Clearing out and moving on(ish)

I cleared out my PhD office at Edinburgh Napier University today. It was a bit of a strange feeling as I know that I will be back in the office a few more times before the end of the year as I finish up a project that I am working on with my colleague, Gemma. But at the same time, I’ve left. I am no longer a PhD student. I am no longer an associate lecturer. I am no longer a regular employee, although I am still listed as associate staff whilst I do some mop-up work. But mop-up work isn’t quite the same, and the paycheques have ceased!

When I left, I did so without fanfare. There were no good-byes. There were no “we’ll miss yous”. There were no leaving drinks; no email to alert people of my change in circumstances. I just… left. And that lack of fanfare left me feeling quite deflated. It left me feeling that my time at Napier was inconsequential; like I am not/was not an integral part of the Napier Machine. (I know that’s not true, really, I do!)

And I am still kind of there. Or at least, I will be around for occasional meetings over the next few months. That means I will still be interacting with folks from my research group, which would make “goodbye” seem silly. Although once my project there is done, I suppose I will just silently fade into the past; I will just be someone that folks “used to know”. (There will be some connections that continue, I hope!)

But, alas, this is another part of my story. I have to leave Napier so that I can go onto the next thing. I have to leave Napier so that I can build my academic career out there in the Big Bad World. Indeed, I have already gone onto the next thing by way of my post-doc in Dundee. And I am actively applying for other posts in the UK and further afield. Oh, and I have applied for a small pot of funding for a small project with one of my Napier colleagues, so my real departure might be delayed a bit longer.

Anyhow… now that I have boxed up my Napier office, I have to start working on putting my home office. That is where I will spend most of my Dundee hours, as I will only commute twice per week. It is also where I will work on applications for other jobs.

Of course, that task will have to wait just a bit. Because I am leaving for my summer holidays to The Homeland tomorrow. Which also means that I don’t have to think about the sadness of clearing out my office and moving on with my life. For now, at least! It also means that I will have to go through all of the contents from my office after my holidays. So I suppose the clear-out isn’t complete quite yet!

The doctor is in: Frances Ryan, PhD

It has been a long time coming, but I am finally a doctor. Oh yes, I am now officially Dr Frances Ryan. The PhD kind of doctor, not the medical kind – just so that there is no doubt.

When I say “a long time coming”, I mean that my PhD Dreams began with my undergraduate degree way, way, way back in 1999. At the time, I had hoped to move directly from my undergraduate work at Central Washington University into a master’s degree followed, hopefully, by a PhD. But after meeting a cute boy during my undergraduate year abroad, I put my postgraduate dreams on hold so that I could get married and do all that lovey-dovey family stuff. (No regrets!)

Later, with the full support and encouragement of my husband, Paul, the plan changed to doing part-time postgraduate studies whilst we raised our family (we were getting ready to adopt from the foster care system). But my beloved Paul died before I was meant to begin my studies, and so I put my dreams on hold so that I could relearn how to breathe. (No, really. When you become a widow, you can forget how to do simple things like breathe, eat, sleep, laugh, and even hope…)

But, eventually, I managed to find the strength to return to school for a master’s degree. And at some point during that degree path, my PhD Dreams were renewed. I was privileged to be offered three different PhD placements and I happily accepted the one at Edinburgh Napier University.

My PhD studies began in November 2013 under the supervision of Professor Hazel Hall (director of studies), Alistair Lawson (second supervisor), and Peter Cruickshank (third supervisor). Whilst the “ideal” PhD journey is about three years, my journey took a bit longer than that. Which isn’t uncommon, but I am a bit disappointed at myself for not finishing sooner. (Some of the delays were out of my control, but I have to acknowledge that some were down to me and my self-confidence – or lack thereof.)

In the end, I submitted my thesis on Halloween (2018) just shy of five years after beginning my studies and my (slightly delayed) viva took place in February 2019. I was quite keen to complete my minor corrections in time for the summer graduations, so handed in my corrections a tad bit early (so not everything about my PhD was delayed). After all, graduating on the 4th of July is a pretty cool thing for an American – especially one who is the daughter of two United States Marines!

And so, finally, here I am: Frances Ryan, PhD. Or Dr Ryan, if you prefer.

Of course, this dream could never have been realised without the encouragement and support of others. So, thank you to all of my family and friends in America, the UK, and in the virtual world for helping to see me through this crazy adventure!

I am not certain where life will take me next. Ideally, I will be able to remain in Scotland working as an academic for the foreseeable future. But I am a realist (begrudgingly so) and I know that I will have to be open to opportunities wherever they might be. (If you know of a job opportunity I should consider, please get in touch!)

And now that I have accomplished this great dream of mine, I suppose I should start thinking about the Next Big Thing. After all, having a big goal to focus on is what keeps me going!

You can watch the ceremony on YouTube below. I enter the stage about 6 minutes in, so no need to watch the entire 90-minute show!

My thesis: The final version

My PhD thesis is now complete and, more importantly, the final, hard-bound version has been submitted to the research office. This marks the last hurdle in my PhD journey, ahead of my graduation on 4 July. (The perfect date for an American to graduate!)

The final version of my thesis reflects the amendments that I was asked to make after my PhD viva in February. My edits were classed as “minor” which meant I was given two months to complete them (from the date of the formal corrections letter, not the date of the viva). That meant that I had until 28 May to work through my thesis again to make the necessary updates, before sending the corrected thesis back to the research office for the next steps.

To make the best use of my time, I started out by classifying the edits as simple, moderate, and “difficult”. That way, I was able to work on different types of edits based on the level of thinking that my brain was ready for at different times of the day or when conflicting priorities meant I had less uninterrupted time for working on the document.

I found most of the edits to be quite easy, even after marking them difficult. However, there were a couple of edits that I struggled with. Although I didn’t struggle because they were challenging, rather I struggled because I was overthinking things. Thankfully, the overthinking was the worst of it and the changes were all made with (relative) ease.

After the edits were complete, and approved by my examiners, all of the relevant paperwork was sent to the Research Degrees Committee for their final sign-off. Then, once I received the letter from the committee saying that my award was confirmed, I printed off my thesis for the final binding.

Today, I handed in the final printed thesis (and emailed an electronic version) to the research office. And I confirmed the title of my thesis. And confirmed my application for graduation. And confirmed my graduation gown hire. So, that’s my PhD done.

Almost… After all, I still have one more step before I am Dr Ryan.

The next (and final) step is now to walk across the stage to collect my degree. It’s been a long and winding road, but I’m finally (almost) done!

Passed, with minor corrections

I am very pleased and extremely relieved to be able to (finally!) announce that I have passed my PhD viva – and with only minor corrections! This good news comes after more than five years of hard work and emotional turmoil, and I am just so thankful that my PhD Dreams are almost a reality.

The preamble:

I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of October. At the time, I had hoped that my viva (oral examination/defence) would be just before Christmas. However, there was a slight glitch that meant everything was delayed. But the outcome is such that I will still make the July graduation ceremony, so it all worked out in the end!

Because of the delay, I mostly ignored my thesis for nearly three months after submission. (Part of that was due to a post-submission illness.) It wasn’t really until the start of February that I started to really prepare for The Big Day, as blogged about here.

On the day of my viva, I woke up at 5am (after a slightly disrupted sleep). I showered, put on a suitable dress for the occasion, and painted my nails. I arrived at my office just before 8am and unpacked my bag, then I headed down to the canteen for a full breakfast (with extra bacon!). Then, I waited nervously for my 10.30am start time.

My thesis was examined by Sheila Webber, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield iSchool (external examiner) and Dr Laura Muir, Associate Professor at the Edinburgh Napier University School of Computing (internal examiner). My Panel Chair (viva moderator) was Professor Ben Paechter, Director of Research in the School of Computing.

My Director of Studies, Professor Hazel Hall, also joined me at the viva to take notes. She sat behind me so that I would not be tempted to look towards her for input, but also so that any facial expressions she might have made didn’t throw me off.

I went into the room prepared with my trusty water bottle (my medication makes this a necessity!), two pens, several sheets of blank paper for notes, a handkerchief (in case of tears), and my thesis. I also brought with me a tummy full of butterflies and a mixture of fear, excitement, worry, and hope.

The gritty details:

At the start of the viva, the plan for the examination was explained. The plan was to go through my thesis chapter-by-chapter, with questions alternating between the examiners (for the most part). As the questions were lobbed at me, I found myself examining the motivations behind them. Is this a question about clarifying a confusing sentence? Is it because they were trying to tease out the finer details about my methods? Is the question meant to challenge something that the examiners held different views about? Or is it because they want to see how (clearly) I can defend my position?

Some questions were easy for me to understand (assume) these motivations. Especially when in the process of answering it was clear that my response was “the right” response. But the motivation of others was a little harder to pin down, especially when it because clear(ish) that the examiners were coming at the thesis from a different perspective to my own.

Throughout the process, I found myself gauging how well the viva was going. I felt that I was heading towards a “pass, with corrections” but I couldn’t quite pin down if that would be minor corrections or major corrections.

It all felt quite positive and I felt (mostly) confident when answering questions and defending my work. I even felt that I stayed (mostly) on point and didn’t go off into a rambling tangent, something that I sometimes do when I am nervous.

And then I was blindsided by a bus! One of the examiners started down a path of inquiry that I was absolutely unprepared for. There was a back-and-forth that lasted what felt like about 5 minutes at the end of the viva that made my heart sink into the pit of my stomach. From that point on, I was no longer able to control my fragile emotional state and the tears started to fall (good thing I had that hankie, right?). I was certain that this was the thing that was going to take me from a pass with corrections to a resubmit (with or without a new viva). It was a horrible feeling and was, by far, the worst moment of my viva.

[Note: This isn’t to say that I think the questions were unfair or unwarranted. The examiners were fair, kind, and encouraging throughout the entire experience.]

At the end of that line of questioning, there was a very short (1-2 minutes) wrap-up chat where I was asked if there was anything I would like to add about my thesis as a whole. This was my opportunity to give my work a final sales pitch. But by that time, I was too emotional and felt too defeated to say anything more.

With that, I was asked to leave (along with my Director of Studies) so that the examiners could chat with the moderator to confirm the outcome. During that time, I sat in Hazel’s office, unable to stop the tears because I was certain I would be resubmitting my work based on the “bus” questions. Hazel, however, felt that I was still in the passing lane. She walked me through some of the (many, and high quality!) notes that she took during the viva and shared her own interpretation of the outcome. That helped to dry my tears a bit, although I wasn’t as convinced as she was.

The wait in Hazel’s office felt quite short. It might have been about 10 minutes – 15 at the very most. We were then invited back to the examination room by the chair. I was feeling a little more positive by that time (thanks, Hazel!) but I was still quite sure it wouldn’t be the result I was hoping for.

However, when I walked in the room I was greeted with smiles, a “congratulations”, and the words “passed, with minor corrections”. I was extremely surprised at that outcome, given the bus that had knocked me over just a few minutes earlier. But a short conversation followed about the “bus” incident and it was made clearer to me what the examiner was hoping for from that specific line of questioning.

The conversation to follow was about the general next steps in the process. The first of these steps is that the examiners will write a formal letter outlining the corrections that need to be made. That letter will be sent to the research office at my university before a copy is sent to me. It is at that time that my official corrections time will begin.

With minor corrections, I will have two months to complete the changes before sending an electronic version of the amended thesis on for my examiners to sign off on. After that, I will have my final thesis bound for submission before graduation – which should be in July, barring any hiccups along the way. My Panel Chair reassured me that we could revisit my current non-PhD workload to ensure that I have time to make my corrections. (Although I don’t think that there should be an issue, I felt very supported to have been told this help is available.)

Once the viva was officially over, I was invited out to lunch with my examiners and Hazel. We enjoyed a wee toast with some lovely prosecco followed by a nice conversation about a wide range of topics not related to my PhD. (Which was nice!) After lunch, I made my way home as I was completely exhausted.

The personal reflection:

In a nutshell, my viva was not a fun experience. I know that isn’t what people want to hear, but for me, that is the truth. Although, I do acknowledge that my reflections might have been more positive without the aforementioned “bus” incident! (Also, it wasn’t a completely horrible experience.)

In the lead-up to the Big Day, I knew that my viva might be an emotional and exhausting experience. Like many of life’s big moments, I had invested my heart and soul into this. Thankfully, I know myself well enough that I knew I would be shattered from the experience. And that means that I didn’t make any plans to celebrate the day.

And I was right! The experience was so draining that I couldn’t truly be happy on the day. In fact, when I got home, I donned my pyjamas and cried a bit. I then had another glass of prosecco and called my parents to share the good news with them. Then I shared the news on Facebook (Twitter was saved until the following morning). That was the limit to my celebrations. (But not the limit to my tears!)

The following day I returned to the office and politely thanked everyone who congratulated me. But I still couldn’t celebrate because I was still too dazed from the experience. And now, three days later, I am still a bit “meh” about it all.

Maybe these feelings of apathy are because I know that there is still much work to be done before I graduate. Or maybe they’re because I am too busy worrying about what my next steps will be after graduation (there are so many questions about jobs, post-docs, and locations!). Of course, maybe these feelings are simply a bit of exhaustion.

But, ultimately, I have passed my PhD (subject to minor corrections) and that does make me happy – even if I can’t quite celebrate that happiness just yet.

Thank you, again, to all of my lovely cheerleaders who’ve encouraged me along the way. My PhD Dreams aren’t over quite realised yet, but they are almost a reality!

My thesis: The viva version

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about my thesis. In fact, I haven’t done so since I submitted last October. At the time, I expected that I would be blogging about my viva before the Christmas holidays, but there was a glitch in the process that meant everything was postponed.

That glitch means that I didn’t return to my thesis until the end of January. (I haven’t decided if this is a good thing or not. I’ll make that decision post-viva!) I am now in full-on viva-prep mode, and I am dreading looking forward to a constructive examination.

I got a bit geeky and had my viva version bound with a light-weight, coloured cardstock in between each chapter. That allowed me to add sturdy tabs to each chapter so that I can easily flip to the section I want. (I even colour-coded the tabs so that all “like” chapters are the same colour.)

In addition to the main chapter tabs, I used writable Post-it tabs to mark out pages that are more likely to be referred to during the viva: my research questions, theoretical framework, study design flowchart, and participant details. These were placed on the top of the pages so that they did not add clutter to the main navigation tabs.

Small, narrow Post-It flags were also used to mark pages that need minor edits (for example, there is a missing colon on one page). These are also located at the top of the pages as to not interfere with the navigational tabs.

The rest of my thesis mark-up and notes are all hidden within the pages. Here, I have used different sized Post-Its to note minor edits or to clarify a point that might be a bit confusing the way I have it written. I have used larger edits to write down additional thoughts or to summarise more challenging or “technical” sections. This way, if I am asked about them during the viva I will be able to refer to my own notes about these things. Of course, that also assumes that I will only be asked about the things I’ve specifically prepared for. (I wonder what the odds are… ?)

My viva version thesis does not include any writing on the pages. There are no highlighted sections; no scribbles in the margins. Everything is done with notes on Post-Its. I just can’t bring myself to make any permanent marks on something that I worked so hard on creating. Although I am sad to say that the act of carrying “my baby” around with me has meant that the edges are starting to show a bit of wear and tear.

Anyhow, there are only two more thesis posts after this: One will be sharing the process of corrections and the other will be sharing the final product. It’s hard to believe that I am that close! In fact, my viva is so close now that my next post here will be about that. And, hopefully, it will be about passing my viva. So… stay tuned!

My thesis: Submitted!

And with that, I have submitted my PhD thesis for examination and thesis season is over!

The last few days have been spent finishing up my thesis, all with an aim submitting on Halloween (success!). That included finishing my conclusion chapter and writing my acknowledgements page. These final days were also spent making sure that all of my references were accurate and that the fiddly little things like automatic bookmarks were rendering properly.

Once the document was finalised, I set everything up for printing. I intentionally planned it so that I was printing after office hours so that I wouldn’t have to worry about hogging the printers. After all, a thesis is a fairly long document and I needed four copies: Two for my viva examiners, one for my mock viva examiner, and one for me.

To save time, I sent the thesis to print as two separate print jobs, each with two copies. That way, I would take advantage of the two printers in the print room. It took about 30 minutes to print the four copies, and another few minutes to straighten the pages and (meticulously) fold a couple of double-sized pages for the appendices. I also included coloured cardstock in between each chapter for my own copy of the thesis. This way, I can add section tabs to the cardstock so that I can easily flip to the correct chapter when I am revising or during the viva itself.

After I finished printing, I carefully wrapped each copy in paper and called my taxi-driving landlord for a lift home, cradling my “babies” the entire way.

The next morning, I woke early and got the bus out to my university’s print shop. There, Gordon bound the documents whilst I waited. And then I took another bus to my campus where I panicked a bit (and got a bit teary) before heading upstairs to the research office to officially submit my thesis.

To be honest, submitting my thesis was quite an emotional and self-doubting experience. Although, to be honest, the entire PhD process was more emotional and self-doubting than I had expected! I won’t get into all of that today though, as I plan to share a series of posts (over time) that reflect on my experiences with the PhD process.

But yes, my thesis is done for now; it has been submitted. And that really is something to celebrate!

Of course, submitting my thesis is not the end of the PhD journey. No, there are still a few steps remaining before my PhD Dreams are realised. The first of these steps is my viva (oral defence). After that, I will be asked to make amendments to the thesis before I submit my final, hard-bound thesis. And then, finally, I will graduate.

Thesis season: September update

As thesis season continues, I am starting to feel more and more confident that I will manage to complete my thesis without (too terribly much) stress. And as September begins, I am excited (and nervous) about the next 61 days. (Yikes! Only 61 days to finish writing. How scary!)

My progress in August was steady, though slow. I worked on my three findings chapters and my methods and literature review chapters. Sadly, none of those chapters are completely completed, but they are fully drafted and are just seeking edits at this time.

The highlights for August were getting all of the main content for my findings chapters completed and knocking out a near-final version of my literature review. I also enjoyed a successful (final!) research progress review at the end of the month.

However, August wasn’t as amazing as I wanted it to be. I didn’t manage to complete the visualisation of the data and I didn’t manage to complete my literature review and methods chapters. Although I am pleased to say that they are all in fairly decent shape and only need a bit of editing. Thankfully, I know what I need to do for each of those chapters and will add that work to my “easy work” list. That list is a variety of tasks that I can do in the evenings when my brain needs a rest, but my motivation levels are still pushing me to get something done.

My plans for September are fairly ambitious, but I am confident that I will manage them without too much agony. I am including a few late nights in my work plans, which will include taxis home as my local bus stops running at 6.30pm. However, I will be doing some teaching again this term which will give me the extra money to pay for the taxis. (Yay!)

Here’s my plan for September:

  • Create a full “primary draft” of my discussion chapter. This means that I will have that chapter written to completion (based on content), but the draft will (likely) need further edits for language and grammar.
  • Complete all visualisations for my three findings chapters. This work will happen in dribs and drabs as my brain needs a break from the “extreme” thinking that is needed for the discussion chapter.
  • Complete all edits for my literature review and methods chapters. As above, this work will largely take place as a break from the discussion chapter.
  • Finish all appendices needed for my literature review and methods chapters. These are largely complete at this time, but I need to do some formatting. As with the other edits, this will be done as and when my brain needs a break.
  • Draw up a final completion plan for October. Yikes! That document might be a bit scary, especially if September doesn’t go as planned. But if all goes well, the plan will be largely focused on writing up my introduction and conclusion chapters and making edits to my discussion chapter. I will also give myself plenty of time to do all the fiddly little things like formatting the full document.

 

Yes, September is going to be crazy! But I am feeling quite confident about it and I am sure that it will be a productive month.

Thesis season: August update

With August now upon us, I am aware that there are only three months remaining for “thesis season”. And that is a scary realisation when I stop to think about how much work I have yet to do. And so, the next three months will be spent writing, writing, writing… and writing a bit more.

I am pleased to say that my July thesis goals were (largely) met. And that means that I have now (mostly) completed drafts of five chapters. These are the methods chapter, three separate findings chapters, and my literature review (submitted to my supervisors for their comments last night).

Today and the first half of Friday will be dedicated to making updates to my findings chapters, ahead of Friday afternoon’s meeting with my supervisors to go over my literature review. Then the rest of August will be spent making edits to the chapters I already have drafted whilst making notes to develop the structural outline for my discussion chapter. I expect that to be a very challenging chapter to write and will dedicate much of September to completing it.

So, what do my thesis plans look like for August?

In a nutshell, it looks like a lot of time in front of computer screens and very little time enjoying the great outdoors! More specifically, August will be spent making edits and notes for September’s work.

In August, I will:

  • Make updates to my literature review. This will include incorporating edits, comments, and suggestions from my supervisors as well as adding new literature sources where relevant.
  • Review my findings chapters. This will be done with consideration to my literature review so that I can ensure that I have not missed out on literature that should have been included.
  • Make notes for my discussion chapter. This will be done in conjunction with the review of my findings chapters. These notes will help to form the narrative structure for my discussion chapter, which I will write in September.
  • Prepare for my next (and final!) progress review meeting. This should be fairly straightforward and will include sharing an update on the progress of each of my thesis chapters and a plan for completion. (There will be about two months left to submit by this time.)
  • Work on updates to my methods chapter and appendices. This work is fairly simple (as compared to the literature review, at least). Because of that, it will be done in between other work as a “treat” when my brain needs a bit of a break.

 

And, as always, I will be attempting to take care of my physical, mental, and emotional health. This will include my (sometimes faltering) healthy eating habits, regular 5K runs, a minimum daily step goal, and a bit of “me” time each week. (All easier said than done!)

There is much work to do, but I am feeling quite confident about it. (For now.) Stay tuned for a September thesis season update!

Thesis season

Wow! It is the 1st of July already. And that means that my PhD thesis is due in just four months’ time. Yikes! Of course, that means that the next four months will be all about my thesis. Thesis, thesis, thesis. And writing, writing, writing. And, most likely, stressing, stressing, stressing.

But I am looking forward to cracking down and getting things done. And as I have no other obligations in my diary (other than teaching starting in September) I have no excuses for not PhDing my days away.

Thesis season is the final stretch of my thesis writing. During this time, I will finish writing some chapters, edits others, and start writing a couple of vital chapters. And, of course, I will need to put it all together into one sensible narrative for examination.

The structure is (fairly) straight-forward and simple, with 8 chapters for the main body of the thesis. These are the introduction, a literature review including the theoretical framework, the methodology, three separate findings chapters, a discussion, and a conclusion. There will also be several other bits before and after the main body for references, an abstract, tables of contents, and various appendices.

Much of the work has already been done, it’s just a matter of writing it all up in thesis form and the literature review, methodology, and findings chapters are in various stages of completeness. The biggest challenge (and a vital part of the thesis!) will be writing up the discussion chapter. Unlike other sections of the thesis, this doesn’t already exist in another format so I will have to start from scratch. (Though I do have several little notes that I’ve written that will help with that process.)

So, what’s up next?

My July tasks (in order of deadlines) will be to complete drafts of (1) my methods chapter, (2) all three findings chapters, and (3) my literature review. That’s not to say that they will be finished at that point, just that they will be fully drafted. I expect that I will be making further edits and improvements to them in August.

Thesis season is bound to be stressful, so I will need to ensure that I am taking good care of my physical, mental, and emotional health during this time. To do that, I am continuing my healthy eating routine and will be sure to bring my own lunches to the office most days. This way, I am sure to be getting all of the nutrients I need without the financial burden of eating in the canteen. I am also working to keep fit by running several 5Ks each week and getting off the bus a mile or two before my stop so that I can get some walking in before I get to my desk. And, of course, I am trying to build in some “me” time each week. (Though I have always struggled with making “me” a priority, so that one will be a challenge.)

I will aim to do monthly thesis season updates, so stay tuned for August when I hope to announce that some of these chapters are near completion!

But for now… it’s back to the thesis.

A month of writing with #WriteSaidFeb

As my thesis submission deadline looms, I am finding myself more and more anxious about my writing progress. And, to be honest, a bit afraid that I will miss the mark! After all, there are just three months left, so I don’t have time to waste!

To help keep me motivated, my fellow PhDer and friend, Iris Buunk, and I have decided to dedicate the whole of February to writing. Yes, February will be one big, long Write Now! session for the both of us.

However, Iris is no longer based on campus, so we have to do our writing sessions from a distance. To do that, we decided to start a virtual writing group, using Twitter to help us stay motivated. And since virtual communities make it easy for everyone else to join in, we’re going to attempt a massive, month-long, virtual Write Now! session. (We like to aim high!)

The writing month will allow people to share their process with others at the end of a Twitter hashtag (#WriteSaidFeb). The hope is that people will use the hashtag:

  • To share their daily/weekly/monthly writing goals
  • As a way of creating some (personal) accountability for their writing goals
  • To seek and share motivation with others
  • To ask for help/advice on writing
  • To seek and share support when the writing process is overwhelming (or non-productive)
  • To celebrate daily/weekly/monthly writing successes (no matter how small)

 

February is a short month, but with a bit of motivation, we can write just as many words (and hopefully more!) than a long month would allow.

My own goals are to have (at least) 40,000 words “in chapter form” by the end of the month. That doesn’t mean that I will write 40,000 new words, but rather I will have that many words ready for my supervisors’ comments ahead of my final submission in April.

I will also be working on the final submission of a journal article (it is very close!) and a grant application that is due next month.

Whilst those are my big goals for the month, I will be breaking them down into smaller chunks to tackle each day. I will share my daily goals on Twitter and hope that others do the same.

Whatever your writing goals are, I wish you all the best in your endeavours.

Right. It is time to stop blogging now so that I can start writing. Because #WriteSaidFeb means I have to!

2018: 300(ish) 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 about 300 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 about 300 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…

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 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!)

The buck stops here

Note: This post was originally shared on my personal blog. So please forgive me if it’s a bit more touchy-feeling than you would expect. But, as I am researching online information and personal reputation, I suppose it’s a good example of how information is shared differently for different audiences for the building and protection of personal reputation!

That’s it folks: the buck stops here. Actually, I suppose I should say the pound stops here. Why? Because my last PhD stipend payment was today, and that means I have no more money coming into my bank accounts—bucksbobsquids, or otherwise—until I am finished with my PhD and I get a job.

Am I worried about not having an income? Yes, I am. A little bit, anyhow. After all, I am looking at another 8–12 months before I graduate. Which means it will be about 8–12 months before I am in a position to get a job (and therefore, and income!).

But I knew this day was coming and so I have planned for it. I have saved back a little bit of money from each of my monthly stipend payments over the past three years. And that means that I will have enough money to see me through to graduation.

I am also quite blessed in that I have a rent-free place to live for the duration of my studies. That’s because at the start of my studies a friend offered up the guest room in his home, knowing that a PhD would be unaffordable if I had to pay Edinburgh rents. Whilst I’ve given him a (small) chunk of money, I have not really paid towards my lodgings. Which is the main reason I was able to save enough of my stipend payment each month to cover me through the next few income-less months!

Or at least I will have enough money if there are not major catastrophes that require me spending my savings—or that mean it takes me more than 12 months to finish. But as long as I manage to buckle down and write, write, write, I should be OK. And I have a plan for how I will manage to get those 80,000 written up, so that should help to keep me on track.

If I have done the sums correctly (and if I find a job by the slightly extended time frame I gave myself) I should be able to manage without further financial help. And I should be able to do it all without too many financial sacrifices on my quality of life. Of course, this is largely because my lifestyle is already one of (voluntary) frugality: I find great pleasure in saving money and reducing my spending!

And despite my income ending today, I should have a bit of money left in savings by the time I get a job—if I get a job—which means I won’t go further into debt. (I still have a small personal loan that helped me to bridge the gap between starting my PhD and getting my first stipend payment. And then there are those pesky American student loans from my undergraduate days that will follow me to my deathbed! But I digress…)

Anyhow, this post isn’t a plea for help or a poor-me tale hoping for pity. Instead, it is another illustration to show that I am moving a little bit closer to achieving my PhD Dreams. After all, the end of the stipend means I am officially in writing up mode. And writing up is the key to completing the thesis and graduating!

So the buck stops here and it stops with me. And that means the responsibility for completing my PhD is mine and mine alone. (Though I know I will have the support of my PhD supervisors, family, and friends along the way, too!)

Wish me luck!

A broken summer

It’s been more than six weeks since I declared this to be my Thesis Summer. And honestly, I had great plans to be extremely productive, and I was actually on track to succeed. I was getting things done. I was accomplishing goals. My to-do list was getting to-done so well that I thought I might actually exceed my Thesis Summer goals.

And then, a little over three weeks ago, I went out to buy a pack of crisps and broke my ankle. (The crisps survived if you wondered.)

I was upset that the broken ankle would mean my 2016 running goals needed to be abandoned. But I remember thinking that it would be great for my Thesis Summer goals. After all, my leg was in a walking cast/boot and I was told to rest and keep my injured appendage elevated. It’s just an ankle… it won’t impact my ability to work on my PhD.

Right?

Wrong!

I was in so much pain and discomfort in that first week that I probably didn’t even hit the 25% productivity mark. And in the second week, I was struggling to hit the 50% productivity mark. But week three was a bit better, averaging 50%(ish) productivity.

I’m now half-way through week four and have been back in the office since Monday. And thankfully, I am a little over that 50% productivity mark for the week (so far).

Working at my desk—with a proper desktop computer, rather than a laptop—is certainly helping my productivity. However, I am finding it impossible to comfortably elevate my leg without my back and neck becoming uncomfortable. And that means I am constantly re-situating myself, which isn’t helping me to increase productivity.

In the next day or two, someone from the university’s occupational health team will come to evaluate my workspace. At that time, we will try to find a good temporary adjustment for me whilst I continue to heal. And with luck, that will mean that I am able to return to full (or near-full) productivity levels whilst I continue to heal.

Frustratingly, it means that I have fallen behind again. (And that I can’t run. But I’ll try not to whinge about that here.) I know that people understand, but that doesn’t help me feel less bad; less upset. It’s just that I’ve had so many little setbacks over the course of this PhD and it’s really wearing me down!

So, I am sorry that I’ve not shared weekly blog posts with you over my Thesis Summer (as I promised to do). But hopefully, an increase in productivity will mean an increase in blogging, too. Because I do have some positive things to share, too! (But not today… I’ll save them to help me increase my post count!)

As for the broken ankle, I have to wear a walking cast/boot for another 2.5 weeks solid. Then I’ll alternate between the boot and a regular shoe for another 2-6 weeks until I’m strong enough to walk completely on my own.  Happily, I am allowed to run again (slowly and for short distances) sometime in October—but I’ll be away at an academic conference so I’ll wait a few extra days for that exciting milestone.

You can read a two-week update on my personal blog here. (A four-week update will follow soon.) And if you have any clever ideas for how I might make myself a bit more comfortable whilst working at my desk, please do feel free to share!

Data delays

I began recruiting participants for my main study in early-September. At the time, I had this silly notion that I would be finished with my data collection by the end of October. Easy-peasy, right?

Wrong.

Because that naïve notion came with the assumption that people would be so excited to participate in my study that I would have all of my participants identified and signed-up by mid-October. But by the time October came to an end, only seven participants had completed the study—less than 20% of my total sample of 45 people. (I didn’t even have all 45 participants by then.)

So… that was my first delay for my data collection.

But by that time, I had increased my participant numbers enough to where I thought I might be able to finish my data collection by the end of November—so long as I could identify a few more participants. But then, as often happens, some participants withdrew due to other commitments (whilst some just never responded past their initial agreement to participate). It happens. And It’s nothing personal, right?

By mid-November I found myself sending out more calls for participants, wondering just how I would manage to find a full set for each of my three age groups. And I realised—with great disappointment in myself—that I would have to delay my desired data collection deadline to the end of December. That’s OK though, because it’s only a two-month delay, right? And surely I won’t have to delay again, right …?

As November began to crawl to an end, I was excited to see that I had all of the Generation X participants I needed—and I even had inquiries from enough Generation Y- and Baby Boomer-aged people to complete those groups.

Yes, December was going to be my month! I just knew that by the end of December—by the end of 2015—I would have all of my data collected. And for a while, I was actually convinced that I would actually manage it; that I would actually manage to collect data from all 45 participants (15 per group).

In fact, by the 3rd of December, I had successfully completed data collection for Generation X. (Which is my generation group, so I took extra pride in my fellow X-ers for that.) By that time I also had a full set of volunteers who were on track to complete by the end of the month; by the end of the year.

However, as often happens, I lost a couple of people again. Darn! (No hard feelings; I totally understand that other things come up.)

I am now sitting on the very edge of my (delayed) goals of completing data collection by the end of 2015. I have enough volunteers (and a couple of back-ups in case there are more withdraws). I have two more interviews scheduled and another three tentatively scheduled. I also have two participants geared up to start the process next week—which might give me just enough time to get their interviews completed before the Christmas holidays.

In fact, it is possible that I will be able to complete my data collection for Generation Y before Christmas—assuming no one drops out before then. (There are only three more interviews to go for that group, two of whom might be done before next weekend.)

However, I won’t be able to complete my Baby Boomer group until the New Year as I still need one more (confirmed) participant—and two of my participants can’t begin the process until January. (I need a total of six more completed data sets for that group, though one is scheduled to complete tomorrow.)

Am I a bit disappointed with the delay? Yes, of course, I am. Not because of the participants (for whom I am ever-so-grateful) but because I didn’t anticipate the process taking so long. I’m disappointed in myself for not having started to recruit earlier and for not having developed a better way of communicating with potential participants to minimise attrition rates.

However, a PhD isn’t just about the research and the thesis. A PhD is about learning how to do academic research. It’s about making mistakes and learning from them; it’s about creating best practices for the future; it’s about trial and error and coming out on the other end as a successful researcher.

So, are my data delays a failure? No, not really. They are merely a lesson in how best to manage the process for the next time. And explaining these learnings will be a great way to pad out that 80,000-word thesis at the end of it all!

And, of course, at least I can go into the New Year fairly confident that I will have successfully completed my data collection by the end of January. I think. I hope. And I pray.

(And again, I have to say thank you to all of the people who’ve participated so far. Because without you, there would be no data. And no data means no PhD!)