Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Color Coding is Your Friend

Today we have a second post on academic schedules, this time by Karra Shimabukuro. Karra is a PhD student in British and Irish Literary Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters are represented in literature and popular culture- specifically the devil.

She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review and is a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. Her most recent work deals with the liminal space of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the paratext of its board game in Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, and Freddy Krueger folkloric roots as a bogeyman in Studies in Popular Culture.

I am a second year PhD student in English at the University of New Mexico. I am finishing my course work this semester, and taking my comprehensive exams in February. I have a TAship and teach two classes as part of that. My research focuses on the folkloric character of the devil in medieval and early modern literature as well as popular culture.

I was asked to meet with new TAs last week, to come speak and share with them some of my organizational tips. I came armed with show and tell items- my printed out schedule and my paper planner.

I shared with them the following tips that work for me:
  • Schedule everything- from personal time to personal projects. Grad school is busy and if you don’t schedule it, it probably won’t happen.
  • Color code items so you can tell at a glance which class you’re looking at (either classes you’re taking or classes you’re teaching).
  • It does not matter HOW you organize your life, it only matters that you DO.
I am a visual person, so I my desk area reflects this. I have my color coded weekly schedule above my desk so I have it for constant reference. My folders and papers for each class are color coded the same as on the schedule. The weekly schedule also has clear blocks as to when I leave home to commute to campus, and office hours. I have a written on copy in my campus office that also has all the office hours of my professors on it so I know when they are available. You’ll notice that my weekly schedule also has when grocery shopping gets done. And laundry. And house cleaning. These things are all important to surviving grad school or academic life.

Since I’m in the middle of writing my dissertation, I have an entire day blocked out for working on it. I don’t do any other work that day. I am either chained to my desk writing, or I have that day blocked off to meet with committee members about it. This ensures I have the time for this work, but is also a safeguard. I may sit at my desk all Friday morning and just stare at the screen, lost. I may knock out my goal of five pages per day. Either way I have the time set aside. If I just sit and stare and am not productive, I feel guilty, which is a great motivator.

I’m a huge tech geek and a use a lot of technology in my classroom. But for my own personal organization I have to have something that I can physically manipulate, so I have a paper planner that I live and die by that sits on my desk. It doesn’t leave my desk it’s so valuable. I also color code this- the same as my classes, plus colors for personal and to do. EVERYTHING goes on this- due dates for classes, conference dates, and back-tracking work I have to do in order to make deadlines. If an event falls when I’m away from this calendar, like a meeting with a student or professor, I put it in Google calendar so I get an email reminder to make sure so I don’t miss an appointment.

When I work from home, I get up at 6am because I have a dog. I set the coffee maker, and we go for our walk first thing. I feed her and then sit down with my coffee at the computer. No matter what day of the week this ensures I get at least a couple of hours of work finished before my day officially starts. Usually this includes responding to students, managing email, and checking in on social media. On days when I don’t have to go to campus until later in the day, I spend all day at my computer working. It may be short projects like this article, or a book review, but I try to check at least one thing off my to do list every day. This not only helps me feel like I accomplished something, but also frees up other days for longer projects that require more time.

This schedule may seem nuts and overplanned, but it means that on days I have class, once I get home I’m finished. I don’t have to work and can instead walk my dog, read a non-academic book or just relax. On weekends, since I do get up so early, it means I can stop work at 3p, ensuring I have personal time as well. This balance allows me to manage my workload and do it without feeling stressed. Because everything is scheduled I know everything will get done. Knowing that lowers my stress and enables me to relax and have outside interests.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Passionate PhD: let excitement and purpose drive your academic schedule

Today, I'm starting a new series of guest posts on academic schedules. Our first guest writer is Deborah. Deborah is an Australian PhD candidate and educator. Research interests include professional learning, teacher growth, professional identity, school change and storytelling. You can find her tweeting as @debsnet and blogging at http://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/.

“We are at our very best, and we are happiest, when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we've established for ourselves. It gives meaning to our time off and comfort to our sleep.” ~ Earl Nightingale
As usual, I park my car and race into the university library for a quick book switch (return old batch; grab new batch). I pass students who embody the cliché of studentdom which I remember from my undergraduate years: they chat to each other, they read books beneath trees, they nestle by a library window with their work. And I think to myself, ‘O, to be a proper university student, one not racing in and out of libraries and supervisors’ offices!’

And yet, I reflect that perhaps it is because my PhD is one of many things to which I am committed that my thesis is progressing as it is.

Almost two years since enrolling in my PhD, I look back and wonder about my research journey. Today, at this very moment, my thesis sits at 77,186 words and includes close to 300 references (surely I am not the only one for whom numbers feel like a comforting measure of progress!). How, I marvel, have I come that far as a parent of two pre-school-age children and someone working 0.8 of a job? While there is much left to do, what is the academic schedule that has allowed me to continue to chip away at the mammoth task of researching and writing a PhD thesis?

First of all, ‘schedule’ is probably a word with too many connotations of order and routine. Mine is not quite as undisciplined as ‘whenever I find the time’, but it does feel like it consists of regular (this is the key!) stolen moments in which my thesis and I hide away together and immerse ourselves in each other.

As someone with a job and children, I have available time after my children have gone to bed in the evening, but I have found that this time of day isn’t conducive to the precision of thought or the kind of mental heavy lifting demanded by my thesis. I can, however, get administrivia and small tasks, which require a lower level of cognition and focus, out of the way in the evenings.

My favourite places to work are noisy cafés. These provide the caffeine for a sharper faster mind, the feeling of a ‘me time’ break from the mundanities of everyday life and a background buzz which helps to give me both a sense of urgency and a feeling that I am somewhere else, in a particular physical and mental place which is separate from my home or office. I also find that in cafés I tend to cap my time at two coffees and two hours; this gives me enough caffeine and enough of a block of intense working time to be productive, after which my productivity and the quality of my thinking starts to slow and deteriorate. And usually after which I need to return to family or work commitments.

In between my short regular bursts of work, my brain has the time to cogitate, percolate and process what I have done and where I am at. Often my best thinking happens in these in-between time, on walks without music, or lying in bed, when my brain seems to be quiet enough to bring problems to the surface and offer solutions. I often find myself rushing to write down the epiphanic ideas that bubble up in these solitary moments. This kind of between-reading, between-analysing, between-writing processing has meant that I am glad that I have been writing my thesis since I began my research, despite warning by some, including Pat Thomson in this blog post. Of course writing from day one means that my first writing needs serious revision, as my writing is evolving, and so is my thinking. I need these little shifts in approach or solving of problems in order to move to the next iteration.

There have been peaks and troughs in my work and personal lives, meaning that at different times my thesis has taken a front or back seat. Regardless of these ups and downs, the things that have helped to drive my momentum have been:

1. I love my thesis.
Well, I believe in my thesis. I am passionate about my area and about my data. I don’t think I could or would have been able to keep at the work if not for my deeply held value for and interest in what I am doing.

2. My thesis is for me.
My thesis is only one thing, of many things, in my life, but it is a thing I have chosen. I am doing it for myself. It feels like a special thing, almost a luxury; an opportunity to spend time challenging myself and pursuing my passions. When I find time to get down into my thesis, it is with excitement. It gives me a break from work, a break from parenting small children. It is intellectual ‘me time’, so instead of being a chore, it feels like a gift, an oasis I get to dip into regularly. My regular-but-not-all-the-time schedule keeps my PhD work feeling fresh and like something I want to continue pursuing.

3. Positive ongoing supervisory relationships.
My relationship with my supervisors has been conducive to progress. They have been able to challenge me sufficiently to incite growth in my thinking and writing, without crushing me too much at any given time (just enough to shift my thinking). While at times we have used Google Docs, Word Tracking and Skype, our regular face to face meetings are the most useful; they allow for important conversation around my PhD work. Again, regularity of meetings has helped me to drive momentum. Nothing motivates me better than a deadline!

4. Perspective.
I found Matt Might’s illustrated guide to the PhD to be grounding. It allowed me to take the view that, while a PhD needs to make an original contribution, this need only be a tiny (but significant) blip on the world’s knowledge landscape. This seemed to let me off the hook of trying to do too much, or chasing down every single interesting theme that emerges.
My main thought on a successful schedule for PhD candidates is around finding what works for you, your research and your life. And doing research in which you are engaged. Engagement and enjoyment allow you to be a little bit obsessive, more than a little excited and sometimes even joyful.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Writers' Lab: Experiences from the Writing Process

In the Writers' Lab today, I'm hosting Dr. William Deyamport III, who shares with us his experiences of writing a dissertation. Here's how Will introduces himself:

I am a district instructional technologist, connected educator, and digital learning consultant. I work with teachers in discovering how they can use a multitude of technologies, such as Google Apps, Compass Learning, ActivInspire, etc., to create an array of interactive and collaborative classroom learning experiences, with a focus on digital learning and connecting students to a global community.

I have an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Management from Capella University. In addition, I am a frequent conference presenter, blogger, and have guest lectured, via Google Hangouts and Skype, on the uses of Twitter for developing a personal learning network.

Once I decided to pursue a doctorate, I knew that I was going to choose an Ed.D. Aside from the focus on solving real-world problems, I was drawn to the culminating project that many Ed.D. programs have. That said, I wasn’t thrilled when I discovered that Capella University’s Doctor of Education program required a dissertation and not a field project.

In this post, I am going to share what I learned about my writing process, and offer a few tips to others who may be in the midst of writing their dissertation.

Find Your Writing Cozy

I wrote at a desk in the livingroom that I had had for years. It wasn’t sexy, nor was my space set up to mimic a spa or a zen-like retreat. I didn’t care about any of that. But you have to understand that I am the kind of dude who, until recently, used to wash his hair and his face with a bar of Dial soap.
Writing at a desk in the livingroom worked for me. I had access to the TV, and I was close to the kitchen if I needed a snack.

What you want is to find your spot where you can be your most productive. That may be at a Starbucks or at the beach, your bedroom, or at the library. Wherever you feel most comfortable and relaxed, and where you can concentrate on writing is your cozy.
The most important thing about writing your dissertation is writing your dissertation.

Clock in: You gotta Make Time

My number one rule in writing a dissertation is to treat it like a job. That means clocking in everyday and putting in the time. I would write seven to eight hours a day. The only times I wouldn’t write, with the exception of the times I took a break from writing (bad mistake), was when I was waiting for feedback from my advisor. Otherwise, I wrote like I was earning a living.

You can’t treat your dissertation like it’s a hobby or something you will get to when you have time. You have to make the time. Set aside two hours a day. Don’t give yourself any excuses not to write. Even if it’s only five pages, you have to make a habit of writing something everyday.
Think of this way, if you never get it on the page, you will never walk across the stage!

Keep a Notepad Handy

I am all about going digital. I earned my graduate degrees online. Most of the movies I watch are streamed online. I have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime. That said, I always have paper on my desk to joint down thoughts, ideas, or to outline something.
Use handwritten notes, or notes via Evernote or Google Keep on your smartphone or Tablet, to organize your train of thought.

Strike When the Iron is Hot

Duh!... Write when the mood hits you. If inspiration, hits you at 3am, if you can, get up and start writing. There were plenty of days in which I would wake up, and my dissertation would be gnawing at me. I just couldn’t sleep. So I got up and wrote until I put in my eight hours for the day.
Don’t waste the spark. When something in you pulls you to write, then you have to write. You simply can’t allow that energy and creativity to go away. Seize it and take the opportunity to write as much as you can.

I know that I am talking about inspiration. Please don’t use not being inspired as an excuse to not write. Put in the time to write daily. Remember to set aside a predetermined amount of time to write.

Edit Later

Don’t worry about editing while you are writing. You have plenty of time to edit. Focus on writing. What you don’t want is to get stuck over “the perfect sentence” or “the perfect explanation”. Once you have completed a section or a chapter, you can always go back and make any necessary edits. And as everyone who has ever written a dissertation can attest to, you will have plenty of edits to make based upon your Chair’s feedback.

I had an interesting time writing my dissertation. For me, I wrote so many hours and made so many edits that I really needed my dissertation out of my life! In the end, I am very pleased with what I accomplished. Good journey on your writing.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Writers' Lab: PhD Writing with a Baby

Today in the Writer's Lab I have invited Kristin Haase to share her experiences on writing her doctoral dissertation while being a new mom. Kristen is a doctoral student in nursing in Canada and proud mother of a wiggly one-year old.

On the road to a PhD there seems to be endless work. Unfortunately, for most women, our PhD years overlap with our most fertile years. So, with the clock ticking down, I blindly jumped into the fray. This is the story of my PhD plus baby.

Pre-baby, my typical PhD day would include heading to the office around 9, reading and writing until around 5 or 6, interspersed with a few breaks for lunch and tea. I'd head home around 6, and maybe do an hour or two of work and call it a day. My husband and I lived in different cities (I relocated for school), which meant I didn't do a lot of work on weekends, but had lots of time during weekdays.

I won't get into how pregnancy impacted my work, because pregnancy is a temporary state. A baby is forever.

First things first, I had plans to get back to work immediately. I didn’t have realistic expectations as to how my little human would impact my life, my brain and my body. I know people who jump up and head back to work within weeks, but I was not one of them. And I don’t think it is something to glorify. In the first three months, I spent a lot of mental energy wanting and trying to work; this was seriously counterproductive. Plainly put, I was exhausted from a baby who breastfed every 2 hours- which meant he, nor I, really got any sleep. This is not for lack of preparation, as a nurse and someone who has a lot of experience with babies and children, I knew what to expect, I just didn’t know how it would affect me.

Second, I was allowed one year of parental leave from my program, but I opted to take 4-months. This was decided because the awards I received were not dispersed during my maternity leave, but needed to be used during that financial year or they would disappear (they could not be on hold). I met with my committee at 3 months and I felt fine to return, but not super focused (this may also have been related to other challenges with my committee). In hindsight, I should have taken more time off.

Now that the baby has just turned one, I feel like I am starting to develop some semblance of work-life rhythm, but it has taken effort. Returning to PhD work and teaching post-baby has required time and support. Pre-baby, time was elastic, your time is your own fluid commodity to spend as you like. In baby land, you work during naptime. I like to think of naptime as a mystery pomodoro- typically I get 1.5-2 hrs of work, but I might get more and I might get less!

Childcare is another huge issue. If you're lucky enough to have a supportive spouse, family and friends (I am), they can allow you to attend meetings without the baby being in daycare full time. Having good childcare is probably one of the most important aspects of new parent retention in PhD studies. If you are at ease with your caregiver, you can focus on your work. When I first sent my 6-month old to daycare, there were many days I sat in front of the computer, not doing anything, just wondering what he was doing. Now I am much more confident in his care, and think he really enjoys spending time with his ‘friends’ at daycare.

Of course we all feel that there is never enough time, but now every waking minute of the day needs to be measured out. Once I had a child I realized that my time is not my own, it does not belong to my supervisor, my employer or even my spouse. This doesn’t mean I can’t take on responsibilities or meet deadlines, it just means I have to be more efficient with my time and allow minimal distractions when I get a chance to work. I also try to maximize the time when I have childcare. For example, I don’t take a long lunch between teaching classes, and instead do revisions on a paper or, in the evening when I used to watch TV, now I’ll do at least 25 minutes of writing. It’s amazing how productive I have been with these small chunks of focused time. This time crunch has really made me focus on prioritizing what is important, what needs to be done and what reasonably can be done.

My final comment is around mental health. Adjusting to parenthood is a huge challenge and I think academics are especially prone to adjustment difficulties given our over-achievy type-A nature. Staying up all night once every couple of weeks to finish a paper or work in the lab is not the same as having 2 hours of sleep every night for three months. The highly unpredictable nature of babies makes planning and preparing for parenting extremely challenging. As a new parent I tried to give myself space to adapt and feel out my new role. I definitely put too much pressure on myself at first, but I quickly learned that I needed to adapt my expectations and my priorities. I had a good support network of other new moms, and my own mother to support me. However, for some people, this isn’t enough. Post-partum depression is a real and serious illness and just like other post-birth complications, you should ask for help. Don’t be too brave.

For those of you contemplating PhD plus baby, I think it’s very doable. Just be realistic about your expectations and be kind to yourself. Your child needs a mommy or daddy that loves them and takes care of them and doesn’t give a damn whether your paper gets rejected from the journal with the highest readership in your discipline. Chances are they will have a drooly kiss for you no matter, and you can always revise and resubmit your paper somewhere else.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Become a Productive Slacker

After the previous post on questioning the 9-to-5 (and more) mentality in academia - which has been shown not to be our most productive way to work- Amber Davis talks about how to put working in sprints into practice. For those of you who haven't met Amber yet, let me introduce her to you:

Amber Davis is a political scientist and a PhD coach. She studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD candidates and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the new academic year. Click here to enter the competition.

In my previous blog I talked about how to become a prolific scholar and improving your work-life balance by reducing, rather than increasing, the hours you work, and by introducing the notion of working in intervals, and taking relaxation seriously (the irony!). Although the ‘work and focus’ part of the interval presents a challenge for many people, the ‘relax’ part tends to encounter even more resistance. It is where many people get stuck. Letting your hair down a noble and honourable cause? That can’t be right. Or: it is so difficult in practice! Let’s go through some of the reasons:

1.      “Everybody else seems to work ‘office hours’ plus. I cannot leave work early and be perceived as a slacker by my colleagues, my supervisor, everybody!”
Yes, you can. You can leave work early, and you can ignore what other people think of it (or worse: what you think other people think). If you want to make this work you have to be somewhat non-conformist, and in most academic contexts it’s perfectly possible. Perform on output, not on hours put in. If you apply yourself 200% during your work sprints, you can leave the office guilt-free, while everyone else remains - procrastinating or slaving away. Listen to your inner rebel. It is the only wise thing to do! In the unlucky circumstance that your department or supervisor indeed expects you to work in a rigid, ‘office hours’ corporate manner, and you absolutely cannot leave without negative effects, at least make sure that you do not compromise on the sprint mentality. Make sure you get your most challenging, most creative work done in the first few work intervals of the day, and shift to a lower gear for the remainder of the day.

2.      “I cannot switch off because I feel guilty when I am not working, and I feel better about myself when I put longer hours in.” In essence this reason is the same as the first one – I cannot leave work early, because I don’t want to be perceived by a slacker…by myself.
The solution? 1) challenge your assumptions, and 2) experiment.
To start, seriously consider the idea that the combination of Taylorite, conveyor belt attitude to work and Calvinism is fatal: it is dangerous for your academic work, and it is absolutely lethal for your enjoyment of life! When that truly sinks in, you will find it easier to let go of work a little. You are not a factory worker. You are an academic hero, whose strong, lucid, unflinching analytical mind is celebrated and allowed to perform at unprecedented heights by regular brain breaks. Your wild-hearted free-flowing side will only help in doing so, if you allow for it. Take the risk. Unchain yourself. Step away from the conveyor belt. It will work out better than you can imagine.

3.      “But,” I hear you object, “I have so much more work to do! I cannot take a break right now. It’s too important!” Ah, but is it, really? Oh, the ways we trick ourselves into thinking the sky will fall when we close our laptops! Unfortunately, ‘feeling behind’ comes with the territory of academic work. There is no way around it. Ultimately, there is always more to do. It is never finished. If you cannot make peace with that idea, the academic road will be a torturous one to travel. There are things you can do to make life a little easier. Working in intervals, and the sprint mentality that goes with it, will help you gain a sense of control. The accomplishment and satisfaction of the all-or-nothing sprints will immediately help reduce feelings of guilt and you will be less likely to feel like ‘you haven’t gotten anything done’. Training yourself to prioritise also helps. Learn to see what is truly important and do that first; then let the other tasks and activities arrange themselves. Your most important work should be at the heart of your workday, not the pesky tasks and distractions. Also: draw a firm boundary around your breaks and time off. The bottom line: lightening up a bit is the best way to get your academic work done.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Challenge Your Office Mentality

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Amber Davis once more for a series of two guest posts. Amber wrote last year on Optimizing your Workday for Productivity, amongst other. Amber is a political scientist and a PhD coach. She studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD candidates and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the new academic year. Click here to enter the competition.

Many academics work ‘always, everywhere’. They work weekends, evenings, and holidays, and there is no clear distinction between ‘time at work’ and ‘time off’. With flexible schedules, why not finish that abstract while you’re waiting for your plane, or type up your results on a Sunday afternoon? ‘Work’ can slowly start to take up the largest part of your waking hours. Worse: when you’re not ‘working’ you may feel guilty about it. Work-life balance, they call it. The balance often goes askew.

The reasons for an out-of-whack work-life balance tend to vary depending on where you are in your academic career. In the PhD stage, the most common reason tends to be a combination of procrastination, combined with an inability to switch off from work at the end of the day because ‘I didn’t get anything done’. In the ECR and tenure stages (oh, if we would only be there already!) it is mostly the result of being completely swamped with responsibilities and obligations. Workload starts to take on an entirely different meaning (oh, life was good during our PhD days!). In any stage of the academic career, the message that working ‘hard’, in the sense of working long hours and being available is laudable is reinforced. We start believing that we indeed need to ‘work all the time’ to get our work done, and that nothing less will do when it comes to being, and being perceived as, a ‘hard-working’, prolific, serious academic.

The troubling aspect of this way of approaching your work is not the flexibility of schedules. It is the assumption that endlessly sitting at your computer with your documents or email open is virtuous and constitutes work. The truth of it is that it is NOT the best way to get your best work done. Or any work, for that matter. At least not if you don’t want to be wasting your time more than half of the time! Our brains aren’t wired for long-term, steady state achievement. It’s a shame that plugging away for unlimited hours seems to be the norm, a norm that can be daunting to challenge. But if you dare do so, you may become more prolific than you could have previously imagined. Your energy will lift, your ability to focus will improve. And you’ll be able to shut your laptop, without the worry and the guilt.

The first step in challenging this ‘work-til-you-drop’ paradigm is to challenge the 9-5, or 9-6, or 8-8 or even 8-10 paradigm. The current norm is still very much centred around the idea of ‘office hours’: you work from 9-5 (or longer), with a lunch break in the middle, and maybe a coffee or tea break in the morning and afternoon. Entertain the idea that this might not be the best way to structure your workday. Rather than attempting to work at a steady state and in a linear fashion, envision your workday as a series of sprints.

Work in intervals that are long enough to get things done, but short enough to force you to focus without letting your energy slump. When followed by a period of relaxation you will allow your energy, focus and spirits to remain high. The relaxation part, the ‘non-working’ part is as essential as the part that we normally think of as ‘work’. It is the part where your brain re-sets and recharges, and shifts from analytical thought, which is of crucial importance for thinking logically, hermetically and analytically, to a more free-flowing state of being which allows for sudden new insights to occur. Both are needed for academic work. You need analytical focused thought for running your analyses, making sense of your results and constructing a logically sound argument. But the insights, the breakthroughs, the previously unimagined solutions, do not present themselves when you are focusing on the task at hand. They happen when you let yourself daydream, when you relax, and when you are unfocused (read an article about the brain science behind it here). The bottom line: to foster original thought, and to allow for the more creative parts of mental processes to happen the brain needs to relax, not be narrowly focused.  

If you give working in intervals a try you will see you’ll be able to work much shorter hours while getting more done, because you are taking advantage of the way your brain is designed to work. Even better: you can start enjoying time off without the guilt! For all the workaholics amongst us: now you can be ‘productive’ while doing absolutely nothing except letting your mind wander. What a revolutionary idea! To start, I would suggest experimenting with three 45-minute sessions of focused work, followed by 15-minute breaks, preferably in the morning, and before you have overloaded yourself with other stimuli and distractions. Maybe you’ll find that you get more done in those three hours, than you would have done in a whole day previously. You could use the afternoon to do less mentally challenging work: reading, say, or looking up references, answering email, and doing routine and organisational tasks. I would urge you to leave work early. Yes, you have permission! I believe that a 6-hour workday is often more than long enough (depending of course on your particular commitments). In the long run it’s the only way to keep it sustainable. It is not humanly possible to do intellectually challenging sprints for more than so many hours a day. Fewer than you probably think. Challenge your office mentality. You need to spend less time working, not more. Trust me on this.

To make working in intervals work, there is one catch. You need to focus, and work as intensely as you can, during those 45-minute intervals. It’s a sprint, not a marathon! Don’t pace yourself. Go all out. Give it everything. Pour your heart into it. A simple but helpful tip: disconnect from the Internet while you’re working. Looking up references can wait. So can those news sites and Facebook! A second tip: get very clear on what you actually want to be working on in that work session. Make it as specific as possible. That way it becomes doable. With distractions out of the way, and a clear focus, you can start chipping away at that next paper or chapter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Writers' Lab: Write, write, and write some more.

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Chris Keyworth to the Writers' Lab. Chris is a final year PhD student in Health Psychology based at the Centre for Dermatology Research, University of Manchester, UK. Chris’s PhD is examining health risk communication and lifestyle behaviour change in people with psoriasis. Twitter: @ChrisK_UofM

One of the best pieces of advice I was given before starting my PhD was to spend the majority of my three years writing. Not thinking, not planning to write (although yes these are key elements to writing and doing a PhD generally), not writing endless to-do lists or downloading those journal articles to your IPad that you will ‘read on the train’, but writing – words on paper. The PhD journey ultimately ends with one thing – the thesis. Without it, there is no PhD. Coming to the end of my PhD, whilst there is still long way to go and a lot of writing to be done, having a basis for my thesis has really helped me.

‘It will be alright on the night’

Cramming all of your writing into the final stages of your PhD is something that I would not endorse. ‘The 3 month thesis’ that we hear about, for me, is nonsense. Writing should evolve over the course of your PhD. Even though drafting, redrafting, and redrafting your redraft is often a pain-staking process; this really does strengthen your writing skills. I sometimes look back at my masters and think ‘did I really write that?’ Being able to write effectively and communicate with a scientific audience (and otherwise) is a fundamental skill for academics. An iterative writing process can only serve to strengthen these skills.

The idea of writing an entire thesis in the final few weeks or months of your PhD fills me with dread. Understandably, lab-based students generally (but not always) spend their first three years of a four year PhD in the lab – and use their final 6 months to a year writing up their findings. This is all well and good, but nothing can prepare you for the undue stress and pressure you will feel at the prospect of cramming your writing into the final stage of your PhD. I am fortunate enough to have received good advice about writing early on in my PhD.

 ‘Is it me or is it cold in here?’

To use an old cliché, starting is the hardest part. I hate that cliché, but yet it rings true. Students (and perhaps academics in general) are all too familiar with that common routine we go through before deciding to type those words on that empty page of our word processor. Make cup of coffee, check emails, get side-tracked by an interesting journal article, make another cup of coffee. Procrastination is a fatal trap that PhD students in particular fall into. Beware of procrastination early on in your PhD when the common thought pattern is ‘it’s fine, I have three years to write this’. We procrastinate, we do anything we can to avoid writing. We convince ourselves the conditions are not suitable to write. ‘It’s too dark in this room’, ‘it’s too light’, ‘it’s too cold’, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow instead.’

Find something that works for you

When it comes to writing, I do like my own space and it is important to find something that works for you. The office, at home, or in the local coffee shop. In my case, the library out of term-time is a great place to work. All the students have gone home, all the books are usually in, and the great peace and quiet, perfect! But it is important to find somewhere where you work best.

The ‘2 hour rule’

Knowing when to write, and how long for, is pivotal. Try blocking out specific time slots in your diary so you have it written down, this seems to be effective for me. Think of it as a written contract with yourself. Research suggests that if something is written down, and even signed (but you don’t
need to go that far!), it is more likely to be followed through. Think of the ‘2 hour golden rule’ which is just about enough for most of us. Give it a go – just write – for 2 hours. You’ll be surprised how productive you could be in a relatively short time-frame.

Break it down into small manageable goals

Writing does not have to be overwhelming. To borrow a term from the health psychology literature, think SMART goals; be specific (number of words), make it measurable (track your progress via the word count), achievable (you know you can write 200 words), realistic, and timely (give yourself plenty of time before an impending deadline). It is not feasible to write 5,000 a day. But think about 200 words every day for 3 years – there is your thesis.

Think about when you are most productive – is there a certain day of the week or time of day when you are most productive. I am definitely a morning person, which is when I tend to focus my writing on. Strangely I often get a ‘second wind’ on Friday afternoons which powers me into a relaxing weekend. The point is you will discover your own writing habits, and make the most of the time that works best for you.

Let your writing guide your reading

It is all too easy to become immersed (and potentially lost!) in the literature, particularly in the early phases of your PhD, but also when it comes to writing generally. My advice would be to let your writing guide your reading. As you write, you know the areas you need to read more about. This not only allows you to develop that all important word count for your thesis, but more crucially, it helps uncover gaps in the literature, and therefore formulate your research questions.

Most importantly – enjoy!

Another piece of advice I can give is to quite simply enjoy writing. It can be very rewarding seeing your name up in lights in that internationally-renowned journal. I am far from being a writing guru, but I merely pass on some words of encouragement that writing need not be the devil’s work.