Getting started was really hard for me. I don’t know if this was exacerbated by a 10 year hiatus from academia and I was out of the way of things, I suspect this was indeed a contributing factor, or a multitude of things but this was tough as it felt quite overwhelming.
My first meeting went well, but the instruction of ‘go ahead and start’ was a most daunting prospect. ‘Start what?!’ my brain kept asking myself. Suddenly everything felt quite real…
In a ‘toughen up princess’ moment with myself I decided I was going to start by being organised. You might do this differently, but here are a few of the things I’ve tackled in my attempts to get a handle on this thing.
1. Make a plan
I’m a planner by nature and I know myself well enough to know that I don’t work well without plans. To make myself feel somewhat in control I locked in a first draft of my research question and began pulling it apart. Then I looked at the next 6 years (I’m P/T, remember) which feels like a long time, but won’t really be when things get moving, and mapped out the key milestones. Working backwards from there I had a rough overarching plan of when and what I needed to achieve.
2. Make a timetable
With full time employment likely to get in the way, I felt the need to map out my weeks and months. I looked at an average week and tried plotting the constants (give or take). In there I dedicated enough time to fulfill a 20 hours per week commitment to research. I fully acknowledge that this is likely to be in flux week in week out, but having the timetable has made things easier to commit to this, so far at least.
3. Get a filing system
As per my above planning statement, I’m an organiser. I feel stressed when I don’t have a system, so once I established there wasn’t one ‘right way’ to do this, I trialed a few things of my own. I tried a card system – I don’t recommend this, it’s fine for smaller projects but I can see this blowing out of all proportion over the duration of this size of a project. I tried one long document in word – there seem to be pros and cons to this, but I was worried about drill down filing which word couldn’t easily accomplish. Finally I’ve settled on One Note from Microsoft. In there I’ve set up tabs per sub research topic, context, planning, timetables etc, and will cross reference this with my referencing filing system.
4. Get software
I needed to overhaul my laptop’s software on commencement, and thankfully the IT team were very helpful in sorting me out. As part of this I’ve downloaded and become very friendly with End Note, the referencing software everyone in academia seems to rave about. I can now see why. This software is a bit like my fairy godmother (and it has only been 4 months!). I’m guessing everyone’s requirements will vary somewhat (eg SPSS etc), but for now I’m up to scratch on the basics and will add to this as needed along the way.
5. Become acquainted with the library
Libraries are one of my favorite places on earth, next only to art galleries and museums. Not only are they wonderful physical storehouses of beautiful books (as a bibliophile, I have a problem…) but who knew, in the 10 years since my last university experience they have grown quite exponentially in the digital database space. I’m in awe and wonderment of the digital space perhaps infinitely more than the physical space. I met also with the faculty library liaison who was a wealth of knowledge on systems, processes and research methods. I will be hitting her up again…!
6. Meet other students
For the most part I’ve done this digitally since I have weekday work commitments and researchers tend to be quite specific in fields of interest, but connecting on this whole process rather than just seeking out similar topics has been quite helpful for me already/
7. Make a dedicated place to work
When I took work home from the office evenings or on work from home days I often worked at the kitchen table. This was easy enough as the tasks were shorter and I found that concentration wasn’t every really an issue there. However I don’t really think that I’d be able to focus on a project this size at the kitchen table, although each to their own. Instead I’ve kitted out the niche at the top of the stairs into a rather nifty (if I do say so myself) study/office area. I even treated myself to an ergonomic chair which, can I say although rather expensive, has made the world of difference to my back in comparison to sitting at the dining area. My spine will thank me in 6 years time.
8. Make the necessary arrangements with work
As I work at an INGO, and my topic was related to the work we do, albeit a different department to my own day job, I was able to get support from the workplace to study. For me this means an ability to nip out if required and feasible to attend a meeting or two. They have formalised their support in a few hours study leave a week which I roll up to a day once every three weeks. Workplaces can also assist financially if your topic is relevant and you’ve been with them a while, so it’s worth checking out their policies and having the conversation. I think it’s also helpful if I’m looking stressed as they know to check if it’s inside or outside the office causing it!
9. Tell people
I don’t think I can do this by myself. I need to hold myself accountable to my timetables, the short goals and the overall time and energy commitment that this size of a research project requires. Telling people about this has only solidified my accountability to myself, and increased the support network.
10. Know what is next
Aside from my planning and timetabling, I have identified a couple of key milestones that I need to pull out and work on first, namely ethics committee applications and some compliance training. Without mapping this out I wouldn’t be able to order things to tackle. I have also conveyed my availability to my supervisor so we can set up an ongoing way of working with appointments etc. Half the battle for me is knowing what is next as it appears to make it easier to tackle as it removes the element of surprise or unnecessary panic.