May 17, 2016

Is it Procrastination or a Productive Pause?

Nearly every article on time management includes a warning to avoid procrastination. Sure, waiting until the last minute to start a task is a bad idea, but postponing tasks is not always procrastination. Intentionally delaying work on a task while keeping it in mind is sometimes referred to active procrastination, intentional delay, or a mindful, productive pause. Whatever you call it, pausing can lead to productivity. I sometimes find it helpful to pause or delay working on a task for the following reasons.

Incubation Time
When faced with a problem, decision, or a paper assignment, we sometimes act too quickly, impulsively, and make mistakes. Intentional delay is incubation time, an opportunity to be mindful of the task and consider approaches. For example, I’m working on a presentation on a topic that is a bit of a stretch from my other work. So far I’ve taken some notes but I’ve delayed work on the talk. I’ve been thinking about it, reflecting on approaches while I go about other tasks. I’ve considered the topic for a while and feel like I have a handle on it and know what I’d like to do. I’m ready. I consider this a mindful, productive, delay – not procrastination.

Prioritize Tasks
Many students jump straight to work when given an assignment. We usually praise this, but it’s possible to act too quickly. For example, suppose that you learn of an unexpected exam next week. Some students jump to it and immediately begin preparing flash cards. Others might wait a day as they consider the test. They might decide that flash cards aren't the way to go, that a whole other study strategy is needed, or even that there are other assignments or exams that should take precedence. During a reflective pause a student might consider the semester as a whole and the items that compose a final course grade, feel less panicked about the new assignment, and conclude that it is less critical than it initially appeared. Often what seems important changes, sometimes even over the course of a day. This isn't to say that you should always delay before beginning a project, just that waiting is not always such a bad idea.

Prevent Burn-Out
Intentionally delaying beginning a task can be a way of giving yourself a moment to breathe. Pausing for a day or two can help you retain energy and focus over the long run, whether it entails completing the semester, a dissertation, or a book.

I'm a big fan of pausing before beginning a project and taking time to let ideas ferment. But don't mistake procrastination for intentional delay. How can you tell the difference? Do you periodically think about the task – how you might approach it rather than how you dread or stress over it? Or are you trying not to think about it? Do you periodically jot or record notes and ideas? Are you thinking or avoiding? Finally, don’t pause for too long. Plan to start writing well ahead of the due date. Start by writing all that you’ve considered and reviewing your notes to date. If that’s hard, make bulleted lists and go from there.

May 1, 2016

Tips for Choosing a Dissertation Committee

Graduate study culminates with the completion of a lengthy project known as the dissertation. In psychology the dissertation most often entails conducting and writing up a research study that is a novel contribution to the field. Many master’s degrees require a similar document, a thesis, which is much smaller in scope, but still a challenge. Universities require that dissertations (and often theses) be supervised and judged by a committee of faculty. The student and advisor/mentor usually assemble the dissertation committee. How do you choose the professors who will determine your fate? Carefully, with these tips.

Consult your mentor about local norms. How are committees assembled? How are they comprised? For example, most dissertation committees must include a specialist in methodology and statistics.

Get folks your advisor likes. When it comes to which faculty to invite to sit on your committee, seek your mentor's advice because you need someone who you mentor feels he or she can work with. Also your mentor will have info about the professor’s personality and history as well as how the faculty you select get along. Dissertations are not just about a student completing a degree - they're about politics too. Select a faculty member who doesn't get along with your advisor and you may have a committee member who is difficult and just plain hard to work with -- and who finds fault with your work simply to get under your advisor's skin. It happens and these interactions can slow down your dissertation and keep you in grad school longer than you want or deserve to be.

Learn from other students. Seek input from other students as to how they secured a committee, what kinds of things they looked for, and their experience with particular faculty. For example, some professors are notoriously flaky. They miss meetings, forget to read your work, and run behind. They may be very nice, helpful, and easy to get along with, but they can interfere with your progress.

Trust your instincts. Make it a point to get to know faculty throughout your grad school years. As you take classes, talk with faculty, and watch faculty interact, keep the dissertation in mind. Trust your gut. If someone seems like a terrible choice, even if he or she is a very successful professional, you should trust your gut and think twice before asking him or her to sit on your committee. This doesn't mean that you should exclude successful, but difficult, people. It simply means that you should go in with your eyes wide open.

Knowing who to choose for your committee really comes down to communication. It’s about getting to know faculty, communicating with your mentor about your needs, his or her needs, and potential candidates, and communicating with other students about their observations, experiences, and history. Also recognize that some dissent among dissertation committee members is part of the process. Some debate and disagreement can improve your project. The goal, however, is healthy and constructive debate.