The PhD and side quests

A while ago I read a tweet  likening various distractions (like teaching) to a side quest in a multiplayer online game. Even though I’m part time on my PhD and full time teaching, I find this tweet still resonated with me. At present I feel very stretched- full time academic teaching load, additional (short term) administrative role, part time PhD student, and Mum- it’s always busy and every minute is precious in each role. When I do have blocked time for my PhD analysis and writing I feel like if I am not writing actual words into a chapter that somehow I am not working effectively enough, then I realised I had to change my personal PhD narrative if I was going to do this to the best of my ability. Let me explain…

A few weeks ago I was up to day 5 of what would be a 2 week lack of motivation for my studies. I felt tired, overwhelmed and frustrated that this sacred writing time was being wasted while I looked up new references, read over old data and tried to re-envision my literature review while writing a data chapter. I was thinking about changing the chapter structure of the thesis to follow themes rather than data sets, this was going to be a huge shift. There was textas, A3 paper, muttering and scribbling. Mendeley was getting a workout as I uploaded and annotated more articles. I was busy, but didn’t feel like I was making progress visible to anyone else. I briefly considered walking away from the PhD- but am so close to being finished I know I would regret it. By day 5 I realised the truth- I was caught up in a side quest! As my thesis links to games, learning and aspects of motivation, I realised I was living the kinds of scenarios I had been researching for the last few years; what motivates a person to push past this point, where it all seems too hard to manage? I looked to my data, and my own personal side quests- my craft and other blogs. If you follow these blogs : one mad tatter and My WISE Dolls, you may notice that my whole life in recent years is chipping away at various goals over a longer period of time. It isn’t about being motivated to complete a project in one day, and my thesis is another such project.  I realised that I needed to be my own advocate, and so I gave myself permission to just be- to leave the actual writing of my chapter for a few days and go on a side quest of reading and thinking. This took me another week or so, but after this time I felt again in a position to edit and write some more. Last week I sent the finished chapter to my advisory group for feedback- and it felt like an epic win!

The side quest was an important part of the journey, of narrowing down the new articles to those that could be used to support my data and the unfolding story in my thesis. The ‘re-envisioning’ of the thesis was also deemed a side quest, confirming that the chapter structure I have drafted over the last 2 years will work better for my thesis than the one in my clouded mind a few weeks ago. While these two processes didn’t make a visible difference to my writing and work so far, they have helped me to think through my options and make firm choices on the direction of my thesis, and so this clarity of mind makes the side quest worthwhile in my opinion. The PhD is as much about the thinking, pondering and analysing as it is about the written submission. I need to wander down some of the pathways to realise they are dead ends. And, even if I don’t feel like writing, there are lots of tasks to to that will contribute in different ways to the completed submission.

Some side quests might be setting up fonts, highlighting relevant data, creating images and labelling figures- they are important small tasks that support the end goal. These are what help build the thesis from the ground up, and no one else can do it for me; I have to own the whole quest, not just the fun bits 🙂 I need to remind myself of the work I have been doing towards this since 2011, for all intents and purposes I have done the hard yards; the planning, considering methodological protocols, completing ethics for university and education departments, approaching schools, and building relationships with principals, teachers and students in order to generate data on site. I have the conceptual framework in place and have identified the gaps in the research my study seeks to contribute to. I have come a long way in my writing and thinking, been supported by a fabulous team of family, friends and colleagues and really love my topic. With less than a year to go until submission, I need to remind myself “I’ve got this!” 🙂

I still need to recognise that some side quests are time sinks, and wont be helpful in the bigger scheme of things for the PhD goal. For example, my WISE Dolls site is exciting and will be great, but it doesn’t need to be the focus of my energy this year, it will be waiting for me to pick it up again next year. The same with some of my tatting design ideas and goals, these too will wait until I am on the other side of thesis submission. In recognising these as alternate side quests I can more easily make a clear decision to refocus my precious PhD time to the side quests really need my focus here and now.

So, it seems the side quest metaphor works for me, here is a link to a paper about such metaphors for PhD work (McCulloch, 2013)
or perhaps the Map for the PhD student graphic (MGSE, 2012) might resonate with you. Whichever you decide, make sure you can identify for yourself what will be a productive use of your time, and keep your eye on the prize- that PhD 🙂
Until next time, happy questing
Fiona T
NB: It was also confirmed by my Wonderful Husband that this post is ironic- it was a side quest too. Now I have blogged it, it is completed [Achievement unlocked: 1084 words posted on PhD Blog] and I guess it’s back to the data for me 🙂

Considering Self and Identity in reading and writing

This year has started in a whirlwind of teaching, reading and writing.  Teaching has been rewarding , and planning for the next part of the teaching year has been progressing well, collaborating with old and new colleagues.  I have read a few blogs (that RSS feed to my email is working really well) and among them I have enjoyed thinking about action and starting tasks: Beginnings. I also liked Patter’s recent post on considering a blogging identity, it resonated with me mostly because I consider this blog as my professional/academic face, and also because I am constantly considering the ‘self’ in my students and studies…self and identity is proving very complex to pin down.

In my academic reading I have been re-reading Burkitt’s (2002) exploration of Foucault’s ‘Technologies of the Self’, which has lead me back to considering Foucault (1988). *For those not familiar with this work, the next few sentences outline the main ideas in this article, though I truly am skimming the surface.

  • Burkitt explains the idea of ‘technologies of self’ in terms of habitus, based on Aristotle’s interpretation of ‘self’ as our activity and dispositions. Burkitt continues to develop his ideas with reference to Aristotle and Heidegger to include in ‘technology’ the ‘machinery of production’ and ‘the knowledge and skills’ (pg 222) humans use to produce or create anything. It is challenging to the 2013, everyday, interpretation of ‘technology’, though it does highlight that the ‘new technologies’ we use in our day to day lives are merely tools to help us to express ourselves through interactions in social spaces. For example this blog: hard to do without the laptop and the internet, though I would probably be writing using the ‘technology’ of pen and paper in a private journal had this forum not  been available. The internet offers a more authentic audience than a private journal.  Burkitt then explores the idea of habitus being latent, until we are challenged in some way to reflect upon our actions and motives. The implications this has in social life, interactions and even education are explored in this article. (That’s a pretty quick skim….the article is referenced below should you wish to read further…)**

Considering these fundamental works in light of my own study and methodology has been exciting. I was reminded by Burkitt of many great names in the field and this has led me to ponder when I first encountered philosophy outside of a university lecture.  Nearly 20 years ago I read “Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder, this book helped me to connect with philosophy (so much so I still remember the key philosophers). I would recommend this book to the ‘uninitiated’ as it gives a good overview of western philosophy, and is written in a creative fashion that gets you questioning reality itself.

In terms of writing, my literature review is starting to take shape, and with my confirmation on the horizon I feel I am making good progress in setting the foundations of my research identity.

Until next time

Fiona T

* to ** added in response to reader feedback, on 28/1/13


Burkitt, I. (2002). Technologies of the Self: Habitus and Capacities. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 32(2), 219–237. doi:10.1111/1468-5914.00184

Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the Self. (L. H. Martin, H. Gutman, & P. H. Hutton, Eds.). USA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Gaarder, J. (1995). Sophie’s World (English.) London.

Plodding along…learning isn’t always lightning fast!

This week I have had a few ‘lightbulb’ moments. Thinking about my study and position as a Learner in this PhD journey has been hinted at in previous posts: like here, and here. I have been reading other blogs, attending #PhD chat when I can (this week the time and day changed so I used the wiki and twitter feed to read over later that evening), and actively talking with those around me about their study, techniques and journey.

I have also made definite strides in claiming back time to read and write, including attending a ‘shut up and write’ session run by my uni and trying ‘pomodoro’ time sessions for different tasks at different times. I found the ‘shut up and write’ session amazingly productive and one of my fellow PhD students, Violet, is planning on returning each week. I hope to go at least once a month at this stage. There is also talk of starting one in our graduate school (Ok, I started talking about it…but you will help too, won’t you Violet? LOL), to allow some other students and academic staff to reclaim space for writing.

The arrival of Patricia Goodson’s book, and my reading of the first two chapters helped to consolidate much of what my BB has been saying (probably for the last 18 months).  Patricia talks about protecting your writing time and making it a habit. BB has been sending me links and papers regularly and asking for my thoughts, encouraging the use of email and Evernote to communicate and push my articulation of ideas to a new level. My BB has been carefully, skillfully crafting my thinking of myself as a writer and academic for a long time now. She has been so supportive as a friend, generous with her time and in sharing her knowledge and expertise, and not just about conference packing! I have only just begun the PhD journey officially, BB and my second supervisor,  have given me the greatest gift: their confidence in me that I can learn this craft (of being an academic) and the support to be able to pick up and carry on when I do stumble. I hope they are not too disappointed that it has taken me this long to finally see myself in this light, sometimes I plod along slowly but I do get there!

I am writing this blog today with a new confidence, afforded by this new view of my identity as a ‘learner’ in this space. I am seeing my PhD for what it is, an apprenticeship in Academia, the space to practice, make mistakes and practice again. A sounding ground for my ideas as I move from being a Teacher to being an Academic. It is not a reality show where I have to ‘outdo’ the competition on a weekly basis or get voted out. It is a place I have earned a right to be, and a right and responsibility to learn all I can and try, try again until I produce my Thesis. I can see very clearly now the Thesis (while important) is another step in what will be a career in which I will never stop learning.

So what have I learned this week? That pomodoro writing and reading blocks work best for me to tackle tasks I need to begin, but that I see as too hard and so have been avoiding them. The pomodoro makes me focus; I don’t check my email, my phone or do any other tasks that pop into my head. I am always surprised at how much I get done and how ‘easy’ it is once I block the distractions for just one pomodoro. In the last two weeks I have used this method to free flow write approx 1,000 words (2 sessions), and then another session to edit my writing and tighten up the wording (1 session), by the end of this block of just 3 sessions I have written approx 1,500 words.  I write that not to gloat, but to remind myself what is possible if I stick to these methods. I may not do pomodoros all day, but using a few each week helps me feel like I am making great strides on multiple projects, and this is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment in itself.

So as I plod along this week and hope to write a more structured lit review, I wonder what light bulb moments have spurred you on in your own life, and even what stage of learning you see yourself at?

Until next week,

Fiona T

Learning the Craft: Academic Writing

Last week I posted about finding time to increase my reading.  This week we had a research group meeting and it started me thinking about writing again.

Pat Thomson has been writing posts over the last few weeks that have gently scaffolded my thinking and action towards the inevitable ‘elephant’ I will have to tackle…my skills as an academic writer.  I have always loved writing, I have completed units within a professional writing and editing course and can “spin a good yarn”. As a teacher I feel confident in writing tasks pitched at different audiences. I am also becoming active in writing conference papers and of course, this blog. My BB is very patiently building my exposure to the world of academic writing by guiding me through reading, discussion and response tasks almost everyday. We use email and twitter to share links and articles, and this is proving quite valuable in keeping the ideas  and conversations flowing 24/7.

My method for writing so far is to plan an outline with key points I want to make and then come back to it over time to fill in the details. This means everytime I sit down I am re-drafting and building on what I have written, adding references and clarifying ideas. While I am away (usually a few days to a week between writing opportunities) I have ideas brewing in my head which helps find relevant further reading and produces discussions that lead me to refine or expand ideas. The next time I sit down to write my head is a richer space. My style seems to be slow and steady, and this works for me. However, one blocker to my confidence remains. While I know I can write, and feedback from BB, peers, editors and publishers is that my work is well written and easy to read, in my mind I am not writing ‘academically’.  It doesn’t help that I don’t really have a clear definition of what ‘academic writing’ entails, and this is the problem. Enter Pat and her timely blog posts (and tweets)!

Pat’s recent post  has helped me to identify this stumbling block, and in a twitter conversation where she linked to another blog Practice or Flawless? | TheUniversityBlog,  where writing was compared to other skills, like music, and it made it clear to me that I am at the beginning of a learning journey. Pat also signposted 2 books that may help develop these skills: Helping Doctoral Students Write and Becoming an Academic Writer by Patricia Goodson. Pat’s book I am sourcing from my  library.  Patricia’s book I have ordered and it is on it’s way to me now. From the description of Patricia’s book, it sounds like it is set up as ‘a little writing, often’ and I know that I will be able to work it in to my study time easily. I feel a great sense of relief. I now have peers (in the faculty, on twitter and in the blogo-sphere) who are on this journey too. I have a clearer idea of what my short comings are and how to tackle them. And, perhaps most importantly, I have given myself permission not to be ‘perfect’ first time, to allow myself opportunities to learn, knowing that I WILL stumble, and that it is OK. This is a journey that will span 3 years, it will have highs and lows, but it is an ‘apprenticeship’ where I have the opportunity to grow and learn this craft.

This week I am attending a ‘shut up and write’ session at my Uni, with one of my fellow PhD students. I am really looking forward to writing in this social environment and connecting with others at my university too. I have also tried working again this week with the Pomodoro method, and managed to shift between 3 tasks more easily. Another sign that I am shifting my focus is that I have removed ‘smurf village’ from the home screen on my phone (I have not played it for nearly 4 weeks), and replaced it with a ‘simple pomodoro timer’ (free),  a sure sign of focused time management 🙂

So, thanks BB, Patter and ‘the university blog’ for helping me see and appreciate this process for what it is, a true learning journey.

Until next week

Fiona T

Making room to study: creating space and time

This semester I have taken on some part time work. It has, once again, made me look at the time I have and how to balance it best. Over the last 5 weeks I feel like I have been in a whirlwind, and while I have been meeting most of my targets for each week, some have been sliding. For example, menu planning has saved my sanity and allowed me a little snippet of time while dinner is cooking/heating to get food and clothes organised for the next day. However, this brief time in the evening is where I used to check emails and sort my reading for the next day of study. I found in the first 3 weeks that my reading time was not as productive, and it took a while to realise that my pattern that had worked for last Semester had been lost.

So this week, as my work slowed down a little, I took the time to stop and reflect on my study priorities and how I can best work the time I do have, to get my reading done. I had a meeting with BB and, once again, she was a wonderful support and has given me practical advice to shape my thinking and action on this.  I have come up with two seemingly small changes: 1. My reading in the evening before bed is now an article (20 mins x 6 days = 2hrs extra reading time), and 2. I am walking to the school to pick up LT on at least 3 days of the week, which means I get an extra 10 minutes to work on something at home, eg: setting up my reading list, as I am not driving and fighting for a park at the school (10 mins x 3 days = 30minutes).  Looking over previous entries on this blog, I can see my routine ‘evolves’ and morphs every few months, as the demands of study and life change.  I need to make sure I am periodically reviewing my time and goals to make sure I am using time effectively.  With the couple of small changes above I have ‘found’ an ‘extra’ 2.5 hours, and I no longer feel like I am in a whirlwind, I feel in control again.

As these times are smaller blocks, with a clear focus I think they will work well for me. I also tried to use ‘pomodoro’ time blocks last week for my writing time, but did find it hard to shift tasks at the end of the block. It is something I will have to work on, before judging if it works well for me.

What suggestions do you have for squeezing the most out of your study time?

Until next week

Fiona T


Researching Play

Today I took some of my own advice. I didn’t blog and instead I spent some time with my family at Scienceworks in Melbourne. LT loves Scienceworks (and so do we). I was excited and felt a little ‘rewarded’ when we walked in to the main hall exhibit area to see this:

I love this Einstein quote! “Play is the highest form of research”.  I have read it before in various books and historical accounts of play and learning, and here it was again, greeting me on a ‘day off’!  Affirmation indeed that Science and Learning are everywhere, and you don’t need to look terribly hard.

Have a lovely day

Fiona T

The Importance of Imaginative Play

As a teacher I have known that play is an important part of learning. The discovery and modelling opportunities lead to such rich and deep learning I am amazed at the connections Children can make. As a Mum I have developed an even stronger belief in the power of play, and it seems I am not alone.

While reading a blog this week I was reminded of the games my Sisters and I used to make up as children when we played…here is the link to the blog from Nicky Johnston.

So yesterday, when it was cold and rainy, and LT was busy retrieving items we were trying to throw out, I again reflected on the value of this imaginative play. Here is a picture of the ‘game’ he was playing: The box has been around for ages, it was salvaged by LT to make into a slide (hours of fun there, for him and his soft toys). It gets put away for a while,and each time we try to throw it out he insists it can’t go. Yesterday it was combined with his lego and his own ‘heroica’ board game ( he has a full set of heroica at his Nana’s house, but is happy to imagine and build his own at home) and the characters were having adventures that were narrated very well. He included aspects of challenges styled after ‘the biggest loser’, building inventions from ‘Phineas and Ferb’ with some ‘Starwars’ thrown in for good measure. The level of creative play was great, I was happy to watch him and get involved every now and then with questions as to why a particular character was doing something. He would patiently explain 🙂  So it seems the box has been ‘re-incarnated’ and will stay in our house a while longer.

Kids are naturally creative, but we do have to give them opportunities to shape their world and grow. Opportunities to talk, play and create their own  games…we don’t always have to provide the rules. As a Mum (and a teacher) I think letting children take the lead and supporting them while they experience and learn is very important, it helps develop self confidence, creativity and social skills.

Can you recall imaginative play in your childhood? What did you enjoy most about it? Do you have a story about your own children/students/nieces/nephews and their play?

Please feel free to share below as a comment…or maybe you would like to do a guest blog about it? Please contact me via mypaperlessphd facebook page if you would like to guest blog.

Until next week





Teaching our future citizens: Engage Me! – YouTube

The link Engage Me! – YouTube gives voice to children at school today. They express their desire to learn and be challenged using the tools available to them, both in and outside the classroom. I have seen a similar you-tube, but with tertiary students as the focus.

I have been thinking deeply on the goals stated by the children, they resonate with me as I am ploughing through marking assignments and talking with teachers and student teachers about providing unique learning opportunities and personalising the learning for every student in our care. I hope this video stimulates your own thoughts and perhaps even create a discussion about catering for the learning needs of our digital natives.







Sampling the PhD blogging world

This week, as I am waiting for confirmation of my candidature in the PhD program (and am stalling writing the ethics paperwork) I have had a bit of a look on the web for other PhD blogs. One of the first ones that kept my interest was this one:
from a  student in Denmark. She was investigating Children’s use of Social Networking Sites. This will link in to my own work…I will try and find an English translation 🙂 She has also linked papers etc. Very exciting find!

Another paper popped up which is an Australian PhD study:  Blogging PhD Candidature: Revealing the Pedagogy, I have just send the PDF to my evernote to read tomorrow while my Son (LT) is at Taekwondo class (yes, a bonus 30 mins of study time for Mum). Perhaps my own blogging about learning caould become a valid part of my thesis? Who knows how the academic world will change in the next few years? A girl can hope!

Of course there was a ‘top 50’ blog that popped up, so I am linking it here purely for future procrastination purposes!   your reading enjoyment:

Do you have a blog? Please link it in the comments below and give yourself a plug!

Happy Blogging


Reveiw of “Mama, PhD” Book

I want to thank one of my new PhD colleagues for loaning me this book. I also want to state, for the record, that my BB was right…I needed to be cautious in my reading of this book. Now I know why. This book didn’t really grab me at first. The first writers were really presenting their daily struggles of juggling life and work…not unfamiliar stories, but there seemed to be no reflection upon the ‘how’ and the endpoint…were they happy? I suppose that when I started to question and define my expectations of this book. I found that perhaps it wasn’t wholly what I was looking for.  Here is a book of the embattled lives of mothers (and fathers), not the triumphant stories of hope that really inspire others. I mean, life is full of choices and sacrifices, and only a few of these stories at near the end of the book really address this and affirm women in their choices to either continue in Academia or abandon this pursuit altogether.

Much of the first part of the book read like this: Loving research, needing to meet demands of tenure/tenure track positions, relying on a work or scholarship to fund health insurance and working in male dominated colleges…blah blah blah. It makes me very glad to live in Australia, and be working in the field of education. This book highlights concerns of the American college and academic tradition and how feminism (I read that as equality, choices for both genders) seems to have not been considered in many American Tertiary institutions.

It was the stories near to the end of the book that were what I think I was searching for, the stories of how others have handled this journey, how they have planned and actually lived it, not just to get through to the end but have a quality life throughout.

This has forced me to consider why I didn’t really like the book, and then refocus on what I did like. Here is a list of the ‘positive’ gems I have taken from this book.

* stories about not having time to consider having writers block, and using every available free second to think or write. (Angelica Duran and Tedra Osell both touch on this)
* stories about having many ‘bags carried” (Caroline Grant) (I have a similar story of my own about how I orgainised the various roles I held in addition to part time study and full time work by using a bag and pile system.)
* Stories of competitive mothers juggling everything. I have to say my focus is on a fulfilling journey, not dragging myself through this, if I don’t enjoy the experience then it is time to reconsider the “why” and “how”.
* The idea of learning to say “no” to things that will distract me from my goals. One writer (Jean-Anne Sutherland) developed a mantra that helped her to prioritise her daughter, her own health and her dissertation. Anything that didn’t directly fit required the “no” response. I liked this and have used a similar idea recently when considering which part time work roles I wanted to pursue and trying to balance this with LT’s school.
So, in conclusion, while I found some interesting ideas and projects some of the contributing writers have been involved in, there was still no real guideline of ‘how to’ juggle PhD and family as I had hoped. I think that perhaps my search should move away from traditional books and head back to the internet and PhD blogs to try and find ideas of how it can work. Or perhaps it’s time to have faith in myself, that this is something I really want to work on and that I will find a way to make it work for my family. Perhaps the organising focus of my blog is a focus that is needed out in the real world, not just regaling readers with the frustration but trying to forge a solution.

I have listed below some of the sites and blogs that I am pursuing from the book, more out of a sense of service to ‘the sisterhood’, as there may be something of value to someone out there in the ethers…

* Jennifer Eyre White:
* Jean Kazez:
* Megan Pincus Kajitani:
* Amy Huddock, Caroline Grant, Elisabeth Rose Gruner, Elrena Evans (and others):
* I have to mention Susan Bassow and Dana Campbell, who wrote stories about promoting science through the everyday activities they do with children, I felt a connection with these women.

Do you have a favourite Study/PhD blog? Please share it….I would love to find out more current stories.

Until next time


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