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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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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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.