Studying for a PhD: My reflections on what works

Well I made it, I'm now Dr Richard Osborne. It feels a bit weird to write that to be honest, but I've been examined by my peers and apparently have not been found wanting. Which is nice. Time to offer something back.

I thought I'd write a brief reflective piece about the changes I made in my life which I feel were a necessary part of getting my PhD (An Ecological Approach to Educational Technology: Affordance as a Design Tool for Aligning Pedagogy and Technology). My doctorate was always based on an ecological approach, and that approach to life - one that considers the environment within which you find yourself a crucial part of the overall experience jigsaw - is something that I find echoes through both my personal and professional life.

So here we go, three changes I made and why I think they mattered.

Make your physical study space the best it can be

Whatever your topic, you're going to be spending a lot of time sitting in one place reading and writing, so it's important that you make that place the best it can be. Early on in my studies I started to equip myself with a well furnished office, so that I could focus on my studies and not the space I was in. That meant:
  • Buying a big desk with plenty of room for spreading out papers and notes. Having a good solid desk (second hand was good enough for me) meant that I was never constricted by the physical space I had available
  • Investing in a very good quality chair, you're going to spending a lot of time in it after all. I went for a (second hand) Aeron Miller. Yes it cost me hundreds of pounds, but it's important that you can focus on your work, the chair should vanish once you're in it. Basically you make sure you can spend huge amounts of time in it, by ensuring it's as comfortable as you can afford
  • A really good keyboard. A standard PhD is going to be 80,000-100,000 words, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. I probably wrote at least double that, maybe three times as much - you have to accept that large chunks of what you write will never get published. Some writing is simply writing for thinking, not writing for sharing, so you're going to write a lot. I chose a mechanical keyboard for my writing, a QPAD MK-50 with MX Brown switches. That may not make a lot of sense, but it's worth doing a little research about keyboard quality, and why mechanical may be a good option.
  • A powerful PC with lots of screens, I've always liked to build my own PCs, so power was never a problem, but I did compromise a little on screens for my PhD. And by compromise I mean I gave up my lovely big quality screen for three smaller less impressive ones. Why? I have them arranged around me, so that I can have one screen for writing, perhaps one for a journal article I'm referencing, and one for some notes from a supervisor meeting. Being able to reference everything at once makes me more productive.
  • In-trays - lots! I had a massive pile of 15 in-trays on my desk, all marked-up for different types of resources, training, theory, methodology, etc. I may be a digital nut, but I'm not so naive to think that paper isn't important too
  • A standard cork pin-board for the ever changing notes, suggestions and guides that get generated or received
  • A large magnetic whiteboard, fixed right next to my desk, for sketching out ideas, pinning up plans and structures, basically just a big space for reflecting on whatever what my focus at the time. This, more almost than anything else, has been the place where key ideas for the PhD have been forged.

Use digital places to structure your thinking

My thesis was all about technology, and how it could be effectively aligned with pedagogy, so as you can imagine I used technology extensively to support my studies. I actually began my first thesis as a Word document but quickly realised that it would be far too unwieldy to actually create the text using that tool. Instead I used Google Docs for almost the entire PhD.

The main reason for using Google Docs was that wherever I happened to be I could always access my files. Yes I had created a good office space to study in, but ideas are tricky buggers - they come and go whenever they please. You can't just summon them at will. By putting my thinking in the cloud I could always either access something I'd already written, or add new notes that captured an insight as and when it happened. That allowed me to be much more productive than I otherwise would be, and being productive is something that is key to part-time study.

As for actual practice, in the end I adopted a folder based system where I would collate similar ideas into a structure which mirrored the emerging structure of the thesis. In the early days especially I didn't bother with building either a single master document or separate chapter documents, I created folders and stuffed them with hundreds of documents - with good titles - that summarised some key thinking. It might have been the result of a conversation with peers or supervisors, perhaps an interesting observation from a book or journal, of even an insight from a conference presentation. This created a mirror of my own thinking, loosely structured into something that resembled a thesis, but one that I could rapidly search through and recombine into a more formal representation. This became the key way in which the thesis developed, an iterative approach where small documents were increasingly blended into formal chapters.

I've seen Google Docs mature over the years I've been studying - the video below (which I made back in 2010) sums up how much it has changed - and it's been interesting to see how much more polished it has become. In the end I did move the thesis into Word for the final work, as it's ability to manage a document of 500+ pages is much more advanced. Google just can't handle the sort of advanced linking of page numbers, figures and tables that Word can do, not to mention page and section breaks or more advanced styles. But I think the key message I'm trying to get across here is that when it comes to the bulk of your studying you need to focus on the words and the structure, it's all about speed and fluidity - something Word is definitely not lauded for. Moving to Word at the end of my writing was very easy - but for the rest of the time I'd recommend you stick with Google Docs.

And when I say Google Docs, I'm not just talking about the writing. I used Google Forms for data gathering and analysis, Google Sheets for more analysis, Google Slides for presentations, Google Drawings for graphics ... you get the picture, Yes it's a bit Google centric, but the fact of the matter is these are world class digital places that are offered for free, they work seamlessly together and you can access them from wherever you are in the world. It's a bit of a no brainer. The point of the PhD is your thinking - you need to get that into a form which can be shared with others by whichever means is most suitable for that process, and for me that is undoubtedly the Google suite of products. Word was brilliant at structuring the finished product, but it was rubbish for facilitating my thinking processes.

The other online space that I found really invaluable was CiteULike. It's a lesser known citation / reference manager, but I think the best of the bunch. In a similar way to Google Docs I could access CiteULike anywhere as it's all cloud based. They have a bookmark tool that allows you to automatically extract reference data from most websites, various note taking and tagging systems that allow you to organise your lists and the ability to compile list of references from your own tags which means you can use it to create sub-lists, e.g. when you're writing journal articles (e.g. Integrating technologies into ‘‘authentic’’ assessment design: an affordances approach). It has social features that allow you to discover other people with similar interests, and the ability to add uploads of key files - invaluable if you don't always have access to certain web resources. All in all I found it a wonderful support that allowed me to build a very comprehensive PhD reference list.

I could talk here about various other tools that I brought to bear on my thinking over the years, some old favourites that are no longer with us (Google Reader springs to mind), and some new characters that are just emerging (WhatsApp was a late arrival), but that might have to wait for another post.

Develop - and stick - to a routine

Time is always going to be a problem with PhDs, You might have time limits imposed by your institution, regular reports to make to funders or supervisors, or perhaps like me be working full time whilst trying to do your studies, I constantly found that making enough time for my studies was a problem, and I kept getting behind with my plans. I even found myself almost kicked off my course once.

A wake-up light - much better than an alarm clock
The solution I found was to make regular time slots specifically for studying. In my case that meant early morning starts, I have a young family (or to put it more accurately, I started a new family!) so it was important to protect time in the evening, first for my partner and then later for my son as well, I'm not a big fan of studying late, so early was my only option. I began by trying to get up at 4:30, but that proved too much, so eventually settled on 5:00 alarms every day. I found by the time I was properly awake that gave me about 1½ hours of study time a day before I had to go to work (which began at 8:00). Oh, and I used a wake-up light for this as well, audio alarm clocks are just too harsh this time in the morning. I've used one of these for years now, and would never go back to a simple audio alarm, the light method is so much easier on the brain.

As you can imagine, early starts meant early nights. If I wasn't in bed by 9:00 of an evening I began to get panicky! You do develop some odd habits doing this sort of thing though, I started to lay out all my clothes for the morning stint the night before so that I could just get into them and get going quickly. Made for a funny sight in retrospect! It may sound extreme looking back, but actually it was manageable and it became routine. I did it for at least 3 years, and would highly recommend it to others. The truth of the PhD is that it is a long slog to the finish, there is just so much to do, you need to chip away at it like the mountain that it is. By building a regular routine you'll do that, and therefore you will reach the end, believe me.

This post has covered some of the key things I changed in my life in order to get my PhD. It's not comprehensive, but I hope it might help others thinking of starting out on a PhD, or who are in the early stages. It's been a weird journey for me, but a good one. I'm not the same person who started the journey in many ways, but I believe I am a better one for having bothered. Always happy to offer advice to anyone in the same boat as I was, I feel almost an obligation to those who might be struggling just as I was, so please feel free to ask and I will offer what help I can!

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