On my first proper post-doc year, and planning for the next

This was supposed to be my final post for 2015, but I decided to give my brain a longer rest that usual at the end of a hectic November, and then suddenly 2015 was over. Thus, it is my first post for 2016, instead.

I’ve been re-reading the last post I published in 2014 – reflections on my first proper post-doc year. It was interesting to read my thoughts on what the year had been like, and what lessons I had hoped to take into the year that has just come to a close. Did I learn them? A few, perhaps – sadly, some of these lessons I am still learning. This post reflects on my first year of a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and what I am still learning about becoming an academic researcher and writer (and what I still probably need to learn in 2016, and beyond).

I started 2015 as I am starting 2016, with many ambitious plans and some deadlines in place while others are more nebulous. I am starting with energy, and excitement about what is ahead, and also trepidation and nerves about workshops I need to organise and people I will have to work with that I do not know well (yet). So I’m keen to get going, and quite happy to get back into bed all at the same time :-). I do hope this is normal – the ambivalence about knowing what work I need to be doing, being excited about it doing it, and also dreading having to do at least some of it.

From marsyberon.com

From marsyberon.com

One lesson I had hoped to learn, and suspect I will spend the rest of my life learning, is to be more realistic and focused in planning my projects. There are two parts to this: one is about carrying over or finishing off projects, and the other is about how many to actually plan for in any given year. I carried over a few projects into 2015 from 2014 that I just ran out of time to get to, so the carry over was not planned and I started the year feeling a little like I was on the back foot. This was frustrating. To try and learn a lesson here and start 2016 on a better footing, I planned my carry overs more consciously. I am working on a paper due at the end of the month, and one due next month, so I am carrying these. I am also halfway through a two-year research project that forms the basis of my post-doc fellowship, so obviously I am carrying this too. But here is what I feel I am finally learning: to plan 6 months ahead with writing projects, and to be a little more realistic about how long it actually takes to research and write a good paper (nevermind the reviewing period). If you plan at least 6 months ahead, you can avoid unexpected carry overs that can drag on into the new year and set you back on your planned-for progress.

The second part of this is more tricky. I find I am finally getting ready to move on from my PhD research to expand into a longer-term research plan that will stretch me, and require new fieldwork, new theory and hopefully new research partners. So, I have many, many ideas for this research, and for papers and also a book that I really want to write. I have, really, too many ideas. I know that I can’t, and don’t have to, write them all in the next two years. But I want to. I want to write, like, 3 papers a month, and a book by December, and generate new data and code and organise all that data, and go to conferences and have a life. I know, right? It’s madness. I really battle to be properly realistic about what I want to do, what I need to do and what I actually can do. I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I am trying to plan for the year on three levels: from now until March; from now until June, and from now until December. I hope this planning will help to curb my madcap plans to do all the papers and research now.

To help with part two a little more practically, I took my own advice in 2015, and made a work plan that I checked in with periodically and updated. It helped that I was required to write a narrative of my progress for each quarter as part of my fellowship admin, because these formed the basis of regular check-ins which encouraged me when I felt like I was making no real progress, and also helped me to plan for the coming quarter a little more realistically in terms of the time available to me and how much I had managed to do in the previous quarter with the same amount of time. This practice will be part of my research programme for this year, but is something I’ll take forward after the post-doc. I also keep a running log of the whole year, and to this I am adding a mid-level that covers just 6 months, so that I really can stay on track with myself and my plans. This is also important considering that I am working with other authors  and lecturers this year, and we all need to stay on the same page in terms of goals and timelines.

Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong; the best laid plans of researchers and writers are subject to the same. Planning is, I am learning, important; realistic, focused planning that involves accountability and regular updates as life happens around and to you, is everything if you want to stay on the course you have set, and achieve the goals, papers, and satisfaction you have in mind. I wish us all a productive, successful and well-planned 2016!




The relentlessness of writing for publication

This post comes on the eve of AcWriMo – a month long writing event that happens around the world during November every year. In this post I want to address two things I am (and colleagues and friends are) battling with at this time of year: fatigue, and motivation to keep going in the face of the relentlessness of producing writing that can be published or can go into the thesis, and can help us ‘earn our keep’ as doctoral, postdoc or academic scholars.

This relentlessness is often talked about among students, postdocs and academics – producing publishable research on a regular basis is part of playing the game of academia well, and it needs to be played well everywhere. So, this pressure is familiar to all those who aspire to an academic career. But, we don’t always know how to manage the feelings of frustration, fear, fatigue and even rebellion that this relentless hamster-wheel of writing for publication engenders. Many students and academics battle to find support – either professional or personal – and may then opt out or drop out, slowing down to the point where they get stuck, unable to make any meaningful progress. This is a horrible and overwhelming place to be.

But what to do? I am wondering this now. I have been literally forcing myself into my office and to my desk every day, managing about 15 minutes of concentration at a time as I grind out 100 words here and there, half of which I have to edit, delete and rework later. It’s exhausting. And then, when I have managed to finish one paper out of the many that I really need to write, it takes months to get feedback from journals, and further months to make the inevitable revisions, send the paper back, get further feedback and eventually, please god, see the paper in print.

As a young scholar, in career terms, with a slew of ideas but without a slew of actual papers on a conveyor belt of writing, revising, and conceptualising, this hamster-wheel is flattening me more than I would like it to. I have had one paper accepted this year – last week (which, don’t get me wrong, is fabulous), but the other writing I have sent off is languishing in slow journal systems, and one is at a second journal after having been reviewed, revised and then rejected by the first journal. This is all quite difficult, and I feel that this frustrating process is often too invisible to those in our universities who assign us the brownie points, grant funding and recognition. I certainly feel that there is a glibness about doing research and publishing in journals and books that does not quite tally with my experience as an academic researcher and writer.

Perhaps if we can talk, in public spaces, about how difficult it can be to get onto one’s own research and writing conveyor belt as a career-young PhD or postdoctoral scholar, we can create a dialogue with university research offices and bean-counters that enables more acknowledgement of the challenges younger scholars face. This acknowledgement, and a troubling of the often linear-seeming ‘formulas’ that are applied to research and publication funding and support, can then hopefully lead to new, more developmental support opportunities, in the form of research workshops, writing retreats, and/or peer editing partnerships and writing circles, where written work is swapped, shared and worked on with others.

So much of our research and writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is solitary, or done in small writing and research groups. I spend a great deal of time reading, writing and thinking on my own. It is lonely, and the more I am on my own the less brave I feel about seeking out critical feedback and peer review. I really do feel that I need to connect myself more obviously, whether face to face or virtually, with other writers, and I have been trying more consciously to do this over the course of this year especially. I may not always be able to research and write with others, but I can offer to read the work of colleagues and ask them to read mine. Academia.edu, for example, now enables scholars to share drafts of their work with selected followers to enable peer feedback.

AcWriMo is another good opportunity for me to re-engage my tired brain and absent concentration within a supportive and non-judgemental writing community – both face to face and online. I have been invited to join a Facebook page where a diverse and international group of writers can share writing progress and stumbling blocks, and we have a Google spreadsheet where we need to record our writing targets per day or week for the month, so we can hold each other gently accountable. For me, this works well, as I need encouragement, even if I imagine that people around me are egging me on (they may or may not actually be doing so).

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen - www.jasonya.com

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen – http://www.jasonya.com

In the end, I know that (at least for now) I have chosen to play the game of academic research, writing and publication. In spite of this whinge, I do actually see great value in sharing my research, and in having other research shared with me. Perhaps the way onto the conveyor belt, to work my way up to having a series of papers in various stages of development, is to be patient and not expect it all to happen NOW, and to keep plugging away – writing as steadily as I can, even if only 100 words a day, and seeking out peer responses and feedback, both from friends and from journals. Perhaps, as with much in life that challenges us to grow and change, the only way through it, is through it.


Publishing during or after the PhD: putting yourself out there now or later?

Publishing your work is tough. Putting yourself out there in terms of sharing your ideas with your colleagues and peers can be as scary as it is exciting. I think this is especially the case for PhD scholars and early career researchers who are still finding their research niche, their voice, confidence in their ideas and writing. In this post I’d like to try and tease out some of the issues that could be involved in deciding to publish during your PhD, or wait until your thesis is finished to start composing papers and sending them out to journals for consideration.

Let’s start with publishing during the PhD: first, let me say that if you are first-authoring or only-authoring a paper and sending it to a journal before your PhD is completed, I am in awe of you. I could not have done this – not least because I have no idea where I would have found the time. It was more a case of the Fear. Fear that my research had actually already been published in a paper I just had not found and read; Fear that my ideas were actually awful, or derivative, or boring, or just ridiculous. Fear that I would be rejected, and that the self-doubt this would create would spill over into my PhD and derail my progress. I am not sure the Fear will ever really leave me – critical self-doubt may well be part and parcel of being an academic writer keen on growing and developing their ‘crafts’ – but I do have a sense that putting my work out there will get easier, and be more exciting rather than scary on the whole.

If you are publishing during the PhD, there may be a limited range of papers you could write, depending on how far along in your research process you are. If, for example, you have not generated data yet, it would be difficult to write a more empirical paper, where you use your data, analysed, to support your case or claims. You could perhaps write a ‘critical literature review’ (for example, Robotham & Julian, ‘Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature) which reviews the literature you have read that relates specifically to the research you are doing, but that takes a critical stance in terms of pointing to alternatives, gaps and spaces for other kinds of, new, or different research in this research area. You could write a paper exploring part of your own research process, from a methodological point of view, or in terms of critically reflecting on parts of the research process (not a personal narrative, but something that would be of use to other researchers in terms of helping them reflect on their own process too; for example Ortlipp, ‘Keeping and Using Reflective Journals in the Qualitative Research Process’). You could write these papers post-PhD, too, of course – but during the PhD you’d need to think quite carefully about where you are in the process, and what you would want to say to your professional or research community at that point.

If you are publishing post-PhD, the range of papers you could write widens, of course, because you now may well have a large data set you can draw on – either data that made it into the PhD, or data you had to put aside for reasons of focus and scope. You can write probably 2 or 3 empirical papers (for example, Coleman, ‘Incorporating the notion of recontextualisation in academic literacies research: the case of a South African vocational web design and development course’; Mckenna, ‘The intersection between academic literacies and student identities : research in higher education’). These papers would likely be more ‘traditional’ journal articles, in the sense that they will look and sound a lot like many of the papers you will have read and still be reading. Using the papers you are reading as ‘models’ or guides for the papers you want to write, fresh out of a PhD, can be really helpful. You can look at what your peers, colleagues and academic ‘heroes’ are writing about, and connect with their arguments, methodologies, conceptual issues, and join these conversations in a more deliberate and careful way. This is really highly recommended, because joining ongoing conversations in your field deliberately and with a fresh voice, perspective and argument, can increase your chances of eventually publishing your work.

I don’t have any definitive opinion on publishing during or after the PhD: I do wish I had published at least one paper about my PhD research towards the end of the process or just after I completed my thesis, as I think it would have got my post-PhD publishing off to a more confident start. However, I had more than enough to do holding down a job, completing my thesis and taking care of my family and my own health. I think this is probably the case for lots of part-time PhD students – writing for a thesis and writing for an article are different, and when you are consumed with one kind of writing, doing the other as well as this, and as well as everything else, can seem like just one thing too many to do. If, however, you do have an idea for a paper that you think could be fleshed out, and can see how writing the paper would help, rather than hinder, your PhD thinking and writing, I would say ‘go for it!’ Give it a try, ask for help from supervisors and critical friends, and be brave. If you just can’t, for whatever reason, publish until after your PhD is finished, don’t fret that you’re ‘behind’. The point of doing a PhD is to do a PhD, rather than to publish papers (unless your PhD is by or with publications, of course). There will be time, after, to write many papers, and do many revisions of these papers, and move your research into new areas of inquiry as your career grows and changes.

Putting yourself out there as often as possible, in polished and well thought-out papers and chapters, is tough, but I think I’m realising it’s also the only way I’m going to get braver, become a better, more educated thinker and writer, and find the exciting over the scary in publication. When and how you choose to do it is up to you, but whenever and however you do choose to do it, thinking in terms of ‘publish and flourish’ (to paraphrase a colleague) rather than ‘publish or perish’ is a more positive way to begin.

Plotting a paper out of the PhD

I am currently trying to write a second paper based on my PhD research. This is presenting me with two challenges: the first is that I don’t really want to write anything more about the PhD research, and the other is working out how to successfully slice one paper out of such a massive piece of thinking and writing.

To start with challenge one: being, by now, a bit ‘over’ the PhD. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how unproductive last year – post-PhD year 1 – was in terms of writing and sending off papers developed out of my PhD research. In the midst of the year full of work, kids, work, life and more work there seemed to be space to think, and scribble, but no space for the kind of sustained and focused thinking, reading and writing required to produce a solid journal article, or two. That is, I didn’t make any space, largely because that space was constrained in so many ways, and I just didn’t have emotional or mental reserves to draw on after a very intense three-year PhD period. So, the unproductiveness was a time and space thing, for sure. But now that I have time, and space, I am finding that part of the unproductiveness is that writing papers that slice up my big PhD argument into smaller pieces is somewhat unappealing to me. I have already written about all of that, in the thesis. I want to write about new things now – newer insights that have continued to emerge from that research, post-PhD. My supervisor said to me last year that I think I have actually told everyone about my research and its value, but I have not really done so because I have not written it up and sent it to journals, and that work is worth doing as a starting point for writing and thinking about the newer ideas, insights, research, and applications of the theory in my work. She is right about this. But it doesn’t make writing these papers feel more valuable, or more engaging. Do I just plod on and write the damn things, or do I choose a different path here?

This brings me to my second challenge: if I decide to plod on and write the damn things, what do I write about? There are sub-sets of data within the larger set that I can think about focusing in on, to make smaller, simpler arguments that can be made in 6000 words. The theory is now clear enough to me that I can see how to reshape it into just what I need to make one or two separate arguments with smaller sub-sets of data. I can see, basically, at least one or two more papers that I could write. But, in writing the first paper, which I did earlier this year, I found that while it started with my PhD data and theoretical framework, the argument I made was not one I made explicitly in my PhD. The argument was one I made in my feedback to one of the departments I worked with to generate the data – a smaller argument made to illustrate the usefulness of my approach to researching teaching and learning in relation to their departmental (and the university’s) teaching and learning priorities and goals. Thus, the paper was kind of drawn out of the PhD and kind of new. So, while I can see theory, data and even literature I drew on in the PhD as being helpful to me in writing papers, I can’t actually see myself slicing up my PhD argument as successfully: what feels more authentic and less forced is using the theory, methodology, data and some of the relevant literature to make re-tooled and updated arguments that more usefully illustrate to a wider audience the potential value of my research. Therefore, I plod on, but not to just write something, anything, from the PhD. I want to use it as a springboard to make different kinds of arguments that I couldn’t necessarily make in the PhD because, perhaps, they were too small and too focused in, and not ‘big’ enough.

Maybe I am not going about this the ‘right’ way if there even is a right way to publish out of your PhD thesis, particularly the ‘big-book’ kind I wrote. But I am finding that the logics that underpin writing a thesis, and the logics that underpin writing a journal article are quite different, particularly in terms of what counts as making an argument and why you do it. When we publish, we do so to share our research with our peers, to build on research already out there in our field, to challenge that research perhaps, and to offer new ideas, perspectives, methodologies and so on. The arguments we make need to be smaller and tend to develop over time, through several papers and research projects that may well be aligned or cumulative. When we write a PhD thesis we are not doing so with sharing the whole thesis with a large audience in mind. We are, really, writing a very big exam paper because the PhD thesis is something we write to gain a qualification, a title, different status in the academy. We write it to prove that we are capable of doing the kind of research we will then go on to write about in all the papers, chapters, books, articles and so on that we will write over the course of a fairly typical academic career. The argument we make is not big, but there is no sense that we will be writing more than one thesis, so the larger argument tends to be broader in nature than all the smaller sub-arguments that can be implied or subsumed within it. I am finding that it is these sub-arguments – some made in the thesis but several left unmade but hinted at – that I am more able to write about coming out of the PhD. They fit the logic of writing for publication more easily, and these papers, while still a slog not least because I have to add more reading to the already long PhD reading list, feel more authentic, less forced, and more like valuable contributions to my field.

Being the boss of your own time

I have recently changed jobs, in that I have resigned from my job and taken up a postdoctoral fellowship at the university where I recently completed my PhD. This was a big leap for me because it meant quitting my first academic job that came with a pension, a proper income, and an access card that kept working year after year because I was not on contracts that kept ending. It also meant leaving colleagues and work that meant a great deal to me, and it meant a change in my own sense of identity as an academic because I gave up work that gave me a particular academic identity and sense of self.

I’m kind of like a student again, with a more student-y kind of income now (sadly), and a more student-y schedule. This latter bit is kind of brilliant. I don’t have to be at work by 9am, and I don’t have to set an example for the colleagues I used to manage by sitting at my desk all day, being busy and focused, and I don’t have to attend any more meetings unless I really want to. I don’t even have to wear shoes if I don’t want to. I fetch my kids from school, and I help them with their homework. I am really enjoying cooking again because I’m not exhausted at the end of every day having rushed around doing far too many things, and commuting a long way to work and back. It’s pretty cool, I have to say.

But, it’s also a challenge, being the boss of all of my own time like this. I am on my own most days. I have no one leaning over me, making deadlines and calling meetings that I have to attend. Only my husband and kids would know if I stayed in my pyjamas all day. It would be easy to watch decor shows all morning, or make ice-cream, or tidy all the drawers in the house rather than write the papers I am supposed to be writing, and transcribe all the data still sitting waiting for me, and the send in the abstract I am still trying to think up. It would be very easy to just let these sunny days at home drift past me while doing very little of any postdoctoral substance.

This week I am working quite hard. But I have some work I am being paid for that has to be finished, and I have big deadlines that have to met and other people to account to with those, so it’s actually quite easy to leave the TV off, ignore the messy drawers and just focus on this work. But what happens when this work is finished, and I’ve been flat out every day for a couple of weeks and I am a bit meh, tired, overdue for a morning of Downton Abbey in my pyjamas? I am not sure I can give myself that morning without it turning into a few mornings, and then a slippery slope of letting days pass by while being less than productive. I know myself too well, unfortunately, to fool myself into believing that I am good at managing my own time all by myself without deadlines and people to account to.

I think this is probably an issue for anyone who is in the position of being mainly accountable to themselves for how they spend their time, and only a little accountable to others. Unless you have a super-duper work ethic that flies in the face of a whole series of your favourite show on a USB stick waiting to be watched, or inventing a new ice-cream flavour, you may have to have some strategies in place to help you manage all this time effectively. This is especially important if you have other responsibilities that claim some of that time, like fetching kids from school, or caring for someone who needs you to be there for them in some concrete way. Making sure that your work time is protected and managed well so that you get the most of out it, and can then give your attention and time elsewhere without feeling stretched too thin, or worried about all the work you still have to do, is really important.

One of the reasons I took up the postdoc was so that I could spread myself a little less thinly; so that I could work on my research and be academically engaged and productive, but also be here for my kids and focus on myself a little more too. But I am aware that all these other things that are not research and work can become so lovely and enjoyable that they could encroach on the work time, making that smaller and smaller, and making it harder for me to feel less panicked about how much I am not accomplishing, and how much I am not writing. I need a few strategies to help me stay on track too – like a work plan I can adapt and adjust as I go, and that accounts for both work and personal demands on my time; people to be accountable to, like seeking out people to write with so that I am not always writing alone, or speaking more often to my postdoc supervisor so that even if she decides not to bug me, I will at least have a sense that someone is keeping an eye on me. I need to surround myself, even virtually, with critical friends and co-travellers, much as I did during my PhD, so that I don’t feel quite so alone and isolated, and so that I can be pushed a little to do some writing that I can share and ask for feedback on (and so I can stop writing out loud to interrupt all the silence!).

Perhaps, if you are also finding yourself the boss of all of your own time, whether for a few months or a year or more, some of these strategies will help you. Perhaps you have some you can share too? I’d love to hear what they are. Right now, I’m going to try to keep going on as I have begun, making my lists and hiding the TV remote from myself. And I’m going to enjoy this sabbatical from conventional 9-5 working life for as long as I possibly can.