By Anonymous |
As the New Year broke, and January all too quickly became February I came to the sudden and quite alarming realisation that I am now conclusively in the third year of my PhD. This means different things to different people, but according to the helpful – if antiquated – guide of my university I am now into my ninth official term of a minimum nine term degree. Nine of nine.
Having reached this stage, and not yet possessing a shiny thesis that I can exchange for a two letter honorific and a one-way ticket home (thanks UK Border Authority), the theoretical deadline this journey began with is looking increasingly solid. At this point deadlines of the hard and fast variety seem to be a necessity.
Unfortunately, deadlines and I don’t have a great history.
To me, deadlines represent how much time I have to complete a task, rather than how little. Two weeks to write a chapter? Great! That’s at least a week and a half of thinking, two days of stalling, panic, and an apologetic email.
Not that an absence of deadlines is any better. Here, substitute a week and a half of thinking with six attempts at baking a Christmas cake, learning to juggle, lots of reading (flicking aimless between articles), half-heartedly taking up bodybuilding for a couple of weeks, before… two days of writer’s block, panic, and an email asking for a deadline.
I’m not sure if it’s procrastination, perfectionism or relentless positivity, but I invariably manage to convince myself that it will almost definitely, positively get done at some point between 1am and 3am on the day it is due, and my time until then is best spent researching every possible angle, coming up with new and better articles, writing and rewriting paragraphs that I know I will probably delete and generally looking and feeling busy. Procrastination comes in all forms, and I believe that this counts as an odd mixture of ‘not feeling ready,’ with a dash of blind hubris. (To be perfectly honest, it’s currently 12.20am, and Fraser almost definitely asked for this blog post three months ago.)
In fact, my favourite deadlines are in the past. ‘This was due three months ago?’ ‘Great! Well – I’d better get started then!’
According to its historical usage, university supervisors were liable to shoot students who failed to complete their work on time
Thankfully, somewhere in my four or so years (is it five now?) of postgraduate study, I’ve learnt some alternative strategies to deadlines that have helped me manage my time and avoid that old friend, the ‘triple-consecutive-all-nighter.’
Stop Hiding / Regular meetings:
My instinctive reaction to the pain of block is (still) to bury myself in my work, and refuse to ask for help until I’ve overcome it. Unfortunately this can be completely counterproductive, and leads to weeks of chasing irrelevant articles, researching things that are almost, but not quite relevant to my topic (but seem oh so crucial at the time) and actually getting very little done.
If you’re anything like me, and your supervisor is able to accommodate it, a regular meeting schedule can be really beneficial in helping avoid block and keeping writing focussed. It also helps stave off the very real depression and anxiety that can come from feeling like you’re getting nowhere with your work. While deadlines can be a great motivational tool, they also leave the impression that work should be finished or ready, when there’s no real way it can be at this stage.
Setting up regular meetings, where I present what I have and where I am up to, has helped create distance between me and my work and reinforces what we all know but can find hard to put into practice: these are drafts of a larger work in progress, they don’t have to be perfect. (And nothing says imperfect like a half-finished first-draft chapter).
Find your rhythm:
Much of the ‘cottage industry’ of PhD advice-blogs emphasise the crucial importance of writing every day (which I agree with), but I think this can be better phrased as ‘finding your rhythm’. I’ve found forcing myself to write when it just isn’t working can be exhausting, if not totally crippling to productivity. Sometimes things just aren’t working, and staring at a screen for an extra few hours between 12am and 4am is not going to help.
I know my most productive hours of writing are in the morning, and the hours most prone to desperation are the late evening, so I focus on forcing myself to write between breakfast and lunch, and give myself some slack in the later afternoon. If it’s not working, I leave it and instead focus my energy on sorting through the issues I’m having in order to generate enough material to fuel the next day’s writing session. If I’ve had a good session and I’m happy, I leave it and go outside, and imagine how great it would be to have a job with a regular schedule with well-established goals and milestones.
Other tips and tricks that have helped me set up good working habits include a programme (called ‘Rescue Time’) that I’ve instructed to (metaphorically) yell at me should I spend longer than ten minutes on Facebook or congratulate me for every hour I spend writing – but that’s not for everyone.
Prioritising, but not too much:
It’s difficult to get words on the page when you’re also busy with meetings, seminars, and teaching, and the struggle early career lecturers have producing any publications in their first years speaks to how much time teaching can take up. Thankfully, as PhD students, we’re often given full run of our time. But I’ve found this can be equally debilitating, causing (as Parkinson’s law craftily puts it) work to expand into the time allocated to it, and due dates that are months away causing me to think that I’m not working hard enough unless I research up to the last minute.
I’ve found committing the first two hours of every day (whenever possible, and before opening my email) exclusively to writing has helped me make sure that my thesis never gets pushed aside and that the ideas or problems I’m having stay fresh throughout the day. Having done a little in the morning helps with guilt, and as I go off to whatever meeting is scheduled I continue to think about where I’m up to, what problems I might be having, and what I’m going to work on next.
Equally, teaching, workshops and seminars can be a brilliant and well-timed distraction, not only as a potential source of free food, alcohol or (the ever elusive) payment for your time, nor as a space in which to commiserate with other people also struggling to write, but also as a way of taking value-added pressure off your thesis and reminding you how far you have come, how much you have to offer, and how much more there is to learn.
The author of this post is too embarrassed by the time taken for its completion to attach her name to ts publication. You will be able to find more of her forthcoming work, including ‘Would it be possible to just have a week longer?’ and ‘Any Day Now: A Third Year PhD’s Lament,’sometime in the probably quite distant future.
feature image © flickr; in-text image © google