People who have the drive to get a PhD tend to be the people who try to pack 10 pounds of apples in a 5-pound bag. It can be tempting to carry that many apples, but sooner or later the bag will burst.
Grad students are super-high achievers. Taking on more research projects, saying “yes” to exciting opportunities, learning new skills, stretching in new directions. And doing everything extremely well. Meeting your own high standards and meeting the expectations of others. Each is an apple. Your bag gets more and more stretched.
Then it bursts!
If you are limited to those that fit into a 5-pound bag, how do you pick the best apples?
“How am I doing?” Too often grad students have no idea how to answer this question. Am I doing well? Am I doing what I should be doing?
Most of the time, it is hard to be sure. We go through the day without much feedback. When we do get feedback, it usually emphasizes what is wrong. We learn what we should change and do differently.
But it is equally important to get feedback about what is going well. What should NOT change. What should continue. I call this “feedback for continuation.”
Do, do, do. I am a do-er. I have three clipboards with different To Do lists. My husband often laughs that I can’t stop “doing.” Recently, however, I paused and created a To Be list.
My To Be list outlines who and how I try to be in the world. I wrote my To Be list after the untimely death of my sister. There were ways that she lived her life that I wanted to emulate. So I curtailed the number of things that I was doing and focused on how I was being.
Creating a To Be list is important for grad students. Grad school is a time when your professional identity is developing. You are shifting from “I study history” to saying “I am a historian.” (This is one of the reasons that Grad School is Hard.) You may also feel subtle pressure to jettison or hide non-student parts of who and what you are. Many students struggle to hang on to core parts of their pre-grad school identities, or, worse yet, feel compelled to erase them. Creating a To Be list can help you to preserve the essence of yourself.
Two effective forms of dissertation writing groups are those dedicated to quiet writing in the companionable presence of others and those that focus on support for the dissertation writing process. This post describes ways to make both types successful.
A third kind of group is structured to share writing and provide peer feedback. I wrote about them in Dissertation Writing Groups | Feedback and Motivation.
Dissertation writing can be an isolating experience. The magnitude of the project can overwhelm. Dissertation writing groups—comprised of fellow dissertators who provide feedback—are a lifeline.
There are three kinds of writing groups:
The dissertation feedback groups I participated in as a doctoral student were instrumental in my success. They certainly improved my work. My productivity increased. In this blog post, I reprise and update the advice I compiled shortly after I graduated. 
Yoda, legendary teacher of Jedi knights, famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This might be beneficial for training Jedi, but it is misleading for doctoral students and postdocs. For you, it is all about “Try.”
The binary “Do or Do not” frames the world in stark contrasts. Succeed or fail. Fly or crash. Blow up the Death Star or die. For us mere mortals, failure is not that consequential.
“Do Not.” It’s the decision not to attempt. Choose against testing long odds. Play it safe.
The “Do / Do Not” choice operates for many grad students. When failure seems to be around every corner, when hard work is unlikely to be rewarded, the choice “Do Not” is much easier to make. The high risk of failure acts as a deterrent. Inaction seems prudent.
“Why apply for that Fellowship/job/postdoc? I won’t get it?” “Why offer to run the local Pint of Science festival? I have never done anything like that before. It is sure to be a flop, distract me needlessly from my research, and incur the wrath of my advisor.” “Why apply for a postdoc as a digital humanities specialist? I don’t have all of the skills that they are asking for.”