Do or Deadline

Last year, I wrote about how April was a crazy month for me. This year it was February. The way deadlines coincided and piled up over a couple-week period was a good reminder of how grad school brings things at you from all different directions. It also led me to think about the value and pitfalls of deadlines now that I’m past coursework.

(Not a realistic depiction of the average graduate student)

The main culprit was the week between February 9th and 15th. In that period, I had five different deadlines I had to meet. Besides short-term deadlines when I was a TA last quarter, that might be more than I’ve had all the rest of the year. Where did they come from?

The first and biggest was the deadline for a workshop paper. Our workshop, focused on East Asian history, meets about every other week and is a forum for students to present and get feedback on works in-progress, like dissertation chapters. Back in the fall, I applied to present a draft of my first chapter. I figured January or February would be a good target date for presenting since it gave me a realistic amount of time to get something together but would come up quickly enough that it would motivate me. I got scheduled for the 15th, which meant I needed to submit my draft by the 9th, so workshop participants had time to read it.

This has been my main project over the last several months. It was a challenge both because it was the first chapter I’ve written and because I was using sources that are difficult to read and in a genre (poetry) I’m less familiar with. I’m pretty happy with what I came up with, but it was definitely a rush to finish the draft. Consequently, it was longer than I wanted it to be. That may seem counterintuitive, but once you’ve been in school long enough, the less time you have to write, the longer the text you wind up turning in.

The next deadline was also writing-related. In January, I received reviews on a journal submission and was asked to make relatively minor revisions. The deadline for those revisions happened to be the same day that my workshop paper was due. There was a lot less work involved than writing a chapter from scratch, but the turn-around was also much quicker.

Next up was a teaching application for next year due the 12th. Ideally, I would have spread out work on that (writing a personal statement, grading a sample paper, etc.) much more than I was able to. It worked out, though: I got an interview and was offered a position.

The 15th itself was my workshop presentation. At our workshop we spend most of the time discussing the pre-circulated paper, which attendees are expected to read in advance. So presenters usually spend just 10-15 minutes introducing the paper and explaining its relationship to their larger project. It’s much less formal than a conference presentation and so takes a lot less time to prepare. But I still had to organize my remarks and prepare a few slides (mostly images).

The 15th was also the deadline for applications for panels for the 2019 American Historical Association Annual Meeting. For a variety of reasons (including being a little busy with everything above), I got a bit of a late start on this. I did get an application together, though. This involved sketching out a basic framework for the panel, putting out calls for participants via several listservs, responding to prospective panelists, finding another panelist to round the panel out, drafting an abstract for my own paper, drafting an abstract for the panel as a whole, collecting and checking abstracts and information from the other panelists, and then inputting and uploading everything to the online system. This wasn’t my first time organizing a panel – you can check out my panel at the upcoming Association for Asian Studies conference – so I had an idea of how much work it entailed. This time around really drove home the importance of starting early. Nevertheless, I’m really excited about how the panel shaped up, and I hope it gets accepted. (We’ll find out by early May.)

Needless to say, with all this going on February was a pretty stressful month. March has been considerably more relaxed, even with needing to submit my paper for an upcoming conference last week. Strangely, though, as I got past February’s deadlines I started to experience a different, but familiar kind of stress. In place of the pressure of impending deadlines, I began to think more about the feasibility of the long-term timeline I’ve set for myself. February’s deadlines had been a kind of shield, insulating me from worrying too much about the big picture. With those out of the way, I’ve had more freedom to redirect my energies but also more time to ruminate about the future, including parts of it that are beyond my control.

So the time-freedom of being ABD is very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s possible for so many deadlines and events to converge that you forget that you’re “all but” anything because it just seems like one thing after the other. On the other hand, the lack of structure can be conducive to momentum-killing, spirit-crushing speculation about the future. And sometimes those contradictory feelings arrive in quick succession.

But it’s also possible to experience the best of both worlds and not the worst (at least some of the time). Setting and meeting your own goals is very rewarding, especially when it moves you towards completion of a large project of your own design. The challenge is using deadlines like tools – to help you manage your work – and not facing them like obstacles – that you have to contort yourself to squeeze through. I hope I won’t have too many weeks like that one in February, but setting deadlines for myself here and there can actually help reduce stress.


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