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!

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!)

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…

Thesis summer

2016.07.01.thesis-summer1This summer is Thesis Summer for me. It’s the summer when I must, without excuses, get my head down and write, write, write! Luckily, July and August are two months devoid of conferences, training events, seminars, and other activities that take me away from my focus. So I’ve decided that I will devote them to my thesis; I will devote them to my PhD dreams.

I began preparing for Thesis Summer in the middle of June. I knew that I needed to be caught up on all of my administrative tasks beforehand, lest I use chores like cleaning up my inbox as a method of procrastination. I also knew that I needed a clear (well, clear-ish) plan for how I would spend my time, and what my end-of-summer outcomes would be.

And now that I’ve properly prepared, I am ready to dive straight into my Thesis Summer plans. Today. One the first day of July. And it’s going to be great!

Great, but not easy. After all, Thesis Summer is all about putting in the hours; putting in the hard work. And by the end of Thesis Summer, I intend to have completed drafts of all of my findings chapters as well as my literature review. Now, I realise that doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but there is a lot of work to do before I’m ready to start writing those chapters.

A big chunk of time will be devoted to completing the coding and analysis of my data. And then there will be the act of thinking about my data, and trying to make sense of it all in relation to the literature. Oh yeah, and I’ll need to re-visit my literature, too. And that’s more than just a weekend task!

I will be breaking everything down into manageable pieces that I can build upon. The overall idea is a pyramid with data-based tasks at the bottom (preparing files, coding data, running queries and reports, and analysing data). Once I’ve built up my strong base, I will start adding to the pyramid by creating smaller reports from my data subsets, which should help me to determine the overall structure of my thesis. From there, I should be in a better position to write up my final findings chapters, which will also help me with my final literature review.

Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work!

I am also going to try to keep up with my blogging by attempting (at least) one Just a PhD post every week. And I’m going to do it all without tears! (OK, that might be an exaggeration.)

Of course, Thesis Summer won’t be a success if I just lock myself away in my office. After all, I am merely human. And therefore, I need to address my human needs, too.

So for my personal Thesis Summer goals, I will aim to spend at least one day a week not doing my PhD. That might mean a day away to the beach or maybe a weekend away to see friends around Scotland or to visit my in-laws in England. I will also aim to run at least three days a week—even if I only have time for a wee 5K. My other personal aims for the summer are general self-care measures: Eating healthily, sleeping enough (and not too much), and keeping up with my relaxation hobbies such as drawing and writing. (Yes, writing. Which means I will also be aiming to write at least one Just Frances blog post every week.)

Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work!

And I’ll need to stay motivated; I’ll need to be productive; I’ll need to be determined and inspired and devoted. But I can do it. I’m awesome like that!

2016.07.01.thesis-summer2

Please feel free to help keep me motivated along the way. And if you’re on Twitter, you can follow my progress with my Thesis Summer hashtag, #ThesisSummer!