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by Katrien Pickles

Today our guest blogger is Katrien, a family studies researcher, picture book author and swimming teacher. She was raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i and now lives in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Katrien’s doctoral research is on family wellbeing and public playgrounds. Here she reflects on how to plan for the unexpected in research and writing.

When I began my PhD, I read a lot about being organised: how to set up an EndNote library; how to save the impossible amount of articles you will end up downloading; how to securely store your data; and, most importantly, how to manage your time. I created a Gantt chart, included clearly delineated writing time, and felt like a super-hero. Truly, you have no idea how big a deal that is. My husband was confused because the person he married had a deep hatred of Excel. I even colour-coded the months and tasks!

Throughout my experience in doing the PhD, two seemingly opposing themes have emerged: the planned ideal and the eventual reality. You can start out with high hopes, rooted in your ideal version of the research. Indeed, I feel you need to be optimistic – as optimistic as possible! But the stumbling ground is when you’re faced with the inevitable reality of doing the real work.

My first year was spent reviewing literature, designing the methodology, choosing the methods and drafting three chapters. The ideal plan was that I would engage with one stakeholder group at a time and write that data chapter before moving on to the next stakeholder group. I’d given myself about 3 months to conduct each research method, analyse the data and write a chapter draft. My supervisors would then give me feedback on these drafts and the final year would be spent polishing these drafts into a final thesis.

However, planning ahead gave me a false certainty. I spent hours upon hours in a theoretically ideal universe, applying for ethics and tidying up the four corners of my Excel world; yet I was still confronted with the mess of reality. Despite the ethics approvals and my prior relevant field experience, my chosen methods were not attracting the participant numbers I’d expected. The months I’d planned to be conducting research were spent chasing principals and teachers, then eventually chasing adult caregivers who needed to provide consent for their child/ren to participate. The writing sat on hold.

My impressively colour-coded Gantt chart had no answers to help me solve these problems that arose. It did, however, leave room to shimmy around my timeline, and those 3-month blocks were a breath of fresh air, where I submitted an ethics variation and hoped for the best. The summer school holidays of my second year, ideally dedicated to re-writing, were instead filled up with a research method I had to pursue when my original plans fell through.  The following summer holidays, also ideally dedicated to writing, was spent recovering from emergency surgery. You adapt, because you have to, but I could adapt only because I’d left myself chunks of unplanned time: time where I could be creative, rethink my approach, rest, and process. Without these chunks of unscheduled time and a clear destination in mind, I do not think I could be at this stage of a final draft.

In a book about how to write a thesis (which, I am slowly coming to learn, is a lot like how to live a creative life), Umberto Eco writes that a student should create a road map of their thesis. A way forward for when moving seems impossible. He writes that a student could think of this road map in the very practical terms of planning for an actual road trip:

Imagine that you have a week to take a 600-mile car trip. Even if you are on vacation, you will not leave your house and indiscriminately begin driving in a random direction. You will make a rough plan. You may decide to take the Milan-Naples highway, with slight detours through Florence, Siena, Arezzo, possibly a longer stop in Rome, and also a visit to Montecassino. If you realize along the way that Siena takes you longer than anticipated, or that it is also worth visiting San Gimignano, you may decide to eliminate Montecassino. Once you arrive in Arezzo, you may have the sudden, irrational, last-minute idea to turn east and visit Urbino, Perugia, Assisi, and Gubbio. This means that – for substantial reasons – you may change your itinerary in the middle of the voyage. But you will modify that itinerary, and not no itinerary.

                                                -How to write a thesis, Umberto Eco, p. 107

One of my supervisors would remind me that writing was about ‘rolling up the carpet’: you begin with a sentence, which eventually turns into a paragraph and grows into a chapter. In practical terms, I found the Pomodoro technique to be immensely useful to convince myself to pick up the carpet and keep rolling. I have found that you can set yourself writing deadlines, which are helpful in keeping up the momentum and avoiding falling into the trap of reading as procrastination, but your insights and creative processing cannot be scheduled. You can only make time for these moments by removing other tasks.

If I can offer some advice from where I sit in this journey, I would strongly urge you to give yourself the gift of time by leaving space for moments of messiness because this is where the deep thought and joy is found. A road map, or methodology, can help to scaffold your curiosity, and to adjust to the inevitable issues that will arise. But if you don’t leave time to get lost, you may not ever arrive at your destination.

Most of my best writing insights and ideas for how to bridge together paragraphs or chapters have been away from the desk. They’ve been in the shower, while walking my dog, while driving to work or while making dinner. They’ve been in the moments in-between – the moments that can easily feel harried because you feel you have ‘no time’. But they are really the golden moments, where your brain can string ideas together and connect the dots. Where you can playfully engage with your topic and imagine possibilities.

In planning your PhD, I highly recommend that you set yourself up to live affordably for at least three years, so there are pockets of time in between the Excel cells where you can daydream, where you can read (and even write) for pleasure, where you can rest and recover from the things life will inevitably throw your way. My advice then, is that if you can live on less, and you can afford the time to be curious and follow that curiosity, then you have just given yourself a truly valuable gift.