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…

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 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!)

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!

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.]

What’s in a name?

The first post on a new blog can be hard to write sometimes because I don’t necessarily want to jump right in, but an introduction would really just be a re-hash of an “about” page. Of course, if I take too long to decide how to start, it might never happen. So I’m going to do a combo jump-right-in/introduction post to get the ball rolling.

I’ve been thinking about getting this blog up-and-running for two or three weeks now but I had a lot of decisions to wrestle with before I was ready to start.

What platform would I use? Would I self-host or use a free platform? Would I buy a domain or have a secondary domain (blogger.something.com; something.wordpress.com)? And, importantly, what would the blog’s name be?

The platform was easy enough: WordPress—because I’m familiar with it, I trust it, and my emergency tech friends understand it.

Then I chose to self-host on my existing DreamHost server account. This is because the self-hosted WP platform means no ads and that I can alter the templates and CSS to my heart’s content without having to pay add-on fees.

Of course, the choice to self-host also meant that I would be purchasing a domain—a decision that meant I had to think about what I wanted to call the site.

For a while, I thought I’d have my name in the domain: A PhD for Frances (a nod to some of my favourite childhood books); Doctor Frances Ryan (with a disclaimer saying “future” doctor); or even just a sub-domain off of my personal website (phd.personalsite.com).

But then I realised that I didn’t need my name in the domain—I just needed it to be descriptive. Of course, all the short-and-sweet PhD blog domains are already taken, which meant I had to get creative if I didn’t want to end up with something like SocialMediaPhDResearchStudentJourney.com.

In the end, I realised that the domain needed to be simple. It was, after all, just a little site about my little PhD. Just a site; just a PhD.

Ah-ha! Just a PhD! I like that. It’s simple. It’s easy to remember. It works on several levels. And—importantly!—the domain is available!

And all of the sudden, Just a PhD was born.

Just a Phd.

I am just doing a PhD. Like it’s not important or something; like it’s not a proper job/grown-up activity.

You’re not really going to be a doctor though, you’ll just be a PhD.

I don’t have time for anything else—just for my PhD. (I like to think that won’t be true. But I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong at various points.)

This site is just about my PhD.

And, of course, I am known as simply “Just Frances”.

See—it works on several levels!

So, just to get the conversation going: Can you see any other ways to interpret the idea of “just a PhD”? Or do you have any anecdotes about the interpretations already listed?