This is How I Work

Dr. Eva Lantsoght has created a blog focused on “the process of doing a PhD,” among other topics (including, get this, reinforced concrete), and about a year ago, she invited me to write a piece for her “How I Work” series.

Writing this short piece allowed me to think about what my PhD means to me. As someone who chose what is now referred to as an “alt-ac” path, I do ponder my life choices at times, and wonder if earning this degree was worth it.

I’m happy to say that it was, but not for any of the reasons I would have guessed.

Was it worth it?

I get asked every now and then if earning the doctorate was worth it. If I could do it all over again, would I?

That’s a tough question to answer.

On the one hand, the actual act of earning the PhD is not something I would do again for any amount of money. You could promise me my own private island in the Bahamas with a never-ending supply of Nutella in exchange for the degree, and still I would say no.

If you’re curious as to why, it’s because the entire process of earning a doctorate* can be summed up with this. This man is ostensibly describing what it’s like to serve as a committee member for a student’s dissertation. (For those not in academia: doctorates in the humanities require each student to have a Chairperson, known as the first reader, and two additional professors serving as readers two and three. This team is, in theory, supposed to guide you and support you as you write your dissertation, and ultimately help you produce worthy scholarship.)

Read the first two points of his position very carefully.

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Got it? Do you see what he did there?

He is essentially saying, “First, if/when your committee members make suggestions, take them.”

Then, he says, “Second, don’t just take their suggestions blindly! After all, this is your dissertation.”

Welcome to the hell that was my dissertation process. We’re talking about four years of “Think for yourself! But, do as you’re told. But, think for yourself! But do as you’re told.”

I suppose in theory the process should work just fine. Your committee gives you guidance, you consider it, you implement the changes that make sense to you and advance your work, and you thoughtfully decline to make other changes that don’t, perhaps in conversation with your committee members where they are so proud of your demonstrated ability to . . . HAHAHAHAHA.

Oh, it so does not work that way. I spent years with my committee members doing number 1: they marked up my chapters and I was expected to make their changes, period, full stop, end of sentence.

Then, I would meet with my advisor to discuss any changes I had opted not to make (which weren’t many, if I’m honest. For the most part, my committee’s feedback was sound; but there were times when I respectfully disagreed and had this crazy idea that that was acceptable), and she would scold me for disrespecting the time and expertise that my committee had extended . . . and then turn right around and scold me for not thinking for myself!

Imagine doing this for four straight years. No amount of Nutella could make this productive.

I’m not alone

For a long time, I thought that the problem was within my institution, but the more I engaged with others, the more I saw that my experience was not unique.

Take a few minutes to scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see countless posts about earning a PhD was an overwhelmingly negative endeavor.

Recently, I read this. I immediately understood exactly what she meant. So did a lot of other people, judging by the number of responses she got:

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Also, this request for help and support. Again, the stress that this person is feeling is not unique to them.

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The #withaphd community online overwhelmingly echoes such sentiments, ranging from “what did I get myself into” to “this is taking the kind of toll on my mental health that is making me seriously considering closing my laptop and walking away forever.”

What’s the upside?

So, after the years of stress and frustration that culminates in a degree that not only does not guarantee a job of any kind, but potentially makes me overqualified for many jobs, do I regret it?

Honestly, no. Of course, I think the process needs to change, in a large-scale way. I hate how much I inwardly cringe when I hear someone excitedly saying that they got into grad school or are considering a PhD. I want to tell them all to run, fast, in the other direction.

I want to tell them that, if there is anything they can conceive of themselves doing with the next 8-10 years of their lives, then they should do that thing instead, whatever it is.

But I do regret the path I chose?

I certainly don’t regret the confidence I have now with my abilities. And I don’t mean that I think I’m any smarter or more able to write or teach writing than I was before I went to graduate school. I’m talking about that inner knowledge that yes, I can kick some serious butt in the academic and business worlds. It’s the kind of knowledge of self-worth that shines through unsaid.

Once I was talking with a colleague who said that his daughter competes in dead-lift competitions, and can lift some extraordinary amount of weight. On the outside, you might not look at this petite woman and think she could do something so badass.

But she knows. And that makes all the difference with how she carries herself throughout each day.

That inner knowledge of her badassness shines through in everything that she does.

That’s how I feel about earning this degree

Earning my PhD was not a difficult physical endeavor. There are people who struggle through much more difficult experiences in a whole variety of ways. But this isn’t a competition.

The result is that I hold dear the simple knowledge that I know, despite anything my committee or anyone else may think, that I am worthy, that I am smart, that my propensity for kindness and compassion are strengths, not weaknesses, and that I know that I can set a major goal for myself and see it through, no matter what.

That is worth everything.

Feel free to put my innter-badassness to work for you. Reach out for a quote on content writing for your next blog or project. 

 

*I restrict my critique to the study of humanities; I understand that degrees in the sciences might be a bit different, and by different, I mean better. I sure hope so.

The Drama of the DMV, aka Why You Need Precise Words

I recently moved to a new state. I need to update my vehicle registration and get a new driver’s license. I did this a few years ago and don’t remember it being all that difficult, and so wasn’t prepared for it to be that hard this time around, either.

I went online to my new state’s DMV website to figure out if I needed to get my license first and then my vehicle registration, or the other way around.

Wow, does the person responsible for my state’s DMV website like to write. There are words upon words upon words all over this site.

I spent – no joke – at least three solid visits to this site, reading carefully, and copying the sections that pertained to me into a word doc, so I could create a series of steps that I needed to get all of this done.

My goal was to compile a list of documents that I needed to gather, plus the order of operations as to where I needed to go and when.

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This is a fraction of the dense text I had to wade through, on only one of the several pages I needed to consult. 

This should not have been that hard, and at first glance, aside from needing to wade through all of those words, it wasn’t.

I put together my list of required documents. I added a few extra that I have at hand, so I show up loaded for bear.

I saw that I needed a vehicle inspection prior to getting my license. So, the order of operations was clear: inspection first, appear at DMV second. Got it.

Today, I went to a nearby Jiffy Lube and asked if they do vehicle inspections. “No, only the DMV does inspections for registration,” the man there said.

“Only the DMV?” I asked.

Yep. It’s essentially one-stop shopping, which isn’t a bad thing, I suppose, except, remember that part where I went to the website several times and read through it with a fine-toothed comb?

Somewhere in all of those words, it either didn’t say that you had to get your registration at the DMV itself, or it says it somewhere on that site but is so buried, good luck to anyone trying to figure it out.

How about, instead of all of those words upon words upon words, the DMV offers a simple checklist for people just moving here from out of state. Provide an order of operations, along with the list of necessary documents. It shouldn’t require reading through multiple paragraphs of dense text plus going back and forth between several pages to find the necessary information to accomplish a simple task.

This experience made think about what I do with my writing business, and why I have chosen to call my business “Precise Words.”

I have been given a lot of advice from people in the writing community about how I need to have a niche for my writing to take off. Choose a specialty, they say, perhaps personal finance, or wine, or pet care, or…?

I’ve been lucky to have worked in a variety of different fields, including personal finance, wellness, real estate, travel, retail product descriptions, direct mail fundraising for nonprofits, and blogging for small businesses as varied as air purifier companies to landscape businesses to commercial packaging plants. I’m working on adding wine writing and more real estate and travel writing to my portfolio.

“Precise words” IS my niche. Plenty of people think that in order to write effectively, you just write down all of the things in your head and shove it at people.

Please do not do this.

The result of that approach is the DMV website with all those words that don’t really say anything you need.

My skillset isn’t just about knowing which words to use, it’s about knowing when to use fewer words. This is important. This is also a skill that comes with training, education, and lots and lots of practice.

There’s a saying that when you hire someone to provide creative services, you aren’t hiring them for the minutes or hours it takes them to provide the work; you’re hiring them for the decades of practice and experience they have put in to honing their craft.

So, if you have a website with all those words, and you aren’t sure it’s saying the things you really need it to say, don’t be like the DMV. Reach out to me and let me help. I can use my writing precision to help you say exactly what you need to say in the clearest, most effective way possible.

 

 

 

The Power of Precise Words

PenI’ve had the privilege to do some copywriting for Nathan Yates at ForwardView Consulting. Not too long ago, he asked if I would write a guest post for his blog, about the power of precise words.

He said he thought that would be a great topic to write about “because many clients don’t initially want to pay for website/brochure copy or blog posts . . . until they struggle writing everything themselves.”

I hear that, Nathan. In my experience, clients typically fall into two camps:

  • They are perfectly capable of writing their own content, and they know it, so they don’t want to pay someone else to do it. Except the business takes their attention in so many other directions that writing content tends to fall low on the list of priorities.
  • They think they can write the content themselves, but really shouldn’t. They have have the ideas, but not the writing skills or experience, and their talents are best used in other aspects of the business.

Nathan and I both see the same end result. As he astutely put it: “We ultimately write the copy once the client gives up after a few weeks, but that creates a long delay.”

So, I put together this piece about how hiring a copywriter can actually save you time, money, headaches, stress, and generally make you, and your business, look terrific.

I hope you check it out, and feel free to reach out to Nathan or to me to discuss what we have to offer!

September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001 always gets me thinking.

I remember sitting at my desk in my little office at a company I have long since left, learning about this crazy thing happening in New York. I tried to look it up online but couldn’t, because the Internet was down. So many people were trying to go online at once that the entire Internet had crashed.

I lived near DC, and my family is from New York, and so the news of the shocking attacks on the twin towers always felt way too close to home.

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Dad with Red Auerbach, Faneuil Hall, Boston

I had no idea just how close to home this day would end up becoming.

Getting the news

I got through my day mildly confused and curious about the world events that I had heard about second hand. I walked through the door of my apartment, and turned on the news. That’s when the chaos flooded my eyes and my ears. To this day, when I think of 9/11, I hear George W. Bush’s voice. I don’t remember what he said, but I will probably forever associate his voice with that day. I simply cannot separate the two.

My phone rang. I numbly answered it, and it was my mother. She was crying. I thought that was strange. She is typically not that affected by world events.

I don’t recall if she even knew that the twin towers had fallen. Her day had been spent sitting in a doctor’s office in Baltimore as a surgeon told my parents that my father’s tumor was the size of a peach, not the size of a pea, as they had been previously told.

They had walked into this office with a sense of hope, their last hope, really. At this point, they knew that there was a tumor, they knew it was on my father’s pancreas, and they knew that pancreatic tumors, even when operable, are often fatal.

But, if the tumor was small, it was potentially operable. They were there to discuss a surgical procedure known as a Whipple, which might just buy my dad some more time.

They walked out of that office leaving their hope behind. The tumor was too big, it had grown around a major blood vessel, and any surgery risked a major bleed-out, and certain death.

They talked about maybe doing radiation to shrink the tumor and buy a little time, but what kind of time would that be? My dad had already suffered quite terribly. He was ready to accept what was before him.

Accepting the imminent death of a loved one is a difficult thing. It means acceptance of a complete change of life, in ways big and small. Everything becomes a “last.” Dad’s last Thanksgiving. Dad’s last Christmas. Dad’s last birthday. He got sicker faster. The end was not good for him, though he was surrounded with love. I suppose that’s something.

Affinity for pens

Before he died, my dad gave me his pen. It was a retractable fountain pen that I loved and secretly coveted. I later thanked him (again) for the pen, and asked if he knew how much I liked it. He said:

liked the pen

I asked how he knew. He said:

observation

Over time, part of the casing broke, but the manufacturer no longer makes that specific pen and so don’t have replacement parts. They offered to replace it with a newer model, if I send in the broken pen.

No way. I’m keeping that pen forever and always, thank you very much.

Fast forward to more recently. I discovered a company called The Goulet Pen Company. This is a store my dad would love. They have everything, every pen at every price point, plus all sorts of fancy inks. He would love their customer service, too. I reached out with some questions, and a lovely woman named Susan replied, with all kinds of great information.

I asked more questions. She replied with, get this, a video that she whipped up on the spot just for me to demo different types of pens.

That’s right: She made me a video.

She noticed that my name is Italian, and we exchanged a few small pleasantries in Italian. She signed off with “Just let me know when I can help, noi ragazze italiane dobbiamo stare insieme!!” which I’m pretty excited I understood.

I feel like signs are everywhere that dad has stuck around. You just have to know where to look.

Looking forward

I struggle every year when the inevitable “never forget” messages flood social media and the news and I can’t turn it off or run or escape or hide. But then, I hear from a complete stranger like Susan in ways that remind me of my Dad, or I hear from friends who supported me through some pretty big life changes recently, and I know that, despite the rough days, there are good days ahead.

“Enjoy every day,” my dad said to me on September 11, 2001, after he got the worst news of his life.

I do my best, Dad.

 

How to Cook Like Julia Child: A Play in Two Acts

ACT I

[Marie is in her kitchen, assembling ingredients and reviewing the appropriate pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to prepare the Custard Apple Tart. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major streams from Pandora.]

Marie: I have reviewed the recipe, purchased the ingredients, and assembled all the things. I even poured a beer to enjoy as I cook. I’m ready!IMG_4430.jpg

Marie: [Reads aloud Step 1 of the Custard Apple Tart Recipe on page 637] Use the sweet short paste on page 633 for the pastry shell. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Marie: [Preheats oven. Turns to page 633.]

Marie: [The recipe lists “Amounts Needed” as follows:

“For an 8- to 9-inch shell, proportions for 1 ½ cups flour.”

“For a 10- to 11-inch shell, proportions for 2 cups flour.”

IMG_4422.jpgThen, “Proportions for 1 cup flour” with the actual recipe to follow.]

Marie: …

Marie: [Asking a friend] Does this mean that I’m to adjust the recipe by adding .5 for everything since I have a 9-inch pan?

Friend: This is nuts. I have no idea. I’ll read it some more.

Friend:I believe you adjust the recipe amounts to 1.5. So you’ll use 1 cup flour and 1.5 cups sugar.

Marie: This is why I don’t use Julia’s recipes more. They make me crazy. I adjust everything, right, not just the flour?

Friend: Adjust fats by .5 also. Urgh!

Marie:I can’t do math! Damn you, Julia!

Friend:Blahhh – why butter AND shortening?

Marie: 1 ½ T shortening x .5 is…2.25 T shortening?

Friend: 2 T and 1 tsp. Unless you have a quarter tablespoon measure. A teaspoon is about a third of a tablespoon.

Marie: Don’t round. Must be precise. I need the math.

Friend: Urk. 2 T plus .75 tsp.

Marie: Argh. I got 2.25 T. Is that the same thing?

Lisa: I think so?

Marie: All I can think of is my remedial math teacher in college intoning, “fractions never go away.”

Lisa: I hate that teacher! But, he is right.

Marie: [Mixes dough. Does baking things.] Seriously? The dough has to chill in the freezer for an hour. Guess I’ll turn the oven off.

Friend: Oh, fer…

Marie: I’m assuming that the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator” is the freezer, yes?

Friend: Hahahahaha!

Marie: Or, the dough can be refrigerated for two hours or overnight. That’s right, two hours, or tomorrow. There is no in-between, apparently.

Marie: [reviews instructions for making the dough] It says to “place the flour in the bowl, mix in the sugar and salt, and then proceed to make the dough …” Make the dough? That’s the instruction? It’s like being on the technical challenge of the Great British Baking Show.

Marie: [Looks up instructions for making the dough on page 140]

Marie: [Reads aloud the instructions for making the dough in a food processor. She is not making this up.]

Measure the dry ingredients into the bowl. Quarter the chilled sticks of butter lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/8 inch pieces; add to the flour along with the chilled shortening. Flick the machine on and off 4 or 5 times, then measure out a scant half-cup of iced water. Turn the machine on and pour it all in at once; immediately flick the machine on and off….

Marie: [Stops reading, because that is insane.]

Marie: [Reviews how to make dough with her hands.]

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you…

Marie: Forget this, I’m just going to knead the dough.

Marie: [Reads instructions}

“Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable but not sticky.”

Marie: What if it IS sticky, Julia? What, then?IMG_4423.jpg

Marie: [Rolls the sticky dough into a ball, wraps it in waxed paper as directed, and places it on a plate in the refrigerator for two hours, but not overnight, having not felt confident on the meaning of the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator.”]

Marie: [Finishes beer and wonders what she got herself into.]

[End of scene, End of Act I]

 

ACT II

[After a walk outdoors to rethink her culinary choices, Marie is back in the kitchen, attempting to roll out what she hopes will pass for dough. The only sound is that of her despair.]

[Six hours later…]

Marie: I have a tart! It’s pretty and it tastes good. Also, I am never doing this again.

[End of scene, End of Act II, End of Play]

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How I Got Through College Without Crippling Student Loan Debt, aka Thanks, Mom and Dad

This morning, I read yet another “how I wound up with a bajillion dollars worth of student loan debt” article. And I experienced my usual reaction: it’s not as if the cost of tuition or the cost of interest on the loans were a surprise. No one did that to you. You made a choice. If you don’t want to end up with crippling debt, don’t borrow the money.

Then, I thought back to my own college experiences, and about the choices that I made that allowed me to graduate debt-free. And I realized that it’s an easy thing to point debt-free fingers now, but important to remember that when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, there’s no magic place from which to get the information you need to make smart financial choices. The learning curve for how borrow responsibly and manage debt can be steep.

After one year in college, I wanted very much to transfer from my affordable state university to a fancy private school in my dream city. My parents, who were generously paying the full bill for me to attend said state school, were not happy about this decision. They didn’t really understand it. Neither of them attended a residential college. My dad commuted to his school while living at home with his parents, and my mom didn’t go to college, instead working to save money while dad was in school. “That’s just what people did,” mom always said.

So, the idea of eschewing this incredible free (to me) thing – a full ride, including room and board, at a well-regarded university, in favor of a much more expensive degree at a school that they regarded as essentially the same only this one would require plane tickets to get me there and back and a much higher price tag – was unthinkably bizarre to them.

To me, the allure was living in the brand new city, spreading my wings, and experiencing life. The school had a unique work-study program that would have allowed me a structured way to get significant work experience under my belt by the time I graduated. It also involved moving away from home, which had a lot of appeal.

My parents only saw the price tag: Fancy Private School cost a whopping three times as much as Perfectly Fine State University. My parents were willing to continue paying the same money they had set aside for me to attend Perfectly Fine State University, but I would have to come up with the balance on my own.

I knew even then that coming up with that amount of money was not going to be easy.

I was disappointed. My dreams of living a grand life in Fabulous New City were crushed. Darn my parents and their practicality!

I stayed at Perfectly Fine State University and learned to make the best of it. I made good friends. I found my own work-study opportunities.

I’ll be honest – it was a long time before I was able to let go of the big idea of attending Fancy Private School. I can look back on it now, twenty-plus years later, and see the benefit of my choice to stay at Perfectly Fine State University as I am able to move forward with my life enjoying the lack of crippling debt that an expensive undergraduate education would have cost me.

What stopped me from taking out loan after loan and [insert dramatic emphasis] going after my dream of attending Fancy Private School was not logic or understanding of personal finance. It was, quite simply, my parents.

It was seeing how stressed my mother was at wanting so badly to help me have the thing I clearly wanted but knowing she couldn’t afford to send me there. (And, to be fair, my parents gave me a pretty nice life. It’s just that the Thing That I Wanted was ridiculously expensive and unnecessary.)

It was sitting with my dad in the hotel room in Fancy New City when he took me there to visit the school (and probably hoped to show me that it really wasn’t all that different than my Perfectly Fine State University. To me, though, Fancy New Private School was all glitter and rainbows). After going on a tour of the campus, we went back to the hotel, and had a chat. That’s when he said that he and my mother were prepared to continue paying the same amount of money they had planned to pay to send me to Perfectly Fine State University, and that if I were serious about attending Fancy Private School, I was going to be responsible for coming up with the difference in cost.

“How are you going to do that?” my father asked. I had no idea. I had a vague awareness that other people took out loans. I thought I could do that, too! My dad explained a bit about how long it might take to pay off that amount of money. He talked about how difficult it might be for me to borrow the amount of money I needed, because he was not willing to co-sign a loan or sign the student loan paperwork that would require me (him) to divulge his salary and other assets to the federal government.

I was stumped. How do other people do this, I wondered?

I still don’t know for sure how people finance that kind of expensive anything without help. Through massive interest rates, most likely. Perhaps they do have a parent or other family member willing to co-sign a loan. I truly don’t know how people even get that kind of money to borrow, let alone figure out how to pay back, without any participation from their parents, as nascent young adults without an established credit history.

What I do know is that it was hard enough to figure out how to live on my entry-level paycheck for my first job out of college without loan payments to make. I don’t see how I could have gone to graduate school with that kind of debt under my belt, either. Or bought a house. Or saved for retirement.

Do I wonder, every now and then, what life would have been like had I been able to move to Fancy New City and attend Fancy Private School? Sure, I do. Am I grateful that I had parents willing to help me put the brakes on and make a more sensible decision that would affect me long-term? Absolutely. I realize that not everyone has that kind of support built in, and I try to keep that in mind when I read yet another article about someone who took on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of college debt without realizing just how financially crippling that would be. Sometimes, people really don’t know the effects of a decision like that until it’s too late.