Monday, 4 March 2013

The secrets of making progress in (my) PhD

In the last week, I drafted out what I currently think are six key insights my data has given me into my subject. This comes off the back of monumental whinging about the process that led up to it, i.e. careful return to data sources and memoing around them. I am really pleased, even though I know that these insights will be refined perhaps out of all recognition as I understand what it is that I am trying to describe. I am meeting with my supervisors over the course of the next week and feel pleased I can talk through an 'audit trail' a process is has led me thus far. I told friends and #phdchat peers on Twitter and received typical encouragement.

One of my supervisors tells me I am making especially good progress. He's supervised lots of research students, and a fair few members of staff doing their PhD the 'wrong way round' like myself. In my institution, most new members of staff need to have their PhD before being employed. I was lucky in that I came in at the right time, from practice, and of course offered extensive professional insights (as well as academic) required on the courses I teach on. I've been told that members of staff often take longer than I am, or 'stall' in their PhD journey for various reasons. That's got me thinking about why that is, consequently, I offer my personal secrets for my own success. See if they could apply to you - or if you could advise me how to improve.

1. Be purposeful. I find that making the small steps required relies on a clear goal. The goal in my own form of (narrative) research is continually refined (not re-written); it gave me energy. losing sight of why you are doing it saps energy and motivation, so pay attention to it.

2. Keep going. As long as you are heading in the right direction - journalling and making good use of supervision help here - just being determined to keep working at it is half the battle. A huge undertaking requires chipping away at, and most of the time we might not feel like the small tasks that build important foundations.

3. Reflect and continually 'scan'. I find that I need to understand what I am doing and why - in other words, I have to understand the significance of what I am doing, even if that is transcribing or memoing. I can do so many things with my time, but I have in mind a list of potential key tasks and consider what I should be putting my effort into. I am thinking of a cook in a busy kitchen with many pots all simmering or boiling. I need to know what to stir. For me, it's about putting energies into the right thing at the right time.

4. Connect and imagine. Instead of seeing the imagination as a distraction, in my case I try to use my imagination as a way of connecting ideas. Doing a PhD involves lots of reading, working with data, journalling and so on. Our brains are great pattern making and connecting machines, so I think we should use them, and make note of 'little' insights we might have. One of my recent insights, perhaps one that will end up being my main finding came about because I paid attention to that 'small voice' when reviewing memos. What I noted initially wasn't very exciting, but it developed into something quite exciting.

5. Use the time. If, like me, your research degree is done 'part time' then it competes with the other stuff. In my case, it's a busy academic job and large family. I have found that if I am 'prepared' - for example, by carrying around the book I'm reading, or having a notebook to hand then I can use those minutes I spend waiting for a student to turn up to my tutorial, or the bus journey. Add those minutes up, I guarantee they are valuable.

6. Use technology intelligently. I don't mean spending ages on that unproductive Facebook group, but it might mean using a great app like Evernote, or getting to know the #phdchat crew in Twitter. Develop expertise in getting the right resources or support at the right time. Make sure the documents you need are accessible when you need them, be able to ask that question or share a reflection when you get it.

7. Laugh at yourself. Get your priorities right over time. I know that a PhD skews our perception of reality, but don't get so caught up in what you are doing that you over-estimate your contribution or how fascinating you are. Relationships are important. Be thankful for friends or your partner. Don't neglect your children. Be silly at least once per day.

8. Communicate your thinking. Writing - for yourself, your blog audience (hello, you two), twitter followers, the academic community via journals or peers pushes your thinking on. You are only as motivated and as insightful as your current narrative of your research, so learn to explain and challenge your thinking in everyday language. This challenges ambiguity and forces you to be clear and relevant.