Lean In: Getting your PhD fast, focused and finished


Are you Leaning In? Or Falling Over? Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for women’s career success has angered as many as it has inspired. But her advice can be applied to finishing your PhD, if you have the determination.

Lean In, Women, Work and the Will To Lead the controversial new book by Sandberg, the Facebook Chief Operating Officer, advises women not to get a life, but to focus as hard and fast as they can on their career.

The big lesson of Lean In is don’t pull back and don’t hold back for lack of confidence. Men Lean In, women traditionally wait to be asked. Men go for it, women go slow. But Sandberg said the only way to get ahead is to Lean In. And she has set up a “global community”  to help women do just that.

If you are a working mother, and have actually been leaning in and just got to the point of falling over and are still not a board member somewhere, well, according to Sandberg, it might just be your fault. Maybe you need more advice!

With this in mind, and given I have now seven weeks to go until I hand in my doctorate, here are my Sandberg inspired tips on how to Lean In to doctoral completion.

10 Tips for Leaning In to Doctoral Completion

  1. Bum on Seat. You have to put in the time. Time, time, time. And more time. Get a comfortable chair. And get up every hour and have another coffee. Or your body will seize up. Australian author, the late Bryce Courtney, said when writing his first book he got his wife to tie him to his chair and desk with a length of rope. It’s a good idea. (Fifty Shades of PhD anyone?) Lean In hard, just don’t forget to sit upright occasionally, or you will fall over.
  2. Unplug the Internet. Okay – Sorry Sandberg, but to Lean In, you have to Lean Out of Facebook! Sure, you can plug it back in, but it’s like that fat photo you put on the fridge. The one that makes you go – “maybe not”. Or better still, you don’t buy crap for the house anyway. Likewise, there’s no idle net surfing. You surround yourself with text books and journal articles and print outs of your exegesis only. Sure, it’s boring. People who only munch on carrots and obsessively work out in the gym are boring. But it gets results. You have to be as obsessive as someone in training for a marathon or skinny jeans. Be as smug and self satisfied as them. Lean In!
  3. Take leave from your day job. My nagging PhD student brain whispers: ‘No sitting on any beach for you, swot. You have work to do! Lean In’ I am rationing out all my leave and taking it in as many week long bursts as I can in the lead up to handing in the PhD. Again, see boring. You are boring. Get over it. You have a deadline. Of course it’s about delayed gratification. The only thing you can’t delay is the deadline. Luckily, my career has been in print journalism, and The Deadline was the driving force of my work life. Journalists flounder without a deadline. A deadline galvanizes them into action. The profession has come in for much criticism of late, but an ability to get the job done to deadline is something that every hack can be proud of. They know how to Lean In. Well, until the deadline…
  4. Decline all offers of social activity. Let’s face it, at this point, you are good for no one. You are boring, your company sucks. And no one got to be a success like Sandberg, or finish their doctorate, by doing frivolous things like socializing. Besides, all you do is talk about your exegesis. Seriously, you are better off staying at your desk and putting in the words. Anyway, you can’t drink, it slows your brain down. You can’t afford to take your foot off that pedal (you have to Lean In). Just say no. This is how much I say no – the last face to face conversation I had with someone I wasn’t related to or worked with was when I bumped into the partner of a close friend while waiting for a delayed train. I told him to say I was Leaning In, and I’d be in touch with her in 9 weeks.
  5.  Don’t cook. I burnt precooked bread rolls the other day by warming them in the oven and then going to check a reference in a book. My boiled eggs could be used as medieval weapons of torture. My coffee is over brewed. My only advice at this point is reheat and buy pre-made. And get the kids to fend for themselves. Tell them mummy is Leaning In! If you have a baby or toddler and are completing your PhD, you obviously come from a different planet of super women and I have no advice for you. See if you can be a Lean In Community mentor. You are already Leaning In!
  6. Exercise. Okay, so this may seem counter intuitive, as I have just said focus, focus, focus on your work, but here is the thing – exercise makes your body and brain go faster, and it clears out the cobwebs. After sitting at my desk all day, or going to work, then coming home and then hitting my text books, exercise acts as way of clearing out one way of thinking before I tackle the other. A blast of David Bowie’s new album The Next Day while briskly walking the streets with the puppy puts us both in a good mood. As Carrie Fisher once famously wrote “Do it for the endolphins”. A better way to Lean In while exercising is to do it whilst listen to podcasts of academic lectures. You have been advised.
  7. Get away from your desk. Mix it up. You can Lean In anywhere as long as you are working! If it is sunny but not unbearable (Australia has had a record breaking summer) I will head outside and sit in the shade and edit my work for an hour, just to get a change of scenery. Likewise, taking the notebook around the house can be an idea, unless like me you have children and pets underfoot who become noisy and demanding when they finally see you have emerged from your cocoon. They will start wanting things like affection and attention, not compatible with the Lean In Lifestyle so time it when they are playing multi-level user games on Skype.
  8. Accept the pain. No one did a PhD in one hundred days. You start, you work, you put in, you Lean In, but at some point, when the end is in sight, you just have to deal with the reality – it’s bloody hard! This is when you really have to Lean In Hard. You need to work-work-work and focus. You need to stop doing everything else and work even more. This sage advice from a friend is tapped to my computer screen – it’s basically a Lean In Mantra; “the mountain never seems as impregnable as when the climbing actually starts. Only conviction and persistence can now drag the dream into existence: this is a fight you are going to win, but not without some degree of pain.” So true.
  9. Embrace – gratefully – any offers of help. Hopefully you will emerge from this final sprint with body, mind and soul intact and be able to reciprocate in the future, but if any of your smart, gorgeous and kind friends in academia offer to do a beta read for you, say yes! Even if you secretly fear that what you write is a load of rubbish. Remember Sandberg’s warning – women suck at self confidence, men aren’t afraid of putting it out there, even if they secretly think they don’t have what it takes. So Lean In, and hand over the work, suck it up and accept advice. And don’t overlook your junior IT department, either. Women with a scrap of sense who have children would have been letting them have the sort of free reign to technology that would make the Facebook team envious. Embrace your kids’ IT support. And if you breakdown crying after a virus corrupts days of work, feel reassured they’ll at least realize  nothing worth achieving comes easily. And it will make them feel even prouder for helping you salvage your files.
  10. Have a (better) reward system: We swots are pathetic about this. A fellow traveller posted on Facebook that she was going to reward herself after a hard slog of study by going out and sitting in a library and reading Kant. I make such bargains with myself; if I finish writing a chapter, but a certain time, I will print it out and take it to the funky new café that’s surprisingly opened in my very suburban neighborhood.  And I will do my editing there. Note – I did not say I would meet a friend, or read a magazine, or anything like that. That’s not how you Lean In. Your rewards are the sort of boring rewards that fitness obsessives have. The only way to have your cake and eat it too is with a red pen in your hand and your exegesis covered in crumbs. What sort of reward do you think you’ll get from Leaning In? A date with Kant is as good as it gets. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or easy ride. Lean In – and enjoy!

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