Life, me and the PhD: learning to ask for, and accept, help

I have bronchitis, and for the last 2 weeks climbing out of bed to have a shower and change my pyjamas has left me breathless, heart pounding, and just exhausted. I’m getting better, but as this morning’s trial showed, hanging out one load of laundry is very tiring and I’m not at all back at normal speed yet. I have to let people help me do all the things I usually do, like laundry and tidying and managing the kids’ homework. I even have to ask for help with work stuff, or at least for extensions and extra consideration. This is really hard for me. I do not like asking for help, and I quite like doing things a certain way. Letting go of this ‘stuff’ is not easy. So, I have been prompted to reflect a bit on why I find this so hard, and how I could make this easier on myself going forward. Even when I am all better and stronger again, it would probably be good for me to ask for, and accept, help at home and at work.

This is not unlike what my life was like when I was working on my doctorate, or, more recently, my book. It was just not possible to work all day, and then be home and do all the ‘stuff’ – tidying, cooking, kids’ homework and baths and bedtime routines, and then have enough space in my head and energy left over to work on my research and writing, and be effective at all of it and happy. Trying to do it all made me feel so cross and resentful and over it all. Why couldn’t these people just see that I was struggling and HELP ME (preferably without being told to, please and thank you)? Why did I have to tell them I needed help? Wasn’t it obvious?

At the time, I didn’t stop to think much about all of this. I just revelled a bit in my long-suffering crossness and soldiered on. But I got very sick for a long time when I finally submitted my PhD thesis – it was months before I really felt like myself again. And, given my current health situation, I can’t help but wonder at the link between not actually asking for, and accepting, help during the PhD – at work and at home – and the severity and duration of my illness in early 2014. Was there a causal link, and not just a correlation, between trying to be and do everything myself and my resultant health crisis? I think there was, in hindsight. And, I think now that I could have helped myself enormously by not being so bloody-minded about being Wonder Woman.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel from Pexels

There’s a lot I could say here, with help from feminist scholars, about the gendered nature of academic and domestic labour. About how many women academics carry a significant portion of the care burden with students, and spend more time actively worrying about their students’ wellbeing and trying to do something about this; about how many women academics carry a double burden, with a heavy workload at work and at home, filled with expectations about what they ‘should’ be doing and caring about; about how many women academics burn out trying to prove that they are just as worthy of titles and accolades as their male counterparts, in some fields having to work twice as hard to win the same grants and publish in the same journals as men in their labs and departments. I could say so much more, really. The point is that as a woman academic I experienced this odd mix of wanting (needing) help but not wanting to accept it because accepting it meant I couldn’t do it all – especially at work – and doing it all was what I felt I was expected to do to be taken seriously, by myself as much as by my peers. So, I just pushed on, and I burned out.

So, sitting here in bed, trying just to take normal breaths without pain, I am asking myself: how do I not go there again? How do I figure this out a bit better, and actually give myself a freaking break? I think some of this is personal – how I was raised and who I am – but some of this is definitely systemic. A lot of what I expect of myself and what others seem to expect of me is gendered (at least). As a woman and a mother I ‘should’ be doing the cleaning and cooking and caring. At work, I should be focused on teaching and publishing and committee work and engagement. And I should not be complaining about it because that is my job, all of it. And I chose to be a working mother-scholar-teacher-wife, right? I should be able to have it all and do it all, and if I can’t, what’s wrong with me?

I have bought into this in various ways over the years, especially around the mothering stuff. I don’t really cook – Lovely Husband has that covered thank g*d – but I have taken on a lot of the parenting and household stuff I could just as easily have shared, or given over. Silly things, like being the one who had to pack the school lunches and sort out the homework and wash all the laundry, etc. as well as bigger things to do with actually raising our boys. I didn’t share because I worried far too much that things wouldn’t be done exactly the way I wanted them to be done, or the way I would have done them. Now, unable to clean or do laundry without feeling faint, I am having to teach my boys how to sweep a floor or run the washing machine without getting up to correct them or do it ‘properly’. Very little, if any of it, is being done ‘properly’ (i.e. my way), but you know what? We have clothes that are clean, even if they are folded weirdly. And the floors are not super dusty, even if they were swept differently. And the boys are keeping up with their schooling, even though Lovely Husband’s idea of homeschooling is not mine. Things are getting done, even though I am not doing them.

As Lovely Husband said recently, when we were talking about this, the things will get done differently, and sometimes differently is probably worse rather than just different, but you have to think of the trade-off. Have ‘stuff’ done, however it is done, or run yourself ragged trying to do everything ‘properly’ including your research, only to be left feeling invisible, resentful, tired, unhappy? I have to think, now, that I would rather work on letting go of (some of) the ‘stuff’ rather than end up feeling like this both at work and at home. I would rather keep trying to just let people help me, and say thank you instead of correcting their help, than end up feeling alone and put-upon. This is hard work, I think, for many of us. It might mean that your kids leave the house in non-colour coordinated clothes, or with a skew ponytail or weirdly brushed hair; it might mean that the clothes are folded differently or the pillows on the bed are skew, or the chicken dinner tastes different. But, your kids will be fine. Your pillows and clothes will be fine, and your tummy will be full.

Photo by Sirirak Boonruangjak from Pexels

Learning to let go is not just about making more time in your head and your life for your PhD or whatever research you are working on. It’s about learning to make space and time for yourself, and to put your own mental and physical health higher on your list of priorities. Not asking for help and flogging yourself to the point of exhaustion is not actually a sign of strength. It just hurts you, and for many women, perpetuates a very gendered division of labour, both at home and at work, that I think we all need to be conscious and critical of so that we can challenge and change this. This is perhaps especially vital now as this pandemic has thrown so many imbalances and injustices into sharp relief, and so many women are battling to get space, and support, and time for themselves and their work.

So, this is my current learning: how to just let Lovely Husband and our boys help in whatever way they are able to, appreciate that help, and let go of the ‘stuff’ that, at the end of the day, is not as important as I am, and as my health is. This frees me up to expend what energy I do have on things that I think are important right now, like student feedback, revising my book, writing a report that is due soon, and cuddling the boys when they’ll let me. I hope that when I am stronger I will not revert to being this Wonder Woman-person, trying to do and be and have it all. The search for that balance is ongoing though, so who knows? But, I’m optimistic :-).

Taking a holiday from your research

My brain is tired. I am sure your brains are all tired too. It has been one hell of a year, in global terms. I am sure many of us are really ready for 2016 to be over already. And, given that the festive season is almost upon us, many of us will be seeing out this year with a well-earned holiday. Leave from our day jobs, kids on holiday so less frantic mornings, and time to catch up on sleep, novels, movies and whatever else you do when you are on holiday. It’s also, for researchers, an opportunity to take a break from your reading, writing, thinking and data crunching.

I am a firm advocate of having a holiday from your research. I know, though, that many postgraduate students who are also working while studying see their end-of-year leave from work as a big chance to crack on with the writing and research without the usual disruptions of work. However, as a lovely friend who is coming to the end stages of her PhD said recently, ‘why am I assuming that I will be able to crack on, when I am pretty much on empty now?’ I, too, have been assuming that, once I go on holiday, all the energy I don’t have now will suddenly and miraculously appear and I’ll be zipping around doing crafts and making cookies and finding my desk under the piles of rubbish that it is buried under. I will more than likely be horizontal, with a book, in my pyjamas, bribing my husband and kids to bring me tea and snacks so I don’t have to move.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

I have much writing waiting to be done – primarily for a book project I am way behind on. But there is just no way I am going to be able to do any of it now. And anything I did write now would most likely have to be deleted and rewritten in January anyway. I am, quite simply, on empty. I need to see this for what it is: not as some kind of inability to Get The Things Done, but as a sign that I have actually done many of The Things this year, and now my body and my mind need to rest. Too often, on the hamster-wheel of academia, we don’t appreciate the need for rest, and down-time, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to just keep going. But if we do, we risk damaging our health, both mental and physical. I know I am guilty of bullying myself into keeping going, telling myself that I don’t need down time; I need to be productive.

There is a balance to be struck here. Down time is necessary and useful – it can recharge your creativity, productivity and work mojo. But too much down time can be counter-productive, as it can be really tough to get going again if you have too much time off. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with a regular job, but I have certainly found it to be the case with research, and a PhD. I never really got the balance right during my PhD – I either took too long a break or not enough of one, and I pretty much bunny hopped my way through my PhD in fits and starts of progress and productivity. I always found it difficult to get back into my PhD after each of the end-of-year breaks, largely because I was starting up my writing centre again, with all the attendant busy-work that entailed, and my PhD kept being relegated to ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week’. I don’t have that excuse anymore, but starting up again, especially on a project for which you are making the deadlines, and that requires intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation and drive, can be a challenge.

I do not, sadly, have the magic solution to finding this balance. I do, however, have the advice I give myself. Rather than telling myself I am not allowed to think about my research, I tell myself I don’t have to. I can read, and potter around, and read, and bake and swim and lie in the sun, and not feel guilty about any of it. And I can do that until my kids go back to school. This gives me about 3 weeks off. But, what usually happens while I am pottering and baking and lying in the sun, is that my mind-at-rest will still be percolating away about the book I am working on, or this blog, or the paper I want to write before March, and I will be inspired or have a useful idea that I need to jot down. So, I do. I scribble it into my research journal, or voice-note it on my phone, and then I put it down and go back to the holiday. That way, all the ‘work’ I might do is a bonus, and it doesn’t come with the usual anxiety and stress because I am not expecting myself to do it. This way, I keep things ticking over just enough to be able to pick up the pace when the holiday is over, but not so much that I don’t allow myself the rest I need.

holiday-mode-activated

I wish you all a very happy, safe and festive holiday whatever your chosen celebration, and¬†hope your down time with family, friends and yourself is properly relaxing and rejuvenating. The blog will be back in January with fresh ideas and posts, and hopefully even more! Thank you all for your support this year. ūüėÄ

Making the most of an hour a day

I have realised, looking through recent posts, that there is a bit of a theme emerging: that of a slightly aimless and depressed writer trying to get off the couch. I feel I should break this theme with a different kind of post, a more optimistic one. Although I have no regrets sharing this low patch of feeling aimless and stuck and unable to get off the  couch Рthe downs are as much a part of working on a PhD or research project as any other part of it, and an important part to talk about РI do need to get going again. And the only person who can really get me going again is me. So, this post is really about how to make the most of the time you have, and be as productive as you can be.

Many of my readers, and colleagues, are part-time writers and students. Writing and reading and thinking about research is squeezed into the odd hour here or there, or if you are lucky, a research day a week, a weekend, or even a sabbatical from work. But, for the most part (and this was the case for me during my PhD), research has to be fitted into everything else, and not the other way around. For much of my own PhD I had, at most, about an hour a day, most days. Then I had to put the PhD down and do my real job, and be focused on other things. After work, there were extra-murals to fetch and carry from, kids to spend time with, suppers to cook, pets to feed and so on. So, these brief hours here and there were precious and I needed to learn to make the most of them.

From commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is ¬†not easy. I have written here about finding time to write, and about what that means: less physical hours in the day, and more space in your head to actually think and write productively when the physical time is created. It’s no use making time to write and then having to spend that time just getting back to where you were the previous time you set aside an hour or two to work on your research or writing. You’d just be treading water, becoming increasingly frustrated, and struggling to move forward. Each hour, ideally, needs to move you one step further to a finished thesis, or paper. Thus, you need to make the most of these hours that you can create AND, very key, create as many of them as possible in a consistent manner. Think of these hours as stepping stones: too far apart and you’re stuck in the middle of the river, looking for a place to put your feet and finding the leap a bit scary. Ideally, they need to be fairly evenly spaced, so that you find each step in front of you manageable.

I have also written here and here and here about things you can do to manage your research time effectively, and work on creating a balance between time for your PhD/MA and the rest of your professional and personal life. What I am working on now is creating links between the hours and minutes I set aside to work on specific projects. I read recently that when you are working on a piece of writing you should end off such that your thought is not quite finished, so that you can pick it up again and keep going. The problem with this, for me, is that I might not come back to that piece of writing for a few days, or even a week, and then that thought may have left me. This writing time then becomes about trying to get back to where I was before I left off, rather than picking up the thought and carrying on with it usefully. My trick now is to end off a block of writing time with some brief notes to myself in the form of a holding text, pointing ahead to what I want or need to think, read or write about next time. Thus, when I do pick it up, whether the next day or the next week, my time will be used moving my writing forward. This is one way I create a link.

Another way I am creating links is by getting better at managing my physical time week in and week out. I am learning to keep much more detailed writing TO DO lists, breaking projects into more realistic pieces (such as ‘Read three papers and make notes’ set aside for three or four pomodoros in a morning; ‘draft introduction’ set aside for an hour or two one morning, and so on), and then working out, along with the kids’ stuff, and my other work and home stuff, exactly how much time I can set aside for these pieces and when. Then (mostly), I stick to this, and find that (when I can get it to work) the stepping stones connect together quite well, and I move my writing forward quite productively. A bonus is that I enjoy writing like this more, because I am moving forward with each step, and not going sideways or backwards.

Finally, a common theme in many of my posts about writing: I practice self-kindness. I do not beat myself up (too much) when I can’t quite make it all work out. But, without structure, some organisational skills and planning, and a way of holding myself accountable, I would do very little. Thus, in order to make the most of each hour you can set aside, you do need clear goals, consistency – whether you can make this an hour a day or a few hours over a week or so – and good planning. The more¬†you can get to your writing and research, the more the writing comes and the research plods on, and the more productive and enjoyable that time will become.

Cheating on your PhD; Cheating with your PhD

I’ve been chatting to friends who are working on their PhDs or research¬†lately, and this theme of a kind of intellectual or mental infidelity keeps coming up. I have seen a lot of this on my Twitter feed too, with part-time PhD students I follow talking about having loads of student work to mark, and meetings to attend and other busywork to do that means less time for their PhDs, and a lot of guilt. It’s almost like they feel they are cheating on their PhDs with their jobs; perhaps the converse is true too – that when they work on their PhDs they feel like they are cheating on their other work too.

Balancing work/home/life and PhD is incredibly difficult. There is never enough time for all of it, and for us to give everything an equal share of our time and attention. If you are a part-time student, a full-time parent, and you work as well at a demanding ‘day-job’, as was the case with me, you can often feel like you are going mad. And you can often feel like you are ‘cheating’ on someone or something by focusing on the other things – like taking time away from your family or friends on weekends to get a few precious hours of PhD writing or thinking in, or taking time away from your PhD to attend meetings that could have been emails, or get through the hectic teaching, admin or other¬†work that pays the bills. I felt like this a great deal of the time when I was doing my own PhD – like I was not really focused enough anywhere, and that I was indeed letting one of my ‘sides’ down at one time or another by being distracted, and having my mind elsewhere.

I don’t think these feelings of ‘infidelity’, if you can call it that, are avoidable, sadly. It seems, if my Twitter feed and my circle of friends and colleagues are any kind of representative group, that very few PhD students are able to devote all of their time and attention to just their PhDs. Many have families of their own, or people in their lives, who require care, attention and time; many work as well, as PhD funding that pays for you to be full-time and fully focused on just your PhD is not easy to find in most parts of the world. The PhD, demanding and time-consuming as it necessarily is, often has to be fitted into and around all the other demands on our heads, hearts and time, and (certainly for me) it’s cheating with your PhD rather than on it that feels like the issue.

The PhD can feel like the indulgence – the time away from all these other much more important things,¬†often things that you chose to devote yourself to before you chose the PhD. Reading time? Pure indulgence. You could be taking your kid to soccer, doing the grocery shopping, or planning your teaching for the following week. Writing time? Well, shouldn’t you rather be writing those emails that urgently need to go out, or preparing supper, or sorting out a costume for the Readathon at school tomorrow? Thinking time? Forget about it! Maybe you can squeeze in some thinking time if you get out to walk the dog, go for a run, or¬†drive¬†the kids to tennis lessons and wait¬†for half an hour while they play.

Some of that may not be¬†familiar to PhD students who don’t yet have families, but there are surely other things that seem so much more urgent than your PhD work does? If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, spending time with your PhD away from all the other things that came before it can certainly feel like a kind of ‘cheating’, and often comes with feelings of guilt and indulgence attached. Where we can carve a few hours out of the working day to do some reading, make some notes, or even better write 1000 thesis-worthy words, we no doubt feel like we need to lie about what we were doing. ‘I was working on that proposal for the committee – it’s taking a while to come together’ (followed by frantic proposal drafting to make up). ‘I was in the library when you called’ (even though you were at your desk with the phone turned off because you were writing). I have to confess, I did more than my share of this during my own PhD tenure – it was the only way I could actually get everything done with the hours I had in the day, and the amount of RAM in my brain.

I think the point of this post is really to say that, while you can often feel like you are cheating on everything else you have to do and the people you account to, personally and professionally, with your PhD, your PhD is not indulgent, selfish, or unnecessary. Choosing to do a PhD, for whatever reason, is a huge thing to do, especially when you are also working and parenting and being in a relationship, and so on. The reading, thinking and writing work you need to do to produce your research is valid work; it is part of your professional identity; it is valuable, necessary, useful. If you are a woman – a mother/partner/wife/carer – this is an especially important thing to realise and then give yourself permission to act on, because (and I’m not going to get into this here in more detail) women often do carry more guilt about dividing themselves into too many pieces, and devoting themselves to something that’s only for them when just about everything else they do tends to be for other people.

I needed to be told this often during my PhD: working on your thesis, spending time reading and thinking, these are not indulgences and you are not cheating on your kids, your husband/partner or your job. My PhD was not just about professional advancement and status; it was also about me – doing something that meant something to me outside of my job, my home, my family. So, if you need to close your door, pretend you’re not in, shut off the phone, say NO to the meeting or the extra admin or whatever else you can put off, do it. You are neither cheating on or with your PhD – you are doing your PhD.

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.