‘How to write a PhD’ with Hein De Haas

photo-2Hein de Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and the former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a friend of mine. Almost two years ago, when I was staying in California for two months and he flew in for a conference, we sat down at Saul’s deli in Berkeley for lunch. Over chicken soup with matzo balls and latkes with apple sauce (so good!), we talked about academic writing. ‘We should do an interview!’ I said. ‘Would you?’ He would. Fast forward to present: last week we finally managed. Read Hein’s take on academic writing, success and self-care in today’s ‘How to write a PhD’.

Hein’s top tips:
1. Writing is important: invest in your academic writing skills. Approach your writing as a craft, not high art. High art is paralysing.
2. Write a little every day. I get my writing done in 90 minutes a day.
3. Stay off the Internet until lunchtime.
4. Doing research and writing are inseparable. Writing clarifies thought.
5. Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself.

6. Write your abstract first. Keep rewriting and revising it: use it as an anchor for your thinking.
7. Develop your original argument. Trust what you have to say. Don’t become obsessed with the literature. It is not the Holy Script!
8. Don’t forget answering the ‘So what?’ question. Why is your research relevant?
9. To stay in academia: be your own academic. Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications. That is what matters.
10. Take care of yourself: yoga, meditation, music and dedicated times off help.

AD: I know you’re passionate about writing. You’re always stressing how important it is to take writing seriously, and to develop your writing skills. What are your best tips for academic writing?
HdH: Writing is about more than simply reporting your research results. Invest in learning how to write clearly, how to write lucidly. It is best to approach academic writing as a craft, not high art. Anyone can learn how to do it. Approaching writing as high art is paralysing: it assumes you need to be exceptionally talented and you need to get it right in the first go. That’s very far removed from the actual process of academic writing which involves writing, and revising, and then revising and revising once again. As an academic you need to get comfortable with ‘killing your darlings’. When I was younger I used to think I was a good writer. And it’s true that writing comes easily to me, I am a fast writer and I enjoy writing. But the actual craft of learning to write well took dedication and often humbling interactions with mentors and reviewers I was lucky to have met several mentors who told me the truth and had no qualms about showing me how mediocre my writing still was, and how much I still had to learn. I had a great tutor as a freshman anthropology student. He was ultra-critical of my essays. I first hated him for it, but now I am forever grateful, as it was an essential wake-up call. After graduating in geography I worked for a private research and consultancy firm. This was another formative experience, as my mentors there forced me to ‘cut all the crap’ in my prose and to write as clearly as possible. Unfortunately, many academics make their texts impenetrable and vague because of their eagerness to sound scientific. It was in my non-academic jobs that I really learnt to write clearly. Perhaps the most important is the following: never take critique personally, always as an opportunity to improve. But also teach yourself to read your own text with an outsiders’ eye.

photo-1AD: Do you have a writing routine?
HdH: It’s so important to write a little every day. I try to write from 9-11 a.m. every morning. In reality I don’t usually manage the full two hours, more often it is a 90-minute session. I always feel I’d like to do more, but at the same time, I get a lot done in those 90 minutes. People tend to not believe me when they see my publication record, but it is true: this is when I get my writing done. It can be challenging to fit these writing sessions in, especially when you’re travelling, but I insist on four writing sessions a week mimimum. If I don’t manage during the week for whatever reason I will fit a session in on Saturday morning. This goes against my ‘weekends off’ policy, but keeping the writing flowing is as important for my peace of mind. I try to write first thing in the morning. What is very important is to stay off email and Internet. I used to start my day, as so many people, checking email. But I figured out that this is the entire wrong way around. I now stay off the Internet until lunch time, and check my email only once or twice a day, after my most productive writing hours. It’s all about discipline. I learnt this very early on, already during my PhD, when my first daughter was born. Having children has made me much more conscious of time and much more productive during the limited working hours I have. Right now I’m trying something new: waking up very early, at 6 in the morning to do my writing. It is still an experiment…

AD: What have you learned over the course of your academic career about writing?
HdH: Doing research and writing are inseparable. Thoughts are fuzzy and forgiving, the page is not. So when you write things down it helps you solve your conceptual puzzles. To think of doing research with the ‘writing up’ phase the last phase, is an outdated idea. Much better to start writing straight away. I highly recommend reading the book: Writing for social scientists by Howard. S. Becker on how to approach this. Reading that book as a 1st year student in anthropology back in 1989 liberated me in many ways, and encouraged me to approach writing as a craft, a continuous work-in-progress.

AD: What does your writing process look like? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end-phase that differ in how you approach it?
HdH: The end phase involves a lot of editing and trying to delete passages that may be superfluous or where I’m repeating myself. I’m wordy, so I am always trying to keep the word count under control. It is also a more intense phase. I always begin a new piece of work by writing the abstract. Conceptually it is the most important step. By the time the piece is finished the abstract will have been through revision after revision. It what anchors the piece. The phase in the middle is where I grapple with the data.

AD: What would you advise PhDs who are feeling stuck, and unable to write? Do you have tips to overcome writer’s block?
HdH: Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes often during writing. And start with the abstract. Write your abstract before moving on to anything else. It puts you on the spot; it forces you to come down to the essence of your paper. If you write a book, it can be helpful to write abstracts for each chapter. It has to be a substantive abstract, not one of those teaser abstracts that leaves you guessing, and which requires you to read the rest of the article to understand what it is about. Your abstract should state, in one or two sentences, what the ‘punch-line’, the argument and main finding of your research is. Start with this conceptual puzzle. Make clear what your aim is, which question you are going to answer, and don’t forget answering the ’So what?’ question. It is often overlooked, but it is what ensures your research has appeal beyond the narrow scope of the argument, and is relevant. I have found that paring it down like this, focusing on the research question and developing your own unique argument helps. Of course, while writing the actual paper or book, you will develop new insights, change your opinion or argument – you will adopt your abstract accordingly. Consider it as a continuous work in progress. Looking at it this way instead of seeing writing as an art can be very liberating.

AD: What would you tell PhDs who are looking for their niche, but haven’t quite found it yet?
HdH: It would be to trust what you have to say. Read, but don’t become obsessed by the literature. Instead, switch to ‘active’ thinking. There’s a big difference between trying to find a ‘gap’ in the literature and ‘filling that gap’; and developing an original argument. Filling the gap doesn’t work. There’s always the danger that once you’ve identified a gap, and ‘filled’ it, someone else will have done the same. You’ll find this out the week before finishing your own project most likely! Don’t define gaps in terms of ‘this group or topic has never been studied’, but instead in terms of how you approach that subject. Because you bring your unique perspective, through your own life experiences, your personal background, what you have read, you will always bring an original perspective. Trust your own story. Trust what you have to say – and have the audacity to present your very own take on your topic. Don’t be a slave to what previous authors have said. ‘The literature’ is not the Holy Script! There is a tendency to inflate the big names in the literature, and of course they have done important work. But they too are regular people, who had the courage to write up what they thought in as clear as possible prose. In other words: you can do this.

heinAD: Academia is becoming an increasingly competitive environment, and it isn’t at all the case that you’ll manage to secure an academic position, even when you are an excellent researcher. What would you advise PhDs with ambitions in academia?
HdH: Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications, that is what counts in most disciplines. Sometimes this takes time. In my own case it took 7 years after I had finished my PhD as a monograph for my best theoretical article using the same material to be published. This is now my best cited article. In the meantime, work on articles that are easier to write and get published. Working papers are great: consider them as a first pit stop on the way to a journal publication. It allows you to ‘claim’ your idea, to gain visibility and to generate feedback early on, and they often get cited. Working papers are much better than chapters in edited volumes that often hardly get cited at all. Also: make sure to be your own academic. Don’t become someone’s sidekick, even if that person has the credentials to facilitate your career. Of course, benefit from it if you can, but don’t become too dependent on your mentor. I would also advise PhD students to challenge supervisors who assume their name should automatically be included as authors in each of their students’ papers, without contributing substantially to data analysis or writing the actual paper. It’s fine and even recommended to collaborate, but it’s very important to protect intellectual property and to be self-confident and assertive about that. It will gain you respect – and in many academic circles it is important to also have single-authored papers published. Let your star shine! Don’t be intimidated.

AD: Writing a PhD is stressful, as is working in academia. Do you have self-care routines?
HdH: Yes, absolutely. I started doing hatha yoga some six years ago, during a stressful time, which was fantastic in helping me calm my mind. More recently I have been practicing ashtanga yoga and yin yoga, at least three times a week, mostly in the early evenings. I try to make sure I don’t need to work or do anything that might burst the yoga bliss bubble afterwards! I also play the piano: no better way to wind down than playing some jazz and blues. But I’m not saying people should do yoga or play music. It does not matter what you do. Sports, dancing, acting, painting, it can be anything that makes you connect to your body and has nothing to do with your thesis. The point is to tune out from your research and find a healthy balance. Other things that help me manage the workload, and minimise stress are taking the weekends off. Two days preferably, but one and a half day at the very minimum. I also make a point of stopping on time. I generally don’t work after dinnertime, and I generally try to get all my important work done around 2pm. For me it does work much better to focus on getting my tasks done in the morning. I often don’t manage, but I do notice I feel better when I practice a short meditation in the morning and at the end of the afternoon or day. I also try not to watch television late at night and stay off-screen after working hours as much as possible.

You can find Hein’s excellent blog on migration here, and you can sign up for his free Migration 101 course in which he tackles some of the most common migration myths here. See the preview below. Did you like this post? Please share it! I appreciate it.

 

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How to Plan Your Work

How do you plan your work? I’m always intrigued by people who schedule every project, cutting their projects into bite-size chunks, then organising them into their week. I’ve never been able to do that, and sometimes I wonder whether anybody can really tame academic work into cooperating like that?? With academic work everything always seems to take endlessly longer than you think it would. It seems frustrating to always come up short.

What’s the alternative?

In my experience simplifying and prioritising are what is called for, followed by implementation. It means you come up with a clear idea of what matters to you, and what matters less, and adapt as you go. It creates time to implement your ideas also, it makes work doable and manageable. That sounds lovely, but it also means you will have to say no to other things, to other people’s priorities’ for you and to some of the ’things that come up’ along the way that steal your attention. That is too much to try to achieve using self-discipline. No matter how much you ‘want to’ or ‘intend to’ stick to your plans, the only way you will is by using as little of your energy as possible on constantly having to persuade yourself.

Some practical tips:

1. Be Clear on What You Want to Achieve

This is about considering your short-, medium- and longterm goals. Better start with the longterm goals and deadlines, then define the shorter term ones. Even simply writing these goals down will alert part of your mind into working towards them. (Try it.) Being specific here helps. Make it tangible. Write down exactly which papers or chapters you’d like to complete, and which other project deadlines you have. Then make a rudimentary plan, but don’t stress about it. It’s only a general outline, nothing set in stone. Spend ten minutes on it not ten hours. The most important part of this process is the prioritising of projects. Ask yourself: ‘what if I could only achieve one thing in the next x number of months? What would it be?’ Feel it. That is how you know what should be at the top of your list. Then go on to what is second most important. Etc.

2. Reserve Your Best Time Slots for Doing Your Important Work

Prioritise the work that will help you meet your goals. Have a look at your workday. Which part of the day are your best work hours? Use these ‘best’ hours for your most important work. Create a perfect bubble to work in. Whatever you need to do to make sure the best hours of your day are spent on your most important projects, do it. It doesn’t have to be all day, but 2 or so hours a day will make all the difference.

3. Keep up the Momentum

One way to keep momentum high is to stop work slightly earlier than you are used to, and use the last few minutes, or even moments to mentally record what you are doing, what you have done, and where you want to take it next. This helps tremendously when getting back to work the next day. It creates a work flow all you need to do about it step back into. There is something habitual about procrastination. Once we get into the habit of getting straight to work it loses its hold.

4. Prioritise as You Go Along

Are you working on the right thing? My problem with static schedules is that they are always outdated. Much better to keep checking in with your priorities. In the HappyPhD Course I teach a technique on doing so. One part of it consists of asking: ‘What is the most important thing I could work on right now to move my project closer to completion?’ This is slightly different from the more general question of priorities above. Your answer in the moment depends on what you just got done, how much time you have, and also how much mental energy you have at that time. Sometimes you need to go for it, try to untangle the most pressing intellectual knot (hahaha I just corrected a typo: I had typed – entangle the intellectual knot. Freudian slip there, we’re all masters at entangling intellectual knots). Other times it is wiser to do something else. I have found this way of working (if we act on our intuitive answer) to far surpass any linear way of approaching our work.

5. Keep It Doable

When you’re paralysed it tends to mean work is scaring you so much you’d rather not go there. It has become too big. Too difficult. Don’t forget: you can do this. You are going to figure it out. It just takes time. And it takes a lot of small incremental steps to get there. But you’ll get there. So instead of worrying about abstract things like deadlines or whether you will manage, assume you will. Because you will. Don’t lose your energy on rumination. Instead, focus on the next thing you can do. Ask: what next? Keep it small. Be pragmatic. Keep going. It is so powerful to defy those doubting internal voices, and proving them wrong while doing so makes life even better.

6. Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Most important in planning isn’t the scheduling. It is the emotional pull for you to ‘want to do’ what you ‘need to do’. If you can’t get yourself to work on your project pay attention to why that is the case. Sometimes a simple pragmatic change such as changing your work schedule helps. If you promise yourself you ‘only’ have to work on your project for 90 minutes, say, every day, it may make it less intimidating. It will get you going. Or perhaps it is about permission to prioritise your research over your other to-do’s and obligations, especially if you’re busy and have other many other demands on your time. If the feeling persists you may have to go deeper. Maybe your project needs to change: it may need more interaction or supervision. Maybe you need to approach it differently. Or maybe you should be doing something else entirely…the internal drive isn’t always there, but if it is almost never there your future may lie outside the world of research. But that’s an entirely different post… (I wrote about quitting your PhD previously here)

Do you have tips on planning your projects? Do you work with a static schedule, or prefer something more fluid? Let me know. Also, download ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’ if you haven’t done so already, for more on this. As always if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it!

Staring at the Ocean – When Work Is Overwhelming

One of the difficulties of PhD research is the magnitude and scope of it. The end product, the thesis, reflects your work of four years (or a bit more if you’re unlucky): how on earth to design and define such a project? What to include, what to exclude? So much material that may be relevant. Which angle to take? Where to start? How to reconcile all the findings? How in-depth to discuss different strands of the literature?

If you’re in the middle of it it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. You may end up in a state I call ‘Staring at the Ocean’: hypnotised by the waves of the sea of literature and data, of endless possibilities – none quite right – overwhelmed and indecisive.

To avoid spending your days like this I highly recommend working in intervals. Working for 25 or 45 minutes at a time will ensure you don’t space out as much and lose hours. I’ve written a lot about that way of working before, so I won’t rehash that again today, but it should be your first priority if your days seem to be slipping away… You can get so much work done in one 45 minute session, truly. And focusing for 45 minutes is doable, whereas focusing for 6, 8 or more hours is absolutely not. Try it. It is so much easier that way.

That’s focus in terms of time dealt with – now on to the more challenging part: content.

1. You don’t have to achieve the impossible

When you’re wrestling with overwhelm remember this: you don’t have to create a theory of everything. This is especially relevant if you’re doing interdisciplinary research: you don’t have to make everything ‘fit’. It doesn’t and it won’t, no matter how much energy you pour into it. Be aware of the assumptions underlying different arguments, articles and theories: theoretical assumptions, methodological assumptions. At some point you will have to position your work and define its parameters. But don’t worry too much about reconciling inconsistencies ‘out there’. You can let them be. It’s not your job to fix them, only to see clearly how they occur. To see the contrasts and contradictions, and to report on them if relevant. On a more general note: you don’t have to write the ‘perfect’ thesis. It doesn’t exist and that’s all right. There are many ways of presenting your work, your thinking, your data, your results. Trust yourself: you know how to do this. There is no ‘best’ way, but there is a way that is satisfactory (satisfactory is as good as it gets in academia. Sorry!) The trick tends to be to get stuck in and ‘just do it’ (annoying advice I know – read on, I will get more specific) in all its imperfect glory. You can always come back and change things if you have to.

2. Focus on what you have to say

When we are in overwhelm our attention tends to be vaguely focused outwards. This happens, for example, when we read too much, or at the wrong time. Reading takes us into the world of another researcher, into her train of thought, into her own work and thought process of months or years condensed. Information overload! It’s not conducive to focus. The ‘cure’ is to focus in on your own work instead. It’s why I advise to start your day doing your writing, before what you are trying to say is drowned out by competing voices. Gaining clarity about what you are trying to write is half of your work done. (Ask: what am I trying to say here? If the reader should only remember one thing from this entire chapter what would it be?) Get inside your work, inside your piece, write from the inside out, so to speak. Finding your core argument (see here) will help you structure your chapters and provide a hierarchy of arguments and supporting arguments and literature. Tip: put the literature away. You know what you want to say already.

3. Clarity in writing

The strategies of finding clarity when dealing with overwhelm run along a spectrum from highly abstract, structured, and deductive; to loose, inclusive, and inductive. Creating a chapter outline, with a main message for each section, then later filling it in is an example on the abstract end. So is creating diagrams to visualise your argument and chapter structure. On the other end of the spectrum, writing longhand may help, or simply starting to type and let the words spill out for a set amount of time, meditating on ‘what do I have to say in this section?’ Personally, I prefer the abstract end, too many words overwhelm me further, although I am on guard against overstructuring, as it may kill the vitality of the piece. Squeeze it too tight, and it is not quite right. Messing around with different ideas in notebooks, drawing, outlining, all that helps. At a certain point you may find that an intuitive approach works best. I used to ask: ‘What next?’ – and the next paragraph to write would ‘show up’ (Not so rational or deductive! But it works!). A balance: being focused enough to get words down, but relaxed and open enough to allow it to happen is what you’re looking for. Maybe I even dare use the word surrender.

4. Action

Commit to action, and in this case action means writing, it means taking the next step forward, it means committing to finishing the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the thesis! It can be scary to even think of finishing, it triggers fears of our work not being good enough, or of missing something, or not getting it right, not making it. Or it may even triggers fears of what we will have to do once we are done. (Stay in academia, leave? Find a job? Money? Yikes?!) Maybe that uncertainty is something we don’t want to deal with right yet. Don’t fall for this. Finishing something will make things better, not worse. It is invigourating. It lifts the mood. It will create space in your mind and your life. It will allow you to make better decisions, work- and otherwise. Keep the steps small and manageable. Forget about ‘the thesis’, think only about the next manageable piece of work. You can do this! What’s the next step? Do it. What’s the next step? Do it. What’s the next step? Do it. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

5. Shift out of overwhelm

Overwhelm is a state of mind, and you can shift out of it. But first you need to be aware you are ‘doing’ overwhelm. A mindfulness or meditation practice is so useful to gain awareness of which space we are inhabiting mentally. No reason to beat yourself up about it, only to decide: oh hey, yes that’s right, I don’t really want to do overwhelm anymore. I can do something else instead. Perhaps there’s an alternative. Maybe you remember a time when work was going well, when you were sharp and focused. When you were excited about your ideas. When you actually enjoyed your work. Use those memories – they are states of mind too, and often simply by thinking of those times, by immersing yourself in that experience, you may be able to slip back into it. Music may help also. Maybe you need a playlist to help you get energised to focus, or more soothing tracks to find a calm place that will help you work. And if it really, truly isn’t working, it is better to decide to fully relax, do something else, distract yourself, and try again later. Don’t stay in-between. Alternate between focus, and relaxation.

Do you find yourself ‘staring at the ocean’ often? What ways have you found to shift out of it? I’d love to know. With regard to getting going with writing and finding clarity, my e-book ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’ may help. You can download it here (it’s free). As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it!

Your Best Shot at Staying in Academia: Tips from an Economist

2016-01-03 14.05.42I spent a good week in San Francisco earlier this year, travelling with my boyfriend who, with two colleagues, was to recruit some potential assistant professors for his department. My boyfriend is an economist. If you are not familiar with the academic job market in the economics field picture this: the job market is an actual physical market where demand and supply meet. In this case the venue was a suite in a swank hotel in the financial heart of San Francisco (picked by yours truly) where three young(ish) professors spent three long days interviewing job candidates. As was happening in hotels all across the city those particular days. Why San Francisco? Because one of the largest economics conferences was held concurrently, just a block down the road. So indeed people fly halfway round the world for a few sessions and a couple of interviews, and may be lucky enough to be selected for one or more ‘fly-outs’ to present a job market interview at interested universities.

The setting is bizarre (which I don’t necessarily object to), and it is also incredibly competitive (which is why the economics case is one to pay attention to, as I am seeing other disciplines moving in the same direction). In fact it is so competitive that I heard my boyfriend mutter something along the lines of: “I would not have stood a chance in the current job market. These CVs!” Back home he had more evaluating to do. This time for grants. Again, a similar sentiment: “I’m not so sure my chances would have been as great to get a VIDI grant if I had applied now, compared to ten years ago.” Ouch. The job market is changing. And however much we hate it (and I do believe most academics aren’t too keen on this development, collectively squeezed as they are) you have to somehow work taking into account the present conditions. That or leave, which is increasingly an option to take seriously, especially right after the PhD.

2016-01-05 18.27.59

I asked Bas (pictured on the right, waiting for well-deserved best-of-San-Francisco-ramen-noodles after a long day of interviews), as he now is part of the human machinery of academic hiring and judging what he would advise current PhDs and ECRs.

How to prepare if you want to stay in academia?

This is what I’ve distilled from our conversations on the topic:

1. Publications

No surprise here. Publications are a sine qua non. Make sure you have at least one single-authored paper in the mix, and go for quality over quantity. [AD: I remember a conversation with my late supervisor in Florence who was concerned by the CVs with lists and lists of multi-authored papers, often produced without much individual say. To him this heralded the end of the profession. Some of his colleagues rather disagreed, and urged their PhDs to collaborate and ‘pool resources’ so to speak, often including themselves in the mix, at times adding themselves as first author despite little intellectual investment in the work. Depends very much on the field…]

2. Push to the frontier

The PhD and ECR years are an investment to learn all there is to learn about your field, then push to the frontier of knowledge in your field. This is very much a marathon-like pursuit: training, training, training, putting the miles in, rather than having to do with genius or superior intellect. Many academics aren’t exquisitely bright. They do well because they chose their niche well and simply were consistent and kept at it. It doesn’t matter where you start exactly, just get going. Put yourself out there.

3. Beware of ‘lamp post academics’

Imagine I’ve dropped my wallet in a dark little alley at night. Now, where do academics tend to look for the wallet? Right, you’ve guessed it – on the main road where the lamp post is. At least there they can see what is going on! In other words: avoid doing data-driven research. It doesn’t answer any interesting questions. Sure, you may be able to get a publication out of it, and some people manage to build their entire careers on data-driven research, but it’s hardly satisfying and it doesn’t impress. Try to find the wallet in a place you may actually find it, even though it might take some stumbling around in the dark.

4. Develop your idea, make it researchable and convincing

If you’re trying to get a grant for a project there are three things you’ll need to demonstrate:
1. That you’re capable. That you can perform the research proposed.
2. That whatever you are proposing to do is important. You need an idea, and you need to show that that idea will contribute to one of the important debates in the field.
3. You need to convince the evaluation committee their money will be well spent.
Don’t underestimate the second and third part. They are what gives you a competitive edge. Many people are capable, only a sub-set have interesting ideas, and only a small sub-set manage to communicate successfully how exactly the project will be set up. Many academics are great at theorising, but get stuck in the clouds. Don’t be one of them. Tell us why your research is important, and be as specific as you can regarding the details of how research will be carried out, what exactly the grant money will achieve. Many researchers fail to do so. They overestimate the importance of skill and technique and method and get caught up in showing off how clever they are. The main idea and realisation of the project are the more important parts, and is what will make your proposal stand out.

5. Get to know your field

Go to seminars regularly, and contribute. Get to know people. Pay attention. To succeed in academia you need to get involved, to show up, to engage. How does the tribe work? What are the do’s? What are the don’ts? Read between the lines. What are the important debates? What triggers the main discussions? How do people ask questions and how are they answered? Observe and learn. Engaging is an investment in your human capital, and you cannot go without.

Academia is a verb

What I have learned from observing Bas carving out an academic career for himself over the past decade is that academia is very much about doing the work, about getting engaged, about putting yourself and your work out there. Academia is a network of people with ideas, and becoming part of this network is as important as the ideas themselves. Another thing I’ve noticed, and the reason I believe he is doing well is inner drive. Depending on workload and competitiveness in your field inner drive is what will allow and motivate you to continue on the academic trail. You need abundant inner resources to overcome the obstacles and hurdles that are par for the course. Without, academia can be a tough gig, and you may be better off somewhere else…

Which of the above advice speaks to you? Should you focus in on that next publication, rewrite that grant proposal, or spend some more time getting to know people in your field? The inner drive part is addressed in the HappyPhD course. It will give you tools to uncover it, and help you work with ‘effortless effort’. As always, if you like this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Are You Hiding Behind the Literature?

Are you hiding behind the literature?

It’s tempting, you know. Making academic work all about what others have done. And true, learning about what others have done is one of the core activities in doing your own research. Yet do not forget, your research has a reason to exist in its own right. It must do. Why else bother? And why else would anyone seek your work out?

It’s so tempting to swing between feeling like you have to design some grand theory that explains everything, to somehow integrate all the literature in a way that makes sense; and feeling like you are utterly failing at that, and worse: your own contribution to the debate is meagre, shameful even. Hardly noticable and not worth noticing.

Listen. Your contribution doesn’t have to be of epic proportions to be of value. (Let’s forget about the heroic PhD fantasy). But it needs to be communicated, it needs to be heard. Yes. It needs to come out of hiding. The most important step in academic writing is finding out what that contribution is. What is the argument you are trying to make? That’s what we want to know. How your argument relates to the literature is always secondary. No matter how much more erudite/ profound/ advanced/ impressive that literature is.

I know that many PhDs are asked to write a literature review. I believe this only makes sense up to a point. A literature review needs an angle. It needs a question driving it. That question is what it’s all about. It is the only thing that ensures focus. Without it you are guarantueed to be lost. And your readers will be equally lost.

Finding that question, and finding the answer.

That’s what your PhD is about.

That is it.

Yes, it takes time. Clarity takes time.

It helps to, from some point onwards, start reading less and thinking more.

Focusing in, instead of overloading yourself with more angles, more data, more everything. Because there is already so much of everything.

I’m not saying do not read. You need to be informed of what is out there.

There is always a balance between learning more, and adding to your knowledge that way, and knowing when you are losing yourself in dead ends.

You could picture it as a play. Your play.

Some articles will take centre stage. They are your lead figures, your main characters. They have a lot of lines and you need to know them inside out. The lead figures are the real performers. They carry the weight, hold the space. They are what makes your argument shine, the star sing.

Find out which articles, which scholars, which schools of thought, are at the centre of your research. Learn every little thing about them. This is essential knowledge.

Then, there are couple of less important characters, and loads of extras. They are needed to beef it up, so to speak. Yes, they have their role, and they may have a few words to say here and there. But they aren’t central to the plot development. They are peripheral. It only makes sense to treat them as such. Why waste your precious time on learning absolutely everything there is to know about the extra (no offence)? It will confuse your focus.

What I am saying is read strategically. Ask yourself whether what you have just read/ are about to read is necessary to contribute to your work, or whether you are only losing yourself, distracting yourself. Read accordingly. Don’t waste your time.

Because there’s an even more insiduous way the literature may be hampering your progress: you may be using it as a tool of procrastination. A way to gloss over the fact that you ‘don’t feel quite ready’ to start writing.

If you’re reading for security – Maybe reading this next paper will make you feel more on top of things! – be brave. Put down the article. (Like you’d put down the drug.)

Ask yourself what your work needs, to move forward. (I am serious. Ask.) Then do that thing.

Think, organise your thoughts, create something. You may need to read. Maybe.

But quite likely you’ll need to jump in and write something instead.

If you’re struggling with your academic writing (maybe it’s not happening?) have a look at my free e-book Finding Your Academic Voice. If you liked this post, as always, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Overcoming Fear When Writing: Be Inspired

They say: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
I would add to that: “Let your inspiration carry you.”

One way of tuning into your inspiration is to be inspired by others.

Who are the scholars you admire?
Which papers are the ones you’d like to have written?
Which argument is so compelling it makes you go: ah!
Or, which papers annoy you to no end?

You are looking for the emotional response here. And the intellectual challenge.
Combined, they will lead to compelling work. Yours.

Collect these papers and books, and voices and arguments, and tune into them before you start writing.
Don’t overdo it, you don’t want to drown in other people’s voices.
Just read enough to gain momentum. To move past the voice of fear.

When I was finishing my PhD and was struggling with a particularly difficult chapter, I had one of my supervisor’s books within an arms-length reach, always.
He was a terrific writer, very gifted. He was also a very intuitive scholar.
These qualities lined up with my own, and often simply reading one of his paragraphs would be enough for me to want to write my next page. Yes, his work was that inspiring.

For me, personally, the feeling-tone is most important. I need to get writing, above all. The content is secondary, it always seems to follow. And when I write from a place of being inspired, I don’t need to worry about it. Or so I have learnt. It simply happens. At times I have used novels I was reading in the same way. Just a sentence or two could be enough to override the fear and just start putting my own words on the page. Creativity turned on.

There are other, more practical, ways of using the literature when you are stuck. Other scholars can show you the way when it comes to method, when it comes to structure, when it comes to making an argument. They can show you what has already been said and done, and where to look for references or evidence to help build your argument.

They can show you, above all, that whatever you are trying to do CAN BE DONE.
Writing that paper can be done.
Writing that chapter can be done.
Other scholars can show you how. The nuts and bolts of it.

Again, there were a couple of relatively technical papers that I referred to when I was finishing my PhD, and uncertain about some aspects of my methodology. How, exactly did my beta-brain sisters and brothers in the same field tackle these questions? How did they make their argument, how did they run their analyses, what were their exact disclaimers? What was ‘enough’ to make a compelling argument? Reading their papers narrowed it down for me. It gave me answers and made it all so much more doable.

Use the literature to help lift you above fear, by inspiring you into a writing spree, or help it move you beyond fear by grounding you into the small practical steps that make up an argument, and a paper. Allow yourself to soar & allow yourself to build methodically.

Have you used the literature to overcome fear when writing? Tell me how in the comments. I have much more on this, in my e-book, which you can download for free. Oh, and if you liked this article – could you share it? Thanks!

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