This week I cut up my thesis…

… Well, part of it.

So I’m not sure whether I was driven to this point through pure frustration or I had a moment of clarity but either way last weekend I took a pair of scissors to my latest chapter draft. I divided it into paragraphs, or the smallest unit I could without losing comprehensibility, and then began a process of marking each snippet as “main argument”, “tangent”, “background”, or “unknown”. I enjoyed picking colours (green, red, blue, and grey respectively) from my book of rainbow sticky tabs. Being away from the computer felt too good – was I deceiving myself? Surely this was just a novel way to procrastinate?

Actually, this process has yielded a breakthrough. Chopping the chapter into blocks of thought made it startlingly clear what was useful and what was guff. But once I’d got down to the core of my writing (green) I needed to make sure it was actually saying what I thought it was. This is where phase two comes in: take a post-it, summarise the point you are making in one or two sentences, and then stick this to the fragment. The hardest part of this was being honest about what I’d actually written, which sometimes had no bearing on what I had wanted to say. I took care not to treat the bits in order as I didn’t want to be filling in the gaps in my mind.

Now I’m entering phase three. My plan is to take the pieces and use their post-it-summaries to write an outline of what I currently have. This should then be added to and refined to form a very detailed plan. I’ll only then go back to the laptop, writing and refining with the argument and structure at the forefront. After that I will return to the blue, red, and grey and assess whether they are still relevant to the chapter as it then stands.

I’d be really interested to know if anyone else has taken a similar/similarly crazy approach to redrafting, particularly if it involves getting away from the computer. Before tearing it apart I was frustrated and bored by this chapter. Now I’m excited to get back to what I wanted to say.

Constructive Criticism Overload

Where did year two go? Seriously, 2015, what happened?

It has been over a year since my last post so I thought I’d read through previous ones to try to remind myself what the early days of the PhD experience were like. Surprisingly, my outlook hasn’t changed much. I still think it’s easy to be overwhelmed by academic guilt, I’m still resorting to baking as stress relief, and I still spend way too much time with the over-sixties.

Yet some things have changed. I’m now in my third (but probably not final) year. This means the money is soon to run out. I’ve survived my first term teaching and done a hell of a lot of undergrad marking, much to the detriment of my thesis but to the benefit of my bank balance. I think I’ve grown. I think.

But around Christmas I began to feel lost. I began to lose hope that I could do this thing called a doctorate. This feeling has been slowly eating at me since then, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. My diagnosis? Constructive Criticism Overload: CCO. Stuff has been moving so fast in 2016 – it’s like someone stepped on the accelerator of the life and I missed my stop. During this time I’ve written 40,000 words and taught 10 seminars and one lecture. All of these things have been under observation: out in the open to be picked apart. Don’t get me wrong, my supervisor, teaching peers, and even some of my students, have been really good at giving solid advice on how I can improve. It’s just after the second teaching observation, or the 100 page draft with comments scribbled all over it, even the kindest piece of advice can make you feel raw. I’m tired. Right now I just don’t want to be challenged or grow or improve: I want to stay in this state for a while.

The end of term and Easter bank holiday have been a good way of doing this. Today, I finally cleaned the bathroom and filed away all the crap that had accumulated since the new year. Yesterday, I went clothes shopping with my mom (don’t correct me – she’s from the midlands). Tomorrow, I’m going to go to the supermarket and get some decent food for the house. It’s taken a while, but I’m beginning to feel like I might be coming out the other side of the CCO and may even pick up the chapter draft I’ve been ignoring for a couple of weeks. A good PhD friend also told me she isn’t ready to get back to work yet, and it feels good to have a co-conspirator. Hope is returning.

I suppose the point of this post is to say that it’s ok to stop pushing yourself every once in a while. In a culture where we are constantly told we need to be thinking out the next step, the next way we can improve, we have the choice to say no. You can choose to go to bed early, to take that day off, and that doesn’t make you weak. Challenging yourself is good, but do it too much and all it brings is stress. The internet is full of those PhD students who burn out before the end, so my third year resolution is to make sure I don’t become one of them. Watch this space.