#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.


Exhausting #acwrimo

Today marks the end of the first week of #acwrimo (Academic Writing Month). How do I feel? To be honest, I feel exhausted. And that’s really surprised me.

I was expecting to feel energised. I know that when I’m productive I have a lot more energy. The more goals I set, the more I achieve, and the better I feel.

I’ve been looking forward to this year’s #acwrimo since…well, since #acwrimo 2012. And the timing is perfect – this #acwrimo I’m writing the literature review chapter of my PhD, which needs a good deal of updating since my first year review.

My daily goals are a bit complicated. I work as a technology trainer two days a week, so my first goal is 90 minutes early every weekday morning (including work days), and 4 to 6 pomodoros throughout the rest of the day on the three non-work weekdays.

So I’ve been getting up at 6:45am every morning, and beavering away from 7-8:30am. Then work or pomodoros.

On the non-work days, 4-6 pomodoros isn’t a huge amount. I’m really not working flat-out. I’ve read my book, played video games (usually Civilization V or Oblivion), gone for coffee with friends.

And I’ve been getting lots done. I’m really pleased with my progress so far. I’m still not sure whether finishing the literature review within the month is a realistic target, but that’s what I’m working towards.

But I’m still exhausted.

And I’m not sure what the answer is. Is this tiredness an inevitable part of the PhD process? Is it time to power through, knowing the end is in sight? Or is this a sign that I’m pushing myself too hard, and that I need a break? Perhaps it’s just my brain and my body reacting to the darkness (after all, winter *is* coming).

What do you think? Do you find the winter months more difficult? Is tiredness an inevitable part of the writing-up portion of the PhD? Or is it a signal to slow down? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter (I’m @ellenspaeth)

Experiment recruitment: Why people don’t turn up

If you have run experiments with people as part of your research, you’ll know that recruiting participants can be a tough job. Even trickier is maximising the likelihood that those participants will actually show up to their assigned slot. It’s no fun to wait all day for participants that never arrive.

In the past year, I have run two experiments where I’ve had to recruit student participants. In the first, a pilot study (which is like a smaller, practice, dress-rehearsal style study), lots of people signed up, but quite a few failed to turn up to the session. In the second, I put a number of plans in place to make sure that didn’t happen again. SPOILER: Those plans worked pretty well.

And so, I am presenting you with two posts, which will hopefully prevent any of you from sitting in an experimental room alone and participant-less. Today’s post will look at what stops people from turning up to experimental sessions. The next will give some advice on what you can do about that.

Why don’t people turn up?

When a participant doesn’t arrive for your study, a number of potential reasons swirl through your head. Are they late? Did you give them the wrong time? Has something awful happened? The first time I had two no-shows in a row, I wondered if some sort of portal to another world had opened up outside of the building. This was probably overly dramatic.

In reality, it seems like there are two main reasons for why people fail to come to experimental sessions:

1. They forget

It’s easy to forget something if it isn’t written down in the place where you need to see it. Even if it is written down, the piece of paper may be lost, or the online calendar may not synchronise properly. These things happen. The blame for forgetting doesn’t fall solely on the participant’s side – if you (as the experimenter) don’t contact them to confirm their slot, they may never consider it a firm arrangement.

2. Something else comes up

Reasons for participating in experiments vary: Sometimes it might be purely out of interest, or altruism, but more often than not (especially with a student population), it’s because of the compensation that’s received after the experiment (usually vouchers or cash). But sometimes things will come up that are more important than that money.

Say, you’re going to get £7 for an hour. But then you realise that you’re late with your coursework. You need that hour more than you need £7. So you don’t turn up.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into consideration how important that hour is for the experimenter.  The room may only be available for a limited amount of time, and all the participants have to be seen in that time. Fewer participants mean that working with the data might be more difficult, and it may not be possible to use the tests you’d originally planned.

Why don’t people tell you they’re not going to turn up?

As an experimenter, I have no problem if someone wants to cancel their session. If someone gets in touch in advance, and says they will no longer be able to attend, there are zero hard feelings. I don’t even need a reason. Obviously, the more notice is better. That way you can arrange for another participant to come instead. It’s not great receiving a cancellation email or text two minutes before the allotted time. But you know what, it’s so much better than never receiving any correspondence at all. At least, then, you can do something with that experimental slot, rather than sitting, nervously, wondering if someone is going to arrive twenty minutes late.

So why don’t people just tell you they can’t make it?

1. They forget

Look, if they’ve forgotten the experiment was even happening, they’re probably not going to remember to let you know. However, if they remember at the last minute…

2. They are pretending it isn’t happening (out of sight, out of mind)

It’d be pretty embarrassing to forget about an experiment until the last moment. There is the worry that if you contact the experimenter, you’ll receive a message in return, rebuking you for your behaviour. It may seem easier to just pretend that it isn’t happening. Similarly, even if you have plenty of notice to cancel, you may be wrestling with your decision to do something else instead. It may feel like you’re letting someone down, and maybe you should still go to the experiment. But things slide, and you can’t make it. And by then, it’s too embarrassing to get in touch. And thus, an empty experimental slot is born.

Next time…

We’ll look at some methods I used to keep my experimental schedule as full as possible, and to minimise no-shows…

If I could give one piece of advice (part 2)

This is the second of two blog posts talking about this question, posed on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

The first post talked about health, wellbeing, and support. If you missed it, you can find it here.

In this post I’ll share the replies that gave writing advice.

Again, thank you to @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses, included either in this post or the previous one.

Writing advice

The three replies that focused on writing posts all had a similar message: Write from the beginning, and don’t expect your writing to be perfect. You are not a wizard. Here are the first two:

“Write from the start, and expect to go through at least three drafts per chapter, sometimes more”

“Just write. You may end up scrapping it but it will focus you and mean you keep moving forward”

Debates exist as to whether it’s sensible to write from the beginning, or to wait until later. The “wait until later” team argues that you don’t really know what you need to say in your thesis until you’ve gathered all of your data. But this assumes that all “writing” is “thesis writing”. For me, designating something as “thesis writing” makes it all too easy to obsess over getting it just right. And this is where the “write from the beginning” team comes in: Learning to write is a big part of a PhD. Do free-writing. Blog. Write summaries of the literature. You’ll find them later, and be very grateful (it happened to me quite recently). And a particularly practical way to write from the beginning was included in the third writing reply:

“Document what you did – you won’t remember 3 years later”

This is really important. We’ve all had those moments when we assume we’ll remember something: A recipe in a cookbook, a reference in an article, or, once, where I’d put a particular stone on a pebble beach (I was 5, and very confident of my own memory skills).

Don’t let that happen to your PhD. I recommend having a Scrivener file full of questions and answers, explaining what decisions you’ve made, and why. I started my Q & A file when I was still awaiting data but couldn’t wait to start writing.

And finally…

Two tweets didn’t fall neatly into either “health, wellbeing, and support” or “writing advice”. Rather than try to make them fit into a place where they didn’t belong, I’ve given them their own mini-section.

The only one-word response:


I’m not here to tell you whether or not to do a PhD. Embarking on a PhD is rarely (never?) the only option, so it’s important to think about if it’s what you really want. And like anything in life, a PhD is made up of good parts and bad parts.

To maximise the good parts:

“Be passionate about exploring what you are researching: its a long road and that will keep you going”

This is important. PhDs are fun, they are difficult, they are exhilarating, they are stressful. Studying something that you find fascinating and important is brilliant. Still difficult at times, but brilliant. If you’re not interested in what you’re researching, you may get all the “difficult” bits without the “brilliant” bits.

That’s all of the replies I received, folks. I hope you find it helpful. People are gifting out beautiful words of advice everyday on Twitter – I particularly recommend keeping an eye on #phdchat. If you have any advice of your own, or any questions or comments about the tweets in this post, please let me know in the comments section.


An update…

It appears that the “don’t” tweet was a case of hitting-send-too-soon, and was intended as a much more positive message:

“don’t become your PhD. It can consume your life so take time off to do things you enjoy!”

I’m delighted to hear this, as it means that the tweeter is not deep in the valley of shit (to the best of my knowledge). But for now, I’m going to leave the post as it is. I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to decide that a PhD isn’t for you.

If I could give one piece of advice (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago (when I started writing this post, it was “last week”…), I posed a question on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

You see, I’d already decided what my advice would be, and I was really interested to hear what other people thought. I had more replies than I expected! Thank you @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses.

Answers fell into two main categories:
1) Health, wellbeing, and support
2) Writing advice

In this post, I’ll share the health, wellbeing, and support replies. Why? If years of watching Neighbours taught me anything, it’s that people love a cliffhanger. No, really it’s just that it’d be far too long a post. I’ll share the writing advice in a later post.

Health, wellbeing, and support

In the competitive world of academia, it often seems like working all hours is a badge of honour. Indeed, of those who do work constantly, it seems a further boast to not be achieving what was hoped for. PhD stress duelling is no joke. As such, I was greatly encouraged to read tweets advising new students to take care of themselves:

“Remember to put yourself first. You can’t finish the PhD if you’re not well – in all realms”

“don’t work weekends. Time off is just as important as time in the office/lab.”

Heed these tweets. You can exist without your PhD, but it cannot exist without you. Be kind to yourself. If you consistently overwork yourself, you will end up having a longer, more difficult recovery than if you treat yourself well throughout the PhD. Yes, this may seem unnatural, in the face of the Great Postgraduate Stress Competition (GPGSC?!), but it is better for you.

Equally pleasing were tweets recommending that students develop a good support network:

“Find someone that you can talk to when you are ‘down’ . If possible someone in the same situation”

“Make & Keep phd & non-phd friends. Make time for them. This will keep you sane(r)”

A PhD can be lonely at times. Those not doing a PhD can sympathise, but may not understand, and it can seem hard to discuss successes and failures with someone in the same position as you.
But try. I’ve been delighted by friends’ and peers’ responses to both.
The final tweet in this section embodies one of my life philosophies:

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help: the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked.”

I have always been THAT PERSON, academically and socially. I really like to understand things, and would much rather ask the question than nod along and be caught out later. I was new to Clinical Psychology when I started my PhD, but this just gave me a reason to voice the questions that everyone else seemed to be wondering. It was easy to be the “stupid” one, because there were lower expectations for me.

Do you have any advice for those who may be starting their PhDs? Let me know in the comments section, or on Twitter (I’m @ellenspaeth). Happy researching and writing!

Wrenching writing and difficult decisions

I had a realisation this morning, when I was sipping on coffee and redrafting the methods section of my paper. It’s something I’ve known for years, but it had never made its way into conscious thought until today.

I realised why I actively enjoy writing first drafts, and like each subsequent phase a little bit less.

It is because writing is essentially a continual process of making decisions.

In your first draft, if you can switch off your inner editor, you don’t need to make many decisions. This must be why I love free writing – it’s a way to get my ideas on the screen without any judgement of what comes out. There are no decisions that need to be made.

Each draft that follows embodies a series of decisions: Should this be included? Is this the most concise way to phrase my idea? Do I need a reference to back this up? Is this structure good? Do I need to explain this word? Am I repeating myself too much?

With the early drafts, you can reassure yourself by saying “oh, I’ll come back to this in my next draft. It doesn’t need to be perfect now.” And while I agree that fixating on one thing to the detriment of the rest of a piece of work is foolish, at some point you are going to have to answer these questions. You are going to have to make some final decisions.

Let’s be clear. I am not the voice of a woman who has everything figured out. I am a woman who finds the redrafting process anxiety-provoking. At the moment, I get through it by working hard, moving forward, and telling myself that I’ll come back and reconsider the decisions I’ve made at a later date. I am fully aware that at some point I am going to have to stop and call it “good enough”.

But our whole academic lives, we’ve been taught how to critically evaluate work by some of the leaders in our field. How can we consider our own work “good enough” by those standards? Perhaps there’s another post in that.

I do think that being aware that I am constantly making decisions is helpful. With parts of my thesis, I am getting to the point where I need to say “I have to make a proper decision on this now”. Or perhaps I should take the other approach: Trick my brain into thinking it’ll have the chance for an infinite number of “final” redrafts, and then, out of the blue, tell it that time is up.

What do you think? Do you have difficulty wrestling with writing decisions? Are you finding it easy to visualise your finished thesis, or do you feel like there are too many decisions to make between this point and submission? How do you know when to make the hard decisions, and call it finished? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

My study ‘spot’: Exclusion criteria for thesis writing

Earlier in August, Cally Guerin penned an interesting post about where she works best. I’d been thinking of writing something about my working environment, so I was delighted to read her post.

The title of this post is a (slightly adapted) reference to The Big Bang Theory, where one character – Sheldon Cooper – is notably possessive over one seat in his flat. It’s the perfect seat for him. It is where he rests, and is very different to where he works (his desk). The concept of eating at his desk or working in his ‘spot’ is completely alien to him.

The ‘spot’ I refer to in the title is my equivalent of Sheldon’s desk, which may be confusing. It’s where I work, but it’s not a desk. Honestly, I don’t work well at desks.

Rather than talking about where I do study well, it works better to describe where I don’t work well. Call these exclusion criteria, if you will…

  1. Somewhere without a power source for my Macbook
  2. At a desk
  3. Somewhere extremely noisy (but much worse is the following…)
  4. Somewhere with lots of people, but total silence
  5. Somewhere where I am likely to be interrupted

So what do we have there? The power source criterion is fairly self-explanatory. I work well at a computer, and I need it to stay alive. The desk thing is just me – I have always loved to work on a sofa. Cross legged, with a computer on my lap, is perfect. High noise levels aren’t really a problem for me, unless they’re really high. But low noise levels drive me crazy. If I’m alone, that’s fine. But if there are lots of people around, ALL BEING QUIET, that pushes some buttons for me. Mainly, I think it’s because I’m happiest in casual situations, where I don’t have to worry about doing something wrong. The fear of coughing, or having to unzip a bag is too great for me to work well in these situations. And as for the interruption – I expect this is common to most people doing jobs that require sustained thought.

Where can I work? Not the library, that violates criteria 4 and 2. Not our school computer lab (we don’t have offices), as that’s criterion 4 out of the window. Cafes are my friend. As is my study at home.

I’m lucky enough to have a study (or as I like to call it, a room with a sofa, a piano, and lots of books I have yet to read. There’s not even a desk anymore). And it is the perfect place to work. No-one interrupts me (I’m working with my other half on that one). There’s no oppressive silence. I have, like, 8 power points. And there’s a beautiful, comfy sofa.

Even better (this is a plus), I have an extra computer set up, connected to an external monitor, where I often play music or episodes of TV shows (this helps me focus more than almost anything else – a post on this will appear at a later date).

So that is my ‘spot’.

What are your exclusion criteria for a productive working environment? Have you found your study spot? Let me know in the comments!