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

2015.09.11.rd6-review-successI 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

2015.03.05.step-forwardYesterday 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!