This post comes from Sandy Lin, a research adviser whose own doctorate is in Engineering. Sandy works as a Research Learning Advisor at the University of Auckland. Here she offers suggestions of use to STEM students who much prefer the practical research work to the writing work of the doctorate.
Laboratory work versus writing – which one are STEM doctoral students more inclined to do without hesitation? Without stereotyping and categorising everyone from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), having been involved in engineering and biology research laboratories during my PhD, I personally preferred to be in the lab and suspect most lab-based candidates do. Writing was an activity that I never felt confident about and sometimes even dreaded. However, here are five things that helped me to climb my writing mountain which ultimately led to completing my thesis. This post offers advice for doctoral candidates who find the lab more comfortable than the writing desk – and it may prove useful for supervisors struggling to get their STEM students to write!
1. Schedule in time to write
In the same way you schedule laboratory experiments, time must be put aside for writing. Once you’ve made an appointment with someone such as a laboratory technician to show you how to use a piece of equipment, chances are that you’ve waited several weeks, if not months, for this day. You wouldn’t simply just reschedule due to some other not-so-important reason. At the time you scheduled that laboratory appointment, it was most likely an important task. Similarly, because writing is important, why not do the same by scheduling writing time into your calendar? Of course you would first need to believe that writing is important enough for you to consider scheduling an appointment with yourself to write. And you could schedule time to write with others or take advice on writing from others too….
2. Write something, even if it’s ‘nothing’
Some may feel that a brainstorm or a first draft is ‘nothing’. But something written poorly is always better than nothing at all. No matter how many brilliant ground-breaking experiments you conduct and no matter how many sets of fabulous results you collect from those experiments, they mean nothing to your doctorate if there is no writing about them. One of the most useful things that I learnt during my PhD (and one of the main reasons I was able to hand in my thesis on time) was something I learnt in a workshop I attended on freewriting. It had never felt so good to be able to just see words on paper written by me at such an incredibly fast rate! I had always found it difficult to actually start writing. With freewriting I was able to get something on paper very easily. What’s written is not meant to be perfect or even a draft. I felt that freewriting was the magic ‘start button’ that helped me to get into the writing ‘mood’ so that I could tap into my thoughts. Before I encountered freewriting I always had the idea that writing something down on paper (or typing something on the screen) was the final ‘product’. To some extent writing is an end product, but I soon realised that writing is a thinking process too and a tool that helps you to think. If you find it difficult to start writing, I would highly recommend trying freewriting and to stop worrying about how your writing ‘sounds’ initially. Writing is meant to be edited and proofread and sometimes that process takes longer than writing the initial draft itself. Spend time just pouring out your thoughts onto paper through freewriting.
3. Split writing into stages
Writing is similar to experiments in that they both have different stages and steps. When you plan an experiment it might typically look something like this:
Step 1 – spend months planning for the experiment;
Step 2 – make sure you have all resources and people in the right place at the right time;
Step 3 – conduct the experiment while making a note to increase time allocation next round;
Step 4 – wonder why it didn’t turn out the way you expected it to;
Step 5 – repeat 10 times until you get the reliable results you think you were meant to get!
This was the process I had to go through to improve my research methods in the lab. With each repeat experiment you conduct, you become more and more familiar with the protocols and start to improve procedures as you go. Similarly, writing also has different stages and possibly more than you initially expect. Writing the first draft is only one step of the process. There is also the revising, getting feedback, editing, formatting and proofreading stages, amongst others. With progressive iterations, your initial draft starts to become more and more readable. Treat writing like you would an experiment; conduct it in stages and realise that it will improve over time and several iterations.
4. Write as soon as you can
Everyone has heard this a million times. I was also given the same advice as a doctoral student. I tried, but it didn’t quite work as well as I had hoped. I started to realise that a different interpretation of ‘write as soon as you can’ seemed to work quite well for me. Instead of trying to start writing my thesis as soon as I could, my focus shifted to trying to document what I was doing as soon as I could. During the times I spent in a molecular biology lab, I learnt how important it was to document every single thing I did in the lab (and outside the lab too). Things are much easier to remember if you document them as soon as you can. Four years is a long time to do your PhD. Documenting events immediately gets you into the habit of integrating everything through writing. This includes writing a summary of every article and book that you read (unless it is totally irrelevant), writing down minutes after meetings with your supervisor, writing down takeaways from every conference or trip that you attend, writing down regular progress and achievements, all the way to regularly writing down your thoughts and reflections about the whole PhD journey. Writing and documenting things down as soon as you can after every event gets you into a good habit of writing regularly.
5. Reflect on your writing as you would reflect on your experiments
When experiments don’t yield the results you’ve been hoping to achieve, you start to reflect on the experiment from beginning to end. What went wrong? Why did this method not work? How could the experimental protocols be improved? How can I make my lab methods more efficient? We ask these questions all the time about our lab work; why not ask the same questions about our writing? Reflect on when is the best time to write, where is the best place to write and what is the most efficient way for you to write. Learn from others and analyse the way they write. Pick an author you admire or an article that reads brilliantly and figure out what it is about their writing style that captured your attention. This is not to say just copy their style, but combine all the different styles that you like from different places, sources and authors and adapt them to your own voice. Nothing is stopping you from using writing as a reflection tool. Write about your writing.
So there it is, five things that have helped me climb mountains, walk through bushes and cross rivers to the other side as a PhD graduate. What I learned from this experience means that I don’t use experiments and laboratory work as an excuse anymore to procrastinate on writing. It also means that writing is no longer a burden, but rather a creative process that I have started to enjoy.
What do you find the most difficult about writing as a PhD candidate heavily involved with lab work? Any other writing tips from STEM post-docs who have also climbed the mountain of doctoral writing?