Writing habits of an early career academic (Troy A. Heffernan)

Photo by Lakerain Snake | unsplash.com

At a recent event, I overheard an aspiring graduate researcher ask a colleague, ‘Is doing a PhD hard?’.

After a little thought, my colleague replied, ‘Yes. It’s really tough and takes more thinking and work than you’d believe, but what’s really hard is if life gets in the way’.

I thought this was a very succinct assessment of what completing a PhD can look like, but also of academic writing more generally.

My writing habits as an early career academic began while I was completing my PhD. I achieved what I had to during the initial twelve months of my PhD journey to be ready for my first milestone, but there was no pattern or regularity to what I was doing.

I was fortunate enough to be lecturing early on in my PhD, which was good for the experience, but not so good for my writing. Teaching meant that some weeks a lot would get done, and some weeks very little would get done if marking or other work duties had to take precedence.

When I reflect on the first year of my PhD, I know I’m quite lucky that period went smoothly. It mostly happened because I was fortunate enough that the good days outweighed the bad.

The turn in my writing habits came in the second year of my PhD.

Post-fieldwork jetlag was responsible for a week or two of waking up at 5am. The logical use of that time was to sit down and write because it felt like bonus time. Usually, I wouldn’t have even been awake, but I quickly realised that was a pattern that worked for me.

The result was that my PhD was largely completed between the hours of 5am-9am, 7 days a week. The added bonus of this was that, because I had a good start to the day and the writing process had begun, I tended to be able to continue that throughout the day and even around meetings, classes, and other work and life commitments.

The crucial part of this success, however, was that my life at the time let me work like that. I had no distractions at home and I lived close to the university. I could go from my front door to my office door in about 10 minutes. Life isn’t as interruption-free nowadays, but my PhD experience taught me that I needed some form of routine if I wanted to get writing done.

The evolution of my 3-4 hours of writing each morning as a PhD researcher to now having to balance research and writing with other aspects of an academic career mean that, first, I try to be realistic about what I can achieve in a day. I have around a 45 minute commute each way now (though it used to be 90+ minutes). If I look at my calendar and know I have to teach, attend an all-day workshop or PD, or have a meeting-heavy day, I accept before the day even begins that no writing is likely to happen. This acceptance works better for me than unrealistically planning to squeeze in some writing that doesn’t happen.

If I think there’s a chance some writing could occur, I revert back to my PhD days a bit and make sure I can at least get some writing done before I leave the house or as soon as I reach my office. Even if it’s just twenty-minutes, that’s what I need to get the process going to make sure I can maximise any time I have available to get some writing done.

A shift I’ve also noticed is that I seem to work better when I’m working on several projects at once. I think doing a PhD is such a big solid chunk of work that you can (or at least I did) get used to having that be your only focus. I had been in the habit of only writing one paper, or only doing revisions on one paper, at a time. Now, I find that I’m much more productive and can better focus on the task at hand when I’m writing or doing revisions on several papers across my available writing time.

What I’ve really learnt over the evolution of my writing habits is that it’s about what works for you at a given time, around your life and other commitments.

In my case, right now, I’m a research and teaching academic so writing has to be a priority, but it’s not my only obligation and I have to work within those parameters. What works for me now also wouldn’t have worked for me three years ago and probably won’t work for me in three years’ time - but I think that’s exciting!

My writing is influenced by my work and life. If an office move, new university, or life change means things are going to look different, I know I’ll be able to find a new way to work, even though it might take some initial effort.


Dr Troy A. Heffernan is a Lecturer in Leadership and Learning in the School of Education at La Trobe University and lectures within the Master of Educational Leadership and Management program. 

His current research includes working with Vice-Chancellors and Deans to explore the emotional work required to carry out senior leadership roles, and exploring the perspectives of university staff members’ experiences of leaders to identify and understand effective higher education leadership practices. Troy tweets from @troyheff.