Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here

Elizabeth  

Hello there.

Emma  

So lovely to have you here. I’ve been I’ve been stalking you online and I really love the work that you’re doing. And thank you for saying yes to come and talk to us. It’s

an absolute pleasure. I’m really looking forward to it. I

Emma  

am very much looking forward to quizzing you. Getting all the good stuff. So before we before we dive in stuff, though, I always ask about people’s own journey to can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about your journey into the PhD and out the other side? Yeah, sure. So I did my undergraduate back in the late 90s into the early 2000s at after university, and I studied politics and sociology. So I got really interested in in the realms of social science and especially issues around stigma and marginalized groups and exclusion, and all of those kinds of things. And I got to the end of my undergraduate and I was like, I’m not done. You know, I think there’s more that I want to know. And so I was very fortunate that the university I was studying at allows you to apply for bursaries, fully funded bursaries, which was incredibly helpful. So I applied for a bursary. I was lucky in that I got it. And I started my PhD looking at teenage mothers and their experiences of stigma, because at the time, there was an awful lot of kind of chatter, about the teenage pregnancy rate being like massively high in the UK that we have the highest rates in Europe, and it was terrible and all this stuff. And I thought I think there’s another side to this story. And I want to kind of go and talk to people who’ve experienced teenage parenthood and you know, find out from from their point of view, what’s it like for them, you know, how are they coping with with all of this, this quite damaging rhetoric that’s happening at the policy level, and there was a big teenage pregnancy strategy that the government came out with at the time and I was like, right, I think this is a sign that I need to go and investigate this further. So it was a qualitative piece of research, largely interviewed base, semi structured and often turned into unstructured interviews and it was a real voyage of discovery. It was it was fantastic. So yeah, that was that was my PhD. Back in the day.

Emma  

On asked for more than a voyage of discovery, can you? Yeah.

It was fascinating. And one of the things that that I discovered was, was really like how not bothered. Most of my participants were by a lot of the kind of messages that were being portrayed about them at a kind of policy level. And, and social stigma in order thoughts, because they were just too busy getting on with their lives. And, and for them, it was having a child at a young age, it was it was normal, it was fine, you know, and they were likely to move faster. So you know, this is ridiculous. So it was it’s great to get some insights. into into that world. Amazing,

Emma  

amazing. And, and so then out of the other side of that, where did it take you next after your PhD?

So when my PhD came to an end, I did some work as a research assistant on kind of project to project to project which which felt quite sort of insecure. I was in a position where I wanted to kind of buy my own flat and, and mortgage lenders aren’t very sort of sympathetic to that. Well, you had a job for three months, then you had a job for two months. Then you had a job for seven months. Yes. So yeah, I started looking outside of academia. So I actually worked as a consultant, essentially, as social research consultant in a private sector organization for a year and did a load of really kind of fascinating research there on all kinds of different projects. But the thing that I really kind of didn’t like about that was you couldn’t dive really deep into stuff. Because the client wants an answer to this question. They’re not interested in you going off in one throwing around in the literature for six months. They want an answer they want a strategy. They weren’t an outcome. So after a year, I was like, Oh, God, I want to go back to academia. So yeah, yeah, a job came up and I applied for it and I got it. So yeah, the universe was aligned at that particular point in time.

Emma  

Amazing. So this sense of working his research, I’m working in different types of research and different types of organizations and with different types of timescales I’m imagining, I think that’s an interesting point to start our discussion around. Procrastination, which is what we’re here for today.

It gets the thought of it even does

Emma  

it really does and I think that it’s, it’s, it sounds really simple, but actually, it’s quite a complex issue, isn’t it?

Yeah, it isn’t just putting something off. The fact that you’re putting something off is just a symptom of other stuff. And I think it doesn’t help as well. A lot of the conversations that happen around procrastination, there’s a lot of kind of guilt and shame attached to it. And people often think I’m procrastinating I’m so lazy, but it really isn’t about laziness at all.

Emma  

No, it’s even pain, isn’t it? Or laziness at all? Not. So let’s let’s so it’s worth has been just acknowledging the difficulty of procrastination and like you say it gets us all it’s not like anybody gets out unscathed and that there may be kind of magnitudes and at different moments. I don’t know if that’s been your experience in different moments and in different settings. It may rear its head.

Absolutely, yeah. It’s not something that that will present in the same way every time you experience it. And sometimes you might go month to month, and you’re just happily taking stuff off and you’re kind of chugging along fine. And then all of a sudden, the smallest thing will become massive, and you will get really, really kind of bogged down by it, because it tends to become a bit of a vicious cycle. So you kind of procrastinate over the small thing and then the small thing turns into a bigger thing and then that becomes even more of an issue. And it really can be quite paralyzing. And I’d like to say it, it affects everybody, you know, at all stages of their academic career. I mean, there was a task it was just really tiny tasks that I had been procrastinating over for about two weeks. And I built it up into this this huge thing. And you know, every day when you’ve got things on your to do list, you can get to the end of the day at no goodness me it’s still there. Oh, well carry over carry it over. And this task it ended up taking me like six minutes to do yesterday. And I was like Elizabeth you’re so ridiculous.

Emma  

That’s the thing is that’s the clue is that is not actually the task. It’s that kind of emotional aspect of it. And I think that the other thing that you say in terms of the difference is that sometimes coming into the PhD, in fact not sometimes often coming into the PhD people may not have experienced procrastination, like they experience it during their PhD journey.

Yeah, exactly. And I don’t think that’s the coincidence. I think no, dates always feel so much higher when you get on to your doctoral journey when you get onto a PhD program. Like this is a big deal, you know, and there’s a tendency sometimes to think that you should know it all. You know that you should know how to do a literature review that you should know how to write a methodology chapter. But the thing that I often say to people is that you haven’t done a literature review for this particular project before. You haven’t read the methods chapter for this particular thing. And you’re also getting used to a new environment, as well. And it’s often an environment where you’re surrounded by people that you respect and admire. So you tend to kind of put them on a bit of a pedestal and think that they’ve just got it all figured out. But trust me, they haven’t. Really.

Emma  

And this is really important, isn’t it because it can catch you unawares and as you say, because the stakes feel very high. Indeed, you know, are high you aren’t you’re, you’re a doctoral candidate. And this sense of the not knowing and then not knowing and the fear which can bring procrastination to play because you don’t want to commit. I don’t want to put it on a piece of paper because I’m not sure about it. Therefore, I won’t put it on a piece of paper and I’ll go and clean the cupboards out instead. Yeah,

totally. Yeah, I think fear is, is really central to it. And I think it’s both a fear of a fear of failure, you know, fears fear of criticism, that Fair Success always comes into it as well. For the students that I’ve supported over the years, it’s a PhD is such a big deal because it can be life changing. And when you’re on a Ph D program where you’re somebody who’s going to eventually be doctor, whoever, that then can tend to sort of upset some of your relationships and your kind of position and your social circle and the way that other people look at you and think of you and it changes those particular dynamics and, and sometimes that’s, that’s quite a scary thing. Especially if you’re from a background where you’re the first person in your family to go to university or the first person in your friend group. And this is just not something that people like me do. That could be there in the background, sometimes that kind of subconscious level. And you’re you’re kind of you’re kind of subconsciously sabotaging yourself with your procrastination and that can be what’s underlying quite a lot of it.

Emma  

Absolutely. So take home message everybody. You are not lazy. You’re just petrified there is going on. There is lots and lots going on. So I am sure there will be lots of people being able to relate to that and kind of understand. Hopefully, that understanding of that will help to shift things a bit in terms of like, I’m not lazy, I’m not a bad person. I’m just you know, I need to support myself through this. But then the next question is, well, how do I support myself through this and I know that you have some good strategies for that. So how if you are caught up in a kind of procrastination, vicious cycle, how can you support yourself? Well,

I think first and foremost, you’ve got to pace yourself. This is okay. It’s It’s fine that I’m going through this at the moment it’s completely normal and most PhD students experience with bits, it’s absolutely fine. And I think the second thing is to try and get ahead of your future self a little bit because I think the tendency when all of us procrastinate when we put things off, when we say I’m not going to do this today, I’m going to get on to it tomorrow, is that we just assume that magically our future self our tomorrow self is going to be highly motivated to do just overnight the fairies are going to come sprinkle motivation, dust on us, and we’re going to be well up for filling in our ethical approval application. That’s just it’s not going to happen. Unless you try and get ahead of yourself. So you’ve got to anticipate the ways in which your future self is going to try and be a bit naughty. And the way in which your future self is going to try and sabotage those plans. So you might say okay, I anticipate that my tomorrow self is going to say I am way too busy to do this. Right now. I’ve had too many emails today. There are lots of people who are kind of in the office, lots of people asking for my help. So what you can do to get ahead of that is well, you can set your email, auto reply, you can put your auto response on and let’s say that you’re not available today. And then that kind of manages other people’s expectations about how available you you can go and work somewhere else. Go and take yourself off to a coffee shop for the day or or a place it’s quiet. And you can just do those kinds of things to minimize the risk of those those interactions and because our future self is is very naughty. And we’ve got to we’ve got to get into that headspace. If we do that again, and

Emma  

our future self is very smart. Of course this is the problem of being a smart person is that you’re very good at coming up with excuses. And coming up with reasons that are very convincing.

Absolutely. And I think the very nature of being a PhD student is that you have got a creative and a rebellious way. And it just wants to do its own thing sometimes and you have to rein it in and go no, no, you can do that shiny thing later. But now you got to focus on this other thing. You have to rein it in a bit.

Emma  

I love it. And I love this sense of thinking about okay, what might trip me up. Just being curious about yourself, isn’t it? I’m like, Okay, what might I say? And then I’m going to I’m going to take that hour I’m going to my auto responses on in the coffee shop, none of those things are going to apply, then I’m really setting myself up to be with that task says genius is no place to hide. And then

even kind of thinking what might happen when I’m in the coffee shop and I’m on my own am I going to reach my phone and start you know, disappearing down on Instagram Squirrel Hill. So do I need to do something around that. So there are various little apps that you can get for your phone in terms of making sure that you’re productive and that you know the scrolling, that kind of prevent you from going into it. So it’s worth just thinking about any of those kinds of things that you might need as well. Yes,

Emma  

yes. And I think this sense of also what you said there in terms of the shiny thing because there is going to be the thing that always feels more important and the thing you don’t want to do. And I think this sense of rewards as well, isn’t it that and like you said, so you can do that tomorrow. You can do that. When you finish. Is this your inner toddler? Yeah. You can have the chocolate buttons when you’ve finished your carrots. Yeah,

you got to eat your vegetables first. And this happens to me all of the time. The whole shiny object syndrome thing and I think it really is part and parcel of the procrastination spiral. So I’ve got like a shiny object syndrome notebook that I carry around with me. So if I put aside some time to work on something, and I find myself going, oh, I want to do this other thing. What I’ll do is I’ll write down that other thing in that notebook. If I’ve had a new idea for something, you know, an idea for a paper or a blog or whatever. I’ll just spend five minutes writing down in this notebook. Just an outline for that, and then I’ll put it to the side and get back to what I was working on because I know it’s safe in there. I know it’s not gonna go anywhere. Because I think that’s the fear is that when we have got these creative, rebellious brains, when ideas come into that we’re like, Oh, my God, I need to grab that and I need to run with it right now. You don’t need to do that. You can just take a few minutes and make a note of it and go back to it later and it’s safe in there. You’re not going to forget it. It’s not going to fly away. And that then frees you up to go back to what it was you were doing. And that has been such a helpful thing for me. But I’ve recommended that to so many people.

Emma  

That’s brilliant. That’s brilliant. And it can also be then a really productive state to be in because as you say, as you sit down to do the other thing so many other things come in and go look at me. Look at me I’m so you’re generating the next part of your project or you know, like you say them the papers you might write, but you don’t have to do them right then you’ve got the ideas, but you don’t have to actually get into the backlog.

So say you’ve got a deadline to get 2000 words of your literature review off to supervisor by the end of the week. And you sat down and you’re working on that and then oh, I’ve had this idea for how I can make my recruitment poster better. That’s great. Okay, let’s spend two minutes writing that down and then we’ll go back to the literature review.

Emma  

And then you got your reward because you can do your poster at the end of the day. Exactly. And I know we make it sound very simple. And we both read it I know that you recognize we recognize that it isn’t it isn’t that simple. But actually this this is then dealing with the I think what I’m hearing you say is dealing with the kind of causes rather than the symptom because I think often we just beat ourselves up and say, Oh, you’re a bad person. But actually, what you’re saying is deep thinking about what’s actually tripping me up was actually causing this and I’ll attend to that because that is time well spent. Exactly.

Yeah. And it’s putting these little strategies in place. Because they will help you deal with it in the moment. And I think over the long term, you are able to then take a step back and look at the bigger picture and think what are some of those factors in the background? That might have been leading me to engage in the procrastinating behavior? I think it just makes you much more self aware.

Emma  

Absolutely, absolutely. And it isn’t. No, because you read this literature and it goes you just push on through just do these things. And it’s like, well, we’re not machines. You are human. beings and we are complex feeling beings. And what I love about your approach is this sense of attending to yourself and what is going on for you. So that actually because no PhD student needs telling what they need to do. We all know that. But But there will be things that will trip us up and it’s not because we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s just we we well, like we said we’re frightened with things going on.

And not being aware of our emotions and our emotional state is a massively important thing. On the PhD journey. Because burnout and overwhelm, again, kind of part and parcel of this procrastination cycles. So if you’re procrastinating and it keeps happening, and you just cannot focus that could possibly be a sign that you’re you’re overwhelmed and you’re at risk of heading for a burnout. So it’s perfectly fine for you to take a step back and just take some time out for a few days or a week. Because there is that tendency to kind of work and work and work and work and work because we’re passionate about the things that we’re researching. But like you said, we’re not machines, we’re not robots, we do need a bit of downtime. So often you pay attention to how regularly procrastination is cropping up for you because it could well signal that you just need a bit of a timeout.

Emma  

loves that and it’s another that’s another level of curiosity, isn’t it? Like, rather than I’m so cross with myself, it’s like, oh, I’m really interested in why I’m doing this I’m really interested in why this is happening. And as you say, why the sense of attending to yourself as you would do to a friend of like, wow, it seems like things are really tough for you at the moment wonder what’s going on rather than you ever just shout at your friend. Well, I think you should just get on with it. Exactly.

Yeah, we are so much harsher critics of ourselves. We would never speak to like a fellow PhD student or a friend in the way that we speak to us down so having some compassion for yourself is really important and and just ask yourself every day. Okay, what’s on your mind today? What you’re worried about today, anything concerning you today you almost have to become your own kind of therapist, in a way. Totally,

Emma  

totally. And because that’s the way that work. Shouting at yourself is not is only going to make yourself more upset and actually attending to yourself and the strategies that you’re suggesting those kinds of strategies, those are the things that move you forward those little wins that you have and the way forward. I love it. I love it.

I love it. The PhD journey has been offered like we’re just so focused on the outcome of finishing the damn thing. And we often don’t take the time to celebrate the small steps that we make along the way. Those we finished transcribing that really tough interview. Well, that’s a win, celebrate that you sold in your ethical application for that for wins. celebrate that. So, you know, make make sure that you do take the time to acknowledge the little steps that you make because they’re all part of the journey.

Emma  

Absolutely. And it’s really motivating to because I think often as you say, procrastination can be part of overwhelm. It’s like I don’t know where to start. I don’t know if I’m any good at this, or can I do this? I don’t know. Whereas if you are celebrating along the way and go look at me, I’ve done that I’ve done that in an arrogant way but just recognizing I have done this I can do that. It can it can really help to assuage the sense of overwhelm and insecurity which which sits with us most of the time, doesn’t it really. When I say us, I mean me.

And I think that’s a really important thing to say, Isn’t it that that procrastination, overwhelm, perfectionism, all of these things that they never really go away. You just get much better at dealing with them and recognizing them for what they are, and having some compassion for yourself and realizing that you’re human, and just having these small strategies in place to go right. Hello, procrastination. I see you. You know, it’s funny that you should show up right now. And just kind of having those kind of conversations with yourself about it.

Emma  

Yes. Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. Okay, so we could talk for much longer. I feel that brewing but I have to be aware of time. And, and there’s a lot that will be covered in there. And I always ask people very unfairly at the end of end of the interview to to give some top tips, but I wonder if there’s anything that you would kind of draw out as a top tip or indeed new information as a top tip to finish with? I

think I think the thing that I’d really like to share as a top tip is just to remember that done is always better than perfect. Though you’re procrastinating over something, it’s annoying you it’s getting on your nerves. How about you just spend 10 minutes on it. Just get it to a particular stage, just just get half a page written or get an email drafted, just do a little bit of it. You don’t have to do the whole task, just get started on it and then go and do something else. And often when you just you just get on with a little part of it. Okay, rather than doing the whole ethics form today, I’m just going to read through the guidance about it. Or I’m going to email my supervisor and arrange to have a chat with him about it. You’ve done part of it, you’re part of the way there. So just doing something you’d have to get it finished and get it perfect. You just need to get it off the ground. And that’s always something that has kind of stuck with me and that thing my PhD supervisor said to me back in the day,

Emma  

this is brilliant. This is brilliant because it deals with so many of the things you were touching on the sense of overwhelm, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. All I’m gonna do is read through the guidance. That’s all I’m gonna do. And that will get you to your desk, isn’t it? If that’s all I’ve got to do read to the gut right? Okay, I can do that. Look, I’ve done it. Hooray.

But that’s way make it enjoyable for yourself. So have a nice cup of coffee. Have a biscuit while you’re doing it. You know, that often takes the edge off of somebody who’s tough if you can make it enjoyable, you know, put a nice scented candle in the background. You know make sure that you you’re in a place where you feel comfortable. Listen to some white noise you know, that’s a big one for me. I love a bit of white noise there. Just do what what is going to be helpful for you to get you to that starting line.

Emma  

I love that so much thank you very much. I know there’ll be lots of people who are listening who are in that procrastination moment. And there’s so much in there to try to experiment with and to just become more aware of yourself. And thank you for reminding us of that if this kind of conversation that we’re having with ourselves and to give ourselves a biscuit. That’s my take home.

Yeah. And just remember, if you weren’t capable of it, you wouldn’t be here. You’ve already got pretty much success behind you. So all good.

Emma  

Oh, absolutely. Oh, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time. We will have all your because you do amazing work, and I particularly enjoy talking on Instagram. So people might want to check you out. We’ll have all your details in the show notes. Thank you so much for being here.

Oh thank you. It’s been fantastic and thank you