I recently went to a training session on academic writing. The faculty postgrad trainer is excellent, and I always come away having learnt something. But there’s one thing that bugs me: whatever the course is, she finds a way to slip in the advice that, as PhD students, we should be spending two hours writing every day. And when she says writing, she doesn’t mean editing. Or referencing. Or reading and making notes. She means producing new text.
Every time I hear that, something in me fights against it. Like many people, I’d play the ‘I don’t have time’ card, though in reality if it needs doing it needs doing. I also want to argue that that would generate far too much text for a thesis – but she’s already said that the writing could be thesis, conference abstracts, blogging, public engagement, fellowship applications. Yet internally I’m still fighting against the idea. Because here’s the honest truth: I don’t have enough worthwhile thoughts in my head to translate into two hours a day’s worth of prose.
There. I’ve said it. Maybe that makes me look bad. I’d love to claim that all day long my brain is a-whirr with new ideas and thoughts that drive my progress incrementally towards pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. But in reality, my typical workday inner monologue is something more like this:
“How do I do this test in Stata? Right, Google. Hmm.. that looks useful, let’s try it. Huh, why won’t it work? Oh, typo. Try again. Huh, why won’t it work? Ohh, the variable should be in parentheses. Try again. Huh, why won’t it work? Ah, need to specify options. Bingo! Oh, so what does that output actually mean? Google. I wonder if so and so’s replied to my data request email. I’ll just check…”
That’s a far truer representation of my experience of ‘doing science’ than any amount of gasping with delight at the chemical composition of make up. The progression of the thought process can be a hybrid of gradualism and punctuated equillibrium. In the latter case, it’s easy to see how to enthusiastically set about writing about a whole new idea or framework, but during the incremental stages it’s harder to know what to put into words.
Even if I were to spend the rest of the working day then reading and absorbing and generating results tables (rather than data cleaning, learning new Stata commands, checking my emails to see if my new data is ready, getting distracted), I still don’t think I could generate enough new material to write about at that length the next day. So I wonder how realistic a ‘two hours a day’ target of writing really is for an PhD researcher. I can easily see how, later on, the task load is increasingly biased towards writing based activities. But at this stage, do I really have that much to say?
I’d like to hear thoughts on this. If you’re a PhD student, does the two hours a day target sound feasible in the earlier stages of your programme? If you’ve done a PhD, what was your writing strategy back then? And how much of your days do you now spend writing?