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III. An Academic, Writing: Staying Motivated

Dec 04, 2012 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

One of my friends tweeted this comic from The Oatmeal about working for himself as an Internet Content Creator, observing that it, in many ways, it closely resembled the experience of an academic writer. Certainly, there are some parallels: for the first time in my academic live, I am relatively free to write on whatever I want. I set my own schedule and can (for better or for worse) spend extended periods of time without putting on pants. Of course I often get stuck waiting for the muse to strike, without set deadlines to provide any sort of external motivation.

In graduate school, a good dissertation supervisor sets deadlines and demands progress, and most graduate programs place limits (however long they may be) on how much time you can spend in a PhD program. I am ashamed to admit that my own Master’s thesis was written in a panic when my supervisor announced he was leaving in six weeks for the summer break, so I had three weeks to get him a draft of some kind. The research was finished, but I was already a year into my PhD and, thus, had very little motivation to complete my MA thesis. But once my supervisor gave me that deadline…

I finished my dissertation in the last trimester of my first pregnancy; little focuses the mind more than the impending life-changing event of having a newborn baby. Like my thesis before it, I had completed my research but lacked any hard-and-fast deadline for sitting down to actually put it down on paper. Or on the screen, as the case is now. This reliance on deadline for writing is a leftover from when I took classes; deadlines were hard and fast, having to get work in to my teachers and professors on time. Graduate school was different, with the focus on quality over deadlines.

Staying Motivated to Write

Motivation is a complicated subject for an academic. You might think that since writing is such an important component of the job (aka productive researcher), you wouldn’t need much motivation for writing. But if you’re like me, you love the research, but not necessarily the writing. Wrapped up with that is the pressure you feel as an academic to be productive in order to ensure that you can earn tenure (or even get a job to begin with). But without someone placing due dates in front of you, it is difficult to motivate yourself to actually sit down to do the writing that you know you need to do.

Personally, I am in a double-bind when it comes to motivation and my academic writing. My position is non-tenure-track and does not require that I produce any research or writing. I do research and write in part because I love it, in part because I do hope to get a tenure-track job. But while it would be reasonable to think that I would feel liberated from the pressure of the “publish or perish” mentality, in the back of my mind I know that I don’t absolutely have to write. If I miss my own deadlines (or even those set by journals or calls-for-papers), I know it’s not a big deal.

I sometimes think I can afford to wait for the muse to strike, which is the absolutely worst thing to do. I need to think about writing the way I think about working out: I might not want to go to the gym, but I know it’s good for me and that I’ll feel better afterwards. The Virtual Academic Writing Room will be my gym. I know that I will have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when I see a final product in print, a feeling that hasn’t diminished over the years. I expect that my academic coach will remind me of that feeling when I’m staring at my screen, looking for any excuse not to write.
 

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