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…


Learning how to learn

Let’s talk about learning.

As part of an Online Tutoring course I’m doing at work, I’ve been reading an article by a postgraduate student about their experiences of writing a critical review. The article discusses the author’s struggles to figure out what was expected, and how to meet those expectations.

Sometimes, when studying (and elsewhere), it seems that figuring things out by your self is viewed as the most worthy way to do things. I don’t mean literature – I’m not sure that anyone would argue against getting up to date with existing research on a subject before conducting your own experiments. I mean the process of learning.

Learning is a continual process. I don’t think for a moment that learning is something that is done once, and repeated a couple of times to hammer a point home. Learning is constant.

Why on earth don’t we spend more time teaching people how to learn? Not in a strict, dictatorial way. More in a “teach people how to teach themselves” sort of way. I feel that this is something that should be built into any situation where the main objective is to learn (in this case, a PhD). Before we can get on with learning about our subject, we need to learn how to learn.

Certain things just seemed to be assumed knowledge. There isn’t a list of what these are. It’s just knowledge that you are supposed to have gathered at some point. Let’s just think about the processes of reading and writing, and what we’re expected to know, or to develop.

Reading: How to…

  • Search for what you need to find out
  • Get hold of the article or book
  • Take notes
  • Read for maximum efficiency
  • Know whether an article will be relevant
  • Interpret an article critically
  • Understand what reported stastics mean
  • Use what you’ve learned in your own research
  • Use software to keep track of everything you’ve read, and everything you intend to read

Writing: How to…

  • Know where to start
  • Write drafts
  • Develop your own academic style/voice
  • Proof-read
  • Structure your thoughts
  • Structure your thesis!
  • Know which word processing software to use
  • Format your document in accordance with university guidelines
  • Manage your references

That’s nowhere near a comprehensive list, and it only starts to cover reading and writing. There are also less tangible things such as time management, which I’ve talked about in some other posts. Yes, expectations will differ between country, university, and even department, but these are general things that many PhD students will need to know. To put this post in context, I’m a social science student at a UK university. And we do have courses on some of these things.

But I want to think bigger. Perhaps each university could write one, giant, comprehensive list of what students are expected to know. Even the tiny things, like how to logon to the university computers. And how they can learn to do each of these things. These could be tailored by each school, or department. And then each individual student could look at the list, and figure out what they still need to learn.

Then we could all make our own learning plan at the beginning of our PhDs. We could split it down into chunks. There would be a lot of chunks. But it’d be easier to know where you stood. There’d be a template for your learning.

What do you think? Is the process of figuring out “how to learn” integral to the PhD journey? Is the sense of achievement from learning greater if it’s done from scratch (a bit like cooking)?. Does getting support in these areas feel like “cheating”? I’d argue “no”, but I’d love to hear any views on the matter. Let me know in the comments section.

Is your PhD like Skyrim?

Last week, a good friend of mine commented that she hadn’t seen any blog posts from me in a while. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind. What with a PhD and a part-time job, I’ve been very busy recently and this blog has suffered.

Since my last post, I’ve almost completed a major documentation-writing project at my part-time job, I’ve planned and conducted a pilot, written up that pilot, and planned a larger, proof-of-concept study. I’ve also written a guest post for PhD2Published, summarising my first PhD-as-video-game posts from my blog.

But I haven’t written here. I’ve been waiting for a large, interrupted period of time to really think about what I want to do next on this blog. This mystical period of time has not availed itself to me. Any large periods of time have been spent doing PhD work, cooking, or (let’s be honest) playing Skyrim.

Have you played Skyrim? It’s a roleplaying game, or RPG. I’m playing it on my laptop, via Steam, using an xbox 360 controller, although you can also play it on xbox 360. It is utterly addictive. In fact, it is a magnificent illustration of a motivating game that just makes you come back for more. It is almost exactly what I am trying to replicate in my PhD working methods (although there would be a great danger of becoming a workaholic…). I probably shouldn’t share how many hours I’ve spent playing this game in the past 2 months.

I’d like to devote a few blog posts to some similarities between academic work and Skyrim. At the moment, this idea is very much in the formative stages. Currently, I’m considering a post on dragons, how they can upset your gameplay, and how you can work them to your academic advantage; a post on skill training, and the challenges of deciding where to focus your time and energy; and a post on time, effort, and achievement, and on how one does not necessarily equal the other.

I’ll try to write these posts in a way that will be informative and engaging to people who have, and people who haven’t, played Skyrim. Is there anything in particular that you would like to see covered in these posts? Would you like to make your PhD more like Skyrim? Do you have any tips? Let me know in the comments section below.

Ladder 1 Rung 3: Reviewing tasks

In this “ladder” (or series) of blog posts, I’m talking about how I’m trying to make my PhD more like a video game. I have always responded well to structured, achievable tasks, and the lack of these has been really difficult for me during my PhD so far.

This ladder is looking at the short bursts of achievement that video games can give you. As such, the focus is identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks. There are 3 “rungs” (or steps) to the ladder, with one blog post for each rung.

In the first rung, I talked about how to identify tasks using to do lists and free writing.

The second rung covered how to schedule those tasks, whether using a pad of paper, a diary or calendar, or a task management app like Producteev.

In this, the third rung, I’ll be discussing how to review your progress with the tasks you set.

Please note…

After the first and second rungs (where you’ll have identified and scheduled your tasks), you need to actually attempt the tasks you’ve set. I would usually set tasks for one week, and set a time at the end of the week to review the past week and identify and schedule tasks for the next week.

So to make full use of this post, it’s a good idea if you’ve already identified, scheduled, and attempted your first set of tasks (say, a week’s worth).


  1. Do you have your list of tasks, and the times you scheduled them for? I tend to have these in a file in Scrivener from when I was identifying and scheduling the tasks.
  2. Has it been a week (or however long you scheduled your tasks for) since you scheduled those tasks?
  3. Do you have a way of writing things down? I use Scrivener for this too, because it means that it’s easy for me to have my “identify” and “review” files open next to each other using “split view”, and refer to both

Let’s go!

Use whatever method you’ve chosen (pad of paper, Word, Open Office, Scrivener…) to write words to make three headings

  1. Tasks you completed
  2. Tasks you started but didn’t finish
  3. Tasks you didn’t start

For each of the tasks you’d identified and scheduled for the week, choose which heading fits best. Then, write the task under that heading with a gap between each task (you’ll be writing more in those gaps).

Have you done that for all of your tasks?

Next, under each task write:

  1. A sentence or two about the task (when you did it, whether you encountered any problems, what you found or achieved)
  2. Why you think you managed to/didn’t manage to complete it.

For me, point 2 is the most important part of this rung, and one of the most important parts of the whole ladder.

Look at your reasons for completion or lack thereof. Are there any themes within the headings? Write them down!

To give you an idea, I’m going to share some of the patterns from my first review session.

1) Tasks you completed

Things tended to get done if they were:

  • Manageable
  • Specific
  • Scheduled
  • Urgent

In my first week (and in following weeks), most of my completed tasks were done during a writing session with a friend. That’s one session in the week. If this working pattern sounds familiar to you, I highly recommend this blog post from the Thesis Whisperer.

It’s easy to view the rest of the week as a failure, or write-off, but instead I’m trying to try and focus on the achievement of that one very productive session, and to figure out how to replicate it

2) Tasks you started, but didn’t finish

This mainly happened with tasks where the criteria for completion were unclear.  I started using the “measure for success” heading when identifying tasks as a way of combatting this problem.

3) Tasks you didn’t start

With me, these were mostly because I was ill or tired, or other things came up. “Tasks I didn’t start” seemed to be due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s also possible to have a high amount of tasks in this list if you overestimated the amount of time you’d have, or underestimated the time it would take you to do the tasks.

Once you’ve done that, think about ways you might replicate the conditions that helped you to complete these tasks. If you’re interested in the idea of improving a situation by embracing the positive rather than banishing the negative, appreciative inquiry is a research approach that draws on this. As my research focuses on improving healthcare, I’m also including this abstract for a paper which uses appreciative inquiry in a healthcare context.

In my first review session, mine were

  1. Set immovable work sessions (this was because my writing-with-friend session was so successful)
  2. Acknowledge when it’s a busy week, and set fewer tasks accordingly
  3. Set specific tasks, and incorporate a “measure for success”
  4. Have contingency plans in place (this and the previous bulletpoint were addressed by adding the “measure for success” and “backup plan” headings in the identification phase)

If you review your tasks each week, and schedule the next batch of tasks at the same time, you’ll start to get a good idea of:

  1. What time of day is best for you
  2. What working environment is best for you
  3. How much time you can devote to these tasks
  4. How long it takes you to get things done
  5. What stops you from getting things done

And that’s the end of this ladder. Well done, you reached the top!

I’d really like to write more posts on improving productivity by taking hints from video games. If you have any requests or ideas, please let me know in the comments section. You can also use the comments section to say nice things, let me know if you’ve found these posts helpful, or if you have any suggestions.