Getting these journal articles done!

I always thought summer would be a really relaxing time of the year. The students are away and there is no teaching. I assumed that I would be able to get on with my work at a nice pace and really enjoy it. How wrong I was. I came back from the GAJE/IJCLE Conference with 4 journal articles to write and a methodology summer school to prepare for. For the first time during my PhD I have actually felt stressed and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Some days I would feel really on top of things and the next I felt like crying into my coffee. I forgot this is how a PhD is composed:

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I have managed to get through it. I still have two weeks left for my deadlines and I’m on track. I thought I would share a few tips on how I have managed:

1) I went for drinks with a colleague 

This may seem like a very weird first tip when you have a lot of work, but this was where I started. One night after work I went for drinks with a very lovely friend and colleague (who also has an awesome blog: http://alawuntoherself.wordpress.com/) for a catch up. Elaine is an amazing academic and clinician, who manages to publish around 7 articles a year and still have a life! When I told her my worries that I wasn’t going to get all this work done in the time I had, Elaine gave me the knowing look of experience. She told me it is all about prioritising which article was the most important to me. She asked me which one I think will be most beneficial, which one involves the most research, etc. This really helped for me to know which one I should be working on the most. Then Elaine asked if I could push one back. I looked at her horrified. How could I push a publication back?! Elaine’s next words were ones which I will carry with me during the rest of my career: it only affects you. And this is very true. If I push a publication back until Christmas I’m not going to have uni asking why. The journal editor (who happens to be my supervisor) won’t be crying herself to sleep wondering how the journal will cope. It only affects me and a few months isn’t a massive set back. After this advice I felt a lot better asking my supervisor for the extension.

I guess my first tip is to share your worries and stress and to share them with someone who knows what you are going through. All jobs have their own kind of stress and it is hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it. Talking with Elaine really helped put things into perspective and have a new game plan for the summer. Sharing is caring guys!

2) Free write

This is something I had heard of but never particularly wanted to try. It panicked me to think I would write a lot, which could sound painfully stupid and take ages to edit. I normally like to really think about what I write and can take a good 5 minutes pondering over whether a word sounds right. However, I do not have time for that at the moment. Free writing is actually really great. On my first day of trying it I ended with 1,500 words. When I looked back over it I realised it didn’t sound stupid and I had some great material to work with. Free writing is a great way to get ideas off your mind and onto paper. Watching the word count continuously go up during the day gave me a real confidence boost and encouraged me to keep writing. I’ll definitely be doing it again in the future.

3) Don’t be scared to switch it up

Whilst I knew which articles should really be finished first, I was also realistic. I knew I wouldn’t sit down and bash them out one after the other. That isn’t how my brain works as I like variety (I normally order three mains from the Chinese so me and the best friend can pick at them all!). I now start my days working on one article. When I feel like I have hit a wall with it (or want to hit my head against a wall) I will move onto a different one. This way I am continuously working, so there is no guilt felt, but it means that I’m not just staring at my screen wondering where the article should go. When I go back to it I’m not sick of it and have fresh eyes. There is nothing worse than knowing that you have work to complete and not feeling like you are making any progress.

And then, when I felt like I could take no more article work for the day, I would move onto my preparations for the methodology summer school trying to figure out my theoretical underpinning and epistemology. Switching it  up kept me engaged with my work, not resenting it.

4) Know when to clock off for the day

When you have a lot of work on it is so easy to work all day into the night. I thought I would have to do this. However, I have realised that this is counter-productive. You need to let your mind wind down so it can get ready for work the next day. Sitting in front of your computer all night isn’t always the best way to deal with the stress. If I do feel guilty on an evening not doing work I’ll do a little bit of reading, which has mainly been for the summer school. And I will do it with wine. Then it doesn’t feel too much like work.

5) Work with friends

This kind of relates back to my first point. Academia can be a lonely place where you have to support yourself a lot. I decided that it doesn’t always have to be like this. I had the house to myself this weekend and a fellow PhDer, Sara, who also has deadlines and a high word count came over. So we decided to make a day of it. We set camp up in my living room, stuck the radio on and worked. Every hour or so we would check with each other the progress we’d made and what we wanted to get done in the next hour. This was great! It made the working day so much more enjoyable.

When I had decided to clock off for the day (meaning no writing but some reading) and Sara wanted to continue, I left her to it. I made sure I didn’t distract her. Basically I only spoke when spoken to, unless I was offering a cup of tea! It was a really great day and the support we gave it other really helped. You don’t have to go through it alone.

I hope these little tips help! I know there will be loads more but this is what has been helping me lately.

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What I’ve learnt during the first year of my PhD

I started my PhD last October and so far I’m loving every second… yes even the hard days! Northumbria University is like a second home to me. I did my undergraduate degree and the Bar Professional Training Course here. So after taking a year out and coming back to do my PhD it felt like coming home. I’m comfortable here, I know many members of staff, how to get around campus and, most importantly, where the closest bars are! This doesn’t mean that I have breezed through my first year. I’ve learnt so much about myself and the life of academia that I thought my first blog should be to share my experiences.

1) Your PhD is your own

This for me was very important. I felt like I spent most of the first few months of my PhD listening to how other people think a PhD should go. Whilst I do encourage students to discuss their work with others who have gained that well earned Dr status, be careful. It is great to hear about other people’s experiences and take little tips away from them. But your work is your own and you do it how you and your supervisor think is best. Over this last year I have been told that I shouldn’t be collecting data in my first year, I shouldn’t be presenting papers at conferences yet, I shouldn’t be publishing that much… the list can go on. This really panicked me and I ran to my supervisor exclaiming, ‘I’m doing my PhD wrong!!’ Her reply: ‘Well, are you happy?’ I thought about this. I am happy. I have loved collecting data this year. I have loved giving papers and attending conferences. That’s when I decided that my PhD is my own, I know what I’m doing, I have a great supervisor to guide me, and I shouldn’t let anyone else influence this. You know your work better than anyone else, so just go for it!

2) Build good relationships 

These relationships are with a variety of people. First of all, make sure you have a great relationship with your supervisor. I’m not saying be best friends with them, but make sure you feel comfortable with them. I absolutely love my supervisor and I know how lucky I am to have her… trust me, other PhD students tell me! But I also know that the reason I’m so lucky to have her is because we have a give and take relationship. She provides me with a lot of support and guidance and in return I never miss deadlines and I will help her where I can. This can even just be grabbing her a coffee for our monthly meetings!

It is also important to build relationships with other members of staff. Knowing you have people to turn to is a comfort, even if it’s just for a little bit of advice or reassurance. Also, academics are great to drink with! Especially if they are lawyers too…

External relationships are good too. Once you’ve been to a few conferences you start to see the same faces. By the end of this year I was catching up with other academics from all over the world and feeling like I really belonged in my field.

Finally, don’t forget your fellow PhD students! They are going through what you’re going through. It is great to be able to call someone from my office to ask stupid things, like ‘where do I find this document?’ and ‘do you remember how to make maps on NVivo?’ I also love shouting ‘PINT’ and someone will go for a drink with you.

3) Learn how to say no

This is hard to do as a PhD student. When we get asked to be research assistants etc., we feel obligated to do it. If we say no academics may think we are lazy or not offer us the same opportunities in the future. This is not the case. You are fully justified to say no if you do not have the time and you should not feel guilty. I’ve said no to a couple of things this year and nothing bad happened. If you just explain that you have a lot on your colleagues will understand.

Equally, don’t be lazy! If you do have the time then they are excellent experiences and sometimes you can earn some extra cash. It also looks great on your CV. But like I said, only if you have the time. You are there to do your PhD and that comes first.

4) Go to conferences and talk to people

Going to a conference is so much fun. You meet like minded people who care or are interested in your work (there’s only so much clinical talk my friends can take!). It is also an opportunity to see what is going on in your field, gain inspiration and start forming your own opinions. If you can present, even better! I’ve found that attendees at conferences take it easy on you if they know you’re a PhD student. They know you are just starting out and finding your feet. Giving a paper is a good way to get feedback on your work by those other than your supervisors, see different perspectives and maybe get little tips!

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I mean, just look at that smile. I was having the best time!

And you can make some great contacts. If you do, follow up with an email. I’ve had people send me their articles which they think are relevant to my research. Win!

5) You MUST take breaks

I think this is my most important lesson this year. When I first started my PhD I felt as though I had to know everything about everything and I started working all the time. I would easily get home from the office and open my MacBook until 10pm. Eat, sleep, work, repeat. And I burnt out. It is so important to look after yourself during this long process. Otherwise you do burn out, become unhappy and lose motivation. Luckily I live with my best friend and she sorted me out. She now drops me off and picks me up from the office so I’m not staying unnecessarily late. If I do want to do work outside of office hours, other than reading, I have to justify to her why it is urgent. I have to say, this has really worked. I feel happy, I still feel motivated and I still love my PhD. I don’t feel guilty for binge watching Netflix on a weekend instead of writing a paper. We all need time to wind down. If you have a best friend like I do then you’re very lucky!

Lastly, take holidays! One of my great loves is travelling. I try to do it as much as possible. My big holiday this year was spending time in Australia visiting friends I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I did no work, apart from one day presenting work at Monash University, and I loved it.

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Look how happy I am with this koala! The break did me good and by the time I got home I felt ready to get back to work. Next year I’m taking a month off to go hiking in America. Do I feel guilty for spending that much time away from my PhD? Nope! I work really hard all year, so I feel justified taking time off.

And just remember, enjoy your PhD. You can take something away from every experience, even the difficult ones.