PhD Diary – March 2022

The past couple of months have been particularly busy and with what I have coming up over the summer, this only seems to be a taster of what is to come. Because of this, I saw this as a great opportunity to trial a bi-monthly post as opposed to my monthly one. It is totally not due to me forgetting last months post and making an excuse after the fact. Of course not! That aside, I do have a lot to reflect on for the past few months.

A core reason I have been so busy in the past couple of months is that I have been working on the initial application of my first study for this project for ethical approval. Whilst a bit of a tedious process, I did find the demand for certain information helped provide some direction for what sort of literature to read and the decisions I had to make. In fact, I feel as if this process was particularly useful to confidently progress with the methodology of this study and how it supports not only my thesis, but also as a standalone contribution to my area of knowledge.

The ethics review process has helped me work on some of the more tough questions surrounding my project, including the epistemological stance the research is grounded within. During my master’s I always found the concept of ontology and epistemology a bit too philosophical and ‘floaty’. Acknowledging the reality of the world and where I as a researcher – and my work – stand on that seemed unnecessary.  But even considering whether to take a more interpretive or positivist view, to take some examples, it helped me begin to frame the resulting contributions of this work. Will my work create hard ‘rules’ of how people acted/thought? Or do I state them as guiding principles, and that the almost chaotic nature of people and the world around them needs to be considered and interpreted to get the most out of my work? These sorts of questions are not particularly easy ones, and, in all honesty, I do not have a strong answer to them right now. Having these discussions, however, have been beneficial and having an idea on where the research stands has helped provided more focus on where this will lead.

The other reason of my time being so precious nowadays is that I have been engaging more and more with non-PhD related activities/opportunities. These include being on a research network committee for graduate students, teaching, and acting as a student rep for my fellow postgraduate research students within my school, to name some of the more prominent ones. In my opinion, its activities like this that are the biggest contributor to one’s professional development which is a reason I have been so keen to engage with them. Its all well and good being a good researcher, reading literature, conducting studies, and creating new knowledge. But at the end of the process its generally expected that one goes into some form of employment, and a PhD on its own does not do a particularly good job of doing that outside of the occasional seminar/conference. Taking on some external work/opportunities, on the other hand, help develop skills including interpersonal relations, teamwork, conduct, etc. that can be immensely useful. My challenge, however, is to not take on too much that I do not have the time to do my PhD, because after all that is what I am currently doing full-time.

The summary of the past two months is that there has been significant progress in both my professional and academic development. Despite this, it is important to remember that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. It can be an extremely long process that can be mentally taxing on its own, let alone with external commitments. Because of this and the forthcoming easter period, I am going to be taking some time away from my work. Not completely, I do not want a repeat of the first couple months of 2022, but enough to recuperate before things get more intense. Having as fresh of a mind – and as much physical energy – as possible is an absolute must for this process, I have found. Much like a marathon, exhaustion starts not after mile one but instead mile six or seven. I am reaching the halfway mark, so there is a long way to go but there is no reason not to celebrate my recent progress. It’s nice to have an air of positivity.

PhD Blog – January 2022

First things first, let us get the obvious out of the way. I did not post a blog article for December 2021 which would have been written in early January. In all honesty, January was a bit of a motivational roadblock. Having come off a three-week break where I did not work on anything related to the PhD or otherwise, plus a move into a new flat, I found that I could not get back into a regular work schedule and lifestyle. Old habits have come back, including sleep issues and anxieties on the quality of my work. All which has contributed to little progress made during this past month and a bit, not helping my mental wellbeing. It is the first time in this process where there is this massive roadblock between now and the next phase of the project, and in normal circumstances this would be an obstacle I could overcome.  Yet this past month has given me cause for concern on whether I can complete this project and reach the finish line. What is most frustrating is that the solution to this problem, to get back on track and feel confident again, is a simple one yet has been difficult to push myself to do. So, I made the decision to take a hiatus from regular work to reflect on these self-inflicted stresses. In short, I took the time to ask myself: “What’s going on? And what can I do to address it?”.

For me, getting started on something is the hardest part of a project. So, if I stop completely, such as what happened during the festive break, it takes a much larger effort than expected to get started again. It reminds me of some advice I was given when climbing some mountains in the UK, that stopping and starting requires a lot of energy and mental strength than if one were to keep moving regardless of what speed you travel. It is like the principle of momentum, keeping a moving object going is easier than one with no speed whatsoever. Within the context of my project, even the smallest amount of progress on a project per day is better than none because it means that I do not need to deal with that initial motivational hurdle of ‘starting’. Now, it is worth mentioning that sometimes you need a break from work for your mental wellbeing, to distance oneself from the stresses that it brings. But maintaining some form of momentum when you are working is vital to ensuring that you can continue to make progress, however small that is.

To do this, I will be following advice that I have given to some of my students in the past. That is to set yourself a small task each day. That can be to read an article, make notes on some work, book some professional development sessions, anything. What is important is that it is manageable with as little effort as you can make it. This principle can be found in a great speech given by US Navy Admiral William H McRaven to the University of Texas at Austin Class of 2014 at their graduation. “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day”. The idea is that if you complete just one task, it gives you the motivation to do the next task and so on a so forth. It seems somewhat trivial but soon those small tasks add up. I was told right from my induction to the PhD that this process was a marathon and not a sprint, so its high time that I started treating it as one.

PhD Diary – October 2021

When reflecting upon this past month I found it difficult to find new lessons to discuss. Most of my personal work has been preparing for my major review and the start of teaching this academic year. I am often working on campus and finding my personal blended approach has been a priority. What I found most valuable during my time on campus have been the conversations with those around me. In one of my earlier blog posts, I expressed that those brief physical conversations you can have was something I missed during the pandemic. Now having the chance to do that again after so long, it has been fascinating to relearn some of those interpersonal skills.

One skill that has been tricky to regain has been communicating complex topics. When you have buried yourself in reading and others in your field, it can be hard to explain your project or field to those unfamiliar. A common quote with many variations that applies here is the following: If one cannot explain something simply, then it is unlikely that you understand it yourself. I agree. Explaining a complex idea to someone in a manner they can understand requires you to know the foundations it is built on. Being able to explain my work to other students over this month has been a great experience. In practice I found that whilst explaining the core principles was quite easy, some of the details were a little more difficult to convey. It’s not that I do not know, but that network of knowledge is not built in a way to accurately explain my ideas.

This exercise was great practice for my major review presentation, something that I had not intended at the time. Whilst some of those examining in my presentation will know my work, there will be others who are not. Having this opportunity to test my ideas in a casual environment helped determine where my own gaps in knowledge exist. It reassures me that these conversations with each other are as valuable as I remembered. I will continue the blended workstyle, making the most out of the time spent alongside fellow students or colleagues. As opportunities for formal dissemination approach, having a chance to develop my speaking skills is a valuable one.

PhD Diary – A year in review

It has been one year since I started my PhD journey, and to say it has been an interesting year would be a bit of an understatement. Meeting new people, being seen as a subject expert, and all the consequences of the pandemic it has been an unpredictable twelve months. Yet, the experiences and lessons I have learned so far have been invaluable for me and the project. So, since it has been a year, I want to take this chance to look back at my earlier blog posts and reminisce over what I have done right and where I can improve.

Within my first month of the PhD, I was struggling with how isolated and independent being a postgraduate researcher could be. Outside of the chosen teaching and supervisory meetings, it was you and the project. This was made even more clear due to working remote, hundreds of miles away from the University. Working remote has been a consistent factor in this year due to the pandemic, yet brief moments of campus-based work I have had it was not that significant difference as I had anticipated. Many of the problems I was attributing to working from home were not solely due to the environment I studied in.

I took an opportunity to delve into my relationship with remote working in March. It seemed that what I missed most was that face-to-face interaction with colleagues and other students. Those ‘water-cooler’ conversations you would have when grabbing lunch for example was a key part in making me feel included in the university community. It did not feel the same when we had Zoom calls and emails as our key methods of communication. Despite that, having the freedom to choose my own hours and take a brief break to play games at home have helped relieve any stress I built up during my studies. As life begins to return to a sense of normalcy, it will be a great opportunity to test my own personal home/office work balance to maximise my efficiency whilst maintaining a healthy amount of stress.

As the nights grew longer, so did the troubles of sleeping at unreasonable hours. The number of times I saw the sun rise before I went to bed was almost embarrassing, and because of this I struggled to motivate myself to work for the little time I had to myself. I have come to terms that I am somewhat of a night owl, preferring to get up later to be more active in the evening. A factor on why that may be the case is that I played a lot of high-intensity games from the late evenings to the early hours of the morning which keeps my brain alert way past the time I wish to go to sleep. I have remedied the most extreme examples of this behaviour with alarms on my computer, reminding me to start winding down for the night. With some schedule in my week for paid employment, this should help give me some level of structure to when I sleep and how long for.

Having challenged some of my personal limitations, next came my approach to work. A PhD is a different beast compared to an undergraduate or masters. The research is almost self-directed, and you can get yourself buried in reading with this feeling that you need to cover as much ground as possible. This is not the case. Whilst a solid amount of background research is important, trying to understand all the contexts surrounding your project can cause you to lose sight of that one specific question the PhD is supposed to answer. My advice for new PhD students is to always ask “Is this literature going to help me answer my research question?”. If it does not, then it may not be relevant right now. Despite me trying to narrow the breadth of research I deemed useful, there was still plenty of papers and books. As a result of this, a lot of this year was spent trying different software to organise my literature. In that time, I learned that which software works for you depends on how you intend to use it. This lesson applies elsewhere; the most optimal work environment or approach varies from person to person and a good part of your PhD is finding out exactly what that is.

All these revelations came as I began to summarise what was done this year for my annual review, a key stage in determining my capabilities to complete the PhD. A large part of these moments of self-reflection came through these diary entries. These have been a great opportunity to focus not on my project, but on who I am and the lessons that apply to me. There were many a time this year where I questioned why I do these posts but writing this now has reassured me that this was a useful exercise. Looking back at these entries, I can place myself into what I was thinking months ago. Almost as if it were a snapshot of my rationale at the time. As a result, there are parts of my blog that are valid others where I completely miss the mark, avoiding some uncomfortable truths. Yet this is a part of the process. And I am only a year down, so who knows how I will look back at this post or the many that are yet to come. There is also a little part of me that hopes that someone may read these inane ramblings of mine and find some use out of them for their own journeys. A sentimental notion, I know. In any case, I am confident that I can progress to the next stage of this process, and I am looking forward to what the future has in store.

PhD Diary – July 2021

A little late on this one, whoops! You would think that a lack of organised meetings or structures would help me get the most work done. But as this past month has demonstrated, is that without some sort of pressure to get something done I tend to fall into the trap of procrastination. As of this article’s publication I have under two months to submit my major review, a key sign of my progress and capability to see this project to its completion. I have yet to have all the pieces in place to start bringing this together. It is too easy to fall off the wagon of productivity when it is your responsibility to track your work. This has been far harder now that many academic staff are taking some time off to recuperate after what has been a stressful year. Not having that external accountability or monitoring is something that I still struggle with, which I pointed out a few months into this project. It seems that work is still needed to improve my self-monitoring, which I will remedy with a more traditional work schedule.

Despite the increasing pressures from approaching deadlines, I am taking time to keep my stress levels down to a manageable level. A reasonable amount to give incentive to work, but not too much to cause me to worry or cause any grey hairs. I have enough as it is! One of the things I have learned during my past five years at university has been that people work and learn in a range of ways. For me, I tend to work best when there is a reasonable level of pressure and expectation which is a key motivator for me. Having that awareness that my actions are one of the only things between success and failure helps push me to get started each day. As many people may relate to, once I get started its easy to continue going but is that first task in the day that seems to be hardest to start. The thought of “you have X number of days to get this done” provides enough pressure to get me started on more productive work.

In all honesty, I questioned my decision to maintain this diary. It seemed somewhat needless and tended to go on weird tangents. But its days like this that I am thankful that I did, because writing my thoughts in these posts helps me get motivated for the more technical work. Having a smaller trivial task as the first thing you work on makes getting motivated easier and doing these once a month helps me get back on track if I ended up slacking near the end of the month. These posts are a great writing exercise which I recommend any new Postgraduates or even Undergraduates to try. They do not have to be extensive articles. A short candid exploration of your thoughts and feelings helps organise your thoughts and keeping your mind active, getting you motivated for further work.

As for me, getting a new job alongside my studies has helped keep me stimulated. But the challenge is to transform this excitement into productive efforts, and that all starts with the motivation to work. I hope that with the tighter deadlines going forward I will have more to talk about and show. Whilst this will be an eventful next couple of months, I cannot wait to get stuck in.

PhD Diary – June 2021

In my last blog post I explored how to condense my work into a short presentation for people unfamiliar to it. I discussed a range of techniques I aimed to adopt, and I do believe that it has helped. The presentation was well received, so as an early attempt at disseminating my research I was happy with how it went. Of course, there are improvements to make, but it is a strong foundation from which I can build my public speaking skills. But for the moment, I plan to try to improve other skills of mine to develop myself in other areas.

I believed myself to be a decent reader, yet I struggle to keep engaged with more extensive reading. I enjoy the process of learning but there are various ways of processing literature. Within the past few weeks, I discovered a Text-To-Speech app known as Speechify and thought it was at least worth seeing if it would help me in any way. I have found that I enjoy listening to podcasts whilst I am playing games familiar to me so I can comprehend what is being talked about. So, my rationale for using Speechify is that I could convert some of the more tedious reading into an audio format. As it works with PDFs, it was easy to drop my existing literature into their web app and try it out.

In practice my rationale did not work out as expected, I tended to focus too much on what is being said and not the underpinning arguments. What this resulted in is me comprehending the vocabulary but if someone were to ask me what the paper was about, I would not have the faintest idea. It is important to remember that the way we talk and the way we write are not the same. When writing, we have more opportunities to consider exactly what we are saying and how we convey it. Writing is less conversational in format and is a bit more declarative. Think of it as the difference between talking to someone and talking with someone. Academic papers are not designed to read aloud, as we have other ways of organising information for more audio-centric demonstrations. Despite that, I did find the use of Speechify to be most effective when reading literature alongside the audio. Having that cue to keep my reading focused ensured that I could comprehend what I was reading and not skimming over anything. This strategy proved highly effective and helped me understand papers better than previous attempts. It is still early days using this method, so further reflections on this method are needed. Yet, I may have found an approach to reading I did not intend to find that has made it easier to digest literature.

In school, I became aware of the concept of learner types. These were different ways certain people preferred to learn. For example, some people preferred auditory methods of learning whereas others favoured something more visual. I do not think that labelling oneself as a visual learner or an auditory learner is a wise method of reflecting on your learning. Some skills are best taught through vocalised teaching whereas others are best developed via practical experience. As I have found out this month, the most effective way of determining what methods work best is to experiment with a range of practices. I have told students in the past that it is up to them to find their most optimal way of working as it differs per person. It is time to put that into practice myself.

PhD Diary – May 2021

How do I summarise eight months of work in a 10-minute presentation? This my current problem as the university is hosting an event to allow PhD students to present their work in a brief conference. This is the first time I am discussing my research to the faculty, in front of a range of academics. The presentation has undergone its fair share of rewrites before even finishing a full draft. As my major review approaches, pressure has risen to present the contexts around my project in a concise manner.

The biggest challenge for me is trying to pin down the key points about the project and articulating them in a manner to prevent waffling. There is no shortage of information to discuss but picking out the details crucial to the broad aims of the project has proven tricky. The hardest part is trying to fit all the pieces together in a way that makes sense. One method I have been trying is treating the presentation as a story and weaving a narrative throughout the slides. By framing the contexts around the project as worldbuilding or setting the plot, I have found it easier to visualise the bigger picture I am trying to convey.

Having tried creative writing in the past, I am familiar with the challenge of determining what are important aspects of the narrative and what is expendable when there are restrictions to length. Whilst the above strategy has helped provide a sound structure, it has not helped decide what exactly I intend to discuss. In hindsight, it would have been useful if I had implemented some sort of relevance ranking system to my reading when doing research. By having some quick reference to the literature integral to the project, establishing the key contexts should be easier. Of course, there are drawbacks in this approach. On what grounds would one consider a piece of literature relevant? Especially early in a project like this, one that tends to adapt as time goes on as the network of knowledge grows. Perhaps such an approach would be useful after settling the contexts of the project, so this is something to come back to.

In the end, this is probably the main consideration to make about this presentation. This is not about condensing eight months of work into ten minutes. Rather, it is about establishing the key questions and contexts surrounding the work that I have done. Even this far in, the contexts surrounding this project are yet to be set in stone. It is better to consider this presentation as an opportunity to get something more concrete.

PhD Diary – April 2021

For this month’s blog post rather than looking back, I wanted to use this as a chance to look forward. As a PhD student, I am eager to get my perspectives out into the academic community through my work and engagement with others within my field. To do this, my supervisory team and I have begun to make plans for what will be my first publication. This acts as a milestone for the project as a whole and helps direct the rest of the project going forward.

One of my personal concerns with my research are the questions “Has someone done this already?” and “Have I missed a paper where they discuss this?”. Esports psychology and the application of skill acquisition & performance within competitive gaming is very much a new field, with an ever-growing number of outputs. For me, it is difficult to imagine that other researchers have not discussed or answered the ideas I am developing. The fear that the works that I plan to put out has already been undertaken by someone else has been hard to shake off. Being realistic, every researcher has a different perspective on the questions within a field. This means that the approach one takes to answering said questions will differ. Some researchers are well read in other fields, applying their expertise in new contexts. Others come from a background in games and/or esports, synthesising their experiences with rigorous academic investigations. Remembering this, the question of missing a paper that explores my planned topic exactly seems unlikely. These concerns are most likely a consequence of Impostor Syndrome.

I will be upfront. I do not like the term Impostor Syndrome as it sounds like it is synonymous with medical disorders, as it is more accurate to describe it as a state of mind. Semantics aside, the concept of Impostor Syndrome is something I can very much relate to. Being a young academic in a field with established researchers it is hard to feel that your voice has any weight. It builds up this feeling that until you feel like you have the authority to talk about a matter, it is easier to remain silent. I know that feeling unqualified is not justified, but it one that does not seem to go away regardless of what knowledge I gain.

To combat this feeling, I have found that it is good to acknowledge how I have grown. This is my fifth year in higher education, an infant in the eyes of many. Yet, in that time I have developed based on what I knew when I started my undergraduate studies and where I am now. Whilst it is good to remind yourself that there is always more to learn, it is also important to recognise your successes and taking pride in your work. Having publications may give weight to what I am saying, but at the end of the day I must be the one that starts speaking.

PhD Diary – March 2021

One of my earliest anticipations for the PhD was that there was going to be a lot of reading. While there is a large amount, it is not as much as I thought there would be. I always had this belief that doctoral students become an encyclopaedia in their area of study. Now undertaking this process myself, it is clear that is not the case. There is this innate desire when approaching a new topic to read as much as you can. To build up this reservoir of information, from which to create theories or test existing ones. Taking that approach risks getting buried in reading, not understanding the question you want to answer and vice versa.

It is far more reasonable to frame your reading in the context of building a network or web of knowledge. Each source you read is a node of information, but it is up to you to connect them together to construct the network. When reading, asking yourself where it fits within your network helps place research within wider contexts, helping identify gaps in literature. The quality of your research is far more important than the quantity. Which brings up a key consideration; how do you organise your research?

For me, this realisation came when reflecting at my method of managing references. I used the Mendeley Reference Manager software as it was something I was familiar with. The benefits of being able to import a PDF and make annotations, highlight, and write notes was useful. Yet, I found that I could not visualise connections between different pieces of literature. This was especially prevalent when reading studies that touch upon many themes. I kept building this large collection of literature and struggled to organise it in a way that made sense to me. That was when a fellow PhD student nearing the end of their studies brought up using NVivo as a way of organising literature.

NVivo was something I was familiar with as I utilised it for my undergraduate degree. My dissertation involved analysing around three hours of interviews, so I needed something that allowed me to pick apart the themes. I used little of the software features outside of highlighting and attaching themes to text. Because of this, I never considered using it as a reference manager. Also, NVivo was not built for the way I intended to use it, as it focuses on qualitative & mixed method data analysis. All that aside, being able to make themes and attach quotes from literature to them, establishing relationships between themes, create mind maps and memos, explore which files connect to each other in the larger network meant that I could organise literature how I saw fit. No longer would I fear the dreaded “Where was that one quote? That would be perfect here!” moment.

What works for one person will not work for another. For some, a granular and logic-based approach like NVivo is exactly what they need. Others may prefer using Zotero, EndNote or Mendeley, which allows grouping literature into collections and has features like web integrations or making citing references easier. I still have a backup Zotero library that contains all my references for easy bibliographies or sources that do not work in NVivo. The main takeaway from this is that whichever you choose, what is important is organising it in a way that allows the most efficient construction and change of your mental network. Knowing where things fit in your network makes constructing new knowledge far easier.

PhD Diary – February 2021

Here in the UK as of writing this post, children have returned to face-to-face teaching. I have spoken with people who work with Early Years (3-4 yrs) and Key Stage 1 (5-7 yrs), and they explained how many are months behind at a crucial point in their education. It is incontrovertible at this point to say that remote teaching has had a large impact on student learning. Within Higher Education, many have shown a remarkable adaptability at both a student perspective, but also from an educator’s as well. For people that show the ability to direct their own learning, we may see more blended teaching methods in the future. However, there are parts of the face-to-face experience that are not replaceable with a virtual variant.

As students return, it has given me a chance to reflect on the past year of remote learning and my personal experience. When teaching first went remote, I was about halfway through my Master’s thesis. That gave me the experience of postgraduate study in both a normal environment and a virtual one. It was rather an abrupt change to my studies and not having the option to be on campus did disrupt my usual workflow. Losing access to certain literature and face-to-face meetings was the largest impact of the lockdown. Upon submission of my thesis, there was little celebration compared to my undergraduate degree, and soon after I was starting my PhD.

Many current postgraduates will tell you that a PhD can be a lonely endeavour, and lockdown has only made that worse. I miss the serendipitous conversations with my peers, discovering new approaches to your work. Everything is now through emails and Zoom calls, which lacks that ‘water-cooler’ conversation that makes you feel a part of the university community. In terms of work ethic, conducting study from home has been a significant challenge. I pointed this out in previous posts, but I have difficulty with motivation and managing my time. During my time as an undergraduate, I would go into campus to be around others who are working, as it helped motivate myself to work as well. Not having that means the place I work and the place that I relax is one and the same. That being said, remote working is not all bad. The main benefit is that it is a comfortable place where if things get stressful, I can break away from what I am doing and go do something else. I have had moments where an idea has popped into my head when playing a game, I briefly stop playing and then make a quick note or find some reading around it for later. That ability to choose when I work has been liberating, helping me try out different techniques in reading & writing.

For many, remote learning is a blessing and for others it is a curse. For me, I see it as both and that a personal balance between the two is the ideal. The campus environment encourages deep thought, is a motivator for work in of itself and has accessible short social conversations. On the other hand, the home environment is one of comfort and exploration, where I can not only think about my work but also about myself. I look forward to being back on campus, but for now I want to best use the remote environment to prepare myself for when that time hopefully arrives.