Persisting with the PhD: Sustaining Motivation During the Coronavirus

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Are you feeling unmotivated at the moment and perhaps a little distracted by the ongoing global pandemic? It can be challenging to maintain PhD motivation at the best of times, even without a world-wide crisis to contend with. So, it is perfectly understandable if you’ve been struggling to sustain your motivation levels at the present time. In this post I will highlight three steps for maintaining PhD motivation during the coronavirus.

Step 1 is about getting set up and it takes place before you even begin working. Among the most important elements of this step is reconnecting to your ‘Why’– that is, your underlying reasons for pursuing a PhD in the first place. Given that the PhD lasts for several years, it is easy to lose sight of what first inspired you to pursue a doctorate, particularly when the world may now appear very different to when you began. Yet your ‘why’ is precisely what you need to try and hold on to in order to sustain motivation.

Step 2 takes place during your working hours and is primarily about cultivating the necessary focus and concentration to make the most of your working time.

Step 3, often overlooked, but perhaps the most important in terms of sustaining motivation, is detaching after work. This is about carving out non-work time for yourself on a daily basis. This final step has become particularly important in the current climate when people are essentially living in their work space.

The above steps work together in a virtuous cycle. For instance, when we are connected to our deeper level motivation and feeling excited about our work, it’s easier to focus and maintain progress. This in turn enables us to take a proper break, such that when we are ready, we can return to our work feeling re-energised and motivated.

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Here are a few tips relating to each phase of the cycle:

BEFORE | Getting Set Up

  • Find a way to represent your ‘why’ in your work environment
  • Create a collage with inspiring words and images for your desktop
  • List your top distractions and deal with them in advance (whether it’s social media updates, your email notifications, clutter, watching or reading the news, Netflix or your family/flatmates)
  • Find an accountability partner that you can check in with on a daily or weekly basis
  • Do some pre-writing before you start working
  • Establish a daily routine with the same wake up time
  • Get showered and dressed every day even if you aren’t seeing anyone
  • Walk around your block first thing in the morning as though you are walking to your office
  • Identify your incentives and rewards – keep a list of them
  • Prioritise your daily tasks for the following day

***

DURING | Making the Most of Your Working Hours

  • Set an end to your working day in advance and stick to it
  • When establishing your hours remember that less can actually be more
  • Listen to inspiring background music | use a noise app to create an atmosphere
  • Instead of focusing on the long road ahead, focus on the next step in front of you by breaking tasks down into small, manageable pieces – one section at a time, one sentence at a time
  • Take the pressure off by shifting your language around work and your expectations (e.g. sketching, drafting, outline, preliminary).
  • Organise a virtual writing session with one or more peers for mutual motivation
  • Try a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, especially when feeling stuck
  • Allow for ebbs and flows in productivity

***

AFTER | Detaching from Your Work

  • Draw your work to a close at the time you had planned rather than waiting until you are too exhausted to continue or feeling burnt out
  • Try transition activities to ease your way into downtime (exercising, going for a walk, grocery shopping – online or in person)
  • Find ways to keep track of progress aside from word count (‘PhD Process Journal’/ Pomodoro rounds)
  • Check in with your accountability partner
  • Keep track of your wins
  • Cultivate gratitude for what is going well
  • Volunteer to help someone in your community who has been affected by COVID-19
  • Reward yourself with an item on your list
  • Make time for a new hobby or pastime that you’ve been postponing (learning a language, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, listening to music, reading a novel)
  • Set up a regular video chat with family or friends
  • Maintain the same bedtime | adopt a wind down ritual in the evening to boost your sleep quality
  • Since ideas or thoughts may come to you when you least expect it, have a notebook on hand to make space for these insights and commit to return to them the following day

 

PhD Plan B: Managing Detours on the Doctoral Path

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The journey towards obtaining a PhD is rarely a smooth path. Even under normal circumstances it is not uncommon for students to encounter setbacks. Below is a list of the types of detours a doctoral student may come across:

  • Having to switch supervisors
  • Someone else publishing on your topic
  • Financial difficulties/running out of funding
  • Having to juggle a job alongside your PhD
  • Realising your topic is no longer feasible
  • Having to switch to a different methodology
  • Recent events or developments that make your topic redundant
  • Being unable to obtain ethics approval for your research or risk assessment approval for conducting field work
  • Having to scale down your project
  • Problems with data collection
  • Feeling distracted or unmotivated
  • Falling behind with deadlines
  • Feeling too busy with side-projects
  • Physical or mental health challenges
  • Difficulties with field work
  • Thesis examiner pulling out at the last minute
  • Challenges with interview subjects
  • Loss of a family member or close friend
  • Relationship challenges
  • Failing an upgrade viva

To this list of common detours along the PhD path we can now add one that no one saw coming and that is ‘global pandemic.’

There are a number of ways the Coronavirus has impacted PhD students around the world. Field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, research funding may be in short supply, and regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home.

The ongoing crisis is also forcing students to rethink their timeframe for completion with many having to make formal requests for extensions in order to accommodate these unique circumstances.

As the full impact of this crisis continues to take hold, more and more students are having to come up with a ‘Plan B’ for their PhDs.

It is one thing to come up with a PhD Plan B, however, and another to fully accept it. When you’ve been forced to reconsider your plans due to external circumstances, resistance to any change in direction is perfectly understandable.

The thing that stands in between constructing an alternate path and learning to accept that path are the expectations we carry around about the PhD. Below are a few points to bear in mind, which I hope will help you begin to accept your change in direction:

It Doesn’t Need to be Your Life’s Work

Given the dedication and time it takes to complete a doctoral thesis, it is not uncommon to feel as though the end result must amount to your life’s work. However, this could not be further from the truth. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as it answers.

Some Element of Scaling Back is Inevitable

As you get further into your research you’ll realise what is possible and what isn’t within the scope of your project and the time that you have available. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. The ideas that don’t happen to fit within your project can still be incorporated in the ‘areas for further research’ section of your conclusion – which nearly every thesis will have. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important aspect of your project, even if you are simply identifying an area of research for another person to pursue. Alternatively, you can think of the parts you’ve had to scale back on as inspiration for a follow-on/post-doc project.

You Only Need to Pass

Unlike other degrees in academia, the PhD viva is a straightforward pass or fail. While that may sound daunting, the fact is that all you need to do is obtain a passing mark and no amount of going above and beyond the requirements will change that. As the end product will not be graded in the traditional sense, it is worth considering whether you might already have enough material on hand to pass the viva.

You Will End Up Revising It Anyways

Most students feel under pressure to ensure that their thesis is a ‘perfect’ piece of work when the truth is that PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. For instance, when it comes to publishing, students are often expected to revise their theses prior to submitting it to a journal or an academic publisher. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style manuscript or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may lessen some of the pressures associated with producing a perfect end product.

Time-Frames Are Less Significant Than You May Think

Perhaps you’ve had to take a break, postpone your fieldwork or interrupt your studies while you wait for the current crisis to pass. In reality, the time-frame in which you choose to work on your thesis is less important than you think and may not have as much bearing as you believe. Any piece of research should be viewed as a general snapshot at a specific moment in time. For instance, take a look at something that was published quite recently (this year or even this month) which you consider to be a strong piece of work. Irrespective of how strong a piece it is, you can probably identify areas in which that piece could be updated,improved, or revised in line with recent developments. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. As such, the time-frame for completing your research is perhaps more flexible than you may think.

The PhD is a Marathon, Not a Race

Although you began your PhD journey with a group of peers, it is important to remember that you are each on individualised paths. Every project is unique, as is each students’ working patterns, methodology and time scales for submission. In that sense, there is no genuine basis for comparison between you and your peers. Any supposed competition between you and them is more imagined than real. If your project is impacted by the current pandemic and that results in you submitting later than your peers, it makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line, it’s a marathon. You may run alongside others, but you run for yourself and at your own pace.

Changing Direction Is a Normal Part of the PhD Journey 

In order to fully embrace Plan B, it is crucial to let go of your past plans and accept where you are now. Plan A, or the plan we come into a PhD programme with, is often an idealised version of what we imagine our research journey to be before having taken any steps on the path. In that sense, switching plans is quite common, and a significant part of the journey is to realize when such a change of direction is needed. It is when we hold on too tightly to the original idea we had, or are unwilling to change direction, that things become especially challenging. The way forward (Plan B) may not be what you had imagined or hoped for, but it will ultimately lead you to the same end point.

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How to Make Working from Home Work for You

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Although you may have preferred to work from home even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, there is something about being mandated to work from home that can make it feel quite challenging. So if you find yourself struggling to progress with your research at the moment, it’s perfectly understandable.

After giving a lot of thought to this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to pay attention to at least three components in order to make working from home work for us. The first is our Space – organising our physical environment. The second is our Time – structuring our day in a way that suits us. The third and final component is our Self – adopting the right mindset. All three components are mutually reinforcing and therefore equally essential.

In this post I will provide a few tips relating to these three areas in the hopes that they will help your experience of working from home work better for you.

SPACE: ORGANISING YOUR PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

Working from home effectively requires a designated space in your home that is solely for the purposes of work. The space should be clean and organised, and to the extent that it is possible, separate for where you spend your leisure time.

  • Begin by taking stock of your home and how you feel in the space
  • In what ways might you be able to repurpose, organise, or clear the space? Are there things that need to be moved or removed, thrown out, or donated? Are there any areas that would benefit from some decluttering? Could any furniture be rearranged to make better use of your space. Recent research has demonstrated that clutter has a negative impact on our mental wellbeing
  • Undertake a thorough spring clean of your space and set aside one day a week for upkeep
  • The spring clean could also extend to files on your computer, your email inbox and any other area that feels cluttered or disorganised
  • Select a designated space in your home for working during the lockdown that is separate to where you spend your leisure time
  • Try and make your working environment feel more inviting – use colour, pictures, decorations, lights or plants to shift the energy of your working space and to inspire you
  • Create an atmosphere in your working space with a background noise app or a webcam.[1]

***

TIME: STRUCTURING YOUR DAY

Your capacity to work from home will be aided by maintaining some regularity throughout your day. This will involve developing and observing a working routine, while also building in time to take breaks and relax.

  • Maintain a routine each day (including the same wake up time and bedtime)
  • Get showered and dressed each day, even if you don’t have plans to see anyone
  • Take a morning walk around your neighbourhood before you begin working – pretend you are walking to your office
  • Commit to an end point for your working day before you begin
  • Play background music as you work
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Get fresh air and lots of movement
  • Set out your goals with an accountability partner and check in with them either once a day or once a week
  • Share your working plans and goals for the day with those in your house, and communicate your needs. Negotiate your availability and ground rules for the benefit of everyone in the house. Be open to reconsidering your plans if things aren’t working
  • Make a list of possible leisure activities, including things you have always wanted to try but may not have had the time
  • Schedule time to connect with family and friends on a regular basis

***

SELF: YOUR MINDSET THROUGHOUT EACH DAY

More important than anything is the mindset that you adopt throughout this period. While it is easy to slip into feelings of fear and negativity about the current situation, it is also possible to shift your perspective on what is happening.

  • Limit your intake of the news. While it is important to keep up-to-date on what is happening, the news is predominantly fear-based and therefore, being strict about how much fear you expose yourself to on a daily basis will do wonders for your mindset
  • Start a daily gratitude practice. This will help to offset the scarcity mindset, which we are currently being bombarded with.
  • Try your best to take things one day at a time. Remember that we can only live one day at a time anyways. If that feels too challenging, take things one week at a time at most
  • In order to start shifting your perspective of the current situation, spend some time reflecting on what this experience may be offering you. In what ways has this time actually served you? Is there anything it has taught you about yourself? How has it made you think differently about the world?
  • Can you see any potential positives that might emerge as a consequence of this situation?
  • When you are feeling down, acknowledge it, take a break and connect with someone you feel safe sharing with. Although you cannot change what is happening, talking about how you are feeling may help to lighten the heaviness surrounding it
  • Give back by helping someone else. No matter how badly we might be feeling about the ongoing situation and how it is impacting us, there are a lot of people who are much worse off. Ask yourself how you might be able to give (whether it’s your time, compassion, or financial support) and continue to do so every day until the crisis passes. Observe how your mindset shifts as you reach out to others

[1]For instance: ‘How to see the world without leaving your home’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52096529

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PhD Wellbeing During COVID-19

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The events of the past few weeks have impacted all of our lives in a profound way. Our daily routines have been shaken up and simple things that we used to take for granted have stopped for the time being. What’s worse is that we don’t know how long the current situation will last and when life will go back to normal. Below are a few tips for maintaining your wellbeing during this challenging time.

Cultivate Connections: The PhD experience can be isolating in and of itself, even without the official guidance to practice social-distancing. We may not have access to regular channels of support during this time, but we do have amazing technology at our disposal that can help us feel connected. Starting this week, set up a few virtual coffee dates with family and friends over your preferred technology. Try projecting your laptop onto a TV screen, which will make it feel like your loved ones are sitting in the room with you.

Live in the Now: One of the most daunting aspects of the current crisis is the uncertainty surrounding it. We simply do not know how long it will last. Although this can create a great deal of anxiety, the truth is that we can only live one day at a time anyways. So, try your best to live in the now and focus your attention on what’s immediately in front of you rather than getting caught up with what may or may not come to pass at some future point.

Carve Out Space and Time: Working from home can be tricky for many people, as the lines between work and leisure so easily blur. It can also be a real challenge to motivate yourself in the same space where you would otherwise relax. If you don’t have a separate room to work in, try and designate a particular space in your home that is exclusively for work. Even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom or a table in the living room. Establishing a daily routine will also be immensely beneficial. Have a consistent wake up and bed time to set some parameters around your day.

Limit your Intake of the News: While the media are keeping all of us updated on this fast-moving situation, the way in which the news is presented tends to be extremely alarmist and panic-inducing. Try being selective about how much news you watch and perhaps switch it on at one point in the day instead of exposing yourself to continuous doses of fear and panic throughout the day. It may also be worth replacing your news intake with something more light-hearted, especially things that remind you how to laugh!

Contact Your Supervisor: Apart from maintaining connections with your loved ones, it is also important to connect with your supervisor periodically throughout this time. In particular, it is crucial to discuss the implications of this crisis on your thesis and whether any of your plans, such as field work, might have to be reconsidered. Your supervisor may be able to help you brainstorm a ‘Plan B’ for your research if your original plans are no longer possible.

Stay Active: Depending on how restrictive your circumstances are, there is nothing to stop you from getting fresh air – as long as you continue to follow the official advice and maintain your distance from others if you go outdoors. Try getting out for a walk at least once a day or every other day if that’s more feasible. If that’s not possible, crack open your windows and do some online exercises to stay active.

Embrace the Stillness: Without downplaying the horrendousness of the current situation, there is something remarkable about the stillness of our lives and the world around us at the present time. The usual busyness surrounding PhD life and the many obligations associated with being a PhD student – attending meetings, going to classes, teaching, publishing papers, applying for conferences and preparing job applications, among other things – have all ceased for the time being. Streets have emptied, shops are closed, and everything has gone quiet. While the circumstances that facilitated this are not ones we would ever wish to repeat, the stillness that is on offer may also be seen as a rare opportunity to go within and better connect with ourselves.

If you find yourself struggling and would like some one-to-one coaching, please get in touch with me at info@academease.org

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