Crossing the PhD ‘ocean’: ideas for smoother sailing

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of doctoral researchers recently about some of the challenges I faced doing my PhD. I called my presentation: The Wide PhD Sea: navigating the research journey and tools for smoother sailing’. I used the metaphor of the PhD as an ocean we, as scholars, have to cross. It is sometimes rough and wild and we feel like Robert Redford’s character in ‘All is Lost‘ – alone on a terrifyingly vast expanse of water with no shore in sight and no radio to call for help (or at least no one answering our mayday calls with any urgency). It is sometimes calm and lovely, with sunlight bouncing off the water and it’s like a picture postcard from the Mediterranean. Parts of the journey can be awful and lonely, and parts can be more serene, and much less lonely. What we need, though, is a good boat to carry us from one side of this PhD ocean to the other in one piece. We also need a funny, friendly, helpful crew to help us sail this boat.

I have, in my head, two boat images borrowed from Cressida Cowell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series which I am currently reading to my boys. These two boat images resonate with me because at the beginning and middle of the PhD I felt like I was sailing the one kind, and towards the end it felt a little more like I was in the other boat.
Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

 

The first image is that of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, a small, oddly constructed wooden rowing boat poorly built by Hiccup during Viking Boat-Building Class. It mostly goes around in circles, and has to be coaxed very gently to go in a straight line. It has a few leaks, and all the other vikings are not convinced it can sail very far or well at all. I sailed across the early section and also middle sections of my own PhD ocean in a version of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, going around in circles from time to time, and coaxing my thinking into straighter lines, even though I wasn’t always sure where the land I was aiming for lay. This was a bumpy time, my boat was often patched up and leaky, and I did  not feel at all confident of my own ability to get across the ocean, or of my little boat’s ability to get me to my destination in one piece.

 

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: 'The Peregrine Falcon' (How to Twist a Dragon's Tale)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: ‘The Peregrine Falcon’ (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale)

The other boat, one I felt I was sailing in towards the end of my journey across the PhD ocean, was ‘The Peregrine Falcon’, a large Viking racing boat, powerful and sleek and guaranteed to get me over or through any unexpected storms or big waves. This is the boat of the Viking chief, and the one all vikings aspire to be sailing in.

At the beginning of the PhD, we are often in the same boat as Fishlegs and Hiccup there – a small, wobbly, patched up but ultimately determined little dinghy, desperately trying to get going with our journey. We are often in danger of wandering into deeper waters we are not ready for yet, because our navigation systems are a bit dodgy (should I be reading this, or should I actually be reading all of that?) We tend to go round in circles a bit trying to work out our arguments and ideas, because our rudder is small and doesn’t always work (is this the theoretical framework? Is that what this means? No, that is what this means. No this. I have it! Oh, no I don’t…).

But, (and here is the first tool I shared with the researchers I spoke to), Hiccup was not alone. He had Fishlegs and they both actually had some skill and ability, even though they didn’t really believe in themselves as much as they could have. The early and middle parts of your PhD journey are tough because often you are plagued by self-doubt, and because you are still acquiring and honing the skills and knowledge you will need to get to your destination. You can’t do this all alone. Create or join a circle of writing friends (find a Fishlegs or two or more): share your writing and thinking, as well as some of your concerns and struggles. You are not going to be alone, and these fellow sailors will have useful advice, encouragement and ideas for you. Sharing your work can be scary, but it is far more scary to keep going all on your own believing the doubts in your head.

The second idea for smoother sailing I found helpful was to kit the boat out with the right equipment (which I worked out as I went along): you need a compass (in many cases, this is a good supervisor and your own research notes and journals, to keep track of your thinking); you also need strong sail, and a rudder and a tall mast (these, in my case, were blogs I read that gave me great advice and ideas; forcing myself to share my work even when I didn’t want to to get a sense of whether I was heading in the right direction or going in circles; and writing kind and encouraging things to myself in my research journal to combat the self-doubt).

The Hopeful Puffin eventually sank in the book, and was fished out of the sea and remade by a more experienced Viking boat builder. Unfortunately, not every PhD student makes it across the ocean in one piece. Not all PhD students move from The Hopeful Puffin into The Peregrine Falcon, a stronger, sleeker and more capable Viking ship, to carry them through the late-middle to end part of their journeys. For me, moving from a sense of sailing the one kind of boat to sailing the other was about using tools and resources at my disposal, and being brave and persistent. I was not always able to make myself share my work with anyone other than my supervisor or close PhD colleagues, but I used their feedback carefully; I often went in circles, especially early on, but my research journal helped me to keep track of my thinking and showed me some direction and sense. It was work, constantly, even when I was just thinking about it all, but all the work does pay off when The Peregrine Falcon docks and all the other Vikings are cheering you on and celebrating your persistence and fortitude.

Look around you at the tools, resources and people you can adapt, use and reach out to; think about which part of the journey you are in, and which kind of boat you are sailing – Who is in your crew? What are the things you are struggling with? Making these things clear to yourself, and taking stock of where you are and where you want to go to next can often help you to find your way to the next stage of your own journey.

Work plans: making them work for you

In my final year of my PhD, 2013, I had  a LOT to do, and not a lot of time, so I made a work plan. I’m not very good at these – I always think I am way more capable than I am and I seem to also think there are about 35 hours in every day and that I can go without 8 hours of sleep every night. It was a very detailed thing, with 4 columns, broken down by month and by task. I even had a column for possible stumbling blocks and things that would hold me up or prevent me from reaching my deadlines. It is actually still stuck up on the back of my office door. I had one at home too – and I highlighted things in different colours as I went – green for something I did, and blue for something that was postponed because of unexpected changes to my timeline. To be honest, the highlighting didn’t really help at all, but it made the work plan look like it was happening which was a good psychological trick :).

It did all happen in the end, because I did finish, but I learned a few things about making workable work plans that may be helpful to those of you who are at the beginning trying to get started, or in the middle or near the end trying to get it finished and submitted.

1. Work out deadlines and move backwards to now. When do you have to hand in your thesis? (Perhaps also make sure your supervisor is on board with your proposed submission date before you start bullying yourself into sticking to it). That’s the big deadline. It’s a good starting place. Then work out how much time you have between now and then in terms of months (weeks can be a bit too narrow, I found – they go by so fast and a month at a time feels like a less alarming way of working). I worked mine out from January to December, so 12 months in 12 blocks on the spreadsheet. 

2. Start with non-PhD commitments (especially for students who work full-time and are parents/carers of others). Work out your other deadlines and commitments that you can’t ignore – what is happening with your family? If you have kids, what are the big things going on in their lives that you need to be part of, like camps or sports tours or concerts etc? This is especially important if you have to help them prepare or be involved in an integral way as opposed to just being there in the audience or on the sidelines. What’s happening at work? What are the big things you have to get done in the time frames you are looking at? Do you have to travel? Does your partner have to travel? Put in all those things and dates. These can go in column 4, if you like, under ‘things that could slow me down this month’.

3. The next thing would be to work out exactly where you are right now. How much have you already written or done in terms of chapter writing/reading/data gathering/analysis etc? Make a note of all of this. Your work plan needs to be realistic, and starting with what you have already done is also a good way of motivating yourself and feeling good about what you have accomplished so far.

4. Then start working out what needs to be done. For example, I had already completed chapter 2’s draft and had as complete a version as I could have. I had set up my case study sites, and I had a bit of the methods chapter. I needed to gather, transcribe and organise all my data in the first semester. Then I needed to reorganise and analyse it, and write the two analysis chapters, revise the theory chapter, finish the methods chapter and write the introduction and conclusion. (I know – I should have had a workplan in 2012!). It was a lot and I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth and height of it all. But working it all out and breaking it down into smaller bits and into months did help to make it seem more manageable.

5. Finally, put it all into a neat table. I had, for example, column one for the month in which I was working, column two for the objectives I needed to achieve (eg., gather data in two case study sites), column three for the activities I was going to need to do to achieve the objectives (e.g., set up interview dates; write fieldnotes in all lectures etc), and column for for ‘things that might slow me down or get in my way’ so that I could go a bit easier on myself if things fell a part a bit. Here’s mine:

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6. Stick it up or keep it in a place where you can refer to it weekly and keep track. Revise as you need to. If you can’t get the interview dates you planned for, you will need to rejig things – flexibility is key, I have found, to workable work plans and to feeling like you are moving forward without having to bully yourself, ask others to bully you or be mean to yourself when things don’t go according to plan. But you also need to be strict if you are going to get to the deadlines in one piece. I procrastinated way too much about the transcription of my video and interview and fieldnote data and I ended up spending some of my study leave doing this, when I should have been doing hard analysis and writing from the get go. This lack of strictness in sticking to my own pretty reasonable workplan meant I had to keep writing the draft when I went back to work and this was very stressful and difficult and I still worry even though I am finished that I rushed my analysis in the end because I cut into that time with tedious things like transcription which should have been finished much earlier in the year.

Plan time off too – work breaks into your workplan where you take a weekend or week off and focus on other parts of your life. You need time every now and then to recharge and rest. As my husband kept saying to me throughout my final year: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint!’

Choosing the right supervisor for you

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

This post is mostly about advice to prospective or starting-out PhD students, and it’s about choosing a supervisor and setting up a mutually respectful and constructive relationship. A PhD supervisor is the most important person in a PhD student’s academic life for the duration of the process:  good supervision can make the experience one of growth, stimulation and mentorship (and even some fun); bad supervision can lead to delays, frustration, blocks to progress and lowered self-esteem. So it’s important to choose the right supervisor and set up a mutually agreeable working relationship.

The first piece of advice was given to me by a few people when I was starting out: choose the supervisor and not the university. At PhD level you need to make a real contribution to knowledge-building in your field, and to do this you need someone who knows your field well, and can guide, advise, challenge and push you to do better research, writing and thinking than you may have done thus far in your career. A university with a great reputation may look like a good option, but who will you work with? Obviously there are compromises to be made here, and you’d need to weigh up your particular case looking at things like how far away your supervisor is, and how you would make the logistics work if they are not in the same city as you (mine is not, for example). But there are great online tools now, like Adobe Connect, Skype and Google Drive that make staying in touch across distances easier. Choosing the supervisor rather than the university tends to pay off if you can set up a good working relationship with them. I made this choice and it has worked out well for me, even though I don’t get to see my supervisor face-to-face more than 2 or 3 times a year. I chose her because she is a key person in the field I am researching and working in and I wanted to draw on her expertise and also connect with her networks of other scholars. This is also something to consider when choosing a supervisor – the world and people beyond your present research and work that they can introduce you to.

The second thing I have learnt a few lessons about is how to set up the relationship so that it works for both of us. I’ve been lucky – and sometimes finding the right supervisor is luck – because my supervisor is kind, open to new ideas and willing to talk about how things are working out along the way. We are similar people, so we tend to get along quite well. I don’t need a lot of contact, but I do need her to be there for me when I have questions or get stuck or write something I need feedback on, and so far it has worked well in that she has been there for me when I need her advice or feedback, and when I have needed to be left alone and not feel pressured she has given me space. I have learned to ask for what I need very clearly, so that there is no confusion or frustration later. I make a list of the questions and send them to her before we meet on Skype if I can, or at least tell her what I’d like to talk about. When I send writing it is with a covering email telling her what I have sent,  at what stage it is and what I need her help with (and also what to ignore or not comment on just yet). This works quite well, because she knows where I am in my process and can give me the feedback and advice I most need at that point and also point me in the right direction with the next steps. I think I really am lucky, though, because I work with other PhD and MA students who have had awful experiences of supervisors who are distant and disengaged and then suddenly appear demanding writing without any warning and then drag their heels with feedback and give unhelpful ‘advice’ that leads to the students getting delayed or even stuck. Supervisors have a lot of power in this relationship, and not all of them use their power for good.

Many supervisors don’t see that supervising is teaching and mentoring, one on one, and miss opportunities to really help their students grow intellectually. Students are the ones who have to deal with the fallout of being poorly supervised and it is really tough, so taking time to do your research and find the most right person you can to work with is important. Do some thinking about where you want to study, as this is a good starting point. Do you need a supervisory relationship that is face-to-face most of the time or can you cope with being remote? Think about your proposed research. Whose names keep coming up in your reading? Where do they work? Could you get into the university they work at, and request to be assigned to them as a student? Go online and search prospective university sites – look at their postgraduate pages and also look for your prospective supervisor candidates. Send a polite, well-thought out email to the person or people you’d really like to work with. Write a short proposal of a couple of pages about the project you want to do and ask them nicely if they’ll read it and think about working with you. Often when you apply to a PhD programme you need to name a prospective supervisor, and it’s essential that you make contact with them before you fill in these forms and name them. If they have a sense of what work you want to do, and have agreed to be named as a prospective supervisor you could have a better chance of getting into the programme and also launching your relationship with said supervisor on the right foot.

I’m sure there are lots of other hints and tips people have, and you could all probably tell a range of both encouraging and scary supervisor stories. These are the top lessons I have learned, and I hope if you are starting out that they are helpful, and that you end up being one of the fortunate students with encouraging and happy-ending stories to tell :-).

The ups and downs of study leave

At the beginning of this year I spent a frantic week applying for a doctoral sabbatical grant from the National Research Foundation here in South Africa. These grants are designed to buy you out of your teaching/academic work for a period of time so that you can focus on and finish your PhD. I heard nothing for months, but I pinned a lot of my hopes and plans on the answer being ‘yes’. Finally, at the end of May the answer came and it was, thank ye gods, a ‘yes’. I started my long-awaited break from work in June, and had 3 months to savour and use wisely. For the first week I just revelled in not having to put ‘work’ clothes on, and the pleasure of ‘commuting’ around the corner and through the kitchen to my desk instead of halfway across Cape Town. It was, in a word, bliss to work at home in slippers and tracksuit pants and be able to get up to make tea in my own kitchen. To have silence all around me all day. To be able to think, and write and do so at a less frantic pace, not having to snatch bits and pieces of time where I could. But, while it started off well, sadly it did not continue in this vein. And it was largely my fault.

Three weeks into my leave my boys went on mid-year school holidays for 3 weeks. I worked, but at half-pace and my quiet was gone. It was frustrating and difficult. Grannies came to visit, which was lovely as they live far away and the timing of visits has to be carefully orchestrated. I kept working, but still only at half-pace, getting increasingly more worried about how little progress I was making in relation to my work-plan. Eventually the kids went back to school and the grannies went home and quiet reigned again and I picked up the pace. But then, for another set of reasons I won’t go into here, the bathroom needed to be renovated, having been left for far too long and gotten into a state it could not remain in. So four weeks of polite but noisy and messy building work ensued, as renovations almost never go according to plan and ours were no exception. The renovations ended a week before my study leave ended. Just like that, 3 months had passed and I was a month behind my schedule for finishing the first full draft. I had a few undignified tantrums, and whined, I am sorry to say, like a small thwarted child. I didn’t want to come back to work. I wanted to rewind and do it all again. I wanted to make different choices about how I let other people use my precious time, about how I used it. I cannot blame my kids or husband or leaky shower or the grannies for my lack of progress. I let all the interruptions happen. I told everyone I was fine, I was coping, not to worry, it’ll all get done. I took on big and small tasks I could probably have let someone else do, or just left for later. I didn’t protect my time. I didn’t feel like I had the right to do that.

In truth I felt guilty about my leave. Colleagues who have been in a similar position to me – working, parents, struggling to keep all the balls in the air – did not get time off to work on their theses. I was not even eligible for this leave because of the way my role is structured and I only got it because I had the funding to pay for a replacement. I felt like I was getting something I did not deserve, or at least I felt guilty that I got it when deserving others had not. So, there was that. I also truly believed that I could be and do everything and still get the work done – I didn’t protect my time because most of it never really feels like mine and because I often do cope, sometimes just barely, but still. I just feel like I have to get on and do the best I can, you know? I wonder how many women in particular struggle with part-time PhD studies because of precisely this: they don’t protect their time and ask for time off – demand time off – from other things because they don’t feel like they can or should or could. Perhaps I didn’t even want to. There is something quite seductive about being a superwoman type who does it all, but maybe that’s another post…

The thing is, though, that this ‘doing it all’ is an illusion, and you can only do bits of it well. Other things have to and will slide. And that’s okay. There are things that can wait. You do deserve time to think and work and write, and you can and should protect that time, even from kids and partners. It really is okay to have this one thing in your life (at least) be about putting you and your work first. If you are fortunate enough to get your own slice of blissful leave, do not do what I did. Make a plan, tell all the people who need you about the plan and ask them to support you. Tell your mum you love her and ask if she can visit later in the year, and say NO to the builders. The shower leaking is the worst of your worries, as is the washing up.