Self-belief: essential PhD armour

John Mayer wrote a song a while back called ‘Belief’, and one line in this song stayed with me: ‘Belief is a beautiful armour’. I have been thinking about this notion of armour and belief in one’s self and research as an important piece of PhD (and post-PhD) armour a lot recently. This thinking is related to my last post on why I can’t seem to write the papers that need to be written. I need to go back a step or two to explain.

I spent quite a lot of time during my PhD feeling inadequate. I wondered, a lot, whether my research was important or worthwhile enough to entice others to read it. I believed (still do) in my research – I would be unable to keep doing it if I did not believe in what I was doing; but I when I listened to what my PhD colleagues were researching, and compared my research to theirs, I often found it wanting. My questions all felt smaller, less significant, less worthy of attention. This lack of self-belief was not constant. When things were going well and the ideas were flowing, I believed very strongly in the validity and importance of my research, and in myself as a writer. But not always.

I think that one of the reasons I am struggling to write now is that, even though I now have my degree, I still lack more constant self-belief – more specifically, I lack consistent belief in the importance, necessity or readability of my research. I seriously do wonder, sometimes, why anyone would want to read what I am thinking about, and I do fear the negative critique and rejection that in darker moments I feel sure will come when I put my work out there and send it to journals. I also seriously wonder if my research is important, or interesting to anyone other than me and a small group of people who have heard me speak about it and seem interested in it too. I’m not finding a cure for cancer or changing policy or developing a system for agrarian development that will change the way poor people access land, for example. I went to graduation last week and heard the citations for PhD candidates that were focused on research they had done that has the ability to change government policy, and to make a real difference in the lives of children, the poor and the politically disenfranchised. I felt inadequate all over again. I feel like my research is so small in comparison. And this lack of self-belief is now standing in my way and making it hard for me to write these papers and send them to journals for consideration.

I am sure I am not alone. I think self-doubt, worry, feelings of inadequacy and all the inner turmoil of that are part of a PhD journey. During my PhD and now, I find that some of what I read bolsters me and connects so well with my research that I know what I am writing will find an interested audience and contribute to my field; but some of what I read fills me with doubt – has what I am saying not already been said? Have I anything to add? Very few of us in the social sciences get to coin new concepts, or find a rare beetle we can name after ourselves. We are often extending, critiquing or updating the work and arguments of others. This is important research work, though, and it’s important to keep sight of that. Writing for publication is about conversations – connecting our research with the research of others, adding new perspectives, different data, alternative theoretical and analytical frameworks to extend, challenge and change the way we think about the fields in which we work. I tell myself this – what I am doing is joining the conversation, and my voice is strong, and should be heard. But I have to believe that.

We need armour when we take on big projects like a PhD – projects that will change us and challenge us; that are personal as well as professional. Our ideas will be questioned – this is an essential part of the process – and often we will have to reject some of our earlier thoughts, rethink things, make serious revisions. This writing and revising process can challenge our belief in ourselves and our ability to write. We need belief in ourselves and in our research and writing – this is essential armour for any PhD student. This self-belief is not always easy to come by; it can elude us when we most need it. I am not sure I can tell myself all the time that my research is valuable, and that my writing is good, and believe it. But I can try. I can work on being the positive voice in my head that tells myself to keep going and keep writing; I can seek out writing friends who will read my work and give me feedback that encourages me and also improves my writing; I can cover myself in self-belief as armour against the doubt and the worry, and write. Write on and know that, eventually, the words will come and the papers will be written.

Turning procrastination into productivity

I am procrastinating. About writing. Again. I do this a lot, and I don’t really know why. I actually like writing. I like feeling the stretching in my brain as I make connections and think through my ideas and revise and rewrite and fiddle. This, for me, is mostly something I really enjoy doing. But, right now, I just can’t seem to make myself do it. So, I procrastinate and I muck about with other, related, things like finding new papers to download that I may or may not make time to read, or writing lists of ideas I have for papers I want to write (but am plainly not writing). This makes me feel productive, but only to a point and then I start to feel stuck, impotent and un-able. This was a frequent feature of my life during the PhD too. So, I am currently wondering how to jump-start my writing engine, and turn all this (very vaguely) productive procrastination into proper productive writing and thinking. How, indeed?

One of the things I am battling with is time. I know, right? Time. There is never enough of it, and yet there is actually always some time if you make it. I got so mad during my PhD with someone who said ‘If you really wanted to do it, you would make time for it’. How smug and annoying I thought they were. ‘I am doing it, I do really want to do it, but I have a full-time job and kids and a husband and LIFE – I just don’t have time to make!’ (This was my furiously uttered retort, in my head). However, on reflection, I think there was a tough kernel of truth in what that person was saying. We all, everyday, make choices about what we do with our time. We sometimes make these choices rather unconsciously, going along with the tide of the day and following the ‘to dos’ on our lists; sometimes we are a lot more conscious about what we choose to do, when and why. However, either way, choices are made. Right now I am writing this blog, when I should be writing a comprehensive report that was due last week. I could write this post tonight, but I am doing it now. This is a conscious, productive procrastination move for me. I am not on Facebook tracking down a random ex-friend from high school, so I’m not procrastinating on nonsense (so I do feel a bit virtuous). But I am putting off the writing which I really ought to and need to be doing. Why?

This is the big question, isn’t it? Why do we do this? Why am I not writing this paper, when I have plotted it out, I have the data, the literature, the conclusions – all the pieces I need? Why did I take so long to write my chapters, especially the earlier ones, when I had most of what I needed to get started? Why is it so much easier to be writing this post than writing that report or the paper(s)? For me, it’s two things. The first is the level of cognitive demand. Writing this post is way easier than writing that report, because in order to write the blogpost I just need to be a little bit inspired with an idea and then have fun with it. I can’t (and hopefully won’t) write complete nonsense, but I don’t have to be so rigorous and cautious in my writing. The report is a different kettle of fish. Several thousand words longer and far more detailed and demanding, as I have to do some reading and will probably have to write a few drafts. [By the end of the day ideally (it’s 11.09am now).] I think the same was true when I was writing the PhD chapters. The cognitive demand was so much greater for those chapters than for the many other smaller tasks and pieces of writing I had to do in my job that I almost always chose to procrastinate, albeit quite productively, by doing everything other than getting to my thesis writing.

The other thing is something I have written about before: headspace. I find that I actually can make the physical time to read and write – and I’m doing okay with the reading this week so far – but I am struggling to clear space in my head to do the reading and thinking proper justice, so that I can turn this into writing in the form of these papers that are percolating away inside my head. By doing other useful things, though, I find that I am really limiting my potential productive writing time because I am filling up that headspace. So here, procrastination really stops being so productive and becomes a stumbling block for me instead. I think this is where that tough kernel of truth comes back to haunt me. I can make lots of excuses, especially when there is a job and a family and LIFE to account for, about why I  cannot be as productive as I know I need to be to make progress with my writing. We can all do this. But, the hard truth is that until I can be tough with myself, say no to these other things that may need to be done but may well be able to wait (like this post which I could have written tonight), I am not going to turn all of this procrastination into something more productive in terms of my writing. For me, it comes down to reorganising the ‘to do’ list with those red and green pens, saying something firm yet encouraging to my tired brain, and facing up to the challenge of the cognitive and headspace demands by just getting stuck in. I’m going to use these words to spur me on:

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Referencing, plagiarism and building credibility

Plagiarism is a big deal in academia. As students we are told often what a terrible thing it is to plagiarise the work or ideas of others, and that if we do plagiarise we could face serious penalties. Academics have lost jobs, status and reputations over plagiarism – in South Africa there was a famous case in 2007 of ‘Chippy’ Shaik having his PhD degree rescinded as a result of allegedly plagiarising 2/3 of it, and in 2013, Dr Jane Goodall was accused of lifting several passages verbatim or near verbatim from other sources in a book that is scheduled to appear this year. Even outside of academia, cases of plagiarism are taken very seriously – US Senator Rand Paul and Transformers actor Shia Lebouf have both been accused of using the words and ideas of others and passing them off as their own without crediting the original sources.

Plagiarism is not just copying verbatim the words or ideas of others and passing them off as your own. Even when you summarise, paraphrase or incorporate the ideas of others in your own work without citing the original source, you are regarded as a plagiarist. Plagiarism is generally defined as the intentional or reckless use of the words and ideas of others, rather than unintentional or accidental actions, but the burden of proof about intentions is often on the student – how do you show that, if you did plagiarise, you did so accidentally rather than on purpose? One way you could do this is by showing your ‘paper trail’ – all your notes, and reference lists and planning that went into your writing. But this is a hassle, and it’s by far easier to do what you can to avoid plagiarism altogether by keeping track of all your source material, and by working hard on developing your own voice in your writing.

But, for a PhD student, this is not as simple as it may sound for a couple of reasons. The first, big reason, is that as PhD students we read a lot. We read and read and read, we make a lot of notes, and after a while these ideas become part of our own ideas, and the theory we are influenced by and that ‘gels’ with the way we see our research or the world around us really influences how we think. It starts to become difficult to tell our own ideas pre-reading apart from our ideas post-reading. We can, after a while, write 3 or 4 or 5 pages of a ‘literature review’ without even needing to consult a reference. This is how well you end up knowing your stuff. This is a good thing – as a PhD student you need to know your stuff that well. But, the downside is that you have to be really careful not to plagiarise. Which ideas are yours and which are the ideas of other authors and researchers whose work has influenced your own? Which ideas do you have to reference and which ones can you claim as your own?

The second, connected reason, is that avoiding plagiarism and being an honest and ethical writer and researcher is about more than just including references in the text and in a bibliography. If you copy your whole literature review piece by piece and reference it perfectly, you really are still committing a form of plagiarism, and you’re not doing your own research either. Being an honest and ethical writer and researcher requires an understanding of knowledge, and how it is built, debated, challenged and changed in academic communities of practice and research. We build when we research and write – we build on the ideas of others, on their research, on their data, on their methodologies and on their words. We join conversations, and we debate, challenge, dispute, agree and slowly establish our own voice and our own ideas, claims and positions which we hope (and fear) that others will challenge us on. So, even if the idea is also yours (and the writers’ you are citing), referencing well does more than just help you to avoid plagiarism; it helps you to establish the credibility of your voice, your ideas and your developing argument. This is essential for writing a credible and acceptable dissertation, and for ensuring that you do actually get full credit for your own ideas and arguments. If you reference poorly, lose sources and get sloppy, you risk being accused of plagiarism, you risk being discredited and you risk shortchanging yourself on your own intellectual development and growth.

I used two simple tools to help me: One was the P(oint), E(vidence), E(xplanation) paragraph writing structure, which helped me to ensure that I started and ended each paragraph with my own ‘voice’ and included accurately cited and referenced ‘Evidence’ to support my ‘Points’ and ‘Explanation’. As a tool it can be adapted and played with and it really works. The other was a bit techno-backwards, but I kept a manual list in separate file of all the sources I was using as I wrote. I cross-checked this regularly. I had it open whenever I was working on part of a chapter and I copied across the in-text references either at the end of a section or as I wrote, depending on how well or smoothly the writing was going. I regularly went into this list and filled in all the information I needed, and reorganised, cut and added as I went. I know I could have used Refworks, Endnote, Mendeley or other similar tools, but I actually found the effort of learning to use these tools effectively too much for my already-taxed brain. I trusted my system, and that gave me peace of mind. (I don’t think I left out any references, but frankly I am not going back to find out!)

Any tool you use, whether un-technological one like mine or more automated like Refworks etc, is only as good as the person using it. These tools can’t do your writing for you, or make sure you don’t plagiarise or leave references out of your reference list (or leave too many in after chapters get cut). They can’t do the work of developing your voice. But, learning to use particular tools, whichever ones work for you, can save you a lot of time and reduce your anxiety about keeping track of your sources as your PhD progresses. And using these tools to help you reference accurately can also help you show your reader your emerging voice that much more clearly as you write.

Keeping track of your study in space and time

I have been asked to speak to doctoral students at the end of the month at a ‘Doc week’ attached to the PhD programme I have graduated from, where we all come together from different parts of the country to attend seminars, share our progress, meet with supervisors etc. These weeks were a big and important part of my own journey. I am going to be talking about my research journey, focusing in on three areas that were tricky for me, and sharing ‘tools’ that have been helpful. So, I thought I’d do a dry run with one of these tools here: the ‘GPS tool’ to help you keep track of your study in space and time, and to help you stay motivated.

GPS – or global positioning systems – as most people know use latitude and longitude to give exact coordinates of different locations or places around the world. If you have these coordinates and a GPS device or very precise map, you can find your way no matter where you are (in theory at least). I am thinking that this idea could be useful for finding or keeping track of your PhD over time and in space. PhDs can be slippery things, in part or whole, and having tools to help you manage the process and work out not just where you are now but where you have come from and where you are going to can be really helpful. So, I’m going to call this one the ‘GPS tool’ and like all tools, it can be adapted for specific use in your own context.



It’s a really simple idea and it probably works best if you try and check in on your study’s GPS coordinates regularly, like once a quarter or every 6 months. If you check in too frequently, especially in the first year when things seem to be moving more slowly than they do in the final year, you may not feel like you are making very much progress and you may become disheartened. If you check in too infrequently, though, the tool may not be that effective because you may have trouble remembering key details. I think checking in every 3 or 4 months is probably ideal. The idea is to use a research or similar kind of journal, by hand or electronically, and write to yourself about: 1) where you started from at the beginning of the period you are tracking (e.g., January – have draft 1 of theory chapter and interview schedules; written to people re interviews and set them up); 2) where you are right now (e.g. March – conducted 4 interviews, transcribed data from 2, have generated data from documents and observations; have started methodology chapter – 10 pages); and 3) where you plan to go between now and the next check-in (e.g. by May finish interview transcriptions, capture field notes, write further three sections of methodology on data generation). Hopefully, this will show you that you have made progress, even if parts of the period you are tracking have involved PhD neglect and feelings of guilt about this; it will also hopefully give you a more manageable ‘to do’ list on the PhD for the next few months.

Tracking your study’s GPS coordinates at regular(ish) intervals can be helpful in a few ways: it can show you that you are indeed moving, and (hopefully) in the rights kinds of directions; it can motivate you to keep moving; it can give you helpful information to bring into meetings with your supervisor/s, especially if you feel you are going to slowly or are worried that you’ve wandered off track; it can also possibly form part of the narrative you tell your readers about how you have done your study, and could be part of your language of description. The trick, though, apart from keeping these GPS coordinates in one place, and checking in regularly, is being honest with yourself. I battle with this – I don’t want to look bad, even in front of me, and so I often make things seem less dire or unproductive than they (too often) are. If we lie to ourselves about what we’re up to with our PhDs (or not up to), we risk derailing ourselves further.

I find it really tough to make long terms plans, even though I made a work plan for a whole year in 2013. I battle to stick to these and I can’t anticipate all the things that will happen or go wrong, or get in my way. Planning for 3 months seems a lot more do-able, and may well make it easier to be honest without the fear of looking bad.  I think I am going to make this tool a more conscious part of my own forward journey with my postdoctoral writing, starting today. Do any of you have tools like this that help you stay or get back on track?

Scribble, scribble … toil and gain?

I am a scribbler. I have piles of notebooks and notepads and bits of paper in folders and scraps of files on my PC full of notes and scribbles and ideas (in various stages of being worked through). This is not really a super-efficient system, because I have too many ideas and notes in too many places, but they are somewhat thematised and organised – it’s a work in progress. The point I want to make in this post has to do with the value of the scribbles, not the filing of these (although we’ll get to that).

When you undertake something like a PhD, you envision from the beginning that final, formal, written meisterwerk you will toil and toil and toil over for at least three years of your life. You think a lot about producing all those words, and this produces a lot of anxiety and also a real feeling of anticipation. A LOT of different kinds of thinking, reading and writing have to go into producing that meisterwerk. It follows that you need different places to do these kinds of reading, thinking and writing. I keep reading and research journals, and I read and write at my desk, on the couch (often results in naps, though), and also in the car on the way to work (often on my phone), or in the garden on a sunny day. I try to make it less like a chore, although this is not always possible. I think you need to see value in doing small, informal, scribbly writing as well as more formal, ‘this goes into the thesis’ forms of writing. You need to see all of the small bits of thinking and ‘percolating’ (my friend Deb’s very apt term) that you do as moving you forward, but it can be hard to do this if you don’t keep track of all of this steady progress.

research journal inside

I think that PhD students put a lot of pressure on themselves to produce pages of formal writing that they can send to their supervisor, to indicate progress and on which to receive feedback and often tend to feel like unless the writing or reading they are doing is ending up in The Thesis, it’s not all that valuable. I’d like to challenge this. I did this to myself, especially in the beginning of my PhD. I made loads of notes, very formally, and kept trying to write chapters way before I was ready to. After I learnt to keep a research journal, I relaxed a little, and started to enjoy scribbling bits and pieces of ideas and thinking, connecting dots or creating new dots to think about. I still worried a lot about producing the formal words, but I could see that the scribbling was slowly but surely moving me forward, especially in weeks where an hour of scribbling the whole week was all I could manage. There were a lot of weeks like this, and if I had not been scribbling I would not have been doing much of anything except searching databases and saving new papers I was not getting around to reading (I’m not sure this counts as PhD work, really).

There has to be a balance between formal and informal academic work – I don’t think you can write a whole thesis in scribbles (sadly). You need to move between informal and formal forms of writing and thinking – the PhD dissertation is a very sophisticated form of academic writing and thinking, and requires a lot of its writer. But, I suppose I am arguing for more value to be placed on the informal kinds of thinking, reading and writing that you can do rather than seeing these as silly, or less worthy of your time. Without these initial and ongoing forays into the scribbles, drawings and informal ramblings, you may try to rush towards doing the formal, academic, this-goes-into-the-thesis writing before you are ready. If you do, this may well reflect in the feedback you receive, and this could end up being demotivating or really hurtful and difficult to deal with.

I think the bottom line, annoying and trite as this may well sound, is that writing and everything that goes into making writing possible is a process, and it unfolds in pieces over time, sometimes smoothly and sometimes in a very bumpy fashion. If we can try to hold onto the process and trust that the product in the form of the meisterwerk will come, we can probably find it easier to indulge the scribbling and drawing and less formal work that can push our thinking forward, can provide more creative outlets for us to do our academic work, and can make for very interesting reading when the process is at an end. So, scribble, scribble, scribble – the toil will be worth the trouble ;).