writing was answering a prompt that I didn’t choose in a way that met the requirements of page length, font, and format, but this is not the writing that fits the bill in research.
The next time I sat down to write my thesis, I asked myself a question: “how would I explain my research to ___?” where I filled in the blank with a number of people. First, it was my 10-year-old cousin. I typed a brief outline of the important bits. Then, I asked the question again, but filled in the blank with my mother, who has a scientific background in a different field. I made out a different, longer outline. Then, I asked the question with the blank filled in as a professor in my department. This seemed like a daunting outline to make, so I switched colors and added things to the outline I had from the last go around, and this ended up being my outline for the rest of my undergraduate thesis. Considering how I would explain the research in a shorter, less technical way helped me really understand what the most important parts were, and these formed the headings in chapters. The details that I would have shared with a professor in my department filled out the paragraphs under the headings. And the summary for my young cousin was not useless – it became the bones of my abstract and conclusion. Just going through the process of imagining explaining it to someone instead of leaving it as the imprecise long writing assignment broke through my hesitation and gave me a purpose and a prompt that I could actually answer.
The writing process is not linear or straightforward, but finding purpose helps make the easy days easier and the hard days less hard. If you are looking for some writer’s purpose right now, try to imagine that what you would tell me, a fellow graduate student with (probably) little knowledge of your project, over a pizza. Let those words take form, and write them!
Author Bio: Rachel Sherbondy is a third-year Materials Science Ph.D. student here at Mines. She is researching piezoelectric thin films under Dr. Geoff Brennecka at Mines and Dr. Andriy Zakutayev at NREL. When not in the lab, she enjoys running in the Colorado wilderness and baking delicious sweets.
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
How Being a Novelist Made Me a Better Engineer
Alessandro Henry, Master’s candidate in Mechanical Engineering
I’ve learned the importance of establishing expectations, so allow me to make it fully clear that once upon a time, engineering school was not my first choice. It wasn’t even my second. But truth well and truly is stranger than fiction, so here I am, a graduate engineering student who somehow specialized in communications and creative writing.
While engineering is important work, and many things in the sciences fascinate me, I find that there are few things so exhausting as a rigorous scientific education, and slaving away at the projects required to achieve it. So, early on in my undergrad, I made a judgment call: I added a minor in Creativity, Culture, and Communication (in my case, I will shorten this to ‘creative writing’) to my degree. I can, through the barriers of space and time, hear many of your groans. Why would you get such a useless degree? The arts and engineering have no business together! Why would you compromise your time spent on your major?
I can assure you, though it hasn’t gotten me a job in industry (yet), it was far from useless.
There’s this thing that some people possess some measure of: sanity. For many students here at Mines, sanity is often in short supply. At moments, it is missing entirely. My creative writing minor was my one escape from the cerebral meat grinder that was my upper-division courses. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult at times, but I certainly enjoyed it more than most of my engineering curriculum.
While I could go on at length about the merits of fusing the arts with engineering, I’ll focus my time rather on the practical benefits I’ve seen as a direct result of my formal education in creative writing.
Firstly, my report quality skyrocketed after my first couple writing courses. Sure, engineering students write a lot of reports, and many improve gradually as they go through the course of their degree. However, the techniques I learned in creative writing translated spectacularly well to my more technical writing. I can recall quite well that for my capstone research, I went through every stage report and was able to change phrasing, formatting, and verbiage beyond what my group mates were capable of. In the final report, I was able to cut and entire page worth of non-essential text. Foreshadowing in a novel isn’t all that different from alluding to later results in the early pages of a paper in order to set up context and expectations. Analogy and metaphor are great for not only spicing up your narrative, but also useful when writing a paper for an unfamiliar/non-expert audience. In learning to tighten language and keep readers engaged and maintain flow down the page of a short story, I learned how to cut unnecessary word count from papers and increase clarity.
Time management is an essential skill for any functioning adult, especially for those living the fast-paced lives of graduate students in high pressure fields. I will confess to being just as guilty as the next student of procrastinating on more assignments than I ever should have. What taught me how to manage my time, however, was my creative writing minor. My average word count per week just for my creative writing courses was around 2,500. Not to mention the time required to plan plot points, fix rhyme schemes, revise prior content, review/critique other students’ work, and more. Especially for my independent studies and senior-level electives which commanded a high work volume, I was forced to get very good at the balancing act of that and my engineering courses (not to mention the 12+ hours per week dedicated to my dance teams, but that’s again another topic I could expound upon far too easily).
An appreciation for culture is something that I believe is necessary to foster in all people. Whatever form that takes can, of course, vary. That being said, my extensive dives into literature from a variety of 20th and 21st-century authors has given me insights into dozens of different perspectives I would’ve never even known existed if I had only done engineering.
This brings me to my last point: ethics. In knowing and understanding the variety of other perspectives I’ve been exposed to, and having to think critically about history, social issues, moral issues, occasionally theology, and more, I’ve developed a robust sense of ethics. Understanding the broader impacts of one’s decisions from a moral and social perspective is crucial for those who society will depend on to develop and maintain the technology and infrastructure that allows us to live our modern lives. However, I’ve heard all too often from students that to them such courses are a ‘waste of time’. To the contrary, I’ve seen on many occasions that students with a robust appreciation for ethics and the humanities are better at multilateral thinking and developing new approaches or solutions to issues both large and small. Ethics aren’t just good for the soul, they’re good for the job.
If I hadn’t gotten my minor in creative writing, I wouldn’t have developed a sufficiently strong understanding of ethics. Nor would I have developed time management, eloquence, multi-disciplinary critical thinking, or robust report skills. I’m sure that if I had become a liberal arts student, I would’ve taken science classes, and they would’ve had a similar impact on my skills and understanding of my education.
So, to my fellow engineers: the next time one of your colleagues mentions an arts elective they took, instead of scoffing and rolling your eyes, instead consider “Will it fit somewhere in my curriculum?” Because you have literally everything to gain for it.
Author Bio: Alessandro is a current Mines graduate student in the MS Mechanical Engineering program who also specializes in technical and creative writing. He is also a ballroom performance and competition dancer. Alessandro is often jokingly referred to as an arts student in hiding.
Thursday, May 14, 2020
Even When You Like to Write
Katie Schneider, Master’s in Mechanical Engineering
In fewer than 24 hours from the time I am writing this blog, I will be graduating from Colorado School of Mines with an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering. Congratulations, 2020 grads! I chose to pursue the non-thesis graduate school track, so I took classes but didn’t write a thesis. However, I have an undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics and spent three summers working at Los Alamos National Laboratories where I spent the majority of my time writing about my lab work, as many of us in the research and academia worlds are used to. So, I too am familiar with the 12 to 15-hour writing days and how it’s so easy to work yourself up to write until you realize you actually need to sit down to do it. No, despite us loving our research, we don’t always love the writing.
But here’s the thing. I decided to pursue a non-thesis track in graduate school not because I wanted to avoid writing, but actually because I wanted to write more.
I am passionate about science communication – when I was 15, I told my entire, non-technical family the long history of Schrodinger’s Cat out of pure enjoyment. When I spoke at my high school graduation, I explained quantum physics principles to thousands of people because I simply felt the desire to share them. In short, I want to help the public better understand the work we do as scientists and engineers.
So, why didn’t I write a thesis if I love talking about research so much? Simply put, lab work has not always been for me. Instead, I wanted to gain as much technical knowledge as I could in grad school to prepare me for my dream job as a patent agent.
It’s no surprise that one, not a ton of people recognize what a patent agent does right off the bat, and two, that when I explain how much writing the job entails, people simply wish me luck and say some variation of “I hope you like writing!” As a patent agent, my primary job will be to meet with inventors and scientists to understand their inventions and prepare (write) patents for them. In other words, translate academic research into a legal document. It’s without question that I’ll be writing every single day.
I think by now you can see that I genuinely like writing. But the truth is, I don’t like it every day. Some days, I dread it more than the thought of jumping into a cold pool or having to change my tire on the side of the freeway. All this to say, even people who write for pleasure don’t always want to do it – you are not alone.
From my own experiences and lessons learned from my peers and coworkers, mentors and professors, I feel armed with some tricks to help me through the I-don’t-want-to-write moods and thoughts. Mind you, these kinds of techniques vary from person to person and might not be for you. But I encourage you to give them some thought and maybe start building up a list of your own resources! Because, let’s face it. You are writing this article, thesis, dissertation, or book because you’re passionate about your subject. And at the end of it all, you will probably be giving someone writing advice, too.
Get Those Typing Fingers Moving – Along with the rest of your body. I know study after study shows that exercise can help with a lot of things, and my writing has been one of them. It’s easy to get caught up in work only to realize you’ve been sitting down in the exact same position for….hours? Spending just a few minutes up and moving helps me refocus and serves as a valuable break. I love jump roping, going on a walk or jog, or finding a quick yoga practice (try searching “Yoga with Adriene Yoga for Focus and Productivity” – it was seriously built for grad students).
Find Writing Inspiration Elsewhere. We’ve all had that car that we need to let run for a few minutes before it drives just right. Well, I like to think of writing a thesis/article/patent in a similar way. Sometimes when I sit down to write, I simply don’t feel ‘warmed up.’ A little bit like a sticky clutch in my car. I’ve found that writing something else to get started helps me prepare for writing what I need to for school or work. Personally, I have a baking blog and will sometimes write a few paragraphs of a blog post about cookies, before moving onto my actual work. This is a way I mentally prepare myself for writing without forcing it.
It’s Not the Time to be Perfect. Which, if you’re anything like me, feels like it is ALWAYS the time to be perfect! It’s the final countdown! The End Game! But really, it’s not. Your thesis, dissertation, even an article will be a long journey, and every bit of time you put into writing – no matter how small – will add up to that. I fought perfectionism for a good part of my undergraduate career, writing and rewriting sentences in lab reports and research articles until they sounded perfect, only to edit them a week later anyway. Since I’ve learned to give myself less scrutiny in the early stages of drafts, I not only can finish them more efficiently but find that they’re higher quality. I know it’s easier said than done but try giving yourself some grace and let the perfect go while you’re writing. After all, that’s why we have editors, peers, and advisors.
You can do this! I said it once and I’ll say it again – you’re writing your thesis or dissertation, frankly, performing any graduate research, because you are passionate about your subject and want to share it with others. Remember that, and I truly believe your writing will be remarkable.
Author Bio: Born and raised in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Katie Schneider moved to Colorado to attend Colorado School of Mines where she earned her B.S. in Engineering Physics (2019) and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering (2020). During her time at Mines, Katie spent a lot of time working as the Project Manager of the Inter House Team, a student group that competed in and won the 2019 Solar Decathlon Africa. Now she is looking forward to starting a career as a patent agent at Holland and Hart LLP and is glad to remain in Colorado where she can enjoy gardening in the summer, skiing in the winter, and baking in between..
Friday, May 15, 2020
A Lesson on Taking Advice: Revising the Thesis
Ryan Lambert, Writing Consultant, Master’s in English
During my last semester of graduate school, Lindsey frequently, nervously walked the narrow corridors of the TA office hall, almost always near tears. She had just come from another meeting with Joseph, a senior professor who chaired Lindsey’s thesis and served on my thesis committee.
“That man is a monster,” she said one Friday afternoon when I peeked out of my office door to ask if she was OK. “He doesn’t like me, and I apparently can’t write. He even told me that I might have to stay on another semester to finish this thing.”
“Lindsey,” I assured her, “Joseph is a good man, and he’s reasonable. I don’t think he’d force you to not graduate on time.”
She sighed and closed her eyes, not believing me. She continued, “I don’t know. I’ve invested so much time into this, but—I don’t know—I guess I’m going to spend the next week rewriting my thesis again. This is the third time.”
Anne Lamott’s advice from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life immediately popped into my head: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere” . In other words, as writers we have permission to fail; we have permission to take what little good comes from a failed writing experience (a beautifully written sentence, a top-notch literature review, an organizational strategy) and use what works in future, better versions of our writing.
“Just take his notes,” I said, “and go from there. I’m sure you don’t have to rewrite the whole thesis.”
Again, she sighed, angry at our professor and herself.
A few weeks later, well after my chair gave the go ahead to send my first thesis draft to my committee members, Joseph called me into his office.
In his paternal way, he asked me to sit down. I felt confident, cocky. I thought he would love my thesis. How could he not?
Then, he said, in his thick Boston accent while he handed me a copy of my thesis, “I did not enjoy this. Take a look at my notes, but you’re going to have to do a lot of work here. You might want to consider staying an extra semester. I’ll look into funding for you, if you’d like.”
I left his large office with a sense of devastation (the strange pains of graduate school are real in these moments). I knew to seek out Lindsey, my new partner in academic pain, to commiserate about our inability to finish a degree on time—and to complain, perhaps unfairly, about Joseph.
At any rate, Sarah, my chair, guaranteed Joseph that I was a master revisionist (and revision is, for me, the most pleasurable part of the writing process because it provides me with the opportunity to manipulate my own language, to play). I spent the next week combing through Joseph’s notes, compiling a list of his suggestions and pet peeves in my writing.
I noticed the following patterns: he disliked my transitioning, he hated my use of long-dead Roman philosophers (urging other, more contemporary scholars instead), and he basically loathed the way I had organized my backgrounds section. These were fixable problems. “I can do this,” I said to myself. I got to work and sent out this new draft in a matter of days. Honestly, revising that piece of prose was a fever dream; I don’t really remember writing it.
Sometime later, I saw another email from Joseph. “Oh, God,” I thought. “I am doomed.”
The email was short and to the point: “Ryan, wow! Excellent work on turning this around so quickly. I’m impressed. Stop by my office for a handshake.”
I experienced instant relief. I don’t know if I ever stopped by for that handshake, though.
Here’s the moral of this blog post: I took Joseph’s advice, and I graduated on time. My peer resisted advice and did not graduate until after fall the next year. Don’t be like Lindsey; take the advisor’s advice, and work with what you have—no need to start from scratch after every negative interaction with the advisor.
 A. Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. (1st ed.) New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Author Bio: Ryan Lambert is an English instructor and writing consultant. He did his graduate work in rhetoric and composition.
May 11, 12:00-12:50
Graduate Student Panel: Making the Most of Your Time
Gauen Alexander, Sarah Zaccarine, Rami Abousleiman, and Muthu Thyagarajan
Get something, anything, on paper! Even if that means writing a few sentences, a caption for a figure, or a paragraph. Once you start your project, it’s easier to continue. Remember, you can edit and revise later.
Tuesday, May 12, 12:00-12:50
Anxiety and Writing: Overcoming Obstacles
Kait McNamee, Writing Center Consultant
Find a designated time to write with a friend, colleague, or group. This will make you accountable, create positive peer pressure to write, and give you company. If you can’t meet in person, set a time that you both plan to write and text each other for encouragement. Meetings don’t have to last long; even 30 minutes or 1 hour a week can help keep you on track.
Wednesday, May 13, 12:00-12:50
Researching and Writing Literature Reviews
Emily Bongiovanni, Scholarly Communications Librarian
Allyce Horan, Writing Center Director
Researching and writing should go hand-in-hand. If you write as you research, you will be able to better understand and integrate your sources. Using citation management software can help you achieve this balance and stay organized. Not only will you be able to save and format references, but you can also take notes, making you a more efficient writer. Check out citation management software on the library’s website.
Thursday, May 14, 12:00-12:50
Plan Ahead: Creating Realistic Timelines for Your Thesis
Allyce Horan, Writing Center Director
Set daily reasonable word goals. We often think of our goals in terms of chapters, but that can be daunting and can make it difficult to plan. Writing a little bit each day can be more productive than writing for long stretches of time. To help you establish goals, keep in mind that 300 words double-spaced and 600 words single-spaced both equal about one page, depending on type, font, and margins.
Friday, May 15, 12:00-12:50
Writing Center Panel: Tips and Tricks to Write Effectively
Writing Center Consultants
Although editing shouldn’t be your first step in writing, periodically reviewing your work can make you an efficient and more effective writer. Pronouns such as it, this, he, she, and they can make your sentences vague and confusing. While it can be necessary to use these words, they can also often be replaced with their corresponding nouns. For example, “we moved the iron sample to saline solution” provides context and is easier for the audience to understand than “we moved it to saline solution.” Every chapter do a ctrl + f search for pronouns and see if you can make your sentences more specific. It’s a great way to improve your work on a day when you don’t feel like writing new content.