24 Sep

riding the research degree roller coaster

Earlier this month, my three year PhD anniversary slipped by without celebration. It was a bit of a double edged sword. Peers that started at the same time as me have either submitted or are gearing up to do so in the next couple of months. This reminds me of how far I’ve still got to go and I feel a bit shit that I haven’t kept pace with them. Which is absolutely ridiculous, because they are full time PhD students, and I’m a part time PhD student with a pretty demanding job and three years of my candidacy left. And I’m not all that far behind them. So I had mixed feelings about the three year mark. On the one hand, I’m happy that I’ve managed to stick close to a full time pace, but on the other, I’m anxious that I’m not where I wanted to be at this point.

It’s those mixed feelings – the ups and downs – that I want to focus on here.

I am a proponent of slaying the PhD myth. When people talk about doing a PhD, they talk about it as being an emotionally intense, intellectually exhausting beast of a thing that sucks the life out of you. I have always said it doesn’t need to be that way… or, at least, it doesn’t have to be that all the time. My experience is that it’s actually possible to enjoy your PhD and to have a good experience of it, even thought it is, at times, tough. I don’t want to invalidate other people’s narratives on the PhD experience. It is bloody difficult and I understand that we all experience it differently. But for me, it’s been okay. I think this might have something to do with the fact that I work full time and so my PhD effort has been compressed into pockets of time. When I’m work-working intensively, including during semester when I am committed to teaching, I’m mostly able to muffle the nagging guilt that tells me I should be working on my PhD because I know I don’t have any intellectual effort left to give to it. But when I’m in the middle of an intensive PhD-working period, the guilt rears its ugly head and I spend my time riding the rails, in and out of periods of productivity, anxiety, progress, paralysis, insightfulness, in-the-groove-ness, and desperation.

I think the reason there is so much angst around the PhD is the level of investment PhD candidates have in their work. You might have done a study with 20 interview participants before, but translate that same study into the PhD environment and the angst grows exponentially. Part of this angst comes from the fact you’re going to be examined on your work, so you really need to think about how you’re conducting the project and how you document it. Part of it comes from the sustained investment over a substantial period of time. Part of it comes from the knowledge that you need to make an original contribution to knowledge – oh, the pressure! Part of it comes from the scale of the thesis – it’s pretty daunting to think about writing a 70,000 to 100,000 word thesis.

For me, the big angst point is time: I am time poor because I have a busy full time job, I have a habit of saying yes and hence of overcommitting myself in my professional life (and a work ethic that means if I say yes, I’m going to deliver), and I have family commitments. I’m not the only one. I know many people who juggle commitments and carve out time for the PhD. But it’s lack of time that feeds my angst more than any other factor. I also struggle with keeping everything in my head. So many ideas, so many trains of thought, so many different paths to go down… I get overwhelmed by trying to capture all of this and make sense of it.

It goes in peaks and troughs, this PhD journey, both in terms of my output and in terms of my state of mind. If I had to give an average indicator of my PhD mood across the course of my candidature, I think it would be something like ‘mildly anxious, but mostly ok’. The anxious part is mostly me angsting about lack of time, and the angst is generally manageable. I haven’t had the crippling bouts of anxiety you hear about when people talk about their candidacy, I don’t hate my topic or my thesis, and I’m pretty confident I can actually do the research. While my method, the scale of the project, and the disciplinary focus might be new to me, I’ve done research before and I know that eventually I’ll come out at the other end with my self mostly in tact.

That doesn’t mean the troughs aren’t hideous. It just means they aren’t all that frequent and they’re balanced by peaks and plateaus.

Troughs vary in depth and intensity. The toughest one I’ve been through was right before my confirmation of candidature. My confidence hit an all time low. I was working on refining my confirmation document (which is essentially introduction, lit review chapter and method chapter) and I was utterly convinced I wasn’t going to pass and that my project was ruined and completely unsalvageable. I put my niece to bed one night and she wanted me to stay in the room til she went to sleep, so I lay down on the floor and listened to her breathing and silently cried my heart out. For a long time. Long after she was asleep and I crept out of the room. I pulled it together, got the document in, and had my confirmation seminar, but the plummet impacted on my seminar. I’ve never been so nervous giving any presentation in my entire life. In the feedback, a panel member highlighted my nervousness and observed that it took me half the presentation to find my stride, and she was right. What I learned from that experience was that I need to work on my ability to view my thesis objectively, and I need to ask explicitly for feedback that helps me to get an objective view. It wasn’t really until after my confirmation seminar that I got my shit sorted and got my confidence back on track, and notably, this coincided with putting my PhD aside for a couple of months.

That was a pretty extreme trough.

Right now, I’m in a really tight stretch of the roller coaster, where the peaks and troughs and sharp corners and loops de loops are lined up one after the other. It feels like I’m living out the whole PhD ride in a compressed time period.

Last week I had some really tough PhD days. I was working on something that I shouldn’t have still be working on – it should have been done a week ago, or maybe even last month – and so I was panicking about my timeline. To make it worse, the panic is accompanied by a distinct lack of motivation. This state rolled in on the back of four super productive days and a feeling that I’d turned a corner. Then I chucked a U turn and went back round that corner. The overwhelming sense of unease came back with renewed intensity. I was talking to my mum about how much I’m looking forward to finishing my PhD because I want to escape the nagging guilt, and as I was talking, my stomach lurched and I felt physically sick about it. Then I realised what I’d been working on for the last 10 days or so was actually a false lead, and that I needed to backtrack in a big way. Cue meltdown, right on the edge of the PhD ledge.

After a day full of I-can-do-it-no-I-can’t-yes-I-can-no-I-really-can’t-nope-I-still-can’t-but-wait-surely-I-can-no-I-absolutely-cannot-do-it-I’m-done-and-I’m-quitting, I faced the facts, admitted I needed to redo this last phase, wailed about it to my chief ledge buddy, took her advice, and came up with a way to move forward. I decided I would just have to swallow the fact that I was going to have to traverse the same ground again (because the efficiency fiend in me does not like wasting time). So I came up with a plan, wrote it out step-by-step, and then I had a day off.

Right now, I’m back on the ascent. I haven’t regained the lost territory completely, but I have set myself up to do it, and for the rest of the week, I’ll keep plugging way at it. I feel more in control.

But I’m a realist. I know it won’t stay this way, so I need a strategy to manage whatever comes next.

Last week, someone shared this quote with me:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. -Henry Ford

Let’s just meditate on that for a minute.

That, my friends, is what I call a truism. It resonated with me and it inspired me to write a blog post about how powerful it is to believe you can succeed. So I I started writing this post last Thursday, and I’m just now finishing it up, after dipping in a writing it over the last few days. The reason it didn’t get posted last week was that I hit the bottom of the ‘I’ve done it all wrong and need to start again’ trough while I was writing it. So I lost my positivity. I lost my capacity to assess my own capability, because that happens in a trough – you lose your objectivity. I was living out Henry’s assertion, but I was living it out in the negative.

I learnt something in the last five days. Well, I learned lots of things, particularly about how not to do grounded theory analysis. But the most important thing I learnt was this: It’s not that I can’t do it; it’s just that I couldn’t see, in that moment (ok, moments), how to do it.

There’s only a slight shift in thinking here: going from thinking I can’t, to thinking I can’t see how just now. But it’s an important distinction, because one of the fastest way to get out of a trough is to channel energy into thinking you can conquer this beast. Once you’re on the way up, you start to see the way forward. And when you can see the way forward, it’s much easier to keep thinking you can do it.

21 Sep

modified pomodoro technique for getting shit done

Today Penny tweeted about having an unproductive week and suggested maybe she should have a break from social media. I tweeted back saying that usually when I’m unmotivated, I use social media distraction as an excuse for being unproductive, when the reality is I am just unmotivated. My point: don’t give up social media unless the problem is *really* social media. And even then, don’t give it up – just modify the way you use it.

So how do you get stuff done when you’re either distracted by social media or unmotivated? For me, the answer is the Pomodoro Technique.

I heard about the Pomodoro Technique from my friend and colleague Zaana. The principle is you focus on one task and work intensively on it for short bursts of time. Traditionally, a Pomodoro session runs for 25 minutes. During that 25 minutes you work exclusively on the task you set yourself, and at the end, you take a five minute break.

I do a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique. I find I need longer than 25 minutes when I’m working on research, so I work for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break. When I start a session, I put my phone on silent  and I leave it face down on my desk so I don’t see notifications. I also close distraction apps like TweetDeck and Outlook and then I put my head down and go. During my 15 minute break, I’ll get up and make a coffee, answer email, catch up on Twitter, take a Pinterest break, look at my favourite fabric stores to see what’s new, work on my schedule, plan what I’m going to do next, check my grocery order, work on a blog post, catch up with RSS feeds… Most of the time I do some kind of work in my 15 minute break, but it’s still a break because I’m switching tasks. I try to restrict my social media use to my breaks and it helps that I often do Pomodoro bursts with a friend, so we tweet as a start gun and then when we’re finished, we check in with each other on Twitter to see how we both went. Being accountable to someone else for finishing the session is a really good motivator, and it also gives a sense of working in a team environment when I’m actually squirreled away at home (and so is the colleague I’m working with).

I use a Pomodoro app (Easy Pomodoro, available from the Mac App Store), which not only times the sessions, but also allows me to name them. Last Saturday, I called my sessions ‘Sorting Saturday’; Wednesday was ‘Whacked out Wednesday’; Thursday was ‘Think it through Thursday’. The app gives me a quick view of how many sessions I’ve completed for each session name, which means at the end of the week, I can quickly see how many sessions I got through in the week.

I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique every day, but when I’m distracted or unmotivated, it really helps me push through and get stuff done (without killing my social media time).

14 Sep

busy, in all its (un)glory

We’ve all seen the pins.

Stop the glorification of busy

I’ve spent the last five or so years (pretty much the whole time I’ve been busy, come to think of it) declaring that I want a simple life. But simple isn’t all that simple, right? Life is intrinsically complex, and I think I might be kidding myself when I idealise living simply. Complex is one thing, but does life have to be crazy busy, all the time?

I’ve had a few reminders lately that there is little glory in being under the pump, all the time.

A friend of mine got sick. It gave me a fright; it gave me an opportunity to reflect; and it made me realise what I’m missing out on. We spent some time together and we talked about our aspirations for a simple life. Spending time with her (despite her being unwell) was so good, and it made me greedy for more time with her. I was left feeling sad that I have to plan weeks in advance to see her because of busyness. (Mine, not hers.)

Earlier this week, I read a blog post about wearing ‘busy’ as a badge of honour. The post doesn’t really offer a solution for unbusyfying (though the author does talk about a couple of strategies she uses to keep her busyness in check). What it does is suggest we should figure out how to work smarter (admittedly not an easy thing) and stop trying to ‘out-misery’ each other. I took two things from this post. Firstly, it reaffirmed my thinking that I don’t want to be the Busy Girl anymore. I’d much rather be the Accomplished Girl, the Good at her Job Girl, the Well Round Girl, the Girl with a Good Hold on her Sanity, the Girl who is a Fantastic Friend, the Creative Girl, the Healthy Girl, or the Content Girl. Those girls are incompatible with the girl who only operates at franticly busy speed. Secondly, I’m sick of the negative mindset that comes with being ‘busy’ (busy in the badge-of-honour sense; busy in the I-have-to-whinge-about-this sense; not busy in the I’m-neck-deep-in-this-awesome-stuff-and-I-love-it sense). Too often, I respond to enquiries about how I’m doing with ‘busy, but good’, colouring my busy in black by setting it up in opposition to ‘good’ . We rarely hear people say ‘I’m so busy! It’s freaking awesome!’. Who actually gives a shit about me being busy, and what gives me the right to take someone’s friendliness and use it to help me cement my busy badge in place? When you are crazy busy and really feeling it, it’s so easy to get swept up in panic, to feel overwhelmed (and be paralysed by overwhelmedness), and to morph into a ball of negativity.

The next day, I read a post from Brazen Careerist Penelope Trunk on the hardest time management decision of her day – choosing between sex (and by extension, her marriage) and work. I read the post and thought, ‘Interesting, but surely this is not a common conundrum for women with children and careers?’. Then I scrolled down to the comments and realised I was wrong. It seems many people struggle to balance their relationships, and specifically their partnerships, with their work and parenting commitments. Maybe I’m an idealist, but it strikes me that if finding 10 minutes in your day to do something (in Penelope’s case, to have sex, but it could be anything really – cooking a meal, going for a walk…) is impossible or a big deal, you have a problem. (And yes, I suffer from that problem. I pilfer time from all aspects of my life to feed my busyness.) There is a theme here that I need to pay attention to; a theme about managing all the aspects of my life, of paying attention to people and relationships, and of keeping my work load in check.

On Wednesday, I had my first life coaching session. Life coaching is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time. At first I thought I needed a career coach, and then I came to the realisation that my career is just fine. I don’t need to invest any more into it than I already do, and frankly, I probably need to invest a bit less in it and a bit more in other parts of my life. So I’ve started online consultations with a life coach, who also happens to be a dietician and exercise physiologist (the perfect combination of skills and knowledge for a life coach, I reckon!). I’ve known her for a long time and I have worked with her before on diet stuff. I’m also connected with her on social media and have been for several years, and that means she has a pretty rich understanding of how I function and what happens in my life. On Wednesday, she said this to me: ‘being ‘busy’ has become part of who you are deep down (part of your identity, and being busy = positive self-worth)’. She said it gently and without judgement, and I knew she was right before I even finished reading the sentence. And I don’t want to be that person.

While I have been doing work-work during my sabbatical (naughty!), my attention hasn’t been fragmented to the same extent as it usually is. That means that even though I have a lot of work to get through in the next four months, I’m not really all that busy. And being less busy has given me an opportunity to reflect on how I usually operate and to see it with a little bit of objectivity.

So there are two lessons here for me.

Firstly, people come before PhDs. And not just other people. I do, too. Well, I may not come first right now, but I have a new understanding that I *should*. Work has to get done, but I don’t have to work seven days a week; I can spend Sunday at the park (and not feel guilty about it). It’s okay to knock off at 5pm to have dinner with the kids, and I don’t have to start work again when they go to sleep. I can watch TV at night without working at the same time. I can be creatively and intellectually fulfilled without working a million hours a week.

And secondly, ‘busy’ is not a goal or an end game. It’s not necessarily a desirable state of being. It’s not a badge of honour. It can be unhealthy and it is often unproductive. And I don’t want to live busy anymore. I don’t mind being busy from time to time, but I want to move through busy in pursuit of something. I don’t want to get bogged down in the busy. I want to celebrate making it to the ‘something’ I’m pursuing, not the busy I might – from time to time – experience on the way there.

In short: I don’t need to glorify busy, nor do I want to.

So that’s where I’m at, and that’s what I’m working on.

07 Sep

eight reasons the coalition will be at the bottom of my ballot papers today

1. I’m a woman

How any woman could vote for a party led by Tony Abbott is completely beyond me. He has consistently demonstrated that he doesn’t understand women, and I believe he is in fact sexist (or you could read his sexism as stupidity, but either way there’s a problem). It has been argued that he’s ‘only’ sexist, not a misogynist, but I’m not so sure about that.

2. I don’t care who you marry, but I do care about your right to marry

While marriage isn’t something I aspire to, I believe that everyone has the right to be married, and to marry whoever they choose.

3. The economy is really not in bad shape

Relative to other countries, we’re doing okay. The Coalition have beat up a story that tells us our economy is shot. It’s not. They’ve done an excellent job of appealing to the pervasive selfishness and greed in Australian culture.

4. If I want filtered internet access, I’ll filter it myself

Who knows what the Coalition’s plan is for internet filtering? Certainly not them. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

5. In this digital age, broadband is an essential utility

And the Coalition’s plan for the NBN is not a long term solution. It’s like building a two lane highway when you’re going to need eight lanes in a few years time.

6. The media blackout is not a tool for sneaking in objectionable policy

Not only did the Coalition wait until after the media blackout to release costings, they also waited til after the blackout to release a policy on internet filtering. Sneaky, dirty tactics.

7. A party that stuffs up their own policy doesn’t fill me with confidence

If we accept what we’re told, the internet filtering policy statement was an error. Whichever way you interpret their actions, neither option is good: either the Coalition attempted to sneak in objectionable policy the day before the election and retreated when they were slammed for it, or they stuffed up their own policy. I’m not sure which is worse.

8. I give a shit about people

And that’s why I’m voting Greens and preferencing Labor.

Please. Vote with a conscience. Vote in an informed way. Send a message to both of the majors that it’s time for change. Vote Greens so we can see a real shift in the primary vote, then choose the best of a bad lot to preference. Because the reality of an Abbott-led Coalition government is absolutely terrifying.