Rebooting… The annual new year’s post

It’s 2022. In many ways, I am massively relieved that 2021 is over. It was a hard, hard year. Some amazing things happened – dream job meaning big career boost and much-appreciated validation for years of hard work; moving abroad for said dream job. But, these amazing things have also meant hard changes, like leaving one of my children behind because he is now too old for a family visa, leaving my dream house near the beach in the best city in the world, having to adjust to a whole new country, people, job, house, everything, really. And I lost my mum, which I haven’t even really begun to process. And Covid, which I don’t think I need to really say too much more about this stage of the pandemic. But, because it was such a Year, I am Tired. Like on a Never-been-this-tired-before-ever-that-I-can-recall scale. I know I am not alone here. Many of us are burned out. Done. Tired to the bones. Over it all. And it feels like no amount of holiday or rest or time off can really take that level of tired away. It’s not just physical or even mental; it’s a deep emotional and psychic weariness, I think.

This pandemic is a big thing, a huge thing, really, because we have no idea when it will actually end (still assuming it will). But, climate change, political strife, war and unrest in many parts of the world, the ongoing awfulness of Internet trolls and mean, narrow-minded people who just don’t seem to care at all about anyone except themselves – all of these things may also feel like they are draining us. They’re there in the background all the time and sometimes in the foreground, and if we actually think about it all it just adds to the tiredness. You could say ‘well don’t think about it then’ and that can work for periods, but then you probably also have to take a very long break from newspapers, Twitter, and/or anything that feeds you information about the world around you, which would also disconnect you further from the world. Probably not the best idea at a time when disconnection is a significant concern, and when we actually do need to be informed and knowledgeable about what is happening around us.

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So, we’re Tired, we’re still disconnected, we’re not exactly rested and raring to go just yet, and the year is beginning. We need to get back to work, back to the doctorate, back to research and writing: we need to get back to Being Productive, whatever that means for us. My question for myself now is ‘How?’ I could really do with more time for country walks, knitting, and Netflix, to be honest. There’s a small part of me that’s starting to get a bit excited about my research, but feels pretty tired at the idea of all the reading and writing; I am starting to look forward to going back to my teaching, but feel pretty meh about all the admin. This is all normal, of course. I refuse to feel any kind of bad for not being super-excited about 2022, about my work, about all the writing I have committed to, about anything. I am grieving, I am tired, I am weighed down by sadness and stress, really. I am allowed to feel my feelings at my own pace. I am also saying this out loud in case any of you need to hear this and say something similar to yourselves.

But, I am also a Doer and part of a team. I am no longer just me, working all by myself at home online with no office or immediate colleagues or projects and workshops kicking off a week into the new year. This is a big change from previous years where, partly because of my contract role and partly because of the university calendar, work only got going in late January/early February. I had more time to ease myself into the year and into Being Productive. Here, the university year has started and my active teaching starts next week. I am part of a team. I’m still working at home thanks to Omicron, but not alone. So, I’m getting going but I’m giving myself permission to ease myself in this week. Start with email: clearing the inbox, replying where needed, turning off the auto-replies. Then the calendar: look at what’s coming up, make some small-and-achievable goals to get going with the writing and research, make some to-do lists for things that need to start happening. Then work: meetings that need to happen, workflows that need to kick off, tasks that need to be completed now, people that need to be connected with. That seems like a manageable plan to reboot my work-self and get things going in a non-overwhelming way.

I can’t end on one of those gung-ho, ‘we can do this!’ notes for this New Year’s post. I don’t really feel that so it would not ring true. What I do feel is an increasingly urgent need to take care of myself, to put acts of self-care higher on my list, to not push-push-push until I cannot actually move forward another step. I want to reach the end of the year, for starters, and when I do I want to look back on a year that has been full of enriching interactions with students and colleagues, a year that is more settled at work and at home, a year that has been full of really exciting and interesting reading, writing, conversations, and research. But I also want to look back on a year of time spent walking outdoors with my husband, drinking wine, dancing, and laughing with friends, hanging out with my boys, gardening and knitting, going on holidays with my family, exploring our new country (and hopefully one or two others as well). I want to feel I have grown both personally and professionally, that I have done meaningful work, that I have given back to and really been part of my different social and professional communities. I have to make that the balance between work and life and work and me happen and I hope I am finally learning how: to take it a task, a day, an interaction at a time; to slow myself down when I get ahead of myself; to surround myself with people who support and encourage me; to be that person for my students and colleagues – my students especially, who definitely need to see more examples of this in academia.

I hope you all are able to create your own intentional and meaningful paths through the year ahead, in whatever ways and spaces you can. I hope you will take care of yourselves and others this year, and that you will feel purposeful, useful, supported, challenged, and also stimulated and joyful in your writing, your research, your teaching and supervision, and in the things you choose to give yourself to outside of work and studies. Happy new year to you all, truly.

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“Take my advice but don’t follow my example”

I have not done very much writing recently unless you count many emails and feedback on other people’s writing, mainly students and peers whose work I have been examining, being a critical friend on, and reviewing. I have been pretty terrible at being any kind of example to my students of how to make time to write, basically. I am currently supervising a few part-time students with full-time lives and teaching a new round of my writing for publication course. As such, I have a great deal of advice for my students about how to carve out time, make reasonable, achievable writing goals, and generally put their writing closer to the top of their ‘to-do’ lists. I pretty much insist that they do this so that they have writing to send me for feedback. Am I taking my own advice, though, and being an example? Nope. Not even a little bit.

Now, I could argue that this is fine, actually. My time is quite justifiably taken up with supervision and teaching, and the ever-present admin and emails that come with that. This online life is nowhere near to being over, and being present in all these online ways takes up more energy than it seems like it should. So, I can have and dispense advice about all sorts of academic things I do not actually need to take or use myself (because I have taken it in the past, which is where it comes from). Right? Well, I am thinking lately the answer may not be so helpful if it is ‘yes’. I think I probably need to start taking some of my own advice and putting it into practice, rather than making excuses for not doing so, however reasonable these may seem or be at the time.

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See, I have learned over the last few years especially that too much time spent on other people’s writing means less and less energy for my own writing. And the less time I have for that, the less time I spend reading and thinking and generally feeling stimulated as a scholar. The more I start to feel like a workhorse for others and after a while I start to feel a bit resentful and cross that they are all writing and I am not. Let me be clear: this state of affairs is no one’s fault and this is not about blame. But, I think many academics – teachers and supervisors – feel like this: like they are there for everyone else but not so much for themselves. And it’s easy to say that this is on us, that we have agency and power and can change this and make more time for ourselves, our own writing, thinking, reading and scholarship. I have said that. But the reality is harder.

Without going into too much detail, the last four months have been intense on a personal and professional level to say the very least. I have been offered and have accepted a ‘dream’ job but that means I have to move countries; my mum has had unexpected medical issues that have meant a complete change of lifestyle for her. There has been so much noise in my head caused by all of this and the admin has been unreal – hours on phones and email and the Internet, asking questions and finding answers and filing complaints and claims. And on top of all that, the marking and teaching and examining and reviewing keeps coming in and needing to be done. And, of course, parenting and daughtering and partnering has to happen, too, and in very present ways. So, my brain goes: ‘Where am I supposed to make time, let alone find the emotional and mental energy, to write things that contribute to knowledge’? And it answers: ‘There is none right now, let it go, dude. That can come later, just survive now’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing your limits, creating boundaries, saying ‘no’, caring for your mental, emotional, physical, spiritual wellbeing. Overworking yourself to the point of burnout helps no one, least of all you. I can’t help my mum or my family with zero energy on any front. But, see, this pandemic life has created quite a few of these moments of ‘Leave it for now, try again later’. And the thing that I most enjoy about being an academic is the thing that is constantly at the top of the ‘Leave for Later’ list. My writing, my scholarship. What is taking up the Now is admin (so much admin), emails (don’t get me started) and other people’s writing. I am not on the list. My work, my ideas, my writing, is not on the list. And, actually, that’s not cool with me. It’s not good for me and it is not good for my students, because being a good teacher and supervisor is bound up in and shaped by being an active thinker, reader, writer and researcher. I don’t think I can really be either; I need to be both.

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But, how to be both right now in this time and space where there is too little time and not enough space? How do I work on being more of an example and less of a cautionary tale? How do I feed my scholarly soul so that I have more energy for other people’s writing and ideas, which is actually a big part of my current and also new job?

I think this has to be my focus now. I tell my students not to start the week saying ‘I’m going to write all the things!’ I tell them, ‘Start with 25 minutes today on something productive: some freewriting, some planning, a bit of reading, some editing – whatever gets you a step closer to your writing goal. Cross it off for today, pat yourself on the back and tomorrow, try that again. Make small achievable goals you can reach to build your confidence and momentum. Be as encouraging of yourself as you would your friends and peers. Don’t be mean to yourself but don’t take it so easy that you get nothing done day after day and then sink into a pit of despair, feeling stuck and too scared to write’. I think this is actually pretty good advice and it is widely shared by writers who know their stuff.

I can take this advice. I can try this tomorrow, before all the marking and examining and emails. I can put myself in the Now and leave some of that stuff for Later.

When you hate your writing and everything sucks

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.

I have less than one week left before the (second) deadline for the submission of my book manuscript. I am trying to write the final chapter, which is also the Introduction. Every word is being agonised over, sounds awful, and I really just want to cry and throw in the towel to binge-watch The Witcher. But, I can’t. Because deadlines and expectations and definite self-loathing for tripping at the finish line. So, what do I do? What do we do, as writers, when we feel like complete frauds, hate all the words we put onto the page, and everything just sucks?

I don’t actually know exactly what to do. I have been calling on all the old standbys: ‘If you just slog it out, there will be words on the page and you can always change and edit them later. You just have to start writing’, and ‘You can’t say your writing is trash before you’ve finished the draft – all drafts are terrible but terrible writing is part of good writing’, and ‘You can’t build sandcastles if the sandbox is empty – drafting is filling the sandbox’. Blah, blah, blah. I have a lot of these platitudes and positive, peppy soundbites going round and round in my head, and while most of them are actually true, they don’t really help me find the words I need to open this book on the right note. They just make me feel bad, right now.

The thing is, I am tired. I had a full-on year last year, and I really needed a rest at the end of it. But, because of my own ridiculousness in terms of saying yes to deadlines for BIG projects in January, and my old BFFs Procrastination and The Mean Voice, I ended up not having one. Rather than doing the bulk of the drafting in October and November, leaving me just editing and polishing in December, and time for a proper rest, I had to spend all of December writing, writing, writing. I had bits of rests, but not a proper brain-off, computer-off recharge. So, I’m freaking exhausted. And all my brain wants to talk about is how tired I am and how much I don’t want to be writing. So, the first thing I’m trying to figure out is how to turn off that track in my head for the next few days. Like, I know we’re tired but this has to get done.

I think another problem is I keep getting ahead of myself. I look towards pressing ‘send’ on the book files, and that feels potentially awesome, but then my teaching starts and this other big project has to be finished, and I have three reviews waiting, and I have journal stuff to manage, and I have to go on a work trip, and my kids have all this school stuff, and I have to do laundry and … All The Things, you know? I just feel flattened by the weight of all the work waiting and then I can’t actually do the work now. So, I have to turn off that track too. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Just do The Things for today, and tomorrow will wait. This is actually helping, a bit. If I don’t check my email too much. Or think too hard.

The biggest problem, linked to fatigue and overwhelm I am sure, is that I genuinely hate my writing right now. The words are all wrong, and the sentences don’t flow and I can’t find my thread and it feels clunky and awkward and stilted and boring. The Mean Voice has the microphone right now, and is pretty sure no one will like this book. Now, I have enough practice at this academic writing gig to know, under all the rampant self-doubt and frustration, that people will like the book and my writing does not suck (that much). But, right now it is really hard to push this voice aside and write through the frustration and sucky words and malaise. I just want to stop. I am struggling a lot more with turning off this track. I am not sure I can, so I’m writing anyway and hating it all but the pages are being created and the words are there. I am hoping for a final burst of kind energy from my lovely, tired brain to edit it all into a golden thread that opens the book on the note all my work over the last few years deserves.

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Basically, there is no avoiding the days and weeks where you hate your writing and it all just sucks and you wish you could just stop. It’s part of the deal of being a scholar, whether it’s just for the PhD or whether this is your day job. I think we just have to feel our ways through it, actually. It is okay to not love your work all the time, to not feel super productive and shiny about writing all the time, to not like your words and thoughts. It is okay to have really, really bad days and wonder what on earth you were thinking choosing this project, or paper, or career. These days seldom stick around for that long, in my experience. I will get out of this funk, as I have others, and I will start to feel less awful about this book and my writing and things will stop being so sucky. Hopefully, before Sunday! My plan now is to feel what I feel, and make myself write the crap words because not writing anything is not an option, and then pull it together in the end. I do kind of have to trust the process; I have before and it has been okay in the end. I may not ever love this book, but I am proud of it, and that’s enough.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

Photo by Abel Tan Jun Yang from Pexels

Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.

Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)

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If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.

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If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.