Track Your Progress and Not Your Word Count

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One of the most challenging aspects of completing a PhD is the difficulty of knowing whether you are on track. When you are pursuing a degree that lasts for several years, how do you really know if you are moving forward, particularly when you are working independently? For most students, the default mode for measuring progress is to either compare yourself to others or to add up the number of words you have written.

Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure progress, there is so much more that goes into completing a thesis than simply producing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.

The setbacks, challenges, and frustrating days when you feel like you are going in circles are, to a certain extent, inevitable and something that every student will experience. In order to keep yourself moving forward, it’s important to allow for the fact that this is all part of the process. Even when you feel like you aren’t progressing, chances are you probably are.

So rather than tracking your progress on the basis of the words you write and how much closer you are to reaching your final word limit, try alternative strategies for tracking progress – like journaling or a time-management tool called the Pomodoro Technique. Another option to track your progress is to find an accountability partner– someone you can regularly check in with as you work towards your goals.

Alternative techniques such as these not only help you to acknowledge the progress you have made, they also serve as an important reminder that the PhD journey does not always follow a straight path.

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Beware of the Urge to Compare

compare-643305_1280How often do you compare yourself to those around you? In many ways, the competitive nature of academia encourages us to compare ourselves to others. With our work being constantly assessed and evaluated, measuring our progress in relation to others may start to feel very natural.

While the comparison game may seem to be a useful way for determining how well we are doing, there is also something deeply counterproductive about measuring ourselves in relation to others. This became particularly evident to me when I was completing my PhD.

During the PhD, there was no obvious basis for comparison between me and the students in my cohort. Although we had course work during our first year and yearly upgrade panels, these were not graded. We were all pursuing our own independent research projects over a four-year period, wherein the only requirement was to submit a 100 000 word thesis.

As our main task was to write, the default mode of comparison became how many chapters each of us had produced. I recall being asked several times throughout my PhD by other classmates: ‘how many chapters have you written?’ and feeling bad that it wasn’t enough in comparison to what some of the other students had managed to produce. It started to feed into the feeling that I was constantly behind and not performing as well as my colleagues.

Of course, this chapter counting took no notice of how unique each PhD project was, not to mention the different working patterns of each student, differences in methodology, and the resulting differences in terms of the timescales for completion. Given all of this, counting chapters – and draft chapters in particular – as a measure for comparison was pretty meaningless.

The futility of this metric became even more apparent as the time for submitting the thesis drew nearer. Interestingly, and to my surprise, those who had written the most in the initial stages of the PhD were by no means the first to submit. This really brought home to me how ridiculous the ‘chapter counting’ comparison was.

But my realization also applies to the more general comparisons we tend to draw between ourselves and others. Whether we are using academic benchmarks or another metric for comparison, we will always find people who seem to be doing better than us as well as people who may not be – it all depends on where we focus our attention.

Either way, we’d be much better off not to make the success or failure, progress or lack of progress of others, mean something about ourselves. As you go forward, try and beware of your own urge to compare and ask yourself whether the comparison is actually serving you.

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Coping With Academic Criticism

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Compliments can be hard to come by in the academic arena. This is particularly the case for PhD students. Criticism can come from a variety of differently places – your supervisor, colleagues, or other faculty members in your department.

Endless criticism can feel exhausting and become a major de-motivator. It can also be difficult not to take the criticism personally, particularly if you are used to excelling academically, as many doctoral students are. In this post I want to address how to cope with academic criticism throughout your PhD.

The first thing is to simply realize that the criticism of your project is normal and even to be expected. While you may have grown accustomed to receiving compliments on your work, it’s important to appreciate that the PhD is an entirely different ballgame and by its very nature, subject to a higher level of scrutiny. So as strange as it may sound, it is actually an indication of the more demanding level you are working at.

Since a higher amount of criticism is to be expected during the PhD, it’s also important to understand that it’s meant to help you. It may feel awful in the moment, but whenever I ask a student I’m coaching to reflect on the criticism they receive, they almost always acknowledge that it will make their project better in the long-term. The key question to ask yourself is – is this criticism constructive? If the answer is yes, try viewing the criticism as an opportunity to enhance or improve your project.

When the criticism isn’t particularly constructive or delivered in a respectful manner, it usually says more about the person delivering the criticism than you. Part of navigating the criticism surrounding your work is to decide which criticisms you want to take on board and which ones to disregard. It’s all part of taking ownership of your project.

If you are feeling weighed down by the volume of criticism you have received and are starting to seriously question the value of your project, don’t hesitate to request more balanced feedback. This may be something along the lines of: ‘thanks for your helpful feedback. I now have a sense of what the gaps are and what can be improved. To make sure I’m on the right track, it would be great to hear what aspects of the project you think are promising.’ People don’t always realize how their feedback is coming across, so there’s nothing to lose by asking for what you need.

The next point is to remember that the PhD is what you are doing and not who you are. With that in mind, try your best not to overidentify with your research or with the criticisms you receive of it. This can be challenging, as our projects are often deeply personal to us, but at the end of the day, the criticism of your work isn’t an attack on you or a reflection of your worth.

Finally, rather than seeking approval externally, remember that the main person who really needs to buy into your project is not your supervisor, your colleagues or anyone else – it’s you! What you think matters more than anything else. So instead of waiting to hear that you are doing ok, start to give yourself the validation you are seeking by keeping track of what aspects of the project you find valuable. Begin writing them down and come back to this list whenever you need a boost.

In my next post I’ll address a related topic of how to manage your relationship with your supervisor.

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Setting Goals and Shifting Expectations

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For many people, the start of January is a time for taking stock and setting goals for the year ahead. So, what are your goals for 2019?

I’ve come to learn what a powerful role our words play when it comes to setting goals. For instance, whenever I set the goal of writing a ‘chapter’, my inner perfectionist automatically goes into high gear and starts to take over. I instantly feel the weight of what I’m working on and the expectations surrounding it. Who is going to read it? What if it isn’t any good? Why am I bothering with this in the first place? This is how I talk myself out of doing things before I’ve even started.

In order to quiet my inner perfectionist, one technique I’ve started to employ is to soften the language I use surrounding a specific task. So, whether it’s a lecture I’m preparing or a chapter I’m writing, I almost always refer to it as a ‘sketch’, outline’ or even a ‘blueprint’ and I preface whatever I produce as ‘preliminary.’ While it can feel heavy to expect myself to produce a full chapter, writing a preliminary sketch is something I can do.

With this very subtle shift in language, I begin to alleviate any pressure and anxiety associated with the task. It’s a way of tricking my mind into relaxing while I move closer to reaching my goal and in this way, the seemingly impossible task I would otherwise worry about gets completed without me really noticing.

As you start to plan for 2019, ask yourself whether you can shift the language around any of your goals for the year ahead.

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Do You Have Difficulty Switching Off?

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People talk about ‘switching off’ from work as though it were simply a question of flicking a button and going into relaxation mode. When it comes to longer-term projects, it can feel challenging – if not impossible – to draw a line between work and non-working time. This is because even if we don’t physically bring our work home, we often carry the mental weight of it with us.

I certainly found this to be the case when I was completing my PhD thesis. No matter where I was or what I was doing, some aspect of the work was always on my mind. I didn’t know what it meant to switch off or how to go about doing it. Not only did my inability to detach mean that I never had a proper break, it also made my work a lot less enjoyable.

As we approach the holiday season, I’ll share a few steps that have helped me learn how to switch off from work.

Step 1

Set an end to your work day in advance: The first step is to set an end to your work day before you even start working. Not only will this give you something to look forward to, having an end time set in advance will help you to make the most of your working hours. Most of us are taught the virtues of being a hard worker from a very young age, so the notion of consciously and deliberately taking time off work – rather than taking time off when we reach burnout or exhaustion – can feel quite alien. Yet the value of carving out some non-working time in your day and making this non-negotiable, will far outweigh any initial reluctance and discomfort with this step.

Step 2

Find an activity unrelated to your work: Now that you’ve set an end to your work day, it’s important to fill that space with something other than work. If we don’t fill that time, it is more likely that work will creep back into the space we’ve carved out. Try and select an activity that is completely unrelated to your work. It might be a long-lost hobby, a sport, a craft, a language or anything else that you’ve been interested in trying but haven’t managed to find the time for.  At this point, I hear a lot of people saying ‘I can’t afford to do a hobby or take time off each day… I have so much work to do’ which is something I’ll address in the next step.

Step 3

Give yourself permission: Much of the resistance to switching off stems from the fact that many of us don’t feel like we can afford the time off or that we even deserve it. With so much to do, the prospect of deliberately switching off can quickly develop into feelings of guilt. The next step I recommend is to actively give yourself permission by tackling the guilt head on. For this step I recommend something along the lines of a PhD process journal. This will enable you to work through any feelings of guilt and give yourself the permission you need to switch off.

Step 4

Adopt a transition activity: Sometimes the challenge with switching off relates directly to the type of work we are engaged in. This is a result of the fact that nearly all research projects involve expending a great deal of mental energy on tackling complex problems. The nature of PhD research makes it difficult to go directly from the lab, the library, or the office into relaxing. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful to try and adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and downtime. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping, as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Step 5

Carry a notebook with you: Even if we were to strictly observe the above steps, our thoughts may still gravitate towards work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some of the best ideas I had during my PhD came to me when I wasn’t actively trying to work on it. This is why I often recommend that students carry an ideas notebook with them. That way, if an idea comes to you, you can quickly make a note of it and return to it the following day instead of getting caught up in that thought when you are trying to relax. This allows you to remain receptive to thoughts and ideas without having them derail your downtime.

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Why Work-Life Boundaries Don’t Work

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While there are no shortage of books, blog posts and courses offering advice on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this advice is not particularly well-suited to PhD students. There are a few reasons for this.

When it comes to completing a PhD, there is no denying that the boundaries between work and home life are particularly prone to becoming blurred. Apart from the fact that these projects can feel incredibly personal to us, the time commitment and dedication it requires to complete a PhD is quite unlike most other pursuits.

For those who can approach the PhD like a conventional job and turn their minds off when the clock strikes 5pm, they are lucky. But from my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, the PhD doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a rigorous process, but also a creative one, and as it is with any creative endeavour, we can’t always schedule our creativity into ‘normal’ working hours. Consequently, techniques for achieving an optimal work-life balance are not always suitable to the unique circumstances of PhD life.

A second reason why some work-life balance techniques may not be particularly appropriate for doctoral students relates to the difference between physically bringing work home and mentally holding on to it. During my time as a doctoral student, what I noticed is that as much as I physically left my work behind on weekends or holidays, I couldn’t quite escape the mental weight of it. As much as I would decide to take time off, my mind was still very much focused on it, and not in a positive way. I would either worry about the particulars of the project or feel general stress about whether I would ever finish it.

Allowing work to creep into our downtime, in either a physical or mental capacity, is often a symptom of deeper anxieties and insecurities. Moving beyond this requires us to investigate the thoughts and internal chatter that arise in relation to our work. Since most work-life balance strategies deal primarily with the symptoms of the imbalance –  instead of the deeper roots of it – they can only go so far.

Moreover, the notion of drawing boundaries between work and life is limited by its starkness. Choosing between work and free-time can often lead to feelings of guilt, or the nagging sense that we ‘should’ be working. In this regard, constantly placing our downtime in opposition to our work, tends to facilitate an either/or choice in regards to how we spend our time. So instead of ‘drawing boundaries’ it may be more appropriate to adopt the terminology of cultivating space – space for something other than work in our lives. Not only does this subtle shift in terminology create room for other projects, interests, passions which are distinct from our PhD projects to emerge, it ensures that we do not take our work too seriously, too personally or allow the process to become all-consuming. This is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving a healthy work-life balance.

 

Stress in Academia: Debunking Three Common Myths

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Universities have become a breeding ground for stress, so much that I can hardly remember a day going by without hearing the words, ‘I’m so stressed’ being uttered by my students. With multiple deadlines, performance pressure, escalating tuition fees, and an uncertain job market, it is no wonder that students are reportedly experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. However, students aren’t alone in their experiences, as administrative and academic staff have also exhibited a sharp increase in stress-related illnesses, leading to higher numbers of absences throughout the academic year.

Accompanying the increasing number of stressed out staff and students is an almost tacit acceptance of stress within university culture. Not many people question or challenge the prevalence of stress in higher education –  instead there has been a normalization of stress within academia. This normalization of stress has been propagated and reinforced by several myths. In this post, I will highlight three of the most common myths relating to stress in academia.

 

Myth#1: Stress is Natural

The first myth about stress is that it is a natural part of academic life. I came face-to-face with this attitude when I was attending a Q&A session for incoming doctoral students. When asked about how to manage the anxiety associated with completing a doctorate, one of the panelists remarked: ‘You are a PhD student, you are supposed to be stressed out.’

The trouble with this outlook is that it brushes aside the impact stress has on our physical and mental health.

Stress is not simply a feeling we experience as a consequence of a situation or event, it actually facilitates a physiological response in our bodies known as the fight or flight mechanism. Most of the things that trigger our fight or flight responses – exams, dissertations, deadlines – are things we face on a daily basis. As a consequence, we tend to live in states of prolonged and chronic stress, all of which can have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.

So despite the tendency to see stress as a natural part of academic life, when we consider its impact, there is actually nothing natural about it.

 

Myth#2: Being Stressed is a Virtue

Not only is stress seen as a natural part of studying and working in academia, it is also commonly equated with productivity and performance. On this basis, it is easy to assume that there is something virtuous in being stressed out – so many wear their stress as a badge of honour.

I recall on countless occasions asking colleagues how their holidays were and have noticed how their responses are often framed in relation to how much they ‘accomplished’ during their time off. In a profession where individuals have considerable freedom to establish working hours and routines, it is interesting to see how holidays have been transformed into work spaces.

This non-stop, 24/7 approach to work has also impacted students, as reflected in the introduction of 24/7 libraries across several universities. Irrespective of their convenience, the onset of 24-hour libraries sends a message to students that there is no natural end to the working day. In this respect, the stress-as-a-virtue approach is tacitly condoned and perpetuated by many higher education institutions.

 

Myth#3: Stress Comes from Outside of Me

A final myth about stress is that it is something that comes from outside of us. It may be an upcoming exam, publishing your first book, applying for jobs or preparing a conference presentation. When we feel stressed in the midst of any of these tasks, the source of the stress is thought to reside outside of us – it is a consequence of the task itself.

The notion of stress coming from outside of us puts us in a disempowering position since there is little we can do to control our external environment. The fact is, there is nothing inherently stress-producing about an exam, a publication, job interview or a conference presentation.

The root of our stress is not the event or situation, it’s the internal dialogue in our minds in relation to that specific task, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we get caught up in our thinking. When we recognize the true source of stress, it becomes much easier to tackle it head on.

So what does all of this mean? It means that if we are going to lower the rates of stress across higher education institutions, we must make a concerted effort to debunk these myths.

  • First, we will need to counter the tendency to normalize stress by appreciating the actual impact it has on our health.
  • Second, we should stop equating the experience of stress with productivity and performance by refusing to wear our stress as a badge of honour.
  • Finally, we need to acknowledge our thought processes as the true source of our stress.

Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a PhD Student

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The process of completing a PhD is quite unlike any other experience. It’s a huge commitment that undoubtedly requires some sacrifice on both a personal and perhaps a financial level as well. With most doctoral theses ranging between 80 000- 100 000 words, it is an understatement to say that the process demands a high degree of self-discipline. For many students, it can feel like an exceptionally long and treacherous road, with ups and downs as well as twists and turns, and even some roadblocks along the journey.

These features of PhD life are of course balanced out by the many benefits of completing a doctorate. Apart from the potential to set you off on a different career path and open up new doors, having a doctorate in hand can also feel deeply satisfying. Whether it’s the start of a larger body of research or an end in itself, the doctorate represents your own unique contribution to a particular field. Within the world of academia, there are few things that feel as rewarding as completing a PhD.

When I look back at my own experience as a PhD student I certainly have no regrets. There are, however, a few things I wish I knew while I was in the middle of it and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. The PhD is what you do, not who you are

Something I observed while I was completing my PhD was the way in which many of my classmates (myself included) started to over identify with our work. We would often refer to our PhD projects as though they were an extension of ourselves. Given how many years it takes to complete a PhD and the fact that it is an incredibly personal piece of work, it’s only natural to see it become a part of our lives. However, when we start to see it as a reflection of our self-worth, the stakes suddenly become much higher. By over identifying with the work we produce, we tie our fortunes to it and allow ourselves to be stifled when we have off days, and may even take criticism of the project personally. It’s important to stay grounded and remember that the PhD is something you do and not who you are.

  1. Nobody writes 100 000 words

When I used to think about completing my PhD, the task seemed incredibly daunting. I kept thinking to myself ‘how am I going to write 100 000 words?’ But the fact is that nobody has ever done this – it would be impossible! What people do is write small, manageable chunks over a longer period of time. This feels much less daunting to think about. So stop thinking of your PhD as 100 000 words and think of it for what it is and how it will be completed– one chapter at a time – one section at a time. Espousing this subtle shift in perception can make a world of difference.

  1. Take a break (and don’t bring your work with you!)

Like so many of my colleagues, I found it difficult to take long breaks away from my work. Whenever holidays came around, I would do a balance sheet of how much I had accomplished and how much time I could take off as a result. Needless to say, the vacation time that I allotted to myself was negotiable and always dependent on my progress. Given the perpetual feeling that I was always behind, the time I allowed myself to take off, if any, was short. I would always sneak a book or two into my suitcase when I was going on holiday. I can now see how unhealthy my approach to vacations were. And not being gentle with myself actually made me less productive, and generally less happy. Even if you think you can’t afford to take a break from work, the truth is that you can’t afford not to!

  1. Even when you feel like you aren’t making progress, you actually are

One of the most frustrating aspects of completing a PhD relates to the feeling that we aren’t making any progress. I found this to be particularly the case after spending endless amounts of time sifting through journal articles and books in order to determine which ones were relevant for my research. During these periods, I often felt like I had nothing to show for days and even weeks of work. The lesson I learned from all of this was the importance of viewing the PhD as a process, rather than an outcome. It was primarily because of my emphasis on the outcome that I wasn’t able to appreciate or adequately assess my progress at certain points throughout. For further advice on how I overcame this, see my post on process versus outcome where I discuss some strategies for taking a process-oriented approach to thesis writing.

  1. Stop thinking about it when you’re not doing it

I often found that no matter what I was doing, I was always thinking about my PhD. Typically, it wasn’t in an exciting, light bulb moment way where creative ideas would come to me, it was mostly worry. Worry that I wouldn’t get it done on time, that it wouldn’t be good enough and that I hadn’t done enough. During my PhD years, I didn’t know how important it was to be in the present moment and to properly switch off. If you find yourself constantly thinking about your PhD even when you aren’t working on it, it’s an indication that you need to get away from it for a while. Immerse yourself in something different – if not to give your mind a break, then for the sake of your sanity. The last thing you want is to be that person who can only think and talk about their research. See a film, do volunteer work, or go to the gym, anything to create some healthy distance and disengagement from your work.

  1. Life doesn’t automatically become less stressful when you finish

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the stress you experience while completing a PhD will not automatically come to an end on the day that you submit. When I was in the middle of writing up, I recall how much I looked ahead to my submission date as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, I soon found a host of other stresses that took the place of my PhD. Things like applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, publishing my thesis, writing conference papers and research grant applications, to name just a few. In my own experience, some of these pressures actually felt worse than the PhD – perhaps because of my anticipation that life would automatically be less stressful after submitting. So rather than holding your breath and waiting until you’re done, I would recommend making your happiness and wellbeing a priority now. That means finding healthy ways to manage your stress levels and not simply waiting for your submission date.

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Process versus Outcome

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One of the biggest challenges I faced as a doctoral student was a tendency to view the PhD as an outcome, rather than a process. In my mind, it was one enormous piece of work and unless I was done, or close to being done, I found it difficult to relax or rest. Even in those moments when I was not actively working on it, I felt like I couldn’t properly switch off. It was on my mind constantly. It was an exhausting way to spend four years, but somehow it seemed justified and I didn’t know of any other way to approach my work.

One of the consequences of viewing the PhD as an outcome was the feeling that I had nothing to show for entire days, weeks or months of work. Research often requires us to sift through articles and books in order to determine which ones are relevant, and undoubtedly some will not be. This is the equivalent of a scientist having to do countless experiments that fail before one succeeds. Even though I knew on some level that this is what my research would entail, I still held on to the expectation that it should be a simple and direct path; in actuality it is a series of uneven steps that – by its very nature – required me to go in fits and starts, and sometimes in circles, before I got to where I wanted to go. This is something I didn’t appreciate at all, and as a result I felt incredibly frustrated throughout.

Having met several doctoral students who have fallen into the same trap that I was once in, it seems clear to me that we need a better benchmark for assessing our progress when it comes to completing longer-term projects – a way where we can stop attaching to the outcome. So I started to think about strategies for how we might begin to approach big tasks as a process instead of focusing on the intended outcome.

The main tool that I’ve found to be quite useful is journaling. At the end of my work day, I spend a few moments writing out what I did that day. Not as a way to police or berate myself for not having done more, but specifically as a way to remind myself of the nature of the project, which cannot be completed in one day, but in a series of smaller baby steps. It allows me to feel forward movement, even on days when I get stuck and go in circles, because I can then start to acknowledge that this is just part of the process. What this does is build up some positive momentum and put me in a better space to recognize that I am on my way. It allows for the fact that it’s a messy road and not a straight one.

While we all know this on some level, I feel like it hasn’t been properly articulated, and hence I see so many students and colleagues frustrated with how they approach their work. It’s nice to know that something as simple as a journal can make all the difference in the world to our mindset. Adopting this technique can allow us to relax and leave greater space for the excitement and passion that drove us to dedicate years of our life and mental energy to such a big project in the first place.