Jean-Frédéric Ménard, a PhD candidate at UCL Laws, explains to us how he has made the Mumford Method work for him.
By reason of its breadth and scale, the PhD journey provides the opportunity to experiment with various productivity techniques. For my part, I feel that the Mumford Method (MM) is one of a few significant work habits and methods acquired in the course of my postgraduates studies that will stick with me for the long run. Therefore, after much proselytising about the MM to my close friends and colleagues, I am delighted to have been asked by the editors of Law Academics Unblocked to write about my experience with it as a PhD researcher.
I found out about the MM a few years ago on Twitter. I’m always on the lookout for academic productivity tips and as soon as I read Stephen Mumford’s outline of his method, I felt I had to try it. I had signed-up to present my PhD project in the UCL Laws Work in Progress Forum (WPF) and it struck me as the ideal opportunity to try the MM. My talk went very well, I got excellent feedback from my fellow PhD students and I also felt like my argument had been strengthened in the process. Therefore, I (unscientifically) attributed a large part of that success to using the MM. As a result, unless I am forced to submit a slides presentation, my go-to format for presentations is now to build them around a MM outline.
Because I try to use talks and conferences as a way to advance work on my PhD, the MM has also crept into my thesis workflow. Indeed, the profound insight behind the MM is that having ideas, organising them and testing them is a different intellectual operation than reporting them in the succinct and elegant manner that is expected of a final manuscript. Especially in the early days of a PhD, but throughout the process really, you are constantly changing your mind or moving things around. When you have a well-written paragraph, there is a high-cost associated with modifying it. With a MM outline, this cost is greatly diminished and revising is more akin to reshuffling a deck of cards than to moving the cards in a carefully balanced house of cards.
The MM allows a more efficient use of my time with regard to its intended use as a support for presentations. Often, I find preparing slide presentations distracts me from my research. On the other hand, if I draft a MM outline for a talk that I am giving, I am actively thinking about my research project. I also feel like I am offering more value to my audience by giving them the outline than by preparing a slides presentation.
I also like the constraint the MM creates by forcing me to stick to two sides of paper. I have sometimes cheated by using US Legal paper instead of A4 or US Letter to fit more information in. However, I have come to realise that it is when I have done that I have gone over the time allotted to my presentation. Another slight variation is that I allow myself to add charts and graphics to the outline. As I do believe that a picture is indeed often worth a thousand words, doing so respects the principle of summarising ideas rather than expounding them in full details. It also salvages what I like the most about slide presentations.
I have been fortunate enough to see what a more widespread adoption of the MM would look like. In 2014, some of my colleagues at UCL Laws and I organised a postgraduate conference entitled “Creative Constraints” whose purpose was to encourage PhD researchers to think outside the box about their research. Instead of asking the participants whose abstract had been selected to submit conference papers, we asked them to prepare MM outlines of their presentations. For us, the organisers of the conference, it fulfilled the usual functions of conference papers, notably ensuring that the presenters had given some thought to their presentation ahead of time and allowing panel chairs to prepare. This way of doing things worked very well, and many of the conference presenters said that they had enjoyed being introduced to the MM in this way.
The next setting where I would like to experiment with the MM is the classroom. Indeed, I think that the MM has the potential to help students write their papers more efficiently and less painfully by adding a crucial intermediary step between abstract and first draft.
For me, the rewards of using the MM in my academic work have been numerous. I would like to conclude by adding that one of the main strength of the MM is that it is simple and intuitive. It doesn’t require adopting a whole new vocabulary or anything like that. As such, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try for your next paper or presentation.
J.-F.Ménard, PhD Candidate, UCL Laws
Suggested citation: J.-F.Ménard, “Do try the Mumford Method”, available at