Talking About How We Work

Friday, 20 August 2021 5-minute read

In my previous two posts, I reflected on how I changed my workflow at the start of the PhD and how I am changing my workflow again after I finished. Since then, I have had conversations with colleagues about the various challenges we faced at various stages of the PhD, and how many of these challenges were exacerbated by structural inequalities within higher education and academia. When a community, broadly speaking, does not provide adequate training on these matters and just assumes doctoral candidates either know this already or will figure it out on the fly, it creates an environment where not everyone has the same base line understanding of what the work entails and how to go about approaching this. This disproportionately advantages those who have already had the means or resources to have learnt this earlier on, or those who do not have disabilities or live-long conditions that they need to learn to manage.

When I started my postgraduate studies, my graduate school offered a number of research methods training courses with the express purpose of levelling the playing field for starting postgraduates. These courses were to ensure that postgraduate students who were coming to the university from different backgrounds could get the hang of what it is like being a postgraduate researcher. We also had a number of other workshops on career management, publications, and teaching. But nobody really talked about any of the challenges I discussed in the previous post concerning the mechanics of managing a large document, ways to break down and structure research projects into smaller tasks, managing the logistics of things like fieldwork or acquiring resources.

The closest we got to this was a number of workshops on research, writing, and study techniques, but nothing about workflows per se. This was a strange oversight because these matters often affected the day-to-day work of research and writing more directly than many of the other topics covered in the various workshops. These were either things we were already assumed to have known, or we were expected to identify our own training needs and seek out the resources ourselves. This places the burden on us, the researchers/candidates, to take the initiative in figuring these things out without giving us the necessary information or context in order to plan or work intelligently. What ended up happening with most of these seminars is that they conveyed the expectations of what research would be like in the context of a university in Britain without really giving us the training required to meet those expectations.

This proved especially hard for me when I found out I was autistic half way through my PhD. The diagnosis itself did not change anything, but my awareness of it certainly gave me a much better understanding of many of the challenges I faced, and the need that I now felt to adapt how I approached my work. So not only were there aspects of academic research and writing that I did not know how to manage, but I now had to search for and devise strategies that were adapted to specific aspects of my neuroprofile that I was only just growing more aware of. I would need to find ways of managing my focus, motivation, and resilience to setbacks, all while adapting to my autism traits: difficulties with concentration or attention span when performing repetitive tasks, intense tunnel vision to the neglect of my health when in the depth of research, and overstimulation and burnout. The mental load that went with manually having to keep track of backing up, version control, referencing, and maintaining several documents just proved too much for me to handle. I was immensely fortunate to have gotten the advice I did from my colleagues that helped me find a workflow that eventually worked for me. But until then, I did not even know what options I could try out.

I spent so much of the early years of the PhD trying to figure out workflow techniques by trial and error. Even towards the end of the process, when I was collating the final thesis or doing my corrections, I was grappling with errors that I had consolidated by building layers on top of a really messy workflow that left far too much room for error. I would have saved myself a great deal of time and grief had I known about this earlier on, or had we had more focussed training on workflow techniques. I would also have been able to better manage the difficulties from my autism if I had some clearer information. A lot of this work relied on me already knowing the answers to questions I did not know I could have been asking about how to approach research and writing. Now that I am moving on to my next project after my PhD, I am better placed to devise a workflow that works for me based on a few more years' worth of experience (not to mention, having picked up a few tricks from programming and other colleagues of mine in STEM disciplines). These are certainly things I wish I had learnt sooner, so I am hoping that by having conversations around these questions it helps other PhD students trying to figure out their own approach to their work.