2018: 119 days to go

Welcome to 2018—the year that I am finally, really, really going to finish my PhD. And this is getting serious now. In fact, there are now only 119 days remaining for me to submit my thesis—or I cannot submit at all. And so, the pressure is well and truly on!

When I started my PhD four years ago, I had great hopes that I would finish in three years and that it would be a positive experience. But (for a variety of reasons) it has been a struggle that has found me making one excuse after another for why it has taken me so long. To be fair, some of the excuses were quite valid and I probably should have suspended my studies for a couple of months a couple of times because of them.

But it’s too late now and there is no more time for excuses—valid or otherwise.

So I now have fewer than 120 days to write an 80,000-word PhD thesis. Thankfully, some of those words are written. And I have no other responsibilities at the moment, so I don’t have to take time out of my writing.

And that means that the first four months of 2018 will be writing, writing, writing, and more writing. (And editing.)

I will try a bit harder to update my PhD blog as I go, but I have to prioritise that writing so I can’t make any promises.

Anyhow. Happy New Year to all of you!

The Doctor will be with you shortly…

Writer’s block? Write, now!

For more than a month now, I have been suffering from severe writer’s block. I haven’t been able to write my thesis. I haven’t been able to update my PhD blog. And I haven’t been able to write on my personal blog. In fact, it has been so bad that I haven’t even been able to reply to personal letters to my family and friends. (Yes, I write “real” letters!) I don’t know exactly what prompted my block, but I think it was caused by a lot of little things working together to become one great big thing.

However, before my block, I signed up for a three-day non-residential writing retreat hosted by my university’s Research and Innovation Office (RIO) that took place last week. The event, Write Now!, was held off campus to allow for a much-needed change of scenery—which I always find helpful.

And, thankfully, on the Friday before the retreat, one of my supervisors came by to check in on my progress. When explained my extreme writer’s block, he helped me to re-work a couple of things and to re-think my mindset. (And he checked back with me later that same day, which helped. A lot!) That chat helped to better set me up for the writing retreat.

When I first signed up for the writing retreat, I told myself that a 1,000-word goal would be achievable each day. However, I had to amend that to 500 because of my block. My reasoning was that if I tried to go from 0 to 1,000 straight out of the gate, I would become even more frustrated. So I chose a more manageable goal so that I could feel a bit of success at the end of the retreat.

In the end, I wrote 1,713 words (daily counts were: 539, 651, and 523).

That doesn’t seem like much for what should have been an intensive writing session. However, it is more than treble the words I managed in the month prior.

We marked our successes each day by hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. Small baubles for 500 words, large baubles for 1,000 words, and golden snowflakes for 2,000 words. It was encouraging for me to see more baubles added as the hours and days went by. (Though I wish I could have added more than I did!)

In total, there were about 20 people at the retreat from across the university. And between us, we managed to write 40,000 words. Though it should be noted that some writers were editing documents, rather than bulking them out, which means that some people were working on negative word counts. (Which makes me think we should have had additional ornaments for reaching our daily goals—which would have included editing pages. I think I’ll mention that to the RIO team for next time…)

I am still feeling a bit blocked, but I am pleased to say that the retreat has helped me to see my way forward. It was also a good reminder that when your goal is total words, you can always switch to another section or chapter when you’re feeling blocked. Even if that is not the chapter you were meant to be working on that day. Words are words!

With the Christmas holidays (nearly) upon us, I am aware that I will not be spending full days at my computer—especially as two of my nieces are coming to Scotland to spend the holidays with me! However, I am going to aim for 250 words a day minimum with a stretch goal of 500 per day for my holiday average. (My nieces are 21 and 23, so if I plan to write when they’re Facebooking their friends, I should have plenty of time!)

Anyhow, as my thesis writing time is tick, tick, ticking away, I will need to work really hard at finding my motivation and overcoming this block. But I am confident that I will manage to pull it off. I just need to remember that writing needs to be prioritised and that, when I am blocked, I just need to suck it up and write, now!

Teaching to learn; learning to teach

As my time as a PhD student (hopefully) winds to an end, I am beginning to look towards my career as an academic. My hope is that part of that career includes teaching, which is why I eagerly accepted the opportunity to teach a module at Edinburgh Napier University this term.

More accurately, I accepted the opportunity to co-teach alongside a more established and experienced educator, Professor Hazel Hall.

My official title is Associate Lecturer on a module called Knowledge Management (KM). The module, which is half-way over, is being delivered to a group of 4th-year honours students in the School of Computing.

The module’s content includes lectures and activities related to approaches to KM, knowledge capital, KM infrastructures, and techniques for the creation, capture, classification, exchange, dissemination, and use of knowledge for competitive advantage and corporate growth.

By the end of the term, students will be able to: critically assess the general principles of KM; make effective use of the principles of KM in organisational settings to increase effectiveness; examine KM processes and tools for organisations; develop KM teamwork activities in organisations; and demonstrate sound understanding of theory and practice in KM.

I am sure that the students felt overwhelmed when these learning outcomes were shared on the first day of class. And I cannot imagine how overwhelmed I would have felt if I were teaching the module on my own.

However, whilst my role is one of “teacher”, I am also there as a learner. That is, a learner of teaching through co-teaching.

Some of it is quite easy though. For example, I feel quite confident in the task of speaking in public and sharing knowledge to an audience. I find delivering presentations and workshops to be energising and enjoyable. And I feel that when I deliver learning events, people do learn.

However, delivering a one-off workshop is not the same as delivering a multi-week module to a group of undergraduate students. And that is part of what I am learning from my teaching experience.

Thankfully, I am learning from someone who has a proven ability to deliver the module!

Hazel has taught the module for a few years now and has developed a strong programme of lectures, readings, personal study assignments, and in-class activities. This means that I have been able to see what a well-developed module looks like from beginning to end. Being able to see the entire term’s plan set out in front of me eliminates much of the unknown “fogginess” that I would expect if I were starting from scratch. Instead, Hazel knows what works well (and what doesn’t) and has learned through experience how best to deliver each segment.

From the administrative side, Hazel and I are both well-organised which means that her way of preparing for each class (and the module as a whole) suits my own working style—even though our overall organisational styles are not identical. Seeing how Hazel has organised materials (print and electronic) has given me a lot of ideas for how I can combine her methods with mine to improve on the ways I might have managed things without that insight.

Over the next few weeks, there will be more learning on my side as we near exam time. I am a tad nervous about marking all of those essays, but I imagine the students writing them will be a tad (or more!) nervous, too.

One of the things I’ve learned from teaching so far is that I was right in thinking that I would enjoy it. Although I know that the never-ending planning and administration that goes along with the role will bring a bit of stress and chaos on occasion, I feel that the rewards will far outweigh those (potential) negatives.

So, that’s another feather in my CV-hat (which you can view here).

Why am I still writing?

I am still writing my thesis. Still. Yes, still. I am still writing my thesis. Oh my goodness, I am still writing my thesis!

When I began my PhD more than three years ago, I was confident that I would be one of those irritating students who submitted their work spot on time. And then, I hit a bump or two in the road. One of those bumps was more of a mountain than a bump, which didn’t help. But that was fine; I would survive!

After I recovered from that pretty miserable first year (a year that led me to reconsider if a PhD was for me), I got back on my PhD Pony and began to ride again.

I was picking up speed and making up for some of the time I’d lost in the first year’s Pity Party. The way I saw it was that I could still submit within three months of my three years. Yeah, that would be good. I could be happy with that.

And then, I hit a bump or two in the road. I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed. And then I got sick. And then there were more social stresses. And then I broke my ankle. And then, and then, and then… And let’s not forget about the second bout of extreme self-doubt that led me to reconsider if a PhD was for me…

[Enter more excuses, rationalisations, and justifications here… Then enter a few more for good measure…]

But it was all fine. I was starting to feel confident again and, even though I would definitely miss my three-year [impossible] goal, I was going to submit within three months after the three years. Well, maybe four months. Five? Six…? OK, seven. Seven months. Definitely no more than seven months. Three years and seven months. And that’s it. Really. That. Is. It.

So here I am, three and a half years into my PhD and I am still writing.

Because I can’t do it. The work has been so very overwhelming and I have struggled to find a way through my massive mountain of data. And it doesn’t help that my own physical health has been less-than-brilliant which has added to my stress, creating a crazy cycle of, well, crazy. (You can read about my May madness on my personal blog.)

However, I have been working some new approaches to my writing, and to my entire work-life balance system. And I think I am finally starting to gain some traction. Some of those changes mean that I am spending less time in front of a computer but, happily, I am a more productive when I am working on a computer.

Over the next week or two, I will be busily (and manically!) working on completing my findings chapters which has been a massive, ugly, furry beast of a task. But if my new approach to work (and data analysis) continues to go smoothly, I should be able to succeed in this goal.

I am hoping (desperately!) that I will not face as many challenges when I start putting together the rest of my thesis. Because let’s be honest, my supervisors (as wonderful as they are) are probably getting really fed up with my ongoing delays!

And that, in a rambling nutshell, is why I am still writing. (But hopefully not for long!)