This blog comes to you from the interdisciplinary Researcher Professional Development team at the University of Sheffield. We’ll be updating on researcher issues, national news and trends, key achievements for the team, and other things that research staff, and staff development professionals will find of interest.

This post follows on from part 1 which was a plea to supervisors to actively promote development in writing from early on in the PhD. 

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAY-AAAAJDI4M2VkMDFjLTNjNjAtNGRlNy1hNTgwLTEzMjE5ZmYxZWJiOA.jpgThis post is for supervisors wondering what they can actually do in the early stages of the doctorate to get their PhD’ers to learn research writing. It offers a curation of ‘in practice’ ideas that supervisors can use to frame and cultivate a gradual development of writing, drawn together form the recent, and very readable, blogosphere literature.

There are also existing and very comprehensive book resources on this topic. You can’t go far wrong with this book by Pat Thomson & Barbara Kamler, or this book edited by Susan Carter & Deborah Laurs which has brought together all-of-the-truth on research writing from all the people who really know.

I want to note too, that have had responses to my blog part 1, from supervisors who strongly disagree with me and feel that a final ‘writing up period’ is the right thing to do, because it affords a PhD researcher months in which to focus on their writing in real depth. I understand this point of view, especially coming from people who (as they said themselves) long for the luxury of time to think and write. It’s easy to look back and wish for what we no longer have. And hey, for lots of folk ‘writing up’ works fine. I don’t disagree…except when I do, because…

I lead the Thesis Mentoring programme for the University of Sheffield and have paired up over 400 PhD researchers who struggle with immersive ‘writing up’. They feel immersed. As in, like they’re drowning.

The Thesis Mentoring programme is not a source of advice on writing, or support for developing the content of the thesis. It offers a confidential relationship in which PhD researchers can work on their emotional relationship with writing, and with their PhD project, helping them to better think, and to plan, and to face up to what needs doing. It’s unfettered by the ‘agenda’ of the mentor, who, by their neutrality, offers what a supervisor can’t. In this way it’s complementary to what you provide in supervision.

A very quick content analysis of the total 566 applications for thesis mentoring revealed that just over 70% of applications contain one or more of these words: anxiety, stress, panic, upset, or worry. It’s worth saying explicitly that my own research across different research-intensive universities in the last few years, a huge literature base, Twitter (#AcWri), and common sense, tells me this isn’t just a Sheffield issue. So what’s going on for these people who don’t thrive when working in this way? They tell me that:

  • Having very little variety in your day to day life can be bad for motivation, especially when the task is hard and draining, and at times when it’s not going well. Researchers have described how their whole sense of self-worth can become linked to how their writing is going. Especially as…
  • There’s no easy way to know if you’re doing a ‘good job’. There are no grades in doctoral writing, and when PhD researchers hear ‘it’s fine’ they find it difficult to know if fine means ‘just good enough’ or if fine means ‘entirely without problems’. Absent, contradictory, or ambiguous feedback is commonly received by this group. Multiply the problems by the number of supervisors commenting on various drafts. And…
  • We aren’t very good in academia at recognising the value of the all rounder — myths persist around how ‘serious researchers’ give up their hobbies and interests to dedicate time to the PhD. Fear of being shamed and blamed leads researchers to work harder, and harder but not smarter. In some uber-competitive research environments, taking a break or holiday, or not putting in a ridiculous 80h week can get you labelled as a ‘slacker’. People forget to take care of themselves, and end up burning out. And…
  • They’re frightened of you, their supervisor. Or intimidated by you, your authority, your style, your behaviour, and they no longer trust you. We don’t disclose things we’re worried about, to people we don’t trust. Isolation can start as a self-preservation mechanism, and become a habit of avoidance in itself.

The high stakes of the doctorate, the intense interpersonal relationships, the length of the project with relatively few milestones, the uncertainty around progress, standards, how to act on feedback, and being ‘good enough’ set up the ideal conditions for procrastination (paralysis). In their words…

“I spent ages not really sure what was meant to be happening with my thesis, and I should have said something sooner but I was too embarrassed.”

“If I could go back, I would have started writing earlier. Particularly in mapping out chapters and making a template for my writing based on ongoing figures so I could establish where there clear gaps that needed filling. Setting aside writing days/afternoons would have helped this.”

“I should have begun the writing up phase a lot sooner and also made sure that I did not ‘get stuck’ on (obsessed with) trying to make an idea or task work at the expense of making time to progress the writing.”

“I look back and I kick myself for my poor use of small pieces of time. I should have plotted my data sooner, should have written my methods sooner, should have worked to a plan”

As their supervisor, you are the one with both the influence and the discipline-knowledge to help researchers understand the rules and the undertaking early enough that they can do something about it. To develop good writing habits, they need your permission and approval to be in place, and they need you to suggest things they can’t themselves come up, with because they don’t know what the possibilities are… You play a role in helping PhD researchers to think through their approach to writing, and in endorsing their plans for writing.

Blog posts sharing ideas of how to help doctoral researchers develop early writing are compiled below with links to original sources where you can read further:

Critique or criticism: “While critical review is a core element of supervision, it can be a fine balance between ensuring a good review and being too critical.” by Prof. Lynne Parkinson

Writing trouble: “Three pieces of bad feedback and some suggestions for how to do it better” by Dr Inger Mewburn

Reverse outlining: “Regardless of whether or not you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text.” by Dr Rachel Cayley

Managing feedback on writing in team supervision: “how to handle the feedback from two or more supervisors who may not always completely agree on what the writing needs.” By Dr Cally Guerin

De-mystifying doctoral writing“I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.” by Dr Amanda French

Getting students started with writing: “For many, the biggest blocker to writing…is actually realising it’s time to get on and getting started with writing. The second is managing writing as a piecemeal process that fits around other work — nudging several projects, or several strands of a project forward at once.” by Dr Kay Guccione

Make the hidden work visible – writing tasks that academics do that we don’t talk about: “could supervisors and the academy be doing more to assist new scholars acquire the capacity to helpfully, fairly and equitably review the work of their peers?” by Dr Sue Starfield

Shake up your thinking, and your routine: “In facing the reality of busy life as a busy academic and thesis students… we can create more time to write if we try four strategies” by Dr Evonne Miller

Encouraging robust scholars: “How can we encourage students to critically give and receive?” by Dr Steve Hutchinson

Don’t try to write classy: “concern about PhDers adopting “classy” academic writing early on” by Prof. Pat Thompson

Encouraging openness: “What can we do as supervisors to enlighten and guide our early career researchers and improve the productivity of our research groups?” by Dr Rachel Cowen

De-mystifying doctoral writing: “I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.” by Dr Amanda French

As always your comments and discussion are welcome.

This is a guest post for WriteFest (#AcWriFest17) by Sarah Muller & Liz Trueman, Postgraduate Researchers and Writing Retreat Organisers, School of Languages & Cultures, University of Sheffield.

AHwriting.pngFinding time and space for productive writing can be a difficult task. Sometimes looming deadlines, missed extensions, a judging blank page or that nagging feeling of guilt can’t move you to get writing – sometimes these can even be the reasons why you’ve developed a writing block. We have found that whether you work in an office space or from home, there is always one more thing to prepare, one more email that has been sitting in your inbox for a while, or one more meeting that you need to attend. All of these things, as important as they may be, keep you from doing that one thing that you’ve been meaning to do for weeks now: write.

We know this feeling all too well, and when we spotted an email advertising the Think Ahead writing retreats in spring 2017, we thought we should give it a go. We signed up for an afternoon session that was running on the very same day, even though we were not sure exactly what would await us.

Before the first break, we knew: we had been more productive in that first writing block than we had been in a long time. The entire afternoon session was such a success that we decided then and there that we wanted to organise our own writing retreats for our faculty, which would run alongside the Think Ahead retreats. Our retreats would also offer a social space for members of the faculty to get together, meet new peers, be productive, and address the elephant in the room: creating time and space for writing is a challenge that most of us face, but not many of us talk about.

Our writing retreats were founded on the desire for better socialisation and networking within our own research community, which would in turn create a supportive writing environment.  Research can be an isolating experience and we saw the opportunity to make writing an inclusive activity.  We started small and have expanded the retreats, initially trialing the project within just our own School of Languages and Cultures.

While there was an encouraging demand for the project, we soon received requests to attend from members of the other Arts & Humanities Schools.  We found we had the space in the retreats, and the confidence in ourselves, to open our project to the entire Faculty and this has been our biggest success.  The Arts & Humanities Writing Retreats bring our Faculty together in a way which overcomes the usual disciplinary divides and we, as well as our retreaters, have made new connections, friends and research links.

Clearing your calendar for a day or a half-day to attend a writing retreat is a move your future self will always thank you for: by sharing writing goals, updating each other on progress throughout the day, being driven by peer pressure, and most important of all, writing offline without the distraction of emails or phones, you will find writing retreats extremely productive and rewarding. In addition, the social aspect of the day (as well as the snacks, some say) make the Arts & Humanities Writing Retreats a date in our calendars that we are always excited to organise and run.

If you are in the University of Sheffield Faculty of Arts & Humanities and you have a deadline coming up, or have just missed an extension, why not try a writing retreat and book a space for the 30th November?

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If I told you a PhD student developed writing skills I doubt you would be surprised. “Of course we develop writing skills – we have to slog over thousands of words to create a thesis!”

writing hard work

As with any skill, the heading ‘writing skills’ hides a multitude of complexity and diversity about what it actually entails and how you have demonstrated it. If you look in a dictionary you will find a mix of definitions;

  • The activity or skill of writing
  • A sequence of letters, words or symbols marked on a surface
  • The activity or occupation of composing text for publication
  • Written work, especially with regard to its style or quality
  • Books, stories or other written works.

We also have a phrase that uses the word – “the writing was on the wall” – which means there were clear signs that something negative or unpleasant was going to happen.

Could you clearly articulate the writing skills and attributes you have developed as a researcher? What would you include? As always, I would encourage creativity and open-mindedness when thinking about this – you have all had different experiences after all! Here’s a starting point;

  • Articles, chapters, books
  • Abstracts
  • Funding applications, travel grants
  • Ethics approval
  • Project plans
  • Posters
  • Reports
  • Log books
  • Updates
  • Biographies
  • Recommendations and conclusions
  • Book reviews
  • Editing
  • Proof reading
  • Documents
  • Newsletters
  • Instructions
  • Manuals
  • Guides
  • Teaching materials
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Feedback and marking
  • Emails
  • Webpages
  • Blog posts
  • Twitter contributions
  • Publicity material
  • CVs, application forms and personal statements
  • Plays
  • Poetry
  • Stories
  • Compositions
  • Business plans
  • Computer code
  • Equations

You might think I am stretching the point but hopefully you can see what I mean. There will be things I haven’t thought of so add your own. I’ve just created a simple list here – what you did, how you did it, why you did it, the context you did it in all make your experiences richer and more individual. Regardless of what you’ve done, you can see that talking about ‘writing skills’ will never do you and your experience justice.

Knowing what writing skills you have is one thing. Reflecting on what aspects of writing you are good at, what you most enjoy and what you would like to use in your career is a different thing entirely. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you want to or should! I see a lot of researchers who tell me that writing has been the least enjoyable part of their research experience. Obviously I don’t assume they mean all writing, so I find out what they do mean and help them clarify what aspects of writing they are referring to and the reasons why. They’ll often then be able to identify the writing they do enjoy and understand themselves better. After all, can you think of a job that’s likely to appeal to a researcher that wouldn’t involve writing?

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Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.

Job title and company: Principal Scientist, Cobra Biologics Ltd

FullSizeRender.jpgI work as a Principal R&D Scientist at Cobra Biologics, a contract development and manufacturing organisation (CDMO) based in Keele, Staffordshire. I was hired as a senior Scientist in October 2016 after 6 years of postdoctoral research, so I still feel relatively new to the industry world with plenty of room to learn. Read the rest of this entry »

This is a guest post by Kate Petherbridge, White Rose Libraries Executive Manager

White Rose University Press (WRUP) is an open access publisher and we are supported jointly by the libraries of the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. The press was established in 2016 and one of the major drivers behind its creation was to support the Open Access agenda and to meaningfully engage with changing publishing environment.

Supporting academic freedoms Read the rest of this entry »

With Writefest 2017 in its 3rd week (the motto this week is ‘I write therefore I am’, and with our new Think Further weekly coaching prompts also focusing on writing in November, it would be difficult to have a blog post today on something else than writing. So here I am, pausing and pondering about writing. A year ago, I posted a Think Ahead blog post ‘the writer within’ advocating that “becoming a researcher is…becoming a writer”. As part of this previous blogpost, I proposed 30 ideas for writing development from the many hundreds than one may consider. Did any of you Think Ahead blog readers take up some of these ideas? It would be good to hear which you may have trialed and whether they helped. Read the rest of this entry »

Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.

Job title and company: Assistant Director of Academic Services, The Institute of Cancer Research, London

Approximate salary range for your type of role: £42k-£60k

amy moore.jpgI studied for my PhD at the University of Bristol in the Colorectal Tumour Biology Group and completed it in Spring 2009. After that, I took a postdoctoral research position working in paediatric cancer at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).  I spent a year working on brain tumours before I made the move out of the lab and into researcher development. I spent six years building the researcher development programme as part of the Learning and Development Team, and in 2016 I moved into Academic Services, Read the rest of this entry »

This is a guest post by Devon Smith, PhD Researcher and Medical Post Grad Society Social Butterfly

As a student myself, I think I have a fairly good idea about how my fellow students feel about writing.

Read the rest of this entry »

This post is part of WriteFest (#AcWriFest17) for PhD supervisors wondering how to get their students to write their thesis. It addresses some of the ‘in theory’ points that cover the supervisor’s role in developing doctoral writing. Part 2 (here) will cover some ‘in practice’ ideas.

Learning PhD writing: a passive model

FIGURE 1.pngThe assessment part of the PhD is almost always a lengthly written document — the doctoral thesis. It’s been this way for so many years now; yet we repeat the cycle of recruiting research students, encouraging them to spend the vast majority of their time on data collection, and assuming that the writing will take care of itself somewhere near the end. Read the rest of this entry »

Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.

Job title and company: Independent Consultant in Research Commercialisation and Intellectual Property

Stuart Fraser.jpgMy PhD taught me a lot. It taught me project management. It taught me self-sufficiency. It taught me how to survive on my own with absolutely no support. It taught me that academia can be ruthless and cynical. Frankly, it wasn’t for me. But when you are a 24-year-old with expertise in a field that is of interest to almost nobody within 3000 miles of where you live, you also learn how to make compromises. Read the rest of this entry »