How to make your PhD seem like a holiday

This post is my homework this week from the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC in which we have been asked to illuminate an area of confusion through a ‘how to’ guide. While one of the things I found most difficult in my PhD was the discussion chapter (which I’ve talked about here), I thought I’d take a more light hearted approach to this task. One reason for that is that this week – in two sleeps! – I’ll be printing my thesis to be sent to the examiners. So I’m feeling all out of words and fairly brain fried.

I’ve previously asked the question: Can you love your PhD? Here I look at whether your PhD can seem like a holiday. So here’s my ‘how to’ for enjoying your PhD as though it’s an island getaway (more than a little tongue in cheek, but not entirely!).

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a romantic night in with the thesis

a romantic night in with the thesis

Step 1: Make sure you’re over committed. This includes parenting, working, having a partner, caring for pets, dealing with life’s surprises. This way, whenever you steal time away to spend time with your PhD, it’ll feel special. Time, just the two of you, feels wonderful when it’s in the eye of a crazy life storm. Ah, special romantic PhD moments!

my kiddoes

my kiddoes

Step 2: Do your work in lovely places and comfy spaces. While a functional office might be great for productivity, there’s nothing like a gorgeous café for some academic writing or a sunny daybed for some literature reading. Cafés, as well as providing ambience for writing, have the bonus of caffeine and people, making you both energetic in your work and surrounded by fellow humans, a great antidote to feeling as though you’re working alone.

my fave #acwri daybed, with coffee

my fave #acwri daybed, with coffee

Step 3: Take a writing retreat. Take a LOT of writing retreats. While you don’t have to ‘retreat’ far (these can be close to home), they need to be in slightly unfamiliar places, preferably with great scenery and some outdoorsyness to get amongst when you’re taking breaks from the writing or revising.

#acwri in the sun by the beach

#acwri in the sun by the beach

Step 4: Choose to research something you’re passionate about, and stay true to yourself in your method and writing. This way you’re following your own research dream and digging into a part of the knowledge landscape that sustains and inspires you. Take off your shoes and curl your toes in the rich earth!

glittery inspiration & your own special randomness

glittery inspiration & your own special randomness

Et voilà! The PhD seems like a holiday, not a torment. 🙂

 

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Risky business: Living on the PhD edge

The doctoral requirement for the candidate to produce a significant and original piece of work … indicates that the most significant and original ideas can be those that are most likely to challenge the status quo or the scholarly paradigm within which they are examined. … the ‘best’ doctoral research is likely to be much riskier than modest research. ~ Professor Terry Evans

WRONG WAY GO BACK

WRONG WAY GO BACK

As I inch towards the thesis submission finish line, I have been pointed towards Terry Evans’ 2004 AARE paper, ‘Risky doctorates: Managing doctoral studies in Australia as managing risk’ by the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC. The above quote is from this paper and surfaces the interesting point that the pursuit of knowledge and science is perhaps better served by research which is willing to take risks and challenge accepted knowledge and paradigms. Yet Evans goes on to note that the performative measures imposed on academics and universities encourage modest paradigm-following research, rather than that which is risky, status-quo-challenging and paradigm-bending. That is, PhD researchers are most likely to play within the established rules of the game, in order to complete within time and assure a pass. Evans argues that this results in the loss of “unknown and incalculable benefits” to science and scholarship.

This makes me feel better and worse about the PhD thesis which I’m hoping to submit in the next few weeks. Better, because I think my research is risky; at least the bricolaged – that is, bespoke and woven-together from a number of traditions – paradigm and the way I’ve chosen to communicate my findings. I haven’t totally smashed through academic norms; my thesis is still recognisable as such. But I have pushed at the edges of what is accepted. I’ve been ok with embracing my discomfort and doing things that seem, within the traditional schema of the academe, ‘out there’. My work proposes slightly new ways to go about protecting participant anonymity and communicating participant stories. It is these things about which I am presenting at the AARE conference in November.

While I am feeling proud of my research and my writing (despite having chosen not to employ a professional editor), Evans’ paper also makes me feel nervous because I am getting ready to send my thesis off to three external experts who are to examine my thesis. In the USA and the UK PhD examination usually involves a viva voce, or oral defense, of the thesis, followed by questions. Examiners are then able to deliberate before deciding on the result. In the USA the committee is made up primarily of professors from the candidate’s university, including their supervisor (who hopefully supports the work). Under the Australian system, my thesis will be sent off to three different individuals, including one external Australian examiner and two international examiners, who don’t know me or the work at all. These three people will read my thesis and send in their (potentially conflicting reports), without any discussion between them. At least if examiners’ reports disagree about the quality of thesis, there is a majority one way or another.

While I hope that my thesis is one in which the examiners think the work is interesting an original, and the text worth reading, there’s a lot riding on the opinions of three people, coming from different places, different perspectives and different paradigms. That’s part of the challenge of a bricolaged thesis which weaves together multiple phenomena and methodological threads; there isn’t a clear box in which it fits. Risky.

writing retreat collage, by @debsnet

Having just come back from a mini revision retreat in Sydney (read: 2 nights solo, away from work and family commitments – a PhD-working-parent’s dream), I am so deep ‘in’ my text that I can’t see the wood from the trees. As I have worked at the various levels of editing, I’ve been in the forest, sometimes looking at the whole lot together, sometimes at patches in between and sometimes at teeny micro details. Undergrowth. Canopy. Bark. Branches. Veins of leaves. Reflections in dewdrops. The feel of earth and sound of sticks underfoot. Birdsong. I’m so immersed at this point that I’ve lost direction. Time to take a brief step back to regain perspective. A helicopter ride to survey the scene wouldn’t go astray.

A couple of iterations ago, my primary supervisor said, ‘You could hand it in like this,’ which gives me hope that if the text is better now, it can only be more submittable. I’ll have to see what my supervisors say tomorrow about the most recent version of my thesis. Is it good? Is it good enough? Is it risky? Is it finished? Is it finished enough? Are there mistakes? Will the examiners be sympathetic to my approach? It’s so hard to know because, while I can read other dissertations, the PhD process for me has been in isolation from other students; I don’t know where my work sits on a continuum of doctoral standards.

I guess at some point, it’s time to trust, print, send, and see.

Writing retreat: Dedicated time away to write and revise

Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation. ~ Neil Simon

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips)

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips).

The idea for a PhD writing retreat came to me in a dream. While I live in Australia, I dreamt that I wrote up my PhD thesis in Paris. I imagined myself pensively working at Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Or editing on a soft patch of grass at the foot of a sculpture in the gardens of Musée Rodin (Le Penseur?). Or typing away beneath the huge train station clock at the Musée d’Orsay. I would take breaks to stroll Parisian streets or to savour Ladurée macarons, foie gras from Fauchon, or ice-cream from Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis.

This dream was no doubt influenced by the at-that-time steady stream of tweets coming from the ANU Thesis Boot Camp during which doctoral writers were given celebratory LEGO-style bricks as they hit various word-count milestones. The academic focus and collaboration zoomed through social media to my device. Oooh, I thought, how wonderful it would be to have some dedicated time to work on my thesis. But with work and two children under five, a long luxuriant Parisian getaway wasn’t on my list. And my university doesn’t offer a boot camp.

by @debsnet

Where my writing retreat actually was.

Writing retreats have been called a ‘scholastic nirvana’ away from the walls-closing-in pressures of academia. Dr Helen Kara, blogging about her recent solo writing retreat, talks about the simultaneous self-indulgence and productivity that finding dedicated time and space for writing can bring. In Dr Kylie Budge’s post about her PhD writing retreat to NYC, she cites research which claims that physical and psychological distance from the norm can increase creativity and productivity.

Casey, Barron and Gordon (2013) note that writing retreats provide protected space for the practice of writing, allowing continuity as opposed to fragmentation. They emphasise the importance of carving out time away from normal activity, and finding space separate from usual settings. This certainly resonated with me, as much of my writing happens in fragmented, stolen, in-between moments.

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

While many boot camps, ‘shut up and write’ sessions and writing retreats are about producing words, this was to be more a revision retreat. Having recently finished the first draft of my conclusion, I had a first full draft of my thesis and wanted to use retreat time to look at my thesis as a whole document. In fact, my thesis is over its word limit, so this retreat was about streamlining and strengthening the content, not producing more. I’d reached a point where I needed to burrow down into my PhD cave’s subterranean depths and sit there for a while. Present. Focused. Submerged.

Like Helen and Kylie, this retreat would be solo: just me and my thesis having some quality time together. Romantic, right? When I floated the idea with my husband, he said, ‘Go for it.’

A bit of an expert at making my PhD feel like a holiday, I often choose writing spaces that feel more like luxe and less like work. So, for my retreat, I considered exotic, non-home places with varying degrees of faraway-ness. I was aware of the aforementioned research about productivity and creativity being heightened by the feeling of being away from home and somewhere new. But I didn’t need exoticism, or a vibrant distracting location. I was going for a weekend, so it needed to be close and affordable, just not home. In the end, I rented a studio apartment via airbnb only a few suburbs from home. I was hoping that being not-home would give me enough separation from my everyday world to provide the laser-like focus and conceptual creativity I was after.

Writing retreat Day 1

Writing retreat Day 1

While not as poetic as retreating to somewhere far from home, there were some great things about doing a retreat this way. In giving myself only two nights away, I had to be productive. I had a short time; I needed to use it. I didn’t waste time travelling to and from the retreat (it was a 20 minute drive); this was an escape in my own city. It turned out to feel just new enough to set my nerve filaments tingling with an awareness of difference of environment.

Going into the writing retreat I planned on using my most productive times of the day for writing, working in 2-3 hour blocks of time followed by breaks (walking, showering, eating, changing location, taking some photos). I wanted to be clear about my intention before I began. My main purpose was revising for coherence and story. Here was time to look at the document as a whole. I kept in mind Pat Thomson’s advice to attend to the underlying argument. I was looking for consistency of language and idea development across the thesis. Having just finished the Conclusion, it was important to go back to the Introduction and make these bookends work together.

Writing retreat Day 2

Writing retreat Day 2

During my retreat the first 30-40 pages took me the longest, because there was so much of what Pat in her post calls ‘where the writing is poor because we are struggling to express an idea, to put into words something that we can barely get our head around.’ The beginning of the document contained my earliest writing and earliest thinking. I needed to delete or rewrite much of it in a way I can only do now that I have reached the end.

What surprised me about the retreat was how challenging it was to maintain a consistent focus on one task. It made me realise how much my usual fragmented way of PhDing works for me, doing a little all the time in prized, highly-focused chunks. Fitting in PhD time in and around other commitments has meant that normally I am itching to get to my PhD work, not having to psych myself into doing it.

Writing retreat Day 3

Writing retreat Day 3

Yet, the time and space to dedicate a couple of days to my thesis, and giving it careful, continuous attention, allowed me to make substantial progress and identify those areas in need of further attention. While in this time I only got through the Introduction and Literature Review, these were the sections in need of the most serious revision (and they will need more). I also managed to cut 3000 words out of those two chapters, which, considering I was also adding words where required, is a good start to streamlining my argument.

The retreat embodied my 3 words for 2015: presence (in the moment), sharing (through writing and now blogging), and strength (of argument and academic voice). It helped to set up my approach to my thesis revision, kickstarting this push-to-the-end-process and propelling me forward into the rest of the document. It felt a bit like kicking off the swimming pool wall, getting some initial speed and feeling the water before settling into the lap ahead.

Local retreats: not so bad.

Local retreats: not so bad!