‘How to Write a PhD’ with Cassandra Frear

By |2024-01-23T10:19:19+00:00January 19th, 2024|Uncategorized|0 Comments

I met Cassandra when she was part of the first round of the Stress-Free PhD programme, where we met weekly online with the group. She is based in Philadelphia, and I remember all too clearly the culture shock: when I introduce the idea of writing a PhD more efficiently by working fewer hours, it tends to be a leap even for Dutch or other European PhDs, but for a US PhD candidate to embrace these insights about the importance of being idle is next level! A few months ago she wrote me to say she’d be reviewing the course materials again, and we wrote back and forth about how it was going  (she said it has been life-changing for her, so I think it’s going well! ;)). She has been kind enough to summarise her insights from working through the course materials again and how it has changed the way she approaches her PhD work.

Cassandra’s PhD Tips:

  1. Attention is My Prime Resource

    Attention is the PhD candidate’s prime resource. Attention is the power to get things done. Through attention, the student learns, researches, conceptualizes, writes, and finishes a dissertation. Yet, this same resource is the target of social media, news networks, politicians and political organizations, businesses, and nonprofit groups. The most crucial strategy for completing a PhD is to recognize attention as a precious, prime resource and treat it accordingly, by nurturing, protecting, and using it wisely.

    I nurture and strengthen my attention with three habits. First, I start each work session with a 2–5-minute meditation in which I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and relax. Second, I tighten my focus by committing to a single, 30-minute task: this unit of time always feels achievable to me, but it’s fine to exceed it (as I often do). Third, I prevent distractions automatically with the Freedom app on my computer and a Focus app on my phone, but with an extra twist. These apps are scheduled to start when I wake up, so my attention is not divided before my work even starts!

  2. Uncomfortable Feelings Express my Core Values

    Fear and anxiety reveal that I’m concerned about compromising or losing something I value. Anger shows that something I value is threatened. Grief also expresses my core values. I grieve because I care, because something I value might be lost, has been lost, or has ended. This course has highlighted the importance of connecting our work to our values. And PhD work must sometimes be done in the midst of uncomfortable feelings. I’ve discovered that the uncomfortable feelings themselves are useful for revealing my core values if I lean in and listen to them.

    Three years ago, I lost my supervisor and my dissertation topic. I considered leaving my PhD. But then I realized that my intense grief and disappointment showed that I care deeply. If I care that much about my work, then it must arise from my core values. My work is worth cherishing and defending. I should fight for it! I took walks and wrote in a journal every day for three months while I found a new supervisor and a new topic. I acknowledged my feelings and honored them as part of my human experience, and I also honored their significance.

  3. Five Elements of Smart Breaks

    All breaks are not created equal! My most effective breaks include one or more of these five elements: (1) My brain swings from focused mode to diffuse mode and relaxes, so that I can synthesize and make fresh connections; (2) I reward myself  just for working and re-establish a healthy work-reward balance; (3) I move my body, instead of continuing to sit; (4) I do sensory-rich activities, to counteract the chronic sensory deprivation of dissertation work; (5) I enjoy a taste of regular life, apart from my dissertation, to keep my sense of self distinct from my work and prevent academic tunnel vision!

    One easy way to push myself into a smart break is to stand up and look outside. I watch birds or clouds out a window, step out onto a balcony, or walk around the block. What can I notice? What do I see? What can I hear? How does the wind feel and smell? Suddenly, I feel more alive!

  4. Use a Writer’s Day Book to Warm-up to Writing

    For the last several months, I have started most days by writing spontaneously in a Day Book, preferably over my first cup of coffee. I got the idea from The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher (Don Murray, 2009). My free-writing session lasts for 15-30 minutes. My one rule is that I write. This simple practice flips on a virtual switch in my brain. As I write whatever comes to mind, I let the emerging words lead and surprise me. Later, when it’s time to write for my dissertation, my brain is warmed up, humming, and more likely to generate ideas. It has been crucial for me to identify and use my own writing method, which is quite different from the writing methods of my supervisor and secondary readers.

    I prompt my Day Book entry with morning rituals. I make coffee, get a simple breakfast, check the sunrise, and play some classical music. With my first cup of coffee, I open my laptop to a Google Drive document or open a small journal, and I write whatever comes to mind. I just show up on the page and let the words happen. I practice the inductive writing method.


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