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Worries related to writing

The most frequent responses from my informal 2016 survey:

  1. Producing work of publishable quality
  2. The fear that others will produce superior work
  3. Producing a coherent text with ideas in logical order
  4. Structuring the thesis
  5. Producing a Literature Review that will meet expectations
  6. Overcoming language difficulties
  7. Slow speed of writing

 

Worries related to reading

The most frequent responses from my informal 2016 survey:

  1. Covering all of the literature/the volume of reading
  2. Selecting the texts that are really important
  3. Processing theoretical texts and being tempted to give up because of their difficulty
  4. Finding suitable source materials in certain areas
  5. Making the connection between reading and writing
  6. Effective note-taking

 

General worries

The most frequent responses from my informal 2016 survey:

  1. Finding research questions that are significant
  2. Refining research questions
  3. Being original (whatever that means)
  4. Meeting the expectations of supervisors and supervisory boards
  5. Lack of knowledge of the subject area
  6. Inability to manage time effectively
  7. Inability to get organized
  8. Achieving a manageable work-life balance

 

 

Starting PhD writing: what on earth is there to worry about?

WP_20170105_10_34_42_Pro[1]This blog has had a long holiday – longer than I originally intended. But now it’s that time of year when many people (at least in the UK) are beginning brand-new PhD projects. So, it’s also the right time to start thinking about the nature of the task ahead and I’d like to join the debate once again.

Last year, I asked a group of about 30 students starting their PhD journey what concerned them most. You can find the interesting mix of answers that they gave me by clicking these links. You can decide whether you agree or disagree.

General worries

Worries related to reading

Worries related to writing

A question that I perhaps need to ask myself concerning the start of my own PhD project is not just “What did I worry about?” but more importantly “What should I have been worrying about?”  I have to rely on memories from over 20 years ago, but some of these have remained surprisingly vivid. This is my own (short) list of worries at that time:

  1. I will run out of ideas (the greatest fear of all)
  2. I will run out of reading material (more easily achieved in the pre-digital era)
  3. I will run out of time (everyone does)
  4. I will run out of money (inevitably – and so it came to pass)

In retrospect, what should have bothered me most? This is a difficult question to answer, but with the wisdom of hindsight very different aspects of my research project emerge.

First, I deeply regret not keeping better records. By records, I mean copies and draft versions of absolutely everything that I read or that I wrote. Every annotated photocopy, every memo to myself, every exclamation or question mark added to texts. There is a good reason for this which I can now fully appreciate. I should have worried much more about developing an effective record-keeping system – one that would allow me 2 months or even 20 years later to access the different phases of my thinking. Why is this so important?

The only certainty related to PhD reading writing is that our way of thinking is bound to change over time. Three or four years is a significant chunk of a lifespan. So why didn’t I realize this and ensure (for example) that I kept a copy of the brilliant writing journal that I kept for nearly two years? It didn’t seem brilliant at the time, but now I have no way of explaining to myself why I suddenly decided to cut a complete chapter from my draft thesis or why I radically changed my approach to data reporting. I would like to read my journal again to discover why I made certain choices and decisions but, sadly, it has gone forever.

Second, I worried too much about my preconceived questions and the hypotheses that accompanied them. I knew quite rightly that I couldn’t afford to spend years reading all of the literature and had to narrow the focus of my research. But I chose my preferred route too quickly. When I re-visit the transcripts of interviews related to my research produced in 1997, I can appreciate how carefully I highlighted what I wanted to see, namely the answers to the questions that I had set. There is nothing wrong with being focused or being clear. But there was so much else there, including the answers to questions that I hadn’t even begun to formulate. I worried about ‘getting it right’ and as a result the different voices of my respondents remained (at least partially) unheard.

Third, I was distracted and excessively worried by other people’s deadlines. There is no way of avoiding this: in fact all the evidence seems to indicate that an obsession with deadlines is an ever-increasing phenomemon in an age of league tables for PhD completion rates. However, deadlines should be there to help writers by providing useful milestones in what is a relatively unstructured exercise. My problem is that I worried exclusively about meeting each deadline and I was then happy to move on to the next one.

The danger here is in moving on too quickly. Each piece of work submitted and each presentation was followed by a mix of oral and written feedback. I worried about meeting the deadline, but perhaps I should have worried more about the outcome of the whole exercise. Did I really spend the time that I should have done reflecting on supervisor and peer feedback, trying to understand it and considering how to respond to it? In some cases, I probably did: in others, I was too concerned about the next deadline and the one after that. Feedback and responding to feedback need to be carefully integrated into the planning of writing. I understand that now, but it wasn’t a source of worry  at the time.

The moral of the story: respect deadlines and always take them seriously. But if you find that they are dominating your research writing and your whole life, then it’s time to pause for reflection rather than continuing the race against the clock. To be continued …

10th October 2017.

 

 

 

‘Doing nothing’ in order to do something

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About a year ago I came across a book entitled ‘Auto-pilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing’ by Andrew Smart. Here is the link: http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/autopilot/

At the end of the introduction, Smart has this to say:

Allowing the brain to rest opens the system to exploiting … mechanisms of nonlinearity and randomness, and amplifies the brain’s natural tendency to combine percepts and memories into new concepts. Anecdotal evidence from writers and artists, as well as recent psychological studies, leads to the understanding that in order to really tap the creative potential of the brain, a complex nonlinear system, we should allow ourselves long, uninterrupted periods of idleness. At a minimum, it is possible that resting is as important for brain health as is directed mental activity, if not more important. 

Note that all the evidence for such claims appears to be anecdotal, by the author’s admission. And yet, there is an idea worth pursuing here, one that can be applied to the complex business of developing a doctoral research project and producing a written thesis. Both activities seem to be more target-driven than they used to be. There are numerous deadlines and milestones to help us map our way. But what if we are so intent on completing multiple tasks through ‘directed mental activity’ that we fail to see possibilities and opportunities that do not lie in the precise direction that we are taking? What if we don’t have the time to take a step back and clear our thoughts?

It seems that when we are apparently ‘doing nothing’ with the brain at rest, this is a misconception. In fact, there is a lot going on. According to Smart, “the brain is perpetually and spontaneously active. It is maintaining, interpreting, responding and predicting”. Through these activities we can form new connections – ones that would not be apparent when a small part of the brain is engaged in directed activities.We switch off in order to gain new insights, find missing links and generate new questions. That’s probably why Archimedes was in the bath when he unintentionally invented the concept of ‘eureka moments’.

Browsing the internet, I have managed to find a certain level of agreement among eminent psychologists concerning the creative thinking process and how it might be broken down into stages. A summarized version from multiple sources is as follows:

  1. Preparation: formulating the problem or question to be addressed
  2. Incubation: trying to get rid of ideas that might be interfering with the solution
  3. Illumination: this is the ‘eureka moment’ when everything suddenly becomes clear
  4. Verification: testing the solution

What really interests me here is Stage 2. In order to open up the brain to new solutions, the thinker is encouraged not to dwell on the problem but to engage in other activities such as reading or playing games – or ‘doing nothing’.

When we are stuck and feel that we have reached a dead end both in terms of our reasoning and our will to go on, the solution might be to attempt a spring-cleaning exercise. In order to go forward, we may need to de-clutter all of the bits of information and ideas that are currently preventing us from open-minded thinking and achieving a certain distance from the questions that interest us. ‘Doing nothing’ in order to do something and ‘long periods of idleness’ may not be such a bad idea, after all.

If any readers have concrete examples of the benefits of protracted idleness within a research project, I would interested to hear about them. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presenting your research in progress

If you are currently engaged in PhD research, you will have realized by now that developing your project so that it proceeds smoothly from beginning to end can be a really complex task. It is easy to digress and to lose your way. Somehow, you need to find a means of keeping on track. Others may tell you that one of the ways in which you can help yourself, help others and be helped (sometimes by the most unlikely people) is by presenting your research in progress.

Resist the temptation to wait until you think you have all the answers. The whole point of presenting research in progress is to show work at different stages of development. You will discover, to your surprise, that your audience is interested in hearing what you have to say even though you have many doubts and uncertainties. This will be true even at the very beginning when you feel that you haven’t even begun to work out the questions that you need to ask and have very little to say.

For practical advice on planning and delivering oral presentations, go to  Research in progress presentations where you will find some useful tips based on the experience of past PhD students in the UK. However, practical tips are never enough on their own. You may still feel that giving a presentation is at best a distraction and at worst can lead to total humiliation as your lack of knowledge is cruelly and publicly exposed. This is how I felt when I was first asked to present my own PhD research after only 3 months of full-time work.

The scene was a large lecture room – not a huge auditorium, but one with plenty of spaces for an audience of 40-60 people. I managed to attract half of this number with a mix of other PhD students and academic staff members. The staff all sat together in the front row: I noticed that their arms were folded. They seemed to be thinking: “Let’s get today’s entertainment started”.

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But it could have been worse. I’ve had the experience of talking to large conference audiences looking down at a sea of faces from a lectern (just like the one pictured above on the right). In that type of situation, there is often a gulf between presenter and audience. Possibly the worst piece of advice I ever received was to remove my glasses (I am very short-sighted) in such a situation. I did this once and talked quite happily to myself for almost an hour. I had no idea who I was talking to – all the faces were a complete blur. Those on the receiving end were mystified by the fact that I seemed to stare into space with what looked like a half-crazed expression. It was not a success.

So, on this occasion, I decided that I had to engage with my audience as much as I possibly could. My talk wasn’t great but at least the audience members seemed interested. I was sufficiently nervous to confuse the names of authors that I would never normally forget. These things happen – accept any corrections offered by your audience with good grace.

What speakers often fail to realize is that the most interesting part of a talk is very often what happens at the end. If you leave no time for questions or discussion, you will frustrate many members of your audience. Sometimes, it may happen that they come to your talk just to ask a question that has been bothering them. When this happens, there are usually warning signs. The person with ‘the question’ often sits in the front row and looks impatient. Try to see it from their point of view: they may have travelled a long way to ask their question and the fact that you are talking is preventing them from doing so.

At the end of my ‘research in progress’ presentation, there were quite a few questions. For convenience, you can divide such questions into clear categories:

  1. Clarification: when audience members didn’t catch what you said or have misunderstood something.
  2. Requests for further information: resist the temptation to promise to email the answer the very next day. You will forget to do it and will annoy the questioner.
  3. Questions hiding suggestions: usually involving source materials that you haven’t read. Make a note of them as they might be useful.
  4. Irrelevant questions: listen politely and give a non-committal reply.

On this occasion I had to field a range of questions from categories 1-3. Then one of the eminent professors suddenly took me surprise by leaping into category 4. I thought to myself: “This question is totally irrelevant: how can I be polite without being drawn in this direction?”. I have no clear memory of my reply.

The next day, a strange thing happened. I began to think about the rogue question and it suddenly occurred to me that the suggestion that it contained might be worth pursuing. You will already have guessed what happened next. The seemingly innocent and irrelevant question gave me a new line of inquiry in my research that turned out to be significant.

The moral of the story: while listeners can gain new ideas from research in progress presentations, speakers can gain even more. If it is your lucky day, someone may ask a question that is pure gold dust. It is worth bearing this in mind when you are struggling to cope with all the other questions and critical comments that come your way.

28th Nov 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How important are writing routines?

Planning, drafting, re-writing and editing a PhD thesis is a huge undertaking – one that is usually spread over 3 or 4 years if you are a full-time researcher. How can you best manage this situation so that you can feel that you are making some kind of progress?  Specific questions to consider include:

When do I write?

Where do I write?

How do I write?

All of these can contribute towards establishing a regular writing routine. If you don’t plan and schedule different writing tasks, they are less likely to happen. But how can you find a routine that works for you and fits in with in other routines (work, social, family)?

An interesting starting point might be this highly recommended website:

http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/

Professional writers do seem to have more or less fixed routines for reading and writing that work for them. Some prefer to write in the middle of the night; others at 6 a.m. Some have a designated room in which they work with their writing tools all in the correct and familiar place. Some writers prefer to start writing in longhand or through scribbled notes; others are able to work directly with a blank PC screen. What would your own preferences be to achieve maximum productivity?

This discussion will be continued in greater detail in later posts. If you have any comments or would like to share your own experience, please do so.