(Glances over shoulder at 2020 as it retreats)

In 2020, thanks to Covid-19, we all experienced major changes to our lives which were outside our control, and left us variously worried, frustrated, bored, downright frightened, and heartbroken.

And yet, amidst all the stress, uncertainty and misery, our lives carried on (which was, in its own way, just as weird) and there were occasional rays of light and hope: family and friends got new jobs, found partners, got married, moved home, and discovered deep new interests.

I started The Thriving Researcher project in the now-distant days of autumn 2019, as a series of face-to-face meet-ups in the wonderful Common Ground workspace in Oxford. My idea was that there were aspects of being a researcher which were best addressed and worked on away from our institutions, and that could be achieved by connecting researchers across institutions, creating space to explore the challenges we face in doing the work, and sharing tools and tips to help us work smarter.

As the pandemic escalated, researchers experienced increasing isolation, institutions often prioritised taught undergraduate and graduate students, and it felt vital to continue and develop the original idea by moving the project online. 

Since March when the first UK lockdown started, the project’s come a long way: I’ve hosted 8 workshops exploring the impact of Covid-19 on our research plans, 12 researcher coffee mornings, and 26 weekly meet-ups of our Writing Group. I’ve connected with and supported PhD students from  all around the UK, and further afield including Germany, Belgium, India, Ghana and South Africa, Canada, Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

What I’m taking into 2021

The end of the old and beginning of the new year feels a natural time to take stock, and reflecting on my experiences of the past twelve months, what I’ve most appreciated throughout 2020 is being gently consistent in those things which are within my control, be they great or small (usually the latter). With so much of the noise of everyday life stripped away by the pandemic, I’ve been able to see with (sometimes startling) clarity the cumulative ease which can come from the practice of consistency. I’m not claiming a silver bullet – it’s definitely wasn’t enough always to offset the buffeting the year brought, but it would have been infinitely harder for me without this practice, so it’s the one thing from 2020 that I’m deliberately taking into 2021.

Gentle, attentive consistency is a super-power for researchers

And this led me to thinking about how, as researchers, we selectively prize consistency, often recognising and valuing in in the technical aspects of our work, but thinking much less of and about it in the ebb and flow of every day life as a researcher. Experience has shown me that PhD students often know what feels good, or flows well when they work, but they rarely stop, reflect on it and articulate it to themselves so they can replicate this beneficial micro-formula.

BUT (this is important)

A PhD is no business or manufacturing process (‘cranking widgets’), subject to ever more cheese-paring of the time it takes to do things, and the cost of doing those things. It’s a uniquely challenging, extended, creative process carried out by real people with full and complex lives, so the practice of gentle, attentive consistency isn’t synonymous with improving productivity (in terms of outputs).

What I’m suggesting is more akin to yoga or mindfulness: paying gentle and consistent attention to specific aspects of your academic practice, which over time will yield broader benefits and improve your experience of your PhD. 

And, like yoga or mindfulness, accepting where you are each time you start is a crucial element the practise of gentle consistency. As 2020 showed, in too-compelling a manner, many of us need a flexible approach to our work which allows for 

  • unexpected childcare or other caring demands
  • chronic illness
  • days when it’s just not happening
  • days when you need to firefight some life admin,
  • times you need to spend a day nourishing yourself 

Consistency in the doing not just the metrics

When I was a PhD student in the early years of my programme, I tended to aim for consistency at a high level: ‘I’ll read for 90 minutes a day’ or ‘I’ll transcribe one interview every three days’, and then to be very inconsistent at ground-level in how I went about doing that. Eventually, I realised it left me tired, demotivated, and with a grinding sense that I wasn’t making the progress I wanted, despite the work I was putting in.

Over time, I developed some lovely consistent practices which helped me easily slip into and out of PhD work mode; ultimately, these enabled me to take on a full-time role as a lecturer in a Russell Group university for my final (self-funded) year, while simultaneously finishing my thesis (it was tough, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, and I definitely couldn’t have kept the parallel tracks going for any longer than that year).

Since then, in over a decade of working with doctoral researchers, I’ve seen a similar patterns and outcomes in their experiences. They’re often great at being consistent with the higher-level goals, less great at being consistent at the level of individual actions so they’re not really reaping the fullest benefits from their efforts.  If pushed, I’d speculate that most PhD students have their eyes forward on the big picture, or down in the technical detail, rather than taking time to explore ‘how am I doing this? Are there better ways I could be doing it, that would give me more ease?’ 

Blog and Meet-Up plans for 2021

So that’s where this blog is going to focus for 2021: the value and practice of gentle attentive consistency for PhD researchers, at a very practical level. Linked to the blog, we’ll have having six themed roundtables throughout the year, exploring how researchers with different types of experience practice consistency in their work methods, and finding out what does and doesn’t work for them. 

I hope you find something of use along the way, and it creates a little more space and ease in your life!

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