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I keep getting phonecalls from my family asking if I am okay now that I have started my PhD and am I really ready to go back. I think ‘what on earth are they on about?’ But then they tell me that, the last time they knew anything about my PhD status is via my blog posts and the last few have been a bit grim, oh my!

A few weeks ago I had to attend a session with the student support team. In the room there was a proper professional psychiatrist with an NHS lanyard! This made me a bit worried because I didn’t think I had a proper serious condition that needed a psychiatrist and I suddenly felt stigma like that Goffman fella went on about. However, they were very impressed and satisfied with all that I had achieved to prepare myself for my return. The psychiatrist said that sometimes they have students coming to the ‘back to work’ meeting who say they want to come back, but have not actually done any work to reflect on what their issues were or make sure they have support in place to stop their stress or anxiety or whatever ruining their experience again.

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Shake it all about: Signs in the student wellbeing offices

I was really happy that all that I had done was the right thing and celebrated my official stamp of approval to return with a suitably branded new rucksack so that I feel like a proper legitimate member of the UCL IOE community. Also, it is a great bag because I can fit two, yes two, flasks in for coffee and another one for homemade soup for my London days:

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Cheeky Thermos says: ‘Happy to help!’

So what did I do to ‘recover’? Well I am not sure exactly. Mainly I suppose it is just taking time out to reflect, listen to other people’s advice(thanks everyone!) and just be more open and honest about one’s feelings. I did have counselling for 7 weeks leading up to the interruption, so I just continued building on that. I now see the PhD as a task. And I can do this task. Just like I am amazing at tasks such as tidying, cleaning, organising my haversack and creating magnificent art sculptures for my new clean and tidy study (see photo below).

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Before: What the…?!

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After: Wonderful! (no, it does not look like ‘The Ring’)

This probably isn’t handy advice for other PhD students struggling as not everyone is as amazing at cleaning and organising or art like I am (see how my self-hatred has turned into the opposite! Oh dear, have I developed a disorder to whatever that turnip Donald Trump has). But you must be pretty amazing at something – just try and apply that skill to the PhD.

I would also recommend also reading this book: Your PhD Coach. It has some handy exercises.

 

 

 

 

 

Additionally, my university has an online and telephone counselling service, so I feel like there is support there if I need it and that is comforting. I almost messaged them last week (my first week back) because I was in procrastination to the max mode. But I have decided to wait a bit because it is only week 2 and this is probably just the normal settling in process. I have a new temporary part time admin job (for Luton International Carnival) and need to settle into that, plus I need to get back into the swing of things in general.

So that’s all okay. I am not scared or embarrassed to admit I need help nor to ask for it. In fact I am quite intrigued to see how the online counselling session works. Can I just message them and say ‘help! I can’t stop cleaning my toilet’ when I have a procrastination attack? I’ll let you know.

Finally I have support of my writing chums and a Saturday study buddy. At least once a month I’ll join in our ‘Shut up and Write’ marathons which are 4 days of intense writing. I have booked them all in my diary and will use them to structure the rest of the month.

I think the key really is focus, a bit of planning, a tidy organised workspace and working on one’s self-confidence. Instead of spending a day or two recovering from when my demons attack me, now if they come, I just bat them away and it might only take 5 minutes or sometimes an hour, to recover from the negative thinking. I am still quite bad at procrastination and really need to work on that. However, right now my toilet is filthy and I don’t have an urge to clean it. Now that’s pretty good progress.

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Up until quite recently, I was involved in research to do with the impact of writing retreats on academic identity and productivity. My colleague and I wrote a paper which provided a ‘how to’ guide on how to set up a writing retreat (pre-publication version available here) in order to create the correct atmosphere for a sense of community and productivity for novice researchers.

What we don’t look at in our research is how to write well – the technicalities and what it is that makes for a good writer.

I don’t think I am a very good academic writer and I am not a very good speaker either but these are two things that you are assessed on and which eventually means you earn a doctorate. But can this change? Can you learn how to become a good academic writer? I hope so.

I have a book by Patricia Goodson called ‘Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive and powerful writing.’

Here is the content outline:

Chapter 1. Get Ready to Practice
Part I. Practice Becoming a Productive Academic Writer
Chapter 2. Establish and Maintain the “Write” Habit
Chapter 3. Practice Building Academic Vocabulary
Chapter 4. Polish the Grammar
Chapter 5. Get Feedback
Chapter 6. Edit and Proofread
Part II. Practice Writing Sections of Journal Articles, Research Reports, and Grant Applications
Chapter 7. Exercises for Writing Introductions, Purpose Statements, or Specific Aims Sections
Chapter 8. Exercises for Writing the Methods Section
Chapter 9. Exercises for Writing the Results/Findings Section
Chapter 10. Exercises for Writing Discussion or Conclusion Section
Chapter 11. Exercise for Writing Abstracts
Afterword
Appendix: Additional Resources
Author Index
Subject Index

I will have a go at these. Much of the literature tends to be about how to improve productivity and avoid writer’s block – there is no point in producing lots of stuff that is quite frankly rubbish and not at a high standard. I am not quite sure exactly what my problems are just yet, but my mum who used to proof-read my work seemed to suggest there was much room for improvement! And as mentioned before, I don’t feel like I have a very large vocabulary which I think is a problem for speaking and writing.

Goodson suggests that like an instrument you need to practice. Just like my steelpan I suppose, in three years of being in the band I am much better than I used to be and am now even teaching others how to play. So perhaps this can happen with writing?

 

© Annika Coughlin 2014

Last year before leaving to do this PhD, I worked in an office that had the biggest most industrial printer around. So when it came to writing my research proposal for the PhD I just did a quick literature search (just using search term ‘mature students’) and printed off around 50 articles on this magnificent machine. This big pile of journal articles had been hanging around on my desk ever since, for coming up to a year now, and since I started my PhD I have been lost as to where to start reading and what to read and getting terribly anxious about not doing any reading. But the answer has been staring me in the face all this time.

After reading Jessica Hayton’s blog where she discusses that people suggest a few articles and one book a week is what you should be aiming for, then I felt inspired to set myself a challenge, starting with these printed articles.

I decided to read 2 articles a day and try to get through a book a week for the whole of January.

I went to Sainsbury’s where they have quite a nice little stationery collection and got a jaunty red ring binder, some page dividers and some reduced priced Post-it notes. I also got a reduced priced rainbow trout and made a delightful experimental cous cous dish, but that’s another story.

I chose at random 14 papers and put them in the ring binder separating each batch of 14 by a page divider to indicate each week. Then when I read the papers I write a few notes throughout and also on the front page (just key points from the article and how it might be useful (or not) for my project) and put the date on it when I had read it. I also put a little green dot on it if the article is also in my Endnote account. I may also invest in some gold star stickers if the article was mind blowing and really relevant. Or perhaps a gold ring binder to put them in… we shall see. Here is a pic of my system, the blue post-it note on the top has my monthly target/plan written on it so I don’t forget.

Ring-binder reading regime  (p.s. curtain panel system from IKEA)

Ring-binder reading regime
(p.s. curtain panel system in background from IKEA)

I am reading the articles quickly as the aim of this exercise is to get an overall picture of what people are researching and writing about and to discover key words and themes. I will then do a proper literature search starting in Feb. In Feb I won’t print out every single article, probably just the front page of each (or first four pages, but double sided and two to a page so it is just one piece of paper) and read online instead (unless they get gold star status). But will still use the ring binder method as I think it is good to have something in print, even if just the first page just in case all the computer files go missing etc.

Regarding books, I will start with a book my second supervisor wrote (luckily it is nice and slim) and then move to other books that seem relevant from there…… in time the RRR (ring-binder reading regime) will evolve into something quite perfect I am sure.

(c) Annika Coughlin 2014

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