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 all 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, 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 :-).

When you are just over it all: being nice to yourself vs being kind

I am tired. My skin and bones and hair are tired. All I want to do is mooch around in my PJs and read undemanding novels with happy endings, and eat pancakes. I’m pretty sure this is a version of the post-PhD funk, but this time round it’s post-book funk, and the lingering effects of not taking a proper end-of-year break. And maybe I need to eat more vegetables. But, what I am struggling with is what to do with myself so I can actually keep up with work, and not let myself and others down by missing deadlines and generally just flaking out.

All my life I have been an over-achiever, and a people pleaser. ‘A’ student, school prefect, in all the school plays and concerts, putting my hand up to get involved in everything I could, hardly ever saying no or drawing healthy boundaries around my time. The overachieving was tempered at university, where I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, but the desire to be the ‘A’ student, and the best at everything, and make people pleased and proud, remained. This carried over into my Masters and then my PhD, where I wanted to write the best thesis ever, and be the best student ever, and write the most amazing papers ever.

It’s not easy to live and work like this: it requires the presence of what I have always called “the mean voice” in your head. This voice’s job, basically, is two-fold (for me, anyway): on the one hand, she tells you to keep going, and say YES (not no) and take on all the things, and she kind of makes you get down to it and work. But, this means, on the other hand, that she’s not always very kind when you are tired and need a rest, because she might well call you a flake, and tell you that if you say no that work will never come your way again, and that if you don’t finish the paper right now, people will be disappointed and cross (a people pleasing overachiever’s worst thing). She’s mean, basically, and if you let her be mean to you about work and writing, it’s not too hard for her to be mean about everything.

I got to a point where I needed her out of my head: I needed to learn to be kind to myself and mean it, and take proper breaks, and say no and not second-guess that, and let go of this fear of letting people down if I did say no, and draw healthier boundaries around my time and energy. So, I went to therapy and I worked hard, and that mean voice is pretty quiet these days, about everything. I am much better at saying no, and not stressing (too much) over that, and also giving myself time to go slower and take breaks. This is all great. But, I am discovering that I actually miss the mean voice – specifically, her ability to cheerlead (however bossily), and get me off the couch and away from the novels and focused on writing, and reading, and supervising, and emailing, and adminning and all that. I don’t miss the mean-ness, but I miss the pushing.

I have found, in quieting this voice and learning to be nice to myself, that I have slowly become less good at being kind to myself, in the more critical sense of kindness. There’s a difference between being nice, and being kind. Niceness doesn’t really require care. You can say nice things without actually meaning them, and you can be nice to people without really caring about their welfare or wellbeing. Niceness is not about others, niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves look good and feel good.

Kindness, on the other hand, is all about others. The act of being kind is about actually considering someone else’s interests or feelings or needs, and acting in a way that shows consideration. Feedback is a useful example. I often explain to my students that if I just said things about their work like ‘this is a good draft’ or ‘interesting points here’ and nothing else, that may be nice because it would make them feel good and would make me look like an engaged reader. But, how would they get to draft 2, and to a better final piece of work? If I rather say ‘this is a good draft, but there is still work to be done on supporting your argument, using more updated sources, and deepening your critical engagement with supporting texts’, they might think ‘oh no, more work, she doesn’t think it’s (I’m) good enough yet’, and feel a bit bleak, initially. But, that feedback is kind because I actually care about you getting to a more confident and capable place as a scholar.

So, back to me: I think, right now in the wake of this post-book slump, I am being way too nice to myself and not nearly kind enough. I am giving myself too many free passes, too much time to loaf-off, and the more I do that the harder it is to come back to a place of focus and productivity. I am not sleeping well because I keep dreaming about all the work and writing I am not doing. So, starting right now, as soon as I post this rather personal post, I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to make myself send three emails I need to send, read three pieces of student work I was supposed to read yesterday, and finish two outstanding pieces of work that are overdue. Then, I will have a proper lunch, and give my own work some time, with some reading and writing in my reading journal. Day done. Then, tomorrow the same again: making kind choices that show my care for myself, and also for others that I have a responsibility towards.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I reckon this is not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to work at this for a while until I get myself back into a different, more productive, less ‘meh’ place that I am currently in. But, if not now then when? These lessons we have to learn about ourselves — who we are, how we work, what we need to focus and be productive, and have enough energy for ourselves and for others — keep having to be learned and relearned because as we get older, and we change and our lives change, the demands on us change, as does the way we respond. This can feel like failure – why don’t I know how to do this properly already?? But, I am trying to see it more kindly, as an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to make different choices if I have to, to grow. I feel like this could make me a better teacher, colleague, supervisor, writer, and also a better mother, and partner to Lovely Husband.

So, if you are also just over it all, and tired to your bones, and lying on the couch in your PJs in a pancake coma telling yourself you don’t have to work today, maybe try a small act of kindness: get dressed, make the bed, tidy up, make a small list and answer some emails. Day done. Tomorrow, taking a few more steps towards the bigger things you need to do will hopefully be easier. And pretty soon, you’ll be back on a path of kindness, and Getting Things Done. I’ll be right there with you.

Crossing the PhD ‘ocean’: ideas for smoother sailing

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of doctoral researchers recently about some of the challenges I faced doing my PhD. I called my presentation: The Wide PhD Sea: navigating the research journey and tools for smoother sailing’. I used the metaphor of the PhD as an ocean we, as scholars, have to cross. It is sometimes rough and wild and we feel like Robert Redford’s character in ‘All is Lost‘ – alone on a terrifyingly vast expanse of water with no shore in sight and no radio to call for help (or at least no one answering our mayday calls with any urgency). It is sometimes calm and lovely, with sunlight bouncing off the water and it’s like a picture postcard from the Mediterranean. Parts of the journey can be awful and lonely, and parts can be more serene, and much less lonely. What we need, though, is a good boat to carry us from one side of this PhD ocean to the other in one piece. We also need a funny, friendly, helpful crew to help us sail this boat.

I have, in my head, two boat images borrowed from Cressida Cowell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series which I am currently reading to my boys. These two boat images resonate with me because at the beginning and middle of the PhD I felt like I was sailing the one kind, and towards the end it felt a little more like I was in the other boat.

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

 

The first image is that of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, a small, oddly constructed wooden rowing boat poorly built by Hiccup during Viking Boat-Building Class. It mostly goes around in circles, and has to be coaxed very gently to go in a straight line. It has a few leaks, and all the other vikings are not convinced it can sail very far or well at all. I sailed across the early section and also middle sections of my own PhD ocean in a version of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, going around in circles from time to time, and coaxing my thinking into straighter lines, even though I wasn’t always sure where the land I was aiming for lay. This was a bumpy time, my boat was often patched up and leaky, and I did  not feel at all confident of my own ability to get across the ocean, or of my little boat’s ability to get me to my destination in one piece.

 

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: 'The Peregrine Falcon' (How to Twist a Dragon's Tale)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: ‘The Peregrine Falcon’ (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale)

The other boat, one I felt I was sailing in towards the end of my journey across the PhD ocean, was ‘The Peregrine Falcon’, a large Viking racing boat, powerful and sleek and guaranteed to get me over or through any unexpected storms or big waves. This is the boat of the Viking chief, and the one all vikings aspire to be sailing in.

At the beginning of the PhD, we are often in the same boat as Fishlegs and Hiccup there – a small, wobbly, patched up but ultimately determined little dinghy, desperately trying to get going with our journey. We are often in danger of wandering into deeper waters we are not ready for yet, because our navigation systems are a bit dodgy (should I be reading this, or should I actually be reading all of that?) We tend to go round in circles a bit trying to work out our arguments and ideas, because our rudder is small and doesn’t always work (is this the theoretical framework? Is that what this means? No, that is what this means. No this. I have it! Oh, no I don’t…).

But, (and here is the first tool I shared with the researchers I spoke to), Hiccup was not alone. He had Fishlegs and they both actually had some skill and ability, even though they didn’t really believe in themselves as much as they could have. The early and middle parts of your PhD journey are tough because often you are plagued by self-doubt, and because you are still acquiring and honing the skills and knowledge you will need to get to your destination. You can’t do this all alone. Create or join a circle of writing friends (find a Fishlegs or two or more): share your writing and thinking, as well as some of your concerns and struggles. You are not going to be alone, and these fellow sailors will have useful advice, encouragement and ideas for you. Sharing your work can be scary, but it is far more scary to keep going all on your own believing the doubts in your head.

The second idea for smoother sailing I found helpful was to kit the boat out with the right equipment (which I worked out as I went along): you need a compass (in many cases, this is a good supervisor and your own research notes and journals, to keep track of your thinking); you also need strong sail, and a rudder and a tall mast (these, in my case, were blogs I read that gave me great advice and ideas; forcing myself to share my work even when I didn’t want to to get a sense of whether I was heading in the right direction or going in circles; and writing kind and encouraging things to myself in my research journal to combat the self-doubt).

The Hopeful Puffin eventually sank in the book, and was fished out of the sea and remade by a more experienced Viking boat builder. Unfortunately, not every PhD student makes it across the ocean in one piece. Not all PhD students move from The Hopeful Puffin into The Peregrine Falcon, a stronger, sleeker and more capable Viking ship, to carry them through the late-middle to end part of their journeys. For me, moving from a sense of sailing the one kind of boat to sailing the other was about using tools and resources at my disposal, and being brave and persistent. I was not always able to make myself share my work with anyone other than my supervisor or close PhD colleagues, but I used their feedback carefully; I often went in circles, especially early on, but my research journal helped me to keep track of my thinking and showed me some direction and sense. It was work, constantly, even when I was just thinking about it all, but all the work does pay off when The Peregrine Falcon docks and all the other Vikings are cheering you on and celebrating your persistence and fortitude.

Look around you at the tools, resources and people you can adapt, use and reach out to; think about which part of the journey you are in, and which kind of boat you are sailing – Who is in your crew? What are the things you are struggling with? Making these things clear to yourself, and taking stock of where you are and where you want to go to next can often help you to find your way to the next stage of your own journey.

Work plans: making them work for you

In my final year of my PhD, 2013, I had  a LOT to do, and not a lot of time, so I made a work plan. I’m not very good at these – I always think I am way more capable than I am and I seem to also think there are about 35 hours in every day and that I can go without 8 hours of sleep every night. It was a very detailed thing, with 4 columns, broken down by month and by task. I even had a column for possible stumbling blocks and things that would hold me up or prevent me from reaching my deadlines. It is actually still stuck up on the back of my office door. I had one at home too – and I highlighted things in different colours as I went – green for something I did, and blue for something that was postponed because of unexpected changes to my timeline. To be honest, the highlighting didn’t really help at all, but it made the work plan look like it was happening which was a good psychological trick :).

It did all happen in the end, because I did finish, but I learned a few things about making workable work plans that may be helpful to those of you who are at the beginning trying to get started, or in the middle or near the end trying to get it finished and submitted.

1. Work out deadlines and move backwards to now. When do you have to hand in your thesis? (Perhaps also make sure your supervisor is on board with your proposed submission date before you start bullying yourself into sticking to it). That’s the big deadline. It’s a good starting place. Then work out how much time you have between now and then in terms of months (weeks can be a bit too narrow, I found – they go by so fast and a month at a time feels like a less alarming way of working). I worked mine out from January to December, so 12 months in 12 blocks on the spreadsheet. 

2. Start with non-PhD commitments (especially for students who work full-time and are parents/carers of others). Work out your other deadlines and commitments that you can’t ignore – what is happening with your family? If you have kids, what are the big things going on in their lives that you need to be part of, like camps or sports tours or concerts etc? This is especially important if you have to help them prepare or be involved in an integral way as opposed to just being there in the audience or on the sidelines. What’s happening at work? What are the big things you have to get done in the time frames you are looking at? Do you have to travel? Does your partner have to travel? Put in all those things and dates. These can go in column 4, if you like, under ‘things that could slow me down this month’.

3. The next thing would be to work out exactly where you are right now. How much have you already written or done in terms of chapter writing/reading/data gathering/analysis etc? Make a note of all of this. Your work plan needs to be realistic, and starting with what you have already done is also a good way of motivating yourself and feeling good about what you have accomplished so far.

4. Then start working out what needs to be done. For example, I had already completed chapter 2’s draft and had as complete a version as I could have. I had set up my case study sites, and I had a bit of the methods chapter. I needed to gather, transcribe and organise all my data in the first semester. Then I needed to reorganise and analyse it, and write the two analysis chapters, revise the theory chapter, finish the methods chapter and write the introduction and conclusion. (I know – I should have had a workplan in 2012!). It was a lot and I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth and height of it all. But working it all out and breaking it down into smaller bits and into months did help to make it seem more manageable.

5. Finally, put it all into a neat table. I had, for example, column one for the month in which I was working, column two for the objectives I needed to achieve (eg., gather data in two case study sites), column three for the activities I was going to need to do to achieve the objectives (e.g., set up interview dates; write fieldnotes in all lectures etc), and column for for ‘things that might slow me down or get in my way’ so that I could go a bit easier on myself if things fell a part a bit. Here’s mine:

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6. Stick it up or keep it in a place where you can refer to it weekly and keep track. Revise as you need to. If you can’t get the interview dates you planned for, you will need to rejig things – flexibility is key, I have found, to workable work plans and to feeling like you are moving forward without having to bully yourself, ask others to bully you or be mean to yourself when things don’t go according to plan. But you also need to be strict if you are going to get to the deadlines in one piece. I procrastinated way too much about the transcription of my video and interview and fieldnote data and I ended up spending some of my study leave doing this, when I should have been doing hard analysis and writing from the get go. This lack of strictness in sticking to my own pretty reasonable workplan meant I had to keep writing the draft when I went back to work and this was very stressful and difficult and I still worry even though I am finished that I rushed my analysis in the end because I cut into that time with tedious things like transcription which should have been finished much earlier in the year.

Plan time off too – work breaks into your workplan where you take a weekend or week off and focus on other parts of your life. You need time every now and then to recharge and rest. As my husband kept saying to me throughout my final year: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint!’

Choosing the right supervisor for you

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

This post is mostly about advice to prospective or starting-out PhD students, and it’s about choosing a supervisor and setting up a mutually respectful and constructive relationship. A PhD supervisor is the most important person in a PhD student’s academic life for the duration of the process:  good supervision can make the experience one of growth, stimulation and mentorship (and even some fun); bad supervision can lead to delays, frustration, blocks to progress and lowered self-esteem. So it’s important to choose the right supervisor and set up a mutually agreeable working relationship.

The first piece of advice was given to me by a few people when I was starting out: choose the supervisor and not the university. At PhD level you need to make a real contribution to knowledge-building in your field, and to do this you need someone who knows your field well, and can guide, advise, challenge and push you to do better research, writing and thinking than you may have done thus far in your career. A university with a great reputation may look like a good option, but who will you work with? Obviously there are compromises to be made here, and you’d need to weigh up your particular case looking at things like how far away your supervisor is, and how you would make the logistics work if they are not in the same city as you (mine is not, for example). But there are great online tools now, like Adobe Connect, Skype and Google Drive that make staying in touch across distances easier. Choosing the supervisor rather than the university tends to pay off if you can set up a good working relationship with them. I made this choice and it has worked out well for me, even though I don’t get to see my supervisor face-to-face more than 2 or 3 times a year. I chose her because she is a key person in the field I am researching and working in and I wanted to draw on her expertise and also connect with her networks of other scholars. This is also something to consider when choosing a supervisor – the world and people beyond your present research and work that they can introduce you to.

The second thing I have learnt a few lessons about is how to set up the relationship so that it works for both of us. I’ve been lucky – and sometimes finding the right supervisor is luck – because my supervisor is kind, open to new ideas and willing to talk about how things are working out along the way. We are similar people, so we tend to get along quite well. I don’t need a lot of contact, but I do need her to be there for me when I have questions or get stuck or write something I need feedback on, and so far it has worked well in that she has been there for me when I need her advice or feedback, and when I have needed to be left alone and not feel pressured she has given me space. I have learned to ask for what I need very clearly, so that there is no confusion or frustration later. I make a list of the questions and send them to her before we meet on Skype if I can, or at least tell her what I’d like to talk about. When I send writing it is with a covering email telling her what I have sent,  at what stage it is and what I need her help with (and also what to ignore or not comment on just yet). This works quite well, because she knows where I am in my process and can give me the feedback and advice I most need at that point and also point me in the right direction with the next steps. I think I really am lucky, though, because I work with other PhD and MA students who have had awful experiences of supervisors who are distant and disengaged and then suddenly appear demanding writing without any warning and then drag their heels with feedback and give unhelpful ‘advice’ that leads to the students getting delayed or even stuck. Supervisors have a lot of power in this relationship, and not all of them use their power for good.

Many supervisors don’t see that supervising is teaching and mentoring, one on one, and miss opportunities to really help their students grow intellectually. Students are the ones who have to deal with the fallout of being poorly supervised and it is really tough, so taking time to do your research and find the most right person you can to work with is important. Do some thinking about where you want to study, as this is a good starting point. Do you need a supervisory relationship that is face-to-face most of the time or can you cope with being remote? Think about your proposed research. Whose names keep coming up in your reading? Where do they work? Could you get into the university they work at, and request to be assigned to them as a student? Go online and search prospective university sites – look at their postgraduate pages and also look for your prospective supervisor candidates. Send a polite, well-thought out email to the person or people you’d really like to work with. Write a short proposal of a couple of pages about the project you want to do and ask them nicely if they’ll read it and think about working with you. Often when you apply to a PhD programme you need to name a prospective supervisor, and it’s essential that you make contact with them before you fill in these forms and name them. If they have a sense of what work you want to do, and have agreed to be named as a prospective supervisor you could have a better chance of getting into the programme and also launching your relationship with said supervisor on the right foot.

I’m sure there are lots of other hints and tips people have, and you could all probably tell a range of both encouraging and scary supervisor stories. These are the top lessons I have learned, and I hope if you are starting out that they are helpful, and that you end up being one of the fortunate students with encouraging and happy-ending stories to tell :-).