Your Thesis Defence: Prepare to Defend!

I like the expression ‘thesis defence’ as it captures exactly what a PhD viva is about: you are defending your work. You are not just presenting, you are defending. Like a sword fight. (A friendly one, mostly.)

I attended a thesis defence last week, and it reminded me of the first thesis defence I ever went to. My supervisor had advised me to go; my colleague’s work had been very well received, and he considered her thesis a must-read. Much to his chagrin, the defence didn’t go so well. Not because she didn’t know what she was talking about, quite to the contrary, but because she refused to defend her findings and choices. Whenever one of the committee members brought up a limitation of her thesis, she would reply by acquiescing: indeed, she saw it was a limitation, she had to draw a line somewhere etc. When she was asked about her case selection, or something along those lines, she answered they were arbitrary, in a way. She could have used other cases. The point of course, is that she could have used other cases, but she didn’t. Why did she choose the cases she chose? Even if the choice in reality was a pragmatic and arbitrary one, why was it a good choice to make? In other words: she refused to defend her work. The committee members were really annoyed, I remember that very well.

So this is today’s thesis defence tip: make sure you are ready to defend your choices and your argument. This is about convincing others of why your work is relevant (in a non-grandiose way), not why it is arbitrary. In the grand scheme of things, maybe nothing is truly relevant — we are all just specks of dust— but that isn’t the case you want to be making…

You probably spend a lot of time thinking about your work’s shortcomings. Shortcomings are not a problem. They are an integral part of academic work. But what about your contribution? It is something PhDs aren’t always trained to think about. Academics know how to tear (their) work down, but do they know how to build their case? I remember in my own training I once went to my supervisor and told her I thought I didn’t know how to answer questions. She laughed it off. (It was very funny apparently!) But it spoke directly to what I witnessed at these thesis defences. In my own experience, once you get the hang of defending your work, it is such a thrill. You are the one who made the choices you made, and you get to defend why you chose to do so in this way rather than another. After breaking it down you get to build it up and defend what you made. And you can do so precisely because you know exactly what the limitations of your work are. They define not only what isn’t there, but also what is.

You can practice this by simply answering with positive answers that defend your choices. Ask yourself: does my answer contribute to the debate? That’s what distinguishes a good answer from a not so good one.

Is the finish line in sight? Never too late to take the HappyPhD Course to help you over the last few hurdles… If you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.”

A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. Waiting, waiting, waiting, then shooting for the stars, for better or worse. It is up or out. Jump though the elusive hoop to have a shot at a life in the academy.

The rigid (sometimes crazy) ways academics’ performances are assessed has negative consequences for science itself, that was the main message of the panel. It negatively affects the quality of knowledge generated and published, it causes rivalries between camps and tunnel vision within disciplines, and it leads to a culture of counting, over content. Oh, and it is really bad for young researchers, who are increasingly ‘writing to the test’, aiming at achieving within the system, no matter the costs.

Heckman showed a graph of how much more difficult it has become to land a publication in a top journal. The field has grown, submissions have increased, and acceptance rates have plunged. The golden tip of the academic pyramid is increasingly out of reach. Yet entering it, even only once, is increasingly seen as as necessary for building a reputation and a career.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.26.33

All of this made me scratch my head. Why is it no surprise that life in academia feels like a rat race? (Because it is!!) Why is it no surprise that so many researchers are stressed to the limit? In Economics it is the top five, but it seems every field has its own version. Always running to meet that next measure of performance. We’re never there. There’s always a new metric looming around the corner.

There are no immediate solutions for this conundrum, if there were I am sure the Nobel prize winner and co would have come up with something! Seems academia is stuck with systems that are not necessarily good for science, or academics, for now. At a personal level I feel it asks for a certain resolve to live and work (and ‘perform’) well no matter the rules set by the system. Rules that are often unfair, arbitrary, and rigged against you. Lots of fun!

Some thoughts:

Know the ‘rules’

It’s important to understand the pressures you are subject to. Study them, so you know where they start and end, and to avoid becoming trapped by them. Whatever the performance metrics are in your field and situation, whether it is the deadline for the first draft of your thesis, or getting that top publication to get tenure, get to know how the system works. Look at the structure of it. How exactly is ‘performance’ measured? What counts and what doesn’t? What is expected of people? How realistic are these expectations? Be aware of the rules of the game, seeing it for what it is: a system, a set of concepts, nothing that can ultimately validate or invalidate you. It will allow you to play the academic game with your eyes wide open. (Personally, I wish I’d been more savvy about this in my PhD years. I wish I’d asked my supervisor for more help in figuring out what the written and unwritten rules of the game were.)

Don’t internalise the rules

This is the difficult part. It is all right for professor Heckman to say he doesn’t believe in citations, but what if your evaluations, and whether you have a job at all, depend on it? I really believe that a rebel mindset is the only thing that can save us! (The alternative: internalising the system, but in that case if you lose, what are you going to do? Consider yourself a failure until the end of days? Hm.) Playing along with the rules to the degree you feel you have to is important, but so is remaining fiercely aware it is an impersonal, often arbitrary system. It’s vital to not let it near the way you value yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you lies about how competition or metrics create the best science or researchers. (Maybe refer them to Heckman’s talk!) Resist the oversimplifications. Resist the tendency to measure yourself by your institution’s yardstick. (This often happens without you noticing. All of a sudden you care too much about that dreaded deadline!!!)

Your own terms of success

I read a Camus quote the other day: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I liked it. You don’t want your mind loops to start mirroring those of your institution. Nope. Not allowing that to happen. What would be the alternative? What are your own terms of success? What is your own value and reward system? Make sure it is kinder than that of your university. How would you live if you didn’t care about citations or deadlines? (So free!!! This is the part I like.)

Intrinsic motivation

Remind yourself of why you do the work you do. What makes you light up? What is the story you need to tell? What are the data you need to present? Why do you care? What paper is yours to write? What’s your argument? Where does the excitement live? Nurture it. Keep it alive. One of the participants in the EASA panel noted: ‘We don’t want to shrink our world. This I think is shrinking our world.’ Once you get lost in the meta-world of races and achievement, you lose what is so powerful: content, intrinsic value, and intrinsic motivation. Don’t let the system shrink your world. (Here you get to live your ‘romance’ with your work. This is it.)

Focus on habits, not goals

If goals are increasingly arbitrary, increasingly elusive, but meeting these goals increasingly important, how to handle the pressure? One way is to shift from focusing on goals, to focusing on the habits you have in place to achieve those goals. You have no control over whether your paper will be published or where, but you do have control over how you write that paper (more control, at least). Focusing on your small achievements every day really helps. (I have written lots about working in waves, and other ways to enhance your productivity before, see the productivity tag)

The good life

What, in or outside of work, gives you joy, pleasure, fulfilment? It is impossible to not get dragged down by the pressure, the measuring and the rejections, from time to time. You need copious antidotes in your life. A shield of them! Small pleasures, and bigger ones. What makes you come alive? What are you grateful for? What makes you forget about the stresses of work for a bit? Who are your friends outside of academic life? Do those things. Notice those things. Be with these people. Wellbeing is a skill (to a degree). If you are attuned to the good in your life, the negative holds less power. (Very true. Small shift in perception makes for a very different life.)

What are your experiences with performance metrics? Do you have a way of working with the system without losing yourself? For more support: The HappyPhD Course will help you create a productivity system in which you set the rules, not your university. It will help you bounce back faster, and stay on track, also when you’re faced with deadlines, pressure, and inevitable rejection along the way. If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself?

Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist myth. Suffering (though the vulnerable part of it must stay strictly private) gives us an edge, an indication we are doing it ‘right’. It is supposed to be hard. And we are supposed to do it all by ourselves.

I could skip straight to some ways you might be able to better support yourself, but I thought I’d tell a tale first. Stay with me. It is related. It is about Trump voters. (If you are sick of Trump, I am sorry!!)

I read a book, and since I read it I understand Trump voters.
True.
You should read it.

It is: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right’ by Arlie Hochschild. She spent five years (!) living in Louisiana, making friends with Tea Party enthusiasts, and trying her very best to get past the empathy wall, as she calls it. It is such a good read. (A concerning read also.) Hochschild’s fascination are the paradoxes, the way people applaud policies that may harm them directly or indirectly. The specific paradox she had in mind when she came to Louisiana was why people in poor, severely polluted industrial areas approve of a repeal of even a minimum of environmental and protective regulations.

Many of the folks she got to know much appreciated outdoor life: they fish, they hunt, they spend time in nature. How to understand why people actively support the poisoning of their waters, their fish, their land? How to understand why people actively support policies that allow themselves, their neighbours, their children, to get sick and even die from toxin-induced illnesses directly related to the industry on their doorstep? The stories in the book are shocking, yet people stand by their convictions. Regulation is bad. Protection is bad. We want less of it not more.

Why so reckless?
How to square this circle?

According to Hochschild, a sociologist, emotional self-interest, as opposed to rational or economic self-interest, is an important part of the answer. People care about how life feels to them, and how it makes them feel about themselves, above all else. She tells us we all have a subjective, internalised narrative that fuels how we see the world. She calls this our ‘deep story’. It is a narrative to make sense of it all. And we tend to reject facts incompatible with these narratives. (Well, that explains 2016.)

Hochschild tells one story of a safety inspector at one of the industrial plants in charge of installing air quality monitors. “To set up the monitors” he recalls, “I wore a respirator. Some of the guys started to taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they did. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”

Not shying away from danger is a source of honour for these guys, it is considered bravery. Not wearing protective gear says: “I’m strong, I can take it.” It doesn’t really matter whether or not their health is severely affected, whether it makes them sick. Copping to that would make them appear weak.

In her book Hochschild names this archetype The Cowboy. It relates to stoicism.

When I read the passage I felt myself retreating further and further to the liberal side of the empathy wall. How can people be so stupid?! Sure, let all your teeth fall out and in time die an entirely preventable premature death in the name of honour, why don’t you?

Yet ten minutes later I realised there are so many ways we do this in our own lives. It may be less extreme and less blatantly obvious, also because we are blind to our own emotion-based narratives.

In the big picture one way academics do this, I realised, is though the culture of overwork and over-identification with work. Rationally it makes very little sense, but don’t tell anybody! It is important to us!

On a smaller, personal, scale we may be toughing things out in true Cowboy-style, when help and (self-)protection are available.

When I was at the EUI I never used the (free) counselling service, as I thought that was for when you had ‘real’ problems. I also didn’t take the mindfulness course on offer as I didn’t really see how that related to my PhD. The academic culture was one where help was there, but only on the periphery. And you didn’t (want to) identify as being out there, I suppose. The university certainly didn’t help. Looking after yourself and performing well at work certainly weren’t overtly linked in a positive way.

What a difference compared to some of the corporate workplaces I know of where getting help and lifestyle are at the heart of what they call: high performance. Think Google. A friend of mine who works at one of the large consulting firms lent me a book from a two-day workshop they collectively attended: Sink, Float or Swim: Sustainable High Performance Doesn’t Happen by Chance — It Happens by Choice. It was all about looking after yourself, eating right, rest, mindset etc. Self-care! How un-Cowboy. (Though the narrative that it is the individual who ‘chooses’ success, is pretty Cowboy in its own right).

What is the real indicator of strength and bravery: being able to tough it out, not needing any protective gear or strategies, not needing anyone else’s advice or guidance, doing it all relying on your own strength and stamina? Or taking precautions, protecting yourself from unnecessary risk, going against the norm, being ‘smart’ about it? Which stories do we tell ourselves?

I thought it an interesting question.

How might you better support yourself, and be a little less Cowboy? Any programmes or help your university offers you might benefit from? The HappyPhD course may be exactly what you’re looking for. As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it.

Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, 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.

 

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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!

The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it. Also: if you missed the first edition of ‘The Nudge’ on shortening your workday, it is now available as a free mini course. Sign up for it below to be treated to five days of encouragement to help shorten your workday but getting as much or more done!

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Building Your Academic Network

Disclaimer: This isn’t a post which will give you ‘Ten tips to network at academic conferences’. I don’t think it quite works like that. Building a ‘network’ isn’t the academic equivalent of cold calling. It is about building relationships with your academic peers and mentors…

Imagine your academic field as a giant global network of scholars, some of whom work together (and some of whom will absolutely not!), and all of whom together shape the current academic debate on your topic. This will include the top scholars, as well as academics in your department (your supervisors perhaps), other departments nationally and internationally, and your peers working on similar topics. Academia can sometimes feel like an increasingly competitive environment (because it is) in a way that makes you feel isolated and alone, competing for scarce resources. This network idea may help you see it from a different angle: your connections here matter. It is through these connections that academic debate takes place, and joint work or other opportunities arise.

Before I go on let me say this: you belong in this network.

This tends to be a concern in the first years of the PhD: it is common to not yet know ‘who you are’ academically, and you may feel apologetic about your still very much unformed work. Engaging with other academics seems premature, because what if you have nothing to say?

The short answer to this is: building relationships with academics is about shared interests (and I mean in terms of ideas and ‘interesting’ here – not in terms of short-term mutual gain. The gain part comes later). You don’t have to have spectacular results to discuss, your PhD ideas don’t have to be all developed and researched yet. You have four years to do all that, so don’t worry about it. The connection lies in where your interests overlap with theirs. How does your research overlap with theirs? What questions are you asking? That is how you connect.

A few places to get started:

1. Your Supervisor

Your supervisor is a key figure in introducing you to the academic field. It is his/ her connections that will help you position yourself initially. Some supervisors are great at this, and specifically foster these connections in a way that benefits their PhD candidates, others not quite as much. But even if your supervisor isn’t that helpful he/ she will have contacts that might be useful. Think in terms of what aspects of your work you’d like to discuss with someone… In my own case, my supervisor put me in touch with colleagues who gave me advice on those parts of my thesis that were not his specialty (methodological issues mainly), and also with others working on similar topics to mine. Some of these meetings were one-offs, but even so they not only provided input for my thesis, and also helped me introduce myself as a new scholar in the field.

2. The Literature

Get to know the people working in your field. Who are these people? What are their ideas and interests? All those references at the end of your chapter… they are researchers thinking (or having thought) about similar puzzles to yours. It’s an aspect of academic work I particularly love: it is never just our own work, we are building on so much thinking others have done already. Some of these conversations may go ‘live’ if you get in touch. The most viable of these relationships are not necessarily those with the ‘important figures’ in your field. Horizontal networks are more accessible, and have a better chance of developing into worthwhile work relationships.

3. Research meetings/ conferences

Are there research meetings locally you could go to? Working groups that discuss similar topics, lunch seminars? All places where you might meet like-minded researchers. Conferences also fall in this category. Might you co-organise a panel/ present a paper? Is there any way you could get involved? Take some time to think about it, and fit it into your weekly/ yearly schedule. It may be tempting to want to hide and focus solely on writing if you feel you are ‘behind’ with your work, especially if papers discussed at lunch seminars or other events are not directly relevant to what you’re doing. Go anyway. It is important to simply show up. Don’t underestimate the act of being visible. (It was one of the hardest aspects of finishing my PhD for me. You really don’t want to be stuck at home finishing your PhD in a massive solo effort. Not only in terms of feeling isolated, but also in terms of dropping out of valuable professional networks (can actually be fun!), because of your absence.)

4. Your peers/ current colleagues

The people you associate with daily are automatically part of your network, for better of for worse! Interestingly, some of these relationships may not seem to matter or even exist in the moment, but they may become important many years down the road… In some academic settings co-authorship is highly encouraged and people do collaborate. In others not so much, but there may be other ways to discuss your work. This too may go well or not – personally I had mixed results. (It was great working with one colleague on a shared presentation of our work, lots of good ideas generated; but another plagiarised practically the entire methods section of a paper in progress…ouch) Overall I don’t believe in an overly defensive attitude to academic work – it takes all the joy out of it – but make sure you share the right information with the right people!

Building your academic network has a fast and a slow part. The fast part involves actively contacting people whose work you’re interested in and who might be interested in what you do. Preferably you’ll be introduced by a third party, but if that’s not possible you can always introduce yourself, which is very much okay as long as you don’t over-impose. Be sensitive: make sure what you ask of them is proportionate, and don’t waste their time. That said, if there is indeed an overlap of research interests, if they can help you, or you can help them, they mostly will, and enthusiastically so. Case to illustrate: I worked with someone over the first half of the year who hasn’t started a PhD yet, but does have a very good idea and written outline of what she would like to do (she didn’t think it was ‘good enough’ yet, but it was!). She must be the queen of academic networking: she by now has spoken to a whole list of people who are introducing her to their networks also, and are discussing and commenting on her PhD proposal and ideas. Last I’ve heard she hadn’t yet accepted a PhD position, but I won’t be surprised if she has multiple opportunities lined up. She is the best example of how quickly your academic network can form, and of not needing to have finished a PhD to ‘belong’. She belongs already, and she hasn’t even started.

The slow part is the network that forms without you doing anything much in particular, apart from being somewhat social. Your supervisor will be in it, as will your colleagues, friends, past mentors, and academics you meet along the way. It is these networks that are invaluable. This can’t be forced, really. Some people try and strategically align, and look at every meeting and person as a ‘networking opportunity’. I don’t believe the model of focusing on your own interests in this way is the best model… You don’t really want to be involved with the person who only contacts you when he needs something from you (I have someone specific in mind – he used to be a colleague of mine, and his attitude is insufferable. Oh, you got an email from him? What did he need from you this time??). Not the best approach.

Is your academic network taking shape? Any actions you could take to make new connections? If you need advice on how to approach your supervisor about it…sign up for the HappyPhD course. It covers how to get the most out of the supervision relationship. If you found this post useful, could you share it, or like it? I appreciate it!

The Nudge: Coming to You Next Week

In academia workdays never seem to end. Firstly because there’s a culture of long hours (which isn’t necessarily the best way to go about it), and secondly because it just never ends…even when you’re not working, the project is still on your mind. The two combined can make for exhaustion and discouragement. I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on how that happens, and what we might do instead. How we might create a schedule that isn’t quite as 24/7. How to work less, but get more done, and feel better too. If this appeals: sign up to receive a week of daily guidance here. I’ll be sending out an email every morning next week, so keep an eye on your inbox!

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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!