by Dr. Jem Tosh
I'm a very efficient person. People who know me well, know that my wardrobe will not only be really organized, it will be colour coded, categorised by season, and designed to make sure that no space goes wasted. My home is what tetris would look like if you played it with furniture instead of brightly coloured shapes.
I don't like wasting things, whether it's time, old clothing, or writing. When I began my PhD, I put so much effort into writing that I was afraid I would spend three years working on the biggest project I had ever done, and it would sit on a shelf gathering dust - unread.
I vowed to publish every single bit of it - and I did. Today I submitted the final (accepted) version of the very last section of my thesis to be published. Every chapter is either already published, or in press. In a busy three years, it has become three journal articles, three book chapters, and one book. This aim, however, wasn't only due to my fear. It was also a result of some great advice that I received from my supervisors along the way. So, for those just starting out on their PhD, here are some of the things that my supervisors told me that had the biggest impact on my work, and my approach to publishing.
Jump right in
When I started my PhD I was *really* intimidated. I had dabbled in discourse analysis for my undergraduate degree and published a summary of that work, but I was far from confident in using it (is anyone?). I remember sitting in my supervisor's office, talking about methodology and trying to get my head around the new texts I was reading, and wondering if I would ever understand it. My supervisor, the lovely Erica Burman, suggested 'jumping right in' with a small project and learning while doing. Alongside reading and planning, she suggested completing a smaller, more focused project - I guess you could call it a pilot project if you're more positivistically minded.
Jumping right in was great for me. Not only did it give me the chance to apply the theory and have an experience that I could reflect on - it was a huge confidence boost right when I needed it. In a few months the small and focused project was complete and I had a much better idea of what the big picture would look like in the end, and more importantly, I was beginning to believe that I could do it.
I've had this piece of advice a few times, but alongside this 'jumping in', my supervisor advised me to start writing right away. At the very beginning of my PhD I produced a contents page and draft chapter outlines, and I revisited them over and over as the project developed. I wrote up my small focused project as I was completing it - the literature review became the introduction to chapter two and so on. This meant that within the first six months of my PhD one of my sub-projects had been completed and I had a draft thesis chapter.
...I had a much better idea of what the big picture would look like in the end, and more importantly, I was beginning to believe that I could do it.
Sure, that chapter would change a lot over the three years, but a draft chapter is better than no chapter. As my students well know, I actively encourage them to send 'crap drafts' because at least you have started, and improving a draft is better/easier than starting one from scratch. It also helps you to get over the anxiety that a blank page (or document) can cause. I also encourage students to get their points on the screen - just type. Don't use punctuation, don't go back and correct a typo - just go for it and you'll be amazed at how much you already know about how you want the piece to look - the structure, the main points, and the areas you need to read up on more. Turn your back on perfectionism, and just write.
During my undergraduate studies my supervisor let me in on a little secret. The way to success in psychology/academia is not some superior innate intellectual ability - but persistence. Whether this means reading that same text over and over until you finally understand even just a little bit of it (progress is progress, no matter how small), or finally getting that damn paper accepted, the key is persistence.
I describe myself as a writer, so it might be surprising to know that I struggled with writing all through school and college. The move from Northern Ireland to England (and back) during my childhood meant that, while the words translated, the grammar didn't always quite match up. I was labelled early on as 'bad at English' and avoided writing as much as possible (taking Art, Computers and Maths A-Levels).
Turn your back on perfectionism, and just write.
When I started university I knew that to be successful at my degree in psychology, I would have to figure out this whole 'writing an essay' thing. I began writing, and getting feedback, and I never stopped. Now I love to write and miss it when I don't have the time to put my thoughts down on paper (or a keyboard).
During my PhD, I began thinking of publishing like acting. How many auditions do actors go through before they finally get a part? How much rejection do they have to listen to before they 'break through'? What they don't really tell you when you start out seeking a career in academia, is that publishing is like the part of the iceberg you see, and rejection is the part that you don't. It's just a part of the job. That doesn't mean that it's easy, or that your confidence won't get a hefty knock - but it means don't give up.
When my first paper got rejected my supervisor told me to read the reviews and then put them in a drawer for a while. Come back to it later. At that second reading, I was told to take notes. Make a list of the feedback that is useful (because lets face it there are too many reviewer 2's out there) and ditch the rest. Whatever is unhelpful - such as feedback from someone who doesn't really understand your method, disciplinary differences of opinion, or well-known interdisciplinary debates that mean your perspective is just as valid even though it contradicts the reviewer - discard them. Make those changes that turn your paper into an even better version of itself and either send it back to the editor explaining why you only made some changes (if they asked you to re-submit), or send it somewhere else.
...publishing is like the part of the iceberg you see, and rejection is the part that you don't.
Papers get rejected all the time. Published papers have been rejected elsewhere. Rejection is a part of publishing. So, if you really want that thesis published, be persistent.
- If you need some motivation, submit an abstract to a conference, special issue, or a call for papers of any kind. Nothing gets you writing faster than an impending deadline.
- If you don't know what to write in a section yet, work out how many words it should have. This helps your chapter/paper stay balanced (rather than, say, having a really long introduction and a short discussion) and it saves you time. There's no point trying to summarise 1,000 papers for a section that's only going to be 300 words long. Focus your time and energy on those areas that need it more.