Wait, You’re Still Not a Dr?

This post is inspired by my friend and fellow science blogger, Soph Arthur from Soph Talks Science; earlier this week she wrote a blog post about handing in her PhD thesis (huge congrats, Soph!), and why she hasn’t made the jump to Dr Arthur yet. I thought her post was a brilliant way to explain the process of PhD examinations and awards – handing in the thesis is often seen as the final step before gaining your PhD, but there’s actually quite a lot more to go after that.

I handed my thesis in at the end of June, and had my viva at the end of August. The viva is an oral examination (usually face to face) that is designed to push you to your limits, to check that you did the work contained in your thesis, and to have some discussion around what you might have done differently and why. Mine had 2 examiners – 1 external (someone from outside my University), and 1 internal (someone that’s based at my University), and it last an hour and a half. At the end of those 90 minutes I was asked to leave the room, and 5/10 minutes later I was called back in to be told that I’d passed with minor corrections. That’s a pretty common result. At the University of Aberdeen ‘minor corrections’ means that you have 3 months to make the changes requested by the examiners, and only after that can you apply to graduate.

So it’s currently the beginning of October, and I’m STILL not a Dr.

I know. ANNOYING.

Post-viva, pre-corrections.

Anyway, that’s entirely my own fault. I completely avoided the thesis until last week; I just didn’t want to make the corrections, I didn’t want to read what I’d written for what felt like the millionth time, I just wanted to continue being super proud of myself for getting to this point and passing the viva. Unfortunately though, if I don’t make the corrections and get my ass into gear, then I will never be Dr Gardner.

After a very helpful catch up with my supervisors, I began tackling the corrections earlier this week, and I’m on track to finish them by the start of next week. I will finish them, and I will send my (hopefully final) thesis to my supervisors so they can have a quick look over it before I send it back to my examiners. Hopefully they will be happy with it, and I can then start getting excited for graduation – if I get things in order and turned around quickly I should be able to graduate on Friday 23rd November.

If I get my act together, that means I’ll be able to call myself Dr Gardner in about a month and a half. No pressure.

So, I Finished My Thesis

I haven’t posted anything on this blog for what feels like a very long time – in actual fact, it’s been about 4 or 5 weeks. In those 4 or 5 weeks I finished and submitted my PhD thesis.

*Pause for dramatic effect.*

I KNOW.

I actually did it, I got comments back from my Supervisors about a week before my submission deadline, and they were minimal. I was incredibly relieved, because by that point I’d mentally checked out. I made the changes over the course of about an hour, checked formatting etc, and then sent it to print.

I’d like to introduce my newborn baby, born 3 days ahead of her due date on Tuesday 26th June, and comprising of 61,622 words spread over 250 pages; welcome to the world ‘Making clinical trials more efficient: consolidating, communicating and improving knowledge of participant recruitment interventions’.

Mother and baby are both doing well – I suspect baby better than Mother at this point.

Really though, I am exhausted. I took a week off after submission and spent time reintroducing myself to my family, my boyfriend, and the idea of having a social life (and books, I have read lots of books). I went to Aviemore for the weekend and spent time clambering about in the Cairngorms and trying to convince aforementioned boyfriend that introducing a baby reindeer into our life would be a really good idea (I did not win this argument and I am still living sadly in a pet-free home). After that though, I felt really unproductive and like I was wasting time (that goes to show how alien relaxation felt), so I relaunched my Etsy shop with a whole bunch of new products.

I’m now back at work. I was lucky enough to secure a job as a Research Assistant based with my PhD Supervisors so don’t have to worry too much about money and that whole being unemployed thing (hoorah!). My brain still doesn’t feel like it’s functioning at full capacity, and I am ridiculously tired all the time, but I’m getting there. I rejoined the gym and yesterday I missed the England match (yes, the World Cup has absolutely sucked me in – it’s coming home etc etc) in favour of returning to my weekly hot yoga class for the first time in about 3 months. I’m getting back to blogging, so you can expect more frequent content over the coming weeks, and I’ve managed to work in some freelance writing too. Life feels a bit more normal.

Actually, now I think about it, it sort of feels like the process of writing my thesis didn’t really happen; time went by so quickly that it’s a weird blur in my mind. The only real evidence I have that it happened is a bunch of blog posts tracking my progress, the thesis itself, and the addition of a significant amount of baby weight.

Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Weeks

I just realised that I missed my ‘T-Minus 1 Month’ post, so I’m quickly putting together this T-Minus 3 Weeks version so that you can see where I’m up to with my thesis writing.

In my last update post I set some aims:

  • Literature review – STOP MESSING ABOUT AND WRITE THE BLOODY THING!
  • Systematic review – Slot into final thesis structure.
  • Qualitative study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • User-testing study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • Thesis introduction – Get a first draft written for the beginning of May.
  • Thesis conclusions – Get a first draft written for the middle of May.

I want an entire working thesis draft by the end of May – that’ll give me a month before hand-in to ready through it a million times, tweak things, ensure I haven’t repeated myself a million times, and then make sure that the formatting and referencing is correct.”

Spoiler alert – it’s now Sunday 10th June and I do not have a full draft. I am very nearly there, but certain bits of editing and writing have taken longer than I thought they would.

Anyway, where am I at?

Current word count: 63,966 (that’s the entire document, appendices etc included)
Current page count: 247

Introduction

I’m almost there! Just need to rewrite my thesis-rationale section and this bit is officially off my to do list (for now).

Literature review

DONE. It’s done! Weirdly enough, once I’d gotten over the ridiculous amount of procrastination I did to avoid writing this chapter, it wasn’t so bad. Once I’d got comments back from my supervisors, I actually enjoyed the editing part. Weird.

Systematic review

DONE! This chapter has been written, edited and written a bit more. It is complete.

 

Qualitative study

NOT DONE. I got comments back from my supervisors a few weeks ago so I need to go through and edit, refine etc etc. This is the chapter that I’m most dreading – it’s a black hole of imposter syndrome and whenever I go back to it I feel like I’m not good enough. Time to get rid of that feeling and get it done!

User testing study

DONE! This chapter has been written, edited and written a bit more. It is complete (for now).

 

Aims for the next week or so

Looking at that, I don’t actually have that much to do at all. It’s totally doable in the next week or so. Time to knuckle down..

  • Thesis rationale – By the time I leave the office today, I’m going to re-write my ‘Thesis rationale’ paragraph, that will mean that the entire thesis introduction section is complete to a standard that I’m happy with.
  • Systematic review in context – This is a sort of short bonus chapter that comes after my Systematic Review, and provides information on the other reviews that sit alongside mine. I need to write this. I already have bits of text in various documents so I don’t anticipate this taking a huge amount of time, I’m going to try to get this section done on Monday.
  • Qualitative study – This chapter needs a whole lot of editing, which I think will take me 3 or 4 days to complete. I plan on doing this Tuesday-Thursday/Friday.
  • Thesis conclusions – Each of my results chapters have their own conclusion sections, so this chapter is about bringing everything together and making recommendations for future work. I have a tonne of ideas for this chapter because I’ve discussed the contents of it with my supervisors a few times already, so I’m hoping that means it won’t take me too long to translate those ideas from my head on to the page. I plan on doing this Friday-Sunday.

I’m then going to try and print out a full version of my thesis (oh my god!) on Sunday afternoon, so that I can go through it on Sunday evening and Monday and ensure that I haven’t missed anything obvious. Tuesday 19th I plan on sending my thesis to my supervisors for one final look over, and then I’ll have time to make any final edits, tweaks etc before I submit on Friday 29th.

Thesis Writing Full Time #3: No Pressure, No Work

This is a super quick check-in so that I can look back at the poor choices I have made with regards to time allocation when I’m stress-crying in the middle of June.

I’m at the point of thesis writing now where I really, really need someone to shout at me and force me to write. See my last thesis update post to see just how brilliant I’ve become at procrastination…
I’ve always been someone that works to a deadline, and if there is no pressure to get things done then I tend to leave work until the last minute. Saying that, I always get the work done – I’ve never missed a deadline – it just makes period of time closest to the deadline unnecessarily stressful.

This week instead of doing all of the thesis writing, I’ve done a million other things; so not entirely unproductive. I’ve been doing some work for Soapbox Science’s first event in Aberdeen, organising training and scouting out suppliers for various things  – finding a joiner to make 4 wooden soapboxes to very specific measurements and a limited budget is not the easiest of tasks. I also gave a talk about blogging for the University of Aberdeen’s Qualitative Research Network, and I’ve been doing some serious travel research for my Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship (I know, it’s a tough life..).

Over the next few weeks I’m going to take part in some #remoteretreats. I think that will help me to focus. In the grand scheme of things I don’t actually have a huge amount of work left to do; the majority of the words are written, it’s about improving them and making sure all of the loose ends are tied up now.

Credit: Anna Borges / Buzzfeed

Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Months

I’m now 3 months away from handing in my thesis. 3 months sounds a lot friendlier than 12/13 weeks, so I’ve going with that. I’m coming strangely close to the end of the PhD process, and to be honest I am feeling a bit sad about the whole thing. This PhD has been brilliant – even the bits that have been tedious or boring, I’ve enjoyed because I’ve found a subject I’m passionate about. It will be very, very strange to have this thesis done and handed in, but I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to secure a short term contract that will keep me working with the wonderful team at HSRU until the end of 2018 at least. That’s a big weight off my shoulders, and means that my thesis needs to be done! Anyway, here’s an update with 3 months to go; I wrote a blog post with 6 months to go and said “there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!” – that’s where I’m still sitting now, I know that I can get this done and handed in on time, I just need to really knuckle down for the next 3 months.

So, how far have I got?

Literature Review

In my last update post, I aimed to:

  • Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.

I’ve sorted the categories of papers into various folders that will help me to write sections of the literature review, and they are in some sort of sensible order. Confession time – I have not written 3,000 words. To be honest, I have done absolutely everything in my power to avoid writing this literature review; my flat is spotless, there is no dirty laundry at all, I’ve seen all the films that I’m interested in that are currently showing at the cinema, and I’ve found complete strangers to puppy-sit for on Borrow my Doggy (if you don’t know what this is and you really like dogs, I suggest you go and sign up asap) – proof below.

There’s also an unfinished 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle taking over my living room floor. Seriously, the jigsaw thing isn’t a joke. It’s been there for over a week now.

ANYWAY. This week I’m locking myself in my office at home, and I’m getting a first draft of this literature review written. I am done messing around, avoiding it and finding literally anything else in the world to do instead – this thing is getting done this week – pinky promise.

Now, moving on to a more positive part of thesis progression..

Systematic Review

Last time I checked in, my systematic review was sitting at 33,496 words, and it had gone to my primary supervisor for comments. The comments were pretty limited, which I was pleasantly surprised about. The majority of the comments were related to changing the presentation of the results section to cut down words and make the chapter as a whole flow more easily. I made those changes and the chapter is pretty much done – it’s now 25,387 words which I’m much happier with.

I’ll have a final read through it when I put all of the thesis chapters together to ensure there’s no repetition in the introduction/background sections etc, but for now, it’s off my to do list (hoorah!).

Qualitative Study

I’m pretty happy with where I’m at with this – I handed in a first draft and got comments back from both of my PhD supervisors with lots of brilliant pointers of how to build on what I’ve already got, expand my points and set my findings in context with the wider literature. Next steps are to go through these comments and make improvements etc. I feel pretty confident with that though, which is nice; I had a meeting with my supervisors to talk through changes etc and they were really helpful so it’s just a matter of me making time to do it, and getting on with it.

Currently, it’s sitting at 15,610 words and it will undoubtedly grow by another thousand of two by the time it’s finished.

User-testing Study

In my last update I mentioned that the qualitative document that I had then, needed to be split up into 2 separate chapters – I’ve now done this, and I have a ‘qualitative study’ chapter, and a ‘user-testing study’ chapter. I used the writing retreat that I went on at the beginning of March to work exclusively on this user-testing chapter, and I made some really good progress. I handed in a first draft to my supervisors in the middle of March, and already have comments back to work on (side note: having supervisors that actually engage with my work and want to help me develop my skills is the absolute best thing; if you’re looking for PhDs at the moment, please, please make supervisor choice a priority – it makes a huge difference to your experience).

This chapter is currently sitting at 8,384 words, and I expect it to increase to ~9,500 words or so once I’ve gone through and addressed comments etc.

Aims for the next 2 months
  • Literature review – STOP MESSING ABOUT AND WRITE THE BLOODY THING!
  • Systematic review – Slot into final thesis structure.
  • Qualitative study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • User-testing study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • Thesis introduction – Get a first draft written for the beginning of May.
  • Thesis conclusions – Get a first draft written for the middle of May.

I want an entire working thesis draft by the end of May – that’ll give me a month before hand-in to ready through it a million times, tweak things, ensure I haven’t repeated myself a million times, and then make sure that the formatting and referencing is correct. Phew. This is all getting, very, very real.

Thesis Writing Full Time #2: Creating Structure

I’ve now been thesis writing pretty much full time for about 7 weeks. I’ve still been dipping in and out of work for other projects, leading the organisation of a new local branch of Soapbox Science (our speakers have just been announced – see the brilliant lineup we’ve secured for Aberdeen here!), designing new products for Science On A Postcard, and flitting about at Buckingham Palace.. so it’s not all been thesis-based. Anyway, I feel like I’ve finally got into a routine so thought I’d share that – hopefully it’ll be useful for those of you also writing up and struggling to find your groove.

I said in my last ‘thesis writing full time’ post, that the most productive times for me were between 3 and 6pm, and after dinner until I go to bed. As it turns out, that estimation was wildly wrong, and I just happened to be most productive during those times because I forced myself to focus during those times (that said, I am writing this blog post at ten past 9 on a Wednesday night, so many the night owl thing has some truth to it..). I’ve now found a much better routine, and it involves just getting on with work no matter what time it is. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. This structure thing takes time and dedication, and it’s actually quite difficult to force yourself out of bed an hour earlier just because you ‘should’.
I went on my first writing retreat last December and thought it was brilliant, so brilliant that my parents gifted me another one for Christmas, but it was the second one that I went on (March), that really forced the need to create structure into my brain.

As I said in a blog post about that first writing retreat, Rowena Murray’s retreats rely on a set structure made up of writing blocks, non-negotiable break times, and a distinct lack of distractions (the health app on my iPhone genuinely thought I’d been asleep for 3 days because my phone hadn’t moved from my bag during the entire retreat). During my first retreat I thought I’d got a lot done, but knowing what was ahead of me meant that I prepared much more effectively for the second, and I finished a thesis chapter a week in advance of the deadline (I know, shocking!).

This writing retreat structure is brilliant, it forces productivity, and in the words of Rowena herself, it forces ‘self-efficacy’. So, how have I managed to translate this seemingly magical structure into real life? I’ve been using the Forest App to force myself to focus (I see the irony of needing an app to reduce my ability to be distracted by technology, but it works for me), and I’ve been blocking out writing slots (an hour or an hour and a half depending on how much I want to achieve), and then.. just getting on with it. That’s been great, but it’s easy to find something to creep in and take that time away from me.

Enter, the wonderful Lucy Hinnie. I met Lucy at the March writing retreat where we bonded over a shared love of the fact that Rowena Murray was actually making us more productive, baked goods at break times, and RuPaul’s Drag Race (do not judge us, that show is a cultural masterpiece and I will hear nothing against Mama Ru).
Anyway, she’s continued to be fabulous from afar, and today she ran the first #remoteretreat via Twitter. This took the same structure as Rowena’s retreats, and judging by the response online, it was bloody brilliant. I didn’t manage to make this one, but Lucy is forcing our productivity again next Wednesday (28th March), so I wanted to draw attention to it.
I’ll be joining next week’s #remoteretreat but will need to skip out for an afternoon meeting – join us at 9.15am (GMT) to set goals, and then get writing!

Thesis Writing Full Time #1: Finding My Feet

On January 30th I finished data collection for my PhD (AHHH!), on January 31st I then submitted the final report for the grant that funded the bulk of my PhD research, and since then I’ve been thesis writing full time. Honestly, I was really excited to get to this stage, and it hasn’t gone quite as expected – so I thought I’d write a blog post both to remind myself that I am less than a week in and still finding my feet with it, and to try and shed some light on the process for those that are thesis writing too (or soon will be).

The Good Bits

I’ll start with the good – I’ll ease you in gently.. Doing this thing full time means that I can sit down and really focus on what I’ve done. Before doing this, there was a lot less paper in my life, but I also didn’t have a realistic overview of how much I’ve achieved in the last 2 and a half years. I’ve collected a tonne of data, and I’ve learned to analyse and interpret it so that it might actually be useful for people in the trials community! Hoorah for learning stuff!

Thesis writing full time also means I can work when and where you want to. For me this has been brilliant because I can ensure that I’m the most productive that I can be. Before, I had brilliant intentions of getting up, showered and at my desk for 8am every day, but that just hasn’t happened. The most productive times of the day for me are 3pm until 6pm, and then after dinner until I go to bed (which can be super late). Before 3pm I do a lot of ‘pottering’ – basically, stuff that needs doing but that isn’t actually writing. Reading, finding the right references, putting together draft zeros for different chapters, all interspersed with various life admin and chores. At the weekend I’m pretty good around noon until 4pm, and because I’m able to choose when I work and when I take breaks, the whole working at the weekend thing is working out pretty well. I don’t feel like I’m going to burn out, and I’m getting through the writing at a decent pace.

I’ve also turned my office into a little thesis-writing cave, which has been so brilliant. Firstly, it gave me a kick to sort my desk space out, and secondly (most importantly) me working from home has given my other half a kick to sort out his half of the office too – I hate clutter and can’t work when there’s too much stuff around to distract me.

The desk space – yes that it a bear shaped pencil case, yes that is a dog shaped tape measure, and yes they are tiny wooden desk pets – I’m not allowed a dog and these were a hilarious replacement that arrived in the form of a Christmas gift from my parents. I am 26 and until I’m allowed a dog, this is what my desk space will continue to look like.
The Bad Bits

Ok, now on to the bad. I’ve been having a super wobbly mental health week. I always work best under pressure – i.e. juggling a million things and working from a packed To Do list, but working on the thesis entirely (I do still have some other projects running but for now my input is minimal) has alleviated all of that busy energy and self-imposed pressure, and my brain hasn’t coped very well with this new found freedom. It’s weird.

On the bright side though, the past week has already taught me a lot the coping strategies I need to implement (more on those in a later blog post). Ultimately I think that this little wobble has been a useful learning experience for me (re-reading this for typos and oh my god, have I turned into an academic now?! – ‘no failures, just learnings’), like I said it’s helping me to develop my own coping strategies, and it’ll make sure that I’m more resilient when I’m in a job where I don’t have the luxury of working from home at weird hours.

It still feels a bit weird to say that I’m writing my thesis; it doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing my PhD long enough for it to be that time yet – so, so weird. Anyway, I have a chapter of qualitative research to write, so I’ll leave this one here.
I’ll be posting a few blogs posts as I go through this process, but if there’s a big gap between postings just assume I’m sat at my desk, typing away with a hot water bottle on my knee.

Thesis Update – T-Minus 6 Months

I’m now 6 months away from handing in my thesis, so that’s terrifying. That means I’ve been working away for 2 and a half years, which feels so strange. I wrote a blog post when I was 12 months from handing in, and looking back on that has helped me keep some perspective on how much I’ve done since then. So here’s an update with 6 months to go – there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!

So, how far have I got?

Structure

In my last post I explained that I had a skeleton structure – that remains relatively unchanged, apart from adding an additional results chapter. This doesn’t include any new work, it’s just made the write-up process easier and less messy, and hopefully the contents of the thesis will flow better as a result.

Again, I’ll reiterate; getting a skeleton structure together early on has been so, so helpful, and I would highly recommend doing one of these if you’re doing a big piece of writing too; whether it’s a PhD thesis, an undergraduate dissertation, or even a novel. Splitting the writing into manageable chunks makes the entire task much less daunting, it feels a bit like you’ve written an instruction manual that you can then follow to get to the final piece.

Literature Review

As I said in my last thesis update post, the literature review is the bit of the thesis that I’m looking forward to writing the least. I have made a decent amount of progress in the last 6 months though, which is a relief!

I have screened the results of the literature search – a total of ~4,000 abstracts, and each of the papers that I want to include in the review has now been allocated into one of three very broad categories:

  • General trial recruitment stuff (a huge mixed pile of literature that is interesting, and links well with my topic generally; e.g. why poor recruitment is bad, how many trials suffer from poor recruitment, what types of trials are at the highest risk of poor recruitment etc)
  • Ethics of clinical trial recruitment
  • Perspectives and opinions on trial recruitment (from both healthcare professionals, patients, members of the public etc)

In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to have written at least 2,000 words of the literature review – this hasn’t happened. The abstract screening took quite a long time, and then I had to go through the pile of screened papers to find full texts which was something I hadn’t factored in time-wise.

Systematic Review

This is the part of the thesis that I feel I’ve made the most progress with. In my last update I’d written a draft of the entire chapter without the discussion, and the document looked like this:

After my primary supervisor had taken a look at this, we decided that the results section needed to be rejigged a bit. The way I’d written it initially was in quite a traditional way, and it just wasn’t flowing as well as I wanted it to. After a few different ideas and conversations with my supervisor, we settled on a new way of presenting the data that made it much easier to follow, and cut down the word count too.

I then went on a writing retreat, where I focussed only on the systematic review chapter of the thesis. This was the most productive time I’ve spent on the thesis so far, and it’s really got me excited and enthusiastic to write the rest of it. During the 2 and a half day retreat I finished the results, and wrote a first draft of the discussion too – bearing in mind that I started the retreat with a blank page for the discussion, I was really happy with that.

This is what the chapter looks like at the moment:

It’s sitting at 33,496 words, and it’s gone to my primary supervisor for comments. This feels like a huge weight off my shoulders – obviously, the chapter will change after comments, and then probably change further down the line after more comments, but it’s really nice to have a big chunk of words on the page at this stage in the write up process.

Qualitative Study

As I said in my last thesis update post, the qualitative work is the part of the thesis that I’m most nervous about writing up. I still feel like that, but the structure of this part of the thesis is much more clear in my head now. I haven’t done any formal training in writing up qualitative research, but I read snippets of books on the subject, and of course papers reporting qualitative studies – after that it felt like I was reading in an effort to avoid writing, so I just needed to get started.

I have just about completed the first draft of a results chapter  for this section – though this needs splitting into 2 distinct parts, but there are words on the page and that’s good.

This is what my qualitative document looks like at the moment:

There’s 15,437 words there which is decent. Our grant funding for this part of my project runs out at the end of January, which is perfect timing as it requires us to submit a final report. I’ll be focussing on this report throughout January as it needs to be submitted on January 31st – this will give me a really good starting point for the rest of the qualitative chapter too.

Aims for the next 3 months
  • Literature review – Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.
  • Systematic review – I’m leaving this with my supervisor for at least the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at comments when I get them back and then re-assess when I’ll get to the edits. Hopefully the first round of edits will be back with me and completed within 3 months, but that might be pushing it.
  • Qualitative study – Get a full first draft together and off to my supervisor.
  • Attend another writing retreat – I’ve booked another one for the beginning of March, and I’d like to focus on the qualitative write up for this one.

Have any of you starting writing your thesis yet? If you’ve got any tips or resources that you’ve found helpful, please pass them on!

My First Writing Retreat

Last week I attended my first writing retreat. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found that the experience really helped with my confidence in terms of thesis writing, so I thought I’d explain what the retreat was like, where I went etc in case there are any soon to be thesis-writers reading this who would like to know more.

Who, Where and When

Myself and a group of other academic writers from various institutions across the UK; a really good mix of PhD students, post-docs and established researchers, with a diverse range of backgrounds too. The retreat itself was facilitated by Rowena Murray, she’s published a tonne of books on writing and runs writing retreats through her company, Anchorage Education, about once a month.

Retreats are usually based at the Black Bull Hotel in Gartmore, with attendees staying at the hotel or one of the surrounding guest houses. I stayed at Craigmore Guest House which is only a few minutes from the Black Bull Hotel. I was really glad that I was staying at the Guest House – purely because it forced me to get up and get ready earlier, meaning by the time I’d got to the Black Bull Hotel I was properly awake (I am very much not a morning person!).

The retreat started on Wednesday evening (6th December), which meant we got an hour of writing in before a long day on the Thursday. We finished on Friday afternoon at about 4pm. Honestly, that was long enough I think. My head was feeling a bit mushy because of the amount of concentration that writing requires, and I was glad it was the weekend – having a retreat towards the end of the working week also meant that I went into the weekend feeling like I’d achieved a lot, could have a guilt-free break, and then get back to work again on Monday.

What
Retreat programme, taken from the Anchorage Education website.

Rowena’s writing retreats are structured, they have a very clear programme and we don’t stray from that. At first this intimidated me; I was thinking ‘what if I don’t feel like writing?’ ‘what if I need to look something up?’ ‘what happens if I run out of things to write?’. By the end, I was totally converted, and plan to bring some of that structure to my thesis writing over the next few months.

Before I went to the retreat I had planned out what I wanted to achieve, I’d downloaded a squillion papers and resources because we were told that the wifi would be patchy – also, you’re not allowed to use wifi when you’re in the ‘typing pool’ (i.e. where you sit during your writing slots), so took a tonne of stuff with me in case I got stuck and needed some inspiration. In the end I didn’t use many of the papers I’d brought with me; I read a few in the evenings so that I felt more prepared for the following day’s writing, but ultimately the writing slots were brilliant for doing just that, writing. I didn’t find that I wanted to look up references or double check facts – I simply wrote, and added comments or notes where I wanted to check things later. This method meant that I got much more done than I thought I would; when I’m at home or work I tend to write for a bit, stop and check something, and then write a bit more, editing as I go. This retreat demonstrated that my previous way of working was much less productive than I had ever thought possible.

The hour-long writing slot on day 1 was particularly useful as it set the tone for the rest of the retreat. It also showed me what I needed to prepare for the following day – day 2 is a much longer day so it’s important to have clear goals set out.

The typing pool – a desk, lamp and charging points for each attendee.

As well as this practice of consistently writing for an hour or an hour and a half at a time, we were told to set very clear goals – goals based on words; number of new words, number of edited words etc. I was largely aiming to generate new words for the discussion of my systematic review, and came away with 5,500 words more than I arrived with. Without recording my word count at the end of each session I doubt that would’ve happened. More words is great, but they were high quality words too (I think anyway, we’ll see what my supervisor thinks!) – because I was sitting there with no distractions, I felt that I could make connections and get to grips with my data much better than I had done previously. The entire process actually made me much more confident in myself. Data analysis and discussion writing is the bit of my thesis that I was feeling most insecure about, but now I feel like I’ll actually be able to do it, which is good considering my hand in date of next June.

A walk to Gartmore House on Day 1.

The way I’ve described the retreat so far makes it sound as if it was all work and no play! Luckily that wasn’t the case, Rowena structured the retreat so that we had defined breaks and time for walks etc too which I think added to how productive we were in the writing slots.

Overall, I found the writing retreat to be exactly the boost I needed to get going with my thesis. The setting was beautiful, accommodation was comfortable, and the hotel staff were absolutely brilliant. We were treated to delicious food at every break time, and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about other things like food or chores made the process of writing much more enjoyable. I’m already looking at dates for my next retreat and would highly recommend looking into writing retreats if you’re feeling a bit stuck and need to give yourself some headspace for writing.

 

 

Thesis Update – T-Minus 12 Months

I’m going into my final year as a PhD student; it’s 1 year until I hand in my thesis. I’ve been working on my project for 2 years. On one hand it feels like I’ve been working in my department and with my current colleagues for much longer, but on the other it feels like I’ve been here for 5 minutes. Having 1 year to go until hand in has made this PhD thing a lot more real. That sounds stupid – of course it’s real, I’ve been turning up to work for 2 years and learning more and more about clinical trials methodology, but starting to write the thesis is making all of that settle in.

I thought I’d do a few blog posts to track my progress with thesis writing. Primarily I think this will be a nice thing to look back on after the whole process is over, though I also hope these posts are helpful to those who aren’t yet at the writing up stage, or those who are writing up alongside me.

So, how far have I got?

Structure

About 6 months ago I wrote out a skeleton structure – this included chapter titles, headings, and notes/pieces of text that I had from other documents.

For me, this process has been invaluable. I feel much more relaxed with this skeleton structure than I did without it; I know what I need to do, and what text needs to go where. It’s as if I’ve created a template of how I’ll write the thesis in the end, and that’s very comforting when you’ve got the task of writing such a huge document ahead of you.

Literature Review

The literature review is the thing I’ve been dreading most about the thesis. I read a lot, and I feel well informed about my topic and the wider literature around it, but the task of demonstrating that feels both daunting and honestly, kind of boring. I’ve put the literature review off for long enough now, and I’m aiming to make a decent dent in it over the summer months. So far I’ve worked with the Information Specialist that’s based in my Unit to create a search strategy, and I’ve got all the sections and headings sketched out. Now it’s a case of screening the results of that search (~4,000 abstracts!), putting the relevant results into the right headings, and then knitting everything together. Sounds simple right? Probably not. I think this will be the bit of the thesis that takes the longest, largely because I keep trying to avoid it.

Systematic Review

The best thing my supervisors did when I was planning my systematic review, was encourage me to get the protocol published – I would 100% recommend you do this if you can. It meant I had to really think about what I was going to do, and keep a written record of when, why and how each decision was made throughout the process. I published my protocol this time last year, which also gave me a huge confidence boost, and a much-needed win in the middle of the PhD – often a time period that gets lost.

Now I’ve made a decent dent in the writing up of my results. I’ve sent the first draft of my systematic review chapter (without discussion) to my primary supervisor for him to have a look over, so hopefully over the next few months I’ll be able to edit that and then write the discussion for it. After that I’ll have a chapter done and tied up, and I can then work on reformatting and editing that chapter to generate the final systematic review paper before my PhD is finished.

Side note – zooming out of really big Word documents always makes me realise how much I’ve actually done, so I do this pretty often to ensure I don’t get lost within the pages of edits and text I’m finding tricky to write.

Qualitative Study

My qualitative study is the thing I’m most nervous about writing up – I’ve never written up qualitative findings before so I’m thinking it’s going to be a case of write, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, write some more, edit again, etc. That said, I think once I get to grips with this chapter I’ll really enjoy writing it; I need to get over the initial hurdle first and allow myself to write some rubbish without feeling too proud. The qualitative component of my PhD project is the thing I enjoyed doing the most, I loved being able to get away from my desk and go out to speak to people. It made the reasoning behind my project much more real, and confirmed to me (again..) that my work is valuable. As a PhD student you sometimes need those confirmations, and qualitative research allowed me to see how my work will make a difference to people once it’s complete, published and disseminated.

Aims for the next 6 months
  • Literature review – get all of the abstracts screened and the relevant references sorted into the headings I’ve already sketched out, write at least 2,000 words (whether these make it into the final thesis is irrelevant – I just need words to start with, I can edit and tweak that text once I’ve got a starting point).
  • Systematic review – get this finished and make a start on pulling a paper together out of it.
  • Qualitative study – seek out some training on writing up qualitative findings (I suspect this will be useful in terms of a confidence boost, and will force me to start writing), and then make a start.
  • I am also on the look out for a PhD writing retreat around December/January time. The prospect of moving away from my desk, inbox and phone is strange to think about, but I think I could make some real progress with thesis writing towards the end of 2017/start of 2018. That will then set me up well for the final 6-month push before hand-in.

Have any of you starting writing your thesis yet? If you’ve got any tips or resources that you’ve found helpful, please pass them on!