Coming to the end (almost): polishing the Meisterwerk

I have been seeing a lot of tweets throughout this month from scholars who, as they approach December submission dates, are coming to the end (almost) of their PhD journeys. This has led to me thinking back to this time last year and the final weeks before I submitted my thesis for examination.

There seems to a lot of advice for PhD scholars on just about everything you can think of to do with writing and researching a PhD dissertation – writing introductions, abstracts, methodology chapters, generating and analyzing data, surviving bad supervisor relationships and so on, but (and this may be because I did not really have much time to look too hard) I didn’t come across much advice on the nitty gritty of getting the thesis finished and submitted. In particular I was worried about proofreading, printing, binding, and the final bits and pieces of editing and polishing. Should I have a proofreader? What kind of things should I make sure that a proofreader has by way of qualifications? What kinds of things do I need to consider in printing out and binding the thesis for the examiners? How many copies? These sound like silly questions, but they made for a fair bit of panic in my little PhD camp in November last year.

I have recently been helping a friend find a proofreader for her PhD thesis, and she has had similar concerns and panic. There are a lot of people who offer proofreading and copyediting services, but there are about as many stories of students and academics who have had a terrible experience with a proofreader unfamiliar with, for example, academic referencing conventions or the more technical aspects of MSWord, and have sent back a thesis that is far from free of errors. Proofreading is often expensive, and to have your work come back without errors missed, or worse added in, is really frustrating. It also adds to your stress and your workload right at the end, because you have to re-read and check everything doubly carefully. In my professional experience as a journal editor and as a writing centre coordinator, I have gleaned this advice for students who are looking to have their thesis proofread and copyedited ahead of submission:

  1. Make sure that the proofreader has experience working with academic texts, especially theses or dissertations, which are quite different to your average 6000-word journal article or a more popular text, like a novel. Ask them what kinds of work they usually do, and what kinds of training they have, formal (editing courses) or on-the-job/informal (experience).
  2. Ask for references – who else’s work have they proofread? Good proofreaders who have the right kinds of experience and qualifications should be happy and able to provide these.
  3. Give them very clear instructions. Mostly, you want a proofreader to check that all your in-text/footnote/endnote references are consistent in style, and that you have a complete and consistent reference list; double check and correct formatting and spacing inconsistencies; and correct/mark typos and obvious grammatical errors. Give the proofreader clear information about the style you have employed so they can help you check for consistency (e.g., APA 6). You should ask for all changes to be marked up but not made for you, so that you can go through and accept or reject changes yourself; also if there are things they need to bring to your attention as the author, the editor should mark these with comment bubbles. If you are vague in your request for assistance, you may not get the help you are paying for.
  4. Good proofreaders will ask for your work to get a sense of how much work is involved, and should include a sample of a few pages of copyedited text with their quote and delivery date, so that you can see how much they will charge, how long they will take and the quality of the work they do. Charges usually apply per hour, or per page. Try to negotiate per hour rates if you can, as this may work out less expensive depending on what the person is charging you.

The biggest piece of advice here is to remember that this is your text and you have the right, especially as you are paying for it, to get the service that will help you polish the thesis in the least stressful and most accurate way possible. You need to be able to ensure that, if there are problems, you can stand up for yourself and not end up paying for shoddy proofreading. Researching this carefully will go a long way to ensuring a smoother polishing process. Ask other scholars who have finished who they worked with, or your supervisor; if you have a writing centre or similar on your campus they may have referrals, as might your library.

In terms of printing and binding, if this is required of you, your first point of call is obviously your departmental or faculty guidelines. In the absence of hard and fast rules, one-sided printing makes for easier reading, in my limited examiner’s experience (it also gives the examiner a space for scribbling notes for the report), and soft binding is obviously cheaper and lighter if the thesis has to be sent off to an examiner. It’s also easier to read and scribble on and mark a thesis that is soft-bound or ring-bound. The hard binding you can save for the final, revised and super-polished version.

These really do seem like little, silly details as I write this, but having (almost) end of the road advice (even if this is what you were planning to do anyway) can be useful as it is always good to know that you’re on the right track, or making tried-and-tested choices.

There is more than enough stress right at the end – dealing with some of the nitty-gritties and crossing these off your list can only help to move you closer to Submission Day, hopefully with greater confidence and calm. If you’re on the (almost) final stretch, keep breathing, make a list to keep track of everything, and good luck!

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Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…

Crossing the PhD ‘ocean’: ideas for smoother sailing

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of doctoral researchers recently about some of the challenges I faced doing my PhD. I called my presentation: The Wide PhD Sea: navigating the research journey and tools for smoother sailing’. I used the metaphor of the PhD as an ocean we, as scholars, have to cross. It is sometimes rough and wild and we feel like Robert Redford’s character in ‘All is Lost‘ – alone on a terrifyingly vast expanse of water with no shore in sight and no radio to call for help (or at least no one answering our mayday calls with any urgency). It is sometimes calm and lovely, with sunlight bouncing off the water and it’s like a picture postcard from the Mediterranean. Parts of the journey can be awful and lonely, and parts can be more serene, and much less lonely. What we need, though, is a good boat to carry us from one side of this PhD ocean to the other in one piece. We also need a funny, friendly, helpful crew to help us sail this boat.

I have, in my head, two boat images borrowed from Cressida Cowell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series which I am currently reading to my boys. These two boat images resonate with me because at the beginning and middle of the PhD I felt like I was sailing the one kind, and towards the end it felt a little more like I was in the other boat.
Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

 

The first image is that of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, a small, oddly constructed wooden rowing boat poorly built by Hiccup during Viking Boat-Building Class. It mostly goes around in circles, and has to be coaxed very gently to go in a straight line. It has a few leaks, and all the other vikings are not convinced it can sail very far or well at all. I sailed across the early section and also middle sections of my own PhD ocean in a version of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, going around in circles from time to time, and coaxing my thinking into straighter lines, even though I wasn’t always sure where the land I was aiming for lay. This was a bumpy time, my boat was often patched up and leaky, and I did  not feel at all confident of my own ability to get across the ocean, or of my little boat’s ability to get me to my destination in one piece.

 

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: 'The Peregrine Falcon' (How to Twist a Dragon's Tale)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: ‘The Peregrine Falcon’ (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale)

The other boat, one I felt I was sailing in towards the end of my journey across the PhD ocean, was ‘The Peregrine Falcon’, a large Viking racing boat, powerful and sleek and guaranteed to get me over or through any unexpected storms or big waves. This is the boat of the Viking chief, and the one all vikings aspire to be sailing in.

At the beginning of the PhD, we are often in the same boat as Fishlegs and Hiccup there – a small, wobbly, patched up but ultimately determined little dinghy, desperately trying to get going with our journey. We are often in danger of wandering into deeper waters we are not ready for yet, because our navigation systems are a bit dodgy (should I be reading this, or should I actually be reading all of that?) We tend to go round in circles a bit trying to work out our arguments and ideas, because our rudder is small and doesn’t always work (is this the theoretical framework? Is that what this means? No, that is what this means. No this. I have it! Oh, no I don’t…).

But, (and here is the first tool I shared with the researchers I spoke to), Hiccup was not alone. He had Fishlegs and they both actually had some skill and ability, even though they didn’t really believe in themselves as much as they could have. The early and middle parts of your PhD journey are tough because often you are plagued by self-doubt, and because you are still acquiring and honing the skills and knowledge you will need to get to your destination. You can’t do this all alone. Create or join a circle of writing friends (find a Fishlegs or two or more): share your writing and thinking, as well as some of your concerns and struggles. You are not going to be alone, and these fellow sailors will have useful advice, encouragement and ideas for you. Sharing your work can be scary, but it is far more scary to keep going all on your own believing the doubts in your head.

The second idea for smoother sailing I found helpful was to kit the boat out with the right equipment (which I worked out as I went along): you need a compass (in many cases, this is a good supervisor and your own research notes and journals, to keep track of your thinking); you also need strong sail, and a rudder and a tall mast (these, in my case, were blogs I read that gave me great advice and ideas; forcing myself to share my work even when I didn’t want to to get a sense of whether I was heading in the right direction or going in circles; and writing kind and encouraging things to myself in my research journal to combat the self-doubt).

The Hopeful Puffin eventually sank in the book, and was fished out of the sea and remade by a more experienced Viking boat builder. Unfortunately, not every PhD student makes it across the ocean in one piece. Not all PhD students move from The Hopeful Puffin into The Peregrine Falcon, a stronger, sleeker and more capable Viking ship, to carry them through the late-middle to end part of their journeys. For me, moving from a sense of sailing the one kind of boat to sailing the other was about using tools and resources at my disposal, and being brave and persistent. I was not always able to make myself share my work with anyone other than my supervisor or close PhD colleagues, but I used their feedback carefully; I often went in circles, especially early on, but my research journal helped me to keep track of my thinking and showed me some direction and sense. It was work, constantly, even when I was just thinking about it all, but all the work does pay off when The Peregrine Falcon docks and all the other Vikings are cheering you on and celebrating your persistence and fortitude.

Look around you at the tools, resources and people you can adapt, use and reach out to; think about which part of the journey you are in, and which kind of boat you are sailing – Who is in your crew? What are the things you are struggling with? Making these things clear to yourself, and taking stock of where you are and where you want to go to next can often help you to find your way to the next stage of your own journey.

Work-plans: realism vs idealism (and letting realism win)

I wrote last year about making work-plans, as I had a mammoth of a plan for 2013 so that I could get my PhD finished. I am writing about this again, from a very different place, as I find this is still a big issue for me.

This is being being a ninja at my desk, fingers flying across the keyboard, realistic task list being whittled down

This is me being being a ninja at my desk, fingers flying across the keyboard, realistic task list being whittled down

I am not very good at making realistic work-plans: I tend towards an oddly naive and rather (I think) charming sort of idealistic optimism when I am making my writing and reading ‘to do’ lists, and when I look at these a few months or years after I have written them all out and then largely failed to stick to them I feel shame, but also find myself bemused by my own idealism. It’s like I have two parts of myself: the realist who does my job every day, and totally gets how long it takes to do things when you are often waiting for someone else to do their bit to make the thing on your list happen, for example, and when the internet or your PC are working on geological time;

 

This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

and then there’s the part of me that is a rather idealistic and detached-from-reality writer and thinker, and oddly uses none of the learning from the realistic working side of me to realise that writing and thinking, even though I may be doing these things mostly on my own with only me to worry about, actually take a really long time.

I have realised, looking at these two parts of my writing and working self, that I make two different kinds of work-plans: realistic ones and idealistic ones, and I am really much better at making and sticking to the former, which might help to explain why I complete more emails and admin tasks than I do publishable written papers. I need to translate some of that helpful realism into the task lists I create for my writing. But, how? I quite like the idealistic, lives-in-her-head part of myself – I think she does some of my best thinking. I don’t want to sacrifice this creative part of myself. But I also don’t want to just have all of these great ideas in my own head; I would like to send some of them out into the world and have people engage with them and hopefully debate them with me, so my thinking can develop.

I currently have three papers I am working on, and two abstracts for more. I have this crazy, idealistic notion that I can write all of this stuff and finish up the work year and be a very present mum between now and the 12th of December, which is my last day at work. I do know that I will go mad if I stick to this nutty notion, so this is what I am trying at the moment, and it may be helpful to any of you in a similar sort of boat:

-Firstly, I am paring back my expectations of myself (very tough to do). I would like to submit a paper to a special issue of a high impact journal in my field. I have done some of the reading I need to do for the literature review/framework section, and I have the data but have only done a preliminary analysis. In order to write a very good paper to send in, there is a lot of work to do between now and the end of this month, when the paper is due. I have thought a lot about the argument I want to make, so I’m on track, but I can probably, realistically, manage to write just this paper well. Just this one. Just. This. One.

-Secondly, I am thinking short and longer term and dividing my writing up in that way. There is also a paper I have been presenting parts of at seminars that comes out of my PhD research, and that I have some interest in from a journal that is well-respected in my field. I don’t want to take too long to write it because the ideas and the paper itself are fresh and clear now. In an ideal world, I would like to get this sent off before the end of the year as well. Realistically, though, I may have to write a ‘placeholder’ draft that contains the main ideas but is very rough and will have to be refined and played with a bit more in January before being sent in. This will also lead me to the second paper that builds on this paper, and perhaps I could realistically write that one and send it off in February next year.

-The abstracts have December deadlines, so these I think I can (must) manage, as the papers I want to write for the conference (no 1) and the book chapter (no 2) have been wandering around in my head for a while and I have enough to sketch out two abstracts.

The idealist wants to write all of the papers by the end of December. I have all the data, I’ve done some analysis, I’m well-read – good to go for 3 papers in quick succession surely? Well, sure, if I want to create a work-plan for writing that I will almost certainly fall behind on leading to me unnecessarily feeling like a failure. I would like, as we all do, to write strong papers that make a contribution to my field. I do not want to just churn out papers for the sake of publishing. So, this means I need to have a stern but kind word with the idealist, and ask her to have a look at the realist’s task list – one paper finished and sent in by December 12th along with two abstracts, another paper drafted but left for a bit and another percolating on the backburner for 2015. This feels like a far less frantic way forward, and frankly, at this stage of the year, less frantic is exactly what we probably all need.