The Paradox of Climbing the PhD Hill: Lowering Your Expectations

There is always a fear when doing academic work that you are not up to the job. That your work isn’t ‘good enough’, that you’re not clever enough, perhaps, to deliver what it takes.

But what if you don’t need to be ‘brilliant’? What if it is more about stamina, persevering, sitting with the difficult questions, and keeping at it, pushing your work forward, keeping going one step at a time? What if it is more akin to climbing a hill (let’s not call it a mountain, it’s only a hill and it is absolutely doable, though sometimes it may feel like a mountain) one step at a time, rather than chastising yourself for not being able to magically teleport yourself to the top.

Spoiler alert: there’s no magic involved. It is all about plodding along, and you will get there. That is, providing you keep going, putting one foot in front of the other.

Keeping it small, but keeping going, is the very untheatrical, very practical, and the absolute best way of proceeding. What is the next step? Do it. Then ask yourself again: what is the next step? And the next one. Do not let yourself be derailed by more existential questions of capability. You are capable. If you feel you may not be (hello imposter syndrome!) know it is part of the trail. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

High standards are good and needed in an academic context, but only for the end result. Give yourself permission to have a learning curve in the meantime. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, give yourself permission to not get it right. Give yourself permission to fail, to say or write something that turns out to be dead wrong. (So hard!!)

Give permission for your work to be heavily criticised. It’s okay. It is not personal. It will give you input, ideas to work on. Ideas that will take shape over time. Allow yourself the time to make decisions on what to keep and what to discard. Be okay with the uncertainty of it. It is awfully hard, but it becomes easier once you see how entertaining uncertainty and imperfection helps your work unfold.

Allow your PhD to be a process. That’s a really good idea: because it is a process, whether you like it or not. (And we don’t like it. Because maybe it means we’re not ‘up to it’ if we are not ‘there’ yet. Nooo! Not true. You’re not supposed to be at there yet. But you will get there. You will.)

Very often we don’t even realise our day-to-day standards are excessively high. This is especially true for people who have been always been high-achievers. They are used to achievements coming relatively easily. Writing a PhD is not like that. You rarely get it right the first, second or third draft of a chapter or paper. The process is always slower than you would like. There are always more questions than answers. And there are always flaws, apparent to you or to your supervisor or other readers, who will not hesitate to point them out. It’s never perfect, and your work is never finished.

Expecting perfection is trying to do the impossible. Expecting struggle and failure (however depressing this may sound), and being ok with that is a better strategy. Every ‘failure’ allows you to learn and to move your work ahead. If you get comfortable with failure, you will be in a better place to keep moving forward.

The wrong way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for yourself and your writing every step of the way. If you do this, you are going to be disappointed in yourself every single day of writing your PhD. Let’s not, OK? It’s difficult enough…

The right way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for the finished piece of work only. It means you keep going, re-thinking and revising, until you have reached a high standard of work one small step at a time. You have climbed the hill.

To not be fazed by failure, struggle, and mistakes it helps to recognise that they are normal and to be expected. It has nothing to do with your capabilities. Nothing. If you really get this, and start to see it as part of the process rather than weakness to be overcome, thinking and writing will become easier.

In sum: The paradox of climbing the PhD hill is that high quality of work can only be achieved by lowering your expectations and standards (in the short run!). By accepting the messiness of the process, and by not allowing it to trick you into thinking there is something wrong with you, or your work.

How are you feeling about climbing the PhD hill? Are you progressing steadily? Feeling stuck? Have you considered lowering your expectations to cope? Maybe you can manage an hour of work if a whole day of work feels overwhelming. And if that is too much, maybe you can manage 15 minutes? Perhaps you can write a messy paragraph, instead of a ‘perfect’ one. All progress is progress. As always, if you liked this post, share it? I appreciate it!

HappyPhD Course: Changes Ahead (and 50% off)

I got a message from someone on LinkedIn congratulating me on my 5 year work anniversary: it is apparently five years since I sat down and typed those first words that would develop into the HappyPhD course! Now, five years on, it is time for an update: I will soon be taking the course offline to make space for a new version.

When I wrote the course I did it straight from the heart: I had only recently finished my own PhD and all my experiences were fresh. I put every story that might be of help into the course. It is what you might call ‘authentic’. I assure you it will stay that way, but I have learnt a lot working with PhDs over the past couple of years, and it is time to incorporate these lessons into the course materials, as well as give the course a new, updated look.

Before the old morphs into new I’d like to give you the chance to get the original HappyPhD Course with a really good discount. I know that for some of you money is tight, so I hope this helps. The offer will expire this Friday the 13th of October. After that it won’t be possible to join until the new course is online. (If you sign up now, you will automatically be upgraded to the new version when it is launched…)

What course participants say about the HappyPhD Course:

The course really helped me get unstuck this summer and it was amazing how by removing the fear and self-destructive thoughts that were ruling me, I was able to write a paper (that I had been dreading for 2 years) in less than 2 weeks. The course really helped me quickly build a ‘can do’ attitude that made all the difference. The paper still needs a lot of work, but putting words on paper already felt like such a great achievement.

The course offered a good balance of explanations of why we behave in certain ways, scientific literature on why stress is detrimental and how meditation is helpful AND practical tips that can incrementally help the student build new habits.

I am very happy I took the course. It provided the regiment, the material, the motivation and I felt supported and understood every morning when I read the daily lessons. I found the course effective.

Great course Amber!

3rd year PhD Candidate, University of Oxford, England

The course has definitely helped me. I am more at peace, and I am kinder to myself, because I now realize that many of the fears and frustrations I was struggling with are inherent to the job. I allow myself to have shorter workdays, and I don’t feel as guilty about it. I am more productive in a workday that ends at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, than I was in the long days I used to work before.

4th year PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Thank you so much for the course. It has been such a great experience and I really learned a lot. I had already read a lot of books like “How to write your PhD in 15-minutes a day”, but your course has so much additional thoughts and advice which is missing in other books. It changed the approach to my PhD and I am much more relaxed and positive. I would never have thought I would start to meditate, but you made me do it and it really works and makes me feel so much better. I also like your authentic approach as your course comes from your own experience. Thank you so much for this great experience. I am already missing getting an e-mail from you almost every day :-)

Part-time PhD Candidate, Justus-Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

Check it out for yourself, and get stuck in today…purchase the course for 50 euro here

(This offer has expired. Do sign up for my newsletter and I’ll let you know when the new course is online)

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Less is More: Why Working Shorter Hours Is a Better Idea

I have just finished ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. It reflects on time pressure and stress in academia, and on how academic life has sped up to such a degree that quality of research, teaching and life suffers. (It was a present from prof. Hein de Haas – do check out our ‘How to Write a PhD’ interview with his tips on productivity and self-care). At one point in the book my jaw dropped: it is the chapter on time management, where a number of books and approaches to the academic schedule are discussed. This part would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

They note that most academic time management literature will not leave you reassured and comforted, but rather leave you ‘feel like you’re not working hard enough’. Ten-hour days are considered ‘more than adequate’, 55-hour work weeks the norm to strive for, working for 12 hours on Sundays ‘realistic’, multitasking smart, and getting up at 4 in the morning to write before the rest of the world wakes up a strategic way to avoid stress and increase your productivity. ‘With some trepidation,’ Berg and Seeber write, ‘we confess that these models of time management and productivity strike us as unrealistic and simply not sustainable over the long haul for most people.’ Alright, so that made me laugh.

I have issues with the counting hours approach in academia. A much better way to approach productivity is to work with your mental energy, and align your day according to how it waxes and wanes. It is depth and quality we are seeking. And if you use your best hours well (doing research/ writing) all the rest becomes doable and less overwhelming. It will take less time, too… Time isn’t linear, because energy and attention aren’t linear. Instead of focusing on how we might expand the number of hours we work so we can fit everything that needs to be done in, might we not be better of asking how we might increase focus and attention, so we can reduce that number of hours? What if we can let go of the counting altogether?

I went for a coffee with a HappyPhD course participant of several years back who finished her PhD cum laude (she has become a friend – she is doing really interesting work on how to live fearlessly), and she mentioned that ‘less is more’ was the insight that had helped her most during the time she was finishing her PhD. It is unfortunate that academic culture leans the other way!

Circumstances, work loads, energy levels, habits, preferences, and personalities differ, but I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach is useful regardless. It is practical and it is realistic. And it is a more intelligent way of working with your resources than maximising hours and ‘managing’ every minute of your day. (Which kind of feels like the walls closing in on you!)

A few points on how and why strategically working fewer hours leads to increased productivity:

Mental Energy – Not All Hours Are Equal

Your brain cannot do challenging mental work in a focused way for more than so many hours a day. One of the books quoted by Berg and Seeber state that an ‘approximately 10-hour day is more than adequate especially since we really can work for most of this time.’ (As opposed to the general workforce which according to this author ‘waste a tremendous amount of time chit-chatting at the water cooler and lunching for a full hour.’)… Errr, no. You cannot focus for ten hours a day. And you cannot conceive of your day as a monolithic ten-hour block. It isn’t efficient, and it sets you up for mental exhaustion. It’s much better to distinguish between the hours you realistically can and want to focus intensely (say 2-3 hours, in approximately 45 minute segments), and reserve them exclusively for your intellectually most challenging work. The rest of your workday (3-4 hours in similar or longer segments) can be spent on less demanding tasks. In really busy times you may add extra work sessions, but you will realise that they are only suitable for certain types of low-intensity work (answering email etc.). Focus matters, not time. Match your mental energy and focus to the demands of the task at hand. An occasional ten-hour day may be warranted, but as a model of productivity it is ridiculous. (Strong feelings!)

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Short Run

Mental energy is your currency. How to keep it high? How to keep your mind sharp and present? In this context you have to think about intensity and recovery. Working in shorter, more intense segments, with recovery breaks, allows you to focus as well as recover from that intense work every hour, or more often, thereby keeping your mental energy high. You will be less likely to find yourself staring at the blank screen for hours, feeling bad because you ‘should be more productive’, while actually you are just tired. Shorter work sessions, regular short breaks, and not working past your natural limits will take care of that. Self-care isn’t at odds with productivity; they are mutually reinforcing. It is finding that right balance, which means being honest about the intensity of mental energy you can muster. Taking more breaks and stopping when we are tired (before is even better) may be uncomfortable, but it is more efficient than plodding along, putting the hours in past the point of diminishing returns. For me, when I started applying this model, it meant cutting my work days back from 8-ish hours to 4-5 hours a day. Much better idea.

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Long Run

Feeling stressed? Academia is a high-risk environment when it comes to stress-related physical and mental health problems. In my opinion the culture of overwork contributes to these problems. And guess what stress-related health problems do: they diminish your ability to focus. They diminish your capacity for doing demanding intellectual work. They diminish your capacity to think. Cue even longer days, more guilt, and so the self-destructive cycle continues. A focus on recovery is essential to sustain a positive self-reinforcing cycle, in which focus, productivity and wellbeing coexist. From this perspective, advocating for ten-hour days is simply harmful. A few lucky individuals may have the energy to work endless days with no negative repercussions, but for most of us it is unrealistic… In fact, I witness even ‘limitless energy’ academics hit a wall at some point, though this is not much openly discussed. Instead, a focus on working more intensely some of the time; while appreciating the necessity of recovery and renewal, is a better way of approaching your workday and week. Being exhausted/ frazzled is a sign this balance is off.

Mental Creativity – Better Ideas

A relaxed mental space is essential for creativity. It is how new ideas form and pop up, unlike the process of analysis which is strictly logical. You need both: the focused attention of analytical thought, and the mind-wandering that is conducive to creativity and aha-moments. To foster innovative ideas time away from the intellectual problem you’re working on is essential. In other words: down-time is an essential part of your workday. It is the non-active, non-doing part of work. It is when you allow ideas to come to you. Cultivating this space is an investment in your quality of thought. (Feels good too.)

Think about this: what if intensity and depth can only be achieved with high mental energy, which makes taking care of yourself a priority? What if focus is only realised within limits and boundaries? What if relaxation is a requirement to make intellectual achievement (and emotional balance) sustainable over time? And what if mental relaxation is intrinsically valuable? What if you are not a machine??

We need to flip the script and start saying no to the story that tells us we should be ‘working always, everywhere’.

The HappyPhD course will show you exactly how to create an optimal (for you) and sustainable work schedule, combining intense work with recovery. I am currently updating the course: the updated course will be out some time this autumn. The price will go up, so now is a good time to sign up! You will get access to the old school course (ah, I am already feeling nostalgic!), and you will automatically be upgraded to the new course when it is launched! Best of both worlds, and a good way to start the academic year.

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 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!