work writing

13 Thoughts On 13 Years

If I had to sum up my post-PhD life, I would simply say:

“I am very fortunate.”

Thirteen years ago today I started a journey. I started a business that has been supported by friends, family and mentors, advised by colleagues and peers, inspired by random questions and chance encounters, encouraged and directed by feedback.

My work is not what it started out as. What I do has evolved a lot. It doesn’t feel like thirteen years.

(in a weird way it feels like forever)

Last week I had a chat with a PhD candidate who is thinking about becoming someone who independently supports researchers. There are lots of possible titles for this kind of work. Alternative academic. Freelance skills trainer. Academic coach. Independent researcher-developer.

There are lots of ways to say someone who helps.

We talked about what I do, how I do it, how I’ve done it and some of what I’ve learned. Afterwards I realised that there were things I’d missed out. There’s a lot I’ve learned over the last thirteen years. Some I learned from other people telling me. Some I learned from reading books or blog posts. Some I learned through hard experience.

This post isn’t advice. This isn’t the old hand telling the new person what to do. These are just thirteen thoughts for thirteen years. Over time these thoughts or beliefs have certainly helped me.

I hope that some of them might help someone else.

In the following points I use the word “you” a lot. I’m not telling “you” what to do. Really, I’m reminding myself…

1. Being clear helps. When you’re clear about what you do, you help yourself and others. When you’re clear in your speech and writing you communicate more effectively. When you’re clear in presenting you free up time for more interesting questions.

2. Saying no is necessary. You have to say no to possible clients. You have to say no so you have space to do work. You have to say no so you can figure out what you will say yes to. You have to say no when it is easy and when it is hard. If you don’t say no then you lead yourself to being overwhelmed.

3. You don’t need a full plan to start work. Waiting to have all the information, outputs and outcomes can mean you never start. It can mean ideas stagnate and enthusiasm wains. Make notes, plan if it’s important – but get started before you stop yourself completely.

4. You don’t need all the answers to be able to help someone. Perfectionism is a trap. You’ll never know enough to help everyone, but you can always help someone. If you know something that someone else doesn’t then you can help them.

5. Finding a practice amplifies ability. For example, you can be a good writer. Writing regularly helps. Publishing regularly helps. Having a consistent practice that requires you to complete something regularly will force habits to build, force skills, processes and routines to develop. It will help talent grow.

6. You need allies. Friends, co-workers, colleagues, peers, mentors, people who write newsletters, people you know from Twitter. You might know them personally or you might not. They could provide inspiration, share good practice, share ideas you agree with, provide insights you rebel against. And remember that if they help you, then you can probably help them.

7. Record your numbers. How many people do you help? How many blog posts do you write? How many seminars do you do? How many times per year do you show up? Recording statistics is one way of showing others (and yourself) that you are serious, that you are committed and that you do the work.

8. Thank everyone. If someone helps, say thank you. If someone asks you to help them, say thank you. Thank your audience. Thank someone who gives you feedback. Thank someone who offers a great opportunity, whether or not you say yes. By extension, find reasons to be thankful, regularly.

9. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills… Say no to requests that undervalue your experience, your knowledge and the work that you do.

10. …but “free” work can still help. Maybe say yes to working for free if it is on your terms and you can find a way to use it to improve yourself or your situation. Decide in advance under what conditions you would be willing to work for free. Decide what aspects of your work you would be willing to offer for free. By extension, decide on what you will not do for free.

11. You don’t get paid to do admin. You still have to do it. Email, filling in forms, sorting your bank accounts, creating files, setting up Zoom meetings… Figure out how you can streamline all of this as much as possible: templates, flow diagrams, copy and paste etc. Then price yourself accordingly. Someone might pay you for, say, a three-hour webinar, but you have to make sure that fee covers your setup and prep time, time spent writing emails and everything else.

12. Love what you do. This is different from “do what you love”. (you can have both)

13. Find a vision. Goals come and go. Circumstances change. The unthinkable becomes the everyday. Having a vision can keep you going throughout. Your vision is why you do what you do, both motivation and meaning. It helps you decide quickly between opportunities and keeps you honest. Find a vision and follow it.

I am very fortunate. I have had so much help. I still have a lot of support.

If I’ve worked with you – in any sense – in the last thirteen years, thank you.

Extra special thanks to Kay and CJ, my wife and daughter, who keep me going, who keep me inspired and who keep me smiling.

news writing

Eight Years After Room 524

It dawned on me a few days ago that today is eight years since I started my life as a skills trainer. On September 15th 2008, I registered my business. I was a guy with a PhD in maths, a few ideas about what I might do as a freelancer, but no real clue. This was me:

My last day in the postgraduate office

I left behind Room 524, my workspace for nearly four years. One day I was working surrounded by interesting people who loved research. The next day I was working alone at the dining room table: What to do? How to start? It seems like yesterday sometimes, and also like another life. A lot has happened in eight years (I got married! I have a daughter!). Work highlights include:

I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people, and I know that I’ve learned a lot along the way. It’s not always easy to be a freelancer. There can be a lot of disappointments. But you can work to your values: it is very liberating to realise that you can step back from something that isn’t satisfying. You can say no to things that you think will get in the way, and say yes to things that excite you or you think can make a difference.

One of the things I like most is the freedom to do fun things, to play. You can do something “just because”. I have thoughts for more little experiments and “just because” ideas; let me know in the comments if you want to hear more.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

news writing

Self-Publishing For Academics, out now!

Last week I wrote to say that I had a new book out today, so here it is!


Helen and I worked hard on this for months, and the end result is a compact how-to guide on self-publishing, aimed at academics who are wondering what it’s all about and if it’s right for them. Yesterday, the awesome Research Whisperer blog published a post by us which explored how Helen and I collaborated. This morning Helen has published a blog post that we both worked on, a kind of dual Q&A where we explore the whys and hows of self-publishing and this book.

We’ve been quietly hyping the book on Twitter, as shouting from the rooftops is not quite our thing: still, it was great to wake up this morning to find that our book had made it’s way to the Number One spot in the College & University chart of the UK Kindle Store!


Self-Publishing For Academics is available now from the Amazon Kindle Store! It’ll be available from other e-book distributors soon, and I’ll update this post with a list of links as and when those links go live. Check out the Research Whisperer post and Helen’s blog for more details. I’m really proud of what Helen and I have produced in such a short space of time, and I hope you check it out and find it really useful too.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

quick thought writing

Comma Chameleon

I can’t spot my grammar mistakes until long after I’ve made them. Despite taking time and not just dashing out 500 words and hitting publish, I often find bad grammar in what I have created. Or, more typically, my wife spots it. The post that I did yesterday for Viva Survivors went live and I got it sent to me by email (I signed up for my own subscriber list; it helps me remember what’s going on when I’m busy). I scanned it quickly, thinking Yes, another post out there, another connection with- Wait what’s that comma doing there?

They blend in. The commas and the semi-colons lurk in among the words. They make sense in my head. I use them to create pauses or to moderate how I speak – which is how I write to an extent, sort of conversational-like. But it does mean that I risk creating confusion. I want my writing to be conversational, fun, informative, challenging – but not challenging because people are really working to parse things. I think my biggest problem with writing is my own self-belief in what I am doing, a kind of sabotaging impostor syndrome. Not too far behind that is missing the commas, the parentheses and the exclamation marks that just creep in the background.

I wonder what I can do about that. I want to read something about good grammar – which I think I know on some level, but don’t apply consistently – but maybe reading and trying to apply something isn’t enough. Does anyone out there have any suggestions for me? Have you built up good written grammar, and if so, how did you do it?

Thanks for reading.

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

creative thinking work writing

Under Pressure

I stopped work on a planned series of books in the summertime because it no longer felt like fun. I felt pressured.

What a wimp! I hear you cry, and you’re kind of right. If everyone stopped everything because there was a bit of pressure then we wouldn’t get anywhere at all. But nevertheless, it stopped being fun as a project to work on, and so I stopped working on it.

Pressure is by no means a bad thing: it’s just a thing, and things are used for good or bad, for great things or poor ends. With a bit of reflection, I realised recently that the problem with the situation – and the books – was me. We’re not surprised by that Nathan, I hear you mutter, and neither am I, but I forget from time to time that I am my own worst enemy, and that that enemy is a saboteur by nature.

On this occasion, the enemy was supplying bad pressure:

  • The last book wasn’t that good, this one will be even worse.
  • You’re not like those other writers, you know, the good ones.
  • You need this book to be good. You need it to be loved.

With pressure like that, the end could only come in one of two ways: a book which I was never happy with, or an abandoned project. I think, on this occasion, that I chose correctly.

quick thought writing

Summer Experiments

Through the end of July and August, when few of my clients want me to deliver workshops, I’ll be working on a new writing project – which I’ll announce properly some time in the next week! I need to produce about 35,000 polished words by the end of September in order to hit my goals, and have a series of first draft milestones spaced out over the next six weeks.

Throughout a big chunk of this time I’ll be writing most days about PhD matters – and so I think here on this blog I’ll take the opportunity to do something a little different as a creative outlet. I’ll still be writing something PhD-related, but it may be more of a piece of creative fiction rather than the non-fiction that I’ve been writing for the last year. I have a couple of ideas of the directions that might take and it may draw together some of my other interests as well.

Summer is a good time for experiments: I’d rather be cold than hot, but sunshine boosts me a lot! I feel like I can get a good routine going. I also know that there is going to come a point where I think “I need to be out there delivering workshops…” but I wonder if there is maybe something that I can do about that…

Anyway! Stay tuned over the summer for fiction, of a sort. A few more weeks of PhD musings and ideas.

What experiments might you try over the summer?

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)


Book Reviews Please!

I Need You!

Have you read either of my books? If you have, would you consider posting a review on Amazon or on your blog? If you do, and send me a screengrab or a link that proves you’re the author, I’ll send you a 50% off code to my books on Payhip – you can either buy a copy of a different book for yourself, or give the code to a friend so that they can give one or both of my current books a try.

quick thought writing

Taking A Day Off

Thursday 11th June

I took a day off with my family. It was planned that we would go out to Liverpool to look around the Tate, taking the train whatever the weather, but as it turned out it was a gorgeous sunny day. Sunglasses all around for the three Ryders, and our daughter was especially enjoying the new places that we passed walking along the dock towards the gallery. It was around her snack time when we arrived, excited because this was the first time that we had taken her to a gallery.

We stopped for a cuppa, she ate her rice cake and drank some water…and promptly fell asleep.

work writing

On Guest Posts

Unless this is the first post of mine that you’ve read, you’ll know two things about me: one is that I really enjoy writing things (and delivering workshops!) for postgraduate researchers, and the other is that I run the Viva Survivors Podcast. But these are not the only outlets I’ve had for communicating with researchers. In the past I’ve written a few pieces for various publications like the late GRADBritain, the former Vitae “What’s Up Doc?” blog and others. I thought it might be fun to go and look at these pieces – some of which are a few years old now, and share links to them in today’s post. As it happens, because of site restructuring I can’t find the pieces I’ve written for Vitae – if I look on my hard drive I’ll see if I can find my copies and share them soon – but in the mean time I’ve found links to a couple of others that I’ve written or been involved with.

And at the end of the post I want to make you an offer that you won’t refuse!


Why Did I Do A PhD?

I was looking through a folder of writing projects recently, and came across 80,000+ words of things which have not seen the light of day. I originally wrote this piece as the first chapter of a book that had a working title of “Stories from my PhD”. I’ve tweaked it a little to share it here, and I hope you find it interesting!

Why Did I Do A PhD?

I love interesting challenges. For a long time I thought that I just loved the challenge of maths, and maths research in particular. Not knowing something, and not having a handy three-times-a-week class to tell you forced me to accept the realities of research. It’s all up to you. If you don’t know something, it’s your responsibility to find it out. That’s fine. It might be difficult, but if you’re going to do research in any area, that’s what you sign up for.

I kept flirting with the idea of a PhD during my Masters. I couldn’t decide on what area I wanted to do research in though. I ended up doing my final dissertation in knot theory. This seemed like a challenging area. There was just one problem: by the end of my Masters I felt totally burned out by the thought of more maths. I was typesetting and bug hunting day after day and it was driving me crazy.

The PhD was moved to the back burner – I wanted to do it, but maybe I needed to take some time in between. This then posed a second problem: what was I going to do instead?