I moved, with the whole family. Happily unpacking boxes and less happily putting stuff away. My official vacation ended yesterday, so I’m back to work (now only a 4-minute cycle away!) I got feedback on the first full draft of the thesis – basically I need to reorganize some things and find a better style and tone for chapter 4. Chapter 4 is my assembled narratives, basically presenting the data before I present the analysis. It is a totally different kind of writing (more narrative, less academic). I think I would be capable of doing this in my native language (English), but in French, not so much. I’ve got the academic formula down pat, though I still make mistakes and lack finesse, but I’m in unfamiliar waters here, and my wonderful and super supportive supervisors can’t help me. I’m thinking of recruiting a student in literary studies or literary creation to help me get a handle on this. I have a month and a bit to submit the next version, which should be the one to go to the whole committee. I’m also working on the references in my free time, and on other publication projects, and on prepping the classes I’m teaching in the Fall…
No need to mention the references, acknowledgments, formatting, and a few rounds of corrections. I did a practice defense because I was invited to present my thesis project to a group of grad students, the deadline keeps changing (due to my supervisor’s knee surgery) and is now during my vacation, but I just may be able to finish it before I leave, so yeah, the end is in sight!
I have a deadline, two weeks from now. Unfortunately I am also moving during that time, not to mention the conference/vacation overseas, but I got through most of the other crazy tasks I had to do. I ran 30k. I organized a conference (at which I presented 3 papers, what was I thinking?), and a networking event. I am almost finished preparing next week’s guest lecture and my keynote speech. I am so looking forward to those 3 weeks of vacation after the thesis deadline!
Sadly, the return from Bootcamp was rough – motivation was hard to find. After a few days of getting very little done at home on my own I decided to meet up with strangers through the Facebook site set up by others who have experienced a post-retreat slump. There are people who meet in cafés or libraries daily, in many cities across the province, to write alone but together. It worked like a charm. I went twice and chapter 5 (that’s my second results/discussion chapter) is done. Leaving me with revising chapters 1 to 4, putting all my references in order, fixing the formatting, revising chapter 5, writing a conclusion, revising, rewriting, revising…but the end is approaching. I think letting go of the PhD student identity is going to be hard, but, I get a pay raise, I get to not lose my job, so I’ll adjust. Still no idea of a realistic timeline, but it’s because a lot depends on my how my co-supervisors feel about the work I’ve done. Hopefully this lack of estimation skills will not continue throughout my career!
So I spent another weekend at Thèsez-vous, my favourite (and only) thesis-writing retreat! The first one I went to was held at a children’s summer camp, this one was in an old convent, but the experience was similar. There is a very rigid schedule: we have blocks of writing time, interspersed with outdoor play time, meals and breaks and snacks, a somewhat condescending workshop with an experienced academic, and some yoga and meditation. We set goals for each writing period at the beginning, write them on post-its, and then move the post-its from the ‘to do’ section to the ‘in progress’ section, to ‘done.’ I found it super motivational, and though I thought I knew all there is to know about myself as a writer/academic, I found it pretty neat to realise that micro-structuring my time seems to be helpful. I didn’t achieve all my goals, but I did leave with a road map (or detailed outline) for the rest of the results/discussion, and a view of the end in sight, very very far in the distance, but in sight! So I’m hyper motivated and happy.
Of course, when I returned home it was to a whole other set of deadlines, none of which involve the thesis. This week I could write a blog post titled ‘How not to write a journal in 7 days,’ and then there’s another article to edit, some data for a third project to analyse, a conference submission or two to prepare, some preservice teachers to supervise, the MA student I am co-supervising needs me to read her document (I think it’s somewhere around 50 pages long), and besides organizing a conference, meeting with the teachers for a fourth project (where at least I am not the lead researcher), and meeting with some colleagues to discuss the possibility of starting a bilingual academic journal focused on early childhood education and care, oh and that book proposal I am supposed to write with some other colleagues…well, I should get a chance to work on the thesis again sometime soon.
Oh and did I mention I’m doing the Crossfit Open, going to start training for a 30k running race when the snow melts, and preparing to move with my partner and 2 kids to the city where my job is actually located? But thèsez-vous was an amazing experience, I highly recommend it to any grad students in Quebec or eastern Ontario. They have a Facebook page now where you can meet up at cafés and work. You just announce where you will be, put a clothespin on your laptop, and wait for the other students to show up and motivate you. I met a woman at the retreat who works full time so she either attends a formal retreat or organises an informal one with friends once a month, and she says she’s making excellent progress. My next plan is to try the informal rent a chalet with friends and attempt to reproduce the vortex of writing joy and vacation feel. I’ll keep you posted if it happens!
The Slow Academic, who is one of my academic superheroes primarily due to the name of her blog, recently posted about a conference she attended where the presenter inserted “thinking time” into her weekly timetable. Another article, this one on the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses scheduling blocks of time for “deep work.”
I am not interested in chaining myself (any more than I already am) to my agenda. I wish I could unschedule my time. Now I appreciate living a life (and having a job) where I am (mostly) the one in charge of deciding what I do when. I often take an hour out of my work day to exercice, I work in cafés or at home, in the train or my office, I volunteer at my son’s school once every couple of weeks. My work time is split into teaching and the work that surrounds teaching (preparing, evaluating, meeting with students, and thinking); service and admin tasks (mostly meeting others in person or virtually, and doing follow-up work and communication between meetings and thinking); and research, which at the moment involves reading and writing (deep work), but also can include meeting with people, travelling to international conferences, and yes, thinking. This is one of the things I love about my job, and hopefully this variety and the constant evolution of courses and research and service commitments will make me want to stick with this job for the long haul.
Personally, my strategy is not to schedule more (to include thinking and other “slow” or “unproductive” tasks into my agenda), but to schedule less. To be loose with my time, to include more time than I think tasks will take in the schedule, and to be kind to myself when I just can’t concentrate on the task I had planned. To understand that some days what I had planned to take 6 hours will get done in 1, on other days it takes all day just to do something I thought would take 15 minutes, and on some days, my brain refuses to go into the deep thought place it needs to be, so I do less taxing work tasks like responding to emails, reviewing other people’s work, and doing the laundry. I only work evening and weekends when deadlines are dire, and I try my best to prevent this from happening. I manage to “produce” enough, but I judge my “productivity” on what I contribute. Did I make a new colleague feel welcome today? Did the article I published or the paper I presented make others think and question what they thought they knew? Did it inspire them? Did what I said at the meeting make a positive contribution, to the task at hand or more generally to some aspect of the field of Education?
Do you have any other ways to measure contribution on a daily or yearly basis? How do you handle scheduling your time?
I had just sat down to go over my ppt for the class I’m teaching on Tuesday, nervous because I hadn’t finished it during the week. But he was right, so I closed the computer and spent the day playing Pokémon cards with him. I am so thankful he’s there to remind me of what’s really important. My teenager went out with her friends, and soon the little one will no longer want to spend his weekends playing with me, but I will try to remember that weekends are only to be used for work in extreme emergencies. Thank you Noah!
I just read another great blog post on Thesis Whisperer about all the shiny balls that distract us from focusing on the PhD. I love this analogy. I have the shiny prize at the end (the tenure-track job), but still have not finished the PhD, and the crazy shiny balls keep coming at me: publishing opportunities, conference organizing, service opportunities, exciting new courses to teach – and that fear that if we don’t take them all we’ll be harming our career. I keep telling myself this is a long-term commitment and that my goal is to maintain health and sanity and joy in the long-term – I’m very inspired by the Slow Professor movement – but some days I am just too tempted by those shiny balls! My solution is to find something outside of work to obsess over positively, a hobby – marathon training, knitting, whatever brings you joy and a feeling of accomplishment, so you don’t spend all your free time feeling bad about stagnant PhD progress.
One of my colleagues who was hired a few months before me is about to submit her final draft, a few of my good friends and colleagues who started around the same time I did are also reaching the end. If I am honest with myself I know I have at least 6 more months of work to do (and I am not advancing at all at the moment because I am teaching 4 courses (so I can not teach during the Winter term and finish the thesis). I kind of feel like I am running in place and watching everyone else whiz by, but they motivate me, these determined colleagues who keep their heads down and ignore the balls flying past. I am trying to follow Belinda Lawton’s advice and say no to new opportunities, or at least not seek them out, but I’m only partly successful.
It’s a crazy busy time of year, and I have the added pleasures and pressures of preparing my one-year evaluation and spending next week at a conference, but here is an interesting post about the whole trigger warning controversy (which I have never ever encountered in Quebec, though I read about it often on Facebook) from a blog with such a great title that I couldn’t resist sharing it!
I downloaded the thesis map document from the Thesis Whisperer website a year ago. Since then I’ve pushed back my deadlines 4 or 5 times. My thesis is moving forward, just at a much slower pace than I anticipated. This is mostly because transcription and analysis took way longer than I could have imagined at the outset, and I am fully living my work slowly ethic (which apparently is a thing). This post is not a complaint, it is an explanation of why I am OK with the fact that after 5 years, I am still not finished, and cannot easily predict when I will submit.
The main reason is because I see this as a long-term commitment to academia. I have a tenure-track job. I need to complete the PhD if I want to keep it, but I am trying to put into place good habits from the onset. Once the PhD is done, there will be other research projects, there will always be more to do, and more to write. That’s why I don’t work evenings or weekends. That’s why I take time to exercise, to be there for my kids, to go see circus shows and music performances and attempt to have a social life. I need this lifestyle to be more than sustainable, I need it to be enjoyable. I love what I do, and I want it to stay that way for many years.
The other reason is that I am involved in many side projects, some related to publishing, others related to service or teaching. Maybe because I work at a small, not so highly ranked university, maybe because we have a great union, but I am not in danger of not meeting the minimum job requirements, I am not worried about not getting tenure (unless of course I don’t finish the PhD). So I do these additional projects – collaborating on other people’s research projects, accepting an offer to write a chapter on a topic that is indirectly related to my research, volunteering to be president of our national early childhood research association, etc, etc – because I want to, because they allow me to work with some really amazing people, because they push me to learn and stretch, and because they increase the chances that my work can make a real impact. I know the traditional advice is to wait, to concentrate all my energies on finishing the thesis, but I am impatient and impulsive, yet thoughtful and reflective. This makes for an interesting combination as I say yes to activities that help me craft my job the way I want it to be, for the long haul.
So there you go, I am doing my best not to stress about the time it is taking, to focus on making the thesis good, not just good enough, and I am enjoying the journey most days.