Category Archives: Academia and research

Submitted: now what?

Submitting my thesis was not the relief I thought it would be.

After receiving feedback and comments from two of my PhD supervisors on my draft thesis, I worked for a few more weeks on updating and editing the manuscript. Until finally, on the 28 June 2013, I walked into the Faculty secretariat and handed over eight pristine printed and bound copies of my thesis – several years’ work condensed into a box. And it was a seriously underwhelming experience.

The secretariat of the Faculty was almost apologetic at the lack of pomp and ceremony. “Ok, that’s it, thanks”, I was told. And that was it indeed. No taking it back now. The waves of relief I expected, the rush of joy: none of that hit me.

Since then I’ve found myself with plenty of work to do to keep me busy, but not quite so busy as in the last months of the thesis finalisation (I am not working weekends, hurray!). All the items on my to-do list that had been dropping in priority were suddenly again near the top. I found myself carrying out research again, finding out new things, preparing papers for conferences, developing ideas for publications. It’s actually quite nice and exciting. But I have a niggle in the back of my mind. I feel like all of this is just me killing time until the Big Days. Those Big Days are the two defences I have to do.

My internal defence is scheduled for the 26 August. In Belgium, the PhD defence system involves two steps. The first step is an “internal” or “private” defence with the members of the PhD jury. In my case, I have seven professors on my jury. If the majority of these professors agree that my PhD is sufficiently good then I can go on to defend my PhD publicly. The world and its mother can attend the public defence if they so wish – and the public is invited to pose questions also!

The jury can make one of three decisions:

–> the PhD fails – that’s the end of the road;

–> the PhD needs some (usually considerable) corrections: the researcher needs to make the corrections, resubmit and go through the internal defence again;

–> the PhD is good enough to pass and can go to public defence.

Needless to say I am crossing fingers for option number three. But it’s still a strange time now. I am waiting for the procedure to continue, but everything is out of my control. After several years working on one project, it’s an odd feeling to think about it being judged (probably harshly) by people I hardly know.

T-minus circa six weeks and counting to Big Day number one.

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Filed under Academia and research, Getting through the PhD, Thesis advice

Made it!

On 10 May, I handed a full draft of my thesis to my PhD committee… And then I enjoyed a weekend off for the first time in ages!


Not quite passed the finish line yet, as the doctoral committee have three weeks to read my thesis. The committee members (three professors) will then give me their comments on the text. I will have about three weeks after that to update the text, change parts etc. according to their comments (which will hopefully not be too many with nothing too drastic requiring change!).

The next steps for me include proofreading, checking formatting, taking care of the references and all that jazz while the committee are reading, before updating the text after I receive their comments. Nearly there, but it was such a relief to have handed in the full text already!

Getting close to the finish line…


Filed under Academia and research, Getting through the PhD

Developing a career plan

Career planning is a distraction from everyday task lists, but it cannot be ignored as the PhD comes to a close…

This week, instead of doing my PhD, I have been thinking about what I want to do after my PhD. Somewhat futile, since the thinking about the after has delayed the after actually coming about… Yet, all PhD researchers that have an end in sight inevitably get distracted with thoughts of the future, and this may be no harm. In fact, it may be a smart move, considering the story in the Guardian newspaper from August that many recent PhD graduates really struggle to find a job, and that doesn’t mean for those of us who may want to stay in academia with its famous lack of opportunities and lack of job security.

But even if a future in academia is not on the cards, it is worth reflecting on the sort of skills that have been developed during the PhD process, and how/whether they can be applied to other sectors. I’ve started asking myself some questions:

– What do I enjoy doing?

– What am I good at?

– What are the skills I’ve developed over the last number of years?

– What are the skills/what is the knowledge I would still like to learn? (How and why?)

– What is my expertise?

– Who/what organisations/companies/institutions are looking for that type of expertise?

– Where would I like to be in ten years’ time (or even five years’ time)? And how will I get there?

I have  a few people on my radar who have the sort of jobs that I would like. My mission over the last week was to figure out what skills do they have that I may be lacking, what experiences have they built up that I may still need to add to my CV, what path did they take to get into their current role and was it the best/most efficient pathway? Can I follow their footsteps?

It’s a very useful way of really identifying a few of the next, short-term steps that I need to take to get to where I want to go. And even better, with the world of “Linkedin”, it’s actually quite easy to spy on other people’s career paths! (Is that a bit cheeky?)

I’ll keep you posted, and in five years will let you know if I’m happy with where I’ve ended up!

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When the writing doesn’t flow

How do you overcome the writing block?

Some days writing is easy. You sit down, you retrace where you left off, you start writing and you enter ‘the flow’. Other days you wonder if ‘the flow’ really exists. Is this ‘flow’ a myth? Have I actually ever experienced it? Is it an elusive writer’s fantasy? You can get so bogged down in the ‘I can’t write’ frame of mind that the way out seems blocked.

But, as with any down time, there is always an up time. The silver lining, so to speak. It’s just a case of keeping the chin up, being confident you can get over this block and not getting overwhelmed!

I’ve come across a few strategies that can help, depending on who you are and how you work. Some people suggest that setting aside two hours everyday at your best (most productive) time of the day for writing is essential. Two hours every morning? Two hours at night? Whenever. Others suggest that blocking yourself off from the world for longer periods of time is more effective – you are living with your piece of writing and it’s all there is in your life! A friend of mine recently completed her thesis. I saw her yesterday for the first time in six months. She moved back in with her parents in the countryside for those six months, cut herself off from distractions and just wrote the damn thing! Anyway, everyone has different ways of working, but if you don’t know yours it’s good to test a few options.

For those days when writing two sentences seems like dragging blood out of a stone there are some simpler tactics. I like to write something, anything, to get my brain into the creative mood. Emails don’t count – they are usually about responding to requests or writing requests and are not the most creative things in the world. In fact, they are a distraction. But anything else: a short outline of what I’m going to write in this chapter, an introductory paragraph, even a blog post to get me started. All of this helps go from ‘ah, I can’t write’ to ‘I can put some sentences together’. It’s a start!

And then, it’s important to take breaks. Not just to drink coffee (which, let’s face it, may be tasty but isn’t healthy), but also just to change scene, let your brain settle, get some fresh air. Sometimes even taking a day off if you struggle several days in a row is the best thing in the world to do. You don’t want to accumulate a habit of unproductive days, so just take a break, take a day in the park and come back to it again fresh and rested.

So, now that I’ve gotten my fingers typing and my brain constructing sentences by writing this post, here’s hoping I can get into ‘the flow’ today!

P.S. if you like more structured, targeted PhD thesis writing advice, check out the book “Authoring a PhD” by Patrick Dunleavy.

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Filed under Academia and research, Getting through the PhD, Thesis advice, Writing

The power hour

This morning I had an update from linkedin: “find out what successful people do with the first hour of their day“! How could I resist? I could already guess, as I clicked on the link, that they didn’t do things like click on the links of articles with titles like “how to be successful” or “how not to procrastinate”. I could also already guess that they didn’t check their emails or their linkedin updates. That’s just what procrastinators like me do.

So, to summarise, for those of you who can resist clicking on titles like that, this article is saying that successful people get up early, do some exercise, may even do some meditation (or positive thinking exercises), eat nice breakfasts, and certainly do NOT check their emails. They take care of some of the more difficult tasks first thing. One person commented on the article saying something like: “I go for a 5-mile walk at 5:30am, I do sit-ups and push-ups and I have a great breakfast”, and he’s 72 years old. Suddenly I felt like a lazy so-and-so. I don’t even know what 5:30am looks like (unless I stayed up all night until 5:30am, but that’s a particular type of 5:30am).

I was beginning to feel guilty about my clearly unsuccessful life, and I decided to take stock of my morning routines. Would I ever be successful? Here’s what I did this morning for the first hour/hour and a half:

1. I got up at 7:25 (yeah, my alarm went off at 7, which for me already seems super early – probably could do better).

2. I checked my emails (BOLD!!).

3. I ate some cereal and drank some juice (breakfast – success!).

4. I showered (I’m sure even successful people shower, although they didn’t really mention this in the article).

5. I cycled 6.5km uphill to the office (exercise – more success!).

6. I spent the first half hour in the office chatting and making tea (not so much success).

I’ve obviously got the exercise and breakfast bit down. Now all I need is the super-early getting up time, the meditation and gratefulness, the NOT checking emails (or twitter, or whatever), the getting the major, annoying and difficult task out of the way first thing, and the not reading “how to be successful” articles online, and then, bob’s my uncle, I’ll be one of those successful people too. Oh yeah.

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Education for all

There is a revolution going on in education. Slowly, but surely, academia is opening its doors, thanks to a few far-sighted organisations/individuals.

As any university-level student knows, accessing research requires money. First, there are the university fees (which vary according to country, of course). Then there are the materials: textbooks, internet access, your own computer (becoming more and more indispensable for university students). And that’s before the journal subscriptions, the other books, the cost of photocopying, and even the cost of living.

But, keeping up with the research world and the new developments in your field of interest could become cheaper in future. At present, you need to be lucky enough to attend a university with funds to buy all the relevant books and journal subscriptions – at an astronomical cost. But any smaller university has to make choices. A year’s subscription to academic journals can set back a university library several thousand Euro. And if you wanted to buy yourself a single article (we’re talking 20 pages of text probably), you can expect to pay around €30 for the privilege. (George Monbiot wrote an excellent piece in 2011 criticising academic publishing houses, you can read it here).

Now, finally and thank goodness, Open Source journals are beginning to put a chink in the money-making machine of academic publishers. In my field, there are several such (peer-reviewed) journals that I regularly consult, and am happy to contribute to: European Integration online Papers and Journal of Contemporary European Research are two of the main ones. And then there are mailing lists, and other websites where academics can circulate their “working drafts” or “nearly published drafts” of their papers (sometimes the Social Science Research Network serves such a purpose). Depending on your own field of research, you may know more, and it would be great if such sources became more main-stream in future.

And its not only the research field that is slowly descending from its ivory tower. University courses are gradually opening up to an online open source system of eduction. If you haven’t already, you really should check out courses available on and other similar organisations.

I can only applaud these developments, to ensure easier access to knowledge, research and information. The next step is achieving universal internet access!

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Repetitive Strain Injury


Typing is wonderful. Deep down I am fully aware of this: I can type faster than writing long-hand, everyone can read typed words (can’t say so for my handwriting); it can be stored without needing reams of paper; it saves pens; and editing is super easy.

But, my goodness, I am an RSI sufferer (a mild one, to be honest, but it’s still annoying). I never quite seem to get the chair/desk height/arm angle/screen height right, and just a few hours at the computer leads to creaking wrists, aching shoulders and a sore neck. I do have all the extras – external mouse, external keyboard, external screen, nice office chair, adjustable desk – but still I can’t take too many uninterrupted hours at the computer.

I am lucky in that I have relatively mild complaints, and most similar cases can be resolved by simple strategies (regular breaks, change in activities, rest etc). If you suffer serious symptoms of RSI, you made need the services of a physiotherapist – but the best cure is prevention. Sitting 9 hours every day typing without many breaks, then another 2 hours playing guitar would probably increase your risk level…

For some time, I have been making a list of how wonderful my life will be once the PhD is finished. Less RSI is definitely one of the major highlights I’m looking forward to (along with reading those novels I’ve been meaning to read for ages, going to the theatre, doing a bit of travelling, starting a new sport). Although, to be honest, much of my post-PhD worklife will probably still involve similar hours at the laptop. I wonder is there research showing a correlation in our working style and numbers of RSI sufferers?

I’m off for a short walk, a bit of arm wind-milling and wrist rotating in the hope that I’ll be able to get through the rest of the day without too much discomfort.

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Filed under Academia and research, Health, Work/life balance