Approximately one month ago, I fell into a rabbit hole – the rabbit hole better known as Writing My Dissertation. I’d been working toward that point for five years and counting, through seminars and conferences, experiments and literature reviews, conversations and late-night therapy sessions with an open statistics textbook and eyes full of tears over yet another beta or epsilon that I couldn’t for the life of me comprehend. But here it was: the home stretch. The final product of years of loving—and sometimes not-so-loving—labor. And partway through another all-nighter (I was working under some tight deadlines), I had an epiphany: thank god I’ve spent the last few years blogging, writing a book, and doing freelance journalism. Otherwise, I’d be lost. Truly.
This may strike you as a strange realization to have in the middle of the most academic of academic pursuits, the doctoral dissertation. After all, the dissertation is Serious Writing about Serious Experiments and Serious Methods. It comes with its own language, its own conventions, its own academe-speak. On the surface, it has little in common with a blog post or magazine piece that’s meant for popular consumption. And yet—it wasn’t long into my introductory literature review (which I’d saved for last) that I realized just how lucky I am to have the popular writing background that I do.
My dissertation sits on the boundary of several disciplines. On the one hand, it’s social and cognitive psychology, on the other, behavioral economics or behavioral finance. To set the background as thoroughly as possible, I would have to combine studies from well-established psych journals (Psychological Science, JPSP, PNAS, and the like) with experiments reported in journals that many psychologists don’t even realize exist, or if they realize it, don’t often consult: The Journal of Portfolio Management, The Journal of Behavioral Finance, American Economic Review, to name a few. What’s more, because I was trying to build a case for the applied validity of my study designs, I would have to supplement those academic sources with commentaries on stock markets, analyses by actual investors, discussions of the causes of crashes and bubbles, market efficiencies and inefficiencies, financial climates and investment strategies—in short, by the types of analyses that are done by journalists and financial industry professionals.
It seemed a daunting enough challenge: all of the research involved, all of the reconciliation of literatures that speak different languages (delay ability becomes self-control becomes self-regulation becomes impulse control, and so on), all of the formidable lit searches that would have to take those different vocabularies into account if I had any hope of finding the necessary articles—not to mention the news and popular press searches that would be needed to establish the background tone. Couple that with the necessity of explaining to a dissertation committee composed entirely of psychologists why this literature made sense, what it was saying, what exactly I meant by Efficient Markets Theory and optimal portfolio allocation strategies, and the difficulty rose apace—that is, until I realized that this is precisely what I had been doing every week for the last five years, every single time I sat down to write a blog or perfect a pitch or research an article or conceptualize a part of my book.
Whether I’m trying to come up with a new blog post for “Literally Psyched” or a pitch for a magazine or a section in a longer piece of writing, I have to read widely, in multiple areas and multiple sub-disciplines. In popular writing (I don’t love the term, but I’m going to use it here for the sake of clarity, to contrast with academic writing—even though I realize that the two can overlap), there are no rules about what is and is not relevant. I don’t care if something is in “my” area, if it’s truly academic or applied or whatnot. I don’t care about its politics. The only thing I care about when I consider a source is its credibility and the quality of its arguments.
I have to distill multiple sources from multiple areas into a compelling, clear narrative. I have to build a case quickly and persuasively and learn to incorporate disparate voices into a coherent argument or conversation. I have to learn to get the gist of an argument quickly and be able to distill papers in a way that will be understandable even to someone who is totally unfamiliar with a topic. Most importantly, I need to create a quality end product: a piece of writing that someone will want to read. Otherwise, not only do I not get paid, but I will have failed at my job. And I have to do this over and over and over again, week after week and piece after piece.
What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.
If I just stay in a narrowly-defined academic niche, my writing will be confined to papers for scholarly publication and grants. Those take time and, at least in areas like psychology, research results. You can’t just run one off every few days. Absent those specific outlets, there’s no regular mechanism for developing your thoughts, working out new ideas, thinking about interesting questions that may not be directly related to your field of research, taking the time to wonder about other areas, or having the flexibility to pursue other interests just because they stimulate your imagination. It’s papers for publication, grants for submission, or bust.
If, on the other hand, I turn to blogging or other forms of popular writing, not only must I write quickly, coherently, and—and this is really the kicker—consistently, but the way in which I do it forces me to learn to work faster, come up with new ideas more frequently, be less afraid of “foreign” fields, and be comfortable asking constant questions about everything I read. I’m more aware of other disciplines and other literatures than I ever have been. I’m able to digest the academia-speak of disciplines that are not my own far more effectively. Over and over, I use these skills to help me tell a better story—the end game of both a piece of popular writing and an academic one. And because I am forced to write (and think) often, I improve. Constantly.
Since the early 1970s, psychologists have been studying the importance of frequent practice for the acquisition of proficiency and expertise. That process holds true for writing just as it does for anything else. The more you write, the better you become. As psychologists Ronald Kellogg and Bascom Raulerson note in their study of writing in college students, high levels of writing performance—which in turn correlate with higher academic performance overall—can “be achieved through deliberate practice” and “through repeated opportunities to write and through timely and relevant feedback.” What better way to attain those very ends than through the type of constant writing practice, coupled with the timely feedback of comments and replies from fellow writers and scholars, that is offered by blogging? You get neither the level of practice nor the consistent response if you stick to a more traditional path.
By the way, look at what I did in that last paragraph: I cited three sources, all from quite different areas, in a way that moved my point forward. There’s a book chapter on expertise, a study from the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, and a longitudinal assessment from Learning and Individual Differences. The time it took me to go through a few dozen studies and find the papers that were most relevant, taking the time to make sure their methodology seemed sound? About twenty minutes. And this is not related at all to my area of academic research; I just happened to know a few key names to look for because I’ve been curious about some of these topics in the past—and wrote about the acquisition of expertise in one of the later chapters of my book. Absent that practice, I wouldn’t have quite known where to start—and the thought of starting itself may have been too daunting to begin with.
That type of thinking and writing has been essential to my ability to complete my dissertation in a timely—and comprehensive—fashion. Let me give you an example. I needed to find a way to connect behavioral finance and investor behavior with the more traditional literature of cognitive psychology. I needed something that would bridge the two and make it clear that the former was just as worthy of serious academic consideration as the latter. And so, I tried to see whether I could find someone who was well regarded within psychology who might be able to serve as a confidence-inspiring guide. To my delight, I chanced upon a 1998 paper by none other than Daniel Kahneman, one of the most prominent cognitive psychologists of the twentieth century, that addressed the very thing I needed to have addressed: investor psychology. It proved to be a goldmine, and I promptly mined it for all it was worth.
But here’s the thing: when I did some more digging (for this blog post, no less; another thing blogging teaches you to do is conduct quick, immediate research to back up any statement you make), I was surprised to find that the paper had gone largely un-cited within the psychology literature. A Kahneman paper that’s not included in every study of decision making? Could it be? It could, and it was.
The reason, as I soon realized, was simple enough: the paper had appeared in a journal for portfolio managers. And journals for portfolio managers are not the place psychologists are taught to look for new scholarly research.
It’s not that the piece lacked subsequent citations; it was cited quite widely (a respectable 508 times—it was Kahneman, after all). But the location of those citations was the strange part. I found it cited in the Journal of Finance, a book on inefficient markets and one on stock market psychology, economics journals and mathematical journals (this is how I discovered the existence of something called the Mathematical Intelligencer), management journals and industry journals like the Journal of Private Equity. But psychology journals? The closest I came was the Journal of Economics Psychology and The Journal of Psychology and Financial Markets—not exactly the first names that come to mind when you think of the leading journals in the field (I hadn’t even known the latter existed).
I stopped looking at the eleventh page of results (themselves arranged by number of subsequent citations), when many of the listed citations began to appear in Chinese characters, so I may have missed a few other psychology references. But the point should be clear enough if you compare this to the fate of Kahneman’s more “traditional” pieces. His classic 1979 paper on prospect theory: 25,578 citations. His 1975 paper on heuristics and biases: 17,658 citations. A far less known piece on norm theory from 1986: 1,874 citations (I skipped about twenty papers that had more citations in between there). That 508 is suddenly starting to look comparatively less impressive. And the places those other citations are coming from? If I choose a paper at random, “Belief in the law of small numbers” from Psychological Bulletin, say, and look at the list of sources that cite it, the first page of ten results includes American Psychologist and Cognitive Psychology; seven of the ten are psychology books, including one by the prominent psychologist Richard Nisbett and one by the equally prominent psychologist Lee Ross. Quite a different picture, indeed.
I doubt that I would have found that pivotal Kahneman without my blogging and journalistic training. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to me to conduct a literature search in that same fashion. More often than not, academic disciplines do not talk to one another. Even sub-disciplines (a journal of economic psychology, say, and one on social psychology) don’t often communicate. As a result, papers miss important and potentially quite relevant citations. There are the pieces that are cited over and over, that have made it into the citation canon, so to speak; there are the pieces we know to cite whenever we mention a particular topic; there are the pieces that come from other prominent psychologists in your area or your institution or the publication you are targeting. The others tend to fall by the wayside. If no one is looking for them, no one will know they are missing.
To me, as a blogger, cross-citation is standard practice. I have to do it every day when I research a new blog topic or look at the background for a new piece. It’ s natural to include anything that may potentially be helpful—and to put areas in dialogue even if they don’t normally cross over. I don’t feel compelled to stay within any arbitrary academic boundaries; I just use what seems most, well, useful.
I’ve been lucky in my academic career. I have a graduate adviser who fully supports my non-academic pursuits—indeed, who encourages them and has, for the last five years, consistently and enthusiastically encouraged me to cultivate outside interests and maintain my intellectual curiosity, wherever it may lead. I had an undergraduate adviser who felt the same way, and encouraged me to continue my studies—and continue my writing, whether or not it had anything to do with academia or psychology.
But that sort of attitude is increasingly rare. My advisers are among the select few who maintain that line of thinking (one of the reasons I chose to work with them to begin with). On the whole, academia is quite anti-popular writing—or anything that is not, strictly speaking, in the academic job description. And though I've been quite fortunate personally, I’ve experienced this attitude indirectly in multiple ways.
I’ve always been open about my external pursuits and interests—and over the last few years, six fellow graduate students have, at various points, reached out to me for advice. They have mostly said the same thing: I’m unhappy. I think I may not want to stay in academia. What can I do? How did you decide that you could work on non-academic writing—and get away with it? Is it something you think I might be able to try, too?
Each one had the same story. Each one asked me in advance to maintain his anonymity, to promise that I wouldn’t mention this to any advisers or anyone in the department, or, really, anyone at all. Each one looked frightened lest someone less receptive find them spouting such sacrilege. The whole thing made me incredibly sad. These were exceptional students, and they didn’t have anyone with whom to discuss important life decisions. They felt trapped, like they couldn't say what they really wanted or express how they really felt. And because of that, they had lost their appetite for research that had before been stimulating. They had gone from incredibly excited to ready-to-quit.
It made me sad—but believe me, I know exactly why they did it. It’s the same reason why we have so many anonymous bloggers, who would rather publish under a pseudonym than risk the wrath of the establishment – or make even more tenuous the already tenuous possibility of ever getting considered for a tenure-track job.
Academia as a whole is still quite skeptical of popular writing and anything that takes time from serious academic pursuits. These include reading articles in your discipline, reading publications and books by your field leaders and co-workers, working on writing up your own studies for publication (the more and the faster, the better), and networking and presenting your work at academic conferences. Having a blog? Freelancing on the side? Working on pieces for the non-academic, a.k.a, popular, press? Not very high on the list. In fact, in direct opposition to the list, as each of these pursuits takes time away from what you should be doing.
It’s a shame—and it’s counterproductive. Instead of frowning upon blogging, popular writing, any intellectual pursuits that don’t seem immediately and narrowly academic, wouldn’t it make sense for academia to embrace it all – and embrace it enthusiastically?
I would argue that the best thing academia can do for its students is to encourage such pursuits to the greatest extent possible. In fact, I’d go a step further: incentivize students to blog and to write for a popular audience on topics that go beyond their immediate area of interest. At Columbia, for instance, we can write a grant for one of our comprehensive exams. Why not let a series of published blog posts count as well? It gets the student thinking and writing--and gets him a byline in the process.
In following this strategy, you will be teaching your students skills that will make the process of dissertation writing—the point where many students drop out of their programs (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of students will quit their doctoral programs; Chris Golde, the research director of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate at the Carnegie Foundation, estimates that 1/3 of that attrition will happen at the dissertation-writing stage—although the numbers vary by discipline, demographics, and other factors)—seem far less daunting and stressful, far more manageable and approachable, than it otherwise would. What’s more, it will make not only that dissertation but any piece of academic writing that much better, clearer, and more solid. Clear writing is the product of clear thought. When you write for the purpose of explaining, when clarity is your goal, you learn to hone your thinking and work through the complexities of arguments in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise be forced to do. When you write every day, you improve, and you keep improving.
People with good writing and research skills are rare. People who cross disciplines and read widely are rare. But don’t we need these people for academia to thrive? After all, many times, the greatest innovators are those who bring in fresh eyes and the perspectives of fresh disciplines: they are less likely to be myopic and be constrained by lines of thinking that are area-specific—and more likely to see patterns and connections that are invisible to the insiders.
The single best training and preparation I could have possibly had for writing my dissertation was the exact training and preparation I received in my career as a blogger and a writer. I just hope that others can have that same experience, and that in the future, my path will be the rule rather than the exception.
Image credits: Woman at desk drawing: Creative Commons, public domain image, available here; dissertation planning: Meghan Dougherty, Flickr; piano practice: Tom Hart, Flickr; stack of research books: Morten Oddvik, Flickr; little girl writing: peagreengirl, Flickr.
Kahneman, D., & Riepe, M. (1998). Aspects of Investor Psychology The Journal of Portfolio Management, 24 (4), 52-65 DOI: 10.3905/jpm.1998.409643
Kellogg RT, & Raulerson BA 3rd (2007). Improving the writing skills of college students. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 14 (2), 237-42 PMID: 17694907
Preiss, D., Castillo, J., Grigorenko, E., & Manzi, J. (2013). Argumentative writing and academic achievement: A longitudinal study Learning and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.lindif.2012.12.013