The… Struggle… to… Write… #meded

As a junior Clinician Educator, I often struggle with writing up my scholarly work for publication.  Jimmie Leppink is a postdoctoral fellow at University of Maastricht. He has recently published this reflection on the challenges of academic writing.  The original post can be found on his LinkedIn profile.

With his permission, we are cross posting this to ICE blog, since his struggles will resonate with other junior scholars in that liminal space between end of training and establishing themselves as academics. – Teresa (@TChanMD)

By Jimmie Leppink (@JimmieLeppink)

There are times when everything seems to be going so fast that you can hardly keep track of all that is going on, and then there are times when things really slow down or even come to a frustrating halt… and you catch yourself thinking how on earth to move forward.

Still kind of an early career researcher, I am trying to find my way in in a field that has always fascinated me: education. I have absolutely no regrets that I have chosen for a job of doing scientific research in education and not for the options that – since one of my degrees is in statistics – I could have had in some bank or insurance company. I love my job, make enough money for a nice living, and rarely have a dull moment. I have a bit over 40 publications (of which a bit more than half as first author), some of which I am more proud of than others but in general I am happy about what I have done so far.


As for most of us, I owe a lot to a number of brilliant scholars – giants in the field of education – who created a safe environment in which I could make mistakes and learn from them, in which I could do research on topics that have helped to create the opportunities that have helped to create an identity as a researcher. Some of my most cited publications thus far I have written together with these giants, and without their support these publications would have never had the quality they have now. Some other publications I wrote by myself, in a few cases even within a day (including the one or two hours for the minor revisions after peer review). The latter probably has a lot to do with the fact that writing about the same topic over and over again makes writing a lot easier. The latter is probably also what contributed to my first invitation as keynote speaker in my career.


Yet, this morning, I got to my office, sat down, took care of emails that needed a response (I currently receive around 80 a day), removed some finished business from my “to do” list, and once again got reminded of this one article in progress that has been on my desk for the last seven months. Untouched. In such a moment, you remember what it was like to write a master’s thesis or a chapter in the PhD thesis… that took months… oh, even worse, the first chapter (of eight in total) in my PhD thesis took me nearly three years. Thoughts went back in time for a moment… how I struggled as a PhD candidate, how I combined several jobs working more or less fulltime next to my studies (since I started my studies some 15 years ago) to pay for my studies and to try make some savings, and probably partly as a result of that rarely passed my exams with very good grades, and yes how that first chapter of my PhD thesis could take nearly three years of my time (!). Thinking that I really needed to finish that article that I had not touched in seven months, I just scrolled through my Twitter newsfeed not knowing what to do else for a moment, and I came across a tweet from a scholar whom I greatly respect as a scientist and as a writer stating that today was the day she was working on her “zombie paper” that she had never fully breathed life into but which refused to die. And I thought: hey, this is like my paper. One difference though: the scholar whose tweet I am reading is much, much further in her career than I am; she has accomplished a lot and her work is followed and praised all over the world. And yet, she has moments like this one. And hey, although my students – who are at a stage where I used to be some time ago – see me as someone who can write quite a lot in a limited period of time, I still have quite a few moments when I struggle just like I used to struggle seven years ago with that first chapter for my PhD thesis, and – knowing that some of my colleagues who have already retired still have such moments – I will probably always have such moments. Just one thing has changed: I used to feel frustrated when things did not move forward, while now it seems I have learned to accept that some things just progress slowly and do other things while taking a break from writing.


Writing – like progress in painting, sports or music – takes time. Writing is a creative activity that has no fixed hours and in some periods requires more effort. Although it is more difficult to accept that things progress slowly when you are a PhD candidate and you have not yet much writing experience (yeah, I remember how that was), know that most (if not all) people struggle when they start writing and that we will have moments of struggle no matter how long we will have been in the game. An article is not a factory product; it is art. Whether a piece of text, a painting or a piece of music; the best pieces are created when we have taken a break.

Therefore, take a break, go for a walk in the park, go to a nice restaurant or a good cafe with your family or friends, go for a jog or workout, cook something nice, whatever makes you relax and enjoy; tomorrow, or the day after, is another day.