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How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (my reading notes)

How to Survive and Complete a Dissertation (Sternberg)I have to admit that from the title, I was expecting a really powerful book, and while I liked it, it really didn’t feel like Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day nor Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD. The great thing about this book is that it is a guidebook, so your doctoral students (if you’re an advisor) or you (if you are a student) can keep it handy for reference. Be forewarned: this book’s author’s writing reveals a certain old-fashioned element that makes me think that this book wasn’t even written in the 1980s. How can using a computer even be a question? The book edition I read was from 1981, though it’s been reprinted several times. At any rate, “How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation” is the kind of book that I can recognise makes a concerted effort to really understand what the doctoral student is going through.

While Sternberg’s use of the word “depression” seems to me ill-suited, and I’m really uncomfortable with his apparently casual usage of the concept, I strongly believe he is genuinely interested in the well-being of doctoral students. As I read the reviews of this book on Amazon, I realized that the reason I liked Sternberg’s book is that it’s not too long, not too short. Whereas Davis’ systematic approach book, to me, is way too short (as is, in some ways, Bolker), both Sternberg and Dunleavy felt to me the right length for a book aimed at helping doctoral students.

Sternberg is clear on issues we all agree upon (by we, I mean everyone who writes about academic writing and doctoral supervision and dissertation completion): you need a dedicated space to work on your thesis and you need to treat the PhD like a 9-5 job.

I should note that this definition of a PhD advisor is MINE, not Sternberg’s.

This is where you can detect that this book is old, and its author old-fashioned. I’ve written a lot about vulnerable communities and how we can be sensitive when studying them, so I disagree with Sternberg here.

This (the fact that Sternberg addresses when a PhD can go wrong) is one of the selling points for the book.

Overall, the Sternberg volume is a nice overview of the doctoral dissertation writing process, includes *some* but not all of the discussions you need to have with your PhD advisor on methods (qualitative, quantitative, experiments), AND is a much more frank and honest book than for example, others that purport to teach you how to finish your doctoral dissertation in two semesters or less. I would recommend it, but again, I wouldn’t do so without additional volumes that can complement the gaps that this book has. Though this is one of the most complete ones so far from those I’ve read.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach (my reading notes)

I like inexpensive, easy-to-read, fast-paced, nimble books. Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach by Davis, Parker and Straub is exactly that kind of volume. My only complaint with it is that precisely because it’s so thin (150 single-spaced pages, regular font size), it misses a lot of trees in order to provide an overview that looks like a forest.

The fact that Davis et al are almost apologetic about not having all the answers in their volume made me really feel happy about having spent my hard earned money on this. Do note, the author’s last name is not Gordon, but I was exhausted last night as I live-tweeted my reading notes of this book.

I’m still uncomfortable with books on how to write a doctoral dissertation or how to manage the PhD process that focus so much on productivity, pages written, output produced. But at the same time, I understand that a doctorate should be completed within a certain time frame, so I suppose there’s value to the productivity approach this and other books take.

Admittedly, writing the doctoral dissertation IS producing text and data and analyses and results, but I’m not sure we ought to treat the work as three 40 pages’ papers plus an introduction and a conclusion and WHAM BAM we have a PhD dissertation. I think there’s more to life as a doctoral student than producing pages.

This book is very easy to read, because these authors’ writing is super agile and nimble. Perhaps their core competency is a discussion of how to choose the right topic and how to “fill a gap in the literature”, an issue that many doctoral students face and it’s hard to deal with.

Overall, this book is super good for what it attempts to do (make it easier for a PhD student to finish their doctoral dissertation), but still is not enough to be used stand-alone, in my view. At least, I wouldn’t assign it to my advisees without providing additional support, either through my own mentoring, or by reading other complementary books.

Posted in academia, writing.

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On Writing (Stephen King) (my reading notes)

I’ll say it upfront: I HATE memoirs. I also hate the rhetorical moves that come with writing these memoirs. Even more so, I totally despise how some amazing and well-renowned authors use these memoir-writing strategies to provide writing advice.

My #AcWri #GetYourManuscriptOut desk

Having let that out of the way, let me say that Stephen King IS the king of writing and obviously that’s because he knows his craft. Just about every single person who ever said anything about Stephen King and his writing has praised “On Writing“. And since I was on a books-about-writing shopping spree, and it was cheap, I added it to my purchases’ list.

This was a great idea, and one I will never regret.

Instead of reading listicles that indicate what people have learned from King, like this one and this one, you could simply buy the book and read it yourself. Be forewarned: the first 100 pages are BORING. Or at least, *I* found them boring.

King is right, you can make an excellent writer out of someone who is simply competent at the craft.

And yes, Stephen King suggests that you should read. Don’t @ me.

The book is good, even if it took me the first 140 pages to get it.

As I’ve said – we need to stop feeling guilty about reading.

On the speed, word count and page count debates: Jesus Christ, I wish I had this speed.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Resources to help non-native English speakers who are writing a PhD dissertation

One of the things that grates me is the assumption that students know a lot of stuff that would be transmitted through their school or life experience that is not translatable to everything nor everyone. Doctoral students who are non-native English speakers face this problem on a regular basis, particularly when it comes to feedback they receive. The oh-so-not-helpful “THINK HARD” piece of advice still makes my blood boil, regardless of whether it’s advice given to non-native speakers or fluent-in-English people.

I took my complaint to Twitter, as I normally do.

In my quest to help, I suggested They Say/I Say, by Graf and Birkenstein. It’s an excellent book. I would also recommend that PhD advisors spend a substantial amount of time teaching their students the difference between Description and Analysis particularly in social sciences and humanities. But I know there are additional resources I am missing. At a later date, I am hoping to revise this blog post with additional sources for non-native English speakers who are writing graduate and undergraduate theses and dissertations in English.

Posted in academia, research.

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Authoring a PhD Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation (my reading notes)

One of the books I love the most is “Authoring a PhD Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation” by Dr. Patrick J. Dunleavy. Dr. Dunleavy is a professor of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in London, England, and someone whose research I deeply respect and admire. Moreover, I have frequently read and referred my own students to his website, Write For Research, and I’ve used his advice myself. So writing my reading notes of “Authoring a PhD” seemed not only like an imperative but also like something I had to do soon.

While I didn’t take as many photographs from the book, I really enjoyed reading it as Dunleavy offers a really solid, step-by-step guide to how to write and complete a doctoral dissertation. I had read his book a while ago, after I completed my PhD and I recommended it to several of my students, but I hadn’t had the time to type my reading notes, which I did this time.

Overall, I really loved re-reading Dunleavy’s book, and Bolker’s. I do think no single book offers everything PhD students need, so they’ll need a combination of these, for sure.

Posted in academia.

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Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (my reading notes)

The first book in a series of volumes I have been interested in reading is Joan Bolker’s “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis“.

Bolker takes a very similar approach to writing to the one that Joli Jensen preaches: you should have constant contact with a writing project (Bolker suggests at least 15 minutes every single day). For me, writing IS a way to get myself out of a writer’s block. For example, I am writing this blog post precisely to get out of a rut and find the headspace again where I can make final edits to a Revise/and/Resubmit (yes, yet another one!)

Bolker is right and that’s why her book works. You MUST write text for your doctoral dissertation at least 15 minutes every single day. This, obviously, doesn’t guarantee that you will finish the dissertation in 3, 4 or 5 years, but like Joli Jensen suggests in her book “Write No Matter What” (which I’ve also written about here on my blog), gives you constant contact with a writing project, and particularly low-stakes kind of contact. Reading Jensen’s Write No Matter What changed my life and cemented the thought that constant contact with a writing project is fundamental.

On the topic of advisors, I strongly disagreed with Bolker, particularly because I am kind of slightly famous on the internet, and therefore I felt like this was a jab at me. I do remember a professor at UBC telling me “you don’t want to do your PhD at Harvard only to have your advisor be travelling the world and forget about you”. I DO travel the world and my schedule is tremendously busy, but my students are my priority and I make sure to give them time, regardless of whether I am at a conference, workshop or doing fieldwork. As I said on Twitter, Elinor Ostrom was SUPER famous and she was an incredibly dedicated advisor. It’s not about the fame, it’s about making yourself (as a PhD advisor) available to answer questions and help your students.

As I said on Twitter, by now I know just about everyone suggests a daily writing practice, even if it is for just a tiny bit of time. Don’t ask me, ask Dr. Joan Bolker, and Stephen King.

I do not champion the 1,500 words or 5-10 pages a day approach. On the contrary, I suggest that we find a different measure of scholarly writing success: filling up sentences, completing paragraphs one idea at a time, and writing small bits and pieces of text (50-100-200 words a day).

The idea of a Dissertation Writing Group is useful. The main shortcoming with Bolker and just about every book I’ve read on writing is that they devote the least time to the final stages of the PhD dissertation (or of writing a book, like the conclusion, and how to put the book together). Yes, the best dissertation is the DONE dissertation but there isn’t a solid roadmap (or I haven’t seen it yet) for a student in the throes of final submission.

This sentence sums up my feelings about Bolker: A MUST READ BOOK for all doctoral candidates.

Posted in PhD training, academia, research.

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Building community online through promoting others’ scholarly work: A Twitter strategy

A lot of scholars who are new to Twitter ask me “can you give me a Twitter 101?” – I figured I should probably post my advice on my blog. As I’ve said before, the reason why I founded #ScholarSunday, co-founded #GetYourManuscriptOut, is that these hashtag-based community-building strategies DO work.

In a previous life, actually co-authored a book on building robust online communities (it’s an e-book) with Arieanna Schweber, so the principles I suggest here are similar to the ones we proposed in our joint work. My approach is to provide content (yes, I know, I hate that word too) that I believe will be useful to my Twitter followers. Here’s the strategy I follow:

When I wrote this Twitter thread I proceeded to do exactly what I suggested: I chose 10 blogs and pre-scheduled tweets that would promote their authors. This is the strategy I follow to avoid being on Twitter all day long. I am well aware that I appear as though I’m online all day. I am not, as my tweets below explain. I pre-schedule content then take time to reply to mentions and conversations.

There are plenty of sources for good academic blogs. I recently came across a listing.

As you can see, I use Buffer and HootSuite to preschedule content and then spend a limited amount of time responding. This enables me to do my academic work without being online all day. This is not something I have not written about. I have explained this strategy plenty of times, both on Twitter and here on my blog. Hopefully, by giving my Twitter thread a more permanent space here on my blog, people will be able to refer to it.

Posted in academia.


Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life (my reading notes)

I’m definitely not someone who reads “pop psych” or “psycho babble” (short monikers for popular psychology, the easily digestible version of scholarly psychological findings), which is how some books on habits, speed reading, speed writing, etc. are categorized. I don’t read self-help books because I think I need them, but because they’re fun reading material, particularly if they relate to routines and systematic repetitions. Because I am a neoinstitutional theorist, rules, norms, habits, routines all lead to the formation of institutions. Thus, my interest in habits.

AcWri while travelling

I was raised with military discipline because my grandparents were in the military. I also love finding new ways to do things that will make my life easier. I wake up at 4 in the morning to write because that’s a habit that I picked up as I made the transition from graduate student to professor and it has given me excellent results in terms of productivity and time spent doing things I love. I have my own “Start Your Day Right” strategies, I spend the first two hours of the day either writing or researching, and I rely on good habits to allow me to break through my lack of focus or writer’s block.

However, many of the good habits I picked up, I did so by learning from others and absorbing their robust working practices. I am very mimetic. I adopt habits that other people have demonstrated are solid, and this is something I did as I grew up.

Since Dr. Andrea Collins and I have very similar interests in academic productivity strategies, I followed her advice and bought Gretchen Rubin’s “Better than Before”. I also must confess that I did so on the cheap.

I got a lot of these self-help books for less than 15 US dollars, and I received them on the week I planned to take a few days off. Since I love reading when I’m on holidays, I got myself about 10 books that I can read over a weekend. Rubin’s Better than Before was one of those 10.

I think part of what makes Gretchen Rubin’s writing so easy to access is 1) she presents ideas I’ve long believed in 2) I know myself well. I have spent decades analyzing myself and my behaviour, even since I was a child, therefore I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, what I can and cannot do, what I am willing to do and what I am unwilling to do. I know which things will motivate me and what will de-motivate me. I’m a morning person who loves starting new projects and writing new text. I hate editing and sometimes I struggle to finish something because I’m a bit (or a lot of) a perfectionist.

One area where the broad-strokes categories that Rubin suggests fail is that you can be something for some areas of your life, since we are all heterogeneous human beings with very different facets of our lives. or example, I’m an Under-Spender for EVERYTHING *except* for books and stationery/office supplies. I save money in everything, but I am a sucker for printed texts and I love, love, love buying new pens, paper, notebooks, highlighters. I KNOW this. I know I am an Under-Spender except for very specific things and therefore, I budget accordingly.

While I agreed with much of Rubin’s texts, there were some major points of disagreement.

I did love, however, Rubin’s strategies to make something LESS appealing.

In the end, as I said on Twitter, Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before could possibly be (and maybe it is) better than Charles Duggin’s The Power of Habit. Both are very solid books and I would recommend both, with the provisos I made explicit in these reading notes.

Posted in academia, productivity.

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Thinking Like Your Editor (Rabiner & Fortunato) – my reading notes

Thinking Like Your Editor (Rabiner & Fortunato)One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that there is no single panacea for anything. In the line of research I do (comparative public policy), I always find that there are so many different ways of getting governments and individuals to do things and achieve certain goals that there is no single public policy instrument to solve all society’s ailments. The same is true of academic writing. By now, I have read probably a dozen or so books on how to improve scholarly prose, and how to produce better text at a faster rate. I’ve pored over workbooks, short volumes and reference texts in order to find That Magical Piece of Advice on How To Publish More, Higher, and Better. You can find several blog posts that summarize my Reading Notes of each one of these books, under my Resources website tab. The truth is that panacea, information that will make books automagically appear DOES NOT EXIST.

At the very least, it does NOT exist in the form we would like it to exist.

One of the books I’ve recently acquired, and I did so because I have a few books on the go (as in, writing, completing, finishing up), is the Rabiner and Fortunato volume “Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-Fiction and Get It Published.“.

There are a number of books for when you want to publish a scholarly book (like William Germano’s Getting It Published), when you want to edit your doctoral dissertation to make it into a university press or scholarly, more general book (like Germano’s From Dissertation to Book), but Rabiner and Fortunato’s volume is specifically for academic trade books.

It’s important to decide which one you want to write (or when revising your dissertation to become a book, which book you want to produce). I really enjoyed that Rabiner and Fortunato showcase acquisitions editors’ thinking and decision-making processes.

For anyone who wants to write a book proposal, having the answers (and good responses, specifically!) to The Big Five is fundamental.

Something I noted in a Twitter thread on publishing I posted a couple of weeks ago that Rabiner and Fortunato make clear: your book proposal should tell what’s different.

How does your book change our thinking about something?

Why are previous treatments of the subject insufficient to provide a fuller picture?

One of the best ways to learn how to write the answers to these questions is, as I’ve noted in this thread, to read book introductions.

As I’ve noted in earlier threads, you should read A TON of book introductions to see the stylistic manoeuvring that comes with showing a gap. For example, as I noted on Twitter, this would be a way to write about how a book on subnational Mexican water laws improves our understanding of water governance above and beyond what we already know.

“Gomez and Gonzalez showcase how Mexican water laws evolved. However, their analysis lacked subnational comparisons, which I do here”.

As I noted on Twitter, I love that Rabiner & Fortunato provide so many concrete examples that they work the reader and prospective author through, asking them “now, YOU go and do it“. Academic writers need LOTS of examples, and at least I can say I learn better when shown how I should be doing things.

Something disappointing from books about academic writing, as I noted on Twitter and here too, is that there isn’t a book about How To Write A Book. They all compress lessons.

I was also impressed by the abundance of examples and walk-throughs that Rabiner and Fortunato offer. For me the most impressive of them all was their Full Sample Submission Package. Germano does this too, in both of his books, but I found Rabiner and Fortunato’s submission package really useful to think about mine.

Truth be told, I am beginning to understand why the market for books on academic and non-fiction (and fiction!) writing keep getting sold. There’s always SOMETHING that you can learn from each one. In this case, I learned A LOT from Rabiner and Fortunato for the kind of books I want to publish later in my career (academic trade books). Definitely worth reading.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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On the importance of teaching the mechanics of doing research

I enjoy writing my blog because I can then use my blog posts to teach my own students and research assistants every technique I need them to know. As I said on Twitter the other day, my writings on this blog are a shared knowledge base. I just opened the knowledge base to everyone in the world who might need it.

What has surprised me as more and more students, and even early career scholars and seasoned professors have emailed me and tweeted at me about how they’ve found my blog helpful was – I *thought* professors taught this stuff. This was my belief up until, well, I got to graduate school, and then I realized that NOBODY was teaching this stuff, the mechanics of doing research.

AcWri highlighting and scribbling while on airplanes

Graduate students seem to be expected to learn how to do research by osmosis or some kind of magic process. As for how I learned, I have always been inquisitive, and my professors at UBC were kind enough to mentor me and share techniques with me, but a great deal of how I learned to do research was also intuitive, reading books, and looking at professors I admired and seeing how they worked and interviewing them about their daily process. Lucky for me, they were very open and direct about how their writing and research process worked. Also, I will have to acknowledge that my qualitative research methods professor was very specific about how to write memorandums and do thematic coding.

I am always frustrated to find that there are incredibly high and ridiculous expectations placed on students by their professors that they should know a lot of stuff that they were never exposed to in high school, undergraduate and even graduate programmes. This, and knowing that my blog is helpful to people, are very strong drivers for me to keep doing what I do.

I know for a fact that many students don’t know how to write a literature review, an annotated bibliography, or how to contextualize their research.

These techniques (the mechanics of how to do research) can’t be learned through osmosis. We need to do better and teach our students how we get things done.

In the end, we are all better off if we are able to train our students on how to conduct research, and walk them through the process. Even if the process we document isn’t perfect, it can still help others figure out methods and techniques for their own research strategies.

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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