Writer’s Block? #ShouldBeWriting? Just not in that headspace?

If you’re not in a place for sustained and focussed writing, you’re among friends. If you’re in any doubt about that, a good scroll through Twitter’s #AcademicTwitter or #PhDLife should set your mind at rest.

Since the lockdown started, I’ve been chatting to lots of researchers who want to engage in some way with their content, but that kind of work just isn’t feasible at the moment. For most, a constellation of factors lie behind this, including: lack of uninterrupted working time; unavailability of accessible technology and workspace; ill-health; child / elder care responsibilities; homeschooling; mental health and anxiety, online teaching and committee commitments; and simply the greater complexities of everyday life under lockdown. 

Needless to say, if you are writing productively – or indeed at all – then kudos, and keep at it! Conversely, if you can’t engage with your research at all at the moment, then please read no further and take good care of yourself during this really difficult time. 

What constitutes ‘work’ towards a PhD?

This post is for people in the middle – those who want to work in some way, who feel like they’re failing because they’re not writing, and are often unsure about what constitutes ‘work’. People who are, perhaps, looking for something they can work on in fits and starts, as and when circumstances allow. For those people, I suggest it can be helpful to: 

a)  draw a distinction between your doctoral project and your thesis, and recognise that the latter is a (sometimes very small) subset of the former
b)  consider that, in an ideal world, your development during your doctorate is as a rounded researcher, not merely as the best possible producer of your thesis.

If a) and b) broadly sound ok, the following list of research-related activities might give you some starting points to engage gently, and on your terms, with your project. Tweak as necessary to make them useful for you. 

And for your internal critic….

If your internal critic complains that these activities are not ‘real work’, console it that you weren’t churning out thousands of words a day of your thesis (which is what it probably thinks ‘real work’ looks like) anyway. Then tell it sternly that these are very real parts of academic work. 

Who knows what insights, connections, and possibilities might emerge from small nudges forward? Researchers approaching their work in novel ways, or from unexpected directions, find it a generative and exciting process!
(Source: TheThrivingResearcher.com)

1. Review your empirical data collection plans 

If it’s relevant to where you’re up to with your doctorate, take stock of what you’ve already got and, in the short-term, look for the smallest tweaks to your plans that might give you useful context-building data.

Get started: 
– Go through your data collection plans and see whether any of them could be tweaked to viability under the current circumstances   
– Reflect on whether there are useful ways of developing your data collection skills during this period by taking small steps sideways which might still feed into your research
For example: if you’d planned participant observation in a particular setting, could  you carry out informational interviews remotely with a broader array of stakeholders to develop your interviewing skills and understanding of the wider landscape? 

2. Extend your research / academic professional network

I suspect we’ve all got a wish list of academic contacts with whom we’d love to be professionally connected. This could be a good time to take the first step(s) towards making that wish list a reality.

Get started:
– Make a list of five people you’d like to be in contact with and look up their contact details
– If you could ask them each one thing, what would it be? A single question is best, because it’s easiest and quickest for people to reply to. Make it easy for the recipient to help you!
– Draft a clear, unapologetic, email which introduces you and your work in a single short paragraph, and then makes your request in a second short paragraph. If there’s a date you need the reply by, include it and explain why i.e. ‘before I go to the field’ or ‘before my conference presentation’.  Express your gratitude for any help / guidance they can offer
– Choose one person from your wish-list, and send them the note. Remember to thank them if you get a reply; it’s courteous, and also lays a better foundation for any future follow-up.

3. Develop your wider professional network

Are there organisations or institutions outside the academy that you’d like to connect with, or deepen your connection with? Maybe you’re considering an #AltAc or portfolio career, or a future industry / third sector partnership? Whatever the objective, you can lay some of the groundwork now.

Get started: 
– Do some background work, use contacts pages on websites to identify potential contacts
– Think about what you’ve got to offer and what you’re looking for. Write a concise summary of both these perspectives
– Use these paragraphs as the core of an initial email or Linked-In approach. As you wrap up the initial contact, be clear about what you want (probably a follow-up conversation to explore whether there are areas of mutual benefit/cooperation?)
– Pilot your approach with one identified potential contact.

4. Draft an engagement activity 

This is super fun – project your work into the real world (albeit on paper for now)! Because there will be a future when we’re not locked down, and that future world will benefit from your research.
Even if you’re in the first year of your doctoral programme, sketch it out. File it safely and review every few months, revising as your project evolves. As you progress through your programme, actively look for opportunities to put the necessary blocks in place for your eventual activity. 

Get started:
– Who would it be for? 
– What would the purpose be?
– What would it consist of? 
– Who would the partners be?  
– What / who would you need to have, or to have access to, to make it a success? How much would it cost? Draft a simple budget.
– How would you recognise the success of the activity?

5. Draft and practise your research elevator pitch(s) 

It’s so useful to have an ‘elevator pitch’ (or several) up your sleeve for those unexpected moments when you’re asked what you’re working on. (I usually think of it as a ‘coffee-queue pitch’, but that’s not what the rest of the world calls them).

Having a research pitch up your sleeve is vital: when you’re living deep in the detail, it’s so hard to take a giant leap backwards to the big picture, and do yourself justice with an off-the-cuff effort 


Get started:
– Define your audience and the level of prior knowledge you can assume from them
– Create an interest hook to open with which contains the answer to ‘why does your work matter?’ A question that connects to your listener’s work, likely interests, or current affairs usually works really well
– Summarise what you’re bringing to the work that’s unique (n.b. unless you’re doing something methodologically radical, and you’re expecting to talk to a methodologist, this isn’t the moment to get into incredible detail about the ‘how’ of your research. If your listener’s interested in that, they’ll ask you to elaborate).
– Craft a couple of flexible closing lines that you can choose from depending on context. These are your calls to action: what do you want from the listener after you’ve pitched your work to them?

Come over to Twitter and let’s chat about how things are for you!

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