Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to start getting over perfectionism

One topic that I hear over and over again is how one can get over the OCD/nit-picking/self-doubting that goes on when in a Ph.D. program (especially when writing a dissertation). This also applies to writing individual articles.  I've thought a lot about this in the past, and I've come up with some things that I think could be useful.  Well, at least they worked for me.

This was my first 3 years
in the Ph.D. program...
1. To start with, I fully believe that it takes at least a few years working on something before you stop feeling like a complete dumbass (i.e., that your work is inadequate, that you don't really know what you're talking about, that you'll disappoint people, etc.). For instance, as a new Ph.D. student without a prior MA degree, I felt like a dumbass for the first three years I was in the program. The good news is this will likely pass. Eventually, you'll realize you're the expert on your topic (for me, something just *clicked* one day), and the self-doubt will start to lessen (though I doubt it ever really goes completely away).  To help with these feelings, my advice is to talk with more senior PhD students who have almost completed (or just completed) their dissertations and I'm sure they'll tell you something similar.  (If not, they're probably lying to you.)

I'm finished! Well...
maybe I'll revise my
intro chapter just
ONE more time...
2. Related to #1, talk to others in your program, especially those further along than you! Ask them when they began to feel like an 'expert', when they stopped nit-picking over their writing, etc. Their answers will probably help you realize that 'good enough' is really the mantra of successfully finishing the dissertation. A 150-page 'good enough' dissertation that is successfully defended is worth much, much more than a 600-page behemoth that the student won't ever wrap up and defend out of a fear of missing errors, rewriting sections, etc. 

One rejection! Ah, Ah, Ah!
Two rejection! Ah, Ah, Ah!

This also goes for publishing articles.  At a lecture I attended at the ICPSR summer program regarding the publishing process, a senior poli-sci scholar (with a hefty and impressive CV) noted that he routinely averages 2-3 rejections per paper before it successfully hits in a journal. After I read that, my own (fairly new) rejection-to-R&R average of about 2-1 didn't bother me as much. That said, it still stings every time I get rejected (even editorially, pre-peer-review), and I usually take at least a week before I read the reviews in detail.  Any sooner and I get headaches from clenching my teeth at the obvious stupidity of the reviewers.

This is me standing on top of my
first solo-published article!
Another good example came from a professor I spoke with just before I started writing my dissertation.  He said when he first started in his Ph.D. program, his advisor (a very prestigious scholar in the field) looked at his first attempt at writing a paper and basically said it was a pile of garbage (in not so many words). But also said that that was to be expected for a first attempt. Over time, he got better at it, and now that professor has tenure at one of the top schools in the field. That talk really helped calm my nerves when it came to writing my own stuff.  [Side note: I've also had the "We need to talk..."-talk about my sub par writing in the past, and while it stung at first (really for about a year afterwards), I got over it, and I like to think my writing is at least slightly better than it was.  (Though I'm still not a fan of the 'tough love' school...)]

This is what I imagine all copy
editors look like, including
the constipated expression.
3. Related to #2, my first solo-authored journal publishing experience helped me get over some of the nit picking and worrying. Frankly, the publishing process is full of little fights over what to fix (especially during the R&R process, and then again during the copy editing process). Some of the wording the copy editor chose as a 'fix' was simply atrocious (while probably technically correct, it sounded like sh*t in the real world, at least to anyone but a copy editor). For my first solo-published article, I had a 2+ page list of things that I wanted the copy editor to change BACK to the original wording (proper English be damned!). A friend of mine who recently went through the copy editing process on his article noted that the copy editor ended up changing back only half of a very specific phrase in the manuscript that they had initially 'fixed' incorrectly. He realized this when he received the final (unchangeable) proofs.

There were also some other things for my own first solo-article that I would have liked to address in my publication, but simply didn't have the time or space to attend to without writing an entire second article filled with minutiae. So what ended up getting published was 'good enough', got me a line on my CV (and likely my first job), will get me a little name recognition in the future (hopefully), and I have a solo-published article that I will NEVER, EVER read from beginning to end (for fear of seeing typos, etc.). 

F*ck no I didn't proofread my
acknowledgements page!
4. Related to #3, the dissertation is similar to that process of 'letting go' of perfection. You won't be able to find every typo, I promise. My own (recently finished/submitted) dissertation has one glaring typo on the acknowledgement page ("You're" instead of "Your"... for f*cks sake...), and a misspelled first name of one of my professors that I'm thanking (a "y" where an "i" should be, ugh). This happened because I *only* proofread my acknowledgements page 5 times or so (with 2 outside proof readers), instead of the 20+ re-readings of the main body of my dissertation.

But realistically will anyone notice? Maybe, especially now that I said this on my blog. Will anyone care? Doubtful (even, I assume, the professor whose name I misspelled -- sorry in advance). And if they do care? Well, they can start their complaint letters with "Dear Dr. ...". And that is what counts. I did a dissertation that was good enough to pass (though I like to think it's was/is fairly impressive piece of work), successfully defended it, and now it is likely that no one is going to take the time to read it ever again except for other PhD students of my advisor who are looking for a model of what is passable (and the blog readers who want to see the typos for themselves...).

Good enough!
So, all this boils down to how to cope with the OCD/nit-picking/worrying of writing a dissertation, getting through a program, writing an article, or anything else for that matter.  My advice in a nutshell is to talk to people who you think have conquered this problem, and listen to them talk about their deeply-held insecurities (both former and present) that still are in the back of their mind. You'll realize that 'good enough' writing is just part of the game, and much of your worrying and re-re-revising of things is just wasted energy that you could be using for other more productive things.

Picture credits: Copyeditor Phone_Guy Garbage_Pile Old_Man Count Dumb_and_Dumber Highway


  1. I think your 'polaroid' pictures and captions are a great addition! Looking forward to reading more :)

  2. your blog makes for a wonderful read the night before the final submission day. thanks a ton