Hopefully this blog post helps someone else out in the world besides me, because frankly, I’m writing this to help myself. That’s right, this is an entirely selfish blog post where I write a bunch of things I know I need to hear. As a second-year Ph.D., I’m currently facing the daunting task of writing my proposal.
And I really, really, really, truly do not want to write it.
But here’s the thing — I know I need to just do it. I write for fun (obviously), I write to keep myself sane, and I write to keep myself interested in a variety of topics. I really just need to get a good start to this whole proposal thing, and then I know I’ll be able to keep going at a steady pace.
It tends to be that point — the start — of a big task that stops people. Why is that?
I suppose it’s because we psyche ourselves out, just like I’m doing with this proposal right now. It’s not the single most important piece of writing I’ll ever produce, nor will it make or break my graduate school career. Even though I know all of that, it still feels like a big, heavy, scary task. Even though I know it won’t make or break the next couple of years for me, it sure feels that way.
So, how do I get around that? How do I convince myself that my proposal is not the be-all and end-all of graduate student tasks?
For starters, I think I’m going to breathe a little (anyone else ever forget to breathe when you’re a little stressed?). Taking deep breaths is a really great way to slow down a racing mind, and hopefully it will help move me to a place where I can focus more on the physical task of writing rather than the big picture of what I’m writing and why.
Next, I think an outline is necessary. That sounds like something that a large piece of writing requires, right? If I have a general format for my writing down, essentially, it’s like I’ve made painting a masterpiece more like painting a coloring book — all I have to do is stay in the lines (out-lines!) that I’ve already made for myself, and then things should go smoothly.
After that, I guess the next step is a ton of reading. I’ve sort of started that one. I think I can speak for most graduate students when I say that if someone asked how much reading I’ve done to prepare for my proposal, I would say, “Plenty, but definitely not enough.” I think it will kind of always feel that way, but I’m going to do everything in my power to read enough so that I’ll have enough information and sources to make my literature review feel solid.
Next I’ll have to talk specifically about my project. This part is both comforting and scary at the same time — I know the most about this part already, and I’m very comfortable explaining my project to people and defending why I think it’s important to the field. So that’s a good start. What’s scary about this part, to me, are the limitations and possible outcomes. Limitations force me to address all the things I probably won’t or can’t do during my degree. This will always bother me a little bit subconsciously, but now I have to put it in writing (which always makes things feel more real). And possible outcomes forces me to acknowledge something even worse: what if everything I do fails? What if I try everything I’ve come up with to gain more knowledge or insight about my field, but I don’t get any results that resemble something I expected?
This part will be challenging, but I do believe that if you look at things in enough different ways, you’re bound to find a way that works. Hopefully, even when I’m writing about possible ways my experiments might not work, I can still find relevance and meaning to negative data or outcomes I wasn’t otherwise expecting.
Then… that’s it? I think that’s everything.
Wow, that doesn’t actually sound so bad. After writing it all out, everything that needs to get done doesn’t add up to that much. This post even coerced me into addressing the things that were really scaring me about writing the proposal, and suddenly they don’t feel as scary.
So, for anyone who’s made it this far down in a post that was really just my brain trying to talk itself up to a difficult task, I hope you found some of my steps and logic helpful. I hope that by continuing to communicate and think about what elements of a task overwhelm us, we can all keep moving forward with our degrees, taking things one step at a time. And don’t be afraid to notice the things that make you the most uncomfortable — noticing them actively is the first step to getting over them.
Thank you for reading through this little journey with me, and if you’re a fellow current-proposal-writer, I hope you’ve been inspired to keep on writing. Don’t let your proposal dreams just be dreams! Don’t let the start stop you — make those dreams come true!
- Serina Taluja
Serina is a doctoral student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.