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.

PhD guilt and shame

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about making time to write. This week I had a conversation with a friend and fellow PhD traveler that inspired me to write a follow-on post about what to do when you feel you can’t make time to write. What do you do when you have neither physical hours or headspace enough to read, think and write? How do you deal with the almost inevitable feelings of shame, guilt and panic that threaten to derail you?

My fellow PhD travelers are part-time students with full-time lives. Many have children and partners, all have jobs that demand a lot of their headspace and time. The field I am in, higher education studies, sees many PhD students coming into their studies part-time while working full-time as lecturers or managers. If you are lecturing, you are teaching, marking scripts, attending meetings, supervising students, planning curricula, evaluating your courses, plodding away at endless admin related to all of this, and you’re probably doing other bits and pieces that are part and parcel of university life. If you’re in management I would imagine that there are many meetings, many policies and documents to engage with and read and discuss, and probably also people to manage and more endless, plodding admin work. So, chances are, if you are this kind of PhD student – the kind with a pretty busy job and life outside of work, that PhD time is already limited, and feelings of panic, despair, guilt and shame are probably just below the surface most of the time. This was certainly true for me.

These feelings, while they may well be a very real part of many PhD students’ journey, are dangerous though, because getting swallowed by them can really paralyse you and your progress towards your completed thesis. But how to avoid these feelings? I’m not sure you can. If your PhD is not the only thing you have on your plate (and whose reality is this, really?), chances you you will feel one or more of these feelings at one or more points during your PhD. So, perhaps the question is how to manage these feelings so that you don’t become paralysed and derailed.

Putting in place and drawing on your support systems is an obvious answer, I think. For some this may be a doctoral writing group with people in your university, or in your department. These kinds of groups can offer a space for support, and also for feelings of struggle, shame and paralysis to be shared and not swept under the proverbial rug. Sharing these feelings with colleagues who may be going through something similar often helps. At the very least, you are assured that it is not just you; at the most they may have helpful advice for you. If you have a supportive supervisor, as I was fortunate enough to have, sharing some of your present struggle with them may help too. Even if your supervisor is not as supportive as your peers and colleagues are, letting them know what’s going on with you in a way that makes you feel less exposed and more likely to get support (and you will have to work this way out for yourself) is a good idea. Keeping the person (or people) tasked with guiding you through your PhD in the dark is probably not a great strategy, and their requests for progress reports and writing in the absence of understanding that you’re in a difficult place can make you feel more guilty and desperate.

Another strategy I tried when I just could not make or find time for my PhD, which was sometimes for a few weeks at a time, was to keep scribbling in my personal research journal, even if it was just to take 5 minutes to write ‘awful week – hectic at work, so many deadlines. Just not getting anything done. Feel desperate’. Acknowledging my feelings and struggles, even to myself, made them less overwhelming somehow. It wasn’t all just in my head – by writing it down I could just accept that this was my reality at that time, and put my head down and try to get the other hectic things done so I could try and make time to work on my PhD. I think there is a lot to be said for verbalising (even in writing) a feeling or issue, and getting it out of your head, even to yourself. Journalling can be a very helpful tool during your PhD.

I think my last piece of advice to my struggling friend and to all PhD students in this place right now is to stop saying mean things to yourself about how little progress you are making and how unlikely it is that you will finish on time and how terrible a PhD student you are being right now. This will only feed those negative emotions and will probably also make you feel resentful of your PhD and the demands it will make on your time until it is finished. If you resent it, you are then less likely to want to go back and immerse yourself in it. So, STOP. Get a piece of paper or your own research journal and a pen out. Write: ‘Dear (your name), I know you are having a rough time right now, and time for writing is scarce. I know your head is full of other things. BUT, you can do this. You are a productive person. You work hard. You will finish me. Just take a deep breath, put your head down and get these other things done, and then make that time to get back to me again. All will be well. Love, your PhD’. Write something kind and encouraging. Then make a realistic list of the other things you have to do. With a red pen, list the things that are urgent, like exams that have to be marked or a report that must be in on a certain date. With a green pen, list the things that could be delegated (yes, delegated) or could wait until later on. Then, make that time for your PhD. It is there, although it seems buried deep beneath these other demands. Perhaps part of letting go of guilt and shame is also just letting go of having to be the one who does it all, and embracing being the one who can and does say no to things that can be done later or by someone else.