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Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

I’ve been a PhD student twice. Initially I was a full-time computer science PhD student. I had to leave that, after falling ill with what would turn out to be an aggressive progressive neurological disease. Years later, after retraining as a historian (picking up both bachelors and masters degrees), I had a second go, part-time this time. I’ve just been reflecting on lessons I learned from the first time, in a post on a postgraduate forum where I’m a member. And I thought it might be worth reposting them here.

The second time around I didn’t do the standard spend a whole year (or equivalent if studying part-time) doing your literature survey, which I think is a complete waste of time, though I appreciate it can be a way of easing new students into the process gradually. When I fell ill during my first PhD, during that first full-time year, having followed the traditional timetable meant that I made very little progress before it was too late. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Second time around I did my literature survey and chapter in 3 months, even though part-time, and then got on with the research phase of my PhD.

A big advantage of being a PhD student the second time was that I knew the PhD degree processes much better. Even though I’d had to leave my science PhD before I got too far into things myself I still knew the general processes involved, I’d watched fellow students in my department go through them and had learned from their experiences. This meant that in go #2 I was a much more efficient PhD student than the first time, and very much took control of my PhD. That proved to be particularly important when my original history PhD supervisor moved 500 miles away to Oxford, and initially supervised me long-distance, but then I switched to a new supervisor, and had to negotiate how best to deal with him.

On the downside, writing did not go smoothly time #2. In my case I’d switched to a radically different subject area, albeit picking up those other two degrees first. But I struggled to find my writing voice in my history PhD, and at one point had to restart the writing completely. With hindsight it’s just as well I saved time earlier in the process, because I needed it later! But I did complete within the six years allowed me as a part-time student, even though for much of that time I was managing on no more than 5 hours total a week as my illness worsened. I didn’t need to ask for extensions, and passed my viva easily.

I don’t think I would have completed the second PhD so smoothly if it hadn’t been for the hard lessons I learned the first time.

To read more about my experiences as a disabled PhD student see here.

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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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A couple of days ago I submitted a revised version of a journal paper that had a revise and resubmit option on it. The revisions were quite considerable, but also surgical in a way. The hardest thing was to get my brain into gear to make them properly, and to make big enough changes. Fingers crossed.

Anyway carrying on the momentum in what remains of Academic Writing Month I am now starting a new journal paper. And it is so much fun, and reminds me just how much I enjoy this stage of the process.

This paper derives from some research I did for part of my PhD, but it only ended up being a couple of sentences in my thesis. But there was far more behind the scenes, which deserves further analysis, so I’m now tackling that. And it’s another thing I can easily work on at home, which is good.

I outlined the article idea in a recent email to a colleague, so used that as my starting point last night. And then, as I always do now, I created a new mind map in iThoughtsHD on my iPad for the article in progress. In particular I’ve developed the opening intro / contextualisation section, although I can see that I need to tie into more historiography there, but that’s easily tackled long term. And then looking over my past archival/research notes I have plenty of material for the middle main section, and should be able to do a nice job.

This article is going to take some time to work through and develop properly, and certainly won’t be finished this month. But it’s nice to move straight on from finishing one journal paper to starting a new one. And rather exciting.

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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 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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In the last few days I’ve had one journal paper accepted (yay!) and another rejected (nay!) – though the latter wasn’t a big surprise, because I was aiming it at a very ambitious general interest journal. Its readers recommended two more specialist journals I could aim it at instead, so I’m going to try one of those next. However that, together with the accepted paper which has to be slightly revised in line with its readers’ comments, gives me more things to focus on in the short term.

So, mainly for my own benefit, I’m drawing up here a list of things I need to work on in the immediate future. It’s sort of roughly in order from most urgent to less urgent, but the order is somewhat fluid.

  • finish and submit chapmen paper – before 1st april 2013 (costly open access deadline), cos it’s partially based on research council funded PhD research (more partial as time goes on and do new research, but still falls under open access rules)
  • revise and resubmit melrose paper – preferably in next month, certainly next two (not open access concern, cos it was from a self-funded pg masters, but i’d still like to get it out of the way and submitted in a timely manner)
  • revise accepted professionals paper – waiting for timescale from editor, which might bump it up above melrose in priority
  • write talk for archivists’ conference – before end of march, for conference to be held in april

Then I can refer back to this list as a guideline to what I need to do, and get it done. I have space to finish off these things, in the limited good patches I have to get on with things, but the sooner they are out of the way the quicker I can get on with other tasks.

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As we near the end of another year and approach the start of a new one I thought I’d blog about my academic goals for the year ahead. This is partly inspired by Academic Writing Month, where I found stating goals very motivational for completing them. Hopefully the same technique will work on a year’s rough goals.

I’m going to list the goals below. These are very rough specifications of things I’d like to do, usually without any specific timescale. I’d like to view this is an aspirational list, a menu that I can pick and choose things from as I am able to.

  • Complete chapmen paper by March and submit before 1st April 2013 if of suitable length and quality.
  • Write possible talk for archivists’ conference in April, whether my proposal is accepted or not.
  • Complete kirk session library borrowings transcribing and use this as basis for a pilot study for a possible future larger-scale project linking library borrowings to rich genealogical records from the 19th century such as census returns. Aim is to see how practical it is to work with the records in this way, in terms of time and complexity, and what sort of results it might offer. Will write the results of this process up in the form of a paper and aim to submit it.
  • Catch up with academic reading: I have a huge backlog of some very important things I need to read, both shorter papers and longer books. Reading print is quite a challenge for me now, due to the progressive neurological disease, but I must try to reduce the to-read pile in 2013.
  • (Related to above) Update my EndNote database of things read. As a historian I don’t find EndNote at all useful for automatically generating references in footnotes or endnotes – it gets the formats wrong, and even when I make up my own special styles to suit in-house styles it’s still not flexible enough for many of the things I need to refer to. But it’s fantastic for remembering what I’ve read – way better than me at it – and I use its rich database potential to type up notes about things read, and categorise by keywords. I just need to add some things I’ve read more recently and not put into EndNote.
  • Complete paper based on the dissertation project in the family & community history honours course in my Open University BA degree. I think this is publishable, with some extra contextualisation. I’m going to give it a go anyway.
  • Tidy away my piles of research material from my PhD. These are still taking up space in my study, years later. I need to sort through them, extract anything useful, then file them away (if they fit!) in a cupboard.
  • Attend more history departmental research seminars at Dundee. I’ve been too ill over recent months to attend any, but there are some particularly interesting ones coming up, and it’s too good a chance to miss to catch up with recent interesting research. There’s one that’s particularly appealing soon, that ties in to my recent paper submission to Past & Present.
  • (Possibly, if I’m still strong enough to tackle this afterwards) Send my husband to a local archive, with digital camera, to photograph a large run of 19th and 20th century library borrowings, which I’d like to transcribe and analyse. This would be for the bigger project following from the kirk session pilot study, and is rather contingent on how well that goes.

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