Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Help! How Can I Begin Writing My Dissertation?”

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Noelle Sterne with a guest post on dissertation writing. Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, her recently published handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

You’ve reached the first dissertation milestone—approval of your prospectus. Great! You couldn’t wait to plunge into the next step, writing the proposal. But now that you’re here, somehow it’s not working. With all the best intentions and surrounded by all your scholarly materials, you’re spending long fruitless hours in your study or the library. The days are slipping away, your friends are out eating pizza, and your family wonders what you’re really doing for all those solitary hours. You feel paralyzed.

To cheer yourself up, you remember that the proposal becomes the first three chapters of the real dissertation. But this fact offers little consolation. Your completed proposal seems like a sky-high wall with not even a step stool in sight. Where is that danged first step?

Break the Rules

Here is one remedy. Contrary to the King's advice to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, you don't have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. If you follow this dictum, you may only increase your panic, tremors, and paralysis.

In my academic coaching practice, I advise clients not to start at the beginning, that is, with Chapter 1, the introduction. Why? This chapter requires a concise overview of your topic and the literature. You must be highly familiar with both. But many students don't get to know what they're really writing about until they've been living with their dissertation for several months.

How to Start

So, the first trick to break your standstill: Make separate files for each chapter. Obvious, maybe. Effective, definitely. Use the university’s requisite chapter names and headings (from the dissertation manual or handbook), or the templates in the dissertation section of your university website. Once you create the files you’ll feel more organized. You’ll also gain a sense of accomplishment. You can keep throwing notes into these files as new materials surface and brilliant thoughts occur to you for each chapter.

The second trick: Start writing by choosing something relatively straightforward. No doctoral divine lightening will strike if you start in the middle, or later. I often recommend that students start with Chapter 3, Methods. In this chapter you describe who's in the study and how you will study them—your population and sample, and what you're going to put them through (experiments, questionnaires, or interviews). Your writing style here should be direct, with precise descriptions of the steps you'll take to gather information for your later chapters. No perplexing summaries, syntheses, or conclusions. Instead . . .

Dissertation Brownies

It's kind of like a recipe for dissertation brownies:

First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most successful study habits. Then I will seek permission from the office of student affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. When students respond to my contact information, I will send them the letter of introduction to the study and the informed consent to participate. Next I will . . . .

What you write may not be the final draft, and shouldn't be. Accept this. In the margin of a paragraph like the one above, a student's chair commented caustically, "What's your authority for bypassing the university's institutional review board?" The student hastened to add the procedure in the next draft.

The Advantages

Let’s not lose sight of our aim—You’ve written something! Writing anything loosens your fear-frozen mind so you think more creatively about, in our example, where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations. As you visualize the actual steps, again as in the example, think about what your recruitment flyer and letter of intro to the study will contain. This is a great opportunity to draft the flyer, letter, and informed consent form—you're going to need them as appendices. When you do, possibly to your elated shock, you'll have written more!

As you see the paragraphs mounting, you feel greater confidence to keep writing.

A few days after I guided my client Rod with the advice to start with his third chapter, he emailed me:"I finally got a double digit page number written! A miracle!" I congratulated him for reaching page 10. Practice makes progress.

Once you keep going, you'll likely find that related ideas pop up. Say your approved proposal is on the study habits of red-headed students over six feet. You suddenly realize that another study could be done on the study habits of enrolled redheads under six feet. Here's where you click to your largely empty file of Chapter 5, Discussion and Conclusions, and type the new idea under the subhead of suggestions for future research. You’ve written more!

Starting your proposal with something easy isn't a black mark on your moral fiber.

It's simply a way to get moving. So choose a section or subsection that feels doable, even simple. Tell yourself, "It's all got to get done anyway." Now . . . start writing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

PhD Talk e-book!!!

Dear readers,

I'm glad to announce that my first e-book, Top PhD Advice from Start to Defense and Beyond - Focus on The Netherlands with Universal Tips & Tricks, in cooperation with AcademicTransfer, is live.

It's completely free (it does have some ads in it, to make free distribution possible, so just ignore those please).

I hope you'll enjoy reading it, and will share it with future and current graduate students.

Download the free e-book from Bookboon

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I am Hannah Kershaw and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting Hannah Kershaw to the "How I Work" series. Hannah is a PhD student at the University of York, UK. She completed her BA in English at the University of Southampton, and her MA in Postcolonial Literature at the University of York. Her interdisciplinary thesis is entitled ‘Multiculturalism, Culture, and Controversy: Representations of Multiculturalism in Contemporary British Muslim Fiction’, and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Current Job: Doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics (co-supervised with the Department of English and Related Literature) at the University of York.
Current Location: York, UK
Current mobile device: HTC One
Current computer: MacBook Pro (early 2011) and Acer Chromebook

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I’m a third-year PhD student and am co-supervised by the Department of Politics and the Department of English and Related Literature. My thesis explores, through both political discussion and literary analysis, how contemporary British Muslim fiction engages with multiculturalism. My research project is funded by the ESRC WRDTC network ‘Reshaping Multiculturalism through Cultural Practices’, a highly interdisciplinary network supported by academics in Politics, English Literature, Human Geography and Sociology from the universities of York, Leeds, and Sheffield.

My research specifically asks how British authors of Muslim heritage use history and memory in their narratives. Theories of memory and trauma are often used when researching Holocaust testimonials, but I argue that with this approach we can learn two things. Firstly, how today’s British Muslims understand their postcolonial and global identities, and secondly, how we can strive towards an understanding of a collective British identity as inherently and historically multi- rather than mono-cultural.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

For writing I use Microsoft Word, as you’d expect, and for referencing I use Endnote. I don’t like the Cite While You Write feature, so I just use it to make a bibliography at the end of each chapter and then clear it of any formatting.

I use Wunderlist on both laptops and my phone, but only when I feel overwhelmed enough to need a written to-do list.

I also use Scrivener sporadically, as I find drafting in Microsoft Word feels a little unnatural, whereas Scrivener feels more like a scrapbook. I’d recommend it if you’re struggling to write as it has a little progress bar at the bottom that tells you how much you’ve written (or not written!) in a particular session.

I’ve used Evernote religiously for years as a sort of diary. Having it on my phone means I can jot down ideas whenever and wherever. I’m also a big fan of background music websites such as www.asoftmurmur.com (free), www.soundrown.com (free), and www.focusatwill.com (no longer free).

What does your workspace setup look like? Do you have a fixed workspace, or do you alternate between a home office, university office and lab?

I have a very generous desk space in the social sciences research centre on the main campus, alongside a set of three drawers and plenty of bookshelves. I like to have somewhere to ‘nest’, so all of my work is there in order to ensure that my home space is for relaxation rather than work. My set up is my Macbook hooked up to an external monitor. I also have a mini light therapy lamp on my desk, which I keep switched on all morning to help keep my energised and awake. I tend to use my desk 4 days a week, then use 1 or 2 days a week to have a change of scenery, usually in a local café.
café workspace
desk workspace
What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Spend time figuring out how you work, not how other people work or how you think you ought to work. I know plenty of people who stick to a 9-5 day, and if that works for them then great! I don’t like to be that strict, because whenever I’ve tried I’ve ended up sitting at my desk feeling tired and unmotivated.

I’ve realised that for me personally, I have to listen to my body. If I feel I need a walk, a nap, a day off, I just do it and then make up the time when I’m feeling more motivated. As long as you’re on track with your goals, I don’t think it matters when or how you work.
But so far, being kind to myself has helped me be productive when I need to be and continue to enjoy, rather than resent, the work!

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I don’t really use any technology for keeping track of my project, I just jot things down on paper and pin them up, or write things on post-it notes. However, I do print off a calendar page for every month and plan the dates I want to get certain tasks done by, and then pin it up at my desk so that I have a rough schedule for each month.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
My supervisor always raves about her Kindle, so I bought one and have found it extremely useful. I put academic articles (PDFs) on it and read them on train journeys or when I’m sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for example. It’s a lot easier than carrying around paper.
As I study novels, I have paper copies and Kindle copies. With the Kindle copies I can search for recurring words and phrases, highlight sections then print the highlights off, add my own notes, and lots of other things.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I’m not really sure yet, as I’m still only in the PhD stage. I taught for the first time in 2015 and was better at it than I thought I would be. I’m also quite good at time management and keeping up a good writing pace. I like to think I’m also approachable and a nice person (I hope) so can develop good relationships with academics and students.

What do you listen to when you work?
Usually sounds from the website mentioned above. My personal favourite is heavy rain as it really relaxes me. When everything feels a bit too quiet, I put on the coffee shop sounds! I don’t often listen to music with vocals whilst working, unless I’m doing something like browsing journals or organising a bibliography.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

In terms of the PhD, I’m currently rereading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses for my current chapter. In the evenings, I’m reading Leila Aboulela’s The Translator, and I listen to audiobooks in bed – currently Jane Austen’s Emma. I’ll be reviewing two books for a journal soon, so once they arrive they’ll replace my evening reading I imagine.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I think I’m an ambivert, leaning towards introvert. I’m happy to socialise and I don’t even mind doing presentations too much, but I have my limits! I do enjoy spending most days working on my own (albeit in a shared office). I don’t really get lonely or bored.

For me, the most difficult part of PhD life has been networking and going to conferences, and I find it very hard and nerve-wracking to talk to people that I don’t know. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. But when I’m eventually comfortable and relaxed around someone, I never shut up!

What's your sleep routine like?
I don’t really have a routine; I just sleep when I’m tired. I do try to be up by 8:30am though. I got a Lumie for Christmas and it’s true that being woken up by light rather than sound is far less grating!

What's your work routine like?
I don’t have much a routine for this either. When I have a whole day free, I try to work from about 10am – 4:30pm at my desk, and usually I get lots done in that time. When I have other things going on, like conferences or exam invigilating, I just try to work when I get a chance.

I don’t go lengthy amounts of time without doing thesis work, because then I lose momentum and get anxious. I try and do a bit every day.

The only “routine” I have is a traffic light system that I use (suggested by my mum during my A-Levels and used ever since!). I write a list of tasks that I want to get done that day, then I mark them as red, amber or green. Red would be the most difficult work, such as writing or rewriting; amber would be medium difficulty, such as chapter planning or reading a journal article; and green would be easy work such as a putting together a bibliography or making a reading list. It means you can respond to your energy levels and adjust your work accordingly. So in the morning I do red work (when I’m the most energetic), after lunch I do green work (the carbohydrate slump), then in the afternoon I do amber (the post-biscuit and caffeine energy spike).

What's the best advice you ever received?
Just keep writing!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Q&A: Combining projects when you start your post-doc

Some time ago, a reader wrote me an interesting comment, and I think the discussion that followed from this comment can be of interest to all of you out there who are transitioning from PhD to post-doc to your academic career.

Dear Eva,

first of all, thank you so much for keeping the blog and for the very good posts. Whenever I feel the need for a motivation boost or am looking for inspiration or academic strategy, your blog is the place to go to.

I need your advice! My question is: How many writing projects and research/admin projects at a time do you think would be best to keep being productive? I realize people are different, but I would really appreciate your opinion.

Here is a little context:

I am currently in the process of adjusting to a new lab and city, as I have started a postdoc abroad. On top of all the new things I need to learn and set up here, I also need to finish some old or ongoing projects from my old workplace.

I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, but I made a plan, read your posts, such as "What I wish I'd known one year ago when I started as a professor " and "Finding an Academic Schedule that Works " and started using Google calender and Todoist. It's going really well for about two weeks now. I'm thinking of keeping a document to track the progress of my publications, similar to you.

But because I have so many projects, I get to work on them for only a short amount of time per week, until next week comes again and I get to work on it again. I currently have 4 major writing projects and 2 small ones, as well as 3 research/admin projects. For the two most important major writing projects I get to about 4 hours per week, for the other ones, 2h. It certainly is going forward, but I also feel I might be merely trying to fill a swimming pool with a spoon. The other options would be using all slots for writing one project which alternates each week, or prioritizing and leaving some projects for only after I finish the first ones. However, I really feel that those are no real options for me.

I would be happy even with a oneliner from you (I realize you must be really busy), saying what you found a healthy workload in terms of "projects" at a time would be. In the second picture I notice you use most of the writing slots for only one project? Thank you very much in advance for your help!

Here's what I replied:


Thanks for your kind words on my blog :)

My situation is a little different since I have teaching duties; typically 3 courses per semester, and this semester a reduction to 2 courses.

I typically work on one paper at a time, and try to write 2 hours a day on the paper. Then, I try to work 2 hours on research. I've had times in which I am juggling more than 1 research project, but usually I have one that is my main project. For the other projects, I could be just supervising students, and not be doing the number crunching myself. But in terms of really pushing the boundaries in my field forward, I try to limit myself to maximum 2 research projects at the same time. Then, depending on the day, I might be able to squeeze in another hour of research, but that's about it.

The rest of my time goes into teaching, and email. I do am involved with a number of collaborative efforts, so my comments and work on that get lumped into my email time. I try to set aside a few hours a week as well for reading, and in that time I also do the reviews of papers that I get assigned.

And thinking of it - when I say that I work on 1 paper at a time, I mean the first draft. Once the first draft is off to my co-authors, I wait until I get their feedback, and then might use one 2-hour time slot in the morning to implement their comments before submitting. I also have the papers of my students that I spend a fair amount of time on, especially since often they have never written a paper before. So, just as with my research, I have one main paper (new draft) that I am working on, and then smaller loose strands that are on the backburner.

I hope that gives you some ideas! Feel free to shoot me more questions.


The discussion continued as follows:

Dear Eva,

thank you for the long and extremely helpful comment!

I think your workload seems like a whole lot but at the same time your judgement is absolutely sensible. I also have the luxury of not having to teach, but I do have four students to supervise.

I like the schedule and working in slots very much. In fact, even with a whole lot of projects, I find such a schedule really beneficial, because it prevents me from getting bored and it helps me see even the smallest progress in each domain, which otherwise would have hung like a heavy shadow over my head. It also gives me a long breath and doesn't get me bored of any one task, because there is a lot of switching throughout the day. Like you, I realized that trying to schedule to the minute or making slots that are too long or too short are not good ideas.

So you made me realize that what I was planning was not very efficient (filling swimming pools with one spoon, haha). So I decided to give that priority matrix a try and see whether I can find a importance/urgency hierarchy for my projects. It was difficult, because, in addition to importance and urgency there is another factor which is called maybe "feasibility". This involves for example some projects depending on other people or resources that are out of my control. Therefore, even though such a project might be important and even urgent, I might choose to prioritize a project that is important and not urgent, just because I am the sole participant or maybe even have some previous work to build on, therefore knowing I will finish it much sooner (getting publications out atm is the main goal). I am not sure how to judge when this "feasibility" (maybe not the best name) comes into the matrix. Nevertheless, you helped me realize that I should prioritize two writing projects and once they are finished, I should then start the other two. Since I could not really do the matrix strategy, I went by intuition. Let's see how it goes. I am feeling motivated!

Another good idea I received from a friend was: to work in the morning for projects for myself, after that for projects where I collaborate and only in the evening for other people's projects (e.g. students). I have come to realize that this indeed is also a sensible way of prioritizing (if applicable - in my case, it is :)


P.S. When I said "I also have the luxury of not having to teach, but I do have four students to supervise" - I meant the sentence without the "also" ;)

I went back with the following reply:


Sounds like you have some good plans and ideas in there :)

I have a few projects in which I collaborate with others. For these, I do my share on the work during my allotted time for writing or research, and then put it on the backburner of my imaginary stove while I wait for my collaborator's reaction. If your focus is indeed to get your papers out, I would give that all the attention it needs. Do keep in mind that it looks better to have published with different people from different institutions (my current "weakness" - all my publications are with the same coauthors who supervised my PhD).

I guess your "feasibility" factor comes down to making smart choices in what to work on first. I think it is indeed an important factor.

The tip from your friend resonates with me too: I keep my mornings for my writing and research and try to avoid getting teaching duties or meetings in the morning. So far that works out, because most of my colleagues prefer to teach in the morning, but it all depends on the goodwill of the Authorities (as they call themselves, including the capital letter ;) ) of my university.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a viva at Imperial College

Today, Syed Anas Imtiaz from Imperial College talks about his viva at Imperial College for the "Defenses around the world" series. Anas is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London where he completed his PhD in November 2015. Earlier, he did MSc in Integrated Circuit Design at the same university. His primary research interests include biomedical signal processing, intelligent algorithms development and design of wearable EEG systems for long-term monitoring and automatic diagnosis of several neurological conditions.

I finished the final version of my PhD thesis in the first week of September. It was a huge relief and I felt like my PhD is complete. A week later, I submitted the PDF to be printed and dispatched to the examiners. I was also quite confident around this time of having no difficulties in the viva. This aura lasted until I received an e-mail on 7th October 2015 notifying that my viva is exactly a month away. This is when I went blank. All that confidence was gone. I started panicking. After a couple of hours, I steadied myself and sat down to make a plan on what to do in this one month prior to the viva. This included reading the thesis again in fine detail while making notes and writing down questions that the examiners may have.

For those unaware, the viva voce exam in the UK generally takes place behind closed doors. Apart from the candidate being examined, there are two or three more people in the interrogation room. This includes an external examiner, an internal examiner (from host institution) and, optionally, the candidate’s supervisor.

On the exam day I bumped into my supervisor just outside our department building and instantly told her how nervous I was. Her reply was: “You will be fine. It’s going to be a walk in the park for you.”

Fifteen minutes before the clock struck 10.00, I gathered my stuff and made a move towards the examination room. I took the well-annotated copy of my thesis, a small notepad, a pen and a list of corrections that I wanted to make in order to rectify some minor errors I noticed while re-reading the thesis.

At 10.03, the two examiners arrived with my supervisor and took their seats after a quick handshake. The external examiner sat right across me, my supervisor next to him on the left side while the internal examiner was slightly towards my right side. I saw that the copies of my thesis that the examiners brought had a lot of post it notes. This meant only one thing: lots of questions!

The internal examiner briefly explained the rules of the game and then external examiner kicked off the formal proceedings with the standard question asking me to summarise my research. I had prepared for this one so started off confidently. However, around the midpoint of my tirade I was cut off abruptly and the external examiner asked a couple of questions for further clarification. Both examiners then opened the first page of my thesis and began a monumental session of page-by-page discussion of my work.

My thesis was over 250 pages with lots of text crammed, which meant there was a lot of stuff to be covered. There were quite a few questions in the first two chapters which included the introduction and literature review. I think we spent more than 90 minutes discussing these two chapters. The questions were coming rapidly and I found myself on the defensive. I started getting increasingly nervous as the examiners criticised certain sections of the thesis which I was initially quite confident about. In fact, I was so defensive and nervous by that point that I couldn’t even understand a comment jokingly made by the examiner and starting defending it. As an example, the first citation in my thesis was referring to a book authored by the external examiner however its formatting was incorrect. He asked me to turn to that page in the thesis and pointed it out in a very candid manner and smiled thereafter. I, on the other hand, started explaining how this was a LaTeX issue and not my fault. At that point I realised I wasn’t handling the viva correctly. I was defending everything and was getting too sensitive about small issues. I used a little pause in questions to open the sealed water bottle next to me and slowly filled a glass. During this small water break I composed myself and decided that I will only defend the key sections of the thesis and agree to make amendments in sections which were not. I felt much more comfortable talking about my work in the next 100 minutes mainly because this was a purely technical discussion.

After about 200 minutes in total, all of us breathed a sigh of relief as we reached the end of my thesis. All this time I avoided eye contact with my supervisor for the fear of getting any negative feedback. I was asked to leave the room while the examiners deliberated my fate. I left quickly and sat outside the room. I felt mentally exhausted but I knew I had done well. I was quite certain that I’d pass with minor corrections since the examiners did not raise any major concern regarding my methodology or the results.

Fifteen minutes later, I was invited back to the room where everyone was now smiling. I was promptly congratulated and was told that I had passed with minor corrections. There was a discussion for about 10 minutes where I was given some very useful feedback and then later a list of amendments that I was required to do within three months which would be audited by the internal examiner. It took me about a ten days to do these following which I had a meeting with my internal examiner in which they were approved.

In the end, I found the whole experience of viva to be rather stressful. The main reason for this is that I was nervous and unable to relax. It certainly wasn’t a walk in the park as my supervisor had earlier suggested. I think it was more like a walk in a muddy field with lots of falls before reaching the end.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Proof loading of existing reinforced concrete bridges in The Netherlands

I recently presented some of our TU Delft work on proof loading of bridges at a meeting of ACI Committee 342 "Evaluation of Concrete Bridges and Bridge Elements".

You can find the slides of this presentation here:

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in Sweden

Today, in the series of "Defenses around the world", I am hosting the story of a scientist who prefers to remain anonymous. Veronika Cheplygina, whom you might remember from the "How I Work" interview, interviewed her friend for this occasion. He/She received his/her PhD at a science faculty at Lund University in Sweden.

What needs to happen prior to the defense?
Before you submit your thesis to the university, you need to have a committee for your defense. The committee consists of an opponent and other members. The supervisor invites these, but the committee has to be approved by a university board.
The official regulations can be found here.

What is the defense day like?
The defense takes place in a regular lecture room at the university. There are no formal requirements for what the defendant and committee need to wear, although most opt for a suit.

The traditional way is that the opponent presents your thesis and asks critical questions about it, although some universities are now moving to the more common setup of the defendant presenting the thesis.

There are also questions from the committee members and from the public – it is a law that anybody should be able to ask questions. The questions are not only limited to the thesis, general questions about the field you are defending in are also allowed.

Perhaps the most striking feature is that there is no time limit for the defense, and the time varies a lot. My defense lasted about 4 hours, a friend’s about 2.5 hours.

What happens next?

The committee deliberates after the defense. The time is also not fixed, but is usually around half an hour. Afterwards, you hear a decision: pass or fail, there are no grades involved. It is rare to fail at a defense – if this happens, it is before the defense, because the thesis is not approved.
After the decision, the dissertation is considered final as it is. This is different from Denmark or Norway, where you get notes which you still need to revise.
In the evening, you might go to dinner with your committee, but there are no set rules for this.

When do you get your diploma?

You get an official diploma after three months or so. The ceremonial promotion happens on a different day, which is held once a year at the end of May. This day is not only for those getting their PhD, but also when professors are inaugurated. For the big universities, this ceremony is held in a cathedral and lasts roughly 4 hours.

At the ceremony, graduates wear evening wear (tailcoat or black dress with sleeves). Here they get their official diploma in Latin, accompanied by a golden ring inscribed with the date of the defense and the faculty you belong to, and either a tall hat with the emblem of the faculty (in science) or sometimes a laurel wreath (in humanities). The ring indicates that you are married to science. Then you are declared doctor, also in Latin.
Outside the cathedral, there are cannons which fire after the graduates of each faculty have been promoted, as well as for special cases such as jubilee doctors (those who have been a doctor for 50 years).

Some impressions of the ceremony:

And some photographs can be found here.

There is also an official dinner afterwards.