Archive for ‘Grad School’

January 28, 2019

How to Write a Dissertation

by Tabitha Kidwell

You may have noticed that Keeping Tabs has been pretty quiet for the last… (a-hem)… three years or so. I hope you will trust me that this is because I have been busy writing something else.  And if you don’t trust me, I would be more than happy to send you my 315-page dissertation as proof!

That’s right – the wonderful day has come that I am finished with my dissertation!  Well, almost. I finished proofreading a very final version last week, and I have scheduled my dissertation defense for February 25th.  In most cases, if your advisor says you are ready for the defense, that should mean that you will pass.  My advisor is particularly helpful and responsive, so I should be okay… but I will still be a nervous wreck! At the defense, the 5 faculty members on my committee will all have suggestions about things I overlooked and ways to improve the final dissertation.  My earning a PhD is totally dependent on these 5 people’s judgement, so I will basically smile and say that I’ll make any changes they suggest.  And then, they will also smile and will say “you passed!”  And then everyone will be like this:

At least that is how I picture it going.  In any case, my dissertation is not actually “done.” I will have to make changes based on the feedback from my committee, and then I’ll submit it to the university by April 16th.  But it is very, very close, and I am very, very relieved.  I think most people think of “grad school” as a one- or two-year program, so people have been asking me, “are you almost done?” for almost four years.  But now, I am almost done!  I’ve been “writing” my dissertation for almost two years.  That process included reading a lot of research, writing my comprehensive exams, applying for grants, designing the study, proposing it to my committee, collecting data in Indonesia, analyzing that data, and then – finally – writing.  Along the way, I was given a lot of advice, and I learned a lot about how to get though the “dissertation writing” process successfully. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

Just Do One Small Thing After Another

I hated grad school my first semester.  At winter break of my first year, I was convinced that I would leave after the spring semester, and find a nice teaching job with a spot at the MA+20 spot on the pay scale. I was stressed, anxious, and totally overwhelmed.  Basically like this:

A lot of the anxiety I felt stemmed from the sheer volume of work I knew was still ahead of me.  How could I hope to write a dissertation, I asked myself, if I didn’t even know my own research interests?  Well, what I learned as the semesters ticked by was that I had already started building toward my dissertation without even realizing it.  By moving through coursework week by week and semester by semester, I was preparing for the dissertation, and for a continued career in academia (if I so chose…).  I wouldn’t have been able to write a dissertation without building an understanding of the field of education research and learning about research methodologies.  The readings I did and the papers I wrote for my courses during the first two years of grad school laid the foundation for my ability to conduct a study on my own.  In fact, some portions of the course papers I wrote actually ended up in the final dissertation.  And BUNCHES of the articles and books I had to read ended up being cited.  Especially once I started planning the study, collecting data, and writing, I would periodically freak myself out by thinking too much about everything left to do.  I was happiest when I could just keep my eyes on the task ahead of me – just transcribe this one interview, just analyze this one set of observations, just write this one section.  Sometime midway through the writing process, I read a profile of the prolific television producer Ryan Murphy, and ripped out this quote to hang above my desk:  “Energy begets energy.  He is intensely organized, with a plan for every hour: if you just do one small thing after another, he told me, you can create something immaculate and immense.”

Treat it like a Job

Creating something immaculate and immense doesn’t happen all at once. I worked a little bit every day, and I also tried to learn to know when to stop.  Most days, I put in about two good hours of dissertation work in the morning, and then switched to other work (which paid me money).  I didn’t work evenings, and I didn’t work weekends.  I was helped in this by having a full assistantship and flexible work I could do from home in the afternoons (or from Indonesia, while I was collecting data).  I know a lot of people write a dissertation while they are working a full-time job, so this advice won’t work for everyone’s situation.  It also helps that the years spent writing my dissertation coincided pretty exactly with the period of time when I met my husband, got engaged, and got married, so I had a lot of positive things happening in my life that sustained me through stressful moments.

I started feeling happier in my doctoral program, however, once I started to think of my studies as a job.  Part of the difficulty of my transition to grad school was readjusting to being a student. Science or humanities doctoral students often go straight into grad school after undergrad, but most education doctoral students are more mature.  After almost 10 years of teaching full-time, I missed the interaction of the classroom and the pace of the school year.   I missed feeling like I was contributing to society.  It took me some time to figure out how to manage my time and keep a work-life balance.  For me, that meant working from about 9 AM to 6 PM everyday, often with a break for yoga at lunchtime.  Even though no one cared when or where I worked, I felt most productive when I worked from home and started and ended at a consistent time.

Park Downhill

When I did stop working, I made efforts to leave myself in a good place when I started the next time.  You want to be able to start out rolling everyday. This is based on advice from Dr. Beth Cohen, who taught one of my methodology classes. It’s amazing how much time can be lost getting “back into” work from the day before, and how little recollection I had about work I had done just 24 hours earlier.  There are large swaths of my dissertation that I must have blacked out while writing.  On several occasions, I went to start a task and realized it was already done.  Or, I more often, I started doing it, then thought “I think I already did this,” and found that work done somewhere else.  To try to avoid occurrences like these,  I kept careful notes about what I had done each day and what needed to be done the next day.

I really got into the groove of keeping track of my progress after I had defended my proposal and started conducting the study.  During data collection, there were so many details to keep track of that clear record keeping was essential.  I had spreadsheets keeping track of participant information, data collection events, data transcription status, and data organization.  I wrote an update in a google doc at the end of every week to summarize what I had done that week, what I needed to do next, and what I had been thinking about.  This was really important when was writing my my methods chapter and had to go back and try to figure out what I had done when, and why, and what I had been thinking at the time.

Once I started analyzing all the data I collected, I kept a “data analysis log” and literally “logged in” and “logged out” everyday.  I noted when I analyzed each transcript or set of field notes, and then noted when I went back through groups of documents to code or re-code them.  After I got into a good routine of data analysis, I had a clearer vision of what needed to be done, and I scheduled tasks to do on future dates.  At the end of every session, I entered what I had done that day, and noted what I should do tomorrow.  Sometimes I made notes to myself to “think about this for next time.”  As I look at those notes now, I have almost no memory of writing them, and I would have had no memories to draw on when I had to write my methods chapter, either.  I continued the same process once I started writing, keeping a “writing log” in the same folder I kept all my in-progress dissertation chapter drafts. I haven’t looked at it since November 16, when I wrote “Read over Ch. 5; Put everything together!!!”  At the end of each writing session, I noted what I had done, what I should do the next day, and where to look for any information I needed.

Keep your Butt in the Chair


As I look back at all those logs now, I’m amazed by how much work I actually did and how slow progress actually was.  But still, everyday, I kept my butt in my chair and kept working.  This advice comes from my friend Andrene Taylor, who said the best way to write a dissertation is to just keep sitting down with it in front of you until it is finished.  And that is basically what I did.  I worked really hard, I didn’t cut corners, and I didn’t skip steps.  I spent about six months just “analyzing data,” a process that led to a lot of notes, memos, and documents that would be incomprehensible to anyone but me (and actually, some are incomprehensible to me, too).  Somehow, through that process, I ended up with a really interesting (I think) set of findings that hold concrete implications for language teacher education.  If I had tried to start writing last March when I finished data collection, it would have been a mess.  I had to put time into thinking about and organizing the data in order to write thoughtful and organized findings.  And when the findings weren’t particularly thoughtful, I had to revise and rework them until they were.  Sometimes, this meant cutting and re-writing whole sections, but it resulted in not having to do many revisions once my advisor took a look at it.  A 315-page manuscript probably seems like a lot of work, but it is actually even more work than I expected (much to my chagrin!)

Keep your Butt in a Comfortable Chair

This is something I hadn’t expected – that writing a dissertation would be so physically demanding.  Basically, I injured myself by sitting too long and too often in a bad chair.  It wasn’t a particularly bad chair, it was just a typical office chair, but I sat in it for hours everyday, hunched over my laptop.  After about 6 months of that, I had to start seeing an occupational therapist because I was having so much pain in my lower back and hips.  They gave me stretching and strengthening exercises to do, but I also invested in my work space.  I got an external monitor so I could look straight ahead and not hunch so much, and I got a kneeling chair so I could sit more ergonomically.  It took some getting used to – the first few weeks, I would switch back and forth to the office chair – but now I sit in the kneeling chair all day and have very little back pain.

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Little changes – big difference!

Research Something You Love – Or Figure Out How to Make it Something You Love

This is probably the most important lesson I learned.  Writing a dissertation takes so much time, that there is no sense spending all that time on something you are not passionate about.  When I first started  working on my dissertation, I didn’t really see how it would be possible to research something I loved because I didn’t really want to research anything. I wanted a PhD to be qualified to support and prepare teachers, so I was willing to write a dissertation to be able to do that.  I was pretty ambivalent about the research process, though, and didn’t see myself as a researcher. The dirty truth is that, when I was planning my dissertation, I didn’t really want to research anything.  What I did want to do, however, was go back to Indonesia and spend time with the community of teachers I had worked with previously.  So I figured out a way to do that within a dissertation study.  I think scholars are supposed to say that they sought out a compelling research study and were motivated by that, but I was motivated by the opportunity to spend 6-10 months living in the tropics again.

Much to my surprise, by planning my dissertation around something I loved, I ended up finding a compelling research study – and I was happy doing it. Sure, there were times I was NOT happy, but overall, it was an enjoyable process (or at least I can say so now that it is done!). The great thing about a dissertation is that you can design the study yourself (or you should be able to), so I was able to work directly with teachers and to be in classrooms throughout the data collection process.  One of the most valuable parts of the study, from my perspective, was bringing my novice teacher participants together as a professional learning community to discuss their teaching together and share ideas.  Many of them were my former students from when I had taught there from 2011-2013, so it was really rewarding to see them in their own classrooms and to support them during their early teaching careers.  If that is all I had done during my 8 months in Indonesia, that would have been enough to justify the time and effort.  The dissertation is a bonus.  Looking at the full 315 pages now, the most meaningful parts are the sections where I include participants own voices and share their experiences.  I didn’t anticipate how rewarding it would be to share their stories and to build on those stories to find meaningful implications.  Now that I’ve finished conducting my own study,  I can see myself continuing to do research in the future.  I don’t know where I’ll be next year, but I’ve applied to a few assistant professor jobs that require both teaching and research.  Wherever I’ll be, I know that I’ll be happy if I find ways to work in settings and on ideas that are interesting to me.  And if I have a comfortable chair.  And maybe some champagne.

August 30, 2015

First Day of School, Ready or Not

by Tabitha Kidwell

Tomorrow, I begin my second year of doctoral studies. As usually is the case on the last official day of summer vacation, I have a mix of emotions.

For one, I’m nervous – I’ll be teaching an undergrad class for the first time at UMD. I taught undergraduate English education majors in Indonesia, but I was able to capitalize on the fact that I was the foreign teacher, which meant that people were more likely to trust me (thanks to my status as a representative of the U.S. education system) and also forgive any mistakes I made (thanks to my status as a sometimes-clueless outsider). Now, I’m teaching undergraduates who are paying a lot of tuition for a good education. During most of the time I spent planning last week, I felt like I was about to puke. That is okay, though, because that’s is how I usually feel when preparing for a year of teaching. Most years, I can’t sleep the night before the first day of school, and that will probably be the case again tonight.

I’m also really excited – I haven’t actually taught for the past two years. 2013 was the first year that I hadn’t gone back to school – as either a teacher or a student – since I was 4 years old, and it was so hard to watch everyone else go back while I had nothing to do but shop for ugly Chirstmas sweaters. In 2014 I did go back to school, as a student, but I was so overwhelmed by the start of graduate school that I didn’t have a moment to lament the fact that I wasn’t teaching. This year, I am so glad to be back in the classroom, planning instruction, building relationships with students, and generally being of use to society. I’m teaching a class called “Teaching English Language Learners Reading and Writing in the Secondary Content Areas,” a course name I pretty much have to look up every time because the powers-that-be at UMD are trying to fit so many buzzwords into one course title. The course’s goal is to help future teachers teach reading and writing more effectively to their English language learning students, but it’s an elective class. Some students are secondary education majors (math ed, science ed, etc.) who know they will have students learning English in their future classrooms, and some are TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) minors who will go on to get an M.Ed. in our program and teach at local schools. But a lot are just taking it as an elective to fulfill their diversity requirement. My guess is that some of those students think they might go abroad and teach English for a year or two after graduation, but most of them just think a class in the college of education will be easy. Which is probably true.

Overall, though, my main emotion is relief. I am so glad that the first year of grad school is over and I have a freaking clue what is going on this year. Last year was really hard, but I grew a lot as a scholar and as a person. It is so great to look at the syllabi for the two classes I am taking and have a basic background and understanding of what we’ll be studying. For my third class, I’m doing an independent study with my advisor, working on developing a literature review I wrote last year into a publishable paper; part of my graduate assistantship is also being her research assistant on some other projects. It’s wonderful to have that good relationship and to be working together on topics I really care about. I also have a healthy amount of extra-curricular involvement, thanks to my ongoing inability to say no: I’m the student rep on the faculty department assembly (which is basically like getting invited into the teacher’s lounge – exciting in principle, but ultimately really mundane), I’m the co-chair of the department graduate student association (which mostly involves planning happy hours), and I’m the graduate student interest section co-chair for Maryland TESOL (which is really exciting because we are hosting the international conference in Baltimore this year). Also, personally, I am so grateful to feel at ease in the city, to have a good network of friends, and to know where I can buy good donuts.

Overall, I think this year will be easier than last, or at least I’m better equipped to deal with the challenges that come up (e.g., impossible reading load, compulsive need to nap). I only have to go out to campus for class Mondays and Wednesdays, and I have a better idea of how to manage my time and workload on the other days. Teaching will be a lot of work, but I think I’ll really enjoy it. It’s amazing what a big difference a few months can make – by the end of spring semester, I felt like I couldn’t do even one more thing for school. Now, I feel ready for a whole new year – or at least I will if I can get through teaching my first class without puking!

May 21, 2015

Recap: First year of grad school

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I last wrote, 7 months ago, I talked about how difficult it was to transition to living in DC and being a full-time grad student. It may come as no surprise, given my long delay in writing, that it continued to be really hard. When I went home at Christmas, after five months in DC, I was frustrated to still not have a strong community or feel at home in DC, even though I had been meeting people and trying to make connections all fall. I was so depressed that I was convinced I would finish out the year at Maryland, then try to transfer to OSU or get a K-12 teaching job back home. It was so tempting to slip back to comfortable, familiar Columbus, Ohio.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that five months is not all that long, and all the efforts I had made to make friends and connections hadn’t yet come to fruition. Friendship isn’t instant, and the acquaintances I had met for drinks in October and November gradually became the friends I called to commiserate after a bad date, or to help me clean up after a crazy party. The classmates I exchanged pleasantries with grew to become the people I asked to edit my papers, then went to celebrate with after those papers got turned in. The roommates who had started out as strangers came to be the friends I walked to church with on Sunday mornings. This spring, I have come to really value my community – I even sometimes wished I didn’t have so many happy hours, barbecues, and bocce ball tournaments filling my schedule.

School got easier, too. Well, actually, school got harder, but I got better at dealing with it. I got into a good daily routine, and found a little bit more balance between life and schoolwork. Sometimes I even stopped working at 6 or 7 PM! I had enough base knowledge that not everything I read was brand new, all the time. I supervised and mentored four great student teachers in Prince George’s County schools. I organized the Maryland TESOL grad student conference in February, presented at the TESOL international convention in Toronto in March, and attended the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in April. I started to build a network and feel like a professional (if junior) member of the teacher education community. And I started to have ideas about what my future might look like with a PhD. (Spoiler alert: It looks good.)

Most importantly, I came to love living in DC. I learned the city well enough to be able to walk, bike, and drive without always using google maps. I settled into familiar running and biking routes. I found a hairdresser, yoga studio, and a bar with a $6 beer/shot/hot dog happy hour special. At some point over the winter it stopped being the place I had moved to, and it became the place I lived. It became home. When I had been thinking about different grad schools, I went to San Francisco to visit Stanford and Berkeley, but felt out of place in California. People were too laid back and the food was too vegan. DC, however, feels like the perfect city for me – perfectionist, competitive, and driven, but also friendly, welcoming, and open. My family lived in the district in the 80s, and I am one of the rare DC residents to actually have been born here, at Providence Hospital in northeast. Like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, I have returned to my birthplace. I wonder how much the influence of those early years has to do with my integration now. My mom and step-dad came to visit in early May, and we went on a driving tour of all the places I lived when I was young. I was surprised to see that the apartment I lived at when I was an infant is right off of New Hampshire Ave – within 100 yards of the route I take when I drive to campus! I think it’s interesting that, of all the universities I could have gotten my PhD, I chose the place that was within a mile of the first place I ever lived.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t a hard year. It was, and I’m glad it’s over. But I’m also glad it happened, and I’m happy to be right where I am now. As long as year two of grad school doesn’t come too soon.

December 30, 2013

Where are you going?

by Tabitha Kidwell

The last three posts answered the common Indonesian question Dari mana? (Where have you been?). Now, I should probably answer the equally common question: Mau ke mana? (Where are you going?). These questions seemed odd to me when I first arrived Indonesia – why did people care so much about my comings and goings? But I eventually realized these are basically just small talk, and weren’t inherently odder than asking How are you? when you don’t actually care. These questions, being fairly straightforward, are actually also much simpler to answer.

Usually, that is. My future has been up in the air for the past few months until plans all finally fell into place a few weeks ago. I’ll be going to Indonesia for the month of January, helping to lead Access micro scholarship camps like I did last year. I’ll do the national camp in Jakarta, then head all the way to Manokwari(Papua), Ambon, and Kendari in Eastern Indonesia for three regional camps.

Then, I’ll head to Pune, India to volunteer with Deep Griha, which has had a long partnership with my church in Ohio. I’ll work with the teachers at their English medium school to improve their English teaching. How exactly I will do that is unclear as of yet, but I’ll figure it out when I get there. What I am imagining is leading sessions where teachers workshop their language lesson plans, with me helping by providing resources, activity ideas, and English correction as needed. If I find when I arrive that that would not be helpful whatsoever, I will make a new plan.

I’ll be in Pune for 10 weeks, then I’ll go to Kuala Lumpur to spectate for some friends doing a 70.3 triathlon. My friend Jessica and I will travel somewhere around that area, then I will fly home at the End of April. And then I will know where I am going to grad school, and I will move to wherever that is. I got accepted at Maryland, so the decision is between there and University of Michigan. The future is much more clear now, and I’m very excited for it to become the present!

September 30, 2013

Grad School Tour

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve just gotten back from an 11-day, 1,500 mile road trip that took me to visit 4 PhD programs, my dad, 2 cousins, my step-brother, 3 former college roommates, 2 friends from Indonesia, and 2 babies. Doesn’t sound like I had time for all that, does it? Now that I think about it, I do feel pretty ambitious. In fact, this blog post is also fairly ambitious, so I won’t judge you if you just skip to the end right now.

Oh, still here? Great! So, the main purpose of the trip was to visit grad schools. I tried to start the grad school search last year from Indonesia, and got totally overwhelmed – every website looked the same and I felt like I couldn’t even begin to sort out which would actually be best for me. Plus, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in an education program, or applied linguistics, or second language studies, or TESOL, or one of the other variations on the theme of language teaching. I’m so glad that I decided to wait a year, even if I feel like my life is on hold right now. If I had applied to the schools I was thinking about a year ago, I would have ended up in a program that was totally wrong for me! Better to take a year now and end up in the right program rather than rush into somewhere where I would be miserable for 5 years… or 6, or 7, or more! Actually visiting programs made it all so much clearer.

I started out at Indiana University, which was great. At Indiana, they actually have two doctoral programs that touch on foreign language education: Second Language Studies, in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Literacy, Culture, and Language Education, in the School of Education. I talked to faculty from both, and learned that the SLS program focused more on non-traditional language learning and adult learning. Given that my interests are traditional language learning in a school environment, it was clear I belonged in the School of Ed. This is too bad, because the most promising source of funding is associated with the other program. Still, they were great hosts and planned a busy visit for me – I even got to visit a class on foreign language teacher professional development, which pretty much exactly matches my interests. The department had a great vibe and it was clear that there was a supportive community. But it’s in Bloomington, Indiana. I met up with my cousin Brendan, who is a senior there and president of his fraternity. “What do you think about living in Bloomington?” I asked. “It’s sweet!” he said “The bars are always packed, there are always huge parties!” “Ok, but you do realize I’m 31, right?” “Oh, yeah, right… yeah, that would suck.” So that’s a drawback. The jury’s still out on IU.

Then I continued on to Madison, Wisconsin, which definitely would not suck. It is such a fun town, surrounded by lakes, with lots of fun neighborhoods to poke around, and no shortage of good cheese and beer. I stayed with Autumn and Esteban, two fellow fellows from Indonesia, and it was a treat to see them on American soil! The University of Wisconsin had the same situation as IU, with a Second Language Acquisition and a World Language/ESL Education program, and it was again clear that I belonged in the latter, though it seemed easier to take classes from both programs. The education program seemed good, and I think I will probably apply to UW!

After that, I swung through Milwaukee and had dinner with my college roommate Sebass and her two little girls, then drove to Chicago to stay with my cousin Kelly and her boyfriend. We ate pancakes, went to the OSU bar, we went to another bar, I told fortunes, we got pita pit, we went running. It was a bit of a blur. We also met up with my step-brother and step-sister-in-law (is that a thing?) for the Bears game, which I gather is an important thing in Chicago.

Then I continued on to East Lansing, Michigan, where I stayed with my dad. I wasn’t thinking too seriously about Michigan State, but thought I would go talk to the program director since my dad works with her and had already talked to her about me and, hey, you can’t hurt anything by making another contact, right? At Michigan State, the only program that was quite right for me was the Second Language Studies program, but it seemed like a great program with a strong chance of getting funding! It was clear that there was a lot of support for graduate students and a good community. But it is located in East Lansing, which, after years of visiting my dad, basically seems like Bloomington with a mall. So we’ll see about MSU.

So then (almost finished here) I went to Detroit, where I stayed with Gibbons, my college roommate (I will insist on calling her by her maiden name until… oh, forever) and her husband, Mr. Gibbons (not his name). We had a blast going on a couple of long runs, hanging out in Royal Oak, and going to Beerfest at the Detroit Zoo (tigers love beer). I also made it to that school up north. As a born and bred Ohio State fan, it is difficult for me to say this, but… I LOVED MICHIGAN. Shh, don’t tell Brutus. I kinda just visited U of M because it was on the way – they don’t actually have any program specifically focused on language learning. I would be in a “Teacher Education” program there. But I realized I already have a B.S. and an M.A. in foreign language education, and I want to be a teacher educator, so a Teacher Ed PhD might not be a bad idea. Also, they said the words “guaranteed tuition, stipend, and healthcare for 4 years for all PhD students.” And they clearly had a strong and supportive community. And Ann Arbor would be a really fun place to spend the next 5 years! So, with apologies to Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer, Michigan might just be my first choice at the moment.

After a little jaunt through Cleveland to see my friend Michelle and her newborn son Henry, I was back in Columbus. Now it’s time to start applications – definitely to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maryland, and maybe a couple others. It’s funny, before I came home this summer, I pictured myself going to grad school somewhere exciting and urban. When people asked what PhD programs I was interested in, I rattled off a list including Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, NYU, UPenn, BU, Harvard, Georgetown, etc. Now that I am home, I picture myself somewhere calm and midwestern. Part of that is related to the type of program I want – big state universities are where you can find big schools of education with a variety of doctoral programs and – very important – funding. But it also is related to the fact that I’ve been far away from home for the last two years and now I don’t want to go so far away. I’ve gravitated to schools and places that are comfortable and familiar to me. I was born in DC, within metro distance of UMD; my dad lived in Wisconsin when I was in high school and college; and you cannot be grow up a Buckeye fan without being acutely aware of the existence of Michigan. My life has been, and will be an adventure, but there is nothing wrong with having adventure somewhere familiar. Say, somewhere with beer, cheese, and Big Ten football.