Cafes, Drafts, Escapes.

I have finished the second chapter! Well, for a given value of finished. I haven’t written the conclusion. I’m contemplating leaving all of the chapter conclusions until the very end – give myself some space from each chapter before I try and summarise the main points. Is this a good idea?

I spent most of last week in various cafes with my laptop. I’ve definitely found that working outside helps me concentrate, I tend to get very distracted at home. Although I also found that in doing that I left myself very little personal time. By the time I got home each night I didn’t have the time or energy to make a proper dinner and I definitely didn’t have time to go to the gym. I’m pretty sure that’s just weakness from not having been in full-time employment for the last year and a half.

I do feel pretty accomplished right now. I’ve written this chapter in two months, give or take, and I feel like I can finally see myself progressing. So much of what I did in first year felt like treading water. I never felt like I was really achieving anything and I felt so buried by it all. It’s all coming together now though. Those months of research, tears and spider diagrams are adding up to something that (I think) makes sense.

Having said that, though, I reread some bits of my first chapter yesterday – I’m borrowing from it for a paper I’m writing – and it’s a bit embarrassing how bad it is. Three months ago I was proud of it. Shows what a bit of time and space can do for the writing process, I suppose. I’m not going to edit it again, though. I want to try and bash out all of my chapters ASAP and then go back to them all. Editing is easier to dip in and out of when I’m teaching, so the more I can get done during the holidays, the better.

This week I’m hopnig to get this paper drafted and I’ve got a meeting with my supervisors before heading away for the whole of June – trekking down south via various people’s houses and ending up in Exeter before I head abroad for a week. I’m taking my work with me, of course, and plan on seeking out some hidey-holes to start drafting my next chapter in. Work/Life balance? I think it’s going well.

 

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PhD Plank Challenge

It struck me this week that a PhD can kind of be related to the plank challenge – and not just because I’m struggling with them both. The idea of the plank challenge is that you improve your ability at something (planking) by incrementally increasing the amount (time) that you do over a number of days/weeks. It started as planking for 20 seconds for the first couple of days, then it increased to 30 seconds for a few days, then to 45, then a minute and so on. It works on the basis that you slowly improve every day – it takes dedication. It’s no good doing the first three days and then ignoring it for a week – when you come back to it, it will have increased the difficulty but you’ll have less foundational ability to draw from having let yourself slide back into having the core strength of overcooked spaghetti. I think the PhD is the same.

You enter into the PhD with the naïve belief that this first bit will be easy, you might even be able to skip ahead the first few steps and jump in at the middle and let the challenge improve you from there. You would be wrong. You’ll find yourself panting and grimacing for twenty seconds and dropping thankfully to the floor when the timer goes off. Some people would let this discourage them, some let it make them determined. The Thesis Whisperer recently wrote a blog about the reasons people drop out of PhDs, and a lot of it seemed to be due to discouragement and lack of motivation. Once you fall off track, it’s harder to get back on, so perhaps the best thing to do is to keep chugging, even if it’s only a centimetre a day.

Anyway, back to my plank challenge analogy. So, you’ve accepted that you have to start at the beginning, you’ve overcome the first couple of hurdles, you’ve probably strained a toe due to bad technique, but you can see yourself getting better. You can’t necessarily see the results yet (abs are a long way off) but you might start to believe that one day it’s possible. Here’s the thing, even when you’re improving, there are going to be days when you struggle. There are going to be times when it takes you a week to complete one day’s challenge when it’s bumped up to 1 minute 30. There is going to be times when you backslide from where you were yesterday, and maybe yesterday was a fluke and you’ll actually never do that well again. The key thing is to keep on trying. Even if you don’t do as well as you did yesterday, even if you don’t improve as quickly as the app seems to think you should, you’re still making progress. Claim the small victories.

On that note, this will be my last Friday post, not that anyone cares, but I’ve decided that Mondays would be more useful. This is largely due to the video I watched last weekend of James Hayton talking about how to survive a PhD (that I summarised in this blog post). Hayton says that you should start each day with a small manageable task so that you begin with an achievement to buoy you onwards. I’ve decided to expand on this and start each working week with a summary of my achievements of the week before. Start the week by claiming a small victory. I found that writing the Hayton blog post this Monday set my week off to a good start and made me feel like I’d achieved something, which encouraged me to extend my winning streak throughout the week. It’s also a relatively easy task to get me used to being back at my desk and thinking critically after a Sunday of slobbing around in PJs chain watching whatever series I’m currently hooked on.

I haven’t written anything this week, but I’ve been reading up on phenomenology and I’m slowly coming to terms with its intricacies (slowly). I’ve felt a huge sense of relief since I sent my last piece of work, as it was something that had been hanging over me for months. Now I get to read new bits of theory just to see if they’re useful, which is lush.

I had a meeting with my supervisors yesterday which was really positive. They seemed to like the piece of work I’d sent, which has made me feel much better since the paperwork cock up. My director of studies asked me loads of really challenging questions about my project – where I lay my hat in the particular theoretical continuum I’m working on, what stances I most identify with, what definitions I’m using for my terms and why. These are all ideas that I’ve vaguely thought about in the process of my PhD so far, but they’re also all tricky enough that I’ve kind of been working around them and hoping that they’ll magically fall into place without me having to tax myself too much…that’s not really how academia works though, I guess. It might be handy if I start directing my weekly 1000 words at these questions, and any others that are raised, so at the end, even if I have thousands of words not necessarily for my thesis, at least I’ll have a thought out reasoning for multiple aspects of my terminology, stance and theory. We’ll see.

Word count: 0

Gym sessions: 0 (whoops)

Bonus post: How to get through your PhD without going insane

I watched an excellent youtube video over the weekend about how to survive your thesis, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton, creator of the website ‘James Hayton PhD (formerly The Three Month Thesis) and author of PhD: An uncommon guide to research, writing and PhD life both of which I probably need to look into at some point.

It’s likely been one of the most useful things to help me adjust my conception of what a PhD really is, and how on earth I can get through it. I’ve summarised its key points here, because they’re exceptionally helpful and reading them will be quicker than watching the 50 minute talk plus Q&A – although I thoroughly recommend that you do if you have the time.

Hayton opens with his conclusion just in case people’s coffee wears off before he gets to the end: Just because a PhD is difficult and it takes hard work, it doesn’t mean that it has to be stressful or painful.

  • There’s already a lot of advice out there, but the standard advice is: make to-do lists, set targets and deadlines, write good notes, write as you go so you don’t have to do it all at the end, don’t be too perfectionist – However, whilst this is good advice, none of it actually makes it easy or stress-free, so there’s something missing.
  • You’ve got to know how the system works – a PhD is the highest academic qualification you can get, so the people that do PhDs tend to be the people that have excelled at every other level of the education system. There’s a problem with viewing the PhD as the top of the education hierarchy, because at all other levels there’s still the same basic system in place – a syllabus, set targets, the same material given to everybody, and the same exam at the end – everyone experiences the same thing and it depends on the work you put in.
  • At PhD level, the rules change. It is a fundamentally different thing, it’s not like a degree but a bit harder. There’s no syllabus, no one telling you what to do – the skills you need to succeed at PhD are not the same skills that you needed to succeed at undergrad and masters level.
  • A more accurate way to describe the PhD is as the entrance qualification to the world of professional academia. It’s designed to test whether you are capable of undertaking research at a professional level.
  • If you stop thinking about it as the top of the education system and start thinking of it as the bottom of the professional academic system then you understand that you’re a beginner of that system, and therefore there’s less pressure on you because you know that you need to learn new skills before you can succeed in the new environment. You’re not supposed to know everything already, you’re a newbie.
  • What do you need to succeed in professional academia? Publish or perish – the aim is to produce something publishable – it’s the basic level that you’re aiming for. That’s why there’s a Viva – it mirrors the peer review model – you have to be able to convince someone from outside of the value of your work.
  • What’s publishable? An original contribution to knowledge, but that’s not enough. In order to be able to convince others in your field of the value of your work, they will judge it by the standards set by your field – it’s no longer a case of competing against the others in your class, it’s competing against researchers all around the world – and it depends on the field what the standard will be – if you’re in a brand new field where everything is new, then any contribution is going to be valuable, but, if you’re in a well-established field then the standard you have to reach may need to be higher because a lot of it’s already been done. The standard is set by the field, it’s not set by your university or your supervisor.
  • You need to know your field before you can make a contribution to it – to give it context, to help you find the niche – hence, a butt load of research is needed before you can start writing.
  • Great research comes from how you deal with the unexpected – if you stick to your to-do list you might miss something important that comes along – it’s good to be flexible, but focussed.
  • Targets and deadlines are a good place to start because they give you direction – but there’s two outcomes, you can succeed or you can fail – what do you do when you fail? Set new deadlines? Or fire up your curiosity about why you’ve failed? If your sole focus on the outcome, then that limits where you can have an effect– the problem directly in front of you is the only thing that you can solve. You can’t stick to a rigid plan, there’s always going to be something that happens that disrupts you. The defining factor for success is not how well you plan, it’s what you do when things aren’t going to plan.
  • A PhD is not intrinsically stressful. It’s not the situation that’s stressful by nature, it’s your reaction to it. You have the power to change that reaction – you don’t just have to accept stress – see it as a signal that something isn’t right. Your capacity for concentration of conscious effort is limited. When you need to work at your full mental capacity the slightest distraction can drastically reduce your ability.
  • External motivation – if they’re struggling people tend to add some other form of motivation – but this only adds to what you’re thinking about and therefore reduces the capacity to deal with the main problem – “I’ll give you a million pounds if…” – then you’re thinking about what you need to do, you’re thinking about the money, and you’re worried about the consequences if you mess it up (you won’t get the money, and you won’t have achieved the thing). If you’re worried about the final outcome of your PhD that’s going to occupy some of your conscious thought and it leaves you less to apply to the actual work.
  • A PhD isn’t one single difficult task, it’s multiple tasks added together. If you’re worrying about the endgame, if you’re concerned about failing your PhD, that’s going to take up some of your conscious thought and it leaves you less to apply to the actual work. If you have twenty tasks that you know you need to do, and you start getting stressed and think that you’re going to fail your PhD and if that happens then your future is over [we’ve all had that thought], that will take up your mental reserve. Added to that, the lack of time, having to do everything right and everything now, will leave you with divided attention and reduced ability and you’ll be in a situation where even the easy things become difficult – then you start thinking ‘why can’t I do this? I’m not good enough’ and it starts a vicious cycle.
  • What most people think is that they just have to work harder – if I’m not succeeding then I need to put in more hours. But that leaves you tired and your ability decreases. There’s a difference between putting in all of the hours you can and wholly engaging with something to your full capacity – which you can only do if you let go of the fear. So what you actually need to do is slow down – which is hard, but effective – you need to take time to think. As an academic, your ability to think is the most important thing you have, so you need to give yourself the time, energy and space to do so.
  • The PhD ingredients for stress: high difficulty, divided attention (several tasks at once), and the consequences (no one wants to fail).
  • How to attack these: Difficulty – reduce the scale of the task, break it down into steps – you might not know the entire solution but you can see if you solve one small thing and move another step closer. Divided attention – prioritise and focus on one thing at a time. Consequences – understand that failing might not be the worst thing that can happen, you’ll survive – relax and apply yourself to the work.
  • Some stress is useful. The only way to improve ability is to push slightly beyond your ability – do this consistently, and gradually your skill level will improve [Like the plank challenge].
  • Writing = content, structure, words.
  • A lot of people focus on the words, setting daily word counts – but if you focus on the words, then the danger is you’ll neglect the content. If your research is good, then you can edit the words later.
  • Your voice – you thesis is your expression of the way you think about your research and the way you think about yourself in relation to your work.
  • At previous levels, the purpose of your writing was to impress the teacher – offering it up to the expert to gain approval. If you think of yourself as a professional academic, you’re not offering your work up, it’s a more equal relationship – peer review. You’re not writing for the approval of the supervisor – you don’t need to focus on impressing them, you need to focus on the quality of the work and not trying to prove how much you’ve read.
  • You have to write as an academic to other academics. You are the authority in your own work. Your aim is to impart something useful.
  • Write your defence into your thesis – they’ll be looking for weaknesses, your defence starts in your writing. If you know there’s a weakness in your work, don’t ignore it, acknowledge them – it may be argued that… however, because of these reasons… is why I’m doing it this way. Shows that you’ve had a critical level of thought.
  • Hayton got to a point where he decided he was going to quit, but thought he’d just do this one last experiment just for the hell of it – he stopped caring about if he’d fail because he was going to quit anyway, but then without the stress and pressure of potential failure, he got into it. You might not be the very best in your field, but you’re the best in your tiny bit of knowledge and you decide what content you put in your thesis and that’s the only stuff yo need to defend.
  • In conclusion: Just because a PhD is hard and it takes hard work, that doesn’t mean that it should be stressful or painful – you should see stress as a signal that something is not right and you should do something about it.
  • Success or failure in a PhD is not a measure of who you are, it’s not a measure of your value in life. If you fail your PhD, it’s not the worst thing that can happen – tell yourself, whatever the outcome of the PhD, success or failure, I will deal with it, I trust in my own ability that I will be ok, but right now I’m just going to focus on doing this one thing and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.

Q&A

  • People try and set themselves really strict timetables, but then if you get up late, you’re already behind, you’ve already failed – don’t set everything in stone, but try and have a general consistent routine. Start the day with something simple that you can succeed at, get it done and then dive in to the more complicated things. At the end of the day have a close-down ritual, create space between yourself and work – tidy up your desk, write down thoughts, plan for next day with a couple of easy things to start off with.
  • Rather than focussing on word count, focus on the idea you’re trying to communicate, then look up references and then concentrate on the words afterwards.
  • Any time management technique will work for three days, but then old habits sneak back in – you need to work out the foundations of where you’re going wrong, or what best works for you.
  • If you’ve gone through the education system with the teacher telling you you’re good because you’ve got good marks then that validation becomes a part of your self-worth. But it’s completely different at PhD and that creates a deep anxiety that isn’t normally addressed or acknowledged. You need to think about the way you feel about the work, and concentrate on that.
  • Not everything you try has to go into your thesis, and you need the confidence to try things not knowing how they’re going to work out and that your sense of well-being doesn’t rely on those immediate results.
  • You need to acknowledge if you’re struggling. Think about what you can and will do if you fail, and then take small steps to avoid it.
  • It’s not about adding motivation, it’s about removing the blocks that are there. The PhD is motivation enough. If the fear of failure is a block, then work out what’s the worst that can happen?
  • Effort vs. engagement. You can put as much time and effort in to something, but it won’t help if you’re not letting yourself engage fully because you’re being held back by fear or stress.

I think the very main point that struck me from this talk was the idea that the PhD isn’t the top qualification, it’s the entry test. Of course you’re out of your depth, you’re only just starting out! You still need arm bands before you can swim in the Olympics.

I hope this comes in as handy for you as it did for me. I really would recommend watching the video, he uses lots of scenarios and metaphors to better illustrate his points, but realistically I couldn’t be arsed to type an entire transcript with them all in.

Unrealistic Goals

This week started really well, so well in fact that I started dreaming up mad goals to set myself because I am SO PRODUCTIVE and ON IT right now, I can do anything. I’m going to take up boxing and finish my thesis in a year! I’m unstoppable!

Heres’s the thing. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty on it at the moment, I’ve caught up with the work that I messed up and got some positive feedback; I discovered a nook in the literature that I’m reading that no one’s really explored in the context of what I’m doing; I’m feeling calmer and more on top of things generally. Goals are good. Excellent, in fact. They keep you focused and on track. But if you start setting ridiculous ones, like, oh, for example, I’m just pulling this out of the air, ‘I could totally finish my first chapter by this time next week imagine how impressed my supervisors will be it’ll totally make up for the terrible paperwork asshattery from last week‘, all you’ll really achieve is 1) stressing yourself out, and 2) feeling like a let-down when you don’t reach your ridiculous target.

So yeah, by Thursday I was feeling a little less ON IT and I was a tad disappointed, but yesterday I pulled my socks up and decided that I don’t have to come up with stupendous ideas every day, they don’t spring from nothing, do some bloody reading, write some more notes, and something will come to you. And it did. Only 450 words at the last possible minute, but that’s something, and I’ll keep working on them until they’re a chapter.

I would have written about this yesterday, but I was really busy filling myself with a truly disgusting amount of Chinese food with some people from my department. My supervisor kindly invited me along and I dragged one of my PhD buddies with me. I a little bit failed to talk to anyone that I didn’t know, but I’ll do better next time. Slowly but surely becoming a functioning human again.

Word count: 1,500 ish, including the resubmitted paperwork.