I came across this interesting article at The Thesis Whisperer blog. It starts with the hypothesis being an academic is similar to “running a small, not very profitable business”. This is mainly down to two problems:
Problem one: There are a lot of opportunities that could turn into nothing, so it’s best to say yes to everything and deal with the possible overwork problem later.
Problem two: Since (outside of a teaching schedule) no one is really telling you what to do with every minute of your time, it can be hard to choose what to do next – especially if all the tasks seem equally important.
My personal experience is similar, but also somewhat different.
While Problem Two is very familiar, it is especially daunting in my situation: as I work only part-time on my PhD and work 50% in a market research institute, efficiency is vital for my goal finishing my PhD within three-and-some years. Prioritising and utilising time most efficiently is thus very important. On the other hand, Problem One is familiar but most of the time I feel quite the opposite: As if what I actually work on is not novel, not interesting enough for a PhD and saying “no” to a lot of things that might be more fruitful but not really relevant to my research question. It sometimes feel like the “overwork problem” is more a problem of constantly finding new, relevant questions and topics to include.
In the blog post, it is explained how these two problems can result in what they call “flipping”:
When Problem One, over-commitment, collides with Problem Two choosing what to do next, the trouble really starts. The freedom to choose among seemingly equally important tasks leads to what I call ‘flipping’. ‘Flipping’ is not finishing a task properly before starting on a new one.
Well. This one I really do know — but not only at the university, but also in my studies or my jobs. And yes, it can really become a problem: Flipping kills every last bit of efficiency. Instead of making a lot of progress, you end up with having nothing finished at all. I think, I have developed some coping strategies that work quite well in my job (and they are quite similar to what is recommended in the article): Meeting and talking with colleagues, committing myself to something and setting deadlines. But for my PhD I’m working mostly on my own, so setting deadlines for myself feels a bit different — it does not feel that I am as much committed to them as I would be if someone else was involved.
The article closes on some advice how to best approach a literature review if you find your self struggling with Problems One and Two and the “flipping” that results. While I cannot see the parallels to my current situation strikingly clear yet, I might take the recommendations a bit more by heart in the future. If all this sounds familiar to you as well or you find yourself struggling with “flipping” in your PhD work, make sure to read the article.