Planting seeds or putting out fires?

Do you spend most of your time planting seeds, or putting out fires?

If you’re planting seeds, you not only have to wait before getting the benefits, you also have to put in more work to cultivate them. It’s slow, but the earlier you start the greater the payoff in the long term.

If you’re only putting out fires, you’re dealing with the urgent, short-term problems, but neglecting your longer-term success.

Here’s an example…

  • You’re working on your PhD as hard as you can. You are reading and reading and gathering data as quickly as possible. Everything is rushed, because there’s NOT ENOUGH TIME.
  • You worry about your level of English, but you don’t have time for lessons. You just have to write because your supervisor wants to see something and it’s been so long since you sent something you feel you have to produce more.
  • And you have a ton of data to analyse, but you’re no good at statistics and there’s so much to do. If you just get something down on paper maybe you can sort it out later.
  • You’re working as hard as you can, but nothing seems to work and you’re afraid of being found out as an impostor

You’re putting out fires. There’s no time to think, let alone do the slow work required to cultivate your basic skills.

But nothing is on fire. There is no emergency. And the stress and energy you are investing isn’t going to pay off. By working in a panic, you’re neglecting the longer-term development of your project and your skills, so when time runs out and there’s a genuine emergency, there’s nothing you can do about it.

What to do

Slow down.

Let’s just take one aspect of the situation above; the stress about writing in English. This is entirely predictable and solvable, but it takes time. The earlier you start to address this problem, and the more consistently you attend to it, the easier it will be later.

If you know you have to submit a thesis in a second language in 3 years, you have 3 years to work on that skill. One lesson won’t make much of a difference, but if you start early and spend an hour per week with a language tutor, focusing primarily on formal written language, and if you do the work to practice, you’ll be fine. But you have to stop putting out fires and plant and cultivate the seed.

The same principle applies to statistics or to any other skill you have to develop. Make time to plant and cultivate seeds, no matter what else is going on.

Academic writing: Context is everything

Here’s a structure that works for almost any piece of academic writing:

  1. First, describe a situation.
  2. Next, describe a problem or question that arises from that situation.
  3. Now describe how other people have approached that problem or question.
  4. Explain a need to approach it in a different way or expand upon what’s been done.
  5. Say what you aim to do…

Each of these steps sets up a context for the next, so the flow of information naturally makes sense. There is no need to signpost* what you’re going to do, because the reader can follow you easily.

Here’s an example;

  • Worldwide, the number of PhD students is increasing
  • However, there is also evidence of disproportionate levels of stress among PhD students.
  • While there have been a limited number of studies to date which have highlighted the scale of the problem, and individual institutions have made efforts to provide better support, there has been little research into the effectiveness of different interventions
  • This research will…

This example combines points 3 and 4 into a single sentence, but the flow of information is the same. Each step sets up the context for the next.

Once you have this structure, you can add extra detail to support the main points, or you can keep it concise. Or you can treat some of the points briefly and go into much more detail on others. As long as the basic structure is there, the reader will be able to follow you.

So, for example, you can write 500 words about the increasing number of PhD students worldwide, adding statistics for different countries or an explanation of why the numbers are increasing.

  • Over the last 10 years, there has been a huge increase in the number of students enrolling in doctoral degree programmes worldwide. Recent statistics from the UN estimate that…
  • While the increase in the numbers of doctoral students is seen globally, it is even more marked in developing nations such as…
  • This is in part due to the a concerted effort at government level to …
  • Although increasing engagement in doctoral research has a number of benefits, recent evidence has shown evidence of disproportionate levels of stress among PhD students

Even though we’re adding extra information, we don’t need to alter the overall structure. This makes it much easier to edit your writing than if you just write with no structure at all.

Context in literature reviews

You can use this structure not only for the introduction to a thesis or paper, but to individual chapters or sections as well.

For example, in a literature review, you can place individual papers within a broader context.

  • Situation: A long standing problem in the field has been…
  • Traditionally, this has been approached by…
  • However, there’s a problem with this approach…
  • To address this, Smith proposed…
  • This has caused…

What most writers do is focus on Smith’s paper and introduce it by starting with the authors name, then what they did, then why it matters. But if you set up the context first, the reader has a reason to be interested in what Smith did and they immediately understand the significance of the work.

You can then say how it influenced the field, or how others built on Smith’s work, or how it created other problems. You’ve set up a new context now, describing other work as a response to Smith…

Context is everything. It’s the glue that holds the information together. And it’s probably the most important academic writing skill you can learn.

*Outside academia, no professional writer signposts what they are going to do. You never see a newspaper article or non-fiction book say, “this chapter consists of 4 parts; the first will…” or, “this article covered the latest developments in…” If a piece is well written, most signposting is unnecessary. If it’s badly written, signposting doesn’t help.

See also:

Signposting your writing

How to write a compelling literature review

Do you have to cite your external examiner in your PhD thesis?

Do you have to cite your external examiner in your PhD thesis? Maybe. There are reasons why you might need to, but the mere fact that they are your examiner isn’t enough.

“I’ve just found out who my external examiner is, so I need to make sure I cite them”

The assumption seems to be that the examiner will give you a hard time for not citing them, but there are a few problems with this way of thinking.

First, do you want the kind of examiner who will punish you for not citing them? While there are plenty of insecure, narcissistic academics out there, the majority are not like this.

It can cause more problems to cite your examiner badly. If you haven’t properly read their work, or if you misrepresent it, or if it’s obvious you’re just citing them to score points with them, you’re inviting a difficult conversation in your defence.

Of course, it’s likely that your examiner will have some relevant publications, but the same rules should apply to their work as any other citation.

  1. It should be placed in an appropriate context
  2. It should be a good example of the kind of work you are writing about
  3. You should have read it and have a clear reason for citing it (other than the fact that they are your examiner)

My own external examiner had invented one of the experimental techniques I used, so I would have cited him anyway. If your only reason for citing them is that they are your examiner, it’s probably better not to.

Small wins, part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about focusing on the small wins, rather than the big goals or major breakthroughs.

The first step is to define your threshold for success in the short term.

What would make today a successful day?

When I was writing my thesis, I set myself the target of writing a minimum of 500 words per day. This meant that I had a specific metric of success; on a difficult day, if I struggled to reach 501 words but fought my way through, it was still a successful day. If I blasted through 2000 words easily, it was a great day.

Sometimes, though, you aren’t in complete control of the outcome. Things can go wrong, equipment can break, experiments can fail… On days like these, your effort might not produce measurable forward progress.

But it’s days like these where your effort is most important. It’s the ability to stay engaged and creative when things go wrong that will make all the difference in the long run.

It’s still a win if you kept trying. It’s still a win if you stopped to think about the problem instead of just working on something else. It’s still a win if you stayed curious and engaged.

If you think this way, if you can look back on even the most frustrating days and say you did your best, more tangible success will come. It takes time, but it will come.

See also
Be like the ocean

Small wins, part 1

Success doesn’t happen all at once. It’s easy to focus on the end result and see it as a singular event, but that moment (whether it’s your graduation or a major breakthrough in your work) is the culmination of thousands of smaller, less dramatic successes over time.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the way archetypal success stories are told. We all know about Isaac Newton and his falling apple, but the truth is that his insight into gravity didn’t just hit him on the head. It came about after years of constant, obsessive work; not only learning scientific and mathematical skills but inventing entirely new ones.

Newton’s apple, Archimedes’ bathtub and Edison’s lightbulb: All variations on the same story, all missing the long, slow, unglamorous daily accumulation of small, individually-barely-significant victories necessary to achieve something great.

Focus on the small wins, not the big goals.

One way to do this (and to build it into your daily routine) is to start the day with a to do list of no more than 3 things.

They don’t have to be the biggest, most important things you have to do. They should be small enough that you can achieve them fairly quickly, so you can build your day on a foundation of success.

The idea is to narrow your focus from the big, overwhelming, long-term goals to the small, manageable but important steps you can affect right now. Put all your focus and effort into doing them, one at a time, to the best of your ability.

You might find that your mind wanders or that you find a million other things that need to be done, but bring your attention back to that list of three.

Focus on the small wins.

You might also find that you resist doing one of the three things on the list. Stick with it, though. The rule is that you get all three done before you do anything else.

This trains the habit of seeing things through even when it’s uncomfortable. Do this repeatedly on a small scale and it’ll be easier when you face a larger problem in your research or writing.

Small wins.

See also:

Finish it!

Quick tip: To do lists

Why you shouldn’t always look for a gap in the literature

People often talk about finding a “gap” in the academic literature, but this isn’t always the best way to develop a research project.

Even if you find a gap in the literature, the mere fact that nobody has published on it isn’t enough to make it interesting to other academics (and it has to be of interest to others in order to get published).

Sometimes, the best research is done where there is already a huge amount of literature; where we think we know something but it’s perhaps based on a widely accepted but flawed or untested assumption.

Other times, it could be about finding an interesting edge to work on; taking existing research a little further or taking a different approach to the same problem.

So a gap in the literature isn’t really what you’re looking for. You’re looking for an opportunity to develop a meaningful research project. The relationship between that project and the existing literature could be complicated.

For more on this, check out this post from 2017!

The lonely thesis writer

Yesterday, I talked about how writing happens in the spaces between typing and the importance of taking time to just think. This isn’t easy, because it means being alone with your thoughts, but it’s necessary.

But this doesn’t mean you have to work in total isolation all the time. It’s equally important to talk to other people to explain and discuss your work. The questions they ask, the comments they make are a form of informal feedback that can help you refine the way you communicate.

For many, especially those doing remote PhDs, the only time they describe their work is in writing. This makes the job so much harder because the only feedback they get is at the end of a complete draft.

Talking to people about your work helps enormously, because it’s always easier to write about something if you’ve described it before. But talking to others about their work, or about what’s happening in the field is just as important again.

Being in contact, being immersed in the conversations in your field; this is how you get to know what’s really happening.

So you need both. You need time alone to think and to write, but you also need contact and conversation. Don’t do it all alone.

See also:

Talk to people

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

Writing ≠ typing

It might seem like you’re only writing when you’re filling pages with text, but writing and typing are not the same thing.

Most of the writing process is simply thinking. Thinking about the ideas you want to express, the structure, the way one idea leads to or follows on from another.

When I sit down to write, I’ll spend extended periods just staring out of the window while I juggle words and ideas in my head. But this, too, is only part of it.

It’s often in the times when I’m nowhere near a computer that the real writing happens. It’s while walking or commuting or doing anything else that lets my brain run free.

It’s creative, rather than productive, time. And, for me at least, it’s essential.

So don’t think of writing as just typing. Take the pressure off and give yourself time to think.

See also:

Productivity comes last

How to overcome writer’s block

Facing the problem in front of you

In doing something that nobody has done before, using techniques you’re still learning, it’s inevitable that you’ll face problems.

But there are different ways you can respond to these problems when they arise.

The first is avoidance. You can avoid the problem by procrastinating, or you can avoid it by working on something else. If you switch to working on something else when you face a problem (in research or writing), you’ll keep yourself busy but you won’t be effective. Ultimately, you’ll end up far more stressed because you’re working and working but not solving anything.

The alternative is to face the problem head on. Put all other work to one side, engage and take the time to figure it out.

It’s uncomfortable, but it’s when problems arise that you need to be at your most engaged. The more difficult the problem, the more engaged you need to be.