Advice to Graduate Students

I earned an MA from the University of Manitoba in 2005 and a PhD from the University of Calgary in 2009. While completing my PhD dissertation (a book I have not yet revised for publication) within four years, I also drafted five books. I threw two of them away, and published the other three (with subsequent revisions): Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives.

Yet I am no productivity god. I wasted a lot of time, and wish I had done more. There are many graduate students who are also creative writers, and struggling to determine how to balance their studies and their writing. Here’s my hard-won advice.

I have framed it in response to an e-mail I received some time ago, from a self-described “budding author.” His basic question concerned going to do an MA (with an academic focus, not a creative thesis) yet also wanting to remain a creative writer.

How to focus on creative work and academic work at the same time? How to be a writer and a scholar at once?

Set Clear, Attainable Goals.

No matter what you work to achieve, you need to set goals that are clear and attainable. (For more on goal-setting for writers, see my interview with Chadwick Ginther).

The worst kinds of goals are vague, unattainable ones, like “hit the bestseller list.” Which bestseller list? When? How will you take meaningful action towards this vague goal? If you punch a copy of Quill & Quire, have you accomplished your goal? If you artificially manufacture some situation where your book ends up on the bestseller list (which is a current trend among self-help writers), will you check off your goal? Or will that fail to satisfy you ?

“Publish a novel” is a better but still-bad goal, as is “Complete my MA.” They are not terrible goals — at least you know when you’ve accomplished them. A novel gets published or doesn’t, and an MA hangs on your wall or does not.

A better goal is “Complete final polish on my first novel manuscript before the world ends on Dec. 20, 2012” or “Defend my MA thesis before I get married on Jan. 15, 2017.

Sometimes you’ll hear the annoying acronym “SMART,” as in “Create SMART goals.” Annoying though it might be, the advice is sound. You want your written (yes, write them down!) goals to be:

  1. Specific — You want to “finalize the manuscript for Vampire Sex Music,” not “write a book.” What does it mean to “write a book”? If you write a first draft, do you check off the goal? Or is a final draft your goal? Or a third draft?

  2. Measurable — You need to know when you complete a goal. If “lose weight” is your goal, then go to the bathroom. Mission accomplished! “Lose 5 lbs” is a better goal (in terms of being measurable — it’s a bad goal in other respects, since you could just sit on the couch and lose 5 lbs of muscle).

  3. Attainable — “Publish a novel” is a bad goal because it requires an outside party to intercede. In this case, a publisher needs to accept your novel, and in fact they will be the ones to publish it. (If you want to self-publish, then the goal would be attainable.) All meaningful goals should be possible to accomplish without the intercession of others. Although more wordy, something like “produce and submit a final draft until it is published” is better than “publish.”

  4. Realistic — If you have never written your name, then writing a novel is perhaps unrealistic (unless you have a long timeline). Often people are more unrealistic with their deadlines than with their abilities. I find that too many people are under-ambitious and in a sense too realistic given their abilities, but some people have a deranged sense of the marketplace or industry or their own selves. Research is usually the key to determining if something is realistic or not.

  5. Time-Sensitive — Everyone works better with a deadline. If nobody gives you a deadline, give yourself a deadline!

My goals going into the PhD programme were as follows:

  • Complete all of the required course work within the first eight months
  • Complete each stage of the program as fast as possible (I set additional, more specific timeline goals for each stage)
  • Complete all requirements for graduation within four years (I ended up going a few more months, because I was offered extra funding for those additional months, and I didn’t want to turn down free money)
  • Apply for every grant or scholarship for which I am eligible (deadlines specific to each) — both academic and creative
  • Complete a book and submit it to publishers before I graduate (i.e., within four years) … as noted above, I ended up completing and submitting more than one, and two were accepted for publication before I graduated
  • Complete and submit as least three academic essays to academic journals (I ended up publishing all three)

Despite wasting a lot of time playing Wii, I did all this stuff. I did a bunch of other stuff as well, other goals I set after I entered the program. I don’t say this to brag, just to show you that if you are realistic about it, and you set clear and attainable goals, then you can accomplish a lot.

Notice that my goals are both creative and academic.

Note that I didn’t set a goal to publish anything. Again: you can’t control whether or not somebody accepts your work for publication, and even if they do accept it, you can’t control when they will publish. (I am still waiting for an essay I had accepted over seven years ago to be published!)

All my publishing-related goals were to “complete and submit.” Even if I’d published nothing, I would have met these goals. However, I was determined to publish (I wanted to publish a book before I turned 30 — thankfully, Ex Machina came out just one month before my birthday!), so I kept “submit” in my goals.

The Deep, Dark Secret of Graduate School

Are you ready?

Ready for your life to be changed?

Ready to learn secret knowledge kept hidden in the darkest wood, buried a hundred miles below the roots of an ancient tree, in a lead-lined tomb?

Okay … if you think you’re ready. Here it is:

Nobody cares about your grades. Getting good grades is your least important concern.

Not an unimportant concern, but your least important concern. In other words, when you are in graduate school, straight-As are the bare minimum.

Everyone else will get As. You’d better get them too. But if you spend all your time trying to do well in class and get As, then you are wasting your time.

What you need to do is set yourself apart, without being an aggressive or competitive jerk. What people care about, when you enter the so-called “real world” after graduate school, is everything else that you did. In other words, while you are in graduate school, you need to concern yourself with gathering publications, awards, and experience.

When you finish graduate school, and are sweating in a stuffy auditorium while you wait to receive your degree, look around you. Look at all those people graduating with you, in your cohort. Now multiply that group by every other cohort at every other university graduating at more or less the same time.

Guess what? All those people have straight-As. They all passed. They all have degrees now, just like you. You’re all brilliant. But how many of you have actually done anything, other than getting good grades?

If you don’t do anything outside of graduate school, you look like a total loser to a potential employer and you’ve been putting your life on hold for no payoff. Lose-lose. Which leads me to remark:

Don’t put your life on hold!

There are no substantial rewards after graduate school. The jobs are scarce, the jobs don’t pay well (for the education you actually have and the time you put in), and you don’t get the respect you deserve. Not even from your Mom.

Moreover, putting your life on hold is a great way to look myopic and like you can’t manage your time properly. If you can’t get through graduate school without having time for outside activities, then how can you possibly teach a full course load and conduct research? Never mind have an actual, um, what do you call those things … “life.”

When I hear “I can’t imagine forgetting about my novel for a year!” I shudder. This is exactly the kind of thinking that is foisted on people. “You must put all aside and focus on your studies!” saith the dean.

But I will say it again: I wrote five books in first draft (two in final draft) including my thesis, and finished within the four-year (and a few months) “minimum.” And I’m not that special.

The reality is this:

Completing your novel, instead of putting it on hold, is the most important thing you could do for your future career.

If your novel is your thesis (i.e., if you’re doing the creative thesis option), then I would hope that this would be obvious. But even if it’s not, as in this example, even if you’re doing an academic thesis, then your novel is still the most important thing.

Why? Because everybody else is also going to have a completed thesis when they are done. Because everybody else has As. Because everybody else got award X or scholarship Y.

Everybody else is going to publish in at least one refereed journal (and it goes without saying that you’d better submit academic work to journals, along with getting As and winning awards, and writing your novel or poetry book or whatever).

How can you set yourself apart? Not by competing in-class to prove your intellectual superiority. You’ll look like a jerk (actually, you’ll be a jerk) and people will shun you. Not by getting an extra RA or TA job. Everyone else did that. But who else is completing and (hopefully) publishing a book? Or a schwack of essays?

Almost nobody. When people look at your CV, they should have to turn the page. They should have to turn 10 pages. They should maybe have to turn 20 pages. They should have to turn more pages than they did with everyone else’s CV.

At the same time, bear in mind that they are hiring people, not pages. Who would you rather hire:

  1. Somebody who has been hell-bent on graduate school to the expense of having a personality?
  2. Somebody who managed to tag all the bases, including drafting up a strong thesis, and craft a novel? (Or run a magazine, or produce a short film, or whatever.)

Who sounds more interesting, more organized, more capable, and more fun to chat with in the common room?

Nobody is impressed by my transcript with all its As and A+s and awards, aside from seeing the SSHRC on there. It looks just like everybody else’s transcript. Except, maybe, that I completed my studies on time.

Complete the program on time, and as fast as you can.

There’s a lot of bullshit competitiveness in grad school. Sidestep it all. Be nice to people and make friends. And quietly complete the program as fast as you can, faster than your peers.

You’re not struggling against them, you’re struggling with them, and against yourself. Nobody cares about your grades, unless they are low. Not even the department you’re in.

What do they care about? They care about how far along you are in the programme.

When I started my PhD, the first thing I did was look over all of the departmental policies. I read all of the policy documents I could. It was a nightmare, but I learned my most important lesson. I learned that the policy was, all other things being equal, when the department had money to give out, they would give it to the person who was the furthest along in the programme.

So, I completed all of my course work in eight months. Nobody else did. As a result, I received tens of thousands of dollars of free money, simply because out of my cohort I was the furthest along in my programme.

Even if there are not specific policies that would benefit you in this way, getting your work done efficiently and effectively will give you more time to have one of those lives you keep hearing so much about. And it will impress the people around you. You’ll be competitive without having to compete.

When I was done, my thesis needed a lot more work. I’m slowly doing that work now, in between other projects. I could have done all of this work earlier, but the goal is not to craft a perfect, publishable thesis. Your goal is this:

Craft a workable, defensible thesis — then get the hell out of there!

Polish and rewrite and get your thesis perfect and publishable on your own time. You’re getting a degree, not publishing a book. You can publish your book later. The longer you stay in the programme, the worse you look to an outside observer.

Nobody expects you to get your book accepted the moment you’ve graduated. They expect you will have to rewrite it anyway, and “get the dissertation out” before it’s publishable. They had to rewrite their dissertations, why shouldn’t you?

Other Concerns

In the original email, I was asked about an MA program, but I talked about my doctoral studies because the answers are relevant to both MA and PhD programmes.

The above is an overview of my general advice regarding graduate school. Below are more specific answers to particular questions and comments.

“Did you feel like you were compromising your creativity?”

No. I was careful. I minored in literary theory, which is broadly useful in academia and also of use and interest in a personal approach to writing. And I majored in Canadian literature, which helped me get a sense of where there was a gap in the literature of this country and where I might attempt to find a niche as a writer myself.

For me, this made sense and fed my interests; another writer might justify another field in another way.

If you’re going to have two careers, you need to make them complement each other. It’s hard enough to have a single career. You don’t need the hassle of a second one. You have to find a way to merge them and to view/present your creative work as an asset, not a distraction — as a form of research-creation (without crafting boring, theory-heavy books).

I didn’t do anything in graduate school unless I felt that it was going to help me as a writer in some way. Or improve my teaching abilities (because I love teaching and think it’s important to teach, a form of community service, like this website). And I made the time to write, regardless of how busy I was, even if I only wrote for 10 minutes.

So though I often bemoaned my lack of time, as I continue to do now, I was still slowly progressing on both creative projects and academic ones.

Where I did compromise too much was in not doing the creative thesis option immediately.

I entered the PhD programme with an academic thesis project and held onto it for almost a year. It was a mistake. I should have jumped in. It would have saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Not because writers should always do creative theses, but because my academic thesis was a worse idea. You should just go with the best idea, whether academic or creative.

Your most impressive project should be your thesis. Your second-best project can be your secondary focus. It sounds obvious but it’s not always obvious when you’re on the inside.

You can’t be tactical and careerist in your choice of projects. It will show in the work. You need to be doing your best work, no matter how sexy that work might seem in the marketplace. Your best work is always your best option, because it shows you at your best.

“I’m learning increasingly that writing is not only about talent, but mental perseverance, time management, organization…”

Hallelujah! This is, to my mind, the biggest misconception about art in general —that you don’t need to be organized, persistent, or efficient … just “talented.”

Whatever that means.

Talent is for wimps. Whoever told me that “Hard work is more important than talent” was right (it was either Maurice Mierau or David Bergen).

“[What about] negotiating between the writing mind and the scholarly … not only the varying mental spaces, but also how to go about establishing a routine that can accommodate both…”

It’s hard, but for me it’s not the transitioning that’s hard, since I have an analytical mind and don’t write from a place of emotion, necessarily. It’s the “only so many hours in a day” thing that’s difficult. I struggled with this then, and I still do, but even though it’s hard, the answer is simple: you have to prioritize both (though of course at different times, since by definition you can only have one priority).

(And, as noted above, you need to think of your writing as a branch of your broader research and think/plan/work accordingly, without getting into a headspace where you end up producing clunky, academic fiction, or wispy, non-rigourous academic work.)

I have written elsewhere about what to do when you have too many ideas, and you can more or less substitute the word “projects” for “ideas” here. The key is that, in your working life, your priority will shift. You need to understand and accept that: again, remember that by definition, you can only have one priority at any given time.

The trick is to make your priority an important, non-urgent project — and train yourself to work on that before the urgent, less-important things that can occupy your time.

Every day, try to take at least one concrete step towards completing this priority project. I define a concrete step as writing a certain amount of words, but you might want to include research tasks or other activities.

I insist on having clear priorities that are pre-defined, so that I don’t get wrapped up in what I feel like doing. I also set quotas for the week or day. Actually, I let my writing software, Scrivener (Mac | Windows) set my quotas for me.

I try to do more. But I focus on not doing less.

Even if I feel like garbage. Try to remember this: even if you write nonsense that you’ll later delete, this is better than writing nothing. It helps you think, and it helps you build discipline, and it helps to practice.

If you write a single usable sentence, then you’ve done more than if you put it off until tomorrow, when you’ll (supposedly) have more time or feel refreshed.

If you only work when you feel like working, then maybe you should quit. Stop deluding yourself. You’re a hobbyist.

Which is fine! Just own it.

Don’t act like you are more than a hobbyist. Don’t stress yourself out about these things, and don’t waste time reading articles like this, because they aren’t relevant to you. Relax and enjoy your hobby.

If you don’t want writing to be your hobby, then guess what? It is now your job. Even if you don’t make any money doing it. (I didn’t say it was a good job…)

So you have to go to work even when you don’t want to. Your job as a writer deserves and demands at least as much dedication and loyalty as your job at Tim Hortons, which you drag yourself to even when it’s raining and you’re tired.

Also, importantly:

Don’t trap yourself in reading/researching when you should be writing.

You need to do both. But your reading and research should not get in the way of your writing. Even if you are doing preliminary reading/research to prepare to write something (like an essay), you should be writing something else (maybe a different essay) or writing notes and draft material alongside your reading.

It will be easy (ha!) because you will:

Write according to a schedule.

I have written about this at great length, but the short story is that if you write according to a schedule you will be much more productive (like, produce 3-5 times as many pages) than if you write in large yet irregular blocks (writing like this, people tend to only write slightly more than “controls” told to write nothing unless circumstances force them to write).

The most important thing to do if you plan to be a writer and a scholar is to remember that AND. You have to commit to BOTH.

You don’t put one on hold while you work on the other. Trust that your success in one area will feed into the other — I’ve been hired to teach creative writing courses based solely on my publication record — and get yourself organized, get disciplined, and work efficiently.

Commit yourself and treat both your studies and your writing as a job.

Serious writers and scholars schedule time to write and don’t know what other people are talking about when they talk about inspiration.

So-called writers and scholars work when they “find the time” or when “inspiration strikes.”

Those people are pretentious losers. Don’t let them influence you. Don’t use them as role models.

The joke of the universe is that some of them have a lot of talent. And so, they get by. Imagine how well they could do if they actually worked, and honoured their talent rather than squandering it. The joke of the universe is that since they get by, they don’t even realize they are squandering their talent. Just imagine if they did not.

You have to imagine, because you will never know. Because they never will. They will always just get by. They will take your job, and churn out the same crappy essay for the next ten years, and get promoted, instead of doing something that matters to the world.

And so they will always be pretentious losers, even as they drink expensive wine while you swill box wine. None of which is any of your concern. Your concern is the work.

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12 thoughts on “Advice to Graduate Students

  1. I will add one more note: when you come out of an MA, you are expected to have done less, obviously, than if you’d come out of a PhD. Therefore, everything you do is more impressive. So if you somehow manage to get a novel written and (cross your fingers) accepted during or shortly after, you look super-impressive. And if you manage to publish anything substantial during your MA you will be a great position to try to get into PhD programs.

  2. Hi Jonathan,
    If you had to do a critical, instead of a creative, dissertation, would that have had any effect, do you think, on how much time it took you to finish your degree? Would you have even done a PhD if you had to write a critical dissertation?

  3. I think it would depend upon the project, but generally I don’t think it would make a huge difference. I often felt at the time that it would have been easier to do a critical project with a clearly defined question and direction than a creative project where one has to constantly and intuitively follow paths that often end up nowhere. In either case, I think that extensive rewriting following the completion of the degree, in which you try to “get the dissertation out” and bring the work to its best state, would be necessary.

  4. Where were you before I started my PhD? Sigh. I committed every sin you outline.

    But now I’m learning better. I write a poem a day, edit one of them weekly on my website, work as a copyeditor, etc.

    However, I need to learn your disciplined schedule. Thank you for sharing it. It’s just the idea I’ve been looking for.

    By the way, you’d be surprised (maybe not) how many people are down on me for writing a poem daily. Yet, like you, it’s a discipline I could not do without.

  5. It’s all about discipline. In really tough times I try to do a little at least — it’s always better to do something rather than nothing. But it’s a constant struggle to stay disciplined and motivated because, as you say, almost nobody cares or supports writers. I always tell students that “nobody wants you to write” (except for me, the teacher) so they have to deal with that and make their peace with it.

  6. Jonathan: absolutely brilliant advice! And also my experience. So i humbly tell you that your article is precisely what I would have said if anyone had asked for my advice! Great article written with wit, grace humour and intelligence. Although those who need the advice will probably pay no attention. David Arnason

  7. Thanks for putting this up, Jon. I have also kept getting work and money as a PhD candidate, and keep slogging…but it’s high time to get done and this is a good reminder of where the exit is.

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