Academia is a great place for being judged on outputs, and I’m not just referring to the kind of output relevant to the REF. But, be it papers written, worked examples provided, grants submitted or students tutored, we are expected to deliver something tangible. Students tackling their PhD projects, however, basically have just one output they want, namely a completed thesis. This may seem like one huge, monolithic, crushing entity; the closer the submission date approaches the more terrifying and unattainable this object may seem. I have read a variety of posts recently from PhD students struggling with the task, feeling overwhelmed and somewhat got down. Of these let me just point you in the direction of one from squirreledthoughts who bemoans the fact that (s)he doesn’t feel (s)he’s productive and that time is slipping by – although (s)he’s only in their 1st year. So let me reassure him/her and those in the same boat, that efficiency can be something of an illusion.
Squirrelthoughts specifically referred to my earlier post in which I discussed the need for academics to be able to multi-task and do many things in parallel. As I said there, that is a huge ask particularly as you try to tackle some of these activities for the first time upon setting out as an independent researcher. But the plus side of this is that it means that if you are struggling with Task A, there are always Tasks B, C, D and so on ad infinitum which you can try to get on with instead. If you really hit a brick wall with writing that grant proposal, then you can feel virtuous by responding to the emails from confused students on your lecture course or refereeing someone else’s paper. You can hide in the library and try to gather ideas for next summer’s exam questions or you can virtuously read the committee paperwork for one of the committees onto which you’ve been co-opted. Any one of those may be as hard to get stuck into as the original task, but the chances are that one of them at least will feel manageable and doable if not palatable .
So that is the upside of having multi-tasking to do. Instead of sitting there thinking, why isn’t my thesis getting written, I am clearly procrastinating by dealing with emails, something I’ve seen PhD students fret about in print and in person, I try to take the opposite view. If I’m managing to get through my email mountain I try to think that’s good, the inbox is down from 250 to 249. I may be being incredibly inefficient about one thing but as long as I’m not using my computer merely to play Sudoku or follow all the aftermath of London 2012, I can feel that something on that interminable to-do list is indeed being done. The variety of things I have to do then can become a positive advantage.
Or at least that is true until the day you realise that actually you have been procrastinating that dreaded Task A after all and it’s now Too Late. The senior examiner has lost all patience with you because you’re two weeks late with your worked solutions or the grant deadline is 48 hours away and administration won’t process it if they don’t receive the form within the next 10 minutes. That’s when inefficiency really catches up with you, and no amount of feeling virtuous that email numbers 248 and 247 have also been dealt with is going to get you out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself.
Please, all you PhD students out there, do not feel that you are ‘bad’ because writing feels difficult and that sometimes you absolutely have to take a break and fritter a little time away. But think about what that frittering is. I always thought that inserting references (a tedious but necessary chore, which requires little brain power but much stamina) or polishing off diagrams and figures were great ways of leavening the load of actual writing. But clearing your inbox isn’t such a bad idea either. Breaking down the task into bite-sized and varied chunks may help to reduce the magnitude of the weight bearing down on your shoulders, and enable you to see progress day by day. And whatever else you do, do not kid yourself that senior academics have all the answers, that we are magicians who can produce material effortlessly, and who have never been tempted to do something time-wasting rather than keep single-mindedly to the task in hand.