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PhD to Publishing: It’s all just a game really! by Ellen Spaeth
* Acknowledgements at bottom of blog

* Acknowledgements at bottom of blog

Today’s post is by Ellen Spaeth, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology and Music. Her research concerns how listening to music could help people with anxiety disorders. She has an excellent blog about academic writing, productivity, technology, and music psychology and Tweets about those things, and her ukulele as @ellenspaeth. In today’s post she creatively uses a video gaming metaphor to consider ways of developing motivation for writing a PhD; an approach also relevant to the academic publishing journey post-PhD. 

When I was 13, I spent hours playing Super Mario on my Nintendo 64. I would try again and again to get something right. My dad asked me why I was happy to work so hard to make Mario wall-kick off ice cliffs, but had no patience when it came to practising the clarinet.

Last year, the answer just popped into my head: motivation. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about video games that motivates me to play them, and how I can use those things to make my PhD more fun and productive. What did I find? Here are 4 things…

1. Big goals are divided into manageable chunks

If you divide a big goal up enough times, the goal becomes tasks, and tasks become instructions.

Can you imagine a 3-or-4-year video game where your only instruction was “Complete the game”? Make sure you don’t view “Complete the PhD” as your only goal. For more advice on this, see my posts on identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks.

2. Cost/benefit analyses are easier

In a video game, you’ll usually be told what you need to do (cost), and what you’ll gain (benefit). A quest, or task might be necessary for the game to progress. Or it might get you a great, rare, item. It might get you something that you didn’t even want.

But if you know in advance what you stand to gain, you can make the decision of whether the amount of work involved is worth it. Is it worth doing the tedious, lengthy task for the unwanted item? Probably not. Is it worth it for the great item, or to continue the game? Almost certainly.

Try to think about your PhD that way. If you’re finding something really difficult and distressing, think about what you’ll gain. Is it worth it? If not, don’t do it. If it is, focus on the thing you’ll gain. It should motivate you more.

3. If you’re stuck, someone can help you

Video games are popular. That means there are a lot of people talking about them on the Internet. Some of those people have made “walkthroughs”, which are step-by-step instruction guides for video games. So if you have no idea where you’re going, and have run out of patience, you can look at the walkthrough.

After you’ve looked at the walkthrough, you can make an informed decision (as per step 2). If you decide you’re not getting anything out of the game, you can choose to stop playing. But at least you’re making an informed decision.

So if you’re stuck with your PhD, look for help. Go on a development course. Have coffee with a friend. Read a book or a blog post by someone else who’s experienced the same problem as you. If you still decide it’s not worth it, you won’t be making the decision blindly.

4. Achievement is built in

When you’ve completed a task, you are rewarded. Maybe you’ll get an item, or a new area will be unlocked, or you’ll be given a star for completing the level. The game is teaching you to value small achievements. If you were never rewarded for any of your actions in a game, how long would you play for?

Do you value small achievements in your PhD? It’s something that I find difficult. On completing a task, my brain is less likely to say “Fantastic! Good job!” and more likely to say “Oh. Well. That wasn’t much of an achievement. I’d better do some more work.”

To me, completing a task for my PhD feels a bit like putting money into an overdrawn bank account – the money just disappears into a hole, leaving you feeling even more panicked to make up the difference. I think this happens because we don’t stop to notice when we achieve things. So stop, and take notice!

And finally…

In an attempt to apply some of these ideas, I’ve written a short series of blog posts on trying to create frequent bursts of achievement within my PhD. The first post looks at using free writing and doing lists (with Scrivener, a pad of paper, or another word processing tool) to identify specific and achievable tasks. The second discusses how to schedule those tasks using a diary or task management app (such as Producteev). The third post shows how reviewing your progress each week can improve your feeling of achievement and your ability to judge how long a task will take. If you have any experiences, suggestions, or tips to share (or nice things to say), I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

* The following tutorials aided in the drawing of the blog image. (C) Ellen Spaeth

How to Draw Mario and How to Draw Tutorials