The main focus of my day to day working life at present is basically writing. Writing thesis chapters (where I feel completely out of my depth), draft articles (that will be rejected and need re-writing) and book chapters (that no-one will read). Writing is, however, interspersed with lots of other things. In fact other things make such frequent appearances that I often find it difficult to get on with writing. Other things manage to raise their heads, wave their hands and emphasise that they are far more important in that moment than writing. This consequently distracts me (often appropriately) from the task at hand and draws me in to an abyss of doing other things.
Now I know it is not unusual to feel disheartened by the writing process. I recognise that getting distracted is also rather common. The best tip I have been given is to just get on with it- shut up and write! This is a writing approach that has been described in detail by academics, creative writers and journalists. There are even blogs dedicated to this approach: https://thesiswhisperer.com/shut-up-and-write/. My own approach is far more literal. It requires me just to sit down and write whenever I have ANY time at all- it means I can get 45-60 minutes of writing in after I put the kids to bed, before my husband gets home from work (having anticipated this and prepared enough dinner the night before that there are leftovers for an entire week), it means I write in the car whilst the kids are doing their various extra-curricular activities (no chatting with other parents), it means I de-prioritise household chores (I love this bit), it means I don’t chat all day with my work colleagues either (only half a day).
Looking for tips on how to write can become a distraction unto itself. I recently went to a workshop on writing in our department where a number of suggestions and recommendations were made. So, in the spirit of distracting myself with important stuff I thought it might be useful to share a few of them here:
- PhD students should aim to publish one or two journal articles prior to their vivas; feedback from reviewers an be incredibly useful and give you lots of insights to the kinds of questions an examiner might ask i.e. it is great revision!
- Looking to the future: New lecturers should aim for 1-6 over census period (2 first author papers per year).
- There is no recipe to writing
- Write regularly
- Schedule time to write and defend it!
- Write down your writing goals (fold a piece of paper into 12 squares- one for each month of the year, write down your other main deadlines etc, then insert your specific writing aims into each month)
- Balance the number of reviews you do with the number of papers you write
- Prioritise 1. proofs and editing, 2. hard deadlines (grant applications/grant reports), 3. revising reviewer comments, 4. first author manuscripts, 5. stuff for other people, 6. blogs
- Use a spread-sheet to set goals and monitor progress every day (enter the days of the week in one column, your word count goal in another, your actual word count in another, add up total word counts as you progress)
- Top tips: Get off-line, be regular, take short sprints, write anything as long as its work, do it together
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The Better Conversations with PPA (BCPPA) pilot study is currently underway. It is super exciting and going well. We have enrolled participants and successfully completed the study with them, we have more potential participants about to start. We have students involved in the data collection. It is all progressing.
The three sites I am working with have all been seeing people with PPA for some time. They have been so wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic and continue to be so now too. Unfortunately more recently the SLTs there have experienced difficulties in delivering these services (this probably isn’t a surprise for many SLTs out there reading this). Service reconfiguration and short staffing are not unusual for SLTs working in the NHS. This has meant less participants have and perhaps will be recruited at these sites than we had anticipated. For the project this means we need more sites to try to get closer to the numbers we were hoping for. In order to do this I am embarking on a drive to recruit a few new sites. And an ethics amendment too.
So to start I reviewed the battle plan and have written a call to arms. This has been circulated via a Clinical Excellence Network in the north of England that I have links with. I have also emailed SLTs who have recently been in contact about PPA. My third tactic is to use social media. Twitter has been wonderful to me- as has this blog.
I urge any SLT in England who is reading this and pondering whether they might be interested to get in touch. I am happy to explain how the project works. I would of course support therapists and I would travel to you to deliver all the training. I would provide all the equipment you would need and any assessment forms. I already have ethical approval for the project- this means that the work could start promptly (following a amendment to the ethics and liaison with local R&D to include the new sites).
I have had some very positive reactions and volunteers through my first two methods of recruitment. The troops are gathering force. Better Conversations will prevail. And I shall be updating this blog with my forays into my next ethics amendment. Whoopee (?)
Every week I make a list of all the things I have to do that week- a to do list. Before Christmas I had a couple of things I hadn’t managed to finish and I thought I would tackle them during the holidays. What was I thinking? Did I think that my 4 year old and my 6 year old would even vaguely allow this? Or that the Christmas holidays include zero social engagement!? Seriously: of course I didn’t do those things. I spent two hours on one morning reminding myself what those things were (basically gazing at my computer screen in a bit of a daze) before I had to return to more food prep whilst simultaneously helping children with two different crafts (they couldn’t agree on the same one so one did clay whilst the other funnelled coloured sand into tiny bottles?!). And then during our various social activities people would kindly enquire if I was working over Christmas? Or if I was allowed to take leave as a student- just reminding me of those outstanding tasks! Of course, I would remind them that yes there is always work to be done. But I can take proper leave because I am also a grown up doing a PhD. And then I felt a bit guilty.
So, now let me explain how this works. I knew this in advance of course but here it is. Yes as a PhD student your time is yours to manage. But there is ALWAYS work to be done! This is both good and bad. And there was one occasion last year where this became a little stressful (where school holidays clashed with a significant milestone in my project). Now I work well with this model in general- I can work when I wish, I am pretty self-motivated and my studies allow me to be somewhat flexible and pick up kids etc. I really enjoy my PhD but I also feel an obligation to be continuously working. Always on it. Always being productive.
This is where I recall my undergraduate student days- where anytime I sat down to watch TV in my final year I would immediately feel a pang of guilt in the depth of my stomach. What was I thinking: I can’t watch an episode of a terrible but well known TV soap when I have to revise for my finals/write an essay/prepare for placement. And then I also recall the amazing feeling in the first month of working- my weekends were my own! I had NO HOMEWORK! I could frolic through Hackney (where I then lived) with no one to answer to except myself. Wahooooooo. Obviously that is just being 22 years old. Obviously I am not 22 years old. And I don’t wish to frolic through Hackney any longer- I am just not hip enough.
As my New Years resolution I have decided to remind myself not to stress about it. I do really love doing my PhD. I feel I can affect the lives of more patients and more therapists with the work I am doing. I can make a difference. I have sat back down at my computer this morning (having been swimming first because it stimulates my brain and I manage my own time whoop) and it really is super interesting. I can’t wait to finalise my lecture for next week and continue writing the piece of work I am currently focused on. And I am basically allowed to manage my own time- be my own boss. So maybe I should just remind myself to give myself some slack. To enjoy it. It is AWESOME! Truly.