Publishing, presenting, posters. A crash course to getting lost in your first year

Originally posted 20th May 2014

I’m fairly certain that anyone reading this who has experienced the wonders of a PhD will laugh and shake their head in fond exasperation at their memories of the exuberance they had in the first year of the doctoral programme – the very same exuberance that stops me from getting more than 5-6 hours of sleep a night. I’m fairly sure they’d stress its transient nature, and how it pops in and out of your life as it pleases. ‘How adorable, they’re still so optimistic,’ I can hear them saying.

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And to be honest, it’s not just those who know what it is I haven’t realised yet. My supervisors – a truly wonderful team  – have taken to warning me against taking on too much. I think they’re trying to train me to say ‘no’. If you’ll remember, in my last post I became an eco-warrior for the 1st year PhD student – Recyle Your Material! Right? Right. Except this really shouldn’t translate to non-academic publication, presentation and a poster, because, as it turns out, even with the same material, on top of your research, teaching (icky practical lab work or exhausting scientific field trips) it’s  a lot of work.

So, with gentle prodding and much, much digging of heels into the sand, I ended up opting out of doing my poster presentation. Now, as far as the next couple of months is concerned I only have to give a presentation, submit my first article to the editors, complete my RDC2 and prepare for my mini-VIVA. By the end of the Summer (I’m ignoring July completely and hoping for August) complete another chapter, and start the research for a couple of others – this is before the next semester starts in October and I begin the joys of teaching. I also need to find time to take on another 2 MRes electives to get my PGD.

This, apparently, is a very effective way to get lost in the first year of your PhD. I feel as if I haven’t actually touched research or any structural components of my thesis in a while. I have hassled numerous archivists and the people who give your permission to records, stressing the utmost importance of my requests, only to have given the archivists radio silence now that the permissions have come through.

So in short, it’s an entirely different form of procrastination. How do we avoid it – well we kind of can’t. Presentations, conferences, publishing, publishing and publishing are critical elements in your PhD. At least for folk like me, who are using it as training for what I see as my future career.

I think a more appropriate skill would be learning how to manage this form of procrastination. Because as it turns out, it’s really, really easy to ignore your research.

The way I’ve handled it personally, has been to work double time. No early afternoons, or lazy days ‘working’ from home. I’ve been in early and left later and none of this nonsense about taking an hour for lunch. Although weirdly, I’ve also had to learn to admit defeat with the added workload. I have seen me in the past few weeks waste an hour staring at the same sentence or puzzling over the same wording in the RDC2 form. If it’s not working, move on to something else. I was astounded at how quickly I got things done once I got the hang of it. Honestly – here I am finished all my targets with two weeks to go. Redrafted and everything.

I have also realised the supreme importance of a wall planner. Need to get me one of those.

The Article

I went to a seminar on academic publishing, and what struck me was the rigmarole. It was structured, you had ticky boxes to check, and so on. Well I’ve just written an article for a non-academic publication and made the mistake of thinking it would be pretty easy. Took me two months and more drafts than I’ve ever done of anything to get it finished.

Problem 1: The language. Because it is a non-academic publication, I couldn’t runaway with all the fancy language of the day. You have to make your paper accessible, and not just to fellow academics. So although we want to sound very clever and all that, you wouldn’t really be doing yourself any favours. You probably wouldn’t even get read – if published in the first place. Because, well, in that case say hello to your readers…

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This was the hardest bit for me. I can write quite freely, but when it comes to my research, not so much. Which brings us into problem 2: re-writes. I thought I had written it quite well but nearly had to do a full rewrite. Resubmission to my supervisors: some of my points weren’t clear enough. Resubmission again: “Jennifer a general audience might get offended at the term ‘lunatic'”. Whoops. Resubmission numero three: the rewrite has meant that whole new parts don’t make sense. Resubmission four: still on my computer as the final version, read the style guide, have 20-odd footnotes when you’re supposed to avoid using footnotes…
That minor blimp asides, I’m so pleased with the final result. But academic publication or not, make no mistake – it’s a little bit of a marathon to get there.

The Presentation
At this point I’ve only compiled my presentation and practiced it – I don’t actually give it until the 28th of this month.
As you might have noticed, this is a lot later than I anticipated in a previous post. I suffered from a distinct lack of spine in approaching the leaders of the student-led PG seminar series and so have to give my first presentation in a department-wide conference day. With the second-years. Because I opted out of doing a poster.
So my first piece of advise? Get over yourself. Get it done.
Saying that – although I’m sure I’ll be nervous on the day I am feeling pretty confident about it. I’m using my article as the basis for it, and simply relating it back to my research as a whole. For someone as awkward around people as I can be, and although I wish I’d done it sooner, I’m glad I had the time to get it together.
Another lesson learnt from this, is that it’s never too late to start playing with PowerPoint, or whatever software you want to use for presentations. Viewing my slide show for the first time I didn’t know what was happening. Bits were popping in and out when they weren’t supposed to, and I won’t even tell you about when I tried to zoom-in on a slide. Learn the limitations and reaches of your software, because it’s all very well having a great idea but it won’t get you anywhere if it’s outwith the capabilities of the software available to you.

That’s actually what led me to drop doing a poster in the first place. I had an idea to do this jazzy, electronic number only to find out it absolutely had to be on paper. That in mind you might want to make doubly sure of the medium you’re supposed to be working on. If the room of your presentation doesn’t support projection etc, guess what your poster/presentation isn’t going to be?

And all the rest…
I won’t go too much into the RDC2 or the mini-viva they put you through with it. By the time it’s come along, you’ve been working on your methodologies, your literature reviews and your general introductions – that’s more or less what your RDC2 is. Apart from some timetabling and that pesky personal development plant, you’re good to go. I found it miles easier than the RDC1 I have to admit. So, thankfully, I haven’t had any problems in this area. Surprising since it’s all happening in an accelerated time-frame for me because of holiday clashes between me and my Director of Studies.
And my viva? I have no idea what to expect. But rather than dreading it I’m actually chuffed that we have one. Since it grants or denies us our PhD at the end, it’ll be good practice I think. Although, my supervisors have told me that it’s more or less a plagiarism check rather than any rigorous scrutiny of your work and/or arguments thus far.
All in all I’m starting to appreciate how intensive doctoral programmes can be. Gone are the lazy afternoons with PDFs in the coffee shop. I have a kettle in my office now, instead.
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