Getting through the PhD and its emotional roller coaster

I gave a speech about “Getting through the PhD” about a month ago at the University of Glasgow. It was intense to stand there, talking to PhD students in their first year and give them advice….more like slices of life and experience.

In this blog, I have written about my various struggles and tips to get through the writing up stage, as well as the data analysis, or the editing process. Here, I want to focus on one slide of my presentation about the psychological stages of the PhD, and how much of a roller-coaster this whole journey can be…just like this:

phd thesis psychology stages mental doctorate

It was really crazy to see how much the students, even in their first few month of the PhD, could relate to this. Because this is a fact: you go through ups and downs emotionally and mentally all the time during the PhD.

Now, this is certainly not characteristic of PhD life alone, but I think the confusion and isolation you might be in really reinforce these fluctuating states of mind. In the end, there are a couple of things that really helped me get through the rough patches, and among them the true support of my supervisors. I did learn to work  independently and make my own decisions, but I always kept this almost blind faith in them and in their advice.

And you, do you experience these stages, whether you are into a PhD or another long or though project? How do you cope with the difficulties?

 

Doctor of what? What I really learned from the PhD is not what you may think.

I’ve been asking myself, when preparing my Viva, and even after that, what were the things that would really stay with me forever from doing a PhD, what would make a difference to me, and not to my CV.

It is not the knowledge of how to crunch numbers and do statistics. It is not the endless paper reading, and summarising. Nor the academic writing skills. It’s not the findings I got from my empirical data. Not the expertise in fancy “online customer engagement”

My most treasured PhD learnings are humility & resilience.

Humility, because I started off very full of myself and well-trained to be a proper “young potential”. I was sure of my topic and ability to make it, and certain I did not have much to learn from anyone. I quickly learned that this self-assurance was well over-proportioned and I had much to learn. In hindsight, being a bit cocky is not necessarily bad. It helps you push doors and is a sign of ambition. But I like to think I am now a humbler version of my 2011 self. Understanding and accepting that I am forever a learner is the first take from my PhD. At least now I know I talk a lot of nonsense…As long as my students don’t!

including-a-branch-of-the-tree-full-of-flowers-great-atmosphere-apple-background-hd-natural-scenery-wallpaper-nature-landscapes-photography-239-1

Resilience comes next. Getting a doctorate is a though thing to do. Not because it requires above-average skill and intelligence, but because it is a long journey and quite unrewarding on a day-to-day basis. You embark on a 3 to 6-year project that will lead you miles away from where you intended, and that will make you face constant hurdles that only you can figure out. You get stressed. Most often, you’ll be isolated: your friends, family and even colleagues won’t really understand what you are doing. There are no pay raises or annual incentives to look forward to. No team waiting for you in the office. No colleagues to coordinate with, no clients to get a rush from. No boss to be on your back, really. Resilience comes with a sense of purpose and strong self-management skills.

Humility and resilience are my key takes from the PhD because they are the strongest changes I have seen in me, and those most likely to last, I hope. Like learning how to swim!

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write since I finished my PhD last June (then life catches up and you blog about Christmas commercials before you know it). Here I am now, drafting a talk about “Getting through the PhD” for my beloved Glasgow University PhD successors, and my idea to tell you about this came back. I hope you’ll enjoy these thoughts and the students in Glasgow as well.

And you, which changes have you seen in yourself as a result of your work, PhD or big life events? What made you more resilient or humble?

Tips for the PhD write-up a.k.a “brain-milking” process

I’ve been posting a little more about marketing recently, so here is a piece about research, drawing on the wonderful period of a thesis called “write-up”.

Academic writing is a bit peculiar. Especially when writing a bigger piece, like a thesis, you have accumulated so many ideas, notes, drafts and thoughts over the years that writing all that up in a coherent whole literally feels like milking your brain of its substance.

Writing up was actually a fairly enjoyable stage of the PhD for me, I liked the storytelling process. However, I also struggled at times. I would like to share it with you some tips I gathered in the process.

Dr. Karl Warner finished his PhD at the Adam Smith Business School in 2014 and he gave us brilliant advice on how to get the beast written (Karl was awarded the Prize for PhD Excellence at our university, I think he writes alright!):

  1. Create momentum: when ideas are flowing, keep going! Karl suggests to make sure to write every day, but not more than 3 to 5 hours at a time.
  2. Try to write about 1000 words a day. It can be more, it can be less. I found that keeping count really helps. To keep myself accountable I would also tweet my daily word count:
  3. Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 14.22.58Be critical. This is core to academic writing, never forget about it. Separate the good milk from the bad milk.
  4. Get into your ivory tower. Find your spot, where you are confortable and undisturbed.

I have implemented Karl’s advice and although it requires discipline, I can say they worked for me. Actually, I had two ivory towers rather than one: my office during day-time and my room at night.

Here a couple of extra tips from my own experience.

  1. Take breaks. Yes, creating momentum is important, but well-timed breaks allow you to come back to work with a fresh mind and pair of eyes.
  2. Focus. You just cannot write EVERYTHING that comes to your mind. Stick to the purpose of your piece, or you might confuse yourself and others.
  3. Seek help/feedback. Probably the most important point. You can decide to attend writing seminars (more useful than you might think!) or simply seek informal feedback on your work from peers and friends.

I hope this post illuminated the journey of PhD students and other academics looking for writing tips. Just start milking, your glass will soon be full.

You can follow-up on this post by:

  • Reading my first post on writing-up my thesis, when I was in the midst of it
  • Viewing Karl’s profile and Twitter – he’s into International Business and Entrepreneurship and now lecturing at Edinburg Napier University.

Overeducated, or tips about the PhD viva

I am rarely overdressed. But having passed my viva, I might now be slightly overeducated. Here is a post about the viva, how it was for me and what I learned from it.

“You can never be overdressed or overeducated”. Oscar Wilde

What it is. The “viva voce”, or more commonly named “viva” is the oral examination taking place at the end of the PhD. It allows examiners to ask you questions about your work and ensure you deserve the title of doctor. Unlike most other European countries where both private and public defences are held, in the UK, you only have a private one. It is composed of an internal examiner, an external examiner, a chair and possibly your supervisor. That’s it.

How it was organised. Having submitted my thesis at the end of May, my supervisors were really efficient in organising the viva for the end of June. I knew who my examiners were and was happy with that choice, which was a good start. I knew I could not speak with them before the viva and that I did not have to prepare a power point (more differences with other countries). All I had to do was to know my thesis inside out. After 4 years of working on it day and night, I was pretty set on that point.

How I prepared. Ultimately, I must have spend 4-5 days preparing. A couple of days reading it all again, and another couple of days preparing my answers to a list of questions, freshen up on some methodology aspects and read the latest publications in my field. I also attended a “viva preparation” workshop at my uni and had a mock viva with two friends, both tremendously helpful. I traveled to Glasgow a couple of days ahead, fairly relaxed. Once there, I did not prepare much more and tried not freaking out over what could go wrong. I did however panic during the hour leading up to it.

phd defense

How it happened. At 11am on June 26th, 2015, I got into the room, was greeted by my examiners and offered a drink. I sat down; it started. The viva lasted just over an hour. The examiners were really clear in their comments and questions, and fair. Half of the comments were suggestions to improve the work for publications; the other half things that needed clarification or modifications before the final submission. I ended up with 7 minor corrections to complete in a month. After an introductory statement about the overall quality of the work, they asked questions about each chapter, from the first to the last. It started with conceptual questions, then methodological ones, some about my findings and analysis, and finally questions about contribution and limitations. This linear approach was really good for me, as I allowed me anticipating what was ahead. I got stuck on some questions, mastered others, but overall the whole session felt really more like a friendly discussion.

Top tips. Here is my advice if you are close to submission or preparing your viva.

  • Know the work of your examiners. Cite them where applicable, if you know them before submitting
  • Update on the very latest publications in your field
  • Practice with an audience (whether they know your topic or not)
  • Rest. Don’t study until 4 am the day before
  • Don’t think your work is perfect. Accept what you don’t know and have not done.
  • Business as usual. On the days leading up to the viva, eat as usual, work as usual, relax as usual.

Reading further: 

 

 

 

 

Killing the PhD submission myth

On the day of my submission, I was a woman on a mission. I decided I would not rest, eat or be aware of the world until it was done. The funniest part is that it was not quite as I had expected it, not quite the myth I had built around it. I envisioned feeling accomplished and strolling around after submitting, almost with a ray of light following my enlightened self and light as a feather — technically, I carried 5 copies of my 300-page syllabus around campus, so I did feel lighter after handing them over.

But truth is, I felt exhausted, no very relieved and quite lonely. Speak of an anti-climax!

Let me explain…(and give you a small pathos alert)

Firstly, once submitted, you still have to have your viva voce, which can be a deal breaker even if the written piece is good. So, you are not completely off the hook.

Secondly, the persons I wanted to share with were busy, at work and/or in another country that day and I could not call or see them. A big part of happiness is sharing it. Bless my colleague who came all the way from Edinburgh to see me that day.

Thirdly, anticipation, stress and weeks of poor sleep had come to their pinnacle and I was really drained…all I wanted was to cuddle my pillow, but I also felt too much tension to really relax.

However, I was still very happy and proud…it was just not as jubilant as in my dreams. The myth of the submission was killed, but the thesis submitted, and that’s all that matters.

Now, let it embrace its 6-people readership and me my pillow.

The science of editing

noun_65548_ccBeing in the last stages of writing-up your PhD means facing the very mind-numbing process of editing. Apologies to all the professional proof-readers out there, but when you are not devout to the beauty and exactness of the written word, this is really hard and annoying. The challenges you might face when editing your PhD, or any significant written piece, are multiple:

You’ve written it. This might seem quite obvious, but since you’ve produced the work, it’s almost impossible to cast a fresh pair of eyes on it, no matter how many days you try to put between readings. Sometimes, you also just don’t have time to put it away and go back to it.

You’re not writing in your mother language. Also very obvious given the quantity of people that get a PhD in a foreign language, but this is a true challenge: you don’t go from passing your TOEFL to writing in perfect academic English overnight.

It is boring. Let’s face it, you might be very excited by your PhD topic, editing 300 pages about it several times is not the most thrilling part of the process.

I amnoun_11282_cc currently on the very last stretch, and it is hard for me to reflect properly. I have decided not to pay a professional proof-reader to do the job for me as I don’t think the amount of edits would be worth the money invested. Instead, I’m tackling the issues this way:

Attending an editing seminar offered by my university. I did simple language and syntax exercises that helped me pinpoint areas where I was weaker.

Asking a linguist friend to proofread the the intro and conclusion. Her feedback and comments comforted me in the idea that I did not need the job done on the whole thesis, and also helped me identify a few recurring mistakes. Depending on your written English proficiency, you might not need this done at all, or you might need it for the whole thesis…it’s up to you to decide.

Printing. For a reason that really escapes me, I realised that I find mistakes much more easily when reading on paper. This is really not environmentally-friendly at this scale, so I am printing double-sided and two sheets per page.

How did you find the process of editing and proof-reading your PhD? Are you dreading getting to it? How did you/will you tackle it?

 

 

 

 

 

Doctoral evaluations, lessons learned

Every April at the Adam Smith Business School where I am studying, doctoral students undergo their annual progress review. They submit a report and present the work they’ve accomplished in the last 12 months. On this ground, a panel of professors evaluates if they can continue being in the programme.

In other words, collective panic attacks are in order.

This year, I’m close to submission and didn’t have to present, which allowed me time to sit back and think about the things that make or break this kind of evaluation – assuming they must take similar forms in other universities.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you cope with PhD evaluations:

DO believe in your research. You’ve done a lot of work, don’t undervalue your output. Present it with pride and defend what you’ve done, no one else is going to do it for you.

DO keep your slides simple. Overloading your slides will just confuse the audience or give them a headache. Slides are there to help you, not show everything you’re saying.

DO attend other people’s presentations. Especially if you are in the early stages of your PhD, and even if their topic is obscure. You’ll get the tricks of the trade by seeing other people do well, or not so well.

DON’T give a business-like presentation. Avoid overly minimalist slides or aggressive communication style. At least in the UK, and when you are being evaluated. Your audience wants content and proof of progress, not a Dragons’ Den pitch.

DON’T dismiss comments or questions. Even if you don’t like them. Keep an open mind to suggestions. Professors sitting in your panel have experience and despite their sometimes twisted minds, it is unlikely that they will purposely try and embarrass you.

It might sound easy or obvious but we know that when stress or uncertainty takes over, these principles are easier said than done, so I think it’s worth putting them down and reflecting on what we do.

Do you have any other tips from your own experience?

My top 5 PhD-related blogs

Going on blogs to find inspiration or answers to my questions along the PhD journey has almost become an automatism. The PhD process can be lonely and you cannot always reach for help in your direct network. Here are my go-to blogs for inspiration:

The Thesis Whisperer

This is probably the most comprehensive and useful blog on the topic of doing a thesis. It is packed with stories, practical tips and other resources. I also really like that it features guest bloggers and uses other people’s stories, making it really rich and giving different perspectives. It is run by Dr Inger Mewburn, Director of research training at the Australian National University. You really want to check it out, it most certainly will have an answer to any of your PhD-related question.

Inger also has set up the very useful #phdchat hashtag on Twitter and her account is @thesiswhisperer

Next Scientist

This blog is a bit more commercial in nature (it sells trainings, ebooks and resources) but you also get access for free to a lot of very practical information about PhD motivation and career planning.

From PhD to Life 

Another blog packed with free resources and tips, as well as coaching services offered by Jen, a professional career coach for graduate and PhD students. I follow her on Twitter as well and she is really helpful.

Grammatology

This blog is not completely geared toward PhDs but rather academic writing. Daniel used to give writing seminars for the University of Glasgow and he was such an inspiration that I still refer to his blog for writing tips.

And, just for fun…

PhD Comics

Because sometimes, you need a bit of self-derision. And because these cartoons are so very true, like this one about writing:

Writing

Happy research, folks!

just WRITE!

moleskineI have not blogged much lately and I feel a bit bad about it. Thinking of it, I have a pretty good excuse. Remember my post about going nuts over my data analysis chapter? Well, this is more or less over. At least, I have put it behind me for now, until my supervisors tell me I need to do more analysis.

Being done with data analysis means moving on to the very exciting discussion chapter, where you have to explain your findings, what they mean, and why. That involves a lot more writing and creativity! So I think it might be the reason why I have failed to blog much…like there is a cap on the amount of words I can produce. Now the creative juices are flowing and I cannot stop writing, so I am taking the opportunity to reflect on this writing process.

First of all, it takes dedication:  For the very first time, I skipped going home for Christmas in order to have my head into my writing. Mum, Dad, forgive me for skipping Christmas.

Second of all, I think it was worth it because I’ve written loads: barely anyone in the office, minor amount of distractions (I still partied and ate my weight in turkey, don’t worry) and a constant stream of ideas to put on paper. Too many ideas in fact. Surely I will have to cut through this verbal diarrhoea after the first round of supervisory comments.

Third of all, accept your massive #fails: it’s OK to fall asleep on your keyboard – or under your desk – every now and then (understand every day), to freak out over a blank page for 3 hours and write nothing, to drink more coffee than you can admit and to zone out during a conversation because you are thinking of your last unfinished sentence.

I still managed to take a small week-end break to air my thoughts, and I am now back to it. Counting my daily words and posting them on Twitter as a way to annoy everyone and keep my motivation up (sorry!).

Anyone experiencing the joys of the PhD write-up or other forms of intensive or creative writing?

How is it going for you?

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PhD writing resources:

General writing tips from the Next Scientist blog

Tips from the discussion chapter from PhD students Emma Burnett , Pat Thomson and from The Thesis Whisperer

Data analysis

A French writer called Jean de Lafontaine once wrote a fable about an oak and a reed: the oak makes fun of the reed for being shaken by the winds, and so frail and vulnerable. The oak feels indestructible. Then, a huge storm arrives and takes the oak down, while the reed bends, but does not break.

This story is a tale of resilience.

oak and reedResilience is a skills that I have tremendously improved in the last few months, the months of the dreaded (dramatic horror movie jingle) “data analysis”.

The bulk of my PhD data being quantitative, I ended up with massive data files from an online survey I had launched earlier this year. Although dealing with quantitative data is very different from qualitative data analysis, I think there are similarities in the processes, so hopefully everyone can relate to this story.

So, data in hand, around May-June, I figured: “How hard can it be to analyse all this? you just have to know which statistical analysis to run, learn how the software works and pretty much do it. This should be done by the end of the summer”. Such wild misconceptions on the ease of the task ahead have been common in my PhD journey. Let me tell you practically why data analysis was such a high mountain for me to climb.

First, because when you perceive a task to be hard, it is really easy to beat around the bush for ages before actually getting started. I had done data analysis in the past, but I had become highly unfamiliar with the first software and procedures I had to employ, and had to learn a whole set of new techniques and second software on top of that. Resources to help me where multiple and readily available, but I hard to pretty much teach myself to do it, which proved a long and tedious process. I tend to be stimulated by new and unknown tasks, and I love learning, but this time, it just seemed “too much”. I went slower than I normally do.

Once you get the ball rolling, you think it’s going to go smoothly. You have a fair grip of the statistics you need to run and how the software work. Things are in control. And then, you hit a wall: the data is not performing as you intended. The stats are wrong. It’s a disaster. You go back, redo everything twice, tweak your approach, iterate, modify…and most importantly, stare at your screen for hours, binge eat, freak out, lash out at your friends, and on the most glorious days, wake up at night thinking about it.

Along this mind-wrecking journey, which is still in progress, I have learned several things:

Make decisions: it’s fine to try things out, iterate, try and find the very best solution or approach, but at some point, you just need to stop, focus, and make a decision.

Seek advice: don’t remain stuck on a problem you cannot solve. Asking a quick question to someone and getting feedback will put you back on tracks.

Keep going…: even if today is not going to be the most productive, stay engaged with your analysis. Don’t leave your data hanging for a week or two without touching it, you will forget where you were and have to start again.

…but take breaks: for sheer sanity purposes. Taking a short break from your data will make you come back to it in a better state of mind and with a fresh pair of eyes.

Then one day, you’ll get past the hump and be done with it.

In the storm of data analysis, be like the reed: bend, do not break!

And you, what did you learn with your data analysis?