little by little, brick by brick

After Friday’s rather angsty post about feeling unsettled and unsure about my work … I’m pleased to say that I now feel vastly better. I feel more in control, although little may have changed to the average onlooker! Over the weekend, I’ve:

  • Assessed various different notetaking tools, including Evernote, Onenote, Readcube, and Mendeley. I’ve not truly been happy with any of them, or rather, I’ve not been happy with how my current laptop set up is able to handle them (i.e. not very well, very slow – and thats with just a few PDFs loaded). That may change when and if I get my new computer, but I have to make the decision now for the next three years. I also feel that with these tools there’s a certain level of redundancy – I’d be typing bibliographic information into RefWorks, into a word document, and into this – its one layer of typing too many.
  • At the same time, I’ve also revised my understanding of what I think I should be achieving right now. This is partly prompted by an article of Pat Thomson’s over on Patter, the rather timely and well titled – ‘Can you do too much reading’. One very specific paragraph in there really spoke to me and made me realise that at this point, it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about taking copious notes on all the secondary literature, that’s pointless, slow and cumbersome. Rather, it’s about reading widely, jotting down the occasional note if it’s really important, but otherwise, its about recording your reactions to the material. Do I agree with them? Do I think they’ve proved their point? Are they talking rubbish, left something out? Have I spotted a gap? What’s the theme? How does this work with my project, my ideas? The specific paragraph from Thomson’s article begins: ‘Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field.’ I feel it’s so critical I’ve copied it onto a post-it note that will eventually find a place on the wall above my desk which is where all the really critical stuff goes (and I’m very selective about what goes up there).

So, put those two together, and a suggestion from a friend on FB, means that instead I’m going all luddite and doing it with good old pen and paper. I’m going to be using a B5 notebook from Black and Red which is split into two columns, so that I can use the double-entry notetaking method (there’s a video here which is rather good on that method), and usefully, has the pages numbered, as well as a space for the date at the top. The time may come, later, for more indepth notetaking and for that I may resort to more technological methods, but we’ll see. I know one person who built an entire notetaking system for her PhD within MS Access, which I’m full of admiration for! But the handwritten books have another advantage: I can do them anywhere, as long as I have the book, a pen, and something to read, which helps with my current, rather on-the-go life.

I’ve also started something I’ve been putting off for a while, writing in my PhD journal. This is an A4 sized book, which feels massive and beautiful and clean (fellow stationery aficionados will understand this) and I’ve not wanted to write in it for fear of spoiling it, but I’ve hoiked myself up by the chinstraps this afternoon and bravely put pen to paper! This book is intended to manage the entire PhD: it has the nuts n bolts of information about the various deadlines I have to meet in the front, so I can check at a glance if I’m on course with something, as well as a research diary and a section of basic information about each and every parish in Herefordshire. I have a feeling this journal may well be worth its weight in gold by the time I finish the PhD, at least to me.

I’ve also sort of cleaned up my desk a little, although I suspect I may need to wait till the Christmas break to have a really good go at it. I did sort out some of the paperwork and coursework I’ve been sticking into a pile; sorted them into groups and filed them away in lever arch files so it all feels a bit better. That, coupled with sorting out my planning system a bit more means I feel much more in control of things ahead of the week to come. Lets hope I maintain it.

Next week I’ve more time to do the things I should be doing (reading and writing) and I hope I can make some serious inroads into the work that I should be doing. If I can do that, I think it will vastly improve my situation, and really contribute to building that foundation I was worrying about on Friday. It’s not much of a foundation yet. Maybe the foundation of the foundation. But it’s getting there, slowly!

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building a foundation

Still struggling to find my feet a bit. Not in the sense of knowing what I’m supposed to do – that, I’m very clear on – but in the sense of feeling as though I’m doing everything but what I’m meant to be doing (reading) and just not having time to think very much at all. I just feel like I’m staggering from one deadline to another, one meeting and class to another. And the days are slipping by so fast, its frightening.

I must be doing something right though – my supervisory team have made it clear that they’re happy with what I’m doing so clearly this feeling of not quite being able to get my feet underneath me isn’t perceptible to those around me. I just don’t feel quite grounded. A bit like this:

bambi_on_the_ice

That, of course, is from Bambi (1942), but it is how I feel – as though at any moment I’m going to fall flat on my backside in a spectacular and hugely embarrassing fashion. And this morning, after an incredibly frustrating day yesterday (with just two bright spots in the whole day), I resolved that something has GOT to change.

When I first returned to studying, six years ago, every time I hit a hurdle, I’d vow: ‘work smarter, not harder’. Logically, I knew that each time I found something difficult, while hard work might be the answer, that could not continue exponentially. There are only so many hours available in the day for studying, after all, even if you work full time at it – and studying every waking moment is neither desirable, healthy, or even productive. Hence; work smarter, not harder. Largely, that’s worked. It’s like I’ll periodically hit a cliff, work harder for a bit while I figure out how to get over the cliff, in other words, learn something new. I’d then find a new plateau, maybe work a little harder while I mastered the new skill and got to grips with wielding a new tool with more confidence and flexibility, but soon, I’d be back at my usual level of actual working hours and effort. I wouldn’t be working that many hours more than before I’d hit the cliff, I’d just be working differently. Smarter, not harder.

That’s what I think is happening now: I think I’m hitting another cliff.

In some ways, it’s about due. Again, logically, each time you step up to a new level of course (i.e. from diploma to BA, BA to MA, MA to PhD) you’re learning new skills, new ways of studying, there’s going to be a series of cliffs, right? That’s the learning curve. And since I’ve just started the PhD… well, a cliff is about due. Not that that’s much consolation, when you’re at the bottom of the cliff looking up – although right now, said cliff feels rather intimidating – Beachy Head sized!

And in feeling so very unbalanced, unsettled, I’ve realised at least part of what it is that is making me feel that way – I don’t have a foundation, a routine. I’m rushing from post to pillar, class to class, my study base is at home, where I have my own study, my own space, but I’m hardly there at the moment. And while I’m normally very organised, with a to-do list in my journal (done Bulletjournal style), it’s not helping me to feel in control and organised. My study, too, is a mess – piles of paper everywhere, books scattered around, no sense of organisation. I have no sense of routine – my daily grind has, in the last month, changed completely from what it has been for the last 18 months (7.30, take partner to station, get home at 8am, start work. 6pm stop work to go to station to collect partner. Now, with his change of job, it’s all over the place), and I am very definitely someone who needs a routine. Perhaps its no wonder that I feel so unstabilised. The base of the PhD, the foundation, just doesn’t feel like it’s there at the moment.

This sense of being out of control, on rocky, or slippery ground is illusionary, I’m sure. Although the upheaval around the structure of my days will continue for a few months yet, I can perhaps try to institute some kind of routine outside of the upheaval, which might help. Tidying my desk and sorting out some of the paper piles will definitely help! I have to make some decisions on the administrative methodology of how I’m going to work, and STICK to them (e.g. bibliographic software and annotated/notetaking software vs printed copies and journals for secondary material). I’ve established and kept to a paper filing system which somewhat mirrors my email and computer file structure, thankfully, so that doesn’t need sorting out. I’ve a quiet weekend this weekend. I think some time at my desk, some time tidying up, some time sorting things out will help a great deal. See if I can build a foundation, or something firmer from which to go for the next few weeks. See if I can feel – hopefully – just a tad more stable and settled.

balance

Just over two weeks have flown by since I last blogged, oh-so-confidently, that I thought things were beginning to settle down. Well.. they are. And they aren’t.

See, in all the advisory reading I did about embarking on a PhD, one idea chimed across the board – that the next three (or four) years would absolutely fly by, and that while 3 years sounds like absolutely ages and ages to research anything, in reality, it won’t feel that way. After waking up to find that two weeks have gone in the blink of an eye I very much fear I might wake up next Wednesday to find that the final submission deadline is upon me. Ulp. Continue reading