Archive for the ‘productivity tips’ Category

Next Tuesday, 31st March 2015, it will be five years exactly since I passed my PhD viva. It’s quite a big anniversary, worth celebrating, and I thought I’d look back on how things have gone since then.

It was my second go at a PhD, this time studying history, part-time. In the 1990s I was a full-time science PhD student, but had to leave that after a progressive neurological illness started at age 22, and my funding council wouldn’t support a switch to part-time study. I’ve blogged before about how much of a challenge it was to try for a PhD again after walking away from the first one. There were advantages though: the first go gave me skills and experiences which helped make me a more efficient PhD student the second time around. But I still never really thought I’d complete it, if I thought about it at all. But I crossed fingers and did my best!

My viva was arranged for the end of March, just five weeks or so after my thesis had been submitted. Unfortunately I developed shingles in the run-up to the viva: an agonising recurrence of the chickenpox virus, a consequence of the high-dose chemotherapy and steroid drugs suppressing my immune system so much. It certainly made preparing for the viva a challenge. But maybe it helped me not get too anxious about things.

On the Wednesday of my viva Scotland was blanketed with heavy snow. Luckily both my examiners got to Dundee: the external coming from Edinburgh, the internal digging out his car in south Fife! I didn’t sleep at all the night before, but I got about four hours sleep that morning, before my husband took me in to the university, and helped me get to the venue – I had to use my manual wheelchair that day, and a suitably accessible venue had been arranged. The examiners had also agreed to restrict my viva to an hour because of my disease which means that I get very brain tired very quickly if things go much over that.

I was told that I’d passed with minor corrections as soon as the viva started, which removed the tension a lot. I remember the next hour as a relaxed friendly chat about my research. Both examiners had lots of questions, and even the third academic present, a Dundee lecturer who was acting as chair or convener of the viva, had questions too, which was nice. It was really enjoyable to be able to chat to people who had engaged with my research so closely. I also took the chance to ask their advice about good publishing strategies. After an hour the chair wheeled me out of the room, to rejoin my waiting husband, and we went off to celebrate.

I’m unable to work in academia because of my severely disabling progressing neurological disease, so have ploughed a different path as an academic. It may be worth reflecting here briefly on what it means if going for a PhD, whether or not pursuing a conventional academic path. Firstly and most straightforwardly passing a PhD is validation of your PhD research and thesis, and the many years spent working on it. It is also a mark of your acceptance into the academic community as a fully fledged academic, capable of formulating and completing large research projects. Extremely important, I think, is the huge confidence boost passing a PhD can give you. There’s very much a feeling of “I can do that!” And for me personally it also saw the achievement of a long-term goal, and helping to put to bed the hurt of having to leave a science PhD after my illness struck at just 22.

I asked for an honorary research fellowship from my department shortly after finishing the PhD, after realising that because of university libraries increasingly switching to staff/student-only electronic subscriptions to academic journals rather than print, which aren’t available to other library members including graduate members like me, I would struggle to access the journals I needed to keep up with current research and thinking. This would be a problem as I aimed to publish my own research in academic journals. Fortunately the fellowship was granted, and has been renewed each year since. This helps me enormously, but Dundee University’s history division also gets some credit whenever I have another academic publication with my affiliation noted. I also take an active part in Dundee’s history research seminars, when I’m strong enough to come in.

Publishing academic journal papers has been an important activity for me since my viva. Soon after the viva I met with my PhD supervisor Charles McKean. He was keen for me to aim at very ambitious journals, which was scary, and hasn’t been completely successful, though I think it was worth trying for. But I’ve had a fair number of journal papers accepted post viva, some of which have gone into print since, others are shortly to go into print. I’m also developing four more papers at the moment, and am increasingly moving into new research, some following on from my PhD topic directly, others more marginally connected. As a historian it’s normal to be sole author of your academic papers. This is very different from science, where papers typically have multiple authors, often a very long list of names. So I have all the responsibility of doing my own research, and the writing, submitting to editors, dealing with peer review (ouch!) and any rejection or revise and resubmit offer, and proofreading prior to final publication. One of my post viva publications, in Scottish Historical Review, had to be proofread in Ninewells hospital during a high dose chemotherapy infusion. The editor had hoped to get the proofs to me days sooner, but as it turned out it was a case of my dealing with them on the day in hospital, single handed, literally, with the other hand hooked up to the toxic chemotherapy infusion, or not be able to do the proofs in time, given how sick and tired I would be post chemo. Not a great memory! But I did it, and I’m particularly proud of that paper, that comes from my PhD research. I really enjoy the academic publishing process, and it seems to be something that I’m good at.

I’ve also been giving conference papers since passing my PhD. On the downside I usually have to pay the costs of attending and travelling myself. And since I usually need to use my wheelchair there, and need help, my husband has to come too. But we usually pick events that give us a chance to visit somewhere we want to go to for a little break. I have to rest a lot after travelling, and can usually only attend part of any multi day conferences, but my husband has a good time exploring the relevant cities while I sleep, with camera in hand. Attending conferences isn’t easy for me, but it keeps me part of the academic community, and I enjoy the challenge of giving papers. I’ve attended four conferences in the last five years, and spoke at three of those. I was invited to give a talk at a conference for archivists, fortunately held here in Dundee. I was speaking as a disabled user of archives, sharing my experiences with them re access, getting support from archivists etc. Then I presented a paper about my taught MPhil dissertation research into Melrose regality court. This was presented at the Economic & Social History Society of Scotland annual conference in Inverness. Inverness is lovely and Leakey’s Bookshop is a must see! I attended, but didn’t speak at, the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2012 conference in Dublin. It was fantastic to see the city because my great granny was born there. And then in 2014 I went to the annual SHARP conference again, this time in Antwerp – which I have long wanted to go to (oh but the cobbles!) – and gave a paper on TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines. Talk about moving out of my comfort zone as an 18th / early 19th century book/reading historian! But it was fun, and just the sort of thing my PhD gave me the confidence to tackle, and the talk attracted a huge audience – nearly 70 (most panels there were getting 20 or so people), with some having to stand or sit on the floor – who seemed to enjoy it. I will also be giving another talk in a couple of months at a book history conference in St Andrews.

I don’t know how long I can keep doing these journal papers and conference talks. My disease is progressive, even though it’s playing a bit more nicely at the moment, after the summer 2012 high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital. I have significant dementia-like problems with memory and concentration. I also have to sleep for vast amounts of time, up to 18 hours every day in worst patches. Ironically given that my PhD researched historic reading habits I have enormous difficulty reading now due to the brain damage – thank goodness for my Kindle! And I have to do academic work in scattered short bursts, often a few minutes and no more than an hour at a time. But I do plan to keep going for as long as I can. I may not be employed in a paid academic post, but as I’ve said I’m ploughing my own path, and enjoying it.

Meanwhile next Tuesday is a time for celebrating again. I think I’ll get me a half bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne – my favourite – and some cake. Yum!

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I’ve been working on a number of journal papers lately. Some are brand new, or in early stages, others are revisions of existing papers, including one to be resubmitted elsewhere. And it got me thinking about how I feel about the academic writing process in general.

When I start a piece of academic writing I find it terribly exciting. There is an element of Schrödinger’s cat to it – writing with masses of potential, that until you start writing it almost has the potential to go anywhere.  You can scribble mind maps and preliminary ideas, and there seem to be so many possibilities for the writing to take, almost infinite at times. That’s quite thrilling, and in some ways it’s a perverse version of blank page syndrome: you can be scared to start writing, not because you don’t know what to write, but because once you start writing the range of possibilities starts narrowing. The hard part is keeping that enthusiasm going as things get pinned down more, and the writing progresses, keeping an open mind, and stepping back at times.

Stepping back is also vital when revising a piece of existing writing, whether in response to reviewer comments, or on your own initiative. Reviewer comments can be really tough to take. I read a good blog post today about various strategies for dealing with academic feedback. I coped well with feedback throughout my history PhD. It’s been harder since finishing, as I aim to publish in ambitious journals. Initially I was knocked sideways by some of the feedback from anonymous peer reviewers, which could be very aggressively expressed and quite personal at times, but quickly learned how best to deal with it, for me anyway. I’ll glance quickly through it on first receipt, then put it to one side for days, possibly weeks. Then I’ll look at it afresh, by which time I’m much happier reading it, and work out a strategy for addressing their concerns.

So that’s partly what I’m working on at the moment: turning reviewer feedback into positive revisions for a journal paper resubmission, and nursing burgeoning new journal papers, trying to keep that initial spark of enthusiasm burning brightly, and not narrow things down too much. But it helps me that I’m juggling multiple things at a time: keeps me from getting bogged down in any one task, and gives me the variety that I need to support enthusiasm and creativity.

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One thing I learned in my PhD is that it’s important to push yourself to try difficult things. It’s possible to get through an undergraduate degree by always playing it safe. Even a postgraduate Masters can be mostly completed in your comfort zone. But when you get to PhD level, it’s only by trying difficult things, and tackling them head on, that you get the best results.

I’ve been trying to apply that since completing my PhD in 2010. For example today I submitted a proposal for a colloquium on library history research to be held in London in early 2015. It would be much easier for me not to go. I have a severely disabling neurological disease, and travelling all the way there, even giving a talk locally, would be very difficult. But I know that I can contribute a lot to the meeting, and so I sent in a proposal. And if I managed to attend the meeting and present my paper I’d get a huge sense of personal achievement.

Likewise the other day I put in a proposal for a conference to be held at Inverness in a few months time. Ok Inverness is not as far away from me as London, but it would still be quite a trauchle (good Scots word – think ‘struggle’) for me to get there. But again I think I can contribute a lot to the conference, it would be nice to get the research from my Masters dissertation ‘out there’, and it may help to see it eventually in print form in an academic journal.

This is also why I’ve been pushing to get my research published in journal articles. Again this is a difficult thing for me to tackle. My progressive neurological disease causes significant cognitive problems, such as considerable difficulty reading, concentrating, general confusion and dementia-like memory problems. So preparing journal papers, and dealing with revise and resubmit for example isn’t easy. But I do it because it’s challenging and rewarding, and seeing my research in print is ever so satisfying. I currently have two papers accepted by journals and awaiting publication, another one being considered by an editor, and another one where I was offered revise and resubmit, and will be doing that. For the same reason I aim at ambitious journals. I have time, hopefully, and would rather wait and work to see my paper published somewhere really good, than go for an easier, safer, less satisfying result.

Of course doing all this requires confidence. But generally that’s something that grows during the PhD process, and culminates in the successful passing of a viva. And then as you get first one paper accepted and published, and then another (I’ve had five single author history journal papers accepted so far) the confidence grows even further. So it’s an ongoing process.

So try the hard things folks. Don’t play it safe. And see where it takes you. Even if, like me, you are outside conventional academia, and ploughing your own path.

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I blogged recently about how useful I find using a traditional pen and paper notepad. In my case it’s more a case of jotting down ideas and brainstorming when out and about, rather than for writing any type of extended drafts.

I’ve just been listening to an interview on Radio 4 with Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favourite writers. And even though he is highly technical in terms of using a MacBook Air, and active on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, he still prefers to write his first drafts in a pen and paper notepad. He says that he was finding that when he wrote directly on the computer his words had a tendency to bloat, whereas when he writes in a notepad it is better quality writing. And it also prevents him from getting distracted while writing, for example ending up buying something unneeded on eBay.

I know that many other writers still use traditional notepads in this way, but it was really interesting to hear some of the reasoning and thoughts behind this process. Of course my own writing is somewhat different: not fiction, but non-fiction, which leads to different structures, and a somewhat different writing process. But I still found it an interesting insight.

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I do a lot of my research planning and writing on my iPad. For example I’ll always have a to-do list on the go there, of things I want to work on, of all sorts, ranging across academic history, through genealogy, miscellaneous writing, and computer game design.

To do list on iPad

And whenever I start a new research project I will brainstorm it, again in iThoughtsHD on my iPad.

But I was struck today by some of the advantages of an old fashioned pen and paper approach, even in a digital age.

I carry a red notepad with me all the time. It’s like a Moleskine, but a fraction of the price, lovely texture, and nice to write in.

Notepad with pen

It’s compact, and easily fits in my bag that I take out with me. So it’s always there, which is more than can be said for my iPad 2, which is too big for me to carry around all the time, though it’s great for working on at home. So when today I had a few minutes in the supermarket cafe, with a cappuccino beside me, I took out my notepad and had a look.

The first thing I spotted was a set of notes I’d made on a similar occasion, but hadn’t transferred to my iPad, and had totally forgotten about! These are notes of genealogy things I want to work on soon, such as transcribing a court case for my Cavers one-name study, and digitising the many paper receipts I have from around the wedding time of my great-grandparents at Melrose in 1905. I must get on with these!

Genealogy notes in notepad

After that initial shock, the next step was to use the notepad to develop new material. I’m writing a series of articles at the moment that are a sort of crossover between historical pieces and roleplaying game ideas, and once I’ve finished my current one about Montrose I’ll want to move on to the next couple of places. One of the upcoming articles will be about Inchtuthil in Perthshire, a Roman fort. So I took the chance this afternoon to brainstorm some ideas for this. I will move this planning at some point to my iPad though, into iThoughtsHD, and then write up the piece in WriteRoom.

Inchtuthil notes in notepad

I really like working with a pen and paper notepad like this, but I must make more of an effort to transfer the notes to my iPad, to work on them in future, and not completely forget them. Of course this brings to mind the integrated Evernote/Moleskine notepads. But I don’t think I want one of those, even though I use Evernote a lot. I think I just need to be a bit more organised about opening up my notepad when I get home and have my iPad to hand, and transferring the ideas from one to the other.

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I’d been hoping to move a rather urgent paper on this month, another PhD-derived one that really needs to beat the 1st April 2013 submission deadline, otherwise I’ll have to pay dearly for it to be published due to the new UK Open Access rules. But I’ve been rather knocked out of late, and haven’t finished the transcribing I’d hoped to do. I have my own microfilm machine at home, and the relevant records on film, but haven’t been well enough of late to sit down and work through them, which is not good.

But to move things on despite all this I’ve been looking tonight at developing other parts of the paper. Some time ago I had made lots of notes in a text editor, jotting down ideas for a rough structure. But I was struggling to see beyond these, and to properly see the bigger picture. So tonight I turned these linear notes into a mind map on my iPad, using the iThoughtsHD app. This allowed me to sketch out the overall structure more dynamically, and to fill in details of the other sections, as ideas occurred to me.

Chapmen mind map in iThoughtsHD

I now have a detailed structure that I can develop, and while part 2 of the paper (the part related to the microfilm transcription) is a little on hold I can develop the other parts, particularly parts 1, 3 and 4. I can also work on a bit of part 2 that is derived directly from a section in my PhD thesis. That leaves the rest of part 2 to finish after I’m better able to do the microfilm transcribing, and likewise part 5 – the conclusions – to work on at the very end, though I have sketched out a likely structure for that already.

So my paper is underway again, not quite in the manner I’d planned at the start of this month, but it’s making forward progress. And since I am aiming to submit before a looming deadline that is a good thing. Mind mapping has proved to be very effective for me tonight. Usually I’d mind map at an earlier stage than this, but in this case I was able to take a rough very linear set of notes and turn it into a mind map to make sense of and develop the bigger structure. And that was an enormous help.

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Charlotte Mathieson posted a useful blog post today reflecting on what she’d achieved writing-wise in Academic Writing Month. Even more valuable, I think, are her thoughts there on learning from the experience and taking it forward. In particular she writes:

So the first thing I’m taking away from AcWriMo is planning my writing month-by-month as a way of focusing on more concrete, realisable targets. At the same time, the above goals make clear that being flexible is crucial; we can never entirely predict where a piece of writing or research will take us, and that’s natural. What was important about having the overall AcWriMo structure in place was keeping the end-goal in sight, and being realistic about how I could still have a solid outcome from the month whilst adapting to the changing needs of my research.

I totally agree with her thoughts here, on the value of planning writing month-by-month, and the need to be flexible. When I started November I declared my goals and a strategy for completing them. But in the end papers were finished in a different order from that originally anticipated, depending on how well they were going, what I wanted to do next. It was very much a case of reaching the end goal, not mattering quite in what order I got there.

Like Charlotte I plan to continue to state my goals month by month, and see if I can carry the momentum forward. This applies not just to writing, but to research in general. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring more projects to fruition more effectively this way.


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