Preparing for Your PhD Viva

You’ve reached a significant milestone and submitted your thesis, but now there is one final hurdle awaiting you – the viva. So much of the viva seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many students walk into it not quite knowing what to expect or how the process works. This can make the entire exercise even more nerve-racking. In this post I’ll highlight a few steps to help prepare for the viva, but I want to start off by demystifying the viva process itself.

Approaching the examination as a defence of your work not only puts you into fight-versus-flight mode as you prepare, the feeling of being under attack may also inhibit your performance. Instead of approaching your viva in a fear-based way, my advice is to reframe it as more of a conversation about your project. This will help release some of the pressure surrounding the viva and allow you to tap into what first inspired you about your research area.

A conversation does not have to be unpleasant or uncomfortable and in fact, it can even be enjoyable. It is also a more accurate description of what the viva actually entails. In contrast to an academic presentation, where you would typically give a brief summary of your work, you won’t be expected to give an overview of your research. When you show up to the viva, it is assumed that your examiners will have thoroughly read your work and will jump straight into the discussion.

In the UK there are typically two examiners at each viva. One tends to be drawn from within the student’s home department whereas the second is an external person from another academic institution. You will have some choice in selecting your examiners as you near completion. Your supervisor may have some ideas for appropriate examiners, but you can also suggest individuals if you already have some in mind. As a rule, supervisors don’t usually attend their students’ vivas, and on the rare occasions that they do, they are expected to refrain from speaking throughout.

One of the most difficult things to predict is how long your viva will last. The truth is that the length of a viva really varies – some are as short as an hour whereas others are several hours long. It’s also difficult to attribute any meaning to the length of time, as it’s not always the case that a very long viva is indicative of any problems with the thesis. It could be that the examiners are genuinely interested in the topic and have a lot to discuss with the student. Equally, we can’t assume anything if the viva is relatively short.

The results of the viva tend to be announced to a student on the day. Whatever the outcome, the examiners will follow-up by compiling their comments in a report. The report will provide an overview of the viva and the result, along with any corrections you have been requested to make.

Perhaps what makes the viva process so mysterious is that each student’s experience tends to vary significantly. It really comes down to the individuals involved and how they interact with your work. It is precisely because of this variance that you should take others’ experiences with a pinch of salt. No two people will have an entirely similar viva. Despite whatever stories you hear from others about their viva, it’s best to remember that your experience will be your own.

How can I prepare for it?

The uncertainty surrounding the viva process can often leave students stumped over how to prepare. Although it’s impossible to predict how things will go on the day or what the examiners’ assessment of your thesis will be, there are a number of things you can do to put yourself in the best position possible. Below are the main steps I would recommend in advance of your viva:

  • Read through your thesis to refresh your memory. In particular, you want to make a note of – and be able to speak about – the following items: your central argument; the contribution your work makes; how your research fits within the literature; an explanation of your methodology; and finally, any avenues for future research that your project opens up.
  • Get to know your examiners. It’s important to know the individuals you will be dealing with on the day, so do a bit of background research that goes beyond scanning their bios. Who are they and how are they likely to view your work given their particular perspective and background?
  • Try and brainstorm some possible questions you may be asked and practice answering them. Although you won’t be able to anticipate everything in advance, it will give you some practice in fielding questions.
  • Are there any gaps in your research? Try to think about what some of the potential limitations of your research are. Could you reframe these limitations as avenues for further research?
  • Arrange for a mock viva with your supervisor or another colleague. Try to do this at least a week or two weeks before the viva to give you enough time to prepare and reflect on how it went.
  • As mentioned above, reframing the viva as a conversation instead of a defence will allow you to show up differently on the day. It will influence how you carry yourself, how you respond to questions and, ultimately, how much you are able to get out of the experience. The conversation is there to improve the project and ultimately help you – so there’s no need to feel under attack.
  • Dress for the occasion. Rather than picking something standard from your wardrobe for the day, spend some time selecting an outfit. Not only will dressing for the occasion help you exude confidence, it will convey a sense of professionalism to your examiners. If it isn’t feasible for you to buy a new outfit, little flourishes can also go a long way towards boosting your confidence.
  • As strange as it may sound, try and get excited about the viva. In other words don’t lose sight of what you find exciting and enjoyable about the project. Tapping into your excitement is one of the best antidotes to fear and anxiety. Given that you dedicated so much of your time to working on your PhD, the opportunity to have colleagues engage with your work is actually something to look forward to and to be excited about.

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Roadblocks on the PhD Path

Sign, Detour, Road Closed, Roadblock, Green Road

When we first embark on the journey towards obtaining a PhD we do so with the best intentions. We envisage a smooth path ahead of us and the key milestones we intend to reach along the way. What we don’t anticipate are the unexpected situations that throw us off course – things that obstruct our path or force us to make a detour. 

On average it takes approximately four years to complete a PhD and there is certainly a lot that can happen within that time. We are often different people by the time we come out on the other side. Our personal circumstances may change, our families may endure a crisis, or we could end up experiencing financial hardship. The roadblocks we encounter could also be directly related to our research. Perhaps the topic we had decided to write on is no longer feasible or we’ve run into problems with our supervisor. 

Although we can take steps to mitigate certain roadblocks, others are impossible to foresee.  The COVID-19 Pandemic is an excellent example of this. No one saw it coming, yet it has had a momentous impact on all higher education institutions. Regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home, field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, and universities have been forced to shift to a virtual learning environment overnight. No amount of planning or foresight could have prepared us for this crisis. Every student pursuing their PhD can feel the impact of this situation and has had to find ways to adapt. 

Whatever type of roadblock we encounter, from a personal crisis to a global pandemic, the consequences from a PhD perspective are almost always the same. Most roadblocks on the PhD path result in delays, which will likely mean requesting an extension or an interruption of studies. In other words, an already lengthy process gets drawn out further. 

The prospect of a protracted PhD, irrespective of the reasons that necessitate it, can be a difficult pill for a doctoral student to swallow. In fact, I’ve never come across a PhD student that is content with the amount of time their PhD journey has taken them. Most tend to despair at the length of time that it takes and judge themselves rather harshly for not being able to complete it more swiftly. As such, the notion of requesting additional time is not likely to be greeted with enthusiasm. 

Some of the concern with prolonging the PhD derives from a fear that our work may become outdated if we submit it later than planned. Nevertheless, the time-frame is less important than it may at first appear. For instance, if you select any piece of work, there will always be scope for updating, improving, or revising it in line with recent developments. Academic research is, by its very nature, dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. It is simply a snapshot at a specific moment in time and, therefore, the time-frame for completing your thesis is likely to be much more flexible than you have come to believe.   

A further reason why a delay may not seem appealing stems from the stigma of finishing behind your peers. If you end up taking more time and your peers finish before you, what will it look like? And, more crucially, what will it mean? Although you began your PhD journey with a peer group, it is important to remember that you are each on individual paths. Every project is unique, as is each student’s working patterns and personal circumstances. Any supposed competition between you and your peers is more imagined than real. The bottom line is that whether you submit before or after them makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line.    

Taking more time to finish your thesis as a result of a roadblock is by no means something to be embarrassed about. When you look back at your completed PhD, the fact that you persisted despite challenges is a testament to your dedication and perseverance. Staying the course in the face of roadblocks is something to be proud of and celebrated. 

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Doctoral De-Stress: How to Thrive on Your PhD Journey

The front cover of the Doctoral De-Stress book

I am pleased to announce the release of my new book for PhD students, Doctoral De-Stress: How to Thrive on Your PhD Journey, which is now available for order. 

Book Description: 

‘You’re a PhD student; you’re meant to be stressed out.’

Does this motto sound familiar to you? Have you simply accepted that obtaining a doctorate must be stress-inducing? The process of completing a PhD is a huge investment of time, energy and money. Although it can feel like a long and bumpy road for many students, the truth is that it doesn’t have to be a struggle. 

Doctoral De-Stress: How to Thrive on Your PhD Journey features the top 40 challenges that doctoral students face and tips to overcome them. You will learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a better relationship with your academic supervisor.
  • Work through writer’s block, procrastination and perfectionism.
  • Sustain your motivation throughout the PhD, and reconnect to what inspires you about your research.
  • Overcome presentation anxiety and manage an academic Q&A session with greater confidence.
  • Balance your competing commitments – from job applications and conferences to teaching and publishing.
  • Navigate unexpected challenges that arise during your PhD journey and prepare for your viva.

Order your copy of Doctoral De-Stress today at www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1838181601

Do You Feel Like an Academic Imposter?

I’ve worked with my fair share of bright, talented and hardworking PhD students over the years. While their backgrounds and projects may have varied considerably, there was one factor that every single one of them had in common – none of them felt they were actually good enough to be doing a PhD! These students were crippled with a form of self-doubt that I believe is very much endemic to completing a doctorate.     

A PhD is the highest degree awarded in academia, so it’s no wonder that doctoral students experience a significant level of self-doubt as they embark on this journey. What I found to be quite striking were the range of stories they told me – and most importantly themselves – about how ill-prepared they were for the task ahead.  

Whether it was because they had crossed over from another discipline, or perhaps they had switched to the PhD from an entirely different field altogether. Or it could have simply been a consequence of the unfamiliar ground they were treading in their research which made them feel out of their depth. Whatever the circumstances, these students had managed to convince themselves that they didn’t belong in a PhD programme. Their aim was to simply get through and hope no one would take notice of the fact that they didn’t actually belong.  

After hearing these stories time and time again, I noticed that what so many students were suffering from is an academic version of the Imposter Syndrome. According to the Harvard Business Review, Imposter Syndrome can be defined as ‘a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.’[i]The interesting thing about Imposter Syndrome is that it affects people in all walks of life irrespective – or perhaps owing to – their levels of success. In her recently published autobiography, Michelle Obama acknowledged her own struggles with Imposter Syndrome.[ii]

While Imposter Syndrome can affect just about anybody, I believe it has particular purchase in university settings and that PhD students are especially prone. In fact, I have yet to come across a single PhD student who hasn’t experienced some element of ‘Academic Imposter Syndrome’ throughout their PhD journey.  

There are several aspects of a PhD that make doctoral students likely candidates for Imposter Syndrome. First and foremost, academia is by its very nature a competitive domain that tends to attract high achievers. A doctoral thesis sets out to make a significant contribution towards the furtherance of knowledge in a specific area, with each student expected to write as an authority on his or her subject. In this sense, a PhD student commences their doctoral journey with something to prove to others and to themselves. 

While this can amount to a significant degree of pressure on one’s shoulders, this pressure is compounded by the reality that PhD theses are independent projects. Despite having a supervisor, most doctoral students are offered very little guidance on the process of completing their doctorates, what benchmarks they are required to meet throughout or how to even start.

For many, the voice of the imposter ends up permeating all aspects of the PhD. It facilitates an unwinnable comparison between themselves and others, with the perpetual feeling that everyone else is performing much better. It leads students to question whether or not they will ever be able to finish their projects. And even when the end is in sight, this lingering voice has each student doubt if their work is actually good enough. In short, Academic Imposter Syndrome sucks the joy away from the PhD process and makes the journey of obtaining a doctorate much more exhausting than it needs to be.  

To a certain extent I believe we are all afflicted by some version of Imposter Syndrome, but I tend to think of it slightly differently. Rather than perceiving this extreme form of self-doubt in terms of a ‘syndrome’, I prefer to reframe it as a disowned part of myself, a part that I call the Inner Critic. By reframing it in this way, it allows me to take ownership of this part of myself and puts me in a better position to not only work with, but also make peace with it. 

The thing that’s so interesting about the Inner Critic is that it does not get any quieter as we achieve more. In fact, the more that we experience success, the louder it tends to get. I found this out the hard way when I finally submitted my thesis. I kept telling myself that I would start to feel confident when I had my PhD, but I actually just felt more insecure as I experienced the pressures of post-PhD life – applying for jobs, trying to publish my first book, giving my first lecture. It was all very new to me and way out of my comfort zone.

Suddenly I had graduated from being a student and was now among peers in a much bigger pond, with seemingly much more at stake. As soon as I came to this realisation, my Inner Critic started to chatter: ‘What makes you think you are good enough to be here?’; ‘Why aren’t you working harder?’; ‘Everyone has published their first book by now’; ‘You won’t have enough funding to extend your post’; ‘You aren’t good enough to be an academic.’

The most common approach to dealing with the ramblings of the Inner Critic is to ignore it. If we don’t engage with these statements they will eventually go away, right? Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. If achieving higher levels of success is not enough to quiet down the Inner Critic, covering our ears and running from it won’t do it either. 

From my experience, the best way to turn down the volume on the Inner Critic is to actually listen to what it has to say.  This means taking some time to get a bit more acquainted with your Inner Critic. Begin by getting a blank sheet of paper and writing down your responses to the following questions: 

  • What types of things does your Inner Critic tend to say to you? Take a moment to write each of them down.
  • When does the voice of your Inner Critic get the loudest? Are there certain scenarios that tend to trigger this voice for you?
  • Does the voice remind you of, or have certain similarities with, anyone else in your life? For instance, a parent, sibling, friend or colleague? 
  • Although the Inner Critic may be the voice of someone else in your life that you’ve internalized, it’s important to take ownership of how this particular voice now resides within you. With that in mind, give your Inner Critic a name – preferably a name that cannot be associated with anyone else you know. 
  • Finally, try drawing a visual representation of your Inner Critic. 

Now that you’ve explored your Inner Critic in more depth, it’s important to realize that this voice isn’t going to disappear any time soon. The next time your Inner Critic makes an appearance, try practicing the steps below:

Step 1: Recognise when your Inner Critic is present  

This first step is simply about cultivating awareness around the Inner Critic. The best way to determine if your Inner Critic is present is to check in with yourself in terms of how you are feeling. Generally, when we are feeling low or off, it’s usually a reliable indicator that this voice is present.

Step 2: Allow it to speak

As mentioned above, while the tendency is to simply ignore this voice and the discomfort that arises with it, a much more effective technique when it comes to diffusing the power of this voice is to simply listen to it. What does this voice want to say to you? Take a moment and write down what is coming up.  

Step 3: Acknowledge the purpose of the inner critic

Why did this voice first develop? For most of us it emerged at a young age as a protective mechanism. It is the part of ourselves that perhaps didn’t feel safe and would therefore talk us out of doing things in order avoid feeling vulnerable. We might therefore imagine the Inner Critic as a younger, more misguided version of ourselves. Viewing the Inner Critic in this way allows us to have compassion for this voice, and ourselves, whenever it surfaces. 

By becoming more conscious about the roots of this voice, the Inner Critic will have a lot less power over you.

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[i]Gill Corkindale, ‘Overcoming Imposter Syndrome’ Harvard Business Review,7 May 2008, available at www.hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome (accessed 11 August 2020).

[ii]‘Michelle Obama: “I still have Imposter Syndrome”’ BBC News,4 December 2018, available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46434147 (accessed 11 August 2020).

The Five Pillars of PhD Wellbeing

It goes without saying that this is an extraordinary academic year. On top of the usual challenges associated with pursuing a PhD, today’s doctoral students are having to contend with a host of other challenges including: isolating from their family and friends; being forced to work from home; relying on virtual meetings with supervisors and colleagues; having restrictions placed on their ability to travel; and worrying about the health of loved ones. And as if all of the above weren’t enough, students are having to balance their work alongside an unprecedented level of global uncertainty. 

Given these circumstances, there is no question that student wellbeing must be prioritised across all universities this year. On that note, I’d like to share some thoughts on how each of you can maintain your wellbeing during this rather unusual academic year. 

When it comes to PhD wellbeing, there are 5 Key Pillars that I see as crucial. These five pillars are (1) Self-Care (2) Daily Routine (3) Detaching from work (4) Support network and (5) Mindset. 

I’ll briefly explain these five pillars and then share my top tips for each.

Pillar 1: Self Care 

Self-Care involves the things that most of us already know we should be doing to take care of ourselves; yet, these are often the first things to go during stressful periods. It is, after all, in the midst of stress that people tend to neglect exercise, experience difficulty sleeping and eat unhealthily. So how can we maintain self-care practices during this stressful time? Here are a few tips:   

  • Set small, achievable targets for yourself and make it enjoyable – otherwise you won’t do it! For instance, instead of setting a goal of exercising every day for an hour, which sounds great in theory but may not be realistic in practice, try exercising a few times a week or for 10-15 minutes every day. The most important thing is to create a new habit for yourself, which means setting a target that you will stick to.  
  • Go outside at least once a day and get as much natural light as possible – even if it’s just a quick walk around the block. I’m always amazed how much better I feel as soon as I get outside and reconnect to nature. 
  • If you have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, try setting a bed-time alarm and adopting a daily wind down routine. The wind down routine could involve stopping work at a certain time, taking a shower or bath, doing some light reading, or perhaps a meditation. 
  • Another very quick and easy tip to regulate your sleep is to maintain the same wake-up time every morning (even on weekends!) After a while you’ll find that you won’t need an alarm clock anymore, as your body will naturally adjust to this wake-up time.  
  • Finally, make healthy eating a priority by setting aside time to plan your meals and upgrading your food choices. By this, I mean finding healthier versions of the foods that you crave. For inspiration and recipe ideas see Liana Werner-Gray’s, The Earth Diet: Your Complete Guide to Living Using the Earth’s Natural Ingredients (Hay House, 2014) and 10-Minute Recipes: Fast Food, Clean Ingredients, Natural Health (Hay House, 2016).

Pillar 2: Daily Routine 

Among the challenges of establishing a daily routine this academic year will be the absence of a regular work structure and the fact that you’ll predominantly be working from home. What will be key is finding a way to sustain your motivation and remain productive.  

  • My first tip is to establish some boundaries between your working space and living space. One way to do this is to take a quick walk around your neighbourhood first thing in the morning, as a way to signal to yourself the start of your working day. You can even pretend you are walking to your office or the library. 
  • Try using the Pomodoro Technique in order to enhance your concentration. There is something about segmenting time into smaller increments that really helps to focus the mind. 
  • Prioritise your daily tasks by setting achievable (and realistic) goals for yourself. See the Eisenhower Matrix for task management guidance 
  • Manage distractions by checking email and social media during designated windows of time. Instead of having a constant influx of notifications throughout your day, be deliberate about when and how long you will look at your email and social media accounts. Two windows of approximately 20-30 minutes each should be sufficient for reading and responding to messages.
  • Since you are going to be spending a lot of time working from home, try to make the space feel inviting an organized. This may require doing a bit of decluttering, rearranging furniture, bringing in different colours or items that energise you. Even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom that you are working in, small adjustments can make a big difference to how you feel in that space.  
  • If you share your home with others, it’s important to communicate your needs and set boundaries with those around you. For instance, if you have a deadline coming up, let family members, flat mates and partners know so that they can support you and respect your space while you work. 

PILLAR 3: Detaching from Work  

Detaching from work is something that I found very challenging to do when I was a student. Taking time off felt like a luxury that I couldn’t afford because there was always more work to be done. Eventually, I came to realise that time away from my work is what allowed me to replenish my energy and return to my work feeling even more motivated. Below are a few tips to help you detach from your work with greater ease: 

  • Instead of waiting until the point that you reach burnout or exhaustion, try setting an end to your work day in advance. Commit to this time before you begin your work and stick to it no matter what. 
  • Plan an activity for your time off, otherwise you will likely be tempted to keep on working. It could be a hobby, connecting with a friend or family member, or trying a new recipe for dinner. Whatever it is, have something other than work planned for your time off. 
  • Since you may feel some resistance to taking time off, it’s important to confront that resistance head on by giving yourself permission to take a break. Try using what I refer to as a PhD Process Journal.  
  • Switching off can be a challenge for many students. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful 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 leisure time. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping (online or in person), as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Pillar 4:  Your Support Network

Finding a way to manage isolation will be particularly important this academic year. I would recommend giving some thought to who will form part of your academic support network and personal support network. 

  • Start by enlisting the support of an accountability partner. This should be someone you can work with on a weekly basis to set your goals, share your progress, discuss challenges that may arise, and mutually motivate one another. 
  • Arrange regular meetings with your supervisor throughout the first term. Even if you don’t have any substantive work to share with them, it’s especially important during this time to check in with them regularly and feel supported. 
  • Set up a virtual work session with a colleague. This can be a great motivator and provide you with some additional moral support during a time of limited in-person interactions. 
  • Schedule ongoing catch-ups with family and friends. It’s important to have things to look forward to every week. 
  • We often think about support in terms of outer support, but it’s also worth using this time to cultivate your inner support system. This may involve integrating some quiet time into your day. You could also use this time to start a meditation practice, which is a great way to connect with yourself.  

Pillar 5: Mindset 

The fifth and final Pillar, and the one that I would say is the foundation for all of the Pillars, is your mindset. The reason I say this is because there are many different lenses through which you could view the ongoing situation. The time will go faster and be easier to manage depending on the perspective that you adopt.  

  • Take things one day at a time. If taking things one day at a time feels too onerous, try week-to-week.  
  • If you find yourself worrying, try your best to bring yourself back to the present moment. Worry tends to be future-oriented, as it’s based on concerns and fears over what might happen. This means that when we worry, we aren’t really living in the now. 
  • Minimize your news consumption. At the moment, the news is filled with fear and negativity. It’s difficult to feel in a positive mindset after watching the news! This is not to say to avoid the news altogether. It’s important to stay informed, but be mindful about when and how long you watch, read and listen to the news for. For instance, avoid the new before bed or when you are already feeling low. 
  • Adopt a gratitude practice to put things in perspective. We are constantly being told how awful things are, but there is also a lot that is still going right for each of us. Take time to write three things down each day. This is a powerful practice that can really start to shift your mindset. 
  • Use music for an instant boost. Create a playlist of calm or upbeat music and observe how quickly your mood can shift. 
  • Nothing creates a shift in perspective like helping those who are worse off. Reach out to others who may need additional support. Search for volunteer opportunities in your area or create them yourself.  

I hope you’ve found these tips useful. For further advice, please feel free to get in touch at info@academease.org  

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How Can I Stop PhD Procrastination?

Town Sign, Place Name Sign, Board, Now, Afterwards

I have yet to meet a doctoral student who hasn’t at some point struggled with PhD procrastination. When faced with a task as momentous as writing a thesis, almost any other activity can appear more appealing. This makes it very easy to give in to distractions.    

Distractions can take several different forms. It could be an administrative task or a chore that feels lighter and is easier to tick off your ‘to-do’ list. For instance, if you’ve reached a challenging juncture in your research, doing the dishes or laundry probably feels like a welcomed escape.

You may also feel distracted by the incessant stream of negative news relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Understandably, the current global situation is making it exceedingly difficult for people to focus on what’s in front of them.

A further set of distractions could involve work related to the PhD. This is the kind of distraction that tricks us into feeling like we are progressing with our work while we simultaneously avoid what we are really meant to be working on.

For example, we might continue to read new literature on our topic when we are really meant to be cracking on with writing. Since PhD students are expected to be experts on their topics, they can easily fool themselves into thinking that this additional reading is essential. Yet, the real reason that so many students put off writing is because it may feel safer to read someone else’s work than to start writing their own. 

I must admit that I’ve engaged in all of the above modes of procrastination during my PhD. The moments when I seemed particularly prone to distraction were, ironically, those days that I had the most time available. After blocking out an entire day in the expectation of getting some serious writing done, for whatever reason I would find that I had very little to show for that particular day.

Reflecting on this experience has highlighted to me the importance of managing my time as a way to better manage my tendency to procrastinate. In order to do this, I’ve come to rely upon a tool that enables me to set some parameters around my time.  

The first step is to identify a task that you’d like to complete. It could simply be sketching out the next section of your thesis, working on your bibliography, or progressing with your literature review. Next, set a timer for 25 minutes and for this period of time, do nothing but the task you have identified. After 25 minutes take a short break and then get ready to do another 25-minute round. This simple practice is called the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo.[i]

Having used this tool quite a lot I can definitely attest that it works. There’s something about breaking tasks down into smaller increments and setting boundaries around your time that helps to manage distractions. I’ve found that once I carve out the time and space to complete a task by using this method, it becomes a lot easier to protect that time from things that might otherwise encroach on it.

So, for instance, if the phone rings while I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro round, I’ll let it go to voicemail; if I feel tempted to go on social media, check my email or refresh my online news page, I’ll simply wait until I’ve reached my 25-minute mark. This technique works just as well for short-term tasks as it does for longer-term projects.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, give this simple technique a try and you may be surprised by the results.

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[i]See https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique  

Building Your Mindfulness Muscle

woman-1000769_1280

What is mindfulness and how could a mindfulness practice support student wellbeing?Mindfulness refers to the development of greater presence or awareness – living in the moment. While this may sound simple, many people find it challenging to be in this state, particularly during the ongoing global pandemic.

Rather than being in the present our thoughts are often directed towards the future or the past. Either we spend our time worrying about what might be: ‘what if my dissertation isn’t good enough?’, ‘what if this pandemic never ends?’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when this is over?’ Or we ruminate over, and even regret, what has already transpired: ‘If only I had a stronger CV’, ‘if only I had travelled more before the restrictions came into place’, ‘if only I had made more progress on my thesis.’

Developing greater presence not only holds the promise of enhancing our productivity and increasing our enjoyment of various tasks, studies have highlighted a number of additional benefits associated with mindfulness. According to the Mindfulness Initiative, ‘A recent review of 114 studies found consistent improvements in mental health and wellbeing, notably reduced stress, anxiety and depression….’[1]

Although these are all good reasons to start practicing mindfulness, being in the moment isn’t a state that comes naturally to most of us. The good news is that there are ways to help us build our mindfulness muscle. Below I’ll share six of my favourite practices for cultivating greater presence.

PRACTICE 1: GO FOR A MINDFUL WALK

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One of the quickest ways to build our mindfulness muscle is to consciously engage our five senses. Our sight, hearing, sense of touch, taste and smell are what we stop paying attention to when we become busy and stressed out.

Consider the last time you went for a walk. Although you may have intended for the walk to relax you or give you a break from your work, how much attention were you paying to what was around you? Were you fully present in your surroundings or were you more in head? How many times did you check your phone as you walked? When we allow ourselves to become distracted in this way, it’s as though we are walking with our eyes closed.

Today, try going for a mindful walk. In order to bring you into the present moment, begin by putting your phone on airline or silent mode. Next, select a colour to focus on in advance and simply count the number of times you spot this colour during your walk. The intention of this practice is to use your chosen colour as a device to bring you into the moment. As you do this, see how much more you observe during your walk as you consciously pay attention to your surroundings.

If this practice feels a little strange at first, it’s simply because we aren’t accustomed to paying attention to what’s in front of us. The more you practice paying attention, the more natural it will become.

PRACTICE 2: MINDFUL EATING

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Have you ever felt like you were too busy to eat? If so, you are not alone. With our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles and work driven culture, taking time to eat is seen as a luxury that most of us cannot afford. Eating at our desks or on the run has become the norm. As a consequence of this, most of us eat so quickly that we aren’t really tasting our food.

A survey conducted by Conscious Food revealed that people spend an average of six minutes eating breakfast, eight on lunch and nine minutes for dinner. This amounts to a startling 23 minutes in total for all three meals. This means we tend to spend more time cooking a meal and cleaning up than we devote to actually eating that meal. Kristina Locke, the founder of Conscious Food has said: ‘We are constantly surprised by the lack of time and importance that people dedicate to eating.’

The next mindfulness practice is to pick a snack and consciously slow down as you eat it. It can be a piece of fruit or a square of chocolate – whatever you prefer is fine. Before you begin eating, take your time to notice its texture and begin to smell the food. If it’s chocolate, let it melt in your mouth. If it’s something else, chew it slowly and deliberately and allow yourself to observe its flavours.

You may notice when you do this exercise that your taste buds begin watering before you even start eating and this is not accidental. The digestive process begins even before we start a meal and when we eat too quickly we neglect this important step. It is therefore no accident that a staggering 73 percent of those polled in the Conscious Food survey admitted to suffering from digestive issues.

Eating too quickly not only compromises our digestion, it also ends up robbing ourselves of one life’s greatest pleasures. How much more enjoyable would the experience of eating be if you practiced mindful eating on a more regular basis?

From today onwards, start to make a conscious effort to eat more mindfully. If you eat most of your meals with another person, you can try mindful eating together by encouraging each other to deliberately slow down.

PRACTICE 3: JUST BREATHE

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One of the first symptoms we experience in a stressful situation is a shift in the quality of our breathing. We tend to develop a faster pace of breathing, which corresponds to an increase in our heart rate.

As our rate of breathing starts to accelerate, it also tends to become shallow. In this sense, we tend to breathe through our chest when we are stressed instead of our belly. The shallowness of our breathing means that vital oxygen is not able to properly circulate throughout our body in the moments when we most need it.

This practice involves reversing the symptoms of fight versus flight by engaging in a deep breathing exercise. In contrast to the shallow and quick breathing that has become a habit for many of us, we are going to practice breathing from our belly.

Begin by gently placing your hands on your belly and deliberately taking 15 deep breaths in and out. As you do this, notice your belly rising and falling with each breath. You may also observe your heart rate slowing down as you do this.

Take time to practice a minute of mindful breathing at specific intervals throughout your day, particularly in moments when you feel overwhelmed. Notice whether the practice of slowing down your rate of breathing helps you to feel calmer.

PRACTICE 4: STAY GROUNDED

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The next practice is drawn from a book by Mindfulness expert Anna Black called Mindfulness @ Work.

For this technique begin by bringing your attention to your feet. Feel the sensation of your feet as they come into contact with the ground. Gently push down and imagine your feet glued to the floor as you feel the solid ground underneath your feet. Begin to wiggle your toes and feel the sensation of your shoes or socks.

One of the reasons this practice is so beneficial is because, as Anna Black explains, ‘When something is weighted at the bottom, it is unlikely to fall over. You instantly bring yourself into contact with the present moment. The sense of groundlessness eases off…. Whatever is going on is still there, but you are about to face it from a place of stability and strength.’

If you are sitting at a desk, try and practice this simple and quick grounding exercise throughout your day. A subtle variation of this technique to further ground yourself is to imagine a chord running from the top of your head straight to the ground.

PRACTICE 5: LABEL NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

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Perhaps nothing brings us out of the present moment quicker than negative emotions. Whether it’s sadness, anger, fear, shame or helplessness, negative emotions can be uncomfortable and the tendency is to want to stuff these down or ignore them entirely.

Drawing again on Anna Black’s book Mindfulness @ Work, an alternative approach to dealing with negative emotions is to own the emotion we are experiencing and actually label it. As Black suggests: ‘Labelling creates a sense of distance from whatever is going on. We become like a plane, flying above the clouds. The clouds (emotions) are still there but there is a distance between them and us.’

Through creating some distance between ourselves and our negative emotions, we allow ourselves to be one step removed from them. When we stop over-identifying with these emotions it enables us to let go of them more quickly and easily.

The next time you experience a negative emotion, try to imagine yourself as an observer of the situation and simply label that emotion without judgment. See if this practice changes your perspective of the situation and the way in which you experience it.

PRACTICE 6: BE HERE NOW

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The final practice I’d like to share is a simple one that will reaffirm all of the other practices.

As I mentioned above, our mobile phones are often the biggest source of distraction for many people. However, this tip will involve using your mobile phone to help you cultivate greater awareness.

Select the reminder function on your phone and set three ‘Be Here Now’ reminders for specific points of time throughout your day. Ideally the reminders will be spaced apart (one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening). Use these reminders as an opportunity to evaluate how present you are.

Since our natural tendency is to slip out of the present moment and get caught up in busyness, stress and worry, it can be helpful to build in a gentle reminder to stay in the present throughout your day.

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[1]Carlson L. ‘Mindfulness-Based Interventions for physical conditions: A narrative review evaluating levels of evidence.’ See International Scholarly Research Notices. 2012; DOI:10. 5402/2012/651583; The Mindfulness Initiative, Mindful Nation UK,A Report by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), 2015

 

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

 

Shifting Stressful Thoughts

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Do you find yourself flooded with negative thoughts and worries about the ongoing global pandemic? Are stressful thoughts making it difficult for you to enjoy most things at the moment?

It has been estimated that we have over 60 000 thoughts a day. At times our thoughts appear to emerge out of nowhere and we seem to have little control over our thinking.

By becoming more aware of our thought patterns, we can consciously begin to choose thoughts that feel better. In order to do this, we need a better understanding of how thoughts work.

THE SPIRAL OF NEGATIVE THOUGHT MOMENTUM: QUICK AND SPECIFIC

Imagine a thought as a rock at the top of a mountain. As the rock begins to roll down from the top of that mountain it gathers momentum, and its speed accelerates. This is exactly what happens with our thoughts when we are feeling off.

We may have one thought that doesn’t feel good and before we know it, the pace of our thought tends to gather momentum and leave us feeling worse off.

We may start off by thinking: ‘I’m worried about this virus’ and that leads into: ‘So many people are getting sick’, ‘A vaccine seems so far away’, ‘What if the vaccine doesn’t even work?’ Or, ‘what if the virus mutates in a way that makes the vaccine ineffective?’ My life is never going to be normal again’.

Notice how specific and detailed these thoughts are. Very often this type of thought pattern occurs so quickly, without us even noticing. When was the last time you experienced a spiral of negative thoughts like this?

The key to overcoming a spiral of negative thought momentum is to first become aware of it. Our emotions are often the best indicator of this – when we aren’t feeling good, it’s usually an indication that we are experiencing negative thought momentum.

SLOWING DOWN AND GETTING GENERAL

Once we become aware, we can consciously try and break negative thought momentum. The best way to do this is to grab a pen and paper and actively write down slower and more generally thoughts.

For instance, from the initial thought of, ‘I’m worried about this virus’  we could try on a few general statements: ‘The majority of people that have caught the virus survive,’ ‘The lockdown seems to be having an impact’, ‘It’s in everyone’s interest to find a way out of this situation’, ‘The medical and scientific communities are tirelessly working on solutions to control the spread of the virus’, ‘However long the situation lasts, it will amount to a short blip in the overall span of my lifetime.’

Whereas negative thought momentum tends to be quite specific and zoomed-in, these statements are more general and zoomed-out. As a consequence, they tend to feel a lot better.

The next time you find yourself feeling low, pause and ask yourself what your last thought was and whether there is any scope for shifting that thought.

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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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