Advice on Finishing Your PhD

A PhD study often feels overwhelmed with the workload. So much to do, lots more to read, and even more challenging to write. Throughout this journey, I occasionally receive motivation, sharing from people who had walked the journey. Everyone’s journey is different, full with different challenges and excitements. Here are a few pieces of advice, which I find really helpful in getting me through the down or stagnant moments in this journey.


1. Life is a struggle

There are always challenges in whatever you do in life. Nothing in life comes easily. You face different difficulties when you study, when you work, when you get married, etc. Doing a PhD has its hardship too. When you feel that what you do is hard, remember that even if you are working, there are things that you will find hard as well. Once you decide to take up a PhD, face the challenges and learn to deal with them. But if a PhD is not what you are looking for, then do something else. Either way there will be struggles.


2. Find your best time to write

Everyone has a different best time to write. Some find it best to write in the morning whereas some prefer to do it at night or even after midnight. It is important to find your best time to write. No matter what, write something during that time. Even just a little but do it every day. This helps so that you don’t feel the need to sit in front of the laptop the whole day, which is not so productive since you can’t write the whole time anyway. It is okay to do other stuff at times other than your writing time. I need to start adopting this. I don’t know what is my best time to write but I am a noctural person who feels more awake at night then in the morning. My writing motivation is driven by the task on hand, rather than writing at a specific time. Say if I have an assignment to finish, all I do is write that piece of assignment when I am awake until I finish the assignment. The only time when I’m not writing is when I am eating, taking a shower or sleeping. Knowing my best time to write would help so that I don’t feel like a zombie and totally burned out by the end of it.


3. Find your best place to write

Not only that, it is also equally important to look for the best place to write. Surprisingly, writing in a cafe or fast food restaurant like Mc’Donald works perfectly for some people. Some people need to write in places where it is quiet such as in a library. Believe it or not, home may not always be the best place to write since you can always find something to do at home. It is easy to stop writing and start doing house chores. I have yet to find my best place to write but I can write just fine at home once the momentum is there. Just that I can’t do transcribing at home. I tend to stop after transcribing a few lines and start doing something else – surf the net, watch movie, get some snacks or play the piano – which is why it takes days for me to transcribe one interview. So far I found it productive to transcribe in the postgraduate room or library where there are people around (but not noisy). I guess it is the sense of “yay, I am also doing my work” that prevents me from doing any other thing except transcribing.


4. Always bring a notebook (and don’t forget a pen too!)

I have this habit when I work. A notebook is like my life. Out of the blue, even during lunch, there is always something important to remember. I would never leave the house without my notebook. As a PhD student, I carry a notebook too but not as often as I should. Since I use a voice recorder for my data collection, I start to record conversation, as well as any thoughts that come to my mind. I find it easier than writing on a notebook but listening to the recording after that takes time. I use both – a notebook (mostly) and a voice recorder, depending on what I am trying to record. Funny thing with ideas is they often appear when you least expect them to. When I am sitting on a desk with a laptop and a notebook, all I sometimes do is stare at the notebook. Nothing comes. But say, I am driving or playing the piano, suddenly something would come to the mind. Mostly it happens when I am half-asleep, or maybe half-awake and “ting!” the idea comes. If I don’t write or record it down, I sometimes don’t remember it again after. So yes, always bring a notebook (or recorder) as you never know when you need it!


5. You have not failed until you quit

I always feel the struggle while trying to understand my conceptual framework, to figure out my research methodologies, to improve my interview skills, to make sense of my data. Not easy. But then I realised it has also never been easy while I was working. My supervisor once said, the easy way out is to quit. Rather true. No matter how tough it is, quitting is the easiest solution. It is okay to make mistakes since PhD is all about learning and discovering new things. Nothing about these two is easy. It will always feel difficult and frustrating until you get it right. As long as you keep progressing, eventually you will reach the destination.

New resolution in life

PhD is my Disneyland. It is a goal to finish it, but yes, how much longer? Am I there yet?

Along the journey, I discover that I am a novice in social science research, who often feel that I lack the skills and experience to do interview-based research. As I transcribe the interviews, I can see what went wrong with the way I phrase my questions as well as when I asked the questions. It bothers me because then I think, shit, will I be able to eventually get it right and gather the information I need?

After watching this video, I realised that I feel like that because I focus so much on the goal that I missed out on the values I gain throughout the journey. What went wrong in the initial data collection provides an opportunity to learn and improve. The more interviews I did, the more I get to practise and improve. I learn not to interrupt or ‘fill in the blanks’ to their answers. I learn to phrase open-ended questions to understand the meaning of their words. I learn to keep my conservation views to myself and not to have any preconceptions about their conservation perspectives. It did not occur to me how much I have learned from just doing the research as I am too occupied worrying when I will complete the study.

I am the kind of person who needs a fixed structure, following guidelines of how to do (which is why I like reading step-by-step instructions). But then there is no direct step-by-step guideline in conducting in-dept interviews. It is not like using a washing machine; first, I press the on/off button, then I choose the programme (speedy, water level, etc), pour in washing powder/liquid and click start. Voila, it starts washing my clothes. All I do the next time is repeat the same steps.

However, qualitative research using interviews is not like running a washing machine or any other machines. When the machine does not work, then something is wrong, and there will be no data. When that happens, I need to set it right, e.g. setting the parameters to ensure that the machine runs accordingly. Well, it is just not like that in research involving humans where nothing is really under control.

Since I am not doing questionnaire surveys, my questions are not fixed, meaning my questions are rephrased when I interview different people. It is something I learn, not just to listen, but to know how to ask the right questions while still being sensitive to their and my body language. There are no step-by-step guidelines to that. A lot of times I think, damn, it is easier studying animals. I trap squirrel A and I collect biometric data. Then I trap squirrel B and do that same. Different squirrels may respond differently to physical capture but what I do is repetitive.

Hence, I do not find social science research particularly simple or straight forward. Well, studying humans or anything human-related is neither simple nor straight forward since humans are complex and complicated, filled with emotions and whatsoever. Nonetheless, it has been an enlightening path and the values I get would probably help in one way or another to deal or work with different people in conservation.

Well, I am not trying to set new year resolutions merely because a new year has just begun. It is just something that struck me while I watched this video about goal-focused life and value-focused life. So I’d say have goals in life and also value the process of achieving the goals. I guess that is what mindfulness is, or in other words, live in the moment!

The Struggle to Scientific Writing

Make it a habit to write every day – that is one piece of advice from my supervisor that stays in my head. Assuming that I should get the hang of it by now but I still often wonder how and what to write every day. When I first started, I was asked to submit a write-up of 2000 words on human related turtle conservation issues globally and locally. Thinking back, I struggled to write up to 2000 words because having some background knowledge on conservation issues was not enough. I had to start reading (a lot). Reading took time, plus it was a thing to read and another thing to digest what I had read and start writing. Eventually, I managed to finish the write up.  Being a perfectionist, details matter to me and no matter how many times I re-read what I had written, I would still find things to correct. The correction seems to be never ending. As everyone said the first draft of anything is shit but it took me a long time to get that the first draft need not be perfect, they just need to be written.

Next came a comprehensive report of 7000 words I needed to work on, which details out what my research would be about, its theoretical framework and how I would proceed to do it. Once again, I felt the struggle. Obviously, writing didn’t come easily to me, especially in scientific writing where every point needs to be supported by one or more references. By then I was already introduced to the concept sustainable livelihoods approach. The framework appears to be straightforward to understand but the knowledge to apply it to my study was vague. My experiences showed that livelihoods and conservation are connected and I saw the importance of local people in conservation where their needs and interest should be considered but knowing that was not enough to write a report of 7000 words. Once again, I started to read papers that focus on the human dimensions in sea turtle conservation and sustainable livelihoods approach. Human dimensions itself are multi-faceted and diverse. There are many aspects to it, including socio-economic, cultural, tradition, sustainable use, political, local perceptions, local ecological knowledge, local support, behaviour, values, beliefs, legal, etc, which all provides crucial information that contribute to conservation. That 7000 words was a write up of that, plus a brief introduction on sustainable livelihoods approach. Why only briefly on the latter? I had not read or understood enough to incorporate this approach to elucidate the human-sea turtle interactions.

Having to accomplish a 7000 words seemed like a big deal to me at that time as I posted on Facebook that after spending so much time on it, I was glad that it was completed. Of course, I should have known then that PhD is all about writing and there is no end to it, probably not even after graduation. The next assignment was 14,000 words of literature review and a conceptual framework, explaining my research design and the approach I would use to answer the research questions. 14,000 words is double the word count of 7000 words. I no longer knew whether I was terrified by the amount of words I had to write or the fact that I would have to read a lot more in order to write more. Compared to the previous write ups, this one was the most challenging but also the most rewarding.

It was easier for me to read turtle related papers as I am from a science background. My research, however, is a social science research. Like many who are from a natural science background, I am familiar with hypothesis and quantitative methods and not conceptual framework and qualitative methods. I felt that the knowledge I had acquired to do research could not all be applied here. Reading journals alone were not adequate to understand the methods or concepts. I realised that I would need to read up on social science research and sustainable livelihoods approach. I started by borrowing 10 books related to social science research and it took me almost a month to read and understand about worldviews, qualitative methods, case studies, etc, and to finally decide on the methods for data collection and analysis. Despite knowing the link between livelihoods and conservation, I had to write out why a livelihood approach would be suitable and how its framework would be useful to the research. One thing about taking too long to write is it causes the mind to feel saturated. It is okay to take a break once in a while but not leaving it aside for too long.

In the end, 14000 word count was not a concern anymore, rather the content of the write up that matters. I was asked to improve it a few times and had since re-submitted a couple of times that all I felt was that I had spent enough (or way too much time) on this write up and that I was ready to move on. When a text stating “very happy with your new doc” from my supervisor arrived today, I felt relief. Of course, meantime while waiting for her reply, I had started working on analysing data for some preliminary findings. Writing and reading became a routine in my life now. The are many times when I did not want to spend time in front of the computer screen. I miss working in the field even though the work was demanding, it was fulfilling. Still, I can’t escape from writing. I might still feel the struggle in writing but I am taking every opportunity to write to improve my writing and I hope (as what most people say) it will get easier eventually with a lot of practice.