Repurposing My PhD

I've been reading all of these non-fiction books about FINDING YOUR ULTIMATE PURPOSE IN LIFE lately. I've been binging on library books: Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Pivot by Jenny Blake, Presence by Amy Cuddy, and Originals by Adam Grant. I'm thankful and grateful for all of the reading apps on my phone.

I started reading these books because I've felt purposeless since finishing my PhD in 2015.  I've lost a lot of direction and momentum. Graduate school and the traditional professor track had provided a ready-made blueprint for where I thought I wanted to go in life. I had prefabricated five year plans that included a publishing schedule and future research projects. When I stepped off that track, I felt like the floor had fallen out from under me and I was left running on thin air like Wily Coyote before free falling into nihilistic nothingness. (As I've said before, leaving academia feels like the worst breakup in the history of everything.) Without clear next steps, I charged in random directions without any real ideas of what I wanted to do in life. I couldn't see the future without my academic research or a university job. I was desperate to figure out a new direction, but didn't know how to get started. I had a serious life problem that I needed to solve.

I put my PhD problem solving skills to work to figure out what to do about my current doldrums.  I read a lot of books, thought about them, and wrote some stuff. My living room this week is covered with sheets of paper with endless lists: personal values, things I liked to do as a kid, what I like to do now, what I want to be when I grow up, accomplishments I'm proud of, how I want to make an impact in the world, strengths, marketable skills, visions, knows, unknowns, can't knows, want to knows, preferences, likes, dislikes, my Myers-Briggs type indicator (INFP), and assorted self-assessments. If knowledge really is power, then surely self-knowledge is self-power.

I started reading Angela Duckworth's Grit this week and thinking about how it pertains to the post-PhD life. Duckworth argues that grit, the combination of passion and perseverance, predict success to a much greater degree than talent. There's quite a bit of public and academic debate over the merit of the central premise of Grit, some of which you can read here, here, and here. (But seriously, it's kind of cool that some social science research has entered into public debate and conscious.) Regardless of whether talent or grit predicts success (or maybe it's like so much humanities research and more complicated than we previously thought?), I found some of Duckworth's ideas useful for thinking about my current situation.

Even as I found myself nodding in agreement over certain parts of the book, I felt a creeping sense of shame. Although Duckworth identifies PhD people as pretty gritty (you kind of have to be to do a PhD), I wondered how grit applied to the people who decided to leave academia. After all, hadn't I given up on the academic job market and dreams of a tenure-track job? I gave up and gave in when things got tough. I quit. If anything, my experiences on the academic job market showed how little grit I had. I felt like the least gritty person ever. I should have tried harder, I thought and blamed myself accordingly.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that reading my personal PhD story as one of failure and as evidence of a lack of grit was only one possible interpretation.

I went back to the zillions of lists that I'd made, searching for a common theme and purpose. After re-reading all of the lists, I asked myself what the biggest purpose for my life was that I could imagine. The answer came without any thought. It dawned on me so naturally that it felt like breathing.

My life purpose is helping other people understand the world better.

When I think back on everything I've done in my life or wanted to do, everything always hinges on helping other people understand the world better. My academic research. My writing. My teaching. My Peace Corps service. My blog. Even my photography aims to help people see the world in a slightly different way, often using unusual angles to challenge perspective.

Another way to think about my post-PhD story is this: much as I said last week, that graduate school is only a means to an end, so too is the professoriate. Academia is really just ONE possible way to help other people understand the world better. Other ways of reaching my overarching goal of helping other people understand the world better. I know this because I made lists about it. To paraphrase Angela Duckworth, sometimes we have to give up on lower level goals because they are untenable, but this doesn't mean that we have to give up on the bigger, overriding life-level goals.

I may have left the professoriate, but truthfully, its just a means to an end, not an end unto itself. For me, the tenure-track was only one way that I could have achieved my big life goal.  Academia was a mid-level goal in the pursuit of something bigger. It's okay to give up on the idea of the tenure-track academic job, as long as I'm focused on my bigger life compass goal.

And I have to say that in terms of helping other people understand the world better, I'm actually pretty good at it. History is the main vehicle that helps me to do this, but even history isn't the only way to get to where I want to go. So now I get to figure out some new lower level goals that are going to help me get to my bigger life goal.

In other words, I need to make another set of lists. Possibility abounds. :)






Guest Post: On Pleasing Your First Reader

Today, I share with you a thoughtful guest post by M.C. Malette on the importance of reader centered writing.

Every text I write has one core aim: to deliver to my reader a meaningful  experience. Of course, other aims and impulses also inform my writing. Always a desire to connect with the reader drives me, to have him see me, know me, and know something of how I experience the world. Sometimes I also want to make the reader reflect or think. Sometimes I want her to take a specific action. Sometimes I want him to feel a particular emotion or set of emotions.

But whatever else I hope to accomplish travels through my primary purpose. Unless engaged, the reader will ignore my logic, my evidence and my experiences. The reader unengaged yawns, gets up from her chair, turns out the light, and leaves the room.

Of course, however skilled I am, I alone can’t determine the reader’s level of engagement. Each reader brings to the page his own aesthetics, her own interests and likes and dislikes, her own experiences as a reader, his own sense of expectations and appropriate order.

But my audience does inflect my aim, as does my purpose for engaging that audience. I write for a child, and my text angles in one direction; I write for colleagues at an academic conference, and the writing shoots off elsewhere. A tweet responding to an insufferable troll points one way; an email to one of my children points in a different direction. But ultimately all of my decisions as a writer—about punctuation, word selection, phrasing, about metaphors and images and ideas—flow from my desire to create an engaging experience and relationship with the reader.

I know that many writers reject putting the reader first. Forget the reader, they advise. That preoccupation only inhibits a writer and can even induce writer’s block. But I choose to accept the reader’s experience as central to my trying to make meaning in language, and I do that for two reasons.

First, I don’t believe that just any utterance or arrangement of words constitutes meaningful writing. Written texts carry intentions, even if the writer can’t fully articulate that intention. For my writing to have meaning—even to me—something besides the impulse to put words down needs to emerge; something has to shape the thousand small choices I make as I draft and revise. But second, and more importantly, I value the reader’s experience because the writer is—or should be—every text’s first reader. And if my work fails to engage me as a reader, why should I expect any other reader to bother?

Though my point may seem obvious, I know from years of teaching writing—and from my own writing--that it ain’t necessarily so. I’ve read thousands of student essays that clearly hadn’t engage the people who had produced them.

Problems with grammar, usage, and structure weren’t the telltale signs—though those certainly showed up. The lack of engagement revealed itself more clearly in a flatness, in broad statements and clichés and overall vagueness about my main subject, let alone my main intention. And not only first year college students suffer from this syndrome. In advanced writing, senior level, and graduate school classes that I taught or took, I’ve seen the same emptiness and perpetrated it myself.

I don’t mean that writers do this from a lack of care about their subjects, or a lack of something to say (though I’ve heard many writing teachers make that claim—I’m think wrongly). Often when I talked with such a writer, or had the problem myself, I knew that enthusiasm, knowledge, investment, and insight were there. But somehow, these qualities hadn’t made it into the writing. Why?

Of course, part of the problem can come from lack of skill and experience. But I think it happens chiefly when I forget that what I feel at the moment of writing is different from what the reader will feel when he’s reading. It comes from not separating my energy in the flow of putting words down from what the reader will want and need as he reads. Only when I remember to respect the reader as a separate person—one with her own feelings, attitudes, and beliefs—can I understand how I might engage that person.

Again and again, I’ve seen writing, including my own, that seems to assume that the reader is already in the writer’s head, sharing the writer’s values and emotions and ideas. But that approach depends on finding an audience identical to the writer; with any other audience—that is, with everyone else—writing from that perspective ultimately won’t work. The solution isn’t to become a slave to whatever I think readers in general want to hear. In fact, it’s the opposite. The solution is for me as writer to become a better, more demanding reader of my own writing.

I try to do this in two ways. First, I work to create distance between myself as the writer of the work and myself as a reader. I can create this distance by using time, by setting the writing aside for a day or two—or more—and returning to it when I’m more removed from the heat of composing. I can also create distance by having others read my work. Their responses can give me a new perspective on the effect my words may have on readers.

Second, whenever I return to my draft in the role of reader, I try to practice being attentive to my responses and forgiving about what didn’t work. Being attentive means re-reading slowly, with pen or pencil in hand, and noticing and marking my reactions to any aspect of the text: words, phrasing, sentences, ideas, organization. No reaction is too small or too large. But this isn’t proofread or correcting. It’s about being aware of my reading experience. And because it’s not about correcting, in my role as reader, I need to suspend judgment about what’s “good” or “bad” in the text. Later, as I actively revise the work, I’ll have time to fix or cut or reshape. But this stage is a time simply to read with heightened awareness and notice what happens while I read.

In writing this essay, for example, I’ve gone through this process. I’ve finished a draft thinking, “This piece is done!” Then I’ve come back after setting it aside and seen with my “reader” eyes that parts of the draft went off in different directions, or lacked specificity, or were missing the energy I feel about the subject. And I used those “reader” responses to help myself as writer improve (I hope!) the essay.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every reader—or even many—will love any given piece I write. But it gives me the best chance of creating for at least for some readers—and for myself—a meaningful, engaging experience.

Miguel Clark Malette is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. He taught composition, rhetoric, and literature at the college level for nearly 20 years.  Malette has also worked as a journalist and technical editor. He holds an MFA in fiction, and a doctorate in rhetoric and composition. Malette blogs at and can be found on Twitter @mar_de_palabras. He recently published an essay on depression and anxiety on the Stigma Fighters website,

Organizing My Messy Reading LIfe

I talk a lot about writing on this blog, but my dirty secret is that I am drowning in reading. Really. I have a backlog of reading so massive that I will never get to all of it. At times, this idea distresses me profoundly.

I realized a few years ago that I needed to be a more efficient reader, which really meant that I had to organize my reading life. I played around with lots of different web services (Diigo, Delicious, Instapaper, Evernote, etc.) to see if I could use them to help with my reading. I also hatched more than a few harebrained schemes that involved tracking my reading on a complicated system of spreadsheets. I finally settled on three pieces of software to organize my reading: Pocket, Zotero, and LibraryThing.

I used to stash my reading backlog in many places. I often forgot where I had put what and where my current TBR list was housed. Unsurprisingly, I accomplished little reading. Now that I have a system (more or less), I only save things read in my three designated places. For example, I am occasionally tempted to use Evernote to stash things that I would like to read later. I also want to import articles and web pages into the Research folder of my Scrivener projects just because it's there. However, I know I will forget to look in these places later.

Back to the system I’ve cobbled together. What Pocket, Zotero, and LibraryThing have in common is this: they’re all searchable. Each uses collections and tags to organize books, articles, and webpages. In other words, (and this is by far the most important part of figuring our some sort of reading scheme), you’ll be able to find your stuff again. [Hallelujah!]


Pocket solves that problem of saving interesting articles around the web. I use it to save any web article that I’d like to read later, but can’t get to at the moment. Several friends of mine post articles to Facebook as a way to save articles they want to read later. Although this is an okay short term solution, Facebook doesn't let you search and find again in any kind of effiient way. Pocket is a much better way to do this. Pocket lets you search your saved articles using tag, title, or URL, making finding saved articles a snap. You can also combine Pocket with IFTTT for an entirely new level of awesome. For example, I use Inoreader to subscribe to RSS feeds of news and article sources that I find interesting. I’ve set up an IFTTT recipe so that when I star an article in Inoreader, it gets sent directly to Pocket, where I can deal with it later. Pocket also allows you to download articles on your device (Kindle and Android for me) for offline reading. I catch up on a surprising amount of article reading riding the bus or when waiting in line at the grocery store.


I’ve used Zotero for years to organize my research, both primary and secondary sources. I recently discovered that several people I know do not use citation managers; I confess I was shocked. I know people who organize their research on spreadsheets, in Word documents, or, most frighteningly, in their footnotes. However, there really is a better way:  use citation management software. There’s lots of it out there and much of it is free. (Zotero is free, though you do have to pay for storage space above 300 mb. At $20/year for 2 GB of storage, I think its a screaming deal.) I use Zotero because it is cross-platform (meaning that it runs natively on my Linux boxes) and is open source. [It is way off the topic of this post to talk about the difference between free and open source software. One is free as in beer and the other is free as in speech. You have to make the choice about which is important to you.] I used to organize all of my Zotero items by collection, but I’ve discovered that I like tags better. Right now, all the sources for the article I’m working on are tagged as “Ancient Maya Mysteries.” I know I need to read anything with this tag.


LibraryThing provides library-grade software for people and small libraries. I use LibraryThing to catalog physical books I already own (or would like to own) and keep track of what I’m actually reading. (My library is here.) I mostly use it for personal reading and fiction. LT lets you slice and dice your reading data in several ways and includes option to sort books by reading dates, so I can track my reading and see what I’ve been reading most recently. [Yes, I could do this with a fancy combination of tags and collections in Zotero, but I just find LT easier for this.] There is some overlap here with my Zotero stuff. I maintain a wishlist collection on LT; however when I’m using a book for an article for research, it moves to Zotero.  

If you’re reading for research purposes, you can make your reading much more efficient. Scholarship, of course, isn’t meant to be read like a novel. Learning to read for the big picture, major arguments, and evidence was one of the best skills I ever learned. I have a short template that I use in the Zotero notes field that helps me remember to stay on track.  I talked about it a little bit in this blog post about reading THE LITERATURE for my last twelve week article.

None of all of this organizing would be any good without scheduling time to review reading and doing actual reading. Scheduling time to review stuff to read makes just as much sense as scheduling time to write. It’s easy to put off reading because it often has no deadline. Making designated reading time is tough. I would love to schedule an entire weekend day once a month just for reading. Alas, life doesn’t often allow for this. For me, reading efficiently also means prioritizing my reading: figuring out what’s important and getting it read first.  I review my reading lists: articles on Pocket, the items I’m working with in Zotero, and my LT wishlist weekly or at least monthly. 

And then the trick is carving out time to do the actual reading.

I would love to hear how other people are organizing their reading lives these days.

[Photo: Pine Street Church, Boulder, Colorado, 2015]