Saturday, December 16, 2017

What I've Learned in the First Term of PhD Studies: Workflow and Wellness

It's hard to believe, but the first term of PhD studies has drawn to a close. As my last blog post indicated, September seemed to crawl as I battled a touch of homesickness, so many firsts, and being brave and by myself. Once I put September behind me, October and November have passed in the blink of an eye. I like to think as a slightly older and wiser PhD student, I've learned a few things in the last couple of months.

Figure Out My Workflow: Researching and Writing Papers

This has been a really hard one for me. The first paper I wrote took me DAYS because I didn't have any steps or strategies in place to help me organize my time, my resources, and my writing process. I'm doing so much better with this now, especially after writing three massive papers all due in the past week. Here's what works for me:
-search for articles and books in Google Scholar
-read abstracts of articles, if that is promising do a quick scan of the article, and determine if  it's useful
-copy the title and author, search them in the UVic library catalogue, then download to my computer into OneDrive files labelled by topic
-at the same time, extract the reference information into Mendeley (a free citation manager tool that has a desktop program, a Google Chrome browser plug-in, a Microsoft plug-in, and an app)
-based on the articles I found, I get a piece of chart paper and make a big concept map of all the ideas I want to include
-structure an outline of my paper and decide on the major themes. I set this up in Microsoft Word, not as the actual paper, but as a place to organize information. The themes continue to evolve throughout this process.
-then I begin to read the articles. Anytime I find anything useful, I copy and paste the text, article title, and page number into the correct section of my outline.
-revisit course materials for anything that links to my paper
-print out my outline (because it's just too hard to switch screens), then spend some time reading all my notes and let it sink in
-then I make a concept map that organizes the first section of my paper, then write the first section of the paper. I repeat this process section by section until all the writing is done, extracting citations from Mendeley as I go (the Microsoft Word plug in makes this very easy)
-write the introduction and discussion/conclusion
-draft the abstract
-let the paper rest for a day or two so I can return to it with fresh eyes
-read the paper and edit, at least two times
-read the paper paying strict attention to APA format, looking things up as necessary in my handbook or online
-ask friends and/or my supervisor to review to give feedback on the flow of the paper, cohesiveness of my thoughts, and sharpness of argument
-take a deep breath and submit, then pour a very large glass of red to celebrate!

Workflow: Organizing Class Materials and Notes

The only tools I need to manage course materials and notes are Microsoft OneNote and OneDrive. I've set up a Doctoral Studies OneNote notebook with sections for each course. Each class, I start a new page in the relevant section with notes. If the professor hands something out or shares a useful diagram, I photograph it and upload it to OneNote. This has worked wonderfully well, and when friends miss notes, it's easy for me to share mine with them. The only thing I might do differently next term is organize my course notes by topic instead of date, as it was sometimes difficult to remember what date we discussed something. As OneNote is a cross-platform tool, I have the app on my iPhone, my Surface, and my laptop. Everything syncs across devices, so I always have everything I need.
Additionally, I organize all articles, course outlines, and handouts in Microsoft OneDrive. I have a folder called Doctoral Studies and a sub-folder for each class. Like OneNote, OneDrive is available on all my devices, and it is really easy to share documents and work collaboratively with my colleagues.

Office 365 is free for educators and includes the tools I rely on so heavily. All you need is an education email address (your school division or university one will work) and you can start using it for free! Learn more here.

Leverage Your Resources

I'm fortunate to be surrounded by amazing friends, colleagues, and mentors, and I know that seeking their support is key to my success. It's sometimes hard to make myself vulnerable and share my work with them because I don't want them to think it's bad. But I know the only way I'll improve is with feedback, and sometimes I can't see my own glaring errors as I've spent so much time working on the paper. Sending my first paper to my supervisor for review was a very hard and scary moment. But her feedback was kind as well as constructive, and I learned a lot.

My best friend Leah and I like to do as much as we can together and we have very similar educational interests. It's a bit harder now, but that's where Skype has been a great tool. We used Skype to review my paper together last weekend; sharing the screen so we could both see the paper at once.

You Won't Survive Without Your Cohort

My department chair at Brandon University advised me that my relationships with the people in my cohort would be critical to my success, and he was absolutely right. On the first day of my first class, I made a new friend, and I've added to that number throughout the term. I took it upon myself to organize a cohort study group and we meet every other Wednesday before one of our classes. I used Microsoft Forms to find a time and location that worked for the most people. Sometimes only a few people show up, but it is an important opportunity to discuss the readings and assignments, ask questions, and listen to each other.
Image may contain: 11 people, people smiling, people standing
Image may contain: 11 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

Take Time for Wellness

Time spent in nature and on my yoga mat kept me sane during the crazy busy-ness of final papers. I keep my yoga mat unrolled by the table where I work, and every hour I stop what I'm doing and spend a few minutes practicing...often just a few cat-cow stretches, downward dog, forward folds, and some twists. Additionally, I take in a studio class most days at One Yoga, Alive Mindbody (barre--my new passion) or Fernwood Yoga Den, and occasionally Moksana and Moksha. Moving my body and focusing on nothing but my breath and intention are so therapeutic for me.  After finishing my a 6000-word paper, I was exhausted and overwhelmed, but thought I should carry on to my next paper. This proved to be a really bad idea as I was unproductive and tearful and incapable of doing anything. I used my Mind Body app to find an upcoming class and headed to Moksha for a 90-minute warm yin class. It was the best thing I could have done, and as my mind and body relaxed in savasana, I was hit with the most fabulous idea ever for structuring my next paper. I left the yoga studio feeling inspired, and went home to write half the paper in one sitting. I got an A+, and I firmly believe that I wouldn't have produced such great work without taking care of myself first.
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Love yoga barre classes at Alive Mindbody!
Most days I visit my nearby beach which is only five minutes away. The fresh ocean air and refreshing breeze always energize and refocus me. There is a great trail that wanders from Willows Beach to Cattle Point that I love to walk along. The beaches are open to dogs beginning in October, so I often get to pat dogs and visit with their owners. Social interaction, animals, and fresh air always make me feel so much better.

And the first term is in the books...
My first term of PhD studies went so much better than I expected... I'm really pleased with my marks, the program and my supervisor are both excellent, and I love my new friends and yoga community. Happy to be back in Manitoba for the holidays, and excited to see what the second term has in store!


  1. Awesome post, Devon (geesh , I used 'awesome'). I love that workflow you have put together. Mind maps helped me organize my Ph.D. work as well. Glad it was a great term, being in beautiful Victoria would help I am sure. Enjoy the ride!

  2. Thanks Mike! It has been an "awesome" experience so far! Figuring out how to get started and organize my ideas for major papers has been huge for me. Merry Christmas and hope to see you in the new year!

  3. Devon, so grateful to have discovered your blog, and your reflections on "work flow"! Excellent resource. Thanks, Lady! :)

    1. Thanks for the comment! So glad you found the post helpful :)