Management, Mind-Mapping, and the Mental Meltdown

Sixteen weeks between posts. Not quite the amount of time I’m aiming for (eight would be reasonable, four miraculous), but it will have to do for now.

I recently attended a workshop on ‘Research Management’ for the college’s graduate training requirements. These are workshops that help grad students develop skills to do the practical side of PhD (or Masters) work, and I have so far found them to be really useful. Especially when I learn that there are things I need to be worrying about that I didn’t even realize I needed to be worrying about! (See also: sinkholes forming under my bed)

The courses really are helpful, though – one was an hour spent learning different MS Word techniques* for producing a long piece of writing. I’m aware that this sounds pretty trivial, but I’d much rather take one hour out of my day and leave with solid knowledge (and a really useful packet of information!) than spend the next 3 years fighting with my computer wondering why my formatting looks so god-awful.

With any course that aims to help students get the most out of software, there are basic components to learn, mostly involving knowing what options are available within the software package. For example, until the course I had no idea I could create a Master Document and Subdocuments within a Word Document. This keeps the margins, formatting, and page numbers all uniform.  More importantly, though, I feel like I understand the software I’m using. I think many people use Word without really taking a look at the program, and when the outcome of the writing is something as important as a PhD thesis it’s a Good Thing to know what you’re dealing with.

But not all training courses are so straightforward. On Tuesday I attended a course about Managing Research**. As one would hope, it was well-organized and packed with information. I’d recommend it to any of my coursemates in a heartbeat. But not necessarily for the reasons one would assume.

While I left with a lot of new information about how to set and maintain goals, break down work into manageable tasks, and evaluate my current work, I also heard other PhD students speak about how they manage and achieve their own research goals. What came across most strongly was that many students don’t seem to know what works best for them. [It is important to note here that I can only speak from the point of view of a student of the Humanities, which seems to be a much more solitary research path, without much of the physical or social work environment (running experiments, working in a lab, etc.) of a program in the sciences.] These students have a solid idea of how they believe they are supposed to do research, and they become frustrated when, after a few months of a routine working out with productive results, suddenly it doesn’t seem to work anymore. Students begin to believe they’re not cut out for this, the doubt settles in, and work becomes a chore. Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone, but most PhDs I’ve spoken to have at one point or another had a similar type of mental meltdown. The causes can be academic, personal, or a combination of sources, but over the course of the PhD there seems to be a pretty good chance it will happen. I should know, I’ve been there, and that’s why this course was so helpful. I heard about other possible ways of achieving productive daily research, and also about other students’ struggles with the inevitable research slump.

Instead of focusing on why this happens, I’m going to offer some advice on how to get out of it without losing valuable research time. There are multiple options on how to get out of a research slump, from changing daily routine, to personal health (diet and exercise! they can help your brain!), to variety. I can really only offer an opinion on what worked for me, and for me, this last option was the most helpful. I’m used to being busy, but specifically busy doing a number of different things. So the most effective way for me to work is to have seven or eight small tasks that I can work on over the course of a day. I try to vary my surroundings, too – the library isn’t always the most productive place for me to work (can be cold, guy across the work table is a pen-tapper, etc.). Usually I work at home in the morning with coffee and breakfast, then take a break for a run/shower/lunch, and in the afternoon I take my work to the library or a coffee shop. Of course the day varies when I have a seminar or a course, but this is a pretty typical ‘research day.’ I also try to weigh my daily work in terms of importance to my overall PhD – I work on the most important tasks during the times of day when I’m at my most productive.

I also like to try out different research tools. One that I learned about in this training course was software called XMind (you can download it for free!). It lets you organize a major research project (or any project, really) so that all the components are visually available. For me, that’s a big help – to be able to see all the things that I need to do.

I just started playing with this software, so here’s a VERY simple example (I have much, much more to add, even this early on in my work) to show one type of visual map that’s possible to use:


The thing that looks like a sticky note with ‘DH’ on it? That’s a label – you can put them on any topic or subtopic you like. In this case, it means ‘Digital Humanities.’

This kind of visual research tool is an effective way to trick yourself into realizing that the PhD thesis isn’t one huge project (even though the end result will be) – instead, it becomes tons of little projects you can prioritize (XMind lets you do that, too!). So when the meltdown (god forbid that term ever becomes plural) happens, instead of letting it take over, you can set it aside, analyse it, and find a solution that works for you. And then blog about it.

Hopefully it won’t be sixteen weeks until the next time I can get something written up. I’m hosting an INFORM session (RHUL’s informal grad reading/discussion group) on the 14th about Beck Hansen’s new album, Song Reader – I’ve been working on a post about this ‘album’ and its place within the culture of popular and interactive music, so hopefully I can integrate some of the discussion ideas into my next post. (Personal challenges – also a good tool for research motivation!)

*IS995 – Producing your Thesis: Techniques using Word 2010, Feb 2013, Royal Holloway

**Managing Your Research, Dr. Steve Hutchinson, Feb 2013, Royal Holloway

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