Achieving your goals

Back in 2005 (about half way through my PhD) I took a week off to cycle more than 500 miles from Edinburgh to Brighton.

Although physically it’s one of the toughest things I’ve done, it was also one of the most enjoyable. There was something about the simplicity of the task that made it strangely relaxing; all I had to do was get up in the morning, start cycling south, try not to get lost and try to eat enough. All other concerns were secondary.

But finishing was strangely anti-climactic. I was happy not to have to sit on a saddle again for a while, but the achievement also meant the loss of the goal.

I felt the same after finishing my PhD. It felt good to submit, but it also left a big hole to fill.

Goals aren’t necessarily about the outcome, they are about the process. And the reward doesn’t come after you finish; it comes in the form of meaning and focus in the present moment.

Knowledge and skill are not the same thing

It’s easy to worry about gaps in your knowledge, especially when faced with 10,000 papers you haven’t read. It’s just as easy to fixate on this as the main problem and get stuck in a reading trap. Reading paper after paper, cramming as if it were an undergraduate exam.

Reading papers without doing any practical work is like reading a hundred cookbooks without setting foot in a kitchen. Even if you manage to absorb all that knowledge, it’s useless without the skills to apply it.

Yes, you will be partly judged on your knowledge of the field, but they don’t expect you to know everything. It’s just as important to do your own research competently, and that takes practice.

Working on your skills is just as important as the reading.

The more you write, the harder it gets…

When you start a new chapter, there will be some material which just seems to spill out. You have a whole load of ideas bottled up, and so it’s easy at first to create new content and increase your word count.

But then something happens… It gets harder and harder to write the closer you get to finishing.

Why does that happen, and what can you do about it?

Picking the low-hanging fruit

Of all the content you want to put in your thesis, there will be some things you are confident in, some things that are easy.

Then there will be things that take a lot more thought. Things that you’re unsure of, or are are difficult to explain, or require thorough references, or are incomplete.

So if you start with all the easy stuff, eventually and inevitably you will be left with the more difficult things which take more time and thought.

It’s like picking the fruit from a tree. It’s easy at first to take the low-hanging fruit, but then gets harder the more you pick because the remaining fruit is higher up.

The more you work, the more work you create

What makes academic writing unique is the level of supporting detail required for every idea you present.

Almost everything you write requires some kind of reference either to previously published work or to some evidence you present as part of your research.

Even a fairly simple, uncontroversial and well-known factual statement may need a reference to support it. So writing that statement creates some extra work if you then have to go looking through the literature to find out where it originally came from.

This is often tedious work, so the temptation is to leave yourself a note (insert reference here) to remind yourself to do it later, because you want to carry on writing, creating more content and increasing your word-count.

70% complete…

So after working on a chapter for a while, there will come a point when everything that remains to be done is either difficult new content or tedious detail.

You will no longer be able to sit down and write 1000 words in an afternoon. It might feel like writer’s block, and you might feel the burning temptation to leave the chapter 70% complete and switch to writing about something else (where you’ll be able to take more low-hanging fruit and write fast again).

But that can only work in the short term. The same thing will happen again with the next chapter, and the next, until you have built up a vast amount of unfinished material. Everything that remains is difficult, and it’ll be one hell of a fight to get the thesis finished.

The stress-free route to thesis completion

If you fight against the inevitable, you will lose. But if you understand and accept how it works, then you can work in harmony with the task.

When you’ve gone through the easy phase of generating writing, and you start to slow down naturally, this is a signal that you should change your focus to working on either the finer details or to think about the difficult aspects of what you are trying to communicate.

Go back through what you have written. Edit. Put in the missing details. Put in the references. Take the time to think deeply about what you want to say next.

Try to anticipate what an examiner’s questions might be, and address the difficult issues now, while the subject and the ideas are all fresh in your head.

Accept that it’s necessary to slow down sometimes and take care over the detail. Be perfectionist about it. Do it well, and finish the section by dealing with all those tiny details before moving on to the next.

If you can complete one section…

Every section of your thesis requires the same basic elements before you can say it’s complete.

It will need all the references in place, with the full bibliographic information. It will need editing. It will need formatting to look like the final thesis. Any figures will need to be well designed and properly captioned. It will need to flow from one point to the next without any gaps to complete later.

You will have to do all these things at some point, for every single section of the thesis. You can either do it all at the end, under massive time pressure, or you can do it as you go. It’s up to you.

But if you can finish one section, just one section, taking care of all of these details, then you know what’s required for the rest of the thesis. And if you can complete one section to a high standard, then you know you can do it for the rest of the thesis.

On fancy language in academic writing

The aim of your writing should be to communicate as clearly as possible. The language should be formal, but, above all, understandable.

Think of it this way; when a busy academic downloads your paper, it’s probably one of many they’ve downloaded to try to read before their next meeting. They have a limited amount of time and attention to spare, and if they don’t understand what you’re saying quickly, they’ll move on to the next paper and forget about you.

But it’s easy to forget this when trying to dress up your research in high-level academic language. If the language obscures the message, then it isn’t serving the basic aim of communication. Some academics do this deliberately, confusing the reader to disguise a lack of actual content, others do it inadvertently because of a lack of confidence and some do it just because they think it’s how academic writing should be.

It’s easier than ever to reach a global audience with your research, but that audience is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available. If you want your work to be understood, noticed and spread, write as clearly as you can.

See also:

The writing course: registrations now open!

Practice vs performance

In a PhD (or academia in general), there’s always pressure to perform. To get the results, to write them up and get them published.

But by putting too much pressure on results in the short term, it’s easy to neglect the need for practice; the need to work on skills without worrying too much about the end product.

Let’s use a sports analogy. If you spend all your time in competitive matches, you might develop a certain toughness; an ability to keep on grinding away, but without actually getting better. You’ll have some wins, but you’ll never reach the top.

Under the pressure of performance, you can’t experiment and adapt. You can’t work on basic technique when you have to react right now; your performance will stay at the level you can already perform instinctively.

It’s in the times between matches, away from the pressure of performance that you can work on skills. In sports there is a clear separation between practice and performance, but in PhD work, where you have to arrange your own work in a way that’s conducive to developing your research skills, you have to create that separation.

Take some time out and work on the basics. It will pay off in the long run.

See also

Raising the bar

Webinar next week: How to deal with writer’s block: A guide for PhD students

What is it?

A free webinar on how to cope with writer’s block. Actually, it’s about dealing with the many underlying causes of writer’s block (because writer’s block is a symptom, rather than a condition in itself), but that would be a bit awkward as a title.

When is it?

Tuesday 22nd January at 2 pm UK time. The webinar will last around 90 minutes, including plenty of time for Q&A

What if I can’t make it live?

You can register anyway and you’ll get a link to the recording

How do I register?

Just click below!

Be like the ocean

There are so many external factors that can affect your PhD progress, but perhaps the single most important factor is how you react to them, internally.

If you panic, or disengage, or get angry, or complain, or interpret events in a way that makes them impossible to deal with, then it doesn’t matter what tactics you use; nothing will work. But if you can face whatever happens with calm determination and creativity, you can deal with almost anything.

The Neuroscientist-turned-Buddhist-monk, Matthieu Ricard, describes the ideal state of mind as being like the deep ocean; even if there is a storm on the surface, the depths beneath remain undisturbed.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden had a different take on the same idea; he demanded that, following a match, those watching shouldn’t be able to tell whether they had won or lost from his players’ demeanour.

In other words, whatever’s happening externally shouldn’t affect your basic attitude. This takes practice.

See also

Patience and persistence

The invincible mindset

Another reason why doing a PhD is so hard

One of the many reasons why doing a PhD is so hard is that there is no single, consistent method of teaching PhD students how to research and write.

If you want to learn a language, for example, there are systems in place to help you do so. People have figured out how to break languages down and help you practice (and, crucially, those teaching systems are shared). You don’t have to figure it all out yourself (although you can), and teachers don’t have to invent their own way of teaching because there are frameworks they can use. The same is true for learning to drive a car or perform brain surgery or countless other skills.

For PhD students, the guidance you get depends enormously on your supervisor. But they’ve most likely had very little training in how to manage and mentor you. The way they do things will be determined by their personality and the experience they went through.

There are some superb supervisors out there. It’s just a shame it’s such a lottery.

See also:

Who you work with is just as important as what you do

Is your PhD supervisor a facilitator or a barrier?