28 Oct

writing my thesis with the help of nanowrimo

I have blogged before about using the Pomodoro Technique to focus and get motivated on work. I’ve been Pomodoroing like a mad woman to get my PhD interview transcripts coded (I’m still going, but I’m nearly done! Ish.). I like the structure the Pomodoro sessions provide and the motivation that comes from doing these sessions with someone else.

On 1 November, I start writing my findings chapter in earnest. This will include writing lots of memos as well as integrated, coherent sections of my findings chapter. I need all the help I can get on the motivation front to get this findings chapter written, preferably by the end of the month.

Fortuitously, November is also the month of NaNoWriMo, when aspiring and published authors alike commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in a month. So this November, I’m doing my own version, which I’m calling DisWriMo. I am definitely not the first person to think of using NaNoWriMo to get a chunk of academic writing done. If you Google NaNoWriMo thesis or NaThWriMo, you’ll find other people have done this before.  And there’s a whole bunch of NaNo Rebels who are doing academic writing this year. [Update: AcWriMo 2013 is go!]

I’ll be aiming to write 1666 words a day, every day in November. Seeing I have a lot of writing to get done, I’m going to be tough and not allow any extra words I write on any given day to count against the next day’s target. So if I write over 1666 words in one day, then the rest are just a bonus.

Of course, if I have a 50,000 word findings chapter, I will have the most unhappy examiners in the history of PhDs, so I will be writing some other parts of the thesis during this time too. In particular, I’ll be writing a chapter about my participants and some additional content for my method chapter.

I know this is going to be hard work but I’m telling myself it’s only a month. One month to get a big chunk of my writing done. One month of berating myself in my head about setting such a high daily target. One month of limited time for other stuff, including leisure time. Just one month.

And at the other end, my thesis will be 50,000 words better off.

24 Sep

riding the research degree roller coaster

Earlier this month, my three year PhD anniversary slipped by without celebration. It was a bit of a double edged sword. Peers that started at the same time as me have either submitted or are gearing up to do so in the next couple of months. This reminds me of how far I’ve still got to go and I feel a bit shit that I haven’t kept pace with them. Which is absolutely ridiculous, because they are full time PhD students, and I’m a part time PhD student with a pretty demanding job and three years of my candidacy left. And I’m not all that far behind them. So I had mixed feelings about the three year mark. On the one hand, I’m happy that I’ve managed to stick close to a full time pace, but on the other, I’m anxious that I’m not where I wanted to be at this point.

It’s those mixed feelings – the ups and downs – that I want to focus on here.

I am a proponent of slaying the PhD myth. When people talk about doing a PhD, they talk about it as being an emotionally intense, intellectually exhausting beast of a thing that sucks the life out of you. I have always said it doesn’t need to be that way… or, at least, it doesn’t have to be that all the time. My experience is that it’s actually possible to enjoy your PhD and to have a good experience of it, even thought it is, at times, tough. I don’t want to invalidate other people’s narratives on the PhD experience. It is bloody difficult and I understand that we all experience it differently. But for me, it’s been okay. I think this might have something to do with the fact that I work full time and so my PhD effort has been compressed into pockets of time. When I’m work-working intensively, including during semester when I am committed to teaching, I’m mostly able to muffle the nagging guilt that tells me I should be working on my PhD because I know I don’t have any intellectual effort left to give to it. But when I’m in the middle of an intensive PhD-working period, the guilt rears its ugly head and I spend my time riding the rails, in and out of periods of productivity, anxiety, progress, paralysis, insightfulness, in-the-groove-ness, and desperation.

I think the reason there is so much angst around the PhD is the level of investment PhD candidates have in their work. You might have done a study with 20 interview participants before, but translate that same study into the PhD environment and the angst grows exponentially. Part of this angst comes from the fact you’re going to be examined on your work, so you really need to think about how you’re conducting the project and how you document it. Part of it comes from the sustained investment over a substantial period of time. Part of it comes from the knowledge that you need to make an original contribution to knowledge – oh, the pressure! Part of it comes from the scale of the thesis – it’s pretty daunting to think about writing a 70,000 to 100,000 word thesis.

For me, the big angst point is time: I am time poor because I have a busy full time job, I have a habit of saying yes and hence of overcommitting myself in my professional life (and a work ethic that means if I say yes, I’m going to deliver), and I have family commitments. I’m not the only one. I know many people who juggle commitments and carve out time for the PhD. But it’s lack of time that feeds my angst more than any other factor. I also struggle with keeping everything in my head. So many ideas, so many trains of thought, so many different paths to go down… I get overwhelmed by trying to capture all of this and make sense of it.

It goes in peaks and troughs, this PhD journey, both in terms of my output and in terms of my state of mind. If I had to give an average indicator of my PhD mood across the course of my candidature, I think it would be something like ‘mildly anxious, but mostly ok’. The anxious part is mostly me angsting about lack of time, and the angst is generally manageable. I haven’t had the crippling bouts of anxiety you hear about when people talk about their candidacy, I don’t hate my topic or my thesis, and I’m pretty confident I can actually do the research. While my method, the scale of the project, and the disciplinary focus might be new to me, I’ve done research before and I know that eventually I’ll come out at the other end with my self mostly in tact.

That doesn’t mean the troughs aren’t hideous. It just means they aren’t all that frequent and they’re balanced by peaks and plateaus.

Troughs vary in depth and intensity. The toughest one I’ve been through was right before my confirmation of candidature. My confidence hit an all time low. I was working on refining my confirmation document (which is essentially introduction, lit review chapter and method chapter) and I was utterly convinced I wasn’t going to pass and that my project was ruined and completely unsalvageable. I put my niece to bed one night and she wanted me to stay in the room til she went to sleep, so I lay down on the floor and listened to her breathing and silently cried my heart out. For a long time. Long after she was asleep and I crept out of the room. I pulled it together, got the document in, and had my confirmation seminar, but the plummet impacted on my seminar. I’ve never been so nervous giving any presentation in my entire life. In the feedback, a panel member highlighted my nervousness and observed that it took me half the presentation to find my stride, and she was right. What I learned from that experience was that I need to work on my ability to view my thesis objectively, and I need to ask explicitly for feedback that helps me to get an objective view. It wasn’t really until after my confirmation seminar that I got my shit sorted and got my confidence back on track, and notably, this coincided with putting my PhD aside for a couple of months.

That was a pretty extreme trough.

Right now, I’m in a really tight stretch of the roller coaster, where the peaks and troughs and sharp corners and loops de loops are lined up one after the other. It feels like I’m living out the whole PhD ride in a compressed time period.

Last week I had some really tough PhD days. I was working on something that I shouldn’t have still be working on – it should have been done a week ago, or maybe even last month – and so I was panicking about my timeline. To make it worse, the panic is accompanied by a distinct lack of motivation. This state rolled in on the back of four super productive days and a feeling that I’d turned a corner. Then I chucked a U turn and went back round that corner. The overwhelming sense of unease came back with renewed intensity. I was talking to my mum about how much I’m looking forward to finishing my PhD because I want to escape the nagging guilt, and as I was talking, my stomach lurched and I felt physically sick about it. Then I realised what I’d been working on for the last 10 days or so was actually a false lead, and that I needed to backtrack in a big way. Cue meltdown, right on the edge of the PhD ledge.

After a day full of I-can-do-it-no-I-can’t-yes-I-can-no-I-really-can’t-nope-I-still-can’t-but-wait-surely-I-can-no-I-absolutely-cannot-do-it-I’m-done-and-I’m-quitting, I faced the facts, admitted I needed to redo this last phase, wailed about it to my chief ledge buddy, took her advice, and came up with a way to move forward. I decided I would just have to swallow the fact that I was going to have to traverse the same ground again (because the efficiency fiend in me does not like wasting time). So I came up with a plan, wrote it out step-by-step, and then I had a day off.

Right now, I’m back on the ascent. I haven’t regained the lost territory completely, but I have set myself up to do it, and for the rest of the week, I’ll keep plugging way at it. I feel more in control.

But I’m a realist. I know it won’t stay this way, so I need a strategy to manage whatever comes next.

Last week, someone shared this quote with me:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. -Henry Ford

Let’s just meditate on that for a minute.

That, my friends, is what I call a truism. It resonated with me and it inspired me to write a blog post about how powerful it is to believe you can succeed. So I I started writing this post last Thursday, and I’m just now finishing it up, after dipping in a writing it over the last few days. The reason it didn’t get posted last week was that I hit the bottom of the ‘I’ve done it all wrong and need to start again’ trough while I was writing it. So I lost my positivity. I lost my capacity to assess my own capability, because that happens in a trough – you lose your objectivity. I was living out Henry’s assertion, but I was living it out in the negative.

I learnt something in the last five days. Well, I learned lots of things, particularly about how not to do grounded theory analysis. But the most important thing I learnt was this: It’s not that I can’t do it; it’s just that I couldn’t see, in that moment (ok, moments), how to do it.

There’s only a slight shift in thinking here: going from thinking I can’t, to thinking I can’t see how just now. But it’s an important distinction, because one of the fastest way to get out of a trough is to channel energy into thinking you can conquer this beast. Once you’re on the way up, you start to see the way forward. And when you can see the way forward, it’s much easier to keep thinking you can do it.

29 Aug

when the pursuit of efficiency makes you completely inefficient

I am all about efficiency. I’m a task monster. I like to strike stuff off my to do list.

As a task monster, I try to do things the most efficient way possible. My quest is to find the fastest way to do a task without compromising on quality, and without impacting on my workload down the road.

Here’s an example.

I started coding my interview transcripts for my PhD in Word, using comments. I thought this would help me see the codes in context. I quickly realised this wasn’t going to work. After one transcript, it became clear I needed a system to help me manage the codes. So I followed up on research I’d done earlier about qualitative data analysis software. I bought and installed HyperRESEARCH and started coding my transcripts. Along the way, I generated almost 1500 codes. Two weeks ago, I hit a point where I was ready to start coding at a higher level… to start moving from codes to categories.

I have spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to manage this process in practical terms. And my preoccupation with efficiency means I stalled, in a big way, and I haven’t made nearly enough progress.

Rather than just getting in and getting it done, I have been fretting about finding the most efficient way to do this. My concern was I knew I couldn’t sort my codes in HyperRESEARCH because it wouldn’t support my workflow (and I only realised this after I’d done a lot of coding using the software). I didn’t want to do it anywhere else, though, because ultimately, I’ll have to put everything back into HyperRESEARCH to map the categories with the original codes and the chunks of transcript they relate to. I became so caught up in doing this in a way that wouldn’t impact on my workload down the track that I just didn’t do the work at all.

This morning I sat at my desk and cried because I couldn’t fathom how to get out of this quicksand and make some progress. Then I DMed one of my PhD ledge buddies (@zaana) in frustration and in amongst her very practical and helpful reply was this gem:

i think the reality is that some of the ways we need to synthesise & sense make are just not efficient but at least you know you’ll get there

I don’t actually know I’ll get there. Not today. Some days I know it, but today isn’t one of them. But apart from this last phrase, the rest of this statement resonates. Sense making is messy. (It’s also other things, for me personally: it’s happens through crafting a story in a visual way, but that’s a digression.) So I just need to let it *be* messy, or whatever else it needs to be in order to make some progress.

So I made a plan. Breakfast (at midday – is it any wonder I was crying into my keyboard at 11am? I couldn’t find the tomato sauce for my french toast so I skipped breakfast.) > coffee > blog post > JUST FREAKING DO IT.

Because ultimately, staring at the wall, crying, while I sink further into quicksand is not very efficient at all.

13 Aug

what to do when you have a case of the doubts

The doubts (n)
A condition commonly found in PhD candidates. Symptoms include: an inability to have anything even remotely resembling confidence in one’s work; heart palpitations; a constant feeling of having missed a critical piece of literature; inability to make small decisions (including, but not limited to, choosing a word to describe a tiny piece of data); an overwhelming sense that one does not have any findings worth reporting.

Earlier today, I found myself staring at the 956 unique codes I’ve generated in my initial coding of a handful of interview transcripts. Just staring. Blankly. With absolutely no idea what to do next. I had the doubts, in a big way.

And it wasn’t the first time.

I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve for treating the symptoms. They’re not cures, though I know there are two cures in existence. (The first cure is giving up, but then you end up with a different kind of doubt. And the second is graduating. The treatment of symptoms ultimately leads to the second cure.)

  • Keep a cache of your own work to hand. In particular, you should have at least one piece of writing that, when you re-read it, makes you think, ‘Shit. Did I write that? I actually sound like I know what I’m talking about!’ Mine is an essay I wrote on Lacan and art history. Completely unrelated to what I do now, but an excellent example because I read it and have absolutely no idea how I ever managed to write it. See self? I can do difficult things.
  • Go back to the data. When I look at my data I think, ‘Oh! My participants are awesome and they have such interesting things to say and they do such interesting things’. And then I know I’m going to have findings and I’m just being silly and getting stuck in the details.
  • Crack open the textbooks. Today I got out one of my favourite methodology textbooks (aside: I have a favourite methodology textbook. That’s up there in my list of phrases I never thought I’d say) and re-read the chapter on coding. Which reaffirmed that yes, it’s difficult, but I’m doing it properly (if there is actually a ‘properly’) and I’m doing okay.
  • Stop. Take a lunch break. Have a nap. Get a massage. Today I did all three… Sort of… I stood at the kitchen bench and scoffed cold leftovers, had a 20 minute power nap, and knocked off at 4pm and got a seriously intense remedial massage – you can’t doubt anything other than your pain threshold when you’re having knots ironed out of your back.
  • Call on a ledge buddy. If you’ve ever had the doubts, you will also be familiar with ‘the ledge’. It’s that place you inhabit when you’ve got the doubts in the biggest possible way. Every PhD student needs a couple of ledge buddies. These are people that know what it’s like to be out on the ledge and they know how to talk you safely off it.
  • Tell everyone you know you’ll have a thesis by Christmas. When you’ve run out of people to tell, tell yourself. Just keep saying it til you’ve spoken it into being. Or you’ve told so many people you’ll never be able to live it down if you don’t actually get it done. Whichever comes first.
  • Cultivate your own stubbornness. Committing yourself to doing something by a certain date is powerful in itself, but it’s even more powerful when you’re as stubborn as I am.
  • Watch Big Brother. Just cause.
27 Jul

three things i don’t know how to do

There are lots of things I don’t know how to do. These are the three I struggled with today*.

I don’t know how to do a PhD

Today I coded a transcript of an interview. It was great! What fun, to be able to sit and think and interpret really interesting content. (I’m not being sarcastic – it is actually fun, and a privilege.) But in the in-between movements, I kept thinking oh-my-god-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-surely-I-must-be-doing-this-wrong-I-can’t-even-code-a-transcript-how-can-I-write-a-thesis.

But then I remembered I don’t actually have to know exactly what I’m doing because the whole point of doing a PhD is to learn to be a researcher. And then I thought oh-my-god-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-surely-I-can’t-write-a-thesis. And then I stopped thinking and went and made some more tea.

I don’t know how to do one thing at a time

I’m so used to frantically multi-tasking that I have completely lost the ability to do just one thing at a time. Actually (as an old friend told me the other day in an instant messaging conversation I was having while I was on a Skype call followed by answering email), I never knew how to do one thing at a time. My attention span sucks. I can’t even watch TV without writing a blog post or answering email or having a conversation via DM on Twitter at the same time. I get frustrated at the cinema because people whinge about the light being a distraction if you have your phone on. I don’t know how to focus on one thing at a time, particularly when that one thing is something time consuming or detailed. Even if it’s interesting. Even if it’s really, REALLY interesting and I really want to do it. I just can’t seem to stop myself trying to do other stuff at the same time.

I am, quite simply, a stimulus junkie.

I don’t know how to finish <insert any task/project/thing here>

I am not a completer. I am an ideas girl. I’m a starter. I’m a mid-range runner. I like to design projects, kick them off, get them implemented, maybe even start the post-implementation evaluation… and then in the blink of an eye, I tune out. The shine of new projects dies quickly. Maybe it’s about being a stimulus junkie. Maybe things go from stimulating to unstimulating once I’ve worked out the challenges. Whatever it is, the product is the same. If something goes on for too long, I’m over it before we get to the end. My to do lists (both work and life) are full of things that I just can’t seem to finish. And I JUST WANT THEM TO GO AWAY.

This is interesting, really, because I am a details person in the worst kind of way. I am completely and utterly pedantic about details that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t actually matter. Like being consistent in the capitalisation I use in blog post titles, or finding the exact right font for a job, or lining things up precisely in a Word document. It took me six months to hang a picture gallery in my office because I was scared shitless of making a mistake, of not getting the visual balance exactly right, or of knocking holes in my newly painted wall in places I didn’t want holes. My blog posts sit in draft for days or weeks because I am never sure I’ve proofed them enough or that they will make sense to anyone but me or that I actually want to show them to the world. (*Case in point: this post. It’s been sitting in draft since Wednesday. So when say ‘today’ at the top of the post, I actually mean three days ago.)

I think I just had another epiphany. I literally just figured this out, in the middle of writing that last sentence. Like a real epiphany, not one I planned to have in order to tie this post up nicely. In fact this epiphany is poor timing, really, because it has messed up the rhythm of my writing (and subsequently caused me to let this post sit in draft for several days). This was supposed to be a post about “things I don’t know how to do”, not “figuring out the reasons I can’t do certain things”. But I am all too aware of how hard won these nuggets of self-knowledge can be so I’m running with it…

And here it is, my epiphany: Maybe I don’t know how to finish anything because I am overwhelmed by having to do everything to my own exacting standards.

So perhaps the third thing I don’t know how to do should actually be…

I don’t know how to settle for done

Done is good, but rarely good enough for me. Which is quite a problem, really, when you’ve got five months to write a thesis (five months minus two days, if we’re going to be specific).

Now, where did I put my cult of done sign?