When is a PhD finished?

I haven’t written a post since I finished my PhD. That’s right, I’ve finished my PhD. I’ve finished it.

So I thought I’d write about that.

What does “finished” mean? Where does that part of the journey begin? Is it when you submit your first full draft? When your supervisors tell you they don’t need to see your thesis again before you submit? When you submit the thesis to the examiners? When you’ve had your viva? When your corrections have been approved? When you submit your final hard/electronic copies to the University? When they send you the Award Letter that means that you now have a PhD, even if you’re not graduating for months? 

I submitted my thesis in August 2014. People asked “have you finished?”. “Not quite”, I’d tell them, “it all depends on the viva”.

I passed my viva in December 2014. People asked “have you finished?”. “Not quite”, I’d tell them, “I have a small number of corrections to do”.

I submitted my corrections in January 2015. People asked “have you finished?”. “I hope so,” I’d tell them. “they have to be approved by the examiner.”

The corrections were approved the next day. 

Since then, I have submitted the final copies to the University, and received my award letter.

When people ask if I have finished, the answer is “yes!”

But having so many endings is hard. Each stage is a huge accomplishment. And perhaps one of the hardest parts of the PhD is not feeling like you’ve achieved anything until it’s finally done. But you are achieving at every step of the way, and it’s important to celebrate it. Don’t neglect your progress, don’t deflect compliments, don’t shelve it as “not yet finished”. Your PhD will not be finished until it is, and couching all your self-esteem in its completion is unwise and unfair to yourself.

#AcWriMo and #NaNoWriMo: Two differences

After two years of doing Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, I’ve made a change. This year I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. There are a lot of similarities between AcWriMo and NaNoWriMo. Both encourage prioritising writing. Both require self-discipline. Both are a really helpful way to develop your voice. But there are differences.

Here are two differences I’ve found so far:

1. Who decides the targets?

With AcWriMo, you can set your own targets. There’s nobody telling you whether what you’ve chosen is “enough”, or checking whether you’ve achieved it. There are places to declare goals and track your progress (such as Studious Jenn’s excellent accountability spreadsheet.

With NaNoWriMo, the goal is 50,000 words. There are other projects during the year with more flexible targets, but for the main event in November, 50,000 is a pretty non-negotiable goal. That works out to just under 1700 words a day, if you write every day. The NaNoWriMo website allows you to “validate” your word count, meaning you paste what you’ve written into a word count tool. The “stats” section of their website is a powerful motivator, showing you how much you’ve done, and how much you have to do to finish on time.

Which is better? Neither. And I feel the main difference is the driving force behind the two. To me, AcWriMo is a time to prioritise whatever it is that needs to be done with my academic work. And because noone knows my academic work better than me, I get to decide what it is that needs to be done. And for me, NaNoWriMo is a time to achieve something that I might never have done otherwise. The externally-created target is there to show that I *could* write 50,000 words of a novel if I really put my mind to it.

2. Dialogue

I did a lot of free writing for my PhD, especially during my first AcWriMo. That has been incredibly useful for NaNoWriMo. My AcWriMo free writing was often a way of voicing an inner monologue. Similarly, my novel is written in the first person and at the moment there’s a lot of inner monologue. What AcWriMo hasn’t prepared me for is dialogue. Multiple people speaking to each other. I have been vividly thrown back to my childhood, to school days of writing early literary gems. To days of trying to find as many ways as possible of saying “said”.

“Where is the rabbit?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know,” Alex replied.

“When did you last see the rabbit?” Sam enquired.

“I don’t know,” Alex responded.

My NaNoWriMo writing is feeling a bit like that at the moment. I’m trying to ignore the part of me that’s screaming “you can’t write like that, it’s far too clumsy!” and to just keep going. I know that I’m developing a voice, and that this part of my writing hasn’t had much of an airing since I left school. But it’s an unexpected challenge.

Do you have any tips for making dialogue sound more natural? Do you prefer setting your own targets or having them set externally? Let me know in the comments…

Master your tasks for #AcWriMo

Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, is well underway now, so I thought I’d write a post about task management for those who might be struggling. To me, learning how to master your tasks – that is, to set yourself targets and meet them – is a core component of AcWriMo. It is both a key ingredient of success and a delicious and useful output.

It’s all too easy with long academic projects, particularly PhDs, to become overwhelmed with everything you have to do. It can feel like there is an infinite amount of potential work. This can be very destructive to your feelings of productivity – if there is an infinite amount to do, then you will never finish. Nothing you do will ever be enough.

An excellent way to combat this feeling is to keep track of what you plan to do and whether you do it. I’ve written some posts on how to identify, schedule, and review your tasks, but, just to recap…

  • Think about the things you have to do, in the reasonably short term, and break these things down into small, easy-to-manage, chunks. These chunks are your tasks.

Then, each week:

  • Schedule your tasks into your upcoming week, and…
  • Review the previous week’s tasks

To aid this recipe for success, here are some tips with examples:

1. Make your tasks as specific as possible, and include a measure for success

EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading”

This task isn’t specific enough. Do you really know where you’re going to start? Probably not. Do you know where you’re going to stop? Definitely not.

EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading on <TOPIC>”

This task is better, but there’s still really no way to know when you’ve succeeded. That task could refer to one abstract or thirty full papers – there’s no way to tell how much is enough.

EXAMPLE TASKS: “Do a search on <DATABASE> for <SEARCH TERMS>” (replace these with whatever is relevant to you); “From top ten search results, read the abstracts of those which look relevant, and select which still appear relevant”

With these tasks, it is much easier to know where to start, and when to stop. You will be more likely to know whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve

2. Make your tasks challenging but reasonable

It can be difficult to judge how challenging to make your AcWriMo targets. Arguably, the point of AcWriMo is to do more than you would otherwise. But setting targets that you are unlikely to reach is bad for your self-esteem and could very well result in you achieving even less.

It’s hard to give examples for this, because everyone works in different ways and I don’t want to work with the ideas of “not enough” or “too much”. But what I’ll say is this:

DO set yourself targets that will challenge you, that you will have to work hard to reach.

DO take into consideration the other things that you will have to do in the month.

DON’T set yourself targets that you will be unable to achieve without compromising your health. AcWriMo is a time for prioritising your academic writing, but never above your health.

3. Review your tasks and modify them accordingly

Last year, I saw a lot of tweets written by people lamenting their lack of progress, and their hope that they would catch up. Indeed, part of AcWriMo is setting targets and sticking to them. But if you find that you’re not reaching your targets, don’t feel like you’ve failed. Think about why those targets aren’t working for you.  I’m not saying you should automatically give up on your targets if you haven’t met them for a little while. But I am saying that AcWriMo is a brilliant time to set targets for yourself, try to do your best to keep them, and learn what does and doesn’t work for you. If something doesn’t work for you in AcWriMo, a month you have decided to dedicate to your academic work, it’s worth reviewing and adapting your task management practice.

Are you doing AcWriMo this year? What are your top tips? Let me know in the comments…

From #acwrimo to #nanowrimo

Despite my previous post about the benefits of Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, I’m actually not doing it this November. I’ll be supporting those who are, but not taking part myself. In a way, I’m delighted not to be doing Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, this November.

For those who are new to the concept, AcWriMo hinges on the concept that for the month of November you make academic writing your priority. You pick your targets, declare them online, and report on your progress. The concept isn’t as restrictive as the title appears. Firstly, AcWriMo doesn’t just include writing; it can also encompass editing, reading, analysing, or almost anything that is part of your own academic practice. And secondly, as I’ve previously written, you can choose the targets that suit you best. For some, it’s a set amount of words each day. For some, an amount of time. And for some, it’s completion of specific tasks. Whatever you choose, it’s important to make sure that your targets are broken into chunks. “Finish my chapter” might be a great overall target, but you’re significantly more likely to achieve that if you set daily goals. I’ve gained a lot from the two previous AcWriMos I’ve participated in.

“This sounds great,” I hear you exclaim. “Why on earth aren’t you doing AcWriMo this year?”

Well, everyone, I’m not doing AcWriMo this year because I submitted my PhD at the end of August. I’m delighted because I’ve been prioritising my PhD for four years, and this November, I don’t have to. I can think about how that hard work and prioritisation has resulted in a submitted thesis.

However, that’s not to say I won’t be doing any writing this November. This year, I’ll be doing National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which was the original inspiration for AcWriMo. The rules seem to be a little more strict; the goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel within the month of November. That works out to a little under 1700 words a day, if you’re writing every day.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about AcWriMo if I’m doing NaNoWriMo instead this year. The reason is simple: They’re really not that different. Even without the fact that one was based on the other, both rely on prioritising writing for a time-limited period. Both are a great way to develop your voice. And both have a lot to teach about task/time management. I loved AcWriMo, and I’m excited to try NaNoWriMo too.

Are you taking part in AcWriMo or NaNoWriMo this November? If so, how are you feeling about it? Have you taken part in previous years? If so, how did you find it? Let me know in the comments.

Are you ready for #acwrimo?

Saturday 1st November marks the beginning of Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo. Taking part in AcWriMo marks a decision to prioritise your academic work for the month, in whatever form works best for you.

Are you ready? Here are some tips to help you get started…

1. Think about where and when you are going to work

Amid all the excitement of the build-up to AcWriMo, it can be easy to forget to actually block out a time and location to do your academic work. Think about this in advance, and try to put a plan in place, otherwise you might end up spending your days telling yourself that you’ll “get around to AcWriMo later”. Then bedtime arrives and you have a choice between grumpy, sleepy writing, or not achieving what you’d planned.

2. Be prepared for each session

Make sure you have what you need BEFORE your planned start time. If you’re working on a computer, make sure your computer is on and your document is open. Have your coffee, or tea, or water, or whatever sustenance you require made and in a reachable place. It’s important to have these things ready in advance, otherwise you might find that 20 minutes of your writing time has magically been used waiting for your computer to switch on and for your kettle to boil.

3. Consider finding a writing buddy

I really enjoy working with friends. That is, alongside them – we’ll go to a cafe and work on our own projects. This practice, sometimes termed “shut up and write”, can be a great way to keep yourself focused but have the emotional boost of company. These sessions can take different forms. Some are strict, and focus on maximising productivity, such as a 20 minute burst of interrupted writing (or pomodoro), a break, and then another burst. Some are more casual, and have an undefined balance of writing and chatting. Find what works for you. For #acwrimo, a strict approach might be particularly helpful if you’re short on time. If there’s nobody near you to schedule a writing date with, hop on Twitter and find out of anybody’s looking for an online #acwrimo writing buddy.

What are your top tips for #acwrimo? Let me know in the comments…

3 reasons to do AcWriMo

November is coming. Everybody writes.

Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, is nearly upon us. AcWriMo is a month devoted to academic writing or other academic work. For one month, you set challenging (but achievable) targets, declare them, and report on your progress. You can see more about more AcWriMo here

The most obvious reason that AcWriMo is so tempting is the idea of getting a large chunk of work done in one month. If you set yourself the challenge of writing 1000 words a day, think how much you could have done by the time December draws near? Because you only need to keep this faster pace up for one month, it’s easier to stick to than planning to write write write forever. The idea of being able to return to your usual pace in December, satisfied with your progress, is very appealing.

But there are other benefits to AcWriMo, beyond what you can achieve in terms of “work done”.

1. You can become immersed in a supportive, online community

There’s a big Twitter community doing AcWriMo, and it’s lovely to feel like you’re a part of it. For me, it’s particularly important in a process like academic writing. I set out to do research because of a desire to contribute to, and connect with, the world and the people in it. Typing alone for hours each day isn’t quite the tangible oneness that I had sought. The online community is a real boost – you can become part of it on Twitter by using the hashtag #acwrimo in your tweets and by keeping an eye on the #acwrimo hashtag and the @PhD2Published account.

2. You can learn a lot about when and where you prefer to work

When do you write best? Where do you write best? Personally, I do my best work in the early morning, before the day has really started. My strong dislike of getting up in the mornings had prevented me from discovering this until a year or two ago. Then I tried getting up early to work and found it a revelation.

As for location, I work well in cafes, or on my sofa at home. I like to either be alone or in a relatively casual environment. Computer labs don’t work so well for me; I’m in a permanent state of tension at the idea of disturbing someone and potentially being reprimanded.

Knowing what works best for you is incredibly important. Give me an hour or two in the early morning in a cafe or on my sofa and I will get more done than I would in five hours in a computer lab in the afternoon. Harnessing this knowledge can help you to be more productive and to have more time for yourself.

3. You can develop excellent task management skills

I am a very enthusiastic advocate of developing good task management habits. It’s easy to feel like you’re not really getting anywhere with academic work, even when you’re achieving quite a lot. Planning and reviewing your tasks can be a great way to battle that feeling. If you’d like to read more about this, I’ve written three posts on how to identify, schedule, and review your tasks. Devoting a whole month to your academic work gives you a great opportunity to practice and develop these skills.

What are your top tips for AcWriMo? I’d love to hear about them in the comments…

Experiment recruitment: How to maximise attendance

A while ago, I wrote a post about why participants don’t turn up to experiments. In my pilot study, I’d had a lot of no-shows, and I was writing about that. I promised to write a “part 2”, where I explained what steps I’d found effective in maximising attendance, or at least minimising inconvenience for you, the experimenter. This is that post.

Here’s the background:

In my main experiment, I wanted 60 participants (all university students), to be tested individually. Each experiment would take around thirty minutes. To make it slightly more complicated, it was important that participants believed that other participants were taking part in experiments at the same time, in different rooms. This means that being more than 5 minutes late was not feasible.

Here’s what I did:

1) I scheduled in more participants than I needed

This is a fairly basic step. The likelihood that you will have a 100% turn-up rate is very low, so booking in plenty of participants is a smart move.

2) I sent reminders

I had a lot of correspondence with participants. When they first emailed, I asked them to give their availability. Then I emailed them with a time, requesting a confirmation. If they replied, I sent them details about the experiment location. If they didn’t, I emailed to ask for a reply. A week before the experiment, I sent a reminder email, stressing that they should get in touch to cancel if they couldn’t make it. Finally, the evening before the experiment, I sent a text message asking for a final confirmation.

I worried that this level of contact might be tiresome for the participants, but they seemed grateful to be reminded. Quite a few cancelled after the “one week warning” email. Some cancelled after the “one day warning” text. That is highly preferable to not showing up, and I had a system in place to help…

3) I had backups

There were more cancellations than I’d expected. Fortunately, I’d kept a list of backup participants. Those were participants who had contacted me after I’d filled all the vacancies. I’d emailed them, asking if they’d be willing to be a backup, and if so what days they were available. This was incredibly useful, and many of my backup participants ended up taking part in the experiment.

Here are the final numbers:

I was aiming for 60 participants.

I scheduled in 65, and had a list of about 15 backups.

In the end, 58 participants took part in the experiment.

Writing and listening

A while ago, I wrote a post about where I liked to do academic work. Generally, I work in one of three places, listed in order of frequency:

1. On the sofa in my study at home

2. In a cafe

3. On a train (if I happen to be going somewhere. I don’t just take trains to get work done, although the thought has crossed my mind)

But for me, there’s more to it than just physical location. There’s sound. In the previous post, I mentioned that I didn’t like an oppressively quiet atmosphere (although incredibly loud environments aren’t great either). If I’m on the train or in a cafe, I will often listen to music.

At home, on the sofa, it’s more varied. Sometimes I’ll listen to music. More often I’ll have some sort of TV show or film playing on a separate screen.

This really works for me. It has done since I was a child. My parents could never quite believe that watching episodes of Friends or Disney films was conducive to getting work done, but it was, and still is.

I don’t think it works for everyone. But I do think it’ll work for some people, and it’s the kind of thing that’s very flexible. Here’s what works for me:

1. I tend to either choose something I know very well (and like), or something that doesn’t require much attention.

2. I make decisions based on what I’m doing. I have different items for:

– Reading articles on my iPad (early Grey’s Anatomy episodes)

– Writing (Pokemon episodes)

– Really difficult writing (About a Boy soundtrack)

– Anything nearish Christmas (Love Actually)

– Data analysis (Bones)

– Urgent things (Inception soundtrack)

3. This one is subconscious, but I have noticed that I generally choose things where you don’t miss out by only listening. I tend to pay more attention with my ears than my eyes, and will usually listen to a TV show or film more than watch it. This lends itself well to “watching” media while working.

Why does this work for me? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I think that a lot of it is about emotion. I’ve chosen media that evokes emotions for me, based on what I need to get done.

Grey’s Anatomy is something I associate with good, relaxed times. I like the music, and I’ve seen the early episodes quite a few times, so it’s easy to keep in the background while I’m ready. It’s probably too emotional to have on while I’m writing, though. Love Actually is similar, without the dramatic plot twists.

The About a Boy soundtrack comes with relaxed, positive emotions for me, but with no plot to follow, it’s ideal for when I really need to focus.

Pokemon is very adventure-based, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of attention. It works well for morning writing, because it’s peppy and promotes the idea that you can do anything.

Bones and Inception make me feel like what I’m doing is of incredibly importance, and may change the world.

Do you listen to media when you’re working? I’ve asked this question to a number of friends, and responses have been divided. The most common is “oh, no, I just couldn’t concentrate like that!”. What do you think?

I’m writing as fast as I can!

This academic writing month has been strange for me. I’d already been pushing myself to the limit, but somehow I thought it was a good idea to push myself even harder. You can read about my goals and the ensuing exhaustion here.

I’m a productivity addict: I love breaking down goals into bitesize tasks and smashing them. I’ve always been this way, I just love going fast. How could I turn down the opportunity to be even MORE productive? What what negative consequences could possibly arise?

Exhaustion, depression, anxiety, nausea, irritability, stress, to name a few.

In addition, I’m currently working on my literature review, which needs careful, considered thought. I need to get the story just right.

So for the rest of #acwrimo (as of last Wednesday, the 20th), I’ve made a new goal: To slow down.

To sit with a pen resting against my chin, considering my argument. To rest, and relax, and do things I enjoy. To run my ideas past my friends (thanks in advance, friends). And to gently coax the story of my literature out from where it is hiding.

It will be both very easy and very difficult.

What do you think? Is slowing down hard for you? Do you find it hard to find a mid-ground between on and off? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

#acwri, one step at a time

Have you seen that episode of Friends where Chandler gets cold feet before his wedding? Ross has to come and find him, and Chandler says that it’s all far too scary. And Ross gives the perfect advice for anyone with a big project (like, let’s say, a thesis…). He convinces Chandler to take things one step at a time, distracting him from the larger task at hand. Chandler takes a shower. Chandler gets dressed. Neither of those things are scary, right?

Well, that’s how I’m trying to work on my thesis at the moment. I’m working on my literature review, which has been the part of writing that I’ve been most afraid of. Almost too afraid to look directly at it. When I have considered all the work that needs to be done, it has scared me, and it’s felt like an insurmountable, impossible task. Very scary.

So I’ve been taking it one step at a time. Just like Chandler. Reading a paper – that’s not scary. Writing up notes from that paper – that’s not scary either. Playing around with the structure of a subsection using post-it notes – well, that’s fun!

Any every so often, I take a peek at how I’m feeling about the literature review as a whole. To start, it was scary. Then, I started to get a sneaking suspicion that it might be going [gasp] well. Like I might one day finish it. And then I go back to the tiny steps, terrified that I’ll jinx it, and that I’ll realise that progress is not what I’d thought.

But today, for the first time, I finished a subsection. A small subsection. But that subsection is now ready to be part of my first finished draft. And I thought about how I felt about the literature review as a whole, and realised I felt okay about it.

In the next few months, I’ll get to the part where Ross tells Chandler the final task he has to do – get married (still scary). But in the mean time, I’m piecing together segments of my thesis, focusing on the small tasks, not on the huge one (submit thesis).

For me, it works incredibly well and feels very overpowered (the gaming word for “so effective it feels like cheating”). But that’s no surprise – If you’ve read any of my blog posts or spoken to me on Twitter, you’ll probably know that I’m a big advocate at breaking down goals into tiny, bitesize chunks (or tasks). In fact, earlier in the year, I wrote a series of posts about identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks.

In no way am I suggesting not to keep the big picture in mind – a thesis must be a coherent document, not a collection of disjointed segments. But focusing on the small chunks is definitely making me feel more positive about achievement.

How do you deal with working on big projects, like a thesis? If you have any ideas, tips, or stories, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.