How PhD busy work is like vegan junk food


Hello dear reader!

It’s been a busy winter and I am suffering a bit of post-election exhaustion. Last month, For the first time in 12 years, I did not get around to doing a Thesis Whisperer post. While I felt bad about breaking such a long streak of self-imposed discipline, I consoled myself that the previous post was very long and still getting a lot of reads.

The important thing is to get back on the horse, right? Sometimes a funny title comes into my head, I write it down and make a few scrappy notes, but don’t get much further. This post has been sitting in the archive, half-finished, for a couple of years. I was short on time this week too but managed to flesh out the notes enough in the 40 minutes I had spare to make it worth publishing. I hope you enjoy it!

I bloody love vegan junk food. Bring on a double patty of a beyond meat burger with fake cheese, or a bunch of deep-fried jack fruit with chips. It’s crunchy, salty, umami good and I am here for every last bite.

Vegan junk food will help us save the world because it is just so damn tasty. I’m not a vegan or even a vegetarian, yet I will order vegan junk food instead of meat-based junk food every time. Vegan junk food tastes even better than normal junk food because there’s no factory-farmed-climate-guilt involved. And the mystery gristle element, which ruins many a good sausage roll? Absent!

Vegan junk food is good bad food.

Although there is plenty of artery-clogging shit in vegan junk food, you can fool yourself it’s not bad for you. Eating vegan junk food is pleasurable and also feels virtuous. I feel smug even thinking about the Double Beyond Meat Fake Cheese burger from Grease Monkey down the road. Even though objectively it’s junk food, you can tell yourself you’ve done your body a favour – or at least, that it could have been worse.

Doing a lot of unnecessary PhD ‘busy work’ is like eating vegan junk food. Both activities feel great while you’re doing them, and you can tell yourself that you made a good choice, but did you really?

I define ‘busy work’ as tasks that support the production of a thesis, but do not directly contribute to the substantive ideas or writing. There’s a lot of good and necessary busy work you must do during a PhD, which makes it hard to sort out the bad type of busy work from the good. Here are some initial thoughts.

Probably bad PhD busy work (vegan junk food)

Scanning for new articles:

Look, we all need to keep up with new stuff, but constantly looking for new stuff can put you in a reading death spiral that is paralysing for creativity. Many of us are at least a little worried about being ‘scooped’: someone publishing on our topic before we do. looking for new articles every day does not soothe this anxiety, it tends to magnify it. Once you have finished a draft of your literature review I suggest you set aside one hour a week to run a few saved searches and use to trace citations on key papers. Any more is probably just your anxiety looking for an outlet. Don’t feed the beast.

Citation wrangling:

Formatting citations is soothing work and a very good way to avoid other forms of work: it almost perfectly fits the analogy of vegan junk food. If you are using referencing software, like Zotero, you are probably wasting your time: formatting and re-formatting your citations should be easy and instant. If you are not using software, and I know people don’t, getting caught up in putting the full stops, brackets and commas in the right place, as you go, will only ‘break your stride’ and interrupt writing flow. This is a classic ‘batch’ style task that can be left to the end. Cut and paste the DOI number into your document near where the reference should sit and leave the rest of the formatting till later. Stop fiddling, ok?

Multiple sets/types of data analysis:

Statistical software, and some linguistic analysis software, can invite you to endlessly fiddle with your data, segmenting it differently and applying different tests and views. I find the automated tools in Max QDA particularly seductive and can spend ages running different versions of what is essentially the same form of analysis. Beyond a certain point this kind of activity is work avoidance. Refer back to your research questions and make sure you’re doing the right kind of analysis, not just lots of it. Don’t fool yourself: more isn’t always better.

Copy Editing:

There is a time and place for copy editing. The time is at the end of the writing process and the place is maybe in the hands of someone else. It’s hard to see the flaws in your own writing. Sadly, not all of us are in a position to afford a copy editor, but if you can employ one for the last edit of your thesis, definitely do so. The worst kind of copy editing is the ‘along the way’ stuff you do to make sure a piece of work is presentable for your supervisor. But if you copy edit as you go you are wasting time that could be used to generate new words. Write in sprints, avoiding the backspace key, for as long as you can. Stop every now and then and do a bit of a rough edit, but no more. ‘Polishing’ leads to what my friend Katherine Firth calls ‘the Perfect Sentence Vortex‘ and is very bad busy work. Unfortunately, not all thesis supervisors are happy with a rough edit so you might be forced to do heaps more copy editing in the writing process than is strictly necessary. If that’s you, try to leave the copy edit bit until very last. Build in copy edit time to your schedule and use tools like Grammarly to assist and speed up the process.

Probably good busy work (Healthy eating)

Progress reports:

These are the reports you have to do to make the university happy that you are progressing ok. They are annoying and often involve what feels like pointless writing. Many people assume that these reports are never read and sometimes that is true. I cannot emphasise enough that this writing is NOT pointless and it doesn’t matter if no one reads it. If anything goes wrong with your candidature, this report is the first point of call for an investigation one of the only documents you can use to defend yourself (should you need it) against allegations of lack of progress. You should read and approve every word of the final version and make sure it’s an accurate and complete record of what happened, down to how many sick days you had that semester. Trust me that I saw enough shit go down in my previous job to know exactly why you need a good record of what happened. I hope you never need it.

Ethics approvals:

Ethics approvals are surprisingly useful documents because they make you set out your exact plan for collecting, storing, using and reporting the data you will collect. An ethics approval asks you to think about simple things, like how you will circulate a call for participation and whether you have permissions in place to access the right mailing lists or addresses. Many stories circulate about how annoying and pernickety ethics committees are, but I say embrace the pedantry of the committee and use it wisely to make a doable, shareable plan. No ethics writing is ever wasted as you can go on to recycle some of that stuff straight into your methods section.

Reading outside your discipline:

The reading part of the PhD is enormous and exhausting, but just like a diet only consisting of meatless burgers and not much else is bad for you, so is only reading in a small quadrant of the literature universe. Look for what Steven Johnson calls ‘the adjacent possible’: stuff that is next to, but not totally within your field of inquiry. There’s evidence that transporting ideas across boundaries makes us more creative. Creativity can be in short supply sometimes, so don’t let the well dry up. Read something different every now and again!

I’m sure there are many other forms of busy work, some good, some not so much. I’ve got the comments off, but feel free to chat to me about them on Twitter – I’m there as @thesiswhisperer, probably talking with my friend Jason Downs about robots and stuff. Speaking of which, check out the latest episode of On The Reg where we discuss my theory of ‘elbow patch’ and ‘entrepreneur’ academics and how to navigate an academic career if there’s a limited market for your skills and interests. Read and subscribe here.