“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.”
“Creativity” is not the sole purview of the artistically inclined. “Using your imagination to create something new in the world,” is the definition of creativity-evangelists Tom and David Kelley1. Researchers formulate new explanations, invent new products, conceive methods, and originate insights. Unquestionably creative.
Most of us, sadly, don’t see ourselves as creative. The truth is, say the Kelley brothers, “we are ALL creative.” We have deep reservoirs of creative potential waiting to be tapped.
Confidence, the feeling of self-assurance and trust in one’s ability, is a key ingredient. “Creative confidence is like a muscle,” they assert. With effort, experience, and deliberate practice, your confidence can grow. At the same time, your ability to be innovative and take risks will expand. In their book, Creative Confidence, (and a related TED talk) the Kelleys offer encouragement, examples, and practical tips.