Setting up, maintaining, mending your support systems

A friend of mine asked me recently how I managed to finish a PhD in three and a bit years, with a full-time job and a full-time homelife. I found it quite hard to answer her, especially given that, in retrospect, my PhD doesn’t seem all that difficult now (kind of like when you have done something really tough, like had a baby or run a marathon or climbed a mountain, and you think: ‘I could do that again, that wasn’t so bad!’ even though it was awful a lot of the time while you were going through it). So, I have thought a lot about this, and I think I finally have an answer.

I finished in the time I did because of the support I had. This support came in different forms, and I have divided it into four main kinds that made a big difference during my candidacy: home, personal, work, and PhD-specific.

I’ll start with home, because this, for me, was really important, and also really tough to manage consistently. I have a lovely husband and two lovely, but young, children who need me rather a lot. I also need to be there for them rather a lot, and like many parents I have organised my time and life around them since they were born, and a lot of who I am as a person is bound up in who I am as their mother. Not being very present or in control of all things parenting, therefore, was not really a viable option for me during my PhD. But, as I found out, it was really, really difficult to be a very full-time parent and partner, a very full-time academic, and a very committed PhD student (and not be very stressed and hysterical all the time). My husband, thankfully, is a very capable parent when I stand back and let him do things his way, instead of my way, and he was willing to put me and my PhD work ahead of his own in order to support me (for at least most of the three years). But, and this is the key, I really struggled to let that be. I struggled to let go of being all things to all of my family, and let him manage the kids and their lives so that I could focus on questions of theory, data, tense, fonts and all of that big and small PhD stuff I needed to focus on. It was only really in my final year, when I just had to finish, that I sort of got enough of the hang of letting go, and could actually focus on me and my work without feeling guilty or torn, or left out of what my husband and kids were getting up to while I was alone at my desk, writing. Support at home is essential, but you also need to let your home support you.

The second area where I needed, and was fortunate enough to receive, support and time was at work. I ran a small unit during my PhD and my time was largely my own to manage. This was very fortunate because I didn’t feel like I was clocking in and out with someone looking over my shoulder and accounting for each minute of my day. I was able to, some weeks, carve out a morning (and even have a day or two here and there at home) to focus on my PhD, having reorganised the rest of my workload around these PhD mornings or days. My close colleagues outside of my unit were encouraging, and in my final year accommodated (at least some of) my answers of ‘no, I can’t do that right now, ask me again next year’ with latitude for the most part. Again, though, a lot of what I received hinged on me asking for what I needed, and being firm, once I got the support, in letting it be. I had to learn to say ‘no’, which I am not very good at, and I had to learn to let people help me, also something I am not good at. I was fortunate – my close colleagues were a great source of kindness and support, which made up for the indifference from other less friendly colleagues and management. But I also had to find ways of asking for support and time and space in ways that did not put people’s backs up, or seem like I was asking for favours I was not due.  I learnt some valuable lessons about standing up for myself, and also about diplomacy, tact and timing.

A further area where I needed excellent support was in PhD-specific spaces of supervision and peer-groups. I was part of a structured PhD programme with an active online listserv and regular contact weeks where we all got together for workshops, lectures, seminars and supervision sessions. This support, along with the excellent supervision I received, took at least a year off my PhD in my opinion, as I had both real support, and also imagined chastisement if I did not make progress. I had, in other words, people who were keeping tabs on me, although completely supportively and kindly, and this accountability translated into me egging myself on because I didn’t want to let any of them down (and by extension let myself down). Reaching out to form a PhD support group where you feel you are not all on your own, and that your progress, struggles, and triumphs matter to others, can be a crucial source of support.

Finally, I had to learn to be my own support. I had to learn to encourage myself, and be warm and kind rather then mean and derogatory, especially when days of doing no PhD work turned into weeks and stagnation rather than progress was the order of things. I had to make time for myself, and tell myself that this time was not indulgent, or taking time away from my kids or work: that it was necessary and important and worth protecting. This was really difficult, all the way through. It still is. However, doing the PhD taught me to be kinder to myself, and to be more supportive of my own research, my own achievements and my own struggles. If I am not on my own side, how can I convince others that it’s a side they should be on too? I am much more of a cheerleader for myself now, giving myself more of the kindness I find easier to give to others.

Support systems are not easy to set up, maintain, and especially to mend if they have fallen apart. They require care, time and emotional energy, and these things are often in short supply during a PhD candidacy. However, without these four different kinds of support, something as long, challenging, often lonely and also triumphant as doing a PhD would be much more difficult than it could or should be.

Can you quit your PhD?

I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago about her PhD, which is floundering a little at the moment and is a source of great stress and anxiety right now. Rather than something she looks forward to working on, her PhD is a millstone around her neck, and she is seriously wondering if she can or should carry on with it in its present form. Earlier this week I logged in to Facebook to hear that another friend has deregistered from her PhD studies for the time being, taking a break of indefinite length. So, I have been wondering: can you quit your PhD, and if you do, how do you make that decision okay for yourself?

I wrote last year about my own struggles early on in my PhD with finding a balance between it and my life and work, and how I suspended my studies before eventually coming back to them. I think that, as a PhD student who has already invested your self, time, money and also often your family’s/friend’s time (and either their or a funder’s money) in your studies, the decision to stop and walk away is never one you can make impulsively or lightly. There are several things you may have to consider, over and above your own feelings, desires and struggles. This post is a tough one to write, because I would never want to discourage a PhD scholar who is already feeling discouraged. But I think that we don’t really talk about this issue very much; rather the dominant discourses focus on saying some version of ‘Just get it done, it’s just a PhD. Just finish it, and everything will be fine. Hang in there, come on, you can do this!’ It’s great to give and get this kind of encouragement, but sometimes, it’s not helpful when a PhD student can’t ‘just do it’ and really needs to at least consider, for a range of reasons, deregistering and moving on to other things.

So what do you do if you, or a friend/colleague/PhD supervisee, is sitting on this fence, and wondering: ‘Can I quit my PhD? Should I quit? Will I be okay if I do?’ Perhaps a useful place to start is with all of the things you/your person needs to consider. For example, are you paying for your PhD yourself, or do you have funding? If you have funding, are there stipulations in the fine print about reimbursing the funder if you do not complete your PhD? These are big considerations if you are paying a lot of money for your PhD, and if you have funding that comes with expectations of completion in a certain period of time. If you or a family member are paying for your studies, this is perhaps an easier call because the financial obligations can be more flexible. However, if you do need to take time off, or even walk away from your PhD completely, consider approaching your funder and negotiating as far as possible with them. Perhaps there is a plan to be made.

Another big consideration (one that really troubled me when I considered quitting my PhD) was the investment I had already made in the PhD – my identity, my self, my time. But I had not done this alone. I had asked my husband, children and family to invest with me: in encouraging me, supporting me, making compromises and sacrifices on my behalf to enable me to have time to work on my PhD. They believed in me. How could I walk away and let them all down? How could I let myself down? My feelings of shame and failure were also compounded by my own perfectionism, and the sometimes stupidly high standards to which I hold myself. I needed, in making my decision to suspend and walk away temporarily, to separate my own needs and investments from theirs, and tell myself that, while they were undoubtedly in this with me, they were not actually doing the PhD. That was all on me, so I needed to make this decision for me, and not for them. I reasoned that if I was okay with my decision, they would eventually be okay too. If I was miserable, they would certainly have suffered with me.

A third consideration is the reasons for which you are doing the PhD. Is it for primarily professional reasons: you need a PhD in order to be recognised formally, awarded research funding, promotions and status? Is for primarily personal reasons: having one or not will not make an enormous difference in your working life, but you are personally driven by a desire to complete a PhD, and gain from the experience in terms of your own development as a scholar and a thinker? In my experience thus far, working with colleagues who are doing PhDs as well as with postgraduate student-writers, it’s always a bit of both, although one set of reasons is usually a bit more prominent than the other. I do think, as someone who did the PhD to get ahead professionally, but also because I really wanted to do it for myself, that focusing on my personal, intrinsic motivations and reasons helped me to find my way back to my PhD, and helped me to sustain my motivation to complete it through the ups and downs that followed my re-registration. Focusing on the extrinsic pressures made me feel resentful, pressured and sulky. I felt I was being forced into something that did not completely fit into my life as a working mother. I felt cross that I should even need a PhD to be taken seriously, when I had other valuable experience and input to offer. I am not sure I would have had the PhD journey I did if the external reasons for the PhD were my sole focus. I think coming back would have been harder, and I would have taken longer to complete my thesis.

The point of this post is not to tell any students that they should, or should not, quit their PhD. A PhD is a big, all-consuming, intense thing to take on, and the amount of yourself that a thoroughly researched and well-written PhD demands is huge. But, if you are on this fence, feeling stuck and wondering if quitting will free you or make things harder in the long run, perhaps working through these considerations will be a helpful starting place in making your own decision about how to carry on from here. I would like to say, though, that if you do quit your PhD, you will be okay. A PhD is, in the end, a qualification (as someone on Twitter said recently); it’s not an identity itself, it’s not you, and it’s not what makes you worthy of recognition.

Being the boss of your own time

I have recently changed jobs, in that I have resigned from my job and taken up a postdoctoral fellowship at the university where I recently completed my PhD. This was a big leap for me because it meant quitting my first academic job that came with a pension, a proper income, and an access card that kept working year after year because I was not on contracts that kept ending. It also meant leaving colleagues and work that meant a great deal to me, and it meant a change in my own sense of identity as an academic because I gave up work that gave me a particular academic identity and sense of self.

I’m kind of like a student again, with a more student-y kind of income now (sadly), and a more student-y schedule. This latter bit is kind of brilliant. I don’t have to be at work by 9am, and I don’t have to set an example for the colleagues I used to manage by sitting at my desk all day, being busy and focused, and I don’t have to attend any more meetings unless I really want to. I don’t even have to wear shoes if I don’t want to. I fetch my kids from school, and I help them with their homework. I am really enjoying cooking again because I’m not exhausted at the end of every day having rushed around doing far too many things, and commuting a long way to work and back. It’s pretty cool, I have to say.

But, it’s also a challenge, being the boss of all of my own time like this. I am on my own most days. I have no one leaning over me, making deadlines and calling meetings that I have to attend. Only my husband and kids would know if I stayed in my pyjamas all day. It would be easy to watch decor shows all morning, or make ice-cream, or tidy all the drawers in the house rather than write the papers I am supposed to be writing, and transcribe all the data still sitting waiting for me, and the send in the abstract I am still trying to think up. It would be very easy to just let these sunny days at home drift past me while doing very little of any postdoctoral substance.

This week I am working quite hard. But I have some work I am being paid for that has to be finished, and I have big deadlines that have to met and other people to account to with those, so it’s actually quite easy to leave the TV off, ignore the messy drawers and just focus on this work. But what happens when this work is finished, and I’ve been flat out every day for a couple of weeks and I am a bit meh, tired, overdue for a morning of Downton Abbey in my pyjamas? I am not sure I can give myself that morning without it turning into a few mornings, and then a slippery slope of letting days pass by while being less than productive. I know myself too well, unfortunately, to fool myself into believing that I am good at managing my own time all by myself without deadlines and people to account to.

I think this is probably an issue for anyone who is in the position of being mainly accountable to themselves for how they spend their time, and only a little accountable to others. Unless you have a super-duper work ethic that flies in the face of a whole series of your favourite show on a USB stick waiting to be watched, or inventing a new ice-cream flavour, you may have to have some strategies in place to help you manage all this time effectively. This is especially important if you have other responsibilities that claim some of that time, like fetching kids from school, or caring for someone who needs you to be there for them in some concrete way. Making sure that your work time is protected and managed well so that you get the most of out it, and can then give your attention and time elsewhere without feeling stretched too thin, or worried about all the work you still have to do, is really important.

One of the reasons I took up the postdoc was so that I could spread myself a little less thinly; so that I could work on my research and be academically engaged and productive, but also be here for my kids and focus on myself a little more too. But I am aware that all these other things that are not research and work can become so lovely and enjoyable that they could encroach on the work time, making that smaller and smaller, and making it harder for me to feel less panicked about how much I am not accomplishing, and how much I am not writing. I need a few strategies to help me stay on track too – like a work plan I can adapt and adjust as I go, and that accounts for both work and personal demands on my time; people to be accountable to, like seeking out people to write with so that I am not always writing alone, or speaking more often to my postdoc supervisor so that even if she decides not to bug me, I will at least have a sense that someone is keeping an eye on me. I need to surround myself, even virtually, with critical friends and co-travellers, much as I did during my PhD, so that I don’t feel quite so alone and isolated, and so that I can be pushed a little to do some writing that I can share and ask for feedback on (and so I can stop writing out loud to interrupt all the silence!).

Perhaps, if you are also finding yourself the boss of all of your own time, whether for a few months or a year or more, some of these strategies will help you. Perhaps you have some you can share too? I’d love to hear what they are. Right now, I’m going to try to keep going on as I have begun, making my lists and hiding the TV remote from myself. And I’m going to enjoy this sabbatical from conventional 9-5 working life for as long as I possibly can.

Resolutions and reality: starting up again

Hello, and welcome to 2015! I hope it has started off well for all of you. 

My year has started with a bang, or a couple of them. We have just moved house, I have started my postdoc, and because of moving house, I am cut off from the internet (while our truly awful national telecoms provider is not answering repeated calls for assistance). I have had to battle slow 3G and find cafes that offer free wifi with the cost of a flat white and a scone (or two). So I am having a hard time getting my work year up and going. If I was one for making new year’s resolutions about productivity in writing, quitting sugar and being more patient on the roads, I’d be in big trouble!

I closed up shop just before Christmas in order to have a proper break from email and work-related worries. I started reading my email again, and thinking about this blog again, about 2 weeks ago, but I have done very little about either. Lots of ‘mark as unread’ so I can come back to it. Lots of doodling about blog posts, but no actual writing. Lots of meh, really. I just can’t seem to make myself get back to work in earnest. All I really have is excuses, feeling panicked about falling behind, and too much chocolate consumption.

I remember this sluggishness and ensuing panic from each year of my PhD, especially moving from year one into year two, and year two into year three. I took proper (ish) breaks each December, desperate for rest and time with my kids. But when January started up again, I battled to get back into my reading, data, research. It took me ages and some sort of crisis, like a deadline for writing or a seminar I had to present, in order for me to actually begin being productive again. There were always too many other things that needed to be done. Now, I do not have the same old excuses – an office to open up, new tutors to settle in, workshops to run for other departments, and so on. I no longer have a ‘dayjob’ as I have started my postdoctoral fellowship, and my diary is pretty empty of training, workshops and meetings for the first time in several years. And yet, and yet… I am stuck, struggling to find my work mojo after having turned it off, even if only for a few weeks. I think this may be a familiar state of affairs for many PhD scholars who have to start work and settle kids into new school years and get the rest of the lives going again in January, as well as their PhDs.

I have, in keeping with my theme from AcWriMo about trying to learn my own writing lessons, made a plan I think I can stick to. I am starting small, psyching myself into it. I am writing this post, which will get this blog, which is dear and very important to me, up and running again. I went to a lovely café yesterday and made use of their free internet to send a slew of emails that really did need to be sent. I made a few lists, and will return to said café tomorrow to keep going. By next week, when crisis point one, a conference abstract deadline arrives, I should hopefully be in a more productive space, and be getting into my groove again.

Finding your work/research/PhD mojo again after a break can take time. If you’re in this stuck place, struggling to get going again, I empathise. Perhaps, rather than making terrifying lists of all the big things you need to accomplish this whole year (I did that last year and it completely paralysed me for a good week or so), you could psych yourself into it all again slowly. Make a small list – most urgent things first. Use your coloured markers or pens to make this list:

  • What can you ask for help with? (Orange)
  • What can actually be put off or done by someone else? (Red or orange)
  • What can you indeed say ‘no’ to? (Red)
  • Now, what is yours to do, and when does it need to be done? (Green)

 

Carve out time now for your PhD/research. Put it into your diary as a meeting with yourself or your PhD and try to hold it as firmly as you would that staff meeting or meeting with your supervisor/HOD/line manager etc. Start as you mean to go on: be gentle as you get going again, but be firm with yourself and others. Your work for yourself – and a PhD often feels like this, a bit on the indulgent and personal side, especially if you are also a parent and working and have so many other things to do for others – is valuable and important. It deserves to be marked out and held sacred. You deserve to have that time, and have others respect that.

It is one thing to tell yourself this and to make this starter list, and another to hold yourself and the people around you to these ‘resolutions’. Life has a way of getting in the way. But, I think, if I start gently but purposefully, and I check in regularly, and I keep myself accountable to my plan, as realistically as I can, I will be okay. I hope more than okay, but I will settle for that for now. I hope 2015 will be everything we hope for, for us all. See you next week!

 

 

A year on: my first year post-PhD

I have been trawling through my blog archives, reading what I was writing and thinking about a year ago. I have friends who are close to submitting their PhD theses for examination, and others who are not yet where they wanted to be by now, and this has all given me pause to reflect on where I was a year ago and where I am now. A year on: am I where I wanted to be by now? I am, and I am not. There were many plans – some more realistic than others – that have and have not come to fruition. Now feels like a good time to take stock, and perhaps learn a few more lessons to take into 2015.

It has been a hectic year on the work and home fronts, and I had such big plans for my writing out of the PhD. Such idealistically big plans. I did not really have a holiday when I finished my PhD. Yes, we had a small trip at the end of last year, once the thesis was being examined, but I could not fully relax. I thought about the examination process a great deal, worrying about whether my thesis reached my examiners, and whether they were reading it, and whether they liked it, or found it interesting, useful, persuasive… I am a worrier by nature. My husband has often said that if I didn’t have anything to worry about, I would be worried about that! So, I spent most of December, January and especially February, as the examination period went into overtime, worrying. It was not relaxing. So I was not in a good space for thinking about papers. I wrote a very vague list of papers I could write from the thesis around March, and stuck it up on my wall at work. I even pinpointed possible journals. And I scribbled, in my research journal in tentative pencil, some plans for abstracts and such. Waiting to get the reports and corrections back kind of consumed my headspace. I got physically ill too, for a fairly long period, as my body realised we weren’t doing the thesis anymore and kind of fell apart in a heap for a while. So, the early part of the year was not as productive as I had thought it might be talking to colleagues who seemed to churn out papers right after submitting. I just didn’t realise how emotionally and physically done-in I would be after I finished my PhD, so I could not make room for that in my plans.

Then I got the corrections and reports, and was able to complete them fairly quickly so that I could graduate. That was most certainly a high-point, and top of my ‘to-do’ list for the year. It was a glorious day, and week, and coming home I felt certain that I could focus on writing, now that the PhD was formally concluded. I did put in a successful abstract for a conference, and actually wrote a short paper for the conference that I was quite pleased with. I thought writing this paper would get the writing wheels turning, and that the papers would now come. But then there were tutor workshops and a staff development course, and external moderation and so many emails, and it was easier to just focus on all of that than to take the time to do more reading (more?) and thinking and restructuring and cutting and writing. I had time, and even headspace, but a new emotional struggle in the form of feelings of inadequacy. Far from feeling smart, and well-read and knowledgeable coming out of the PhD, I felt small, and ignorant of so many things I haven’t read about, and I really have battled to feel confident enough to put myself out there. So, more delays with the papers. More emotional blocks I was not expecting to have to overcome.

Now, sitting at the end of the year, I have mixed feelings. While I am proud of myself for finishing my thesis, and for writing a solid, well-argued piece of work, I am disappointed with the ‘meh-ness’ with which I have treated the writing coming out of the thesis. I have let the doubts and struggles hold me up (even though I am not too hard on myself for this because, to be fair, I didn’t know I would have to deal with those). I have made smaller things at work that could have been delegated or put aside way more important than my own writing, and this had fed, rather than assuaged, the feelings of inadequacy and not-knowing-anything-of-any-use that I have been battling with. I have realised that the thing that will make me feel more confident and more able to speak up about what I think I can contribute to conversations about teaching and learning in the disciplines is to write at least one paper (for now) and send it to a journal. I need feedback from my peers, and I need critique even. I need to see that my ideas need work, but they are not rubbish or silly or of-no-real-use. I think as I start publishing my work, and developing my ideas, and reading more (more!) I will grow in confidence, and the doubts, while they will never really go away because I suspect this is part of what it is to be a good researcher – critical doubt – will eventually become more manageable. They will have less power to block me and overwhelm me with anxiety. Well, this is my hope.

Next year I will be a postdoctoral fellow at the university where I undertook my PhD study. I am looking forward to having time to read, write and think. It feels like a largely blank space right now, stretching out before me. But I must be careful here, and learn from this past year: I must make room for emotional stumbling blocks – and make room in my plans for time to deal with these without feeling shame and anxiety because I am not making progress; make a flexible ‘to-do’ list for writing, but make the writing more important than emails and other things that can wait. I need to learn to give myself (and my work) permission to be important and worth a lot of my time (and therefore sometimes also my family’s time). Finally, I need to develop a new vision and an updated alter-ego – maybe I shall call her Postdoc Girl – that will focus and guide my time, so that I am standing in a firmer and more confident spot next December. I think we all need something to focus on and to have as a motivating tool. Life is too full and too busy to leave motivation and focus to chance when you are working on something like a PhD where finishing a thesis is key,  or a postdoc where publishing a book or papers or even both is so vital. Perhaps you could take a moment to take stock of your year, and what you planned for and what enabled you or got in your way. What could you learn from your year to make next year more successful or less fraught? What kinds of changes could you make for the coming year? Make notes, and keep them somewhere you can access them easily. Refer to them as the year goes on, maybe in regular check-ins, and let’s see if we can’t make 2015 a year that sees us reach more of our writing and research goals. Good luck!