‘How to write a PhD’ with Roanne van Voorst

Today I talk to Roanne van Voorst about how to build an academic career on your own terms. Roanne is an anthropologist specialized in humanitarian aid, and postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I met Roanne a few years ago, when she took my HappyPhD course with coaching (I am currently in the midst of editing and re-designing the course, it will re-launch in the new year!). One of the topics that came up when we talked was how to use the freedom we have in our academic lives instead of conforming to set norms. Often these discussions stay confined to how to design your workday or workweek, and how to deal with competitive pressures without turning into a professional workaholic.

Roanne takes the concept to the next level. After obtaining her PhD with honours, she decided she would try to create an academic life…differently. Instead of focussing solely on her academic career, she now works part-time as an academic, while running an online business on how to live a courageous and productive life on the side. She has written books about her time living in the slums of Jakarta, multiculturalism, conquering your fears, and her latest, about soldiers returning to civilian life. She gets a few things right, if you ask me!

Today we catch up. I thought it would be interesting to hear Roanne’s perspective on freedom in academia and the choices we have and make, on productivity, on fear, and living a full life.

Roanne’s top tips:

  1. Don’t settle for what is ‘normal’. You can create your own academic career path and create your own rules. You don’t have to conform to what everybody else is doing
  2. You don’t have to work an 80-hour workweek to be successful. It will drain your energy and inspiration
  3. Balance output, input, and rest, for creativity and productivity
  4. Take time to think and reflect, and write from the heart
  5. In the academic world receiving harsh criticism doesn’t mean you aren’t doing well. It means you are exactly where you should be. It’s the job of your supervisor and colleagues to criticize you. It’s your job to practice self-care and reflection, so you can deal with the criticism.
  6. Take your PhD one step at a time. Keep your eye on the next step – don’t look to the end goal, this will cause overwhelm.

I’ve always admired your independence, the choices you make. Can you tell me a little about the process over the past couple of years? When did you know you didn’t want the classic academic career, and how did you carve out a way that combines the best of all worlds? Did you have many doubts?

Thanks for your kind words – likewise, you’ve been an inspiration to me!

I was initially trained as a journalist and worked as a foreign correspondent for several years. I loved the excitement of that job, but missed depth in the news items I made. For this reason I decided to go back to uni and obtain a PhD in anthropology. During and after my PhD I’ve done in-depth fieldwork in Inuit communities, slums; among refugees and humanitarian aid workers and soldiers – and each and every time, I was fascinated with what I learned and enjoyed emerging myself into a complete new world.

However, there were also things about my new academic job that I didn’t like. One of them was the culture of overwork in which working endless hours was regarded not only normal, but as something positive and necessary. For several years, I went along with it. I worked very hard and felt exhausted, but it was never enough. When I’d leave the office at eight in the evening, most of the lights in other offices were still lit. I felt like a faker, a fraud, as if I wasn’t a proper or ‘real’ academic, as the others seemed to be. After some years of trying to make this culture my own, I noticed two things: not only was I so tired of work that I lacked energy for other aspects of my life, I also felt that I was becoming less creative and inspired. My life felt too narrow, as if I could only develop part of my identity.

For a long time, I was in doubt whether I should get back into journalism, but at some point I decided to give it one more chance: I’d experiment to see whether I could be an academic – on my own terms. And although it’s an extremely unconventional way of working, it works well for me.

What does that look like, specifically?

I decided to take a part-time position, I don’t work from 9-5, and I refuse to work 80 hours a week. I also make sure I take the time to talk with my PhD supervisees at length and often, it’s important to me to be an inspiring supervisor and colleague. And I skip unnecessary meetings, the ones mostly spent scrolling on your phone – don’t tell anybody! But seriously: I prioritize other tasks, like thinking, studying and writing.

That must have taken some courage. How were your choices to opt out of the academic rat race received in the academic world?

With scepticism, in the beginning. But honestly, my way of working works well for me, and my colleagues notice. As long as my work is of high quality and I publish it is not a problem. And I know I am energized, happy and inspired, exactly because I stick to my own rules. We tend to forget that no pre-determined rules exist. Who determines what an academic job should look like, or how an academic should behave?

Many academics are addicted to their work and have little to no time for a social life, or other interests. Well, I don’t want that life. I love my academic work, but I also love time off to explore my other interests. Yes, I’m an academic, but I am also a writer, a woman, a rock climber, a wife, a daughter, a public speaker, and a friend. Those identities are important too.

You are also a writer. That’s another way your work deviates from the academic norm. Do you experience a conflict between pursuing academic impact and general impact?

I’ve always seen my writing skills as a strength. After my fieldwork on poverty and slum life, it felt extremely important to me to share what I had learned with as many people as I possibly could. I felt it was my job, in a way, to tell the stories of the people I’d met in the field – people who would remain voiceless, otherwise. So I wrote an academic monograph in which I developed a social theory on poverty and risk behaviour, but I also wrote a popular non-fiction book, and several articles on why it is often so difficult for people to escape poverty.

When I’d spent years of research studying people who lived or worked in risky circumstances, including extreme athletes, humanitarian aid workers and soldiers, I did something similar: I wrote academic articles for colleagues in my field, but I also wrote a non-fiction book in which I shared the main lessons on fear management I’d learned from my interviewees. As a spin-off I developed on-and offline training programmes to help people overcome common fears like stage fright, a fear of failure, fear of driving a car or flying.

This may be an unconventional path in academia, and I’m sure some of my colleagues will think my approach is too popular, or not complex enough to deserve the academic label. But I firmly disagree. Why do social research, if hardly anyone can learn about the findings? Aren’t we supposed to do stuff that is relevant and not only to an elite group of highly-educated, jargon speaking colleagues? If I, as an academic, am capable of communicating my research in a way that people are eventually helped by the research– then it is my responsibility (and joy) to do so.

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolt of how you do all this. How do you get your writing done?

I use a number of strategies that help me be productive. I have a rule of thumb of four hours of output a day – that’s the actual, complex work that I do, like writing an academic article -, and four hours of input – that’s finding inspiration, learning new things and refuelling my creativity, and four hours of rest, recharging and relaxation. I never start my day checking my Email – that only distracts me from my long-term goals. Instead, I start my day with journaling to set clear intentions for the day, and reading non-fiction books that I find inspiring. Then I move on to my ‘productive’ phase of four hours. I start with my most important task. The afternoons are for reading, listening to podcasts, learning new things that interest me or following webinars or online trainings. Currently, I’m inspired by themes such as minimalism, the warrior mind and high productivity, and empathic activism. I also like to go climbing in the afternoon, or walk with my dog. Exercise, to me, is not a luxury. It’s part of my job: I need to be able to think clearly in order to be a good academic, and physical exercise is a great way to do so.

When it comes to writing I always start with a pen and paper, a good cup of coffee and a quiet mind, to think about what my main message is. One useful tactic I use is to ask: if a ghost writer would do this job for me, then what would I tell her to write? How would I explain to her what my puzzle is, what I found, or what fascinates me? How would I explain it to a student? The trick is to write down the answers; then stop for the day – continue the next.

It’s most effective to do this kind of creative work in short bursts rather than forcing yourself to think for an hour or longer. Our brains prefer short peaks of maximum activity, followed by a break of several hours. During this break I try to find distraction. I do easy, practical work, or read something that inspires me. I’ve planted the seed of the question, now I give it time to ripen – the answer will come after several hours or days.

Taking time to reflect and think also helps avoid a common trap: writing (low-quality) articles solely for the sake of getting published. Yes, such articles count towards your publication record, but they do not develop your thinking or add to your body of work in a substantive way. They won’t make you sigh with pride after you’ve written them; at most, you’ll sigh because you’re relieved they’re done and over with! That’s not the way I like to work, and I know for many early career academics, it’s not the way they would prefer to work either – only they may know no other way. Above all I propose we write with a sense of urgency and longing. Personally, I want to feel joy in the creative process that writing essentially is – even academic writing!

Are there any specific PhD writing tips you’d like to share?

What is specific about a PhD, is that it is a long process – a marathon, rather than a sprint. This means PhD students need to look after themselves. They have to keep their energy and creativity high for months and years in a row, despite the on-going criticism they will inevitably receive, the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are doing a ‘real’ job, the stress that sometimes comes with supervision, etcetera. Taking your own needs seriously is crucial for such a marathon job. For most, it means making sure to take plenty of breaks from work, live healthy, work out, and find support in peers or others who can make you feel less lonely.

It is also important to factor in what I call ‘buffer time’. Everything always takes longer than you’d like – especially getting published – and even when you think you’re done, you are most likely not yet done. You need to anticipate that you will have to edit and amend more than you’d hoped for – it’s a normal part of the process. It takes a while to get used to these very long timelines, and to make sure you have the resources for the long haul.

You have studied fear, and how to overcome it. I am sure this is relevant in academia. The mountains PhDs climb are not the physical kind, like the ones you climb in your free time, but that doesn’t mean fear doesn’t strike! What to do when fear of writing gets the better of you?

Generally, PhD students have high standards and grand ambitions. They are also insecure. That’s only natural – essentially, it’s the job of their supervisors and their committee to constantly criticize the work they hand in, and so a PhD student is faced with a lot of harsh words. It’s the job of the PhD student to remind herself that this criticism does not mean she is not doing well. It simply means she is exactly where she needs to be. She needs to keep herself mentally fit, practice self-care, make sure she has a supportive circle around her, rest, and continue her work.

I work with people who struggle with a fear of failure a lot, and I myself have struggled with it throughout my career. One good piece of advice, which suits the mountain metaphor you came up with may be useful here. I learned it when I was studying mountaineers and other extreme athletes, to learn about their risk-taking behaviour and their fear management strategies. When mountaineers climb, they don’t look at the top. It would seem too far away, they would be overwhelmed with a fear of not being able to ever get there. Instead, they only look at their feet – and the first metre ahead. As long as they keep their heads down, literally, hour after hour, they will get closer to the top, and they will be reminded of their progress and hence stay confident. I think this is an amazingly apt metaphor for the writing life.

You are soon starting with a year-long programme that helps people be more productive and successful. I will be participating in the programme myself, and I am so looking forward to it. Can you tell us a little about the programme and how it came about?

I’d been given lectures and workshops about what I call ‘stress-free productivity’ for some years now, and recently decided to turn it into an online training programme to make it accessible and affordable for more people. The programme will run from 1 January 2018 onwards – but before that participants will already receive planners and other tools to help them set their goals. People who join me will not only learn the most effective time management skills, but we will also implement them as we work together on our personal projects. We’re in this together. Me from my computer; you, from yours. Each week, 12 months, for 52 weeks, myself and the other participants are there to advise you when you get stuck, help you overcome self-doubt, and get you in touch with exactly the right people, networks and tools to get you where you want to be. It is be the most complete training programme I have ever developed, and I can’t wait to get started!

Alright, let’s all sign up. If you are interested in joining Roanne’s ‘One Year of Focus and Success’ programme, you can get all the details here. Choose the affiliate option at check out, and you will get a €100 discount. Be quick! Offer expires Tuesday December 12th. (Small print: I don’t receive any money from Roanne when you sign up through me. Academics need more support and I believe her programme contributes to that cause.) As always, if you found this article useful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

‘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.













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!

‘How to write a PhD’ with Eva Lantsoght

Eva LantsoghtDr. Eva Lantsoght received her PhD in civil engineering at TU Delft, the Netherlands, last summer. She talks about her PhD experience, and about how PhD productivity and self-care relate to each other.

I am excited to introduce to you dr. Eva Lantsoght. Excited, because she very much lives what I like to call the ‘new’ academic lifestyle. That is, she is an academic who takes very good care of herself, her energy and her time. She practices yoga, she meditates, and if you follow her on twitter you know she is productive and prolific. Her blog PhDTalk, which she started at the beginning of the 2nd year of her PhD programme, is an excellent resource for anyone writing a PhD. Go over and have a look. I was interested to hear from Eva about her routines and practices, and how they affected her PhD experience. Let’s hear it.

Eva’s top 10 tips for writing a PhD:

    1. Your life does not depend on your PhD. It’s the other way around: the quality of your PhD depends on how much of a life you are having.
    2. Take care of yourself: a tired brain won’t move science forward.
    3. Feeling stuck? Take a break. Don’t keep working harder and harder until you hit rock bottom.
    4. Plan a weekend away from the PhD: relax, refocus and replenish.
    5. Own your work!
    6. Plan for success. Use time-management techniques to keep yourself on track.
    7. Start work early, finish early. Take breaks. (Listen to lab guys).
    8. Sleep well, eat well, journal, do yoga and meditate!
    9. Focus on the positive: add love and record gratitude.
    10. Connect, get informed and get inspired online #phdchat.

AD: Eva, what is your top tip to improve your PhD experience?
Realize that your life does not depend on your PhD. In fact, your PhD and the quality of your focus, will depend pretty much on how much of a life you are having. Simply put: a tired brain won’t come up with novel ideas that push your field of study forward. I’m a terrible perfectionist, and I wanted to do so well on my PhD. At a certain point, I was pushing myself beyond measure, trying to stay on top of my experiments
while working on cases for my funding body. I was in the lab from 8am to 4pm, and then making calculations from 4pm to 10pm. I started making mistakes… That’s when I realized that my brain is not a 24/7 machine. I started to make appointments with myself to go to the gym, and to go home on time to play with my cat, and to make sure I’d get enough hours of sleep. My productivity and number of good ideas started to increase when I made that change.

AD: And what would you advise PhD students who are feeling stuck or lost? PhDs come with rough patches.
EL: Be gentle with yourself. If you have a good relationship with your supervisor(s), let them know that you have hit a rough patch. During the final months of writing my dissertation, I’d plan “refresh and refocus” weekends every now and then: I’d go to the gym, go to read a book in a coffee place in the beautiful city center of Delft, watch a number of TED talks or online lectures, catch up on sleep, cook a big stew or big pot of chili (to freeze portions for whenever I’d need it), etc. Don’t keep working harder and harder until you hit rock bottom. Instead, take a break from your worries and try to refresh your mind.

AD: Was there anything else you wish you’d known that you know now, when you were writing your PhD?
What I learned in my first year, is that doing research is different from doing homework. Suddenly, you are the one in charge of the entire project. It took me some time to realize that I had to take ownership of my project, and determine the direction. And, as I mentioned earlier, I wish I realized from the beginning the value of enough sleep and enough time for exercise and self-care.

AD: You seem to be very prolific. What were your working habits during the PhD? Do you have any productivity tips to share?
EL: I always showed up at my office at 8am in the morning. While that might not be typical behaviour for PhD students, I followed the example of the staff members, and the schedule of the tech guys in the lab. I took a lunch break at noon to go “upstairs” with the other PhD students and lab guys. Whenever I tried to skip lunch to keep on working, they convinced me of the benefit of taking a break and sharing some good laughs. I tried to leave my office between 5pm and 6pm every day as well, and then spend the evening doing things I enjoy…

Early on during my PhD, I attended a 3-day course in which I learned all about planning. Since then, I’ve been making time monthly and weekly to go over my planning, assess my progress, and course-correct where needed. I started to use time-tracking tools (I like ManicTime a lot), to know exactly how much time certain tasks take me – information I used to improve my planning. When I was doing “boring” stuff (plug-and-chuck numbers around in spreadsheets, for example), I’d often blast some music into my earphones, and use the Pomodoro method to get the task done in 25-minute chunks.

AD: Could you tell me a bit about what I call the ‘new’ academic lifestyle. Could you tell me about your self-care practices?
EL: Sure, I really think these habits were crucial to my staying sane throughout my PhD days (and now my freshly-appointed-assistant-professor-days).

AD: Let’s start somewhere- I know you are into yoga: when did you become interested in it, what is your practice like, and how does it benefit your work?
I started practicing yoga at the end of my PhD, while I was working on the comments of my committee and revisions of my dissertation. I felt the need to take “stretching” breaks and I started practicing standing yoga sequences full of balancing poses to train my focus. I also started to follow YouTube yoga classes. As I ended my gym membership and moved away from Delft (and spent some time in the USA, Belgium and then Ecuador), I bought a subscription to a paid online yoga website, and I’ve been using it a lot since then to practice yoga first thing in the morning.

AD: What about meditation? I read your blog on mindfulness, which is the tradition that got me into meditation. What is your practice like?
I used to have a very good meditation habit, sitting on my pillow first thing in the morning, but somehow in the process of moving countries, I lost the habit. I’m trying to bring it back in my daily schedule, but so far with mixed success. So I’ve been on and off with meditation, but I know it’s essential to the well-being of my brain – I really need to strengthen that habit again.

AD: You wrote a wonderful blog on little things you can do to boost your mood. Two of your tips are ‘Love’ and ‘Gratitude’. I believe they are essential muscles that academics in particular need to train. Can you tell me a little about how that works in your own life?
It might sound idealistic, but I think our world is deprived of love, and I try to radiate a bit of love to all beings I encounter (which doesn’t mean I never lose my patience or snap at anyone, but my intentions are loving). Loving-kindness is an essential part of my meditation practice, and I try to bring some of that into my everyday life. In my journal, I keep a gratitude list, and I write down 10 positive experiences I had every single day to focus on the positive in my life. Even when I think life is horrible, I try to bring a smile to my face and count my blessings, and very often it’s the simple things in life: having been able to have dinner together with my husband, seeing my cat run around in a funny way through the house, etc.

AD: Let’s talk food. I myself have been eating an ever-healthier diet the past years. For me, now, it has to do with my health issues, and my current diet would probably be too extreme for most, even though I try and keep it delicious within the restrictions. That said, if there is one habit that I would have changed when I was working on my PhD, it would have been cutting back on sugar and carbs (though, easier said than done when you’re writing a PhD in Italy: The spaghetti! The ice cream! Italy is carb heaven). In the past I often relied on sugar highs to give me productivity highs. But I used to crash afterwards. I find eating a no-sugar low-carb diet keeps my energy levels and mood far more stable. What about you?
EL: I’ve always been rather picky about food. My mom is an excellent cook, and for that reason I turn away in horror from most food court / university cantina food. I always cooked as a student (although most often limited to veggie burgers with frozen veggies – as my friends like to recall), and during my PhD, I became more organized: I learned to cook batches of stews and chilies, used to shop for food once a week, and right after that, chop and cook a few days’ worth of vegetables. I’m not vegetarian, although I mostly eat plants – I’ve learned that these give me and my brain the best imaginable fuel. Sugar and greasy fare typically make me drowsy and sleepy (although that doesn’t mean I can always stay clear of these temptations).

AD: You sound quite busy. Are you someone who can work late? I myself am not. In the early years of writing my PhD my cut-off point would be 6 pm, or in the extreme case 7.30 pm. Any later than that and I couldn’t sleep. Now, I try to stay away from the computer after 4pm. Not that I am managing at the moment. But in an ideal world I wouldn’t be on my computer/ online in the evening.
I usually have a quiet evening routine, that leaves me time for journaling and reading in bed before I go to sleep. I can’t stay working on my computer until 10pm, then roll into bed, close my eyes and fall asleep – I need to zone out at the end of the day to enjoy a good night’s rest.

AD: Finally, completely different topic: you are very active on twitter and social media. How can PhD students use these media to their advantage?
When using the internet, there’s always a risk of getting “sucked in” and waste a lot of time. That said, however, I think PhD students can use social media platforms to their advantage: by learning from people in the same field, or by reaching out to PhD students worldwide who might be experiencing just the same feelings/struggles/joys as you (for that reason, I love the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter). There’s a ton of information on the internet, in blogs of fellow PhD students or academics, and much of that gets shared on these social media platforms – so you can browse the “headlines” and see what might be of interest to you (an article about writing, maybe, or a blog post about someone’s experiences in the lab?). In my experience, Twitter is also a great platform to reach out to the industry – by reading information that companies in your field post, and then interacting with them.

Thanks Eva!

If you are inspired to give yoga a try, following our yogi lead, but can’t find a local yoga school, or if you travel a lot, give online classes a go. Eva likes http://www.myyogaonline.com, while I have used www.yogaglo.com in the past. Two very good places to start.

‘How to write a PhD’ with Jørgen Møller

Fotograf_Ove_Smedegaard__5_-1Dr. Jørgen Møller, associate professor in political science at Aarhus University, Denmark shares his PhD experience, and strategies on writing and getting published.

Jørgen was the first of our PhD cohort at the EUI to defend his PhD, after a very short three years. He was the first to finish his PhD, while I was the last!* What I remember from our time at the EUI is that Jørgen seemed to have his PhD under control from the very start, something I didn’t quite manage until the latter stages of the PhD. He worked and published steadily, and I remember being quite envious of his (apparently) steady state, when my work felt unruly at best. I finally had the chance to ask him how he did it all. In our interview he shares how he managed to finish his PhD in three years, how writing and publishing on the side can keep your PhD on track, and how to go about publishing your papers and dealing with rejection along the way.

Jørgen’s top 10 tips for writing a PhD:

  1. Work expands to the time allotted. Finishing a PhD in three years was possible because I had to. Much more work could have gone into it, but then, more work can always go into it.
  2. Work on your thesis first thing in the morning. Then read and take care of other commitments the rest of the day.
  3. Work on other smaller projects besides your thesis. Finishing shorter articles, for a newspaper or a periodical provides the sort of short-term satisfaction that is lacking in a slow-moving project like a PhD.
  4. Slice your thesis into manageable parts that can be worked on, completed and published independently.
  5. Flesh out a tentative structure for your thesis from the beginning. Find out what a defendable thesis consists of and looks like.
  6. Getting published is part luck, part thorough preparation. Get plenty of feedback on your paper from peers before sending it in for publication. Make sure your paper follows the standards in your field when it comes to structure, theorizing, methods etc.
  7. Do not panic when your paper gets rejected. Most papers get rejected most of the time.
  8. Don’t view a rejection as a defeat or of evidence of lack of quality. See it as a part of the process, and use rejections constructively to further develop your paper.
  9. The first step to getting published is to write a paper. No paper means no published paper. Submitting your paper to journals also helps.
  10. Quality over quantity. Write really interesting stuff.

AD: Jørgen, You were the only one in our PhD cohort at the EUI who managed to finish your PhD in 3 years. How did you do it?
JM: This was partly dictated by circumstances. My wife was eager to return home after the second year. Right after that she got pregnant and we wanted to get settled back in Denmark before she gave birth. So, I had to speed up the process. In a way I think it was a blessing as it made me accept that the thesis should be handed in, even if much more work could have gone into it. In hindsight, that was a correct move, not least because I had plenty of time to revise it for publication later. However, I was also so lucky as to have a supportive supervisor who accepted that speed was of the essence in my situation.
I had my research question relatively clear from the beginning. That also helped. It was a very broad question, which was refined and narrowed down over the years. Once you are clear on what to research, the process becomes much easier.

AD: What were your working habits during the PhD?
JM: I would write in the mornings (say from 8:00-11:00) and then read and take care of other stuff the rest of the day. I also recall working most Saturdays. But I made sure to work on other things than my thesis. For instance, I did a lot of journalism on the side, which meant that I had small products which would be quickly finished. That was a kind of mental valve that made me feel that I had got something done, even when things were not moving much with the thesis. This was especially important at the EUI, where one does not teach as a PhD student, meaning that the thesis really dominates the working day.

AD: What factors are essential to get ‘right’, to write a PhD smoothly?
JM: I think it is important to be able to ‘slice’ the thesis into manageable parts. Nowadays, this is often done via the so-called ‘paper model’, where the thesis is comprised of a series of papers that (ideally) address aspects of one common research question. Without thinking so much about it, I organized my monograph in a relatively similar way. Another advantage of this model is that it allows you to start working on the first paper early on in the process.

AD: Were there any things you wish you’d known that you know now, when you were writing your PhD?
JM: When I began at the EUI in the summer of 2004, things were less structured than they are in our PhD school in Aarhus. I am not sure I completely understood what a thesis was until I got about a year into the process. It would have been good to have been forced to flesh out a tentative structure from the beginning.

AD: You published your first paper quite some time before you finished the PhD. How did you go about getting published, and what is your advice for PhD students who don’t have a publication to their name yet?
JM: I had my first article accepted a year into the PhD in ‘East European Politics and Society’. I don’t remember why I choose that outlet. I think I was somewhat lucky that the paper was accepted. My advice would be not to panic and to recall that everyone gets rejects along the way. Other than that, it is a very good idea to circulate one’s paper to relevant peers and get pre-reviews which one tackles. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you will convince the reviewers (who might incidentally be the same people). Also, it is of course important to follow industry standards with respect to structure, theorizing and methods. One way of doing this is simply to scan good papers in the journal that one wishes to submit to and get inspired with respect to the structure. Find out how to phrase the research question and how to present expectations, discuss the methodology, interpret the findings and so on. It is stupid to be rejected based on form.

AD: What are your thoughts on the process of getting published and the reviews and rejections that come with it? What is the right way to approach this process?
JM: One should see the rejections (or, more particularly, the reviews) as an opportunity to further develop the paper. As such, this is really a part of the working process. And, again, everyone gets rejected some of the time (and most get rejected most of the time). This also goes for top researchers from the best Universities in the States. I have met top researchers telling me that this or that paper was rejected in four, five or six journals before finally being accepted. So, it is important not to view rejections as defeats or evidence of lack of quality – but instead to use them constructively.

AD: You are very prolific, and seem to effortlessly produce a steady stream of publications. How do you do it? Any tips?
JM: Though it is a trivial point, one needs to write up the articles and submit them, to get them accepted. It is important not to be afraid of the paper, or of rejections. Cooperation with other scholars is really good as it both tends to strengthen the quality and to ensure one’s own commitment. Also, having things accepted is more fun where you have someone to share the satisfaction with, and rejections are easier to swallow when not getting them alone. As mentioned above, one also benefits from presenting and circulating the papers, something that tends to give a good flow to the working process as new comments have to be taken into consideration. But there is also a danger of quantity crowding out quality. I would not necessarily recommend being very prolific, not if it happens at the expense of making really interesting stuff.

AD: You also published in newspapers when you were at the EUI. What are your thoughts on PhD students publishing in the mainstream media?
JM: As mentioned above, that worked as a kind of mental valve for me. What I did was mostly to communicate the finding of new research in a weekly newspaper. I think that is an obvious thing to do for a PhD student, who would like to finish something and to sharpen his/her writing and presentation.

Thanks Jørgen!

*I grudgingly report that Jørgen wasn’t just faster than me, he was also better; though, and I emphasise this point, by only the narrowest of margins. Both our PhDs were selected as being the best EUI political science thesis in the year we defended, and were submitted for the ECPR Jean Blondel prize. Neither of us won the prize (obvious mistakes by the jury). His was the best out of 36, mine out of 34. It’s a sad life. I don’t think I am ever going to beat Jørgen at anything.

‘How to write a PhD’ with Andrew Glencross

Recently, I had the chance to talk to Andrew Glencross, currently lecturer in International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, about his PhD experience, and his advice to current PhD students. We were colleagues at the EUI, where he defended his thesis in 2007 (and I took a little longer). He describes himself as an ‘accidental academic’, in the sense that he got into university at the age of 18, and is somehow still there now, going on 34. But when you talk to him, you realise rather quickly that academia has hardly incorporated him by mistake. Schooled at Cambridge and as he calls it ‘socialised in academia’, he knows a thing or two about how academia works. You can read the whole interview here or download the pdf here.

Topics we discussed:

–       Improving focus and productivity by increasing self-awareness

–       Improving productivity by increasing your ‘PhD-awareness’

–       How to deal with criticism and why it’s an essential skill for academics to master

–       How to get the most out of supervision: how to deal with unavailable or critical supervisors

–       How criticism is an integral part of the academic trajectory, and questions you should ask yourself before you choose to pursue that path

Teaser alert:

We also discussed how to reduce the likelihood of being perceived as a ‘tiny fish’ by your supervisor; why academics, unlike novelists (unfortunately) aren’t allowed to have meltdowns; and when is the right time to wear heels and get drunk (or, in Andrew’s case: get drunk – without the heels).

Andrew’s tips for writing a PhD more easily include:

  1. Be aware of your own productivity. When are you productive? When have you stopped being productive, in a given workday or in a given task? Instead of counting hours ask yourself: “What have I done to actually progress?”
  2. Increase your PhD-awareness. Be aware of what constitutes a PhD: its purpose and its constituent parts.
  3. Avoid having a meltdown when you’re criticised. Criticism in academia is abstract, not personal. Be aware of that.
  4. Expose yourself to criticism. Dealing with criticism is a cumulative experience. Build up your resources and experience to develop the self-confidence needed.
  5. Get your expectations right regarding the supervisory relationship: don’t expect a ‘deus ex machina’ solution.
  6. Prepare your supervision meetings in-depth. Draw up a list regarding what you want to talk about prior to the meeting, and be prepared to discuss your work orally in the event your supervisor did not read your work as well as you had hoped (or at all).
  7. Record your supervision meetings, so you have a record of what was said, and you can work with any criticism more constructively and strategically.
  8. If dealing with criticism becomes a problem, don’t let it fester. Persevere and work through it.
  9. Ask yourself whether you’re adept at responding to criticism, before deciding to pursue an academic career. Criticism becomes harder and more discriminating down the road.
  10. Don’t forget to celebrate your academic successes. Celebrate all that you’ve gone through, when you finally see something in print.

Curious to know more? Read the whole interview here or download the pdf here. Liked it? Please share!