In this episode I talk to Edward Mills, a postgraduate researcher in Modern Languages at the University of Exeter about his experience of writing up his thesis – specifically, writing up during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the podcast we discuss:

 

You can find Edward on twitter @edward_mills, and on the University of Exeter website.

Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome, R, D. And The Inbetweens on your host, Kelly Preece,

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and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researches, development and everything in between.

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to the second official episode of the podcast.

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Researchers development and everything in between. Before I get started with this week's guest,

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I just want to say thank you to everybody who downloaded and listened to the special episode

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released last week where I talked to Victoria Omotoso about being a BAME researcher.

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It's fantastic that Victoria's experience and the experiences of BAME researchers in higher education is having

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traction and getting out there and that everybody is learning as much as I did from listening to Victoria.

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So please do continue to share Victoria's story and the stories and experiences of other BAME researchers.

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So for this episode, I'm absolutely delighted to be joined by another one of our PGRs, Edward Mills.

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Edward is a PGR in modern languages and is just on the cusp or almost at the point of submission.

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So for this episode, Edward and I are going to talk about all things writing up,

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writing procrastination, and then just at the end, a little bit of Doctor Who.

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For those of you that have been looking forward to my promise of bad jokes, this is an episode where you're going to get a lot of them.

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Prepare yourselves. So, Edward, are you happy to introduce yourself?

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Yes. Hello. Thanks for having me. I noticed in last week's podcast you said you're going to be joined by someone else.

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So, hello. I'm someone else specifically. My name is Edward

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I am a final year, hopefully post grad student here at the University of Exeter where I am dangerously close to finishing my PhD in French,

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specifically in all things medieval French. Fabulous.

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So we're going to be talking today about the process of writing up,

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but specifically given the current situation writing up in the time of Corona virus.

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So, Edward, how has writing up been for you in the time coronavirus? It's a good question, actually,

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that it's a difficult one because I'm not sure there was actually a single moment anyway when I realised that I'd started writing up.

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I've been writing up for a few months now. I really started, I would say, around this time last year with the wriiting up process.

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But for reasons I'm sure we'll talk about in a minute. The distinction between writing up and researching is a bit more blurred in the humanities.

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Corona virus has definitely changed things and it's changed things in ways that I didn't think any of us could have expected.

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But hopefully we'd like to point out today, if we can take one thing away from it,

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is that if it's an isolating process, certainly with everything that's going on at the moment,

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obviously writing up already has a reputation for being quite isolating and then adding,

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coronavirus on top of that, it doesn't have to be isolated. And there were several ways that you can go about making sure that doesn't happen.

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So if you sort of started the process pretty much a year ago and we'll come back to kind of the start of that bit later,

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how before we got into this isolate, particularly isolating situation.

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How were you managing the isolating aspects of writing up your thesis so that you didn't become isolated?

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I think the main thing was to maintain and cultivate the networks that I had already built up during the PhD.

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So the networks amongst supervisors networks, amongst other members of the department and networks amongst PGRs as well.

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So we built up some very supportive postgraduate networks.

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And I was even though I was on my own in an office because I juggling the writing up with a different job,

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and even though I was on my own in that office that was given to me as part of the  job,

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I was still very, very keen on having people over on invite people to work, for periods of time in that office when there was a space in there.

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It was all about setting up the interaction with people to make sure that you didn't

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lose the friendship gains that you'd already made during the first part of your thesis,

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I think. So were they kind of inviting people to just come and work in the office with you, or was it a more social kind of arrangement?

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A bit of both, really, a lot of a lot of this will come back.

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We'll come back to you in a minute, I'm sure, when we talk about how COVID changes things.

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But it was a bit of both. You know,

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I had a big desk in the office so if someone wanted to come and work up there for a bit or we could go work together in in a different space.

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The important thing really is togetherness, whether you're working or you're not working.

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Being able to maintain the friendships that you've built up through the isolating process of writing up and breaking up the day,

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which might otherwise feel like seven or eight hours of sitting at a desk, generally just mashing keyboard.

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Breaking that up is an absolutely crucial thing to do.

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And friends, these mythical creatures called friends are one way of doing that.

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And that would be the best way of doing it as well, I think. Absolutely. And I think people who.

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There's a there's the interesting benefit of people who are going through the same thing,

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who are also doing their research, we are writing up and so have that very particular kind of empathy for your situation,

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but also then people who know nothing about it and have got nothing to do with it and can be an absolute and total distraction from the whole thing.

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Yes, absolutely. And on that front as well, I've been very fortunate over the PhD to be involved in a lot of other things.

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My my supervisor, if he's listening. Hi.

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Tom has described his job in the past as being the guy who stopped me doing other things, which is an exaggeration,

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obviously, but it is a valid point in that I have a tendency to get involved in all the things.

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Many of them, though, do actually help, as I'm sure we would all agree in getting away from the writing.

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So if you need if you need a day off of Headspace going on a bike ride with the local cycling club is great.

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Going to going to play chess for the university and get destroyed by people half your age is great.

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I'm not saying they both happen. I'm just heavily implying it. This is really important.

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I mean, you already know that I'm a big,

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big advocate for these sorts of things because the impact that they have on your mental health and wellbeing is huge.

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And I know that from my own experience of not doing that and not having those extra things.

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But also, you know, it's it's think it's thinking space.

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It's thinking time. But away from that. Away from the computer screen.

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Do you find you have moments of inspiration when you're on a bike ride or something?

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Yeah, I do. I very often talk to myself on bike rides.

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I feel like this is gonna be used in some kind of therapy session 20 years from now by.

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I very often chat to myself. Okay. Right.

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Just getting the getting the heart rate up now. So what's the plan for today?

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Well, I guess to start off just by processing what you began yesterday is picture this with

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the kind of the countryside rolling gently by and you've got a you've got a notion. So you need to start by finishing off that paragraph.

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You left a sentence over from yesterday. Good.

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And then just before lunch, you can move on and you can you can see if you can crack the back of the next one.

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No, absolutely. Getting out and doing enough exercise is good. There was an excellent video, which I'm sure will be in the show notes.

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This is a a more moving toward a slightly more corona specific point, but it's also good advice before before all of this hit.

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This next one video by YouTube called CGP Grey. It's called Spaceship U.

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And it's basically a lock down productivity guide.

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I know you've seen this because I sent it to you. It's. If you're sick of if you're sick of hearing how to be productive.

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Watch this one instead because it frames it in the context of you in a spaceship and spaceships.

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Cool. Why?

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What I really like about that video is it does reinforce the things we're talking about, about the importance of your wider network of self care.

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And I know that self care is a kind of overly used term in a lot of ways in our culture.

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But those things that you do to look after your mental and physical health are incredibly important

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because those are the things that are going to sustain you to do this really complex and intense.

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And, you know, inevitably, I think at some point is quite stressful work of writing up the thesis.

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Oh, yeah. Jumping, jumping, jumping ahead to what I'm doing after we finish recording this podcast.

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I'm going to go out for the bike ride. And I haven't actually got as much done today as I would probably have hoped.

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To have got done. That's not saying I was completely unproductive, honestly, supervisor, I promise.

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But I do think that the idea of having this built were built in is a non-negotiable, is quite important.

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It is my way of decompressing, if you like it, doesn't it?

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One of the things that the CGP Grey video stresses is that if your if your meant if you'll core, if you'd like has two half the physical and mental.

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It's much easier to start by priming the physical half of your your proverbial spaceship's core because the brains can't think themselves better.

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But exercise is a great leveller. We also know that, you know, from research the positive impacts.

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Exercise has on mental health in terms of the hormones and endorphins that get produced as a result of doing exercise.

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So, you know, there's a kind of a one feeds the other.

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I can. That's exactly what CGP Grey says.

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And I can I can personally attest to the mental health benefits of going wiiiii zoom down the one hill in my local area.

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So how did you start writing up? Like did did you make a conscious decision, like you got to a point in the research and went, okay.

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I am now writing up? Or was it a more kind of fluid organic process?

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For me at least, it's a much more fluid organic process. A bit of context.

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I'm I'm now in my fourth year and my PhD required a little bit of rethinking after an upgrade.

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Viva, which was a really useful experience, probably the most enriching hour that I'd spent on the PhD up to that point, if that makes sense.

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So it was a difficult one because I found myself after that having to reframe a few questions.

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And what that meant was it wasn't really until the end of my second year that I had an idea of how my PhD would be structured.

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I then spent the most of my third year on a chapter of my thesis that would sit somewhat apart from the other sections.

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So to an extent, I'd say that the writing up process started over the summer of my third to fourth year,

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which basically has involved me over the last year taking ideas and plans for chapters and outlines that existed mostly as conference papers actually,

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and fleshing them out one by one into full chapters.

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That's now done. And I'm paradoxically back at Chapter one, which I'm just finishing up now before I turn to the conclusion and the introduction.

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So you mentioned there that those sort of chapters actually were conference papers.

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Yes. That then became fleshing out.

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So when when you came to sort of thinking about that structure and actually starting to to to draft chapters and chapters,

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if you see what I mean, rather than as other pieces of writing. What did that feel like?

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Was that a really intimidating process? It was a bit of both, really.

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As a as a general rule, I'm a fan of using conferences to present stuff that you're not certain about

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rather than using them as as as ways of presenting work that you've already done,

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because they're a great way to basically get feedback and to hear people who work in that field.

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And get a sense of what they think and what you're doing, so in that sense,

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it was slightly reassuring because I had already road tested quite a lot of what I was what I was going to be developing.

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The main the main process really for me for that was saying, OK, in this chapter, what's more, they say in this conference paper.

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What's the what's the main point that you're getting across? And that's another thing I say.

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You can only have one big idea in a conference paper. Yes, absolutely.

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And then I was going through and I was thinking, OK, will this hold up as a whole chapter?

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Sometimes it would. So my my third chapter, I did actually hold up more or less.

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Sometimes it wouldn't. So the second chapter required a little bit more extension and a bit more development with

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something that I hadn't spoken about in the conference paper way back in summer 2017.

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So how do you manage your time throughout this process and and how so you said, you know,

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you you you book or likely book in the bike rides and things which are non-negotiable.

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But how do you actually manage your writing time and has that changed at all because of the change in environment, but also,

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you know, the inevitable change in work habits and productivity that's come through the COVID 19 pandemic and being in lockdown?

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I don't necessarily think I am the most reliable worker.

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There's a very good book, is a very good book on this called How We Write Ways of Looking at a Blank Page,

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which is put together by a group of a group of mediaevalist. So I very much my field and they point out that there is no.

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Single right way to write. And I have been experimenting with different things for.

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Yes. And I probably will expand with different things for years. The main thing I think is, is not to go into your office,

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whether that's a home office or work office and say, right, I'm going to do this for seven hours.

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Because that never works. YouTube is usually open by the end of the first hour.

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You're going to have some. At the moment, for me, it's it's it's German Schlager music going after 90 minutes.

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You're going to be dancing around the place by two hours. And maybe that's just me.

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I don't know. But you're going to get distracted if you break it down into. If you don't break it down.

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Well, then if you say, OK. Seven hours. Here we go. So there are different ways of dealing with that.

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Some of them were things I had tried before and brought up brought up again while watching up some of them.

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Some of them weren't so. Obvious ways of structuring your time, the first one is through deadlines

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Kind of goes is a given. you Know you use them with your supervisors and use them with yourself.

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You can also work collaboratively with other people.

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And I'm sure that those of you who are involved in this will expect the plug for shut up and write groups, which is definitely coming later.

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When it comes to structuring your day, though, those that kind of activity shut up and write remote retreats.

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All of these things and more, which I'm sure we'll talk about in a minute, are the best way I think of structuring your time on a day to day basis.

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One of the one of the books I use when I'm doing academic writing teaching is a book by Eric Hyot called Elements of Academic Style.

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And he points out that you need to set aside time to write.

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Otherwise, you genuinely have a risk of the tail wagging the dog, which has happened to me on a fair few occasions in the past.

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Absolutely. And I think these kind of different ways of structuring time, particularly the collaborative stuff, as you know.

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And as anyone that knows me in real life or even on Twitter knows is is one of my things

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that I think is quite important about making sure that you take that pressure off,

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making sure that you're structuring your time into small chunks, because that is just how we work best.

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And so we do quite a lot of that at Exeter through when we were on campus, we did longer kind of write clubs.

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So four hours of of kind of pomodoro technique blocks and various different things.

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But we've migrated that online. So we were already running online sharp and write sessions as part of our webinar programme,

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and we've just expanded that quite considerably to be running.

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shut up and write sessions either once or twice a day. But you know about this because you're one of my PGR volunteers.

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Yes. Yes, this is true. Yes. So this is one of the one of the ways, I think, structuring my time during lockdown.

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It's it's a great way to meet people, to focus your work in and to say, OK, this morning I'm going to be spending two hours doing this.

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I want to achieve this. There are other ways as structuring my time during lockdown, which have kind of developed out of a lot of stuff I did beforehand,

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as I say, was about maintaining the networks are built up.

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The most obvious one for me, apart from the shut up and write sessions, is I'm very lucky actually, in that I have a group of office buddies.

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We basically run a virtual office. So we will we will use the Pomodoro technique sometimes.

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Not always, but we will. We will we'll have kind of five hour epic teams sessions, which makes it sound like we're where we're procrastinating.

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But actually what we do is we just turn off our audio and video and then just work for 25 minutes off now or whatever,

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and then come back and chat for five and share some strange YouTube videos and then go again.

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Come back again, go then come back again. So that's one way of doing it.

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The other thing that I do is a lot of the. More social aspects have moved on line as well.

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So that's sort of outside the extra curricular, I suppose, is the word.

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They're my main ways of working around what is a very isolating but hopefully not isolated process.

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You've got to challenge the impulse towards isolation that comes from writing up, especially lwriting up in the time of COVID

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So in the work that I do on doctoral writing and academic writing and research, writing or whatever it is that you want to call it.

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There is quite a lot of contention about this term writing up,

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and particularly Pat Thompson is somebody that I've talked to you about many times

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and I always talk about in Sessions and is at the University of Nottingham.

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I'll put a link to her blog in the show notes and she in her books on doctoral writing problematises

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this idea of writing up that;s based on the idea that writing up assumes that writing isn't something or doing throughout the research process.

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And particularly as she's a social scientist, she talks about how actually in the humanities,

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arts and social sciences, that more traditional notion of.

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Sitting down and starting doing the writing doesn't really fit.

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And actually the argument she makes is that we shouldn't be doing that for the

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sciences either because we're not practising or writing and and developing,

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you know. You said it yourself, your working from materials you've already got.

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Yes, absolutely, and I think of the production of those conference papers as part of my doctoral writing.

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It's exactly what that was. The I think the reason that it might not work in some of the humanities is that when when you look

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at something like to give a kind of a common example of the images of doctoral life PhD comics,

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that's written from a primarily scientific perspective.

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And in that sense, there is something of a distinction between the data gathering process and the production of research outputs.

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Obviously, a lot of our listeners will know that that distinction falls apart a bit in the humanities where your data might be present from the start.

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Technically speaking, if you are.

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If you are looking at that in a published literature, for example, it might not be if you doing archival research and that's been the case for me.

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But the analysis results, creation vs. lighting up process has always, for me being quite blurred one.

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I think. I describe it. I'm writing up in the sense that because of how I spent my first chapter.

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There was something of a gap between writing those conference papers and writing up.

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The chapters, so I produced the conference papers for sort of summer 2018,

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and then it was it was the best part of a year working on something that was not connected to

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either of those papers before I went back to them and redevelop them into full papers themselves.

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All three of my my main chapters, weirdly, have existed at one point or another as conference papers.

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And I found a very useful way to do it, for what it's worth. There are still a lot of conferences which are either moving online or have moved online.

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I've done one myself. This was for the other project that I'm working on alongside finishing up the PhD

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But I would very much recommend that you look into them. So that's one one that is general purpose.

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called academics in isolation. I'm sure we'll put that in the show and that's OK.

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There are plenty of others to do a bit more discipline specific, and it's worth just taking a little bit of time to look through those.

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I'm sure a future episode of this podcast will talk about Twitter.

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But one of the one of the best places to find information about all of these is Twitter.

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Definitely worth going on there. If you don't have an account looking for opportunities to present your research.

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And of course, here in Exeter, we've got things like the research showcase as well.

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The doctoral college blog and various ways of writing in both the kind of a more conventional academic and a less conventional style.

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I think these are the ways in which.

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COVID 19, has disrupted that writing process for people in the sciences.

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You know, I'm talking from the perspective of PGRs that have spoken to me about this is quite interesting because it's for

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a lot of them forced them into that writing part of their work much earlier than they ever would have predicted,

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because they've because they can't be collecting data if they're not in labs or if they're not able to do fieldwork.

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And so they have the thing that they can do at this point in time in a remote, isolated, locked down environment is writing.

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And so there's this. Dr. Zoe Ayres on Twitter.

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She does these great infographics or posters. A lot of the ones that she does are about mental health and wellbeing and research.

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But she's done this kind of like scientist without a lab. These are the things that you can do.

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And there's all sorts of things that she talks about, including things like writing journal articles, drafting chapters, visualising data.

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And it really highlights, I think. Yeah, the way that that traditional process for the sciences has been massively disrupted.

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But, you know, I talk to a lot of academics in like bio sciences, for instance, where we talk about the need to get.

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People in the sciences writing much earlier, because when you do start the quote unquote,

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writing up six months before the end and you haven't really done any of that writing work beforehand.

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You've got a mammoth near impossible task in summing up.

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I want to talk about kind of key advice and things that you advice you would give yourselves.

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So i magine I am the doctor from BBC's Doctor Who and I have a TARDIS and I say, Edward, come back in time with me.

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One year ago to prewriting up Edward.

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What piece of advice would you give past Edward?

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What would you what kind of key thing have you learnt throughout this process that you wish you knew a year go. Like a TARDIS

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The writing process encompasses more on the inside than you'd expect from looking at it from outside.

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And what that means is you need to be ready for it.

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This goes for corona virus specific cases like mine or people who hopefully will not be in the same position in a couple of years time from now,

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you will have built up networks over the course of the PhD friends, colleagues, supervisors.

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The really important thing is even if the means of keeping up those networks have changed.

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Now. For those of us who are watching right now.

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Keep those networks. Do not let yourself retreat into a wririnf bubble or tell yourself or let anyone else tell you that you are writing up,

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therefore you should not be meeting other people or talking about research or anything like that.

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Writing a PhD is really hard. Speaking from experience here,

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but you can make it a lot easier by allowing yourself to be with other people in remote circumstances to, you know, through

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Zoom rooms or you know Actual physical rooms. Once once things start opening up again, that's the important thing.

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I think it's that you trust the networks that you've already built. And you.

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Milk them for all they're worth.

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I've certainly I'm certainly very grateful to the people who have tolerated my whitterings and they know who they are.

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Over the over the last couple of months. And I think this made me made my thesis a lot better.

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I think it's also made my acknowledgements a lot longer than they probably will be allowed to be.

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But that's That's a story today. What a fabulous note to end on.

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And you heard it here first, folks. Edward Mills writing up is like a TARDIS bigger on the inside.

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Thank you very much for having me. Thank you. Thank you so much to Edward for taking the time out with a very important thesis writing

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process to talk to me about that process and also for indulging my doctor who jokes and puns.

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You can find information about all the different things Edward and I discussed in the show notes,

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as well as where to find Edward on Twitter and online. And that's it for this episode.

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Don't forget to like rate and Subscribe and join me next time.

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We'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.

 

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