Sunday, 28 March 2010

Tips for Finishing a PhD

I have been lucky to have several friends send me advice on how to approach the final edits of a PhD (or DPhil!), what are the final laps in the stadium after a cross country marathon.

I know some of you are writing too, so I thought I would share them (you can tell when I've added my words). They're more PhD-specific than the general academic tips I shared a year ago. All the best and please do let me know if you have any more to add.

  1. Carve out huge chunks of time to focus.

  2. Set a submission date.

  3. Love the calendar. Set small, manageable, time-specific tasks and make a submission calendar. Tick off targets, be excited about your progress. Know exactly where you stand.

  4. Keep yourself energised. Too many people stop exercising when finishing up DPhil. Keep exercising. Take energising breaks. Become more interested in nature, like pretty flowers and families of ducks. Take deep breaths. Try to rest. Sleep. Routine. Get enough time to reflect, rather than just producing; make sure you are intentional about lifting your head above the water line.

  5. Manage the supervisor relationship. Take responsibility for your own submission. Show the supervisor your submission timetable and stick to it. Make supervisor feel confident in you, but also realise that he or she doesn't have to be for you to finish. Like all good Jedi Padawans, you must outgrow your master.

  6. Know that it can be done. When the task seems insurmountable, consider those who had gone before. If they could do it, so can you. Remember why you're here, that you deserve to be here, and that it can be done. A useful mantra to say, even out loud, is "I can do this".

  7. Find a proof reader. Find someone who will read your whole thesis, nudge you back in line when you've lost perspective, check for typos, make useful (but not too ambitious) suggestions.

  8. Get Brutal. Instead of trying to rework patchy sections, just cut 'em.

  9. It's about the "I-will". Finishing a doctorate may be less about the "IQ" than the "I-will". Finishing requires a tremendous amount of will. Dig deep, and get stubborn.

  10. Just Say No. Anything that is not work or energising rest is a distraction.
and a final thought, one that I picked up when I was reading about poetry, is Paul Valery's adage that a poem can never be finished, only abandoned. I think the same could be said of a thesis.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you

Today, I seemed to be continually stumbling on different materials that conveyed two separate, but interrelated themes: Firstly, that being thankful is very, very good and, secondly, that letting go is super dooper healthy. (This repetition was probably not entirely haphazard in the context of my last post, a kind of Brazilian footballer's dive after a light ankle tap.)

First, I clicked on The School of Life and found Alain de Botton's post on gratitude. Big Al, who loves a wistful line about a the shade of piece of fruit or the sad quality of the weather, here reflects on the meaning of the secular world tendency to not say thank you. He asks whether this is because saying thank you seems undignified and unambitious, an acknowledgment of our mortality; a recognition that what we are thankful for may not come again, that we are at the mercy of something beyond ourselves. He says:

To say thank you for a glass of wine or a piece of cheese is a kind of preparation for death, for the modesty that our dying days will demand. That's why, even in a secular life, we should make space for some thank yous to no one in particular. A person who remembers to be grateful is more aware of the role of gifts and luck – and so readier to meet with the tragedies that are awaiting us all down the road.
There is, in this way, something about letting go of your bigness in being grateful.

Then one of the academic articles I read before lunch (which was about mortality - not my area, but a nice touch so far as the coherence of this post goes) headed down a surprisingly didactic path, advising the reader that it is important to only use theories if they illuminate social reality, and that it is better to take into one's own work the flashes of insight that scholars have to offer, rather then get stuck serving some 'inflexible theoretical edifice.'

Then I spotted this poignant post from A Literal Girl on the miracles of being in a place without the weight (and comfort) of the having had a childhood there; how being without a past, while frightening and lonely at times, allows a certain light openness to the present, what I had only earlier this morning been thinking, as I reflected on an argument I had recently, was a kind of willingness to be a quiet nobody for a while, to sometimes just succumb to transition and linearity, rather than impress oneself onto others, or an illusion of oneself and others.

Then a new, lovely friend sent me a link to thx, thx, thx, a blog devoted to posting a thank you note a day. (Check it out and find her thank yous to the future, people who don't get it, and pianist. Gold.)

So, yeah, I guess, essentially, the hidden curricula of today's thesis writing, if I can pull it all together very quickly (I'm hungry!) was about: 1) not holding on to stale, fearful things, including the desire to be big and immortal; 2) being receptive to fresh experiences and intuitions; and 3) being grateful to no ones, as well as ones. So, as a sort of homework exercise, and do mind the tone-shift, I end this post with some thank you notes of my own:

Dear Friends (fleshy and online), Thank you for being such cards. You complete me.

Dear Toblerone Genius, Thank you for coming up with that triangle idea.

Dear College Room, Thank you for being so teeny that it does not take a long time to tidy you, and for being so patient with me.

Dear Most of the Old People at the Nursing Home I spoke to When I was 23, Thank you for nervously laughing or changing the subject and offering me tea and a dry biscuit when I asked you what the point of life was. It has saved me a lot of time and hassle.

Dear Lavender, Thank you for being able to be used in soap, bubble bath and misty spray.

Dear Wales, Thanks for having lots of castles, craggy cliffs, medieval-themed key rings, and towns that just sit there while flocks of black birds and muscly seagulls rule.

Any thank you notes of your own to share? I'd like to hear them!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Notice to Childish Ego:

I was wondering whether you'd mind please taking a ticket and lining up behind other customers in the queue - like thesis, outstanding publication resubmissions, job applications, exercise regime, relaxation and enjoyment, family and friends, balanced diet, regular sleep, and, right at the back there, healthy perspective. This meats and cheese counter is pretty busy right now, and I would ask you to honour the system in place, even if it's pedal powered and steaming.

When (perfectly lovely) ex boyfriend informed me that he is seeing someone else (a reasonable, natural thing), you saw it as some sort of invitation to bolt down the aisle, barge past everyone else (don't think I didn't see that neat elbow in the head to healthy perspective), and start firing your mid-late 90s-style questions about the past and my self-worth, and then you tried to distract everyone by setting up some fancy video montage of their meeting and happy moments together. It will take me some time to forgive you the video - that was low - though I recognise that you get bored sometimes, and that I don't let you run as freely these days.

Anyway, I may deal with you at some point, but, for now, you've had a good day's run around, and I'd like you to take a ticket or, preferably, step away from the counter and scamper back to the sugary cereals.

Right. Next? Thesis?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ra Ra-tastic!

In the University Parks earlier today, I mentally noted the truly inspired and vintage Oxford self-concept of a chubby-pretty girl. She was walking just ahead of me (and wearing a halfhearted bun on top left side of head, tight pink-red jeans and a cream, off-the-shoulder top).*

Over the top of the tale end of her friend's comment about the lovely, sunny weather, she proclaimed:

Ya, Ya, Ya, Ya, Ya, these next months, I am all about having a picnic and a sun-lounger on me to whip out as and when.