Author Archives: Gillian Jack

Thesis Boot Camp

In January, I attended Dr Peta Freestone‘s Thesis Boot Camp (TBC) at the University of St Andrews. It took place over a weekend (Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and finishing on Sunday evening) and aimed to help some 30 doctoral students in their third or fourth years write 20,000 words of first draft quality thesis material.

Peta was a terrific motivational leader who was deeply encouraging, humorous and injected just enough friendly competition into the event. I had expected to write one , perhaps one and a half, chapters of my thesis over the weekend but was concerned about the maximum of three books allowed. In the end, I wrote two and a half chapters and didn’t look at any of the three books I’d brought with me. As well as having made that much progress on my thesis, TBC gave me increased confidence in my writing, and in being able to make significant progress quickly. It also renewed my enthusiasm for my thesis.

For every 5,000 words written, participants are awarded a squishy Lego brick. It’s surprisingly motivating.

TBC is an intense experience, particularly for someone who lives away from her institution and so rarely writes in company. The change from my solitary desk at home to working in a room with a large number of other students from different university departments was a jolt, but not a bad one. Everyone has their own writing practices and rituals, but moving away from your usual writing environment (even if you’re used to writing in company, you’re probably not used to writing in a hall with students you don’t know and without all of the books and materials you tend to rely upon) invites you to consider the practices which help you write and those which have become habits without significant benefit. For me (as I mentioned in a previous post), the preference for putting full footnotes in as I write is actually fairly time-consuming. At TBC, I opted to put the bare bones of the source in brackets to complete later in order to maintain my writing speed. It’s something I’m trying to keep doing at home.

TBCs are happening at various universities across the UK this year (and no doubt further afield- it was pioneered in Melbourne and is applicable to numerous types of PhD program, as long as writing a thesis of some length is required), so I thought I’d share my tips.

1. Prepare

The aim of TBC is to write as much as possible (with 20,000 words as a target). In order to do that, you need to know, broadly speaking, what you’re going to write about. I had plans for the chapters I was going to tackle already completed and I spent some time in the run up to the event looking over these and matching up my source material to the chapter sections I’d be using it in. This was incredibly useful, but in retrospect I could have done much more preparatory work. By late Sunday afternoon, I was running out of steam because I had written everything I had prepared, and more, and struggled to go on.

I cannot stress enough how important your preparation is. I recommend preparing way more material than you think it’s humanly possible to use in a weekend (the worst case scenario is that you use that material in the days after TBC, so it won’t be wasted effort). How ever much you think you can write, on your best days, with no distractions, prepare more than that. A lot more.

2. Embrace

There is a system underpinning Thesis Boot Camp. It’s not wildly prescriptive; it’s flexible, and no one’s going to check on if and how you’re working when you’re there. However, there were some strongly encouraged practices to help participants get the most out of the weekend. A key idea was to write, and not to edit. This sounds simple but the temptation to edit and correct is ever-present, especially when how doctoral students write is (almost?) as important as what we write. Going back to correct and edit, even to sort out typos, slows you down and breaks your train of thought. Resist. It took a fair bit of effort for me initially to not go and sort out those wavy red lines, but learning to quieten the inner critic with a firm “I’ll sort that later,” was useful.

Another recommendation of TBC is to use the Pomodoro Technique to focus and to make sure that you take some regular, short breaks. The basic principle is that you work for 25 minutes and then have a 5 minute break (constituting 1 “pomodoro”). You then chain these, with longer breaks after 3 or 4 pomodoros. I’ve had mixed success with this in the past but gave it another go at TBC, and I’m glad I did. I can’t say that my pomodoro-ing at home as always been so rigorous since, but it’s proven to be useful nonetheless. There’s also something entertaining about seeing a room full of people silently tapping at their keyboards get up virtually in unison and head towards the coffee room every 25 minutes with no obvious external stimulus to move.

In short, embrace the process and you’ll get the most out of it. I know some people were editing as they went, or were aiming for something of higher quality than first draft. I have no doubt that they ended up with some useful work done over the weekend, but for my money, go for broke and write as much as you can of shitty first draft that you can bash into shape later.

3. Break

It’s a tiring process, physically as well as mentally. I scheduled the Monday afterwards as a day off, and kept it. There’s a temptation to keep up the momentum and write frantically in the subsequent days, but you need a break. Peta recommends (and I agree) that you leave your TBC drafts for at least a week, preferably longer, before starting to edit them. This may not be possible, but leaving them for a time will help you to come back to them with fresh eyes. I’ve found it very difficult to edit my work without a sufficient break between writing and re-writing, so I’ve left my TBC drafts for as long as possible. I know that they’re not good writing, but I’m confident that they can be re-written into something useful. They key thing was to get my ideas down and to see what needs more work, what does work, and what I need to re-think altogether.

Over the Thesis Boot Camp weekend, I wrote 17,606 words (and made that up to the target 20,000 a few days later). The St Andrews cohort had reached a cumulative 250,000 words by the end of Saturday. Sadly, we didn’t have a total for the end of Sunday, but I think 400,000 words is not an outlandish estimate. That’s the equivalent of 5 theses.

My Top 10 Apps & Programs for Research

My Top 10(ish) Windows and Android Apps and Programs for Research  (and some mild stationery ranting)

I frequently stumble upon lists of invaluable apps for researchers which assume everyone is using an iPad, if not a Mac. I, for a variety of reasons, do not. I use a laptop running Windows 7 plus Android tablet (Samsung Tab S) and an Android smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S5) packed with apps I use for studying. As I don’t plan on switching to Apple any time soon (ever), I thought it might be useful to list the programs and apps that are available on non-Apple systems (though some are available on multiple platforms).

10 Programs for Postgrads

Writing

I would love to use Scrivener for writing my thesis, but until it integrates properly with bibliographical software, it’s not an option for me. History theses need a ton of references and if I don’t do them as I go, I mess them up.

Therefore, I use old faithful, MS Word. Word gets a lot of stick, some of it deserved. Some of it is based on ancient incarnations of the program and which aren’t really an issue any more. Some complaints are based on aesthetics, and I quite like Word’s interface. I have recently upgraded to Office 2016, which does not seem to have greatly changed from the previous version. There are also apps for Word, Excel etc for Android which I’ve found very handy.

Pros: it’s ubiquitous- just about everyone can open a .doc/.docx file; it integrates with bibliographical software (see below); it’s flexible and adaptable, in terms of styles, templates, and fonts etc; language integration- I need to be able to tell my word processor that chunks of text are in Italian so I don’t have to look at wavy red lines on foreign words; track changes and comments- much of the feedback from my supervisors comes this way; apps available for on the go working.

Cons: It has a reputation for instability (though I haven’t experienced this in years of using it); some people find it too cluttered and complex.

Many screens. Many screens.

Many screens. Many screens. There would be more but I took the photo on my phone.

Bibliography

There are numerous bibliographical programs available, some free, some not. I use Zotero. It’s not the prettiest- it has a distinct Windows 3.1 feel to it- but it’s utterly practical and does exactly what I need. It integrates with Word and allows me to edit the footnote format to suit the requirements of my department (which is, slightly inconveniently, like Chicago style, but not exactly the same, so off-the-peg formatting isn’t quite right). Adapting the style was a bit of a faff, but you only need to do it once. Zotero is free, with upgrade options for storing all your papers online. I store everything in the cloud and don’t need to store anything this way so merrily use the free version with no drawbacks. There is so far no app for Zotero but I can’t say that I’ve needed bibliographical management software on the go, so it’s not been a problem for me.

Reading

For reading on my tablet I tend to use ezPDF Reader app, but as Evernote and now Dropbox apps let you read pdfs, I find I use ezPDF less and less. Although I can annotate in Evernote, however, the annotation options in ezPDF are more varied and are finer, so I’m not giving up on it quite yet.

I have a Kindle and the Kindle apps on my tablet and laptop, and Google Books, but I’m no convert to their use for academic texts. I use my Kindle almost exclusively for reading fiction in bed or while travelling, and the app for image-heavy texts. Google Books is good for finding some weird old texts but I haven’t found it to be useful for anything else. That said, there are a surprising number of Italian convent constitutions available, for which I am grateful.

Notes

All of my notes and transcriptions from the archives are stored in Evernote*. I love Evernote. I can’t stress this enough. I love Evernote. It does all the things!

You can use Evernote in a variety of ways, on a variety of platforms and I’m sure everyone works slightly differently with it. I primarily use the stand alone program on the laptop and the app on my tablet. It’s a little difficult to describe really. In addition to archival work, I store articles from the internet that I either want to read later, or want to keep. There is a Web Clipper tool for browsers which lets you save pages to Evernote quickly and simply. You can also upload various other files. I primarily save pdfs of journal articles in this way, but it will take audio, images, docs etc. You can also just type right into the program and create notes that way. You can do all of this as easily from the app as the program itself. Evernote can also use your camera to photograph images, documents and business cards. It has fairly decent OCR software so it can “read” documents you’ve stored this way. It even has a bash at reading my photos of medieval Italian documents from the archives. It’s rarely successful with the handwriting, but frankly, sometimes I feel like I’m rarely successful with some of them, so I don’t judge it for that.

Screenshot of my current Evernote view

Screenshot of my current Evernote view. There’s probably something embarrassing here that I’ve not noticed.

It stores in folders and by tags, so you can easily cross-reference. Cross-referencing is particularly useful for academic work, and Evernote has helped me to make connections I’d likely have missed otherwise. As well as tagging, it has a great search facility and you can link one note to another to remind yourself of the connections. I also save conferences and calls for papers in Evernote, and set reminders as the date approaches so the program will nudge me to submit something. I have a note listing library books I want to check out, and a reminder set for the next time I’m in St Andrews so I don’t go to the library and instantly forget what I wanted to get.

As well storing hunners** of information, it syncs it across platforms (I have it on my phone and tablet too, and it’s available on the web) so you can access anything while you’re online, and you can make some or all notes available offline too. You can use Evernote for free, but the paid version offers some very useful additional functionality that is well worth the £35 per year. For me, searching inside pdfs and other documents I’ve stored in Evernote is incredibly useful, as is being able to annotate pdfs.

Proper paper and pen, for proper people

Proper paper and pen, for proper people

I also take lots of notes by hand. I find that I am better able to recall what I’ve written than what I’ve typed. I use fountain pens which restricts my paper choices somewhat. Moleskines, for example, though much lauded by people who don’t know much about notebooks, are now made from poorer quality paper and can’t take fountain pen ink. They’re nice, if overpriced, if you use a ballpoint, like a savage. (And if you insist on using a ballpoint, at least use hybrid ink, like a Uniball Jetstream. You’re not an animal.) I used Leuhtturm 1917 notebooks and Rhodia pads. Leuchtturm are the thinking writer’s Moleskine. The paper is much nicer, they have numbered pages for indexing, and are cheaper and less gimmicky.  Rhodia pads are also lovely. I prefer the dot grid personally, but they have lined and blank too. The paper is bright white and super-smooth. I unreasonably hate spiral-bound notepads. They’re terrible.

 

Backup

During my postgrad work, I’ve had two major computer crashes, by which I mean reinstalling Windows and wiping everything crashes. Both times, I lost not one word of work because I religiously back things up. Firstly, and most importantly, I use Dropbox*. This automatically syncs every file to the cloud each time it’s saved, instantly. I store all my files in the Dropbox directory and don’t need to give it another thought. I can upload to and download from it using the app too.

Secondly, I have an external hard drive for backups which I do not use religiously, although I should in case Dropbox suddenly goes bust and shuts down with no notice, or turns evil.

Time Tracking

I use Google Calendar for all deadlines and appointments. I don’t know how anyone who has any sort of schedule manages without it. It even counts down to your next event so you can see how much time you have (answer is always “not enough”). I periodically try to be hyper-scheduled and box off time for reading, writing, admin etc, but I can’t make that work for me very well. I live in hope though. Strangely, the app for Google Calendar is not fantastic- some functionality is missing and the widget doesn’t do what I need, so I use Calendar Widget: Month to see the month ahead quickly.

Hobonichi Techo monthly pages (December 2015)

Hobonichi Techo monthly pages (December 2015)

It will surprise no one who knows me that I also use a paper diary. The sub-psychotic pen rant above may also have tipped you off. In 2015 I used a Leuchtturm diary which I loved. In 2016, I’ll be using a Hobonichi Techo Cousin. This is one of my more ridiculous stationery purchases, but it was worth it. This is a Japanese diary, fortunately with days of the week and months in English too, printed on fantastic paper. Tomoe River paper is ultra-lightweight and handles fountain pens beautifully. This means that the diary is still moderately light to carry despite being A5 and having both week-to-a-view and day-per-page diaries. Foyles have the A6 English versions available, but A6 is no use to me, so I had to buy from Japan. If you do this you will have to pay additional VAT when it gets to the UK, which I grudgingly feel is fair enough, but you will then get stuffed by Parcelforce’s “admin fee” which is actually just a ransom fee and in my case was double the amount of the VAT. You are not in my good books, Parcelforce.

For tasks and small reminders (big reminders are in Evernote, or both), I use Todoist. I’ve used a variety of to do list programs over the years because I like ticking things off, and I’ve settled on Todoist. Again, it’s available online and as an app. It’s hugely functional and I like the natural language entry for dates. It’s also the only program I’ve found that lets you add a recurring reminder for every other day (rather than, say, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday etc) AND lets you schedule the recurrence for X days after you complete the task, rather than forcing you back onto the “correct” schedule, and I prefer this. These things matter to me.

This is how I work. I think most, if not all of these apps are available for a variety of platforms. I am a big fan of things which sync across platforms as I tend to want to use things on the hardware I’m using at that moment, not the one which suits someone else. I hope it’s helpful. If there’s something you use and love that I haven’t mentioned, please let me know!

 

 

*Referral links.

**hunners: Scots, similar to “hundreds”, but used for count and non-count nouns alike, means “lots”.