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!

Determining examiners: A happy milestone

One of the vital elements of a PhD in the UK is the Viva, or “viva voce”. (Or, if you’re an American, the thesis defense!) It is an oral examination of the PhD research. It is an opportunity to discuss your research with an expert in your field. And, importantly, it is an opportunity to prove your worth in the Academy.

Before you get to the viva, you have to make sure that you have a qualified, knowledgeable examination team. The structure of that team might vary from one institution to the next, and even between disciplines. But one thing they’ll have in common is that the examiners will know their stuff!

At my university, the viva includes both an external and internal examiner with your panel chair acting as the chair and moderator. Supervisors are only allowed if the student says it’s OK, but they are not allowed to speak during the examination. (I am inviting my supervisors. They’re a wonderful support to me and I would be happy to have them there… if they dare!)

The examiners are generally identified by the supervision team (with potential input from the student) and are confirmed by the Research Degrees Committee. That confirmation is based on the relevant experience of the team and is determined based on a thesis abstract and the examiners’ CVs, relevant publications, and previous examination experience.

And confirming your examiners is a big deal! It means you’re getting a bit closer to your viva, which means you’re getting pretty darn near to submitting your thesis.

As for me, I submitted the relevant form (RD12) and accompanying information for approval today. Which means I’m close to being ready for my viva. Or, at least, it means I should be close! I still have a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, of writing to do. But I’m getting there. Slowly. Very slowly.

I don’t know if I’m able to share my abstract or the names of my chosen examiners yet. And I don’t know when the committee will formally accept my suggested people. So… I won’t share that information here today. But I did want to share this important milestone.

But for now… it’s back to that thesis writing thing that I should be working on…

My final (?) RD6 review

My last (hopefully, my last!) RD6 review meeting was this afternoon. I say my last because I am hoping (praying!!) that I will have submitted my PhD thesis before the next round of these 6-monthly review meetings take place. So… let’s all hope together that this was my last!

Unfortunately, I was not as far along in my thesis writing as I had hoped to be when I met with my full supervision team today. But I am feeling mostly confident that I have things under control.

I felt a bit frustrated admitting to my panel chair that I have not delivered any completed thesis chapters to my PhD supervisors. And I felt even more frustrated because I don’t have an honest idea of when I will be able to do so. I mean, I’m working on things, but I have been struggling to find a way forward!

Still, I was left feeling confident enough to know (to think, at least) that I will be able to submit my thesis before summer gets into full swing. I was also left feeling confident that I am ready to submit my RD12 form, which is the determination of my viva examiners.

Over the next several weeks, I will be writing, writing, and writing. And when I have time, I will do a bit of writing, too. After all, as much as I like my supervision team, I don’t really fancy meeting them for another RD6 review!

A successful RD6 review

I had my RD6 review meeting last week, and am very pleased to say that it went very well. The RD6 review is a six-month review as part of Edinburgh Napier University’s research degree framework. It is part of the larger progress review process, and is something that I tend to get very nervous about.

I will admit that I went into last week’s meeting filled with apprehension. And this is why:

I had a rather unhappy first year of review meetings due to (now resolved) conflicts on my panel. (I won’t go into the details here, but please know that my university and my supervisors were ace in helping me resolve the conflicts*.) That first year left me with such poor self-esteem that I had actually spent the better part of three months wondering if I was best to leave my PhD programme.

That first year also left me so very unsure of myself that I am still finding it difficult to be productive. I am still worried that everything I do will be unfairly criticised. (I’m OK-ish with constructive criticism, it’s the non-constructive stuff I struggle with most.) Frustratingly, that uncertainty and fear means that I sit in front of my computer unable to put my thoughts into a tangible form.

But moving on …

I spent most of July and August working on a small pilot study and the report for that made up the bulk of my review materials. I stressed and stressed about how it would be received. And, to be honest, I was preparing myself to be told there was no way I would be allowed to continue my PhD. (See? Low self-esteem!)

Anyhow, I got into the meeting expecting the worst. And when my panel chair said, “So, tell me about your pilot study” I was waiting for it to be ripped to shreds. Instead, I was met with several great follow-up questions that all led to a wonderful conversation about the next steps of my study.

It was all so very positive that I was on Cloud 9 for the next couple of days. And it’s really helped to boost my confidence—and my excitement about my research. (Though it would have been fair to have got my hand slapped for my slow progress.)

I am still struggling a bit with my self-confidence and uncertainty, but I can really feel that I’m happier now. And that’s really helping to boost my overall productivity.

As for Just a PhD, I am hoping that the return of my confidence will also signal a return of my blogging abilities… because there’s a lot of great stuff that I want to share about my fabulous PhD life!

* If any fellow PhD students are experiencing conflicts, I am happy to share my experiences in private along with the lessons I learned along the way. The biggest lesson is that you need to advocate for yourself early. Which is really hard when you’re floundering in the deep end of the PhD student pond!!

A slightly confident step forward

Yesterday was my RD6 review meeting, and I am pleased to say that it left me feeling confident about the next stages of my PhD. Or at least, it made me feel as if I’m starting to find my bearings.

This was my first review meeting since my RD5 meeting in December 2014—which wasn’t finalised until February 2015—and was also my first meeting with my new panel chair. So where an RD6 would normally be a 6-month review with someone who “knows your story”, I had a review covering a very short period of time with someone who was unaware of conversations at previous review meetings.

All of that made it a bit of a disorganised meeting, but it was a very productive and positive meeting—because of, or in spite of.

We talked about my overall research topic and the next stages of my research, as well as some of the expectations for future 6-month review meetings. (My next RD6 will actually be the first time I’ve had a full six months between review meetings, an administrative quirk based on my slightly late start date.)

I am still a little frustrated because I feel like I’m a bit behind in the process, but I am starting to see how I can catch up now. I am also aware that some of my struggles were due to administrative issues that caused me a great amount of distress and uncertainty—things that I think should improve now that changes have been made.

So, what’s next?

Well, firstly (and most importantly!) I am feeling more confident now and am therefore feeling a little more excited about my work. That means that I am actually looking forward to the next steps.

My next couple of supervision meetings will be dedicated to helping me focus on some solid milestones and deliverables as part of my aim to firm up my line of argument. Then, I will start to really think about (and plan out) my methods.

This new confidence—and new insights from my new panel chair—has also helped me to identify some questions to ask my supervisors about the next stages. I’ll spend some time this evening making notes of those for my next meeting.

If all goes well (please, God, please!) I will be working on initial interviews soon. Yay!

Official status: PhD student

I am pleased to (finally!) be able to say that I am officially a PhD student. That might sound a little strange to those who know I began my studies more than a year ago, but the way things work at my university, you are only registered as a generic research student until after your first-year review. (This annual review is known as the dreaded RD5 here at Edinburgh Napier University*.)

Unfortunately, my own RD5 timeline got a little skewed because there were glitches in scheduling the meeting, followed by (minor) changes to my academic support team, which meant that the official form-signing bits were delayed by nearly three months.

More unfortunately, because of my own low self-esteem, I was convinced that it was all a sign that I wasn’t good enough; that I wasn’t PhD material.

It’s that second one that has really played havoc on my emotional and mental states over the past several months, meaning that I have been unable (or rather, unwilling) to blog about my studies. (It would have come across as poor-me, which no one wants to read!)

It has also meant that I haven’t been excited about my work. I allowed my fears to stop me from seeing a bright future, because I was too busy letting those same fears convince me I’d have to go back to being a waitress in my rural hometown. (Yeah, those Whatifs are kind of melodramatic in their depictions of reality.)

But now, I am feeling confident for the first time in months. I am once again looking forward to the hard work that a PhD will entail and I’m ready to re-motivate myself.

Yes, now that I am officially a PhD student, those PhD dreams have ceased feeling like nightmares.

So, what’s next?

Over the next few weeks, I will be thinking about my research methods in preparation for my empirical work. This will mean a lot of literature searching and reading (and writing, of course) but it also means that I’m starting to look into my own investigation, rather than the investigations of others.

I am also hoping that this new-found confidence and excitement will see me working in a more focused manner.

If all goes the way I hope it will, I will have a lot of great stuff to share here.

And for those who’ve been subjected to listening to my hysterical woes and fears of failure, thank you for putting up with me. Hopefully there will be less of that now.

* It’s dreaded, but it really isn’t anything to fear. In fact, I can see the benefits to the process, even though my own delay caused me much grief. But then, I do love a good administrative process. When they work.

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

When I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week, I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

Academic posters: Take one

I completed my first academic poster today, ahead of the 2014 SICSA PhD Conference in St Andrews next week. The poster is based on a 1-page abstract that I sent into the poster panel in April.

I struggled with how to design the poster because I thought I had to include all of the information from the abstract on the poster. That would have meant the poster was very text-heavy, which is something I’m not keen on. (I know many academic posters are mostly words, but I am more of a visual person.)

However, on meeting with two of my supervisors yesterday, I was told that wasn’t the case. In fact, they both agreed that less text is better! The decision was then made that I’d use this as a test poster to see how far I can push the boundaries between text and design.

I am not overly keen on my first attempt, but I am excited about the lessons I’ve learned so far. And I already have a list of things to change (improve!) for my next poster presentation in July.

My hope for this poster is that I will gain some useful feedback from the judging panel about what works and what doesn’t work.

And, of course, I also hope that I can win one of the poster prizes. But I have to be realistic and realise that a poster designed in less than 24 hours probably won’t win! (Still … fingers crossed!)

You can see a larger version of the poster here.

I hope that the poster is fairly self-explanatory (though I know it’s brief). If you’d like more information though, please do get in touch.

Stay tuned for an update on my first PhD conference next week. (And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to tell you I won a prize!)

[Photo Copyright Samuel Chinenyeze, one of my awesome office mates.]

Retreat, retreat!

I’ve been meaning to update this blog for a while now, but have been in retreat mode. And when you’re in retreat mode, sometimes blogs get ignored. (I am suppressing the urge to say “sorry about that”, for reasons explained below.)

Retreat No 1: I’ve been busy and stressed trying to meet a few deadlines, meaning I’ve retreated into my own little world—a bad habit, I know. This retreat mode was also because I was (am, in some cases) unsure about things. Like, what do I share here? What’s relevant? What do people want to read? Who’s my audience (Mum!)?

I am still unsure about a lot of these things, but I’m going to take a page from my personal blogging experiences of “blog to blog” when I’m shying away from writing. (It’s like the writers’ trick to “just write any old rubbish” as a way of getting the useful juices slowing.)

But that’s the “poor me” retreat mode so let’s move on to the fun stuff!

Retreat No 2: This was a real retreat with some of my fellow School of Computing PhD students to a loch-side retreat centre near the Highlands. It was simple and short but gave me the opportunity to share a short presentation of my research with some of my fellow students and teaching staff, who then provided a bit of feedback.

One of the most valuable bits of feedback was from one of my supervisors who suggested that I stop apologising—for my research; for being on the “soft” side of computing science; for not having all the information. (I then apologised for apologising too much. A problem I really do need to fix as I do it in all aspects of my life and it impacts my confidence. See first paragraph.)

And as this was my first official presentation as a PhD student, I thought I’d mark it by opening a SlideShare account so that I can share it with you!

(Yes, there was fun activity stuff at the retreat, too, as evident by the “selfie” of me after a cycle ride to a ruined castle.)

But it’s time to move on from retreats and talk about what’s next and what blog posts you can expect from me in the near future.

The biggest thing is that I’ll be giving a 20/20 presentation next Tuesday that will expand on my retreat presentation—and will hopefully see me not apologising.

After that, I will have a few conferences to talk about (assuming my abstracts are accepted!) and will be able to share a bit more information about my literature searching and current reading lists. There might even be an opinion/commentary piece or two if I can get the courage to share my thoughts with you.

Prepping for the panel

Tomorrow is my first panel review meeting for my PhD and I’ve spent the past few days prepping for it. (And stressing out about it just a little bit.) These meetings are meant to take place every six months though my first one is happening less than four months into my studies because I started later than the traditional September start. That early review has me slightly stressed because I feel that I won’t have as much accomplished as most people would at their first meeting, but I’m sure it will be OK.

This review is fairly simple. It will take place with me, my supervisors, and my panel chair and is an opportunity for the chair to determine if I’m on track—and if my supervisors are doing their jobs correctly. (I believe they are, but I confess that I don’t actually know how to judge that. Still, I believe they are.)

To prepare for the meeting, I have talked with my supervisors about my progress so far. I have also prepared an updated project plan, a listing of training events that I’ve attended and plan to attend, a reading list, and an updated draft of an essay I’m working on around reputation, identity, and information.

I’ve also tried to re-read as many relevant articles as possible so that I can be prepared for any questions that might arise.

I know that the chair isn’t out to get me, but I am still quite nervous about this process. (Hopefully those nerves will ease as I get used to these review meetings.)

Of course, tomorrow is also my 40th birthday and I know that I will be extremely aware of the time throughout the meeting because my plan is to leave the meeting, change into my birthday dress, and the run to the train station in time to catch a train to Glasgow where I will meet up with some friends for pretentious cocktails.

And that all means that I might forget to let you know how the actual meeting goes. (Apologies in advance for that.)

Over the next couple of weeks I will work to get some of the documents listed above up on the site. That way you can see the sort of things I’m working on.

Now, back to stressing out about tomorrow’s big meeting. (Which is better than stressing out about the big 4-0, which I’m not fussed about at all!)

[Note: That photo is actually from when I was in the final stages of writing my master’s dissertation, but it’s still fairly representative of what my study area looks like at the moment.]

Finding some clarity: It’s about reputation (not privacy)

I’ve spent the past few weeks reading about privacy, identity, and reputation so that I can try to resolve a few questions I have about where I want to take my PhD research. My area of interest is reputation, but with so many elements impacting reputation it can be hard to interpret the map with all of my thoughts and ideas.

I admit that it’s been extremely frustrating because I’ve found myself heading down so many paths that have been filled with more distraction than relevance and I was starting to wonder if I’d ever be able to find a path that could bring me a bit more focus. (I understand this is a common problem at the start of a PhD, so I haven’t felt like a failure because of it—but it hasn’t built up my confidence, either.)

Thankfully, this is where my supervisors come in! They’ve “been there; done that” so are able to help guide me in the right direction. (Yay!)

I developed a very rough draft of an essay on privacy, identity, and reputation—and the relationship between the three—and sent my supervisors a copy ahead of yesterday’s supervision meeting. I was very unhappy with the draft because it seemed so [enter several negative adjectives here], but in the end it was a very useful tool because one of my supervisors took the time to write a summary of key points on a white board for us to discuss—and that discussion led to a great amount of useful waypoints.

By the end of the meeting, I was filled with a renewed sense of excitement because I could see the path a little more clearly. There is still a bit of fog and I’m sure there will be a few rough patches to traverse, but I feel that this path will lead me to a couple of major roads before too long.

Moving forward, I will start to look a bit more at the idea of online identities and their relationship with reputation—and I’ll try to remember that my PhD is not about privacy*. I’ll be investigating issues of multiple identities (personas/personalities) including pseudonyms and anonymous accounts and how they’re used in an online environment—as well as some of the recent discussions around requirements for the use of “real names” by organisations like Google and Huffington Post.

I hope to have a bit more clarity on my research soon, at which time I will try to be a bit less vague in what I’m sharing. In the mean time, if you have any great resources you wish to share with me on reputation and identity, please feel free to contact me or comment below!

* I’ll talk about my desire to keep privacy on the fringe of my research later—after I’ve clarified it all a bit more in my own mind.