Socks for a PhD

Of course I had a project lined up in preparation for my PhD viva exam. What kind of knitter do you take me for? Whenever there’s a life event looming, my needles are on the go. I’m not superstitious, but you bet I was going to have a knitted item in the room with me for…luck. I could give you the boring Ravelry details about yardages and such. Or I can tell you why they’re one of the most important pairs of socks. Ever.

I had a skein of GamerCrafting Sparkle Sock (merino/nylon/stellina) that my pals Pip and Heather picked up for me at a yarn festival in 2018. The yarn’s colourway name was “Harley Deserved Better” and obviously they had to snag it for me. It then sat patiently in my stash as I spent a year trying to decide what it needed to be. Even then I knew it would likely make an appearance at my viva. It was Harley themed yarn, how could that skein not attend with me in some shape or form?

In the summer of 2019, I got my viva date. November. Knowing the building I was likely to have the exam in, I instantly ruled out a shawl. For some reason, the heating in SMLC has to be cranked up so high, you could probably fry an egg on a desk. The idea of sitting and sweating, face bright red for an hour trying to answer questions about my thesis? No thank you.

A ball of red and black variegated yarn

Dungeons and Dragons came to the rescue. I was playing in a regular game at the time and needed a project to work on during sessions. Socks! Easy to transport and shove in my bag, simple enough that I could put them down and pick them back up for dice rolls, lots of comforting and meditative stitches.

I settled on the Fika socks from Pom Pom magazine, Spring 2015 issue. I’d knit several pairs of these socks before and knew that this pattern would show off the yarn whilst fulfilling my knitting needs. I did make some slight changes as I’m anti-cuff-down socks, so instead cast them on toe-up, and swapped the heel out for a German short-row heel. If I’m honest, the pattern was more inspiration and I merely reverse-engineered it (as I had the previous times I’d knit it!) Either way, I had a cracking, utterly stress-free time working on these socks.

Feet in red and black handknit socks surrounded by books

I finished the socks with weeks to spare, of course. And wore them to my Viva. Nobody knew I was wearing them. For one thing I didn’t announce it to my examiners, but they were hidden from view by my boots. But I knew they were there. You honestly can’t beat the comfort of buttery soft merino stitches, and I defy anyone not to feel confident when there’s stellina sparkles involved too. I really like the ankles on these; the twisted rib is pretty, obviously, but it also makes them fit snugly.

I love these socks. I see summer D&D games and rolling dice. I see my friend’s office where I sat and prepared the hour before the viva. I see my examiners and remember the enthusiasm and praise they had for my Harley chapters. I see myself walking out of the building having passed. They’re a bloody good pair of socks.

I’m going to wear them to my graduation. Socks for a viva. Socks for a doctor.

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020

PhD Hacks: Creating a Secondary Sources Reading Journal

three notebooks stacked overlapping each other. The bottom one is open and reads 'reading journal - comics - criticism volume 1'

Secondary sources. Over the course of a PhD, chances are, you’ll read more articles, books, essays, reviews and blog posts than one would imagine humanely possible. GoodReads, eat your heart out. Enter the humble reading journal.

First off, yes, this is a slightly old-fashioned way of doing things when there’s so much by way of software for bibliographies and logging what you’ve read. However, there will be times when you’re without computer access, and there’s no guarantee you’ll remember exactly which quotes resonated and why later. Equally, if it’s a library book you’re working with, most libraries won’t be thrilled if you return the book with dog-earred pages and chunks of text covered in pink highlighter. As for e-books? Simply put, you can’t always copy and paste quotes. I personally hate trying to log quotes directly into Word or other software from a journal; I find it’s pretty easy to lose my place and the process becomes pretty time consuming in the long run.

As for transferring information from journal to thesis? Technically, I will be writing it out again. However, in my experience, I’m more likely to remember a source, its author and the specific section I want to reference having written it out by hand. Call it a decade of language oral exams talking, but paper beats a computer screen as far as memory games are concerned. Sometimes – and I can’t stress this enough – PhD candidates just need a break from a screen. Sitting in a cafe or the library or even just your couch, book and journal to hand with a mug of coffee? It’s a moment of quiet, and the break can help spark new ideas.

Two notebooks, the pages written on, overlapping

When it comes to set up, you don’t need anything fancy. I used the following headings:

Writer(s)/Editors (s) – important to distinguish, particularly if you’re working with multiple sources from an edited volume
Publication Details – self explanatory!
Synopsis – this is where your journal is a life-saver come lit review time! Even if you just copy a few lines from the blurb and then pepper in some of your own thoughts, this section is valuable. I tended to fill this bit in last, as it meant I could flag to myself whether the source was something I planned to reference, if it would be better suited to a paper than my thesis, or simply if it wasn’t what I had hoped for and therefore wouldn’t use just yet.
Quotes – I’m a lit grad, so my needs may vary to others, but finding quotes is hard-wired into me. I’d note down any lines that may support/refute whatever I was working on, as well as the page number.
Bibliography – Always check the bibliographies of books and papers you read, I can’t stress how useful this tip was for me. You never know if you’ll find something interesting or potentially of use. For the sake of making sure you remember it later, log it!

My headings worked for me, but there’s no reason why they can’t be customised to suit other priorities when it comes to secondary sources. Ultimately, this system helped me to log comic books, interviews, websites, reviews, theses, articles… No source was wasted either; months down the line, I would remember reading something, flip to it in my journal and find I’d already done the hard work of logging all the information I’d need. Sometimes I might reread the source as my priorities had changed, but every time, my wee journals came through for me. Whilst it may sound potentially time-consuming, it’s actually a brilliant time-saver and a calming process to boot. Is it old school? Yes. Is it an excuse to indulge in new pens and notebooks? Absolutely! Will it help you? I hope so. Oh, and at the end, when you’re finished? It’s nice having a physical log of all the work from behind the scenes!

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020

Small PhD hacks to save time and money

Straight up, writing a PhD is hard. Throughout the process, most tips and tricks people passed my way tended to focus on themes like imposter syndrome, writer’s block, and how to get published. Now I’m on the other side, I thought I’d share the smaller, almost inconsequential things I discovered along the way which saved time, cash, and occasionally brought great satisfaction after a long day in the library.

  1. Find Free books
    Books are pretty crucial for us. Or, they are for those of us doing literature degrees, but I assume folk in STEM crack spines on books occasionally. They’re also often expensive and if it’s a new title, chances are the library doesn’t have it yet.
    There are two options here that I found pretty handy here. The first is to use your university’s Inter Library Loans service and request it. I found that if the ILL services couldn’t find the book I requested, they’d occasionally be super generous and order me a copy “for your retention” – i.e I got to keep it! So keep an eye on new and upcoming titles and get your requests in. You never know!
    The second option? Check out journals in your field and see what books they have up for review. It’s a win-win situation here as you’ll get a book and a publication in one go. Again, keep an eye on up-coming publications as sometimes, book review editors are open to suggestions and requests. Following them on Twitter can also be handy as they’re likely to share new books for review, and it’s an opportunity to create a connection.
  2. Select your champion
    Find out and make a note of the people specialising in issues such as research integrity, plagiarism, data management – basically all that stuff with small print most people don’t read until it’s too late. It may seem like work now and chances are you won’t necessarily need them, but it’s good to have their email noted down just in case. Knowing who to turn to when some of my research was distributed without my consent made life infinitely less stressful. That’s not to say these experts and champions are only there for the scary stuff . They’re specialists in these areas for a reason and there to help with the more benign too; even if it’s just establishing best practice for storing data (e.g. should you share a thesis Dropbox with your supervisors? Hint: no) or if you can publish your thesis chapters as articles prior to submission.
  3. Acquire L33t Hacker Skillz
    This requires you to spend some precious time now, but it’s a huge saver in the long run. You may think you know Microsoft Office, but do you know how to write and format a thesis using Word? Sure, you could download oodles of software suggested on Twitter, but most university IT services offer courses for staff and students. Some are even specifically aimed at PhDs and theses. Even if you consider yourself well-versed in Microsoft Office (or other programmes used by your subject), attending these courses can still allow you the chance to pick up handy tips and tricks which will come in useful long after submission. Plus it’s technically free, and did I mention the “saving time later” bit?
  4. Write everything down
    Pretty basic and not necessarily a hack per se, but it’s a good one. Make sure you have at least one notebook near you at all times. Ideas will usually strike at the most inconvenient time possible, and trust me, you will not remember them when you wake up/once you’re dressed/after lunch/whenever you open up a Word document. Having a notebook and pen in your bag or by your bed (and a notebook app on your phone) means you won’t lose possible exciting developments and changes in chapter direction later. It’s excruciating settling down to work only to realise you’ve completely forgotten the amazing thought you had in the shower. It’s also pretty handy having one in your bag for supervisions; again, there’s no guarantee you or your supervisor will necessarily remember everything you discussed in detail, and your notes could even spark more ideas later. Do yourself and your stress-levels a favour – write everything down in the moment.
  1. Repurpose, Reuse, Recyle
    You know those drafts that your supervisor may have totally slaughtered? You may not want to look at them now, but don’t delete them. Keep a file somewhere on a hard-drive or USB with old drafts. There’s still the chance you may be able to polish them up later for a conference, or publication. Even if those words don’t make their way into your thesis, they’re never a waste of time. Plus, once you’re done, you can go back and see how much your writing has improved!
  1. Confer-idays/Holi-ferences
    Attending conferences, much like a holiday, can also be pretty pricey. Obviously applying for funding is a must – and your College/School/Department/PGR Office might all have separate wee pots to help fund travel to conferences worth checking out. When I was looking for suitable conferences to send abstracts to, I was lucky in that most stuff in my field was UK-based, but as my partner is Canadian, I looked for conferences near/in his province so we could tack on a holiday to his family. It cut our costs down significantly, and saved us doing 2 trips. As an aside, your university might even have travel insurance/conference attending insurance and I 100% recommend looking into it as it’s a huge weight off your shoulders having that sorted too!

Obviously starting a PhD in 2020 is going to be dramatically different to the the Before Covid-19 times I was writing through. But these things are still worth keeping in mind. You never know when a free book or a handy tweet may come your way, or who might prove an amazing connection or help later down the line. Small wins and time-savers add up, and can make the difference on the days when PhD Life is getting you down.

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020

How I survived the final months of my PhD

There’s oodles of resources available for PGRs setting out on their research journey, from resources provided by universities, to blogs and training courses and podcasts to be discovered via a quick Google search. I could talk about those things. They were useful. However, as far as I’m concerned its the things that weren’t remotely connected to researching and university life that really got me through my PhD. With that in mind, let’s procrastinate.

Are you reading faerie porn?”

Of course I later bought yarn inspired by the books. Why not combine two of my favourite things?!

I found that academia destroyed my love of reading and writing. The final year of my PhD and the road to submission restored that. Prior to my postgraduate research, I loved fantasy novels, especially those focused on fae (no, I don’t really know why). I’d heard knitters talking about Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series and curiosity got the better of me last February as heavy snowfall began to disrupt life again. I was HOOKED. I quickly read the ACOTAR books and moved onto her Throne of Glass series. What followed was a heavy dive into Young Adult fantasy and amassing lots of points on my Waterstones card.
As I was basically polishing up my thesis at this point, I didn’t have to worry about reading primary or secondary material, so obviously I did have a little more reading time to play with than someone still writing. But, reading something new (with kickass heroines, badass fae, high stakes and a romance plot that would make fanfic writers sing) that was totally divorced from my research was brilliant. It was weirdly invigorating, sparking my imagination (which felt long dead at this point) and relieving a lot of PhD stress in the process. I’m not saying slightly smutty YA fae saved me…but they vastly improved the final months of my PhD.

From Career Goals to Tech Support

Being self-funded meant that I spent a fair amount of time applying for jobs when I wasn’t removing split infinitives from my thesis (we all do it, quit judging me). As I was doing this, I came across a few tweets and blog posts sharing ” top podcasts for digital content creators!” (or words to that effect) I tried a few, but the ones that really caught my attention were Hashtag Authentic and Reply All.

Hashtag Authentic is a podcast for online creatives by Instagram genius, Sara Tasker. In each episode, Sara interviews entrepreneurs, writers, influencers to share their experiences, tips and strategies for success. It’s a really relaxed and friendly podcast, and the guests’ stories are genuinely fascinating. Definitely worth a listen even if you’re not necessarily in the same industry as the guests – there’s a lot of advice that maps to a PhD, as well as universally. Sara also hosts a podcast with Jen Carrington, Letters From A Hopeful Creative, where they tackle letters from listeners about creativity and entrepreneurship. This is also well worth a listen and again, contains plenty of valuable advice and tips as Sara and Jen share their unfiltered perspectives and personal experiences.

Reply All is perhaps my all-time favourite podcast. It covers the internet, modern life and tells some of the most touching and hilarious stories known to… well, the internet. Regular segments include Yes Yes No in which hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt explain internet trivia to their boss, Alex Blumberg, and Super Tech Support where Alex (and/or other members of the team) tackle weird and wonderful tech support queries of listeners. And this stuff is juicy – we’re not talking “my router keeps flashing, we’re talking “I get these weird phonecalls” and “my social media got hacked” – and more. I felt somewhat…out of the loop with everyday life and pop culture towards the end of my PhD, and listening to this helped me feel connected to the world beyond comics and editing. Be warned though – one episode is never enough and you will sink hours diving into this podcast!

Watching a bunch of nerdyass voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons!

Warning: Critical Role may lead to you buying more dice than you actually need… But they are pretty!

Being a roleplayer, it was only a matter of time before I got into the (in)famous Critical Role, an online show where Matt Mercer and fellow voice actors stream their Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I’d tried to watch it a few times before the year previously, but couldn’t really get into it. Apparently all I needed was to be editing my thesis and just have it on in the background. Obviously I don’t recommend this if you need to concentrate on your work – trust me when I say there comes a point where you’re suddenly hyper-invested in someone else’s game and NPCs rather than your own work. When that time comes, add it to your break time – and don’t tell me you don’t have one, if you’re working on a PhD, you need chill time. Anyone who tells you not to is, pardon my language, a fucking moron. But back to the dice! A pal refers to Critical Role as D&D porn…and it is. You can see why these voice actors are good at their jobs. But I learned more about how 5th edition D&D works and how certain mechanics worked passively absorbing it than I had playing in years. Equally, if you don’t have a game at the moment, or you’re curious about roleplaying, it’s a decent place to start. In any case, there’s 2 campaigns plus extra content on YouTube to keep you busy if you’re still in lockdown, there’s also a podcast version if you prefer audio content and honestly? It’s something different and a really good laugh.

I should probably round off by saying that you should totally take advantage of the support available to you at your university. And you should. Just…remember that resting and recharging is important, and your wellbeing is worth more than a rushed draft, or your approaching APR/viva. Sometimes, distractions are necessary and you should lean into them.

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020

7 things I wish I’d known at the start of my PhD

I’m finally on the other side of my viva and, were it not for the lockdown, I’d probably be living up that post-viva life. Lucky for me, lockdown life removed the stress of job hunting by simply removing that option and giving me hours at home with my thesis. Flippancy and pragmatism aside, I thought I’d share the few things I learned now five years of hard work is (hopefully) paying off. I always respected the PGRs and staff who were brutally honest with me, so I plan to be the same here. Buckle in, it’s a bit of a long one.

A white woman holding a softboud thesis standing behind giant letters spelling UOFG on University of Glasgow quarangle.
The day I handed in my thesis back in 2019. Real kind of the uni to just have these fancy letters lying around.
  1. Routine, routine, routine
    Supervisors and the like would probably like me to say that having a routine enabled me to get the best work done and cut down on procrastinating. Truth is…it doesn’t. Humans procrastinate, and sometimes there will be chapters or events or other such times where you struggle to sit down and engage. However, what my routine did was to give me valuable stability and designated time with and – more crucially – away from my research. We all need time to recharge, find new perspectives, and honestly with the world being as bonkers as it is on a good day, knowing that you’re sitting down 9am – 12 noon every Tuesday and Thursday with your thesis or that dinner is at 6.30pm can be more calming than desk yoga or an hour being lectured on sleep habits.

  2. Do things that scare you
    Yes, I am following up routine with something that essentially jars your system. I’m not saying take up extreme sports (unless that’s your jam), but personally, I found the occasions where I did something my younger self would have balked at were the occasions where I learned the most and found most rewarding. I was once told that imposter syndrome isn’t a sign that you don’t belong, but that you’re pushing yourself, and this is something I live by. You don’t need to take huge leaps into the unknown. But smaller steps, such as signing up to that workshop on publishing, submitting an abstract to a conference, or entering 3MT competition can lead to bigger things, even if you’re not accepted or don’t win. I do say this with the caveat that you shouldn’t be destroying yourself and your wellbeing to achieve these things!

  3. Embrace mistakes
    For all I love social media, when combined with academia it forms this horrendous space where there is a pressure to perform perfection and being busy. It’s kinda like the way those influencers inevitably make you feel pressured to diet and exercise and spend a small fortune on a diet teas and a swimsuit for which “one size fits all” absolutely does not fit all, or make you any happier. I’m all for shouting my successes, but it’s all too easy to forget the people behind tweets about papers and awards are likely as stressed and tired and worried about their academic CV – or indeed regular CV – as you are. I’m not even touching those Tweets going round about whether or not academics work 40+ hour weeks (please don’t do or encourage this!) I’ve always appreciated the PGRs and staff who have been brutally honest and shared their experiences of failure or making mistakes. It’s more encouraging to know it took 12 revisions to get a paper published, or that they have oodles of embarrassing stories from interviews they’ve had over the years too. It’s good to remember that we’re all human, but also those mistakes or less successful research avenues are valuable experiences where we can learn something, or find different – and even better – opportunities.

  4. Have a space to vent
    There will be times that are frustrating. Sometimes supervisors love your work, other times they may be less enthused. APRs can be a stressful nightmare (I loathed mine, and in darker moments wished tiny curses of inconvenience such as printers breaking and accidentally hitting ‘reply all’ on their emails to everyone involved in the whole damn process). You may not get on with people in your office. Your landlord may be a colossal waste of space. Having a temporary space for immediate release of all that pent up frustration is great. Bottling it up never ends well. I’m a strong advocate for the blank Word document where you rant about your APR comments, your latest supervisor email, your flat inspection – whatever! Tweet rants at your best pals then delete them later. Whap it on Facebook if that’s your preferred rage release space. You may not feel as angry or upset later – you probably won’t still mean it if you call someone an “utter bellend” or similar. Getting it all out on a page and then deleting it a few hours later after a cuppa or strong beverage can be extremely cathartic. And it’s probably safer than doing it in a blank email, as I’ve known some colleagues to do. That way an embarrassing conversation potentially lies. Ditto actually saying it to your letting agent / fellow GTA/ course secretary/ supervisor/ boss / your flatmate’s partner / your gran [delete as appropriate]

  5. PhD Squad – assemble!
    Whilst Taylor Swift’s squad may be somewhat questionable in its content and goals, I have to admit that the girl’s onto something. We don’t need a bunch of privileged white women backing us, but having a group of friends – in or outside of academia – is worth its weight in gold. I owe a lot to my best friends, partner and family for their support over the last five years. They’ve cheered me on, they’ve picked me up and dusted me off, they’ve let me bounce ideas off them, they’ve helped me consume way too many Rich Teas and bottles of Echo Falls Summer Berries from the corner shop (PhD life is expensive, stop looking at me over your fancy white wine like that!)
    Get yourself a squad, but don’t copy Taylor too closely, okay. No PhD needs a feud with Kim K on top of research deadlines.

Kind words from the Ingenious Women 2018 squad
  1. Know your worth
    Your time and effort is valuable; you are valuable. If someone asks you to give up your time to work on something in exchange for “exposure” or “experience for your academic CV”, tell them to get to *expletives*. Obviously this may go against the previous point of “don’t actually call someone a bellend to their face” from above, but trust me on this one in particular. Sure, these “opportunities” sound exciting and enticing – who doesn’t want to get ahead on their academic career before their first APR? But, you should always ask what the other person gets from your contribution too. More often than not, the deal works out infinitely better for them, whilst leaving you overworked and unrewarded with a load of emails from your supervisors asking where that chapter you promised has gone to. I’ve been there, I’ve done it (the taking on “opportunities”, not exploiting students bit). I’ve had one of those GTA contracts, I’ve done work and not been paid fully or acknowledged for it.┬áSometimes opportunities are genuine opportunities, but equally, the last I checked, Glasgow City Council aren’t accepting exposure or a line on my CV as payment for council tax bills. Know and remember your worth.

  2. Your wellbeing is more important than a bit of paper
    There’s definitely been a huge shift in attitudes towards researchers and mental health over the past few years, and that’s great, but awareness campaigns and shoving the phone number for the uni’s oversubscribed and underfunded counselling services in PGR handbooks won’t mean anything until everyone in academia starts actually doing more than the bare minimum here. Again probably another post in its entirety. I can see now that my mental health was the absolute pits in the first few years of my PhD, and I wish I’d been able to a) notice that and b) ask for help at the time. I’m not going to presume to tell anyone how to look after their wellbeing, but I do think there’s more value in this than academia lets us believe. One thing I would say, having been on the receiving end of such comments early on in my thesis from fellow PGRs further on in their research, ill mental health and “a breakdown in year two” is not and should not be normal. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and call them on it if they make similar remarks. Some of us already pay huge tuition fees, our wellbeing shouldn’t be seen as a”top up” or similar price to succeed in our research. Again, remember academic social media can play tricks on you and your perception of how other PGRs in your field are doing. Ultimately, as the saying goes, it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to ask for help. I wish I’d felt more able to do so when I needed it.

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020.