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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Imposter Syndrome

Recently, I’ve been talking with some fellow professionals about imposter syndrome. This is where you never feel like you’re quite good enough, but work on faking it till you’re making it. It’s when you assume a certain role yet never quite feel qualified, and wonder when other people will figure it out.

The more I talk about it with others, the more I realize that we all experience this phenomenon.

Other people look at me, and think that because I can put “PhD” after my name, I must really know a lot of stuff.

Well, I am pretty smart, but I was smart before I earned the degree, and plenty of people who don’t have those letters after their names are pretty smart as well.

The degree alone is not an indication of intelligence, or success, or the ability to own a room, or, let’s be real, an indication of ability to obtain gainful employment. The job market is tough out there, especially for people with “PhD” after their name.

So, what is it, then?

I really think the degree is a “to each, her own,” kind of situation.

For me, I have learned that those letters after my name are an indication of my stubbornness, my personal drive, and my simple yet profound inability to tolerate bullshit.

There’s a story that Neil Gaiman tells about having a conversation with a polite, older gentleman at a party. The gentleman gestures to the others in the room – people who are accomplished at Doing Great Things – and says that he doesn’t belong there. After all, he explains, he just went where he was told.

Well, says Neil Gaiman in response, you were the first man to walk on the moon. That has to count for something.

That’s right; even Neil Armstrong has moments of experiencing imposter syndrome, despite his incredible achievements in aviation.

Much like Neil Armstrong, I feel the need to reduce my accomplishments to simply following a checklist. To earn a doctorate in Literature, do these things. Enroll in classes, check. Earn high grades in these classes, check. Take and pass qualifying oral and written exams, check. And so forth.

Because I simply followed the checklist, I often feel I need to apologize for the degree sometimes, or to hide it, as if to say,  “I know this doesn’t make me better than anyone else. And I’m just as self-confident without it. Please don’t think I’m a jerk.”

Much like Neil Armstrong, I simply followed the path I was pointed down and checked things off my list. And yet, I realize now that one of the singular benefits I earned from working on this degree is that I was willing to raise hell when I was prevented from accomplishing some of the things on said list.

One of those things involved earning X credits of coursework in order to qualify for graduation. I moved through my program, earning said credits (check). I asked for, and received, approval to take several classes at the college where I earned my master’s degree (check). After successful completion of these classes, I had official transcripts sent to my doctoral program advisor (check), who confirmed receipt.

Then, he retired and left the university. Years passed. I had completed all other items on the checklist and was ready to graduate.

Then, with mere hours to go before close of business on the last possible day that I could have all materials submitted to the graduate school to qualify for graduation, I received an email saying they had never received my transcript for the classes I took years before. I had an email from the previous graduate coordinator confirming receipt of them, but no one cared. The mistake was on the part of the university, yet I was going to suffer the consequences.

I…did not handle it well. This came after many other obstacles that were so unacceptable I still cannot believe this was my experience.

I ended up on the phone with my sister, clock ticking, trying to figure out what to do.

My panic lasted about twelve seconds before my resolve kicked in. There was no way I was letting this happen. I was not going down without a fight.

My sister called a courier while I called the registrar of my former school. I explained the situation, and the registrar graciously agreed to expedite an official copy of my transcript, bless her beating, beautiful heart.

The courier picked up the transcript, and I met him at my university. We walked into the graduate office together, with less than an hour to spare before close of business.

Everyone froze. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but in hindsight I see that they must have all thought I was serving the dean with legal papers.

Instead, I simply wanted the dean’s signature to acknowledge receipt of the transcript in time for me to graduate that term. There had already been several other delays for reasons outside my control, and another six-month delay to graduation based on an error on the part of the university was not something I was willing to accept.

An office staffer tried to get the courier to let him sign for it. I refused to allow it. I insisted that the dean step out of his office to sign for it himself.

More silence. They tried again to get me to acquiesce; I stood my ground.

Finally, the dean came out. He signed the paper on the clipboard, and the currier went away. He reviewed the transcript and said that it was sufficient, though expressed surprise that I had gone to such lengths to get it to him.

And, in the end, it turned out that I had one class too many and didn’t need to go through all of this, but the people reviewing my file were inept and incompetent. There were a lot of instances of incompetence and poor process management along my way toward completing that checklist. But after all of the work I had put in dealing with this nonsense, I was determined to finish what I started.

Maybe I’m not such an imposter after all.