Cheating on your PhD; Cheating with your PhD

I’ve been chatting to friends who are working on their PhDs or research lately, and this theme of a kind of intellectual or mental infidelity keeps coming up. I have seen a lot of this on my Twitter feed too, with part-time PhD students I follow talking about having loads of student work to mark, and meetings to attend and other busywork to do that means less time for their PhDs, and a lot of guilt. It’s almost like they feel they are cheating on their PhDs with their jobs; perhaps the converse is true too – that when they work on their PhDs they feel like they are cheating on their other work too.

Balancing work/home/life and PhD is incredibly difficult. There is never enough time for all of it, and for us to give everything an equal share of our time and attention. If you are a part-time student, a full-time parent, and you work as well at a demanding ‘day-job’, as was the case with me, you can often feel like you are going mad. And you can often feel like you are ‘cheating’ on someone or something by focusing on the other things – like taking time away from your family or friends on weekends to get a few precious hours of PhD writing or thinking in, or taking time away from your PhD to attend meetings that could have been emails, or get through the hectic teaching, admin or other work that pays the bills. I felt like this a great deal of the time when I was doing my own PhD – like I was not really focused enough anywhere, and that I was indeed letting one of my ‘sides’ down at one time or another by being distracted, and having my mind elsewhere.

I don’t think these feelings of ‘infidelity’, if you can call it that, are avoidable, sadly. It seems, if my Twitter feed and my circle of friends and colleagues are any kind of representative group, that very few PhD students are able to devote all of their time and attention to just their PhDs. Many have families of their own, or people in their lives, who require care, attention and time; many work as well, as PhD funding that pays for you to be full-time and fully focused on just your PhD is not easy to find in most parts of the world. The PhD, demanding and time-consuming as it necessarily is, often has to be fitted into and around all the other demands on our heads, hearts and time, and (certainly for me) it’s cheating with your PhD rather than on it that feels like the issue.

The PhD can feel like the indulgence – the time away from all these other much more important things, often things that you chose to devote yourself to before you chose the PhD. Reading time? Pure indulgence. You could be taking your kid to soccer, doing the grocery shopping, or planning your teaching for the following week. Writing time? Well, shouldn’t you rather be writing those emails that urgently need to go out, or preparing supper, or sorting out a costume for the Readathon at school tomorrow? Thinking time? Forget about it! Maybe you can squeeze in some thinking time if you get out to walk the dog, go for a run, or drive the kids to tennis lessons and wait for half an hour while they play.

Some of that may not be familiar to PhD students who don’t yet have families, but there are surely other things that seem so much more urgent than your PhD work does? If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, spending time with your PhD away from all the other things that came before it can certainly feel like a kind of ‘cheating’, and often comes with feelings of guilt and indulgence attached. Where we can carve a few hours out of the working day to do some reading, make some notes, or even better write 1000 thesis-worthy words, we no doubt feel like we need to lie about what we were doing. ‘I was working on that proposal for the committee – it’s taking a while to come together’ (followed by frantic proposal drafting to make up). ‘I was in the library when you called’ (even though you were at your desk with the phone turned off because you were writing). I have to confess, I did more than my share of this during my own PhD tenure – it was the only way I could actually get everything done with the hours I had in the day, and the amount of RAM in my brain.

I think the point of this post is really to say that, while you can often feel like you are cheating on everything else you have to do and the people you account to, personally and professionally, with your PhD, your PhD is not indulgent, selfish, or unnecessary. Choosing to do a PhD, for whatever reason, is a huge thing to do, especially when you are also working and parenting and being in a relationship, and so on. The reading, thinking and writing work you need to do to produce your research is valid work; it is part of your professional identity; it is valuable, necessary, useful. If you are a woman – a mother/partner/wife/carer – this is an especially important thing to realise and then give yourself permission to act on, because (and I’m not going to get into this here in more detail) women often do carry more guilt about dividing themselves into too many pieces, and devoting themselves to something that’s only for them when just about everything else they do tends to be for other people.

I needed to be told this often during my PhD: working on your thesis, spending time reading and thinking, these are not indulgences and you are not cheating on your kids, your husband/partner or your job. My PhD was not just about professional advancement and status; it was also about me – doing something that meant something to me outside of my job, my home, my family. So, if you need to close your door, pretend you’re not in, shut off the phone, say NO to the meeting or the extra admin or whatever else you can put off, do it. You are neither cheating on or with your PhD – you are doing your PhD.

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Managing your ‘research admin’

This post tackles that terribly unsexy but very vital topic of ‘research admin’; that is, the processes that go into creating and storing all your data, writing, artefacts and so on that make up the research you do, and that need to be carefully managed so as to avoid disaster, stress and undue panic attacks. I have had to do some serious thinking about my own admin systems this week after I lost two big and irreplaceable pieces of data I was hoping to use in a paper I am presenting at a conference next week; I am learning a painful and stressful lesson about paying attention to where and how I store my data, writing and other research artefacts.

This is an area of doing research and being a researcher that I have not often spent too much time thinking about and working on, to be honest. But, last week I was forced to pay some serious attention when I finally got around to uploading all my old, PhD and newer, postdoc data into a new version of Nvivo on my new laptop. I did not convert my project on my old Nvivo application before that laptop died, so I need to recreate my PhD project alongside my postdoc project in this newer application of the programme. It’s a pain, but it has to be done and seeing as I now am writing two papers that draw on both the older and newer data, I can’t put off the uploading, organising, transcribing and coding any longer. So last Thursday I set aside most of the day for the task of putting all of my data into Nvivo and organising it. This involved finding all the data on an external harddrive and in Google Drive and in Dropbox, translating file formats from those not accepted into those accepted by the application and then creating folders and waiting for it all to be transformed and uploaded. It took ages, and I regretted putting it off so long. If I had just been chipping away at it bit by bit it would not have seemed like such a mission. But I digress.

On Thursday, to start this uploading etc process, I went looking for all my files and folders. I backed up my Dropbox and my laptop into an external HD at the end of my PhD, and during 2014 when I was generating postdoc data. But, and I can’t work out why I did this, I backed up in bits and pieces rather than in entirety. So, when I opened ‘Backup of Dropbox June 2014’ only some of the folders were there rather than all of them. One of the Postdoc data 2014 folders (in the HD) has all the lecture and interview audios from that year, and the other identical folder (in Google Drive) is missing 6 of them. But these folders should both be complete. When I searched for the workshop audios I recorded last year – both lengthy and valuable pieces of data on how my findings were received in the two departments I worked with – I could not find them at all. Anywhere. I searched every folder in every storage space I own (external HD, Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Mac HD). It became very clear, in the midst of my stomach-dropping freak-out, that I need to make some vital improvements to my methods of storing information related to my research.

Firstly, having cloud storage is a must: I have heard so many terrible stories about PhD students saving all their data and writing files on a USB, or in a HD, only to have these crash, taking all their data and writing with them. The cloud won’t crash, and is accessible everywhere you have a computer or tablet and an internet connection. And memory of your passwords :). But splitting your folders and files between different clouds can be tricky without a clear and consistent system. What do you put where? What logic would you create and use for your filing system? If you have duplicate folders, I think you’re asking for confusion, because you either have to always save all your files in both locations, or you’ll likely end up with folders that have different sets of files in them even though they look like duplicates.

I work between Dropbox, which I love, and Google Drive, which I love less but which almost everyone I work with likes to work with, so I am learning to like it. I have more storage space in Google Drive, so have had duplicate (but not) folders in both, for example ‘Writing’ and ‘Teaching’. Yet, I know that the Dropbox folder for ‘Writing’ is the current, complete one, and the Drive folder for ‘Teaching’ is the current complete one. Why, then, all the unnecessary duplication and confusion, you ask? Laziness, probably. And perhaps also a fear that I can never have enough back-ups or storage spaces, hence my oddly inconsistent attempts to have the same files and folders everywhere. Just in case. This, however, has clearly not worked. Data has gone missing. Panic has ensued.

I am, therefore, taking action and having a ‘spring clean’ of all my storage spaces. I have also actually written down, in my research journal, my logic for an updated storage system, so that I have it somewhere that feels more concrete that the ‘e’-nvironment in which I mostly work. Firstly, I have gotten rid of all my duplicates and have divided my folders into personal and archival data (Dropbox) and work-related and current data (Drive). Everything is now backed up, in clearly marked folders, in a new external HD. My lovely husband, who has way more Dropbox space than I do (having actually forked out money for it whereas I am too cheap to do so) has created a shared folder for me in his Dropbox into which I can put all my current research-related files and folders especially. I have also emailed myself a few very important files I cannot bear to think about losing, like my final thesis and a couple of papers I am presently working on.

I have gone through the personal folders and deleted old and unused files, and things I no longer need, to free up more storage space for the files and documents I do and will need. I’m working on doing the same with the work-related folders as I have time. I think regular clean-outs are a good idea, as cloud storage and computer hard drives can fill up fast, and often we save things that can eventually be deleted. Look at your ‘last opened’ date as an indicator of when you last had a need for that information, and ask yourself if it needs to be archived, for example on an external HD, or could be deleted.

Secondly, I have had a think about how I create my data given that the two pieces of data I have lost are (or were) audio files generated on an audio recorder, that needed to be downloaded, saved and synced with my cloud. It turns out I do have one piece of data I can use in this paper – an audio file of a similar workshop to the two I have lost that I generated with my iPhone. My phone automatically syncs itself with my Mac when they within range of one another over the wifi, so when I open iTunes, all my voice memo files are there. I’m now thinking about ways to generate data, like video and audio, that will more easily ‘sync’ with the storage tools I use. Audio from now on I will certainly be recording with my phone, as it works really well for small workshops, interviews, and focus groups, and I’m looking into video options for my new data generation phase coming up soon.

Spending some time thinking about the technological tools we use to capture or generate our data is worthwhile. There are so many different tools and options out there, but finding those that work effectively for your aims and that make storing, sharing, and managing the data that much easier and safer can save you so much stress and hassle. Do some research, ask around (Twitter is great for this sort of thing, as there is loads of experience and advice out there); don’t just grab the first tool you find, or the only one you know or think you can afford. Your data is so valuable – you cannot duplicate it, or just generate more – and without it those papers, presentations and research artefacts are so difficult to create (if you can do that at all without your data).

Research admin is not a sexy topic, to be sure, but it is one that needs to be tackled when you are taking on a longer-term, complex and multi-layered task like an advanced postgraduate degree or a research project. Having a solid, consistent system and making time in your schedule to apply your system to creating, saving, and sharing your files and folders is well worth the effort.

 

Plotting a paper out of the PhD

I am currently trying to write a second paper based on my PhD research. This is presenting me with two challenges: the first is that I don’t really want to write anything more about the PhD research, and the other is working out how to successfully slice one paper out of such a massive piece of thinking and writing.

To start with challenge one: being, by now, a bit ‘over’ the PhD. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how unproductive last year – post-PhD year 1 – was in terms of writing and sending off papers developed out of my PhD research. In the midst of the year full of work, kids, work, life and more work there seemed to be space to think, and scribble, but no space for the kind of sustained and focused thinking, reading and writing required to produce a solid journal article, or two. That is, I didn’t make any space, largely because that space was constrained in so many ways, and I just didn’t have emotional or mental reserves to draw on after a very intense three-year PhD period. So, the unproductiveness was a time and space thing, for sure. But now that I have time, and space, I am finding that part of the unproductiveness is that writing papers that slice up my big PhD argument into smaller pieces is somewhat unappealing to me. I have already written about all of that, in the thesis. I want to write about new things now – newer insights that have continued to emerge from that research, post-PhD. My supervisor said to me last year that I think I have actually told everyone about my research and its value, but I have not really done so because I have not written it up and sent it to journals, and that work is worth doing as a starting point for writing and thinking about the newer ideas, insights, research, and applications of the theory in my work. She is right about this. But it doesn’t make writing these papers feel more valuable, or more engaging. Do I just plod on and write the damn things, or do I choose a different path here?

This brings me to my second challenge: if I decide to plod on and write the damn things, what do I write about? There are sub-sets of data within the larger set that I can think about focusing in on, to make smaller, simpler arguments that can be made in 6000 words. The theory is now clear enough to me that I can see how to reshape it into just what I need to make one or two separate arguments with smaller sub-sets of data. I can see, basically, at least one or two more papers that I could write. But, in writing the first paper, which I did earlier this year, I found that while it started with my PhD data and theoretical framework, the argument I made was not one I made explicitly in my PhD. The argument was one I made in my feedback to one of the departments I worked with to generate the data – a smaller argument made to illustrate the usefulness of my approach to researching teaching and learning in relation to their departmental (and the university’s) teaching and learning priorities and goals. Thus, the paper was kind of drawn out of the PhD and kind of new. So, while I can see theory, data and even literature I drew on in the PhD as being helpful to me in writing papers, I can’t actually see myself slicing up my PhD argument as successfully: what feels more authentic and less forced is using the theory, methodology, data and some of the relevant literature to make re-tooled and updated arguments that more usefully illustrate to a wider audience the potential value of my research. Therefore, I plod on, but not to just write something, anything, from the PhD. I want to use it as a springboard to make different kinds of arguments that I couldn’t necessarily make in the PhD because, perhaps, they were too small and too focused in, and not ‘big’ enough.

Maybe I am not going about this the ‘right’ way if there even is a right way to publish out of your PhD thesis, particularly the ‘big-book’ kind I wrote. But I am finding that the logics that underpin writing a thesis, and the logics that underpin writing a journal article are quite different, particularly in terms of what counts as making an argument and why you do it. When we publish, we do so to share our research with our peers, to build on research already out there in our field, to challenge that research perhaps, and to offer new ideas, perspectives, methodologies and so on. The arguments we make need to be smaller and tend to develop over time, through several papers and research projects that may well be aligned or cumulative. When we write a PhD thesis we are not doing so with sharing the whole thesis with a large audience in mind. We are, really, writing a very big exam paper because the PhD thesis is something we write to gain a qualification, a title, different status in the academy. We write it to prove that we are capable of doing the kind of research we will then go on to write about in all the papers, chapters, books, articles and so on that we will write over the course of a fairly typical academic career. The argument we make is not big, but there is no sense that we will be writing more than one thesis, so the larger argument tends to be broader in nature than all the smaller sub-arguments that can be implied or subsumed within it. I am finding that it is these sub-arguments – some made in the thesis but several left unmade but hinted at – that I am more able to write about coming out of the PhD. They fit the logic of writing for publication more easily, and these papers, while still a slog not least because I have to add more reading to the already long PhD reading list, feel more authentic, less forced, and more like valuable contributions to my field.