The pain and torture of academic writing

Academic writing is torturous. I love most parts of my job, but publishing journal articles is not one of my favourite things. I often say I hate writing. But that’s not completely true. I don’t hate writing; I actually quite enjoy it. What I really dislike is the process of academic writing. It is built on criticism and critique and often it is not very constructive. My most successful papers have been the ones that I have written as first author and then my co-author has managed the revision process. Receiving reviewers’ comments is something I find particularly painful. I often put so much energy and effort into a paper and then submit it hoping it will be perfect. Like many academics I have more than slight perfectionist tendencies. I hope beyond all hope that the comments will come back, the paper will be perfect, and the reviewers will accept it with minor revisions. I have heard of this happening in a far off mystery world of sunshine and lollipops but so far I’ve not experienced it myself.

Once the reviewers’ comments come back the hardest part starts. Just when I think I’m done with a paper I have to delve back in and start again. I really hate the revision process. I struggle with not knowing what the reviewer wants and trying to bend and squeeze what I’ve done with what I think will satisfy the endless list of demands from a nameless, faceless person at the end of an email. In fact this blog post is a form of procrastination… I should be finishing a paper revision. It was due Friday before last and it’s still not finished. I have been burying my head in the sand hoping it will magically finish itself. Unfortunately I don’t think it will and it might be a very long evening to get it done.

I’ve had some bad publishing experiences in the past that have affected my confidence in responding to revisions. One of my first publishing experiences was during my PhD. During this particular writing experience my co-author ripped my writing to shreds and changed every sentence I’d written. The paper was eventually published as a book chapter but the process destroyed my confidence and my sense of collegiality in writing.

Another experience that stays with me is a very long revision process that ultimately led to failure. After finishing my PhD I submitted one of my studies to a very high-ranking journal. I received a revise and resubmit, which my PhD supervisor said I should have celebrated. After spending the next year collecting additional data at the request of the reviewers, I hopefully resubmitted. The paper was flat out rejected. This process eroded my confidence even further and I have never had the gumption to submit the work elsewhere. It remains a one of those papers that sits in the “dead end folder” and I think it might just stay that way.

Maybe I don’t have enough resilience to be an excellent academic. Possibly I’m too sensitive to the critical process that is essential to the academic process. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I’ve discovered more and more that other people feel the same. So now I’m working on a new idea, a way to support each other and share in the process so as to be constructive more than critical. I’ve just put in a proposal for a writing retreat with my institute. I am still not sure I will enjoy the process any more, but perhaps by sharing the pain, torture, and misery with others the paper writing process won’t feel quite as painful or torturous or miserable… I can only hope!

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Women in science

A little while ago I was invited to step into a ‘Women in Science’ panel session at the very last minute. The organiser knocked on my door and came into my office on the University campus and asked me if I would be willing to present. Something about her invitation, her pleading voice, and general demeanour impelled me to say yes without thinking. The topic was women in fieldwork and the organiser asked me to present on what it meant for me to do field work in a business setting. I moved some appointments around in my calendar so I could do it. I’m not sure why I did that. I remember questioning myself about why I didn’t just say no because I already had a day full of meetings. But something urged me to say yes, so I did.

I never would have thought that a seven minute presentation to a group of supportive women would be the one event that pushed me over the edge and required me to lay myself bare, to stand up, feeling naked and afraid, my voice shaking, and my eyes welling with unwanted tears. Public speaking is a big part of my job. I enjoy it. I revel in the performance and the interaction. I have presented in front of hundreds of people for two hours at a time, and yet it was this seven-minute presentation, to a group of 20 women that brought me to my knees.

The two other presenters on the panel were women I respected and admired. They have done research in remote places and faced difficulties and challenges too grand for me to even comprehend. They presented easily and effortlessly and shared their stories with aplomb. All the while I sat there shaking. I had prepared nothing. I now know this pattern in myself. If I am absolutely petrified of doing something I will deny its very existence and then panic as I’m forced to do it. So I stood up and my hands shook, my voice broke, my eyes welled, and then I expressed my vulnerability. I told the audience that I felt vulnerable. I told them that I could hear my voice shaking. I told them that this was a really difficult subject for me to talk about. And then the most amazing thing happened. The women in the room smiled at me, they encouraged me, they supported me and I found my voice. The tears didn’t spill down my face, my voice steadied and I became strong. I shared my stories and said what I needed to say.

For some that moment wasn’t significant. But for me it was that moment that pushed me to be completely vulnerable and open and to stand bare in front of a group of people I didn’t know. I shared experiences that I haven’t even really acknowledged even to myself. They were experiences I had brushed off or put aside, refusing to recognise the challenge and difficulties I had faced in the world of being a woman in business. But on that day I acknowledged them, and in doing so I found my voice. I embraced a part of myself I didn’t even know existed.

So thank you to the woman who asked me to be part of that session. You probably have no idea what a profound effect that event has had on me and what immeasurable growth you have facilitated by your invitation. I am grateful.

The words of Sarah Blasko echo in my mind:
“I’m wide eyed like a new life shaking in the breeze.
Enraptured by the world, unsteady on my feet.
I fall into a place that I have only dreamed.
And I’m the woman that I’ve always longed to be.”

 

Race Report: Haglofs Open 5

Race 4: Peak District

 

For the last race of the Haglofs Open 5 Series we headed to the Peak District. The format was the same: five hours to collect as many points in two legs – a mountain bike and a trail run. With three races under our belts, Amy and I were prepared… well, almost. Having dinner in Edale the night before we worked out what kit we had, what we were missing, and what we could beg, borrow, and steal. With our kit sorted it was just the weather forecast that had me worried – 55 mph winds and an afternoon of torrential rain… the endless hills may have also been playing on my mind.

Sticking to our usual plan we set off on the bike leg first. Our plan started well as we collected the first 40-point control. And then, less than 10 minutes into the race, my new bike decided it had already had enough of the hills and my chain wedged itself between my spokes and the rear cassette. “Not a great start” one kindly gentleman pointed out as he rode past at speed. After a bit of coaxing we managed to free my chain and get riding again. But without a few more repairs I was without my lowest gear. For those of you who have ridden with me you’ll know I’m not a big fan of climbing hills at the best of times. My lack of granny gear gave me a big case of the grumps. I knew I wasn’t doing well when Amy mentioned rejigging our route choice so I wouldn’t have to climb so much. I swallowed a gel and got my smile back, at least for a little while and we stuck with the original plan.

After the next mechanical I was fast losing my mojo and hit what Amy aptly called “the dark place”. There may have been tears… then I had a bit of a stack on the most technical part of the course. Having ridden this section before on a beautifully sunny day earlier in the year I knew I could do it. But today it felt nigh on impossible. After my second stack Amy suggested we walk for a bit, but I wouldn’t have it. I got back on my bike, told Aims I was fine and promptly rode down the trail reasonably successfully. We skipped the next uphill for a 15 point control and I was hugely grateful of that decision. We motored on through the ups and downs – in both terrain and morale! I usually love a good downhill section but even the final descent into Edale was tough going with a head wind so strong it actually stopped us dead. Pedalling downhill seemed downright cruel!

We made it back into transition with a bit over an hour to go. After a quick kit change we were off and we got three in the bag through the torrential rain and hail. Running back into transition we finished with just over five minutes to spare. Perfect timing! I was hugely relieved to be done and we headed inside for the post-race presentations.

This has got to be the best part of racing – the sitting down afterwards with friends, warm food, tea, and (most importantly) cake! It’s a great chance to debrief on the race and share stories of the insanity that comes with adventure racing. As it turned out we came in third!! As they announced our names I looked across at Amy I knew she was thinking the same as me – “did they count that right? After that nightmare of a race surely we couldn’t have placed third?!” It was so unexpected I still had a full mouth of cake as we went up to collect our prize. I think we may have still been in shock when they took the photo! A podium finish was pretty great way to end the season.

These races have been so much fun! I am hugely grateful to all of the friends I’ve raced with this season – for driving me all over the countryside (some faster than others), for borrowed (or stolen) gear, and for some crazy stupid adventures in some of England’s most beautiful places. I feel lucky to be surrounded by such an inspiring group of friends who enjoy life, live adventurously, and know how to have a bloody good time – in rain, hail, or shine!

Race Report: Haglof’s Open 5

Race 3: Yorkshire Dales
It’s the first day of spring! And what better time to head to the hills for the next race in the Open 5 adventure race series. Spring time is balmy… or so I’ve heard. With a forecast of -1, heavy snow and 60mph winds, Amy and I braced ourselves for some more character building racing. Armed with a watch (one each!), a fancy new map board, and every item of warm clothing we owned we jumped on our bikes and set off from the start. We spent some time questioning our sanity and the reasons why we would choose to race crazy stupid adventures in ridiculous weather conditions. And then the sun miraculously appeared and life suddenly made sense again. By this point we had a few checkpoints under our belt and we were feeling pretty good. With the amazing discovery of life with a watch we kept an eye on our progress against the clock and also made sure we were eating now and again to keep us going.

After being a little too ambitious on our last race this time we played it safe and set ourselves a manageable loop on the bike. We realized we were moving a bit more quickly than we’d anticipated and so we added on a couple of extra checkpoints to our planned loop. Even after two pretty horrendous climbs we still managed to end up back in transition with a bit over two hours to go. Despite searching the map for a way to pick up a few more points on the bike we both came to the conclusion that we were just going to have to face running for a bit longer than planned.

In the end it worked out pretty because the weather took a turn for the worse and most of our run was spent in rain, hail, sleet and snow. Despite my aversion to running it is definitely a good way to stay warm! For me the biggest achievement of the day was picking up six controls on the run. Who knew that was even within the realm of possibility? We covered a decent amount of ground but once again ran out of checkpoints we could collect in the time we had and we ended up back in transition with almost 30 minutes to spare. In retrospect we should have picked up some more early points on the bike and gone for a few of the tougher run points. But lessons learnt and there’s always next time. And who knows, maybe it won’t snow in April. I can only hope…

 

Race Report: Haglof’s Open 5

Race 2: North York Moors
Setting off from Leeds in the early hours of Sunday morning my iPhone assured me that the weather forecast for the North York Moors was going to be sunny all day with a lovely temperature of 6. Sitting in the car park at the race registration watching the rain pour down the windscreen I started to think maybe iPhones couldn’t be trusted. This race suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea. After a quick word with the weather gods the rain cleared and the promised sun started shining. Amy and I then spent some quality time sorting out our kit. Somehow we had still not quite managed to bring a watch between us. But no worries, what could possibly go wrong?!

We set off on our bikes. The scenery was absolutely beautiful in the sunshine. The trails were a bit slow going in parts with heaps of mud and lots of hike-a-bike sections. I decided to swim through one lake of mud and discovered that the extra layer of mud worked pretty well as insulation. I tested this theory multiple times during the race but as it turns out the mud wasn’t quite as insulating as I’d first thought. We ploughed on and picked up a couple of early checkpoints. We then made a slight navigational error that required a bit of back tracking but before too long we were back on Aims’ planned route and we were laughing again.

At this point more experienced racers may have checked their watches to see if they were travelling as fast as expected or whether the nav error had cost them much time. But who needs a watch when there’s beautiful scenery and there are fresh snowflakes falling from the sky! I was super excited to see my first British snow and I couldn’t believe my luck. It was so beautiful and I was beaming from ear to ear! Until I got cold… really cold. I’m generally a pretty happy person but that was not my finest moment. Amy is truly a champion though and she pepped me up, gave me food, some extra layers, and we ploughed on. When we’d reached the point furthest from transition we checked the time on our emergency phone. It was a little later than we had anticipated… quite a lot later in fact. I hit a pretty low point again but once again Aims pepped me up, forced some food down my throat, and hooked up the bungee to give me a tow. The woman is a powerhouse and a complete and utter legend!! We took the shortest route back and picked up as many controls as we could along the way. On the ride back we discussed our options: 1. We could push it to get back with enough time to pick up one control on the run within the 45 minute late window (if you’re more than 45 minutes late back you lose all points); or 2. Choose not to run and get disqualified. As it turns out we didn’t get a choice and option 2 it was. Not the best ending to a really tough race, but lots of learning for next time. And now I’m really hoping that Santa reads my letter and brings me a watch for Christmas! I promise I’ve been good… mostly.

Race Report: Haglof’s Open 5

Race 1: Lakes District

Amy and I, team ‘Muddy Albas’, competed in the Haglof’s Open 5 Adventure race in the Lakes on Sunday. It was SO MUCH FUN! The adventure began when Amy picked me up from the new boathouse on the canal on Saturday and we spent some quality time trying to navigate out of Leeds. Good practice for our race navigation… Luckily Aims has a need for speed and in no time at all we were in the Lakes district, with only a little bit of inappropriate overtaking in her awesome new car. After a great afternoon of hiking and an evening of eating and drinking we were ready to race on Sunday. The race format was 5 hours with two legs – a mountain bike and a trail run. You’re given a map at the start with marked controls for each leg. The aim is collect as many points as possible in the five hours. You must collect at least one control from each leg and you can only do each leg once. Lucky for me Amy was happy to do as much biking as possible, and minimize the run. At least I thought that was lucky until we started riding… The woman is a speed demon in every way! It worked out pretty well with Amy riding ahead and stopping to check on the navigation while I caught up. She totally nailed the nav! The riding was brilliant and we had spectacular weather with sunshine and no rain to be seen. There were some epic technical downhill sections that were so much fun they left my legs wobbling with adrenalin and our faces completely covered in mud. We did a good loop on the bike and managed to pick up all but four of the mtb controls. We missed one of our planned controls because we were having a bit too much fun on one of the descents and kinda forgot we were doing a race and not just playing in Grizedale Forrest! After a scenic ride around the lake we transitioned to the run and by that point I was feeling pretty knackered. I’m not a great runner but I’m so grateful to Amy, now named the energizer bunny, who encouraged me through and we picked up two controls on the run. After a bit of a debate over how much time we had left – I thought 20 minutes, Amy thought an hour – we headed back to the transition/finish. Turns out we should have split the difference because we finished about 20 minutes early. I think a watch is a good kit addition for next time! All in all it was a fabulous day and an awesome weekend of adventures. Already looking forward to the next one on 7 December in North York Moors.