A while back, a friend and colleague who is about to start a PhD asked me if I had any advice. I said, don’t ask me, given that I had to interrupt for a year, and I’m living on borrowed time for my final draft even as I write this. But, he said, that’s exactly who he’d like to take advice from—a struggler. So, I started this list of things that I’m glad I did, wished I’d done earlier, and wished I hadn’t done as a birthday present. True to form, I missed the deadline, but I’m now publishing this for him, and for two former students of mine who asked me if I had any advice for them as they begin their part-time MAs as mature students. The advice probably applies to young postgrads as well, except that I think balancing work and study, and the distractions and commitments of everyday life get harder as you get older.
Here goes—and comments would be wonderful to help anyone else in the same boat.
Five things I’m glad I did:
- Used reference management software from day one, and invested time learning to use it well. I use Zotero (the standalone version), but you can compare others here. One of the best quick guides to Zotero in my view is this one from the Old Bailey. The day that I discovered how to use the Library Look-up feature changed my life. I learned that from the IoE library pages. Zotero has too many cool features to mention. Put in the time early on learning to use it, and you’ll reap rewards ever after.
- Decided who my heroes were as writers and thinkers, and kept their work in mind as my inspiration. I hardly needed telling to do this, but it’s a good thing to remind yourself. My heroes were: Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, Tia DeNora, Philip Tagg, Georgina Born, Lucy Green (who happens to be my supervisor, so I’m lucky). Very late, I discovered Jean Lave, Michael Billig, Leah Greenfield. I’d recommend Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly to anyone, whether they’re in the social sciences or not.
- Turned off the internet to write/read. The internet, bad writing, social media, the phone, are all the enemies of any kind of work that you need to do as a researcher or writer. I keep coming back to what Dani Shapiro says in Still Writing: online newspapers, magazines, emails and such like, this is “the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.” (p. 34). Pulling away is exactly what distraction means. I used Freedom when it was free, but changed to the free SelfControl app, after I noticed Zadie Smith’s had given thanks to it at the end of one of her novels. Whatever you use, don’t trust yourself to switch off the wifi.
- Kept a research diary. Include all the bad stuff as well as the good. I keep mine in a local installation of WordPress on my computer, using MAMP. On depressing days when you get nothing done, you can at least write about how depressed you are. I wrote several days of entries when I tried to read Foucault. The fact that I still couldn’t cope with him several years later told me that it was a good thing I didn’t hitch my work to his particular wagon.
- Didn’t wait to write until I’d done my research. “Memo writing”—ad hoc, on the fly, as-you-go writing about your research as you’re doing it— is a favoured feature of grounded theory approaches to research, and what the GT people say is correct: often, those memos end up being part of your final work. Howard Becker says in one of his excellent books on writing, that there’s nothing that says the stuff you write quickly is necessarily any worse than stuff you toiled over. E. H. Carr in What is History said something about not being able to read more than about three books before he had to start writing. It’s not a crime.
Five things I wished I’d done earlier:
- Used ONE application for all data. For a long time, I wavered between nVivo, MaxQDA, Scrivener, physical notebooks, bits of paper, Word documents, my blog, my private diary, putting things here and there. I’m clearer now: anything that is in any sense data —interviews, odd bits of information, articles, ad hoc conversations, notes written on the back of envelopes, notes on books and articles that I’ve read—goes into MaxQDA, loosely categorized, but finely separated (i.e. each event, book, topic, article, note or whatever has its own document). It’s not that I necessarily need MaxQDA to analyse it, but I need to know where all that stuff is.
- Kept the equivalent of a commonplace book for everything else. Doing research makes you interested and ravenous for new things. You need to put them somewhere, and be able to find them one day. You can’t tell what might eventually go in your research after all.
- Coded (i.e. categorized) my information more assiduously. I went to a lecture by music psychologist Andrea Halpern a couple of years back, who said in passing that if you don’t “code” stuff, you don’t memorize it. She said something like “it’s nice to colour sentences in with fluorescent markers, but don’t kid yourself that you’re doing anything useful. It’s just pretty. It doesn’t tell you anything about why you did it. To make it useful, you have to code it somehow.” People talk about “coding” as if it’s only something you do when you’ve got interview data. If you do it as you go with everything (like if you have a commonplace book, q.v. and you need to decide how to categorize something), it’s amazing what a difference it makes to your own comprehension of what you’re doing and reading.
- Read challenging, well-written stuff first thing in the morning. Don’t take my word for it, try it and see. It’s like shutting the door and learning to hear again. The advice came from either Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, or Annie DIllard’s The Writing Life, both of which I’d strongly recommend, alongside the practical but not so poetic The Psychology of Writing.
- Sorted out details of punctuation. When I got my first article published, I had to finally commit to knowing whether the comma came inside the quotation marks or not, and a dozen other really annoying things. They’re like tripping over your shoelaces as you walk. You think early on “I’l deal with that later.” Knowing in advance means that you save yourself hours of editing later, and hours of daily annoyance now.
Five things I wish I hadn’t done
- Taken on side work projects. Clear time in your schedule, and—having done it—don’t let anyone or anything in there. Vanity projects and things that are marginally related (but not useful) to your research are the worst.
- Made incomplete notes. I’ve got dozens of instances in my notebooks and in files where I’ve quoted a large block of text, forgotten to say what page it was on, or in which book. At the time, because I was immersed in it, I thought I could never forget. You will.
- Let other things slide. Daniel Levitin got me on to this one in The Organized Mind. The temptation is to stop everything so that you can get your writing done. But all those other things (washing, tax returns, health checks, dentist, the garbage taking out etc.) need to be done. If you don’t do them, they add up in your mind as a mass of worrying distractions. It’s counter-productive to binge-write and let everything else go hang.
- Started planning future projects. I’ve seen this referred to a lot: the temptation to start planning the next thing, while this one remains unfinished. You might as well do drugs.
- Over-reflected. The downside to keeping a research diary is that I ended up sometimes writing more about thinking about writing than actually doing it. Treat writing like digging a road, or data entry.