TK

Here’s a quick writing tip used by the professionals…

When you are writing and there’s something you need to come back and insert later, like a reference, figure number, table etc, you probably leave a note for yourself as a reminder.

Do you have a consistent system for these “notes to self”? Or do you do it a different way every time?

When you have a tight deadline, it is easy to miss (insert figure here) or (find reference on X) when you scan through your document in a hurry.

So it’s better to have a system where you can’t possibly miss them!

TK

TK is wisely used in journalism and printing as a placeholder for missing material, standing for “to come“.

The reason TK is used rather than TC is that it is an unusal letter combination (try to think of any words in English containing “tk”… there are a few, but not many), so if you do a CTRL-F search in your document for “tk” you will find every instance easily.

You could use XXX or any other letter combination that doesn’t appear in the rest of the text. If you are doing a thesis on pocketknives, for example, XXX is probably a better one to use.

Whatever you use, be consistent, and you will avoid submitting a thesis with an embarrasing (insert example here).

Is it OK to take time off while writing your thesis?

I just received this question in response to the short guide to writing a thesis fast;

It is common for students to think they have to work all the time to make progress in writing. Then, there is guilt if you do not work. But working all the time makes life miserable.

Did you schedule days off and time off during the day when you were writing your thesis?

Is this feeling common?

Yes. It is common to have a constant feeling that you aren’t doing enough and to feel guilty if you don’t work.

There are a few possible situations where this applies:

  1. When you intend to work, but can’t find the motivation and end up procrastinating
  2. Where you work, but the progress is very slow or it doesn’t feel like enough
  3. When you make a conscious decision to take time off and get away from the computer

If you feel miserable when you work, and guilty when you don’t then clearly writing will be a nightmare. So what is the solution?

Set the bar for success

Ask yourself; how much progress do you need to make in order to be happy?

In an ideal world, you want to finish each day and look back with satisfaction on what you have done. When I wrote my thesis, I set this at 500 words minimum per day, because I knew this was achievable even on a difficult day.

On a good day, I could smash the target and write maybe 2000 words. On other days I might have to fight and struggle my way to 500. Either way, I had a system which allowed me to feel good about my progress.

The target should not be your maximum

Your writing pace will naturally vary from one day to the next. Some days you might be able to write 2000 words, but this should not be your target  because most days you will fail.

It is better to set the bar low, then smash that target, rather than just about reaching it on your best days.

Time off during the day

While writing, I would take breaks just to give myself time to think. This thinking time is essential, but difficult to get if you feel constant pressure to WORK MORE WORK HARDER KEEP WORKING NEVER STOP NOT DOING ENOUGH…

You need some downtime, just to relax and think.

Being English, I am addicted to tea, so putting the kettle on got me away from the computer on a regular basis.

Go offline

Crucially, when I took breaks I was not checking email (I had no internet connection at all during the months I was writing), so this meant my brain could think over what I wanted to say before I went back to the desk.

Email and Facebook do not count as a break, and are by far the biggest productivity killers.

Days off

Because I had a set target each day, which I exceeded, when I did take days off I didn’t feel guilty about it.

I felt like the thesis was under control, and so I wasn’t worried about taking a day or two to myself.

Finishing the day with something in reserve

I always tried to finish working at a point where I felt I could do more. This made it much easier to maintain my productivity from one day to the next, which in turn meant I was more likely to beat the target every day, which helped me feel in control, which made it easier to relax… (see “the self-sustaining cycle of thesis productivity”)

 

“I hate my PhD…”

When I was first offered a place on a PhD program, it felt great.

Just being accepted to study for a PhD felt like a success, like some kind of validation that I was good enough to do it. What I didn’t realise was that it is much, much easier to get onto a PhD program than to complete one.

It was tough, and there were times when I felt like the whole thing was pointless… that I would fail and there was nothing I could do about it. There were times when I hated my PhD, and there were times when I just wanted to quit.

I hate my PhD

This is a common feeling, but what makes it worse is that it is easy to end up trapped by your PhD.

If you have a job you hate, then you look for another one. There is no stigma attached to quitting a job, and it is the obvious thing to do if you are truly unhappy.

But with a PhD, even if you hate every day and wake up dreading going to the lab or library, it is very hard to leave.

Why it is so difficult to leave a PhD

Unlike a job, a PhD has a defined aim which you either achieve or you don’t; to graduate. So leaving can feel like failure, because you haven’t achieved what you set out to do.

How, then, do you explain to a potential employer that 5 year gap on your CV? How do you explain to your family and friends? How will you feel years from now when you look back on that incomplete goal?

As long as you stay, there is still maybe some hope… perhaps if you work harder or longer hours then things will change…. But they never do, because if you are unhappy and lacking confidence, it is impossible to fully apply yourself and work to the best of your ability.

So people stay, month after month, year after year; unable to make progress, too scared to leave.

What can you do?

You have 3 options

  1. Just carry on and hope for the best
  2. Quit
  3. Make fundamnetal changes to the way you work

Of these, the first option is by far the worst. If you are unhappy, stressed or depressed, then it is a signal that something needs to change. It is easier to stay in the relative safety of the familiar (no matter how unpleasant) than to walk away and into the unknown, but this is just a way of avoiding responsibility for your own happiness and wellbeing.

If you quit, you are at least making your own decision and taking back control of your own life. Although scary, it can open up an entire world of possibilities… By letting go of the PhD, you can create the space in your life to do whatever you want to. You could;

  • Fly to Iceland and look at volcanoes
  • Learn to dance
  • Write a novel
  • Run an ultramarathon
  • Start a business and change the world

Life is what you make of it. The only limitations are the ones you place on yourself, and a PhD is not the only challenge out there.

Making changes to the way you work

It is possible to turn things around, but you need to not only change the way you work, but also the way you think about the work.

Being more organised and working harder are not solutions in themselves. Any burst of willpower or new time-management technique will work for a few days, but lasting change can only come from a fundamental change in your mindset.

For me, the change happened when I relaxed, and stopped worrying about the end result, and just focused on doing things carefully. I told myself, “I don’t care if this works or not, but I’m going to do it to the best of my ability anyway”.

I couldn’t control the end result, because I was doing experiments which only worked maybe 5% of the time. But I could control the care and attention I gave to whatever task I took on.

Pass or fail, trust in your ability to cope

There was a real possibility I would fail my PhD, but I told myself that if I did fail, I would be OK. It would not be the worst thing that would happen in my life, and although it wouldn’t be nice, I would cope.

I would find a job somehow. I didn’t know how, and I had no plan, but I trusted in my own ability to cope with whatever happened.

True confidence is not having certainty over exactly how things will work out, because that is impossible. True confidence, whether you quit your PhD or continue, comes from not knowing how things will work out, but doing it anyway.

 

“The best of the best”

On the very first day of my PhD, I sat with all the other new students through a whole day of induction meetings.

Various people came to speak to us over the course of several hours; the safety officer, someone from the finance department, somebody else to talk about the monthly reports we were supposed to fill in…

But there was one that stuck in my mind. It was the “motivational speech” where we were told that we had been accepted onto a PhD program because, by definition, we were,

… the best of the best…

I’m sure it was meant to motivate us and give us confidence, but for me it had the exact opposite effect.

I was definitely not the best of the best. I hadn’t done particularly well as an undergraduate, and I felt like I had bluffed my way onto a PhD program. Maybe these other people were the best of the best, but I was the impostor and I spent the next couple of years with a small but ever-present worry that I would be found out.

Worrying about what you don’t know

I was always worried about what I didn’t know. My maths wasn’t that great by physicists standards, and there was a lot of fairly basic stuff that I had either forgotten or simply never learned in the first place.

I would occasionally try to fill those gaps… I would get a book and leave it on my desk in the hope that the knowledge would enter my head by virtue of proximity, but of course it never did.

Background stress…

The fear of being found out added a level of background stress. It wasn’t particularly bad… my life was perfectly comfortable and I woudn’t say that I was suffering, but there was certainly a slow erosion of confidence.

But this background stress stopped me working to the best of my ability. When I did an experiment, I never really believed that it would work, and so subconsciously I undermined my own effort by not doing thiogs quite as carefully as I could.

Of course, this menat that things were less likely to work, which reinforced my negative beliefs, and the whole thing became a self-sustaining cycle of futility.

The realisation…

It was only in my third year of the PhD, after nearly quitting, that I realised something crucial…

Everybody has different skills and expertise. It did not matter that I had weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge, because there were other things that I was really quite good at. Other people weren’t better or worse, they just knew different things.

I had forgotten a lot of basic physics and maths becasue I didn’t need it for my project and wasn’t using it. But I had learned a huge amount about the experimental technique I was using, and knew the equipment as well as anybody.

I had become a specialist. An expert in one or two things, and so I decided to focus on that and not worry about how much I didn’t know.

I didn’t have time anyway to fill in all the gaps, so there was no point worrying about it.

The thesis

When I came to write my thesis, I decided to focus only on material I knew and understood well. By focusing on my strongest areas, I could write faster and with more confidence.

There was always a risk that an examiner would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, but I just took the view that this is my work, I am proud of it and I am happy to defend it, and if the examiner doesn’t like it, I don’t care.

With this attitude, I was able to relax and actually enjoy the writing process.

Get really good at something

The best of the best is meaningless. Everyone has different skills and strengths and weaknesses, and nobody knows or is good at everything.

So don’t worry about comparing yourself to others, and don’t worry about the gaps in your knowledge, because you can never fill all of them.

But what you can do is get really good at a small number of things, know where your strengths lie, and focus on them instead.

PhD research proposals: a good idea is not enough

In many PhD projects, you have to write your own research proposal. This is in some ways similar to the process that professional academics go through when applying for funding to do research.

It is not enough to have a good idea and research plan. You need to be be able to convince other academics that the project is interesting or valuable or useful.

A PhD research proposal is a pitch for investment of resources… whether that investment is money, equipment or time. Before anyone will invest in your project, you need to do two things…

1. get their interest

Of course, different people find different things interesting, valuable or useful. Your research may be very far removed from any obvious practical application, but it can still be of academic interest to others working in the field.

So you need to know who you are selling it to, and why they should be interested. It is this understanding, as much as your technical knowledge, that will help you sell your research idea.

This means becoming familiar with the literature and knowing how your work fits into the broader context, but it also means getting to know people in the field, what motivates them and what they find interesting.

2. reassure them

Any investment carries some risk. If someone invests money in your project, or agrees to invest time supervising it then they carry some of the risk if your project is a disaster.

So you need to reassure them that the research idea is viable, that you have done adequate background research, and that you have thought through clearly how you will carry out the project.

If you can convince other academics that your project is interesting, then reassure them that you can deliver, then you will have a high chance of success.

Sleep!

There’s a good reason why Shakespeare called sleep “chief nourisher of life’s feast”. It is as important as food for physical and mental health.

Of course you have to make sacrifices sometimes in order to finish your PhD, but sleep should be the last thing you sacrifice.

Cutting down your sleep even by a small amount per night can have serious negative effects;

  • Decresed alertness and cognitive performance
  • Impaired memory
  • Irritability and stress

To succeed at PhD level research you need your brain working to the best of its ability. So giving up sleep might gain you an extra ahour or two of working time, but if you can’t think straight then that extra time isn’t very useful.

If you deprive yourself of sleep consistently over a long time it also affects your immune system meaning you are more likely to become ill. So any working time you gained by cutting back on sleep, you can lose in sick days.

Sometimes research demands a late night. There were times when I was still in the lab when the sun came up. But it’s not sustainable in the long term and you have to give yourself time to recover!

If you have too much work, if you are stressed and not making fast enough progress, slow down and think about how you work. Depriving yourself of sleep is never the answer.

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Free yourself from internet distraction while you write your thesis

When I wrote my PhD thesis, there were many factors that helped me write fast.

But if I had to pick one thing- one defining factor in my success- then it would be this…

I wrote it with no internet connection.

I knew that the internet was my Achilles heel. It was my biggest distraction, and if I didn’t keep it under control then I would end up losing days and weeks doing nothing.

Willpower?

I could have tried to use willpower and self-discipline to avoid procrastination, but this takes effort to do.

Willpower is a limited resource and eventually it runs out. You know how it goes… after working for a while your brain starts finding reasons to go online…

You start by telling yourself, “I’ll just see if my supervisor has replied to that email”, but in the 3 seconds it takes to load,  you’ve already opened a tab for facebook, and before you know it you have spent 45 minutes watching YouTube videos of cats.

Removing the option

If you remove the need for willpower to keep you offline, you can direct that effort towards your work instead.

So I removed the option of going online and worked with no internet connection in my flat. There was simply no way I could get online from my home computer.

But… what if you need papers?!?

There was a time before the internet, when journals were only available in physical form, and searching for an article meant looking through pages and pages of abstracts in the library.

So it is clearly possible to do without having an internet connection!

I did it using the internet connection at the university (a 10 minute bike-ride away). I would plan ahead and download the papers I needed.

Next to my desk, I had a row of ring-binders stuffed full of articles, sorted by topic. So at any point I could reach out and grab the relevant articles.

What if you can’t cut the internet off?

It might not be possible to cut the internet off completely, especially if you live with other people or have to work in an office at the university.

If that’s the case, I can strongly recommend downloading a program called “Freedom”.

Freedom!

Freedom works by switching off your internet connection for a set amount of time.  If you set it to 60 minutes, then once activated you cannot access the internet. There is no password, there is no stop button, you are completely cut off until the 60 minutes are up.

You can get Freedom here. It costs $10, but if it helps you finish your thesis faster, it is well worth it!

I have no affiliation to the company, I just recommend it because I use it.

Try it out and leave your comments below!

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Searching for inspiration?

How many of you have done this?

You sit down at the computer to get some work done, but it’s just not happening. The ideas are there, you sort of know what you want to do, but you’re just feeling uninspired.

So you open up a browser and search for inspiration… something to trigger that creative spark. But before you know it you have lost half the day just surfing the web.

I do this all the time, but it rarely works. Even if I find an outstanding blog post or YouTube video or TED talk, after I watch one, all I want to do is watch another. It’s easy to justify to myself, but it is nothing more than a gateway to endless procrastination.

But while searching for inspiration I found this blog post by Derek Sivers which stopped me in my tracks.

Musicians, writers, artists, and everyone else, all scouring the world for inspiration…

Yet most of them aren’t feeling inspired enough. They’re looking for more, thinking something else out there will truly inspire them.

[but] nothing is truly inspiring unless you apply it to your work...

You may hear something or see something that gives you a new idea. But it’s only when you stop and think of your work through this new perspective, that you actually jump up and go turn the idea into reality…

The inspiration is not the receiving of information. The inspiration is applying what you’ve received.

You have to pause the input, and focus on your output.

I can’t put it any better than Sivers does. Read the full post here, then apply it!

Lookoutboy

Tips for surviving a remote PhD

Doing a PhD is undoubtedly harder when you are geographically separated from your academic institution.

Whether you are doing a distance-PhD or are separated for some other reason, isolation from contact and support from your supervisor and fellow students adds a whole other level of difficulty to a task which is already pretty damn difficult.

Why is it a remote PhD more difficult?

The reason universities exist is to bring together academics with different ideas and expertise. This creates an environment where the discussions collaborations and arguments crucial to innovation can take place.

Because nobody is good at everything, the sharing of ideas and knowledge can lead to discoveries which would have been impossible for any one individual to achieve alone. Even if the bulk of the work was carried out by one person, discussions with other academics are almost always an essential part of the process.

This is clearly more difficult if you are doing a remote PhD.

Also, when you start a PhD you almost certainly lack research experience. This is OK, because you are supposed top know more when you finish than when you start. If you are surrounded by more experienced researchers then you can learn from them, not just research techniques but how they think and talk about their work. Without this contact you have to figure everything out yourself through trial and error.

Essential tips for surviving a remote PhD

1- Fight for attention

Contact with your supervisor wont happen by accident. Many students assume that their supervisors time is more valuable than their own and are therefore reluctant to seek regular contact, but this is a false assumption.

If your supervisor is busy, you have to fight for their attention. it is your responsibility to ensure they don’t forget you. As a minimum, you should push to have contact via telephone or skype at least once per month.

If they are not willing to spend 1 hour per month with you, you probably have the wrong supervisor.

2- Update your supervisor, no matter what

Another false assumption is that you have to have something to show before contacting your supervisor. This is probably the worst assumption you can make! It means that you wont seek help when you need it the most.

It also means that the longer you go without contact, the greater expectation you put on yourself to produce something amazing to account for the time since you last spoke and the less likely you are to make contact.

Email your supervisor with updates, irrespective of whether it is going well or not. You don’t have to ask for input every time, you can just let them know;

  • what you have been working on
  • progress/ problems
  • what you plan to do next

Do this every 2 weeks.

3- Take every opportunity to talk to other students and academics

At some point, you will hopefully get the opportunity to meet other students and academics face to face.

Take every opportunity you get, and talk to as many people as you can. If you leave without anyone’s contact details, you have missed a huge opportunity!

4- Ask questions!

You are not expected to know everything, and you do not have to do everything on your own.

Asking questions shows that you are engaged and interested in the process and that you value other people’s input!

In summary…

The common factor in all of these tips is that you must make extra effort to get yourself noticed. If you hide away from contact with others, it will be a very lonely process indeed…