Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Sheree Bekker who shares her take on academic workflows with us. Sheree is originally from South Africa, and is now based in Australia as an international PhD scholar at the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Federation University Australia. She researches injury prevention within the context of sport. Sheree is fast approaching the end of her second year of candidature, and in this post shares what she has learnt in the process. Follow her on twitter @shereebekker


My schedule consists of not having a schedule. I have a process; “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end, and/or a natural series of changes”, according to Google. My PhD candidature thus far has been a lesson in paradox: the only certainty is uncertainty.

I recently converted my workspace (my actual desk-space) to a paperless, cloud-based system that I have found works best for my productivity (I use a combination of Scrivener, NVivo, Dropbox, Papers3, Asana, InstaGANTT – all synced on my iPhone, iPad, and Macbook Air). This means that I can work from anywhere, at any time. This is not only essential to working in the world of modern academia, but also for my personal workflow rhythms.

My workspace (here I am talking the figurative space) is continually evolving. I am intrinsically motivated, and relish being a researcher. Lists, timelines, and goals drive my productivity – and I take pride in my organisation and administration abilities. Yes, these are essential skills of a modern PhD candidate; we do not get to channel the academics of old by having long philosophical debates anymore (well, not as much as we would like anyway). There is a drive for PhD scholars to treat their candidature as a 9-5 job. This is, after-all, a training period for the work that many of us hope to do after completion. That noxious expression - ‘work-life balance’ is creeping into academia, an environment that has traditionally not been influenced by the ‘rules’ of the corporate world. I understand the concept of having clearly defined work and play, but I have found that this just does not appeal to me, or work for me. Instead of berating myself for not achieving this, I have learnt to accept the process that I work by, and to let go of the 9-5 schedule rather than trying to force work-life balance. This does not mean that I work too hard, or too much – on the contrary – I work smart.

Modern academia is moving. It is relocating to a space that encompasses facets such as location-independence, open-access databases, and social media. None of these are dependent on the traditional idea of a 9-5 office job.

I relish the research culture of being part of a world-class centre, and that I am able to immerse myself in the world of academia, but I do believe that this is changing rapidly. This research culture is now being cultivated on social networks and via blogs. Introverts, like me, find this change invaluable. The ability to foster and incubate ideas that we may not necessarily want to share at an actual event where the objective is: ‘network – go!’ is a revelation. This has also alleviated my frustration with my inability to get serious writing done at our open-plan office, as I now use my office-time to do those tasks where I don’t need to be free from distraction, and thus can be mentally available for my extroverted colleagues.

Perhaps because I am intrinsically motivated, and perhaps because I am passionate about what I am researching, I prefer to call my academic schedule a process. I have learnt that my process differs by the hour, day, week, fortnight, month, and even year. There is also a major difference in how I work in the summer as compared to the winter months, and also between daylight hours and night-time. I find that I am most productive when I do not tie myself to a set schedule, and can work when I am ready to do so. I have daily work rhythms that are flexible, and I use the Pomodoro technique liberally.

As a very specific example, I recently wrote the first draft of a paper that I hope to publish - I am completing my PhD by publication. This draft was crafted with the support of three supervisors, but for some reason the paper did not ‘flow’. In the world of schedules I would have slogged away on that paper for days on end to no avail, or - more probably - procrastinated heavily. Instead, I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. This was not the time. This paper needed time to meld in our collective consciousness. I continued working on other projects, and decided not to fret about this paper. Lo-and-behold, a couple of weeks later on a train ride back from a meeting, my supervisor and I saw the forest for the trees. The main aim of the paper was actually much bigger than what I had originally intended. Instead of writing about the trees as the aim, my aim was actually to write about the forest, with the species of trees as the context (figuratively speaking). I had been too close to see the forest for the trees. *Note my paper is not really about trees, or forests!

I can see how it could be frustrating for someone who is tied to a schedule to allow time for such a variable process, and to embrace it. It is important to realise that there is value in the process - that the time taken for the idea to meld is invaluable in the long run. Of course, this would not have been possible if I was not cognizant of my personal process, and if I had not been clear in communicating this to my supervisors. I always ensure that I am working on multiple projects simultaneously, and build a buffer into my timelines to allow for my process.

There is comfort in knowing that the unplanned process is a schedule in itself. There is certainty in uncertainty.

This view may change as I (hopefully) move from being a PhD scholar into the world of modern academia, but once again, that will be a process that I will be equipped to deal with, if and when the time comes.

The best laid schemes of mice and men…

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