Work plans: making them work for you

In my final year of my PhD, 2013, I had  a LOT to do, and not a lot of time, so I made a work plan. I’m not very good at these – I always think I am way more capable than I am and I seem to also think there are about 35 hours in every day and that I can go without 8 hours of sleep every night. It was a very detailed thing, with 4 columns, broken down by month and by task. I even had a column for possible stumbling blocks and things that would hold me up or prevent me from reaching my deadlines. It is actually still stuck up on the back of my office door. I had one at home too – and I highlighted things in different colours as I went – green for something I did, and blue for something that was postponed because of unexpected changes to my timeline. To be honest, the highlighting didn’t really help at all, but it made the work plan look like it was happening which was a good psychological trick :).

It did all happen in the end, because I did finish, but I learned a few things about making workable work plans that may be helpful to those of you who are at the beginning trying to get started, or in the middle or near the end trying to get it finished and submitted.

1. Work out deadlines and move backwards to now. When do you have to hand in your thesis? (Perhaps also make sure your supervisor is on board with your proposed submission date before you start bullying yourself into sticking to it). That’s the big deadline. It’s a good starting place. Then work out how much time you have between now and then in terms of months (weeks can be a bit too narrow, I found – they go by so fast and a month at a time feels like a less alarming way of working). I worked mine out from January to December, so 12 months in 12 blocks on the spreadsheet. 

2. Start with non-PhD commitments (especially for students who work full-time and are parents/carers of others). Work out your other deadlines and commitments that you can’t ignore – what is happening with your family? If you have kids, what are the big things going on in their lives that you need to be part of, like camps or sports tours or concerts etc? This is especially important if you have to help them prepare or be involved in an integral way as opposed to just being there in the audience or on the sidelines. What’s happening at work? What are the big things you have to get done in the time frames you are looking at? Do you have to travel? Does your partner have to travel? Put in all those things and dates. These can go in column 4, if you like, under ‘things that could slow me down this month’.

3. The next thing would be to work out exactly where you are right now. How much have you already written or done in terms of chapter writing/reading/data gathering/analysis etc? Make a note of all of this. Your work plan needs to be realistic, and starting with what you have already done is also a good way of motivating yourself and feeling good about what you have accomplished so far.

4. Then start working out what needs to be done. For example, I had already completed chapter 2’s draft and had as complete a version as I could have. I had set up my case study sites, and I had a bit of the methods chapter. I needed to gather, transcribe and organise all my data in the first semester. Then I needed to reorganise and analyse it, and write the two analysis chapters, revise the theory chapter, finish the methods chapter and write the introduction and conclusion. (I know – I should have had a workplan in 2012!). It was a lot and I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth and height of it all. But working it all out and breaking it down into smaller bits and into months did help to make it seem more manageable.

5. Finally, put it all into a neat table. I had, for example, column one for the month in which I was working, column two for the objectives I needed to achieve (eg., gather data in two case study sites), column three for the activities I was going to need to do to achieve the objectives (e.g., set up interview dates; write fieldnotes in all lectures etc), and column for for ‘things that might slow me down or get in my way’ so that I could go a bit easier on myself if things fell a part a bit. Here’s mine:

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6. Stick it up or keep it in a place where you can refer to it weekly and keep track. Revise as you need to. If you can’t get the interview dates you planned for, you will need to rejig things – flexibility is key, I have found, to workable work plans and to feeling like you are moving forward without having to bully yourself, ask others to bully you or be mean to yourself when things don’t go according to plan. But you also need to be strict if you are going to get to the deadlines in one piece. I procrastinated way too much about the transcription of my video and interview and fieldnote data and I ended up spending some of my study leave doing this, when I should have been doing hard analysis and writing from the get go. This lack of strictness in sticking to my own pretty reasonable workplan meant I had to keep writing the draft when I went back to work and this was very stressful and difficult and I still worry even though I am finished that I rushed my analysis in the end because I cut into that time with tedious things like transcription which should have been finished much earlier in the year.

Plan time off too – work breaks into your workplan where you take a weekend or week off and focus on other parts of your life. You need time every now and then to recharge and rest. As my husband kept saying to me throughout my final year: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint!’

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Experiencing a PhD journey by proxy

This is a post for all the partners of PhD students, going through many of the ups and downs of the PhD process with their student-partner.

Our partners – boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, lifepartners, good friends even  – are a very big part of our PhD journeys, and they share in the anxieties, the lostness when we don’t understand what we are trying to do, the foundness when we work it out, the elation when a chapter gets good feedback, the despair when it doesn’t, and so on. In many cases a partner is an unofficial part of the supervision team. They often have to listen to us bleat on (and on) about data and fieldwork and theory and confusion and ‘aha’ moments, while nodding and smiling and being encouraging (ideally). And, they often have interesting and useful insights and questions that can help us to see things differently or more clearly. This was definitely so for me, as I spent a lot of time talking to my husband about various parts of my thesis, and his advice, questions and insights made a big impact on my own journey.

As a partner you don’t have to be an academic or knowledgeable about the field of study to help a PhD student. A friend and colleague told me recently that one of the people who helped her most with her thesis thinking was her daughter, who was in high school at the time. Another colleague took long walks with her partner, a banker I think, and their dogs and talked and talked about what she had worked on that day while he listened, asked questions and just spent time being there for her as a sounding board. Often, the most helpful thing is to have someone other than just ourselves or our supervisors to talk to, someone who doesn’t know our work as well as we do who can listen, and perhaps also ask for clarification or make observations, but really just listen. We can often make connections or clarify our thinking just by talking an idea or a problem through with someone who is able to just be there for us as a listener.

What also helps is tea, hugs and knowing when to say ‘I know, theory sucks. Stop reading and come for a walk on the beach rather’ and when to say ‘I know theory sucks but you need to keep going. One more hour and you can have some cake’. It’s not easy living with a PhD student – the ups can be so lovely and cheerful and the downs can be really awful, with (if you were my poor husband) lots of sulking and sighing and wandering around looking morose alternating with hysterical claims of ‘I will never get this! I shouldn’t even be doing a PhD! I don’t even know what epistemology means!’ The point is that partners are important, whoever they are, and they are needed, even if they have no clue what epistemology means either. So, if you are a partner of a PhD student, take heart. The madness doesn’t last forever, you will get your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife/lifepartner/friend back again, and your help, in whatever form it comes, is really appreciated even if we are too self/PhD-absorbed at the time to say so. And to my husband, who reads this blog, thank you love. You rock.

Get your ‘gaze’ then get your data

As promised, a post on something a little less personal and a little more ‘academic’. The topic for this week’s post is theoretical frameworks, and why it’s a very good idea to have one fairly clearly in place before you start collecting and analysing your data.

Right. When I started my PhD in 2010, I spent the whole of that year reading about academic literacies and writing centres, thinking that I wanted to do my PhD on a topic related to the role writing centres play in developing students’ academic literacies in the disciplines. I just couldn’t get into it, though. I had a whole lot of substantive theory, but nothing that looked or felt like a framework for a study that would guide my data gathering or my analysis. After a long and helpful meeting with my supervisor at the end of that year, I found my way to Basil Bernstein’s work and from there to Pierre Bourdieu’s and to Legitimation Code Theory. I had, much to my joy, found my framework.  I had the beginnings of a ‘gaze’ to use Bernstein’s term, or a set of specific lenses with which to scratch at my ‘conceptual itch’ to use Lis Lange’s term (well, it was her I first heard it from) – the thing that I really needed to find out or the question I really wanted an answer to. I could now rethink my topic, and begin to form this gaze so that I would know what data I needed to collect and what I should do with it to get at the answers and scratch the itch.

So, I spent a lot of time in 2011 and 2012 writing and rewriting what I suppose some might call a literature review, but which my supervisor and I called a conceptual or theoretical framework. I had to lay very firm foundations for this study because the theory I was reading and the concepts I used were so new to me, and I really was starting from scratch in many ways in this field. I often felt frustrated at how much time I was spending on this one chapter out of six that had to be written, and I felt lost a great deal of the time in the mess of reading and thinking and connecting of dots. It was a hard couple of years, but in that time I got my proposal through and wrote a pretty good draft of chapter two. I found myself, at the end of 2012, very nervous about leaving Theoryland, as I thought of it, up on its pretty, fluffy clouds. I felt safe there, because I had pretty much worked out what Bernstein called the ‘internal language of description’ for my study. In other words, I could tell you how the different parts of the theory and concepts I chose to use cohered, and why they fitted together like that and what sense to make of them in the context of my study. But that was all I could do at this point. So I had to move on.

I was encouraged (read shoved) off my clouds and into the mires and muck of field work and data gathering. And this is where things started to get really exciting for me (and then boring later and then exciting again). I observed lecturers teaching and read their course documents, as well as conducted in-depth interviews. In the first week of lectures, I found I could see and hear the theory – that internal language – being spoken in the teaching and coming to life in front of me. It was so exciting and also so affirming. This was the right data to be gathering and my study was moving in the right direction, given my focus and my questions. I do not think that this would have happened quite so clearly had I tried to shortcut the first stage of laying those foundations and working out, as carefully and fully as I could, that internal language of description. I needed to have my gaze in place, as nebulous and fuzzy as it felt, before I gathered by data and started to think about what to do with it in analysis.

I won’t be glib and say that the data gathering was easy – it was often really tedious and the semester felt so long; recording detailed fieldnotes in 8 lectures per week of an hour long each for the better part of 14 weeks was tough going for me. But at no point did I really doubt that I was gathering the right data for my study, and even when things got very fuzzy and I couldn’t hear the theory so clearly or see my way, I could count on the fact that my gaze was there and that it would deepen and develop as I really started to get into my data more systematically. It was very reassuring on the whole, and while it didn’t make the field work stage a breeze, it did take some of the anxiety and doubt away, and kept me moving towards the next step.

I would, based on my experience, argue that even if you feel frustrated and feel like you are taking way too long working out your own internal language of description, it is worth doing as well as you can. The firmer the foundation going forward, the less the likelihood (I think) of having to rush back and get different or more data because you don’t have enough or the right kinds of data. It reduces the stress and anxiety that inevitably come with gathering data and starting to think about analysing it, because having your gaze in place can assure you that you are moving in the right kind of direction. However, a word of caution: it can be really lovely and safe and warm up in Theoryland, but staying there will never get your PhD finished. You will need to find the bridge down to the Data Swamps so that you can move between the two as you scratch your own itch and answer the questions that drive you onwards.

Waiting, anxiety and impatience

Happy new year one and all! It is January, and Christmas and New Year are over, and 2014 is beginning. It has been almost exactly a month since my thesis was submitted. Thank goodness for Christmas and New Year and a small holiday away to distract me from wondering about my examiners and whether they have read my thesis yet, and if they liked it or hated it and what corrections they have for me and how much more work I am going to have to do when the reports come in and if they will withhold their identities or declare them and how much of the reports I will therefore get to read and if they have worked out yet that I might be a fake. You may be able to tell that I am (a bit) anxious and uncomfortable with this concept of waiting. I am not, by nature, a patient person. And I have not been as distracted as I hoped to be.

The last thing that I mentioned in that long, anxiety-filled list is the thing that makes me most uncomfortable. That I may be found out as a fake, an imposter, someone who should not be called ‘Dr’ anything. I am sure I am not the first PhD student that, either before, during or after PhD study, has felt like someone is going to leap out at a conference or from the pages of an examiner’s report and out me as an imposter doing a very good impersonation of a competent researcher. All the same, the idea that I am not alone in this doesn’t offer much comfort. I am the one, for now at least, in the midst of all this waiting and impatience and anxiety feeling like all the other PhD students and post-Docs all have it licked and I am the weirdo who is wondering when the other shoe will drop.

Perhaps this is normal. A normal part of this thing called ‘the PhD journey’ that we all have to go through. I am sure my second conference presentation will go better than the first (which was a disaster – perhaps for another post). I am sure I will get less freaked out when people ask me what my work is about and I have to tell them in short, comprehensible soundbites. I am sure I will get less defensive about my research around my colleagues, many of whom don’t fully agree with some of my findings and conclusions. I am sure the idea of writing papers out of my thesis and submitting them to journals will (hopefully very soon) become less than absolutely terrifying. But right now I am freaked out and defensive and terrified, and feel like, in spite of just have written over 83000 words on the subject of my research, I really have no idea what I am talking about. So, this is not a great part of the journey for me. But, I shall try to embrace the waiting, anxiety and impatience and endure this part of the journey with as much grace as I can, and try to keep the neurotic panic to a minimum. I will probably fail at this at least once, but I will claim that as part of the journey too!

PS: the posts between now and when the reports come in won’t all be like this. Just in case you were starting to worry :-). Next week: some thoughts on the relationship between your data and your theoretical framework.