If you’re an academic, you know that not all of the obstacles to scholarly work have to do with funding opportunities, the search for mentors, or even the challenge of wresting ideas from our own brains.
Some obstacles are internal.
One theme that keeps recurring in my work with academic writers is the impulse to compare one’s work with that of peers, classmates, or colleagues.
When speaking loudly, the voices of comparison can sabotage one’s ability to focus on, and even to move forward in, one’s work.
Do you find yourself saying or thinking things like:
“I feel like my friends have an easier time than I do. It seems like everything comes more easily for them—ideas, organization, the writing process. ”
“I should be farther along. So many of the people in my cohort are defending their proposals, and I’m still not even close.”
“I worry that my work isn’t as rigorous as the work I see published in my area. Did I choose an area that will be seen as too ‘easy’ by other scholars?”
The impulse to compare and rank ourselves against others is common, especially in academia, which is deeply hierarchical.
Ultimately, scholarly work is always dialectic, so you do need to understand where your work fits into the larger scholarly conversations. But it does not follow that you need to judge your work, especially in its nascent form, against finished work, especially of senior scholars.
In my work with graduate students I often hear a kind of charming grandiosity in their sense of audience—as if the dissertation they are writing will be read by all of the top scholars—living and dead—in their fields. Part of this may stem from the fact that we tell students, “write for your audience,” by which we usually mean use the genres and rhetorical conventions that are meaningful to your readers. My dissertation director wisely said, “assume some of the scholars you write about go to the same conferences you do.”
But some for some students, and even senior writers, anticipating the responses of their audience becomes paralyzing. The reality is that most theses and dissertations are read by your advisor or supervisor, the rest of your committee, and a few loved ones–if you’re lucky. Your academic readers are looking for competence in multiple domains (conceptual, rhetorical, performative), but they are not usually looking for a perfect, professional product. Even if you are writing a three-article dissertation, most will still require editing before submission.
My point is simply that you may do well to remember the immediate audience and context for the thesis or dissertation, which, for all of its mystique, is still an artifact of studenthood. To compare your work against the work of your friends, professors, or published scholars is unfair to you and to the context of the task on your desk.
So here are some thought experiments to try out:
- What would it feel like to do this work if I weren’t comparing my process or product to anyone else’s?
- Is this comparison actually motivating me to do better work—or is it holding me back from getting work done?
For more great strategies on productive writing, jump into the Healthy Writing Habits for the Long Haul mini-course. Give us an hour and we will hand you a toolkit for project completion and save you hours of frustration.