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!)

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 grant for a grant

In November, I submitted a grant application to an internal funding competition at Edinburgh Napier University. The application was made along with my PhD supervisor, Professor Hazel Hall and I am pleased to say that the bid was successful.

The grant will support two separate, but related, activities. The first is a one-day networking symposium that will take place in June 2017. The theme of the symposium is research priorities in Information Science as related to Everyday Life Information Seeking (ELIS) and Human Information Behaviour (HIB) in online environments.

By the end of the day, participants will have prioritised themes for future research. Their ideas will have been prompted by the keynote speaker, and by the other delegates in group sessions. The participants will also have established relationships which can subsequently lead to future research collaborations.

The second activity is writing a larger grant proposal. This will be for an external grant to support a postdoctoral research position within the Centre for Social Informatics at Napier. The postdoctoral work will build upon (1) the outputs of my PhD work (anticipated submission summer 2017) and (2) ideas generated at the symposium.

I will begin work to plan the symposium later this month and will increase my time spent on the project over the next few months. That will be even easier after I submit my thesis in the spring. Then, in June and July, I should be working full time on the symposium and the grant proposal. As the grant spending needs to be completed by the end of July, I may be finishing up the grant proposal on my own time, but that’s the life of an academic!

I will share more details about the symposium as planning gets underway in the spring. In the meantime, it’s back to that thesis I’m meant to be writing!

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!

Thesis summer

This 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!

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!

Write now!

Yesterday was the official Write Now! launch at Edinburgh Napier University, organised by me and my colleague, Iris Buunk. Write Now! was inspired by the successful Shut Up and Write! meet-ups organised by creative writing groups in San Francisco, something which Iris and I tried to replicate for ourselves by working in area coffee shops.

[In a hurry? Go straight to the “Why is it important?” part.]

However, we believed that—with the right support—we could create and maintain a successful writing group on the Merchiston Campus. But human support wouldn’t be enough—we wanted a small bit of financial support, too, so that we could offer tea and biscuits to our fellow writers. So we applied for a small research development grant from Edinburgh Napier University to help get us started—and thankfully, the university thought we had a good idea, too!

Importantly, other academics seem to think Write Now! is a good idea, too.

Yesterday’s launch saw 15 participants eagerly working on their academic tasks. There was work done on PhD theses and journal articles. Some people used the time to edit papers they were hoping to submit for publications. And some people used the time to fine-tune abstracts or create tables and figures for their documents.

Did they show up for the free biscuits? Maybe. But they stayed to work and the feedback indicates that they will return!

We now have enough money to fund writing sessions through to the end of the semester and are hoping that we might find further support for next year—if we can show that the investment in writing is a good investment for the university.

If you missed yesterday’s session: Don’t worry! We’ll be back next week and you’re welcome to join us!

But why is it important?
Easy: Because committing yourself to a dedicated writing time can help to prioritise the importance of writing whilst facilitating the process.

We figure that, at the most basic level, Write now! will benefit research students and academic staff who participate in the sessions. However, we also believe that this dedicated writing time will encourage participants to work on journal or conference submissions, research grants, and other academic work to help increase the university’s reach and impact within the greater academic research community.

Write now! addresses three of the four domains of the Vitae’s Research Development Framework, as dedication to the writing processes is key to the act of academic research. The primary domain to be addressed is ‘Engagement, influence, and impactin the subdomain ‘communication and dissemination’. As a key component of research is the dissemination of clearly communicated texts, it is vital to show within the university that engaging with the writing process is of great importance. To that, Write now! offers individuals the ability to spend time actively working on effective, written communications—whether in the form of writing abstracts for conference submissions, writing up the findings of an on-going research project, or disseminating findings through articles written for the press or academic blogs and other social media tools.

Additional areas being addressed are knowledge and intellectual abilities as related to creating a stronger knowledge base and developing a higher level of academic literacy and personal effectiveness as it relates to issues of personal time management and the prioritisation of workloads and related tasks.

Join us next Wednesday—and every Wednesday through June:
Triangle Restaurant
2-4 pm
Free drinks and snacks
And don’t forget your laptop (or pen and paper if you’re Old Skool like that!)

How not to write a literature review: Part 2

As many PhD students will tell you, doing a literature review can be a daunting task. And for students in social sciences, that task begins when your studies begin… and it would seem that it never ends! Well, at least that’s my personal experience with the things. After all, I’m half-way through my PhD* and the thing still isn’t done. It just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.

Of course, hindsight being what it is, I know where I went wrong. And if I had it all to do over again, I would be in a place of happiness right now. Or at least I wouldn’t be quite this frustrated with the process. (Well, that’s my working theory at least.)

Part of the problem I’ve run into is that I am studying outside of my comfort zone. I am doing a PhD in information science, but my background is communications and media and culture. And I thought (incorrectly!) that my background in social media would have set me up for this experience. But I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Only I didn’t realise how wrong I was until after I’d compiled a fairly lengthy (and decent, if I can say so) literature review. It was a comprehensive review of literature about social media and reputation. And it really covered a wide breadth of disciplines—all helping to substantiate my research.

And then someone mentioned a few researchers from within the field of information science that I’d not really looked at before. After all, the papers weren’t about social media and had (I thought!) a very tenuous link to my work.

But I was encouraged to keep reading. So I read. And I read. And I read. And all of the sudden, I found myself understanding the connections—and understanding so much more about the domain of information science.

Now, I find myself reading even more—and growing my review even further. But I’m also realising that I’ve made a massive mountain out of a mid-sized molehill.

So, knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently? (Other than the “write early; write often” lesson I wrote about before.)

The truth is, I don’t know. I think that maybe I needed to ask different questions at the start of my literature searching. Or, importantly, I should have recognised earlier on that I was in a discipline that was unfamiliar to me so that I could have started to read some of the “introductory” texts earlier than I did.

Yes—that! I should have stopped to realise that I didn’t fully understand the field of information science so that I could have built a stronger foundation from the start. Instead, I’ve had to backfill large sections of my knowledge.

The good thing is that my literature review is starting to make a lot more sense now. And—hopefully!—this extra work now will save me some effort and frustration when it comes time to write up my thesis.

The other good thing is that I have learned some important lessons about literature reviews, my new field of study, and—importantly!—myself.

There is still much work to do—for my literature view, my PhD, and my own self-esteem—but I’m getting there. Slowly.

And maybe now that I am feeling a bit more confident, I’ll be able to write here on Just a PhD a bit more. (I’ve been ignoring this place because I haven’t felt worthy of writing about a PhD when I haven’t even felt worthy of doing one!)

So, that’s a bit more on how not to do a literature review. Hopefully, by the end of it, I will be able to give some great insight to how I will do my next one!

* Well, I’m half-way through my PhD studentship anyhow. At this rate, it’s going to take me a bit longer than the three years of funded studies. So that’s a stress I’ll have to worry about eventually.

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.

2015 PhD resolutions

It’s a new year, so it must be time to make new resolutions! Generally speaking, my resolutions are tied to my long-term goals. They are designed to help me focus on the larger picture and, I’m pleased to say, I am pretty good at keeping them.

To that, my 2015 PhD resolutions are as follows:

Create a better, more productive work routine
The idea here is to divide my time better so that I have clearly defined blocks of time for reading, writing, and research. As it is, I feel a little guilty for spending time on certain tasks and that takes away from my overall focus and productivity. I hope to develop a routine that allows me a set amount of time each day or week to read the “fun” stuff (blogs and forum posts around my subject areas, for example) as well as the “real” stuff (academic articles and books, for example). The thought is that I will be able to fully focus on each task if I’m not feeling guilty about not doing something else.

Part of this will be looking at dedicated writing times and places. Over the next few weeks, I will work to determine the best way to divide my time and hopefully it will mean that I am enjoying more productive hours each week.

Set time aside each week for administrative tasks
Oh yes, the admin must get done! Yet inevitably emails go un-archived and papers go un-filed. That means my virtual and actual desktops have stacks of important things that are difficult to find. And that means I spend a lot of time shuffling through emails and papers I don’t need, just to access the ones I do. If I would just devote a bit of time to these things in the first instance, I would save myself a lot of time (and stress!) later.

Part of this will include a small administrative job I have with the school as part of my stipend. It will also include time set aside for maintaining this blog, which I hope to utilise a lot more as I start working towards my empirical research.

Build in guaranteed personal time
Much like the guilt I feel reading the “less serious” stuff for my PhD, I feel very guilty any time I’m doing non-PhD stuff at home. That guilt means that I’ve yet to finish reading an Ian Rankin novel that I started a few days before my PhD began more than a year ago! It also means I’ve yet to start on a new crocheting project or to make note cards for my Mum. And sometimes it’s even meant that I neglect my running—which means I’m neglecting my personal goals and resolutions.

Part of this will be working on my personal goals of being nicer to myself! It will also mean that I will allow myself to enjoy non-academic reading and to work on other projects without feeling guilty. Importantly, it will mean running more…which will help me to stay focused and energised. And that can only help my larger PhD and life goals, right?

So there you have it: My three 2015 PhD resolutions.

To add a wee disclaimer: I am not silly enough to think that these things are going to happen tomorrow. They are intended to be works-in-progress and I hope that over the next few weeks or months I will have formed new habits to help ensure I can make these things happen. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey!

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!

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.]

Reading habits

I’m struggling a bit with my reading habits just now and have decided to spend the rest of January getting a handle on them.

As you may know, the first year of a PhD is filled with reading. Lots and lots of reading. You’re reading through a massive collection of materials on your topic and writing notes about what you’re reading—all as part of your literature review.

The reading and taking notes part is actually pretty easy to figure out, but I’m struggling with how to find the best place for reading and taking notes.

What I know is this:

  • I can’t spend 8 hours in my office reading and taking notes because it’s too “stuffy” for me to read there and I’m constantly on edge waiting for someone to walk through the door.
  • I can’t spend 8 hours in a comfy coffee shop reading and taking notes because I’m a starving student and can’t afford to buy all those cups of coffee. (Actually, I’m more of a mint tea drinker.)
  • I can’t spend 8 hours at the library reading and taking notes because it’s much too quiet and I fear sneezing or coughing which means I’m very self-conscious.
  • And I can’t spend 8 hours at home reading and taking notes because that would provide too many distractions (Oh look! There’s a shelf that needs dusting …) and it would also mean I’d be home all day, every day.

I also know that I feel oddly guilty if I’m not in my office 8 hours a day. I feel like I’m “skipping school” or something. (Is this common for PhD students or am I alone in this weirdness?)

So, what do I do?

The simple answer is this: I need to find a way to combine my reading-and-note-taking locations throughout the day so that I’m putting in a “full shift” but so that I’m not losing out on productivity by constantly being on edge for some disturbance to happen.

The complicated solution to that answer, however, is what I’m struggling with.

But, as I am meant to be a researcher, I’m going to research! And I’m going to research by testing potential solutions and analysing the results.

With three full weeks (plus a full day) left in the month, I am going to start trying out different combinations of study locations to see what works best for me. There will be combinations of reading at home, in coffee shops, at my office, and in libraries at various times throughout the day. The number of locations I visit in a day will be switched up, too.

And, hopefully, by the end of the month I will have found a good pattern that works well for me. (I need a pattern; I work better with patterns!)

Of course, there’s always the risk that in my excited attempt to find a productive combination, I will work harder to be productive. In which case, even if I don’t find an ideal solution to my problem, I’ve hopefully been more productive than if I just stuck with the status quo.

I would love to hear from others on how they’ve managed to combine working locations to increase productivity. So, thoughts and suggestions for this eager reader?

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?