Leona McQuaid is a second year part-time PhD Student and Occupational Therapy Lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University.
In my attempt to manage the demands of a part time PhD alongside a busy full time academic role, I have developed a form of self-bargaining; I call it transactional thinking. This is where I set mini goals throughout the week and reward myself for doing them. We all set goals and have deadlines in the PhD process but for me, this is more about acknowledging the mundane progress being made. It’s about creating small, regular wins to maintain focus and motivation.
“If I read this paper first, then I’ll go for a run”. “If I write 600 words in my literature review this morning, then I’ll meet my friend for a coffee this afternoon”. “If I do 10 articles of data extraction this week, then I’m taking the weekend off”. You get the idea.
The goal, timescale and reward can all change but the simple recipe is; If I do X, then I can enjoy Y. The trick is to make the task specific and measurable so you’ll know if you have achieved it or not. Setting the reward up front helps to motivate me to get the task done and when I’m enjoying the run, coffee with a friend, time off etc. I can fully relax and be present, knowing the time is earned and there is no room for guilt. Involving other people and informing them of this method has really worked for me. It has allowed family and friends to see that I can still have a life and work on my PhD. They can also encourage me to get X done and help protect my PhD time especially if they are invested in doing Y too.
I’m not sure if this type of transactional thinking will work for everyone but I find not seeing my progress can be really demotivating. Whilst interest in my subject and making a valuable contribution to knowledge provide the intrinsic drive to complete my PhD, sometimes that isn’t enough to get through the hard work week-to-week.
They say a PhD is a marathon not a sprint so what motivates us to keep putting one hypothetical foot in front of the other? I have noticed that if I remove the reward or transaction element and only tell myself ‘I have to do X’, then the task becomes much more stress inducing. This leads to thinking of the many things I have to do and this can feel overwhelming.
All tasks, the PhD, or the marathon, can be broken down into smaller steps that chip away at the bigger picture – so that’s where I like to focus. At this point I should divulge that I am an occupational therapist by background so breaking tasks down and creating specific, measureable, achievable goals is something I naturally gravitate to. But we can all do it, it might just take a bit of trial and error to gauge the right level of goal and reward for ourselves.
So whilst the bigger picture of PhD completion is motivating, we still need to lead ourselves to that point. Rewarding ourselves for constantly showing up and putting the effort in through transactional thinking can provide this.
We must not forget the bigger picture completely though. Whilst transactional thinking may be another tool in the box to help us along the way, we do need to lift our heads and take an overview of our work. For this, I have my Gantt chart. This helps align those small goals and transactions towards the bigger picture and timescales. If you are reading this and thinking ‘but my Ganntt chart is just a piece of paper or spreadsheet I never look at’ then may I suggest Team Gannt? This software offers visual feedback as you progress on a task, so all that reading, writing and thinking is colour progressing on your bar chart. Oh, and when you get to click the box to say a task is done… well, that is very satisfying indeed.
Whichever way you approach it, the work needs to be done for you to make enough progress in your part-time PhD. As of course does your paid work, family life, role as a mother, father, partner, friend, dinner maker, house cleaner, yogi etc. Doing a PhD part-time means we need to actively carve out the time to work on it, as we don’t have the same gift of structured time to dedicate to our study, as perhaps do our full-time colleagues.
Carving out small chunks of PhD time throughout the week lends itself to setting small but regular goals — and using my approach — small, regular rewards. So transactional thinking may be one way that can help you manage the many plates you are spinning, to get the work done, but to also enjoy yourself along the way with the other hats you wear in life.