‘How to write a PhD’ with Roanne van Voorst

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

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

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

Roanne’s top tips:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does that look like, specifically?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Offline: The Plan

Imagine yourself working without interruptions, without distraction, without being sucked into mind-numbing information overload.
Imagine focus.
Imagine creative thought and analysis happening.

Now imagine such sustained focus happening for a couple of hours a day, at least five days a week.
Imagine what that might mean in terms of output.
Think chapters, articles, publications.

Imagine what it (both the doing and the results) might mean in terms of satisfaction.

Ah satisfaction! Interesting concept.

The paradox of satisfaction: we have to give up more superficial satisfaction-seeking behaviour in order to be able to do or achieve those things that indeed satisfy. Very zen idea to stop chasing the carrot and to stop scratching the itch. To stick with the example of working offline: our internet habits are fuelled by seeking immediate gratification, and if we’re not careful we get stuck in an addicitive, and ultimately not-so-satisfying-loop. If you’d like to get scientific about it (sort of), the specific loop we’re talking about is the dopamine loop. Dopamine rules seeking behaviour, and is released one notification at a time. Unfortunately the pleasurable effects are short-lived, and this mechanism isn’t self-limiting, as anyone who has spent significant time on FB or Twitter will attest to.

Last week I talked about how going offline helped me tremendously when I was finishing my PhD. The blank page becomes the only page for your eyes to focus on. It’s annoying and quiet and challenging in the beginning (dopamine loop withdrawal!) but wait til you get going. Creative work happens in the void, despite this being an uncomfortable truth in the age of distraction.

So how to actually implement the radical idea of focused offline work:

1. Determine how long you would like to go offline for

I like to work in 45 minute segments. When I was finishing my PhD I would do three offline ones in a row, with a short (non-internet) break in between, in the mornings. That would be most of my work for the day done! Perhaps you don’t have three hours, maybe you have two or only one. What matters most is that you do it – sit down and work – and do it consistently. Don’t underestimate a 45 minute session: with the right mindset you can get a lot of work done. Or, maybe you are working on your PhD full-time, and three hours seems next to nothing. I’ll repeat: don’t underestimate the 45 minute session. I like to err on the side of working ‘not enough’, as it gives you momentum, rather than working ‘all day, every day’ and slowing down to prevent burning out. Quick, fast, get in there and work. That is how it is done.

2. Determine whether to go fully offline or block certain sites only

Working offline completely might seem near impossible. I say go as offline as you dare go. We tend to think we ‘need’ the internet because we use it. I say try to use the brain instead. It is magnificent. The internet is secondary. (I know. Very old-school idea.) Perhaps you’ll need to download some articles etcetera. Do it. Do it before you start. If you absolutely must, you could use certain specific sites, while blocking others. I have talked about the Freedom app before. It now allows you to block a selection of sites, or the entire online world. Such a blocklist option seems to me very handy. I consider social media to be particularly unhelpful when in the act of producing academic work. Block those as a very minimum. Then add any guilty pleasures to the blocklist. Save them for later, once the work is done.

3. Recurring sessions

I believe in habits. They provide structure, and they allow us to get things done while skipping the step of ‘shall I or shan’t I’. Imagine the world where you switch on your computer and simply get to work. Imagine a world where you don’t lose half your morning to browsing. Imagine not having to use any willpower to achieve any of this either! Doesn’t that sound appealing? Freedom (or the app of your choice) again, to the rescue as it allows you to create recurring sessions, by blocking your favourite social sites for certain hours every day by default. Slightly terrifying prospect, but it might just work. Could be a tremendous help in creating a daily work/writing habit. My opinion: a consistent writing habit really is the cornerstone of a successful academic career. The beauty of it is the habit part: it is difficult in the beginning, but it becomes easier with every repeat.

4. Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms are likely to happen. We are in the dopamine loop for a reason. The temptation, offline, might be to procrastinate in the old-fashioned way: by sitting around daydreaming, making endless cups of tea, or chatting with your colleagues. (Some people who work at home report they procrastinate by cleaning the house. Sadly I have never discovered such tendencies in myself.) Stay with it. Stay with the page. Get into your work. Drown out all that is external and unrelated. Sit. Sit and work! Defer satisfaction seeking, defer gratification. You can do it, and you will be so pleased. Also have a look at the previous articles I wrote on procrastination here (with worksheet) and here.

5. Visualise

The short ‘imagine’ exercise at the top will help you stay on track. I firmly believe that the imagination leads. It’s not enough, of course. It needs a follow-up actually ‘doing’, but that becomes easier when you have a clear vision on what you’d like to achieve, and especially how that’ll make you feel. Being anchored into that positive feeling/ achieving state will help you to get going and keep going. It’s a topic that deserves a blog post of its own, but for now: keep the image, the feeling-image of it, in mind, and re-connect with it when motivation wanes…

Let’s make this offline thing a wave, a movement. What are your plans, and how are you going to support your new offline habit? How is it going so far? If you’d like a structured step-by-step foolproof system to help you build indestructible work habits have a look at the HappyPhD Online Course. It will guide you day-by-day until you cannot imagine working in any other way. As always: if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Overcoming Fear When Writing: Be Inspired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write a More Inspired, Happier PhD Subscribe & Let Me Show You How

You’ll also receive a copy of ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’
* indicates required

Overcoming Fear when Writing: How to Make Writing a Habit

Maybe I should have titled this post: overcoming fear when not writing. Because that’s the reality of it. We don’t start, because of resistance (fear); we don’t focus or concentrate fully, because it’s difficult and it feels like we’re failing (fear), and we don’t stop after a good couple of hours work, because we fear we have not yet done enough (fear!). So yes, FEAR. It’s a nuisance. And it’s the kind of nuisance that tries to hide it’s there behind distractions and diversions. It’s also the kind of nuisance that will make you feel completely incompetent. When fear and resistance and procrastination rule your workdays it becomes close to impossible to feel good about yourself.

So. That’s the problem. Now the solution. There are many, but today I want to talk about making writing a habit. It’s simple and it’s effective.

At the moment, fear may be your habit, and it’s time to change that.
Changing the habit of fear into the habit of ignoring fear and just starting.
Changing the habit of fear into the habit of ignoring fear and just keeping going.
Once you manage, your workdays will shorten, and you will have gotten more done.

There’s the tricky moment when you are about to get started on the argument, on the analysis, or the paragraph, and you are full of good intentions and hope and drive…and then, half a second before you take the plunge and get to work, you stall. There may be mild resistance (leafing through the piles of papers you are using), moderate resistance (checking email or Facebook) or fierce resistance (oh, what the hell, nothing is going to happen anyway today, best go out for a coffee with…).

You need to minimise these moments, and the way to do it is by moving faster than fear can catch up with you. You have to start without reservations, without hesitations, just START. This becomes infinitely easier when it’s a habit.

It may sound impossible, but it’s not that difficult. Okay, truth be told, in the beginning it may well be difficult, but that’s because habit-building takes a bit of time. Once a habit is a habit, it is well, a habit! Simply starting can become your habit. And it will do so if you consciously choose to not give in to resistance and fear one day at a time, one writing or work session at a time.

Take the leap and skip the fear.

Just do it. There is nothing more to it.

Then why is it so hard? If all we have to do is simply start, why aren’t we doing it?

The problem is with awareness. Fear and resistance catch us unaware, and we get distracted and tune out, because fear and resistance is not a comfortable place to be. It just ‘happens’. We feel we have nothing to do with it (that is until a couple of hours later when the self-loathing sets in).

When fear shows up, when our negative thoughts show up, when our favourite distractions beckon, we need to be aware.
We need to know what’s happening.
We need to smell it coming before it arrives, so we are prepared.
And once it does arrive, because arrive it will, we need to be fierce in saying no.
We need to take control.

No I am not going to be distracted.
No I am not going to give into negative self-talk.
No I am not going to waste another minute of my time on tangoing with resistance.
Just NO.

I am no longer interested
I have unsubscribed
I have moved on

And then you move on
Back to the page
Back to work

To not let fear and resistance catch you unaware I highly recommend starting a meditation practice. Ten minutes a day to start. It’s enough. When you learn to meditate you learn to consciously focus your awareness. It is mind training. It means you become more aware of the thought patterns and behaviours that are thwarting you, and it also means you will gain control over how you react when they show up. It may sound a bit mysterious (and the truth is, it’s not yet known how exactly meditation works in the brain. Neuro-scientists are doing their very best to find out), but it works. If you keep practicing you will be trained in catching distractions on time; that is before they take over. You will gain control over your impulses. Never a bad thing.

Looking for guidance to make writing a habit? I will help you, personally, if you like. It is one element of the HappyPhD Online Course, which will give you all the resources you need to do so successfully.

Write a More Inspired, Happier PhD Subscribe & Let Me Show You How

You’ll also receive a copy of ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’

* indicates required

Creating Containers to Work In

We need to create space to do our work. Our thinking, our writing, our research. Creating a ‘container of space’ to work in, is one way I like to think about this. The container has clear boundaries to keep all distractions out. They define the space, and create a void, which provides room to concentrate on the single task we need to concentrate on. The void is where our work can emerge and develop. The container itself reminds us to focus, and gives us the structure to do exactly that.

If this sounds too vague – in everyday language I mean: use a work schedule and stick to it.

Some tips:

  1. Use time as a tool.
    Use time to create space, and use it to create incentives and urgency. It’s so easy to let time slip and let the day slip by, especially when you are doing research without a short-term deadline. So easy to be distracted, so easy to be pulled in ten different directions, so easy to lose track of what you wanted to do in the first place, so easy to let your mind wander off. Time can help you. Dedicate a specific portion of your day to a specific task. As in, right now. Decide on what you want to do next, decide on how much time you want to dedicate to that activity or task, set a timer, get excited, and do it. By doing so you combine intention and structure – an unbeatable pair. The timer will tell you when to stop, when it is OK to be distracted once again. Until then: give your task your undivided attention.
  2. Be vigilant about your boundaries.
    Switch everything else off. If you have created a 45-minute container to work in, work! If you can: switch off the Internet, switch off your phone, close the door and say no to your colleague. This is your space, your time. Your time is not a democracy. You decide. You decide what is important and what is not, right now, at this moment. You can respond later. It is your privilege. Let them wait. (Note to self: Facebook can wait too).
  3. Go for it.
    There is only one way to get past procrastination and fear of the blank page: jump! Do it. Go for it. Do not hesitate. Do not wait. Do not be distracted. Ignore those petty fears. Move through the unease. Get going. Immerse yourself in what you’re doing. Immerse yourself fully.
  4. Write at the same time every day.
    Creating regular routines will help you move into a place of focus more easily. Fix a daily date with yourself at your desk. Writing Dates are the best! Look forward to meeting your work afresh. Look forward to engaging with your ideas. Look forward to that next inch, that next paragraph to be covered. Lastly: love your work. Love your task. Love your ideas. It’s a date after all.