I have 5 days to go to starting my PhD. And, rather unbelievable as it sounds, I’ve already been procrastinating. The summer was going to be a time for me to get ahead in my reading: get a good grip on the basics of what I need to know before the pressure of the 3-year clock starts. But I have managed to waste quite a bit of time thinking about the logistics and practicalities of doing the PhD. What should my study set-up at home be like? Where will I be doing my reading? How will I take notes while I’m reading? (As a techie, this question generated hours of excited thoughts: reading on a tablet while writing on a Bluetooth keyboard connected to a second screen…or should I get a get a laptop? Ah, that means it’s time to drool over laptop specs.) The software I should use: Evernote, Dropbox, Mendeley, Scrivener, mindmaping apps, Pomodoro-type apps, Rescue Time and many, many more. All of this was far more enticing than confronting the great edifice called “Everything I don’t know about my topic but should”.
Then there are the blogs and books about doing a PhD with their seductive titles and time-sapping content. At some point I’ve got to stop reading about productivity and just do it.
As a result of this reading, I think I can stab a guess at a few things that will happen over the next 3 years:
- I will forget that I already know stuff and have been a professional in this area for years and begin to believe that my student status means I know nothing.
- Anxiety about new areas for me, such as methods and methodology, will stifle my ability to understand, or even worse, my ability to perceive that I understand.
- I will worry that I have missed something.
- I will worry that my area is too wide.
- I will worry that my ideas are too shallow.
- I will worry that I don’t understand my supervisors’ advice and get the wrong end of the stick.
- I will cease to see the connections between my reading and my research.
- I will begin to hate my own writing.
I have started some reading but I’m picking away at things and not really sure how best to organise my notes and cross-reference things. I know I have to start writing. The bottom line is I haven’t even started yet and it feels overwhelming.
So from my reading and previous experience of myself as a student, I have collated a random list to refer back to when things get rough. It’s my PhD rescue remedy:
- Write all notes and ideas down.
- Write anything, even a blog post to get rid of the useless thoughts that are getting in the way of real work.
- Read or write for 3 minutes, then see if you want to carry on.
- Read or write for 25 minutes, then see if you want to carry on.
- Never question your ability to do a PhD. You were not born ‘able’ or ‘not able’, you have to make it happen yourself. Don’t let negative thoughts about your so-called “intrinsic self” set limits on what you can do.
- Confusion is a natural state. It means you are learning and changing.
- When in doubt, talk about it. I’m lucky to have a PhD veteran in my partner. Use him.
- Be careful not to get too caught up in the details, whether it’s tagging your references or cataloguing minutiae. Be careful of sapping time activities.
- That said, there will be time to go down some rabbit holes. Just make sure they are worthy ones that contribute to your knowledge about the wider area of your topic.
- Set deadlines and chunk up your tasks. Your plans and timetable will change, but just keep being realistic.
- Be mindful of what your head is trying to do to muck this up.
- Finally, from How to tame your PhD by Inger Mewburn, “If you realise your will is flagging, your inner marketing department has to call in pizza for the engineering department and get them doing overtime.” In other words, do what you can to get it done.