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!

Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…

Self-belief: essential PhD armour

John Mayer wrote a song a while back called ‘Belief’, and one line in this song stayed with me: ‘Belief is a beautiful armour’. I have been thinking about this notion of armour and belief in one’s self and research as an important piece of PhD (and post-PhD) armour a lot recently. This thinking is related to my last post on why I can’t seem to write the papers that need to be written. I need to go back a step or two to explain.

I spent quite a lot of time during my PhD feeling inadequate. I wondered, a lot, whether my research was important or worthwhile enough to entice others to read it. I believed (still do) in my research – I would be unable to keep doing it if I did not believe in what I was doing; but I when I listened to what my PhD colleagues were researching, and compared my research to theirs, I often found it wanting. My questions all felt smaller, less significant, less worthy of attention. This lack of self-belief was not constant. When things were going well and the ideas were flowing, I believed very strongly in the validity and importance of my research, and in myself as a writer. But not always.

I think that one of the reasons I am struggling to write now is that, even though I now have my degree, I still lack more constant self-belief – more specifically, I lack consistent belief in the importance, necessity or readability of my research. I seriously do wonder, sometimes, why anyone would want to read what I am thinking about, and I do fear the negative critique and rejection that in darker moments I feel sure will come when I put my work out there and send it to journals. I also seriously wonder if my research is important, or interesting to anyone other than me and a small group of people who have heard me speak about it and seem interested in it too. I’m not finding a cure for cancer or changing policy or developing a system for agrarian development that will change the way poor people access land, for example. I went to graduation last week and heard the citations for PhD candidates that were focused on research they had done that has the ability to change government policy, and to make a real difference in the lives of children, the poor and the politically disenfranchised. I felt inadequate all over again. I feel like my research is so small in comparison. And this lack of self-belief is now standing in my way and making it hard for me to write these papers and send them to journals for consideration.

I am sure I am not alone. I think self-doubt, worry, feelings of inadequacy and all the inner turmoil of that are part of a PhD journey. During my PhD and now, I find that some of what I read bolsters me and connects so well with my research that I know what I am writing will find an interested audience and contribute to my field; but some of what I read fills me with doubt – has what I am saying not already been said? Have I anything to add? Very few of us in the social sciences get to coin new concepts, or find a rare beetle we can name after ourselves. We are often extending, critiquing or updating the work and arguments of others. This is important research work, though, and it’s important to keep sight of that. Writing for publication is about conversations – connecting our research with the research of others, adding new perspectives, different data, alternative theoretical and analytical frameworks to extend, challenge and change the way we think about the fields in which we work. I tell myself this – what I am doing is joining the conversation, and my voice is strong, and should be heard. But I have to believe that.

We need armour when we take on big projects like a PhD – projects that will change us and challenge us; that are personal as well as professional. Our ideas will be questioned – this is an essential part of the process – and often we will have to reject some of our earlier thoughts, rethink things, make serious revisions. This writing and revising process can challenge our belief in ourselves and our ability to write. We need belief in ourselves and in our research and writing – this is essential armour for any PhD student. This self-belief is not always easy to come by; it can elude us when we most need it. I am not sure I can tell myself all the time that my research is valuable, and that my writing is good, and believe it. But I can try. I can work on being the positive voice in my head that tells myself to keep going and keep writing; I can seek out writing friends who will read my work and give me feedback that encourages me and also improves my writing; I can cover myself in self-belief as armour against the doubt and the worry, and write. Write on and know that, eventually, the words will come and the papers will be written.

The challenges of writing papers out of your PhD

You have finished your thesis, handed it in, been examined and passed – well done! You are now a Dr. You can take a deep breath and relax now after all these years of hard work, right? Wrong. Quite wrong it seems. Now the work really starts – the work of Building Your Career. You have the magic pass that has swiped you into the hallowed inner circles of the academy, but resting on your laurels won’t keep you there or earn you the respect of your peers in the long term. You have to publish. You have to tell people, in very formal, recognisable ways, about your work and why it is noteworthy and important. You have to conference and write and network and write and have papers accepted by good journals and write some more. It’s all a bit exhausting to be honest, and right now I’m just thinking about it all rather than doing it all just yet!

I put in an abstract for a higher education conference earlier in the year and it was accepted. The full paper, in pretty good draft form, is due at the end of the month and the conference is a few weeks after that. I am paralysed. I cannot write this thing. So, instead, I am planning another paper about the challenge of writing a thesis. I have no data for this paper, no framework, just some brilliant and witty subheadings I dreamed up while writing my thesis and a few readings and notes under my belt. I have a LOT of work to do to get that paper written. By contrast, the paper I have to write for the conference has a full checklist because it’s a paper that is coming straight out of my thesis. Theory (check), methodology (check), data gathered, organised and analysed (check check check) – it’s all there and all I really have to do is select the relevant pieces of the chapter and hone them into a paper than makes one argument clearly and coherently. But, as mentioned, I am paralysed.

Why? This should not be so hard. Everything I need, I have. Even time. I have pretty much cleared my desk to give myself both headspace and physical hours in which to write and think about this paper. So why I am so stuck, so unable to get going on even a draft? Pat Thomson, who has been such a big source of help for me through her own writing, wrote a post on her blog, Patter, a while back about the challenges of getting out of the ‘big book thesis’ and into papers that are much smaller and more discrete things. A paper can only make one small argument – most journals will only give you 6,000 words in which to say what you have to say. So you have to be really focused. A big book thesis by contrast gives you between 80,000 and 100,000 words to make your argument – you can bring in a lot of explanation, discussion, data etc. You don’t have to be that brief. You can be a bit verbose and be forgiven for that. So there’s that – having to be that brief and focused just seems really difficult and too much hard work right now. You may say that I am not quite ready to do the hard work of selecting and whittling and murdering ‘my darlings’*.

This is connected to another potential stumbling block Pat mentions in getting out of the big book and into papers – choosing your focus and leaving out all the extra detail. She says, and this really makes sense to me at the moment, that during and right after your PhD you are all about the big book (if this is the kind of thesis you are writing), with the emphasis on ‘big’ – lots of space to show your readers this, and also this and also these other things so that they can really appreciate the length and breadth and depth of the work you have done. So in planning this paper (and possible others), I find myself struggling to select only a few parts of the theory, because don’t I also need to explain  why I chose this theory and not another, and where it comes from and why it’s so useful and also my own background for doing this research, and, and, and…? All of this is so necessary, so vital. If I leave these pieces out you may not think I have done enough work – you may not believe my claims.

I think coming out of a PhD thesis, where you have been tying so many strands together for such a long period of time, this is a common issue. What to leave out and what to include in a paper that is less than half the length of one chapter is a tricky thing to work out. Slicing your big argument up into smaller arguments you can make is not easy. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. I think it does take time to get enough distance from your PhD to start to see the different smaller arguments you could make, and also how to carve up and rework parts of your big book to make these smaller papers clear and coherent. Is 6 months enough time? It feels like it should be. I think my work is important and I do want people in my field to read about it and challenge me and agree with and, dare I hope for it, cite me. So, I’d better get over my paralysis and start writing. But for today, maybe just this blogpost; tomorrow I’ll start the paper.

*With thanks to Stephen King for this phrase.

Post-PhD Drift

I have been wandering around for the last few weeks in a bit of a fug. I have been feelings all sorts of things – frustration, boredom, aimlessness, sadness, the Meh – and I have been a bit puzzled about this. Why do I feel this way? I show people my thesis in its beautiful ring-bound form – friends and colleagues who have been cheering me on – and they exclaim and hug me and I feel fabulous, and then I go back to my office or sit on my couch and feel all of these other things. After some deliberation I have diagnosed my problem and am working on a cure: I have Post-PhD Drift.

I started this year with a sense of relief – no more looming deadlines and panic and sleepless nights wondering about whether I am really doing a proper analysis of my data or something less than that. No more carrying this weight around with me everywhere, this thing that pulled me to my feet and off to my desk most of the times I sat down in front of the TV or with a book. But as my work year started – and bear in mind I am only about just over a month into it – the sense of relief started turning into something else. It turned into a new kind of anxiety. A ‘what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now?’ kind of anxiety.

Of course, I am still waiting for the reports from my examiners – I don’t have to do a Viva but I do have to engage with and respond to comments and requests for revisions from three examiners. This has compounded my anxiety enormously. But the anxiety will not necessarily disappear when the reports are in and the revisions or corrections are finished. It goes deeper than just waiting for feedback. I feel I have lost a piece of my self. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m not a Dr either. I feel I am in a strange sort of no-(wo)man’s-land. I know I have to move on and get going and write papers and submit abstracts for conferences but I just can’t seem to do that. My brain still feels a bit paralysed.

I think part of this paralysis is because I don’t know yet whether my work will be lauded or trashed. I don’t know if these examiners, all experts in my field, will applaud what I have done and suggest corrections that will make it even better or will hate it and ask me to revise it completely. So I can’t write papers yet because it is possible that my work is not good enough, that my thinking is not critical or analytical enough. (Yet.) Of course, I know my supervisor would never have let me submit if this was the case, but it is my fear all the same. I don’t really feel full ownership of these ideas yet. I feel hesitant and afraid to take the risk of telling people what I think in case they argue with me and I cannot argue back persuasively or knowledgeably. And I have written a whole thesis. 83246 words. I should be confident and persuasive and knowledgeable, at least about my own research. Yet, I am not quite there yet.

Part of this paralysis is also down to the Drift I have diagnosed. Working on, researching, writing a PhD dissertation is great for giving your life meaning and purpose. It’s a clear goal, and defined. There is a beginning and an end and usually the former is about three to five or so years before the latter. So, unless calamities and awfulness befall you, and I know this is true for many scholars, at some point you will finish. It’s not like that with a career, and that is what I am staring down the barrel of now. The rest of my career, whatever I may choose to make it. A career is longer, without a very clearly defined end, as many academics go on researching and publishing after retiring from formal academic life. Is this what I want my career to be? I know I can make changes as I go, and my interests will shift over time, but I have chosen academia. A life of the mind and research and also teaching. Some days I am not sure I’m really cut out for it.

I am not sure yet how to get over this drift. I went to a meeting with colleagues yesterday where we talked about a course we are designing, and I attended a book launch where colleagues talked eloquently about the research they had been doing. I felt, for the first time in a while, a renewed excitement about the research I am doing and what I can contribute into these intellectual spaces. Perhaps that is one way through this; to connect as much as I can with fellow scholars and researchers whose own research questions can spark off my own, and whose work can catalyse my own continued thinking and writing.

I will stop drifting, and my to-do lists will become more focused on my writing and less on emails and filling in forms in time. But for now, and perhaps until I graduate and am forced to confront and take on this new identity properly, I am likely to keep drifting, finding ways to keep my little boat at least pointing in the right sort of direction as I find my way in my new post-PhD career.