Category Archives: Getting Started

Writer’s Block

There are few things more terrifying than a blank word document. Especially when you’re meant to be working on a 100,000 word thesis or, in my case, a 70,000 word book manuscript. Faced with the blank page, where do you even start?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been stuck in a rut. Overwhelmed by the scope of the task ahead, I’ve done everything short of actually writing my chapters. I have, for instance, meticulously organized the various notes and incomplete ideas that have accumulated on scraps of paper over the past five or so years. I have also read until – gasp! – there’s nothing left on my to-read-for-the-book pile. I’ve even made attempts at writing, though these half-hearted false starts have either been deleted (if typed) or crumpled up into a ball (if hand written) in abject frustration.

And then yesterday I remembered a piece of advice offered by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: set yourself short assignments. For many of us, the simultaneous need to write and seeming inability to do so can induce a host of panic induced psychoses. But focusing on the enormity of the task is, Anne advises, “like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up.” Instead, she suggests focusing only on what you could see through a 1-inch picture frame, honing in on a 1-inch piece of the story (or argument, as the case may be).

So instead of stressing about my book manuscript, I’ve set myself a new challenge of 1-inch proportions:

  • Write 1000 words a day (for 30 days).
  • Those 1000 words can be about anything topical to the book.
  • I’m not bound to write sections in any particular order.
  • I am allowed to use my now meticulously organized notes.
  • Write exclusively in OmmWriter.*

We’ll see how it goes… The best case scenario is that after 30 days I will have approximately half of a draft manuscript. At which point, filling in the gaps isn’t such a scary proposition. Trying to stay positive one day in, I’m choosing to ignore the worst case scenario. For today, I just have to finish one short assignment.

* I have (repeatedly) tried and failed to enforce self-disciplined writing using both Word and an old fashioned notepad. Unlike these traditional writing platforms, however, OmmWriter does not confront you with a blank document or tempt you into distraction with formatting options.

Self-discipline

A PhD is all consuming. Unlike other jobs that you can leave at the office, a PhD takes up residence in your head (and your living room). It goes home with you in the evening. It hangs around on the weekend. It even accompanies you on holiday (if you’re lucky enough to get one). Of the many PhD students I’ve known over the past 5 years, I have only encountered one who successfully maintained a 9-5, 40 hour work week.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Regardless of your work pattern, sometimes we all need a break. In fact, studies have shown that working more than 40 hours per week does not increase productivity in the long run. It can be incredibly difficult with 12 articles still to read and a draft chapter due next week, but you need to learn to discipline yourself and the PhD-monster lurking over your shoulder. I’m still learning, but am getting better.

One aspect of successful self-discipline is actually getting the work done; setting reasonable expectations and following them through. Several weeks ago, I set myself the goal of writing uninterrupted (no talking, checking email, searching the internet or fidgeting with my phone) for at least 30 minutes every day. It turns out that even this modest task is easier said than done. So I bought a kitchen timer – a hot pink one that sits on my desk and reminds me of my writing obligation. Once I set the timer, writing becomes my sole occupation until the ticking stops and the bell signals that I’m allowed to stop. I’m not suggesting that you run out and buy your own kitchen timer, just that you think about how you might manage your working time more effectively and in ways that enhance your productivity without requiring that you enslave yourself to your PhD.

My second tip for successful self-discipline is little rewards. Once you’ve accomplished whatever it was you set out to do, allow yourself a treat. Take a short break, go for a walk or, better still, bake some brownies!

Delicious Fudge Brownies

(Adapted from ‘On Delicious Fudge Brownies’ in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, by Gideon Defoe)

  • 200g dark chocolate
  • 210g butter
  • 40g vegetable oil
  • 5 eggs
  • 400g sugar
  • 50g honey
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • 125g flour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • chopped nuts (optional)

Melt chocolate and butter together in a pan over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into a baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until the centre is set. Leave to cool on a wire rack before cutting.

Making up for Lost Time: Some thoughts on working from home

It has been a while since my last post. The Christmas holidays soon gave way to January; February came and went in a blur; and here we are. Time flies – whether you’re having fun or not. (And particularly when you’re coming up against a deadline, whether for your PhD or a journal publication.)

I also made the decision that I wouldn’t post merely for the sake of posting. There is far too much nonsense populating the internet already without me adding to it. For the past several weeks I haven’t felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.

…And then Marissa Mayer (the CEO of Yahoo) announced that Yahoo employees would no longer be allowed to work from home.

For many PhD students, working from home is not so much a choice as an inevitability. When I was completing my PhD, office space was at a premium. Those with teaching responsibilities had priority, but with three of us sharing a tiny room containing two desks, the only time I set foot in that cubbyhole was during my office hour. I could be wrong, but I suspect that my experience was not all that unusual. I had a friend at a different university who even held her office hour in a coffee shop.

So, given that many of us work from home – for lack of an office or otherwise – how can we make sure that we work from home effectively?

The decision at Yahoo has prompted a fair bit of discussion on this topic. The Guardian, for instance, recently posted 5 “Golden Rules” of working from home. I found two of these particularly relevant to my experience of writing a PhD thesis from home.

The first golden rule is to “make a sacred space.” Even if you aren’t going in to the office every day, it is still a good idea to have a dedicated workspace. Easier said than done, you might be thinking. Few PhD candidates that I’ve known have had a spare room that could be converted into a home office. Odds are, you’re probably living in a shared house or, like me, in a studio apartment. Even in cramped conditions, it is still possible to carve out a little corner for your regular workspace.

The other option is to adopt a coffee shop. I wrote my entire Masters dissertation and the better part of my PhD thesis at Starbucks. I would aim to be there by 9:30am and would often stay until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Whenever possible, I would sit in the same spot. Whether at home or in a coffee shop or someplace else, your sacred workspace should be somewhere that you actually like to be. You’re unlikely to be at your most productive in an environment that you hate (like my 3 person, 2 desk cubbyhole of an office). I’ve yet to find a coffee shop in Brisbane where I can work as effectively as I did in York. Now when I work from home, my sacred space is my kitchen table.

The second golden rule is to “go on a digital diet.” For many of us, checking our email (or facebook or twitter) has become a compulsion. The internet can be particularly seductive when you’re meant to be writing a thesis chapter. Pausing to check a reference on the electronic library catalogue is the first step down the slippery slope to online procrastination.

The Guardian rules suggest rationing your time spent online, using an internet blocker if necessary. I’ve found that it is best if I get up and start writing as soon as possible. If I can get from the bedroom to the kitchen table without doing anything other than brushing my teeth and making a cup of coffee, it will be a good writing day. By contrast, if I check my email first thing in the morning (which, coincidentally, generally happens on days that I’m in the office), I almost inevitably end up succumbing to the various other demands on my time and am lucky if I get any writing done at all.

As in all things, moderation is key. And, for me, the key to cutting down on digital distractions is to implement a working-from-home routine that cuts out those distractions altogether for at least four hours. If I need to check an obscure reference or follow up on a particularly relevant journal article, I make a note of it and do all of my checking in the afternoon.

We all work differently – the main thing is to get the work done. As a PhD candidate, you have the luxury of setting your own hours and maintaining your own schedule, but you should still be putting in full days. Establishing some rules of working from home for yourself can make the difference between a drafted thesis chapter and a whole lot of lost time.

Finding your academic voice

It is easy to forget that completing your thesis is only one part (albeit a large part) of becoming a professional academic. Publishing in respected journals and gaining teaching experience are other easily identified steps on the path to an academic career. But is that really all there is to it?

At the end of November I attended a conference that had attracted four top-notch keynote speakers. As I listened to these venerated academics discuss their work, it struck me that they each had a distinct voice. Put another way, each of these scholars had a unique approach and/or tone for addressing the topic at hand as well as the wider field. Moreover – and perhaps more strikingly – each of these speakers projected a sense of being comfortable in his or her own skin while discussing his or her own work.

Finding our voice is something that most of us probably aspire to, and achieve with varying degrees of success. There is, I think, a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) difference between willing confidence as a way of camouflaging unease and projecting genuine confidence. In addition to the keynote presentations, I attended a number of conference sessions where various academics and practitioners discussed their work. Some of these presentations were excellent and offered a clear, reasoned account of a particular research project. Others, however, left me with the impression that the speaker was begging the audience to accept his or her work.

The difference between these two extremes could be attributed to any number of factors. On reflection, though, voice is the quality that comes immediately to mind. The best presentations (where the speakers projected easy confidence; i.e. had a clear, academic voice) were generally given by seasoned academics (and practitioners), whereas graduate students often gave presentations where a thin veil of confidence masked an unmistakable sense of anxiety.

It is hardly surprising that scholars with more experience in their field – and more experience speaking at conferences – give better presentations. And this is my point: I suspect that you will stand a much better chance of giving a stand-out conference presentation at the end of your PhD (when it really counts) if you give a few (quite frankly) rubbish presentations at the beginning. Academic voice isn’t something that can be taught. It isn’t something you’ll miraculously acquire one day while reading feedback from you supervisor. You have to develop it for yourself.

The Life Cycle of a (Social Science) PhD Research Question

I’d like to dispel a common misconception about (social science) PhD research questions: they are not unchangeable. The research question(s) that appear in your final manuscript may not be the one(s) you proposed to your supervisor way-back-when or that took pride of place in your confirmation/upgrade document.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not suggesting that you change your research question completely two-and-a-half years in. Down that road lies madness. What I am saying is that your research question(s) will evolve and shift as you get a better handle on the literature, as you enter the field…in short, as you do your research.

With that in mind, I suspect that the lifecycle of a (social science) PhD research question generally looks something like this…

Most PhD research doesn’t start with a question at all, but rather a broad topic of interest (e.g. an identified gap in the existing literature, a particularly interesting case that warrants investigation, a theory or concept that caught your interest during previous coursework). Having settled on a topic, the first few (or several…) months of research have two principle objectives: (1) becoming well versed in the relevant literature; (2) whittling down said topic of interest into a handful of researchable questions.

The first metamorphosis of your research question(s) occurs when your attention shifts from thinking about what you would like to research to what you will actually be able to research. It is important to distinguish between possible research questions and viable research questions. Not every question you come up with will be doable; or, at least not doable with the limited time and resources available to most PhD students. As you think more carefully about what you can realistically achieve, the nuance of your question(s) will probably shift. The focus may narrow, for instance, as you reign in your ambitions.

A second transformation might occur as you settle on a specific case study, particularly if the case you choose wasn’t implicit in your broad topic of interest. You might need to re-word one or several of your research questions to reflect the context that accompanies your choice of case study. Indeed, it is possible that the case itself might raise new questions that you didn’t consider when you were thinking in broad strokes about your general topic.

Having settled on your topic, chosen a case, and articulated your questions, all that remains to be done is the fieldwork (or original research in whatever form). Maybe. If you’re lucky, your fieldwork will confirm (or conform to) your expectations and it will be smooth sailing from here on in. Some of us (myself included) aren’t so lucky. The circumstances you encounter ‘on the ground’ can precipitate a dramatic re-think of your research questions. The worst-case scenario is that some questions may no longer be viable and you have to throw them out. Odds are, however, that most questions can survive the cull with some minor tweaking.

Data collection accomplished, you set in on your analysis. If you’re taking a deductive approach, your questions are probably safe at this point. If you’re adopting a more inductive analytic approach, however, you might decide that the data answers slightly different questions to the ones you had in mind. Or, for that matter, the data might raise new questions you hadn’t previously considered. At this point you have to decide whether you have the time to follow where the data leads. It might be more pragmatic to save these emergent questions for a ‘suggested-avenues-for-additional-research’ section in your conclusion chapter.

In short, there are no fewer (and quite possibly more) than six possible junctures where you might opt to re-jig your research questions. As you progress through your research journey, your questions serve as guideposts keeping you on the right track – or at least on track to completion of a cohesive thesis. At the end of the day, your final research question should be the question that your research actually answers. The stage of the research process at which you come up with the precise wording of that question is indeterminate.