Why finding a buddy is one of the most important things you can do during your PhD

This blog post was inspired by the Research Student Blog Challenge #HDRblog15. The Challenge is an initiative created by the édu flâneuse that encourages research students to share their experiences.  Huge thanks to the édu flâneuse for inspiring us to write this post. 

We are Elaine and Rachel and we are PhDBuds. Pals, comrades, mates – call it what you will. But we quite like PhDBuds. Quite frankly, we are the Thelma & Louise of the PhD world. In this post, we share our story and set out the benefits of having a buddy during your PhD.

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Elaine 

Someone once asked me to describe my ideal working space. I carefully outlined the shape and size of the room, the beautiful wooden bookcase along one wall, the scatter cushions and other soft furnishings, and the small table with a pot of herbal tea gently steaming in the corner. My questioner smiled. “Is this room going to have a door?”, they asked. “Do I have to have one?”, came my reply.

I suppose the point of sharing this anecdote is to illustrate that I am not someone who needs to be surrounded by people.  Given the option, I’m perfectly happy getting along with things by myself. So last year when I applied to be on a Professional Doctorate programme I wasn’t troubled when family and friends talked of long hours ‘doing the PhD’ by myself.  After all, wasn’t that what doctoral study was all about? Wasn’t I supposed to be the lone researcher on a journey of discovery, dedicated to making my original contribution?

Well, then I met Rachel. And I found myself talking to her about the PhD. And she talked back. And then I talked some more. And so did she. And from that point on we’ve been each other’s ‘go to’ person for all things PhD. I find it fascinating that we are at completely different points in our careers, and we have completely different life goals. In fact we are on completely different PhD programmes. And Rachel is well into her PhD, whilst I’m just at the proposal stage. But we both face the same challenges and frustrations. And we both want someone to yell ‘yay!’ really loudly in our face when we’re excited about something. Quite a lot of what we talk about isn’t related to the content of our PhDs at all. We swap writing and time management techniques. We share war stories about publishing.

And then there’s the little things that really count. Like the other day when I couldn’t find a reference and as if by magic Rachel swooshed into my office, pen drive in hand with a massive list of references a mere 10 minutes after my slightly pathetic email. She works ludicrously hard and is the first person to put her hand up when people need help.  I felt completely privileged that she took the time out of her day, at the drop of a hat, to walk over to my office to help me. Family and friends are awesome and kind and politely listen when you’re harking on about a journal’s impact factor. But they can’t do things like that.

Rachel 

I love my PhD. I tell myself this every day. Some days this is very true and I say it with a grin, because I do love what I do. Some days I say to remind myself that it is true. These are the hard days which everyone faces during their doctorate, regardless of what course you are on. When I found out I had been chosen for my PhD my first thoughts were of graduation, changing my passport to say ‘Dr Rachel Dunn’ and flying all over the world to attend conferences. These things will happen eventually, but I don’t think I really thought about the journey it would take me on to get there.

The first year into my PhD has been successful and a learning curve. I have had papers accepted, presented at many conferences and had some invaluable teaching experience. I have also had people really hate my papers, grant rejections and disagreements with my chosen methodology. And this is hard. When you love something so much and it occupies your every free thought, you want to protect it and yourself.

This was when I realised that I can’t go through this alone and Elaine became a big part of my support group. Even though I am further on in my PhD, Elaine has been publishing for years, is an amazing teacher and, quite frankly, works her ass off! I don’t think I have ever been so inspired and influenced by someone who is always willing to listen to my woes. Elaine gives me so much guidance on every aspect of my life. It isn’t just about which journals I should publish in, how to approach certain situations and what else I can be doing to raise my research profile. She listens to me when I feel like I’m drowning with work, helping me to prioritise what is important. She helps me with my personal life, which can often feel like a disaster during the PhD journey! Elaine is just there for me and I feel very lucky. I aim to have a career as rich as hers and I know Elaine wants that for me also.

So, on the days when I have to remind myself that I love my PhD, I no longer feel alone. I have Elaine to help remind me and I help to remind her. If you are doing a PhD and you don’t have an Elaine, get one!

How I use Scrivener for academic writing

It’s been 6 months since I made the switch to Scrivener. Since then I’ve used it to write two journal articles and a book chapter.  It has made an amazing difference to the way that I write. But more significantly, it has caused a tangible sea-change in the way that I feel when I sit down to write. Because when I open the programme, whether at home or at work, Scrivener takes me straight to the place that I was when I last closed it down. Like an old friend, there is my (usually really badly formed) last sentence waiting there for me. “Come back in!”, it yells. “You’re going to say something really clever today!”. “Now you’ve had a little time away, just think what you can write today!”. This, along with the other features I’ve listed below, makes me emotionally tied to Scrivener. I actively look forward to writing. I get a buzz when I open up the programme. I cannot say I ever felt this way about Word. Just thinking about the never ending scrolling gives me a headache.

Chunk up your life

My favourite thing about Scrivener is its core feature: chopping everything into chunks and letting you see the whole of your article at a glance.

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This is an article I’m writing at the moment. It’s about the ethical issues associated with autoethnography.

On the left you can see all of the sections which make up that article. I’ve got a section for my abstract. Then a section for my introduction. I then made another section for part of the article which focusses on the power of autoethnography. I started to write that section but found that it was getting messy and I was covering a number of issues. So I created a folder called ‘the power of autoethnography’. You can see that I then made three sub-sections underneath. So I can now go straight to the section on interpretivism if I like; I don’t need to scroll through a long ‘power of autoethnography’ section to get to it.

At this stage, I like to give my sections titles that mean something to me rather than use fancy academic language. I find it helps when you glance at that left hand side bar to have something snappy. With this article, I’ve got a section called “Great, but uhhhh” which is my way of saying ‘in principal this is a good idea, but I have a few issues with it’. I change them to something more appropriate later on when I’m near the final draft.

Sick of ‘draft 1’, ‘draft 2’, ‘final draft v3’? Me too 

I have loads of Word documents marked up as ‘draft x, version x’. Sometimes I put the date on, for a bit of variety. Sometime, I have a bad day and I give it an impossible-to-find-ever-again title. I hate to think of the hours that I’ve wasted trying to find an old version that contains a particular quotation or turn of phrase that I’ve deleted 10 drafts later.

When I first got Scrivener, I kept up this way of saving drafts. I went to File>Save As and saved things as ‘x article draft x [date]’.  This was wrong. I soon discovered the Snapshot feature, which you can find by going to Documents>Snapshots.

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If you click Take Snapshot, Scrivener does exactly that. It takes a photograph of where you are up to at that moment. You can name your Snapshots if you like, but you continue working in the same document.  If you want to go back to an earlier ‘draft’ you can ask Scrivener to show you your Snapshots and you can pick the one you want. I love this feature. I also love the old-school camera sound effect when you click on Take Snapshot!

Integrated writing tools

Instead of leaving the programme to find a synonym or search for something on Google (which will inevitably lead to looking at something not writing related), you can ask Scrivener to look things up for you. I use ‘Look Up in Thesaurus.com’ a lot.  It’s a small time saving device, but a useful one.

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Right on Target!

If you like to work to targets and also like to see your progress, then Scrivener’s Project Statistics tool is perfect for you. As you can see below, I decided that my target word count for the article should be 6000 words. Scrivener tells me how many words I have written, but there’s also a satisfying progress bar.  You can also set a session target e.g a target number of words for that particular writing session. This is helpful if you’ve committed to writing a certain number of words per day or have a similar writing goal.

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My only criticism is that the session target takes into account any deletions you make. So I might write 500 new words but also edit a different part of the article and subsequently delete 500 other words. Scrivener will tell me I’ve written 0 words. It would be useful if there was an ‘ignore edits’ option.

Citing and Referencing

You can link Scrivener with a number of different referencing managers. There are guides (on the Scrivener website and on YouTube) to help you to do this. I am still struggling with this feature. I haven’t given myself time to sit down and learn how to do it properly. However, I will do this because I’m determined to write my PhD thesis in Scrivener.

At the moment, I’m putting notes in the text to remind me where I’ve got something from (e.g Ellis, 2004: 65). I use Excel spreadsheets for all my literature reviews. I have a good system which means that I can find articles, quotations and page numbers pretty quickly. So when I convert my Scrivener file to Word, I then open up the referencing manager I use (EndNote) and start adding in the references properly in Word. That is working for 5000 word articles. But it won’t for the thesis. [Update – please see Jon Hickman’s amazing comment on referencing below!]

What are your experiences of using Scrivener? Are there any other features you’d like to know about?

Where’s the best place to write? Part 3: The Library

A small confession: I used to work at my university library. I was 16 and I got my first proper job as a Shelver. That’s right, I put returned books on shelves. Three times a week, after school. And I adored it.  Putting things in their rightful place, helping students find elusive texts and lining the books up so that they were straight – the perfect role for someone who loves organisation! If I was a superhero my super power would be “encyclopaedic knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System”.

Thus, you see, I am already pre-disposed to loving libraries. Which means I might be a little biased. However, this week I’ve discovered that – for me at least – writing in the library is best when you really want to concentrate.

I had two goals. To proof read a book chapter that I’d left alone for a week to rest. And to try to bring together an article that I felt was going in too many directions (and was already well over max. word count). I found a quiet space behind the book shelves and got my manuscripts out. I saw and heard no-one. I didn’t have a computer with me, and the nearest one just connected to the library catalogue, so no checking twitter at random. Pen at the ready I worked through both documents. Finished the book chapter and got down to some serious editing of the article.  This happened at a much greater speed that I expected. The intense quiet concentrated my mind. It was almost exam-like.

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Is it a cop out to say that different spaces are suited to different writing tasks? It feels a little weak to end on that note. But if this week has taught me anything, it’s that each writing space has a character, and you need to find the right writing goal that aligns to it. The Kitchen, which we started with, was right at that time because that’s where I was – at the start. I needed to be near familiar things, connected to my email and various documents (online and otherwise). An office away from the office. In The Cafe, I needed to be creative, decamp from the office and spin some ideas around until they broke free. The Library was right for consolidating all of that work. An oasis of and for quiet contemplation.

And so to the end of this mini-series on places to write. There are absolutely loads of locations beyond kitchen, cafe and library – and I’m looking forward to trying others out in the future – but for now this has been an interesting jaunt into alternative working spaces. Thanks for joining me on this journey. I’ve really enjoyed hearing about your favourite places and loved the links to other people’s blog posts. I’ll end with Pros and Cons as always, but I’ve come to believe that we each choose the right space for the right moment. What do you think?

Pros 

  • Peace and quiet. Spaces to hide away and get your head down.
  • Amazing staff. I couldn’t find a book when I was there. I didn’t really need it but asked a member of library staff. They could not have gone more out of their way to help me find it. Library staff are sent from heaven.
  • Near the office, so I got to pop in, check on things generally, help out with some tricky issues and catch up with colleagues.

Cons

Before and after my writing/editing session, I wandered for ages amongst the books. I couldn’t get enough of the sociology & psychology books, in particular. The feminism section was also hard to move away from. So many books! All looking so very interesting! I found myself noting down names of books that I thought my fellow PhD-ers might find interesting. I probably should have been writing. So if you’re a bit of a ‘book magpie’ like me, come ready with a plan of action or a strong will!