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?

Quick tip: embed fonts in PowerPoint

If you’ve ever opened a PowerPoint presentation on a computer other than your own, you may have seen the text get all messed up.

This happens when you use fonts on your own computer that aren’t installed on the computer you present with. PowerPoint will then substitute your font for another. Sometimes it still looks OK, other times the spacing of the text gets completely ruined and your presentation looks amateur.

To avoid this, embed the fonts you use in the file along with your presentation.

In PP for Windows, go to File > Options >  Save, then scroll down and check “embed fonts in file”

On a Mac, go to Preferences > Output and Sharing > Save, then under Font Embedding, select “embed fonts in file”.

See also
How to design outstanding PowerPoint slides
How to format your PhD thesis using Microsoft Word

It’s not your job to solve your field

If you’re doing a PhD, you probably want to make a difference in the world.

This is a good thing. It’s good to have a goal that’s bigger than yourself. But it can also be a trap if you try to fix everything you think needs fixing. By trying to fix everything, you end up finishing nothing.

Even those who have revolutionised their fields haven’t done so all at once. They’ve done so by patiently and persistently addressing one problem at a time.

See also:

What to do when your PhD project gets too big

Raising the bar