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The Sunday night weekly planning strategy

As most of those who read my blog and follow me on Twitter know, I’m very systematic about what I do and how I plan. My annual programme (which I create using printed monthly calendars and my Everything Notebook has the major milestones, but as time goes by, and things get post-poned, plans get derailed, or additional obligations get added, I need to make adjustments. Some are major, a few are minor.

Planning and Scheduling for the Fall

I have two major moments of strategic workload readjustment. The first one is at the beginning of the month, where I look at my yearly plan as I broke it down per month, and then check commitments, verifying whether I missed something important by some odd reason. Since we are almost in November, this is the right week for me to revise my Monthly Plan and reassess what my commitments are and which ones I need to fulfil and what obligations I need to say no to. I check my Monthly Calendar every week, but sometimes I need to make changes even in that one, because I get invited to give keynote talks, participate in workshops, attend student progress meetings, etc. So, by the end of the previous month, while hopeful that nothing in my calendar will change, I am also aware that things may get added on to my schedule or shifted around.

The second moment of To-Do’s review for me is either on Monday morning or Sunday night. Throughout October (a perfect month for experimenting as it started on a Monday) I have experimented switching it over between revising my plan for the week on Mondays (as soon as I get to the office, or as soon as I wake up at home and start working) and then on Sundays. I’ve found that planning my week on the Sunday night allows me to hit the ground running on Monday. I probably have carried this strategy from my doctoral student days, when (if I needed to work over the weekend) I used to work Sundays instead of Saturdays (a strategy I recommend to my own students).

I have to admit that Sunday night has worked much better for me than Monday morning. For one, it doesn’t intrude on my early morning writing/reading process. For two, it allows me to quickly glance at my daily plan and know exactly what I’m doing and what time. Hopefully this strategy will work for others too.

Posted in academia.

Writing topic sentences and crafting paragraphs

Two of the questions I get asked most often not only by my own students but by other scholars on Twitter as well are: “how do I write good topic sentences?” and “how do I write good paragraphs?“. These two techniques are important for many reasons, but the one I think about the most is the topic sentence, because I believe good topic sentences often can lead to robust, well-written paragraphs.

My #AcWri process integrating reading CSED

This is one reason why I am (like Dr. Eve Ewing in a tweet I quote below), a fan of the 5 paragraph essay (a type of essay that is often taught at the college/university level). In my view, well-crafted topic sentences set the stage for coherent and robust paragraphs which then produce sound, cogent, articulate essays. While sometimes unpopular, the Intro, Body, Evidence, Discussion, Conclusions model (the 5 paragraphs essay) is replicated in scholarly writing beyond undergraduate writing (see the IMRAD model of scholarly paper). I thus concur with Dr. Eve Ewing here in that the 5 paragraph essay IS actually a smart way of introducing undergraduates to scholarly writing.

Unfortunately, some of the journal articles, book chapters and books I read skip the basic structure of a paragraph as described by Dr. Patrick Dunleavy in his blog post on constructing paragraphs. This is problematic because if the topic sentence is not the first one that you find in a paragraph, it is harder to discern which one is the most important and therefore, readers may find it challenging to evaluate the content to determine the most important and valuable idea within.

The usual structure of a paragraph is (and I borrow from the Dunleavy model here, though I apply my own codes):

  • Topic Sentence
  • Body
  • Tokens (Supporting Evidence(
  • Wrap (Closing)

My office at CIDE Region Centro during and after writing a paper

Professor Dunleavy doesn’t agree that the Wrap sentence (what I call the Closing Sentence) should link to the next paragraph. But frankly, I do like doing this, and my writing reflects this. I believe that the Closing Sentence should allow me to follow the flow (the Throughline or Red Thread) of the entire paper.

How do I know whether a Topic Sentence is well constructed? This is a question I often get asked. One test I usually ask my students to apply is to highlight in yellow (see my colour-coded highlighting and scribbling scheme here) the first sentence of every paragraph of an entire paper or book chapter. If they are able to understand what the paper or book chapter is about through only the topic sentences, then the author chose the right ones. This method for quick reading (skimming) only works if authors follow the model where you start a new paragraph with the topic sentence.

Academic writing (working from home)

I concur with Dr. Jessica Calarco (Indiana University – Bloomington) here where she says that a robust essay should have solid topic sentences and well-written paragraphs.

When I write, I try to follow the topic sentence model. For me, a key idea should be contained in one paragraph. As I searched for sources that I could link to in order to help readers discern what a good topic sentence is, I came across D’Angelo (1986)’s article, “The Topic Sentence, Revisited“.

If you read this article, D’Angelo goes back to the intellectual history of what a topic sentence and a paragraph look like. What D’Angelo and the authors he cites indicate is that a paragraph is a set of sentences that are coherent, cohesive and provide an entire idea in a self-contained unit. Therefore, a topic sentence establishes the TOPIC (or the theme, the main idea) of a paragraph.

The topic sentence must, therefore, ensure that if we read it (and only that particular sentence) we can have a broad, bird’s eye view of the full paragraph, even if we add supporting material and a closing sentence afterwards. A paper with good topic sentences should therefore easily be skimmed by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. Although as I mentioned above, there are a number of academic writers who do not follow this model, unfortunately, because they feel it is formulaic. Nevertheless, I strongly believe in following strategies and formulas and THEN use slight variations and deviate from the model.

That’s why I recommend writing papers through one of two methods: (1) Answering Questions and (2) Listing Topic Sentences. These topic sentences then, as Dr. Calarco mentions in her tweet above, become full sentences. I also encourage my students and readers of this blog to consider paragraphs as their target objective. Producing enough words to finish a few sentences and form a cogent, cohesive and coherent paragraph should be a valid goal for academic writers. This belief is also why I encourage my students to write in paragraphs, one idea at a time.

Once you’ve crafted your entire paper/essay, you can then run a Reverse Outlines (Paragraph Replanning) analysis like the one posited by Dr. Rachael Caeley here. By drafting an outline and seeing how it looks like, you can see if you need to replan specific paragraphs.

A few resources:

Hopefully this blog post will help people formulate better topic sentences and develop stronger, more coherent and cogent paragraphs.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Planning the timeline and progress of your doctoral dissertation (or Masters/undergraduate thesis)

One of my PhD students lamented this week with me that she had a lot to juggle (taking children to and from schools and to and from activities, etc.) and that she needed a strategy to make her research move forward. I had been planning to write this blog post for a while, since this is the one question I get asked the most by doctoral students (”how do I plan my unstructured time over the summer” being the other one).

I had to rush to get this blog post done because my student is 2 years away from the deadline her university has imposed for her thesis defence, which is why I sat down with her last night to show her how I do things. I have two other PhD students at exactly the same stage (2 years to defense) so I figured I might as well finish this blog post.

While I’ve suggested that people read one (or more) of the books that I’ve digested myself (check my Writing a Doctoral Dissertation page), one of the main things I teach my students is how to apply backcasting techniques to develop a project plan. I was trained as a project manager, and I worked in that capacity for a number of years, so I understand exactly the kind of work that needs to be done to develop good project plans.

There are a few resources for students, which I mentioned on Twitter earlier today (October 5th, 2018), many of which are listed in the thread that will appear if you click anywhere on the tweet shown below. Thanks to everyone who responded to my query, though I think many of them were professors describing their own process, which is not the same as having a doctoral dissertation (ONE GOAL) to finish in X number of years. My students are doing theirs in the 3 papers’ model, which is a bit closer to the day-to-day life of a professor, but still, the trajectory is quite different. Anyhow, here are some recommendations (click on the tweet to expand the entire thread).

The core planning strategy I would thus recommend doctoral, masters and undergraduate students is to engage in a combination of Gantt Chart Design and project backcasting techniques.

The Gantt chart is a technique I learned in graduate school when I took project management courses. This is a hypothetical Gantt chart for my doctoral student, covering about 15 months.


For Gantt Chart templates, you can see Dr. Emma Sheppard’s here.

Here is another resource that you can use to create Gantt Charts.

Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner have lots of resources on their site, and have published books on this as well.

Dr. Patrick Dunleavy’s book “Authoring a PhD” is incredible and really does help students who are planning their PhD process. I recommend it to my own doctoral students.

And of course I would be remiss if I forgot to recommend Dr. Ellie Mackin Roberts (my coauthor for a forthcoming book on research planning) and her website. Ellie has A TON of downloadable printables for you to plan your own research. She is fantastic.

In the end, the process I recommended to my students and that I do myself is – set a target defense date and then work backwards and plan tasks, activities, and intermediate goals. For example, I have asked my students to plan submission dates for their 3 papers (to be sent to journals) and then schedule fieldwork and data analysis accordingly. This process has worked well, and I hope my description of the process will help my students and others!

In a subsequent blog post I’ll describe how to go from long-term goals (submit paper X by Y date) to daily tasks. That blog post will definitely apply to doctoral students and post-PhD folks.

Posted in academia.

Lateral Writing: A strategy to fight “writer’s block”

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a technique to help me get words out, particularly as I have 2 revise-and-resubmit papers, 3 book chapters that are due, and I’m writing 3 books, two of them with firm deadlines. I noticed that when I am really stressed, no matter how hard I try, and how many of my own strategies to “get my writing unstuck” or “prompts to get me writing” I use, I end up still blocked. The last technique I’ve been experimenting with is what I call “Lateral Writing“.

Radisson Paraiso (Perisur, CDMX)

Lateral Writing refers to that text-generation that is not focused The Main Thing You Need To Get Out ASAP, but that will help you move your research forward. For example, I have an R&R that is due towards the end of the first week of October. Ideally, I’d be able to write JUST THAT ONE PAPER. I’d already have the response to reviewers, letter to the editor, new version of the paper, etc. all ready to go.

Well, I’m getting there and I have drafts of all of these but I’m not totally finished. BUT I’ve managed to write more than 4,000 words of another paper that is also due toward the end of October, and about 5,000 words of one of my books (the one with the closest deadline), and bits and pieces of other R&Rs. This is why I often try to work with a MEPFED model (Move Every Paper Forward Every Day).

Library Cubicles at El Colegio de Mexico

Doing Lateral Writing (for example, writing on bottled water or on human right to water while I have to finish a paper on waste pickers) has enabled me to still move forward both with The Revise-And-Resubmit Revised Paper That Needs To Be Submitted At The End of the First Week of October, but also with other stuff that I also must finish, including my tenure process documents. Hopefully the notion of Lateral Writing will be useful to my readers too!

Posted in academia.

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The October 2018 #AICCSED Reading Challenge (read one article a day)

Reading outlining and calendar cross-postingOne of the biggest issues we seem to have as academics (be it practitioners, students, faculty, post-docs, contingent faculty) is carving the time to read. I’ve written before about the importance of reading systematically (every day, if possible), and about the legitimacy of reading as a key component of academic writing. Well, here’s my challenge to you: during the month of October 2018, we are going to read ONE article per day. If you use my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) technique, you’re also supposed to write one entry (row) on the article you read. Again, let’s use Monday-Friday (though you’re welcome to read all 30 days!). I think it is really important to read during October, because November 2018 is coming up fast, and as you may remember, November is also #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), when everybody writes as much as they can to get (if possible) a book written.

Reading and AcWri and highlighting related content

Doing an AICCSED Reading Challenge in October would enable an author to then launch into #AcWriMo full speed. Hopefully many people will join in! I did an AICCSED Reading Challenge in mid-April, and it was wildly successful.

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Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (my reading notes)

Although it’s been a while since I last taught Research Methods or Research Design, I am collaborating with my department’s working group on research methods. We are redesigning courses, syllabi and sequences, so I am always keen on reading and keeping up-to-date with methodological advances. Moreover, I’m an editor of a qualitative methods journal, which also forces me to stay on top of the literature.

While I would say that Alexander L. George and Andrew Bennett’s book “Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences“, is neither a new book nor an old one (it was published in 2004), it is definitely a classic and a must-read. Moreover, I’m a comparativist, and someone who undertakes systematic case study comparisons, so George and Bennett’s book is definitely my go-to when I want to revise my research strategy.

Pedagogically, it will help students understand the rigour of case studies/process tracing. For researchers worldwide, it also helps understand the logic behind comparative case studies, process tracing and historical analysis.

Overall, I always recommend that my students and colleagues read this book if they want to go beyond Yin 1984 (the classic case study book). This is a systematically-designed, well-articulated, cogently-written volume that has both pedagogical value and analytical rigour.

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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Writing theoretical frameworks, analytical frameworks and conceptual frameworks

Three of the most challenging concepts for me to explain are the interrelated ideas of a theoretical framework, a conceptual framework, and an analytical framework. All three of these tend to be used interchangeably. While I find these concepts somewhat fuzzy and I struggle sometimes to explain the differences between them and clarify their usage for my students (and clearly I am not alone in this challenge), this blog post is an attempt to help discern these analytical categories more clearly.

A lot of people (my own students included) have asked me if the theoretical framework is their literature review. That’s actually not the case. A theoretical framework, the way I define it, is comprised of the different theories and theoretical constructs that help explain a phenomenon. A theoretical framework sets out the various expectations that a theory posits and how they would apply to a specific case under analysis, and how one would use theory to explain a particular phenomenon. I like how theoretical frameworks are defined in this blog post. Dr. Cyrus Samii offers an explanation of what a good theoretical framework does for students.

For example, you can use framing theory to help you explain how different actors perceive the world. Your theoretical framework may be based on theories of framing, but it can also include others. For example, in this paper, Zeitoun and Allan explain their theoretical framework, aptly named hydro-hegemony. In doing so, Zeitoun and Allan explain the role of each theoretical construct (Power, Hydro-Hegemony, Political Economy) and how they apply to transboundary water conflict. Another good example of a theoretical framework is that posited by Dr. Michael J. Bloomfield in his book Dirty Gold, as I mention in this tweet:

An analytical framework is, the way I see it, a model that helps explain how a certain type of analysis will be conducted. For example, in this paper, Franks and Cleaver develop an analytical framework that includes scholarship on poverty measurement to help us understand how water governance and poverty are interrelated. Other authors describe an analytical framework as a “conceptual framework that helps analyse particular phenomena”, as posited here, ungated version can be read here.

I think it’s easy to conflate analytical frameworks with theoretical and conceptual ones because of the way in which concepts, theories and ideas are harnessed to explain a phenomenon. But I believe the most important element of an analytical framework is instrumental: their purpose is to help undertake analyses. You use elements of an analytical framework to deconstruct a specific concept/set of concepts/phenomenon. For example, in this paper, Bodde et al develop an analytical framework to characterise sources of uncertainties in strategic environmental assessments.

A robust conceptual framework describes the different concepts one would need to know to understand a particular phenomenon, without pretending to create causal links across variables and outcomes. In my view, theoretical frameworks set expectations, because theories are constructs that help explain relationships between variables and specific outcomes and responses. Conceptual frameworks, the way I see them, are like lenses through which you can see a particular phenomenon.

A conceptual framework should serve to help illuminate and clarify fuzzy ideas, and fill lacunae. Viewed this way, a conceptual framework offers insight that would not be otherwise be gained without a more profound understanding of the concepts explained in the framework. For example, in this article, Beck offers social movement theory as a conceptual framework that can help understand terrorism. As I explained in my metaphor above, social movement theory is the lens through which you see terrorism, and you get a clearer understanding of how it operates precisely because you used this particular theory.

Dan Kaminsky offered a really interesting explanation connecting these topics to time, read his tweet below.

One of my CIDE students, Andres Ruiz, reminded me of this article on conceptual frameworks in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. I’ll also be adding resources as I get them via Twitter or email. Hopefully this blog post will help clarify this idea!

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Writing journal articles from a doctoral dissertation

As I often do, I blog about stuff that people ask me on Twitter. This is one of the most common questions I get: how do I write journal articles out of my doctoral dissertation?

My dissertation was a book-length manuscript, but my PhD adviser used the same thinking as many other researchers who supervise doctoral students: find three major contributions that your doctoral dissertation make, and then chunk your thesis into these as journal articles.

I work with my doctoral students from the assumption that there are at least 3 publishable articles that can be distilled from their dissertation. My current students are doing papers-based theses, but I also have mentored those who write entire books. The most important thing to keep in mind is what Dr. Pat Thomson indicates here: there are many, many ways in which you can slice your doctoral dissertation.

Here are a few resources I found on how to get articles out of the dissertation. But by and large, Pat’s blog post is the best and most thorough.

  • Pat Thomson on getting articles out of your PhD thesis. Pat offers very detailed suggestions on ways in which you can identify contributions to then turn into articles.
  • Laura Mesquita with 8 tips to get articles out of your dissertation. I really liked this strategy, though I would combine it with other resources listed below.
  • Thomas and Skinner on a systematic approach to turning your dissertation into articles. This piece includes equations and calculations on how many articles you can get out of your thesis, and all.
  • Eva Lantsoght on how to turn your dissertation into articles. Dr. Lantsoght comes from the engineering and natural sciences field so she offers excellent advice that can help those in the same disciplines.
  • I think the key question is – what are the three most important contributions that I can distil as DISTINCT units and that could be published independently without being in sequence or appear at the same time? Once you answer that question, you can start writing the journal article (with advice from Wendy Belcher or Barbara Kamler/Pat Thomson, of course).

Posted in academia, research, writing.

Destination Dissertation A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation (my reading notes)

The second book I absolutely did not like at all was “Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation“. As I indicated in my reading notes of Ogden’s “Complete Your Dissertation or Thesis in Two Semesters or Less“, I acquired this book because Dr. Kimberly Wiley, someone whose advice I fully trust, suggested that other academic mothers had suggested four books, all of which I’ve read and written about (here’s my blog post on Bolker, my post on Davis, Parker and Straub, and my post on Ogden).

I should add that I was really, really looking forward to reading Destination Dissertation because (a) other people had recommended it and (b) I’m addicted to travelling (even though I totally see the downsides of academic travel). This book appeared to be a fun read, and since I’ve been reading a ton of books on the PhD journey to help my own doctoral students, I thought I’d buy it and read it. Well, best laid plans…

Don’t get me wrong: Foss and Waters are delightful writers. The book is fun (if long and heavy!). Destination Dissertation is a freaking 474 pages. If you are a slow reader, or have to do something else with your life, just say no.

Here’s where I started to get upset at Foss and Waters’ volume. Again, the Ogden trope that you can get this done as though it were just as simple as spending 12,000 hours in a project.

Losing a reader is easy when you make grandiose claims before page 23. You need 1,078 hours in an easy 29 steps to finish your dissertation?! Wow. I wish somebody had told me before I spent N years of my life thinking, reading, doing fieldwork, researching, analyzing data. If you remove the absurd claims about how little time it takes to finish a doctoral dissertation and the rather impossible timelines, these books are actually quite useful.

So, let me list what I did actually learn from Foss and Waters’ book.

I do not think assigning time constraints to doing dissertation proposals and data collection actually works.

But again, once you get past the ridiculous timelines, there are a lot of fun bits to read in this long tome.

Verdict: A fun read, and I can get over the absurdly ridiculous timeline (where no, you can’t go to conferences, travel, do fieldwork, get sick, have children, if you want to complete your dissertation within Foss and Waters’ rigid schedule). But I would like at least *some* acknowledgment that students may get derailed and concrete strategies for those who fall off the wagon. As with Hunt Ogden’s book, I suggest that as you read Foss & Waters, skip time allocations, read plethora of usefully presented examples, and do have fun.

And as I said, there ARE people for whom it worked. See examples below.

As with everything I write about (and this is why I never say I am doing a book review, but simply typing my reading notes), Your Mileage May Vary.

Posted in academia, graduate school, research, writing.

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Complete Your Dissertation or Thesis in Two Semesters or Less (my reading notes)

I recently ran a poll on Twitter about whether I should write about books I did NOT like, and the majority ruled that it was important to know which ones and why not in order to make better decisions. This was a split decision, since 48% approximately suggested that I should NOT write about these volumes that I did not believe would be useful. I decided to type my reading notes for one specific reason: I may not have liked these volumes, but certainly, other people did. And if that’s the case, then it’s worth highlighting that what didn’t work for me, DID WORK for other people. Therefore, there’s value in these books.

The first one of (two so far) books I did not really like was Evelyn Hunt Ogden’s “Complete Your Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis in Two Semesters or Less“. Strangely enough, both books I didn’t like are by Rowman & Littlefield, a publishing house that I actually really, really like. This is just plain coincidence.

Anyhow, there are plenty of good tips in Ogden’s book, and in my Twitter thread, I shared them, but my main annoyance is that writing a doctoral dissertation in such short period of time is basically impossible and almost unattainable. Good goal to strive for, but not realistic. The tweet below shows exactly WHY I hated this book.

This timeline is, as I said in my tweet, entirely unrealistic. Even if EVERYTHING went your way, there is no way you can get this done within this unrealistic timeline. BUT, scheduling pipe dreams aside, the underlying premise is good: you should plan to achieve the best, but prepare for the worst (Ogden suggests the earlier approach, I suggest that you should combine with the latter one).

There are plenty of reasons why this approach could fail.

I can see the logic in Ogden’s premises, but the “perfectness” and “ideal world” conditions grated me. What if an advisor gets sick? What if the doctoral candidate gets sick? What if nobody in the committee responds? In theory, this process “let’s go all in” should work. My experience writing my own and supervising doctoral dissertations tells me that this is an unrealistic approach.

You need time to read, process and digest your thinking. A doctorate may be the only moment in your career when you get to do this, and be EXPECTED to read, and take time to think.

Lots of good pieces of advice IF you realize before reading the book that this is an unreasonable timeline for PhDs. his could potentially work for an undergraduate or even (pushing it) a Masters thesis. But a PhD needs way more buffers built in. his book has no room for contingency plans and the author assumes perfect working conditions. I wish this approach would work but hell no.

As I concluded, my assessment is that this book offers an unrealistic timeline, BUT is equipped with several good gems of advice. My concern is the inherent assumption that everything is going to go according to plan in a perfect world where the PhD candidate has control over everything, everyone including his/her own health and well being.

As I said on Twitter, there people for whom these books worked (see tweet below by Dr. Wiley). But she is absolutely clear about how she made them work: by extracting whatever gems of wisdom

I found Dr. Wiley’s approach extraordinarily helpful in determining whether to write about Ogden’s book – individually, all feel somewhat unreasonable, but put together, they demistify the process. Worth considering.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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