PhD Student vs Life: How To Do It All But Not All At Once

6 Jun

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Four weeks post submission: I am still wandering around like a dazed zombie trying to get remotely interested in life. An official letter has arrived from the university. My status has now been changed to “submitted”. It is about this point that people are expecting that you have ‘bounced back’ into the world of the living. Everything still appears as if through a thick pane of glass. Ah – that may be because of the other deadlines.

Accusingly, the dust seems to rise higher everyday in the house. I don’t care. I have become so adept at not looking at what’s going on around me, I wonder if I will ever be able to focus again on the things that once mattered. Will my home ever be again the palace of my dreams?

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Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a little hiatus in my postings. Ah – the post submission illness and general malaise has been hard to shake, as have the children’s understandable demands now that “mummy is back”.

I wonder why I am feeling this way, when I get a frantic call on the mobile. “I’m driving in now – can you text me the name of that printing place?” It’s my friend and long time writing partner, Caroline. She’s about to submit her doctorate and I can hear in her voice the same crazed about to submit panic that I had in my voice less than a month ago. It’s coming back – like childbirth.

I sent Caroline an email a few days before, alerting her to the fabulous commercial printer that I used – the one who doesn’t have to “let the machines have a little rest” and can deal with a tearful, sleep deprived doctoral student with kindness and calm.

After Caroline submits later that day – oh, joy! – I receive an ambitious text from her. “Right, now we are off to the theatre! I’ll book the tickets, we’ll have a drink to celebrate!”

I text straight back. “NO! Organise nothing – I am still a train wreck – you won’t believe how bad you’ll feel. Prepare for the great post submission blues.”

I had a back-to-back task of co-editing an academic book directly after my submission, and that was even harder than submitting the doctorate, as I had no energy left whatsoever and was sick as well.

Post submission, people are asking me how I managed the four-year juggle of young children, full time work, full time doctorate and part time teaching and blogging and still managed to submit on time. The answer is simple. Like Vincent Freeman in the film Gattaca I saved nothing for the swim back. If you want to achieve something – push it to the max.

At the time, I didn’t exactly realize this was my strategy. I worked hard from the outset, meeting all my goals – and the university goals – along the way. I spent just about every lunch break in the library or attending research strategy classes held by the university’s School of Graduate Research. In my final year I snuck into the sessions for emerging supervisors to get the inside track on what examiners were looking for (these sessions even had free food…) I spent my holiday leave presenting papers at conferences. I blogged about my research ideas, and turned these blogs into papers, articles and finally chapters in my exegesis. And I won’t even begin on how I plundered those around me for dialogue and characters in my doctoral novel.

In short, I never took my foot off the pedal. And in the last 100 days, I worked around the clock, hard and focused. It certainly explains how I feel now! And I am not sure that this is a strategy anyone wants to hear (or for that matter, follow), but the only way to ‘do it all’ is realize that something has to give. I did not by any means have a ‘balanced life’. My house looks like a bomb site, I more or less stopped socialising. At different points over the four years, some things had the volume turned up in my life and I had to deal with them with periods of brief intensity, but otherwise, I shut out that which would cause me to go off track. I simply ignored many important aspects of my life.

And now I am far from shore, and I need to swim back. At the moment, I am floating in the water, looking up at the sky and thinking, can I just drift a little longer before I have to start making it to land? Before I have to deal with ‘real life’ again?

I have found great resonance in the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, reading The Poetics of Space.  It is perhaps fitting in my current state of mind that I prefer to read about Bachelard’s analysis of housework than actually do any – I understand his idea of making housework a creative activity and that by approaching it with consciousness it rejuvenates everything.

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That said, I still balk at the layers of dog hair and the soul destroying topography of a teenage boy’s room.  I threw out a large garbage bag of suspect food from my fridge (what lurked at the back shelf could probably be classified as a biological weapon) but the long overdue cleanout of the pantry can wait. Oh, Bachelard, the housewife may awaken furniture that was asleep, but shifting forgotten tins of flour just awakens the weevils.

I plan on seeing Caroline next week, and over that joint celebratory glass of wine will ask her how she managed her candidature, full time lecturing and three (adult) children. I will report back – hopefully she will have saner advice than me.

However, like me, I suspect that she will say she cut back on many things to focus on what was important. Come to think of it, it’s been at least 18 months since we had a purely social get together. Most catch ups have been frantically wedged into a spare half hour at a café on campus.

The truth is that as far as time management goes, the only way to ‘have it all’ is to accept you can’t have it all at once. And it complete a doctorate with a Big Life you must let just about everything else fall by the wayside.

Seriously, I have been staggering around with a grand post submission plan of “getting the house in order” when I realize the task is simply beyond me.  Apart from the occasional cursory clean and survival cooking, the fact that the house is standing at all is a testament to the power of dust to hold everything together – and the fact that the kids have learned to help with the housework.

My mother – who graduated from two universities in one day – always told me that ‘dust will be there tomorrow’. However, as Bachelard noted, a human being likes to ‘withdraw to his corner’ and that it gives him physical pleasure to do so. And that’s hard when the corner is a little – squalid.  My mother would say, sit somewhere else, and read a book – then you won’t notice the mess.

So, in that spirit, for those of you still slogging away on the doctoral-kids-work juggle, here is my adopted anthem about endurance and perseverance – Sail On Sailor, by The Beach Boys; lyrics by Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Jack Rieley and Ray Kennedy.

Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
Feel the stinging I’ve been given
Never ending, unrelenting
Heartbreak searing, always fearing
Never caring, persevering
Sail on, sail on, sailor

Sail on swots– with the wind beneath your sails. Ignore the dust. I guarantee it will still be there when you submit. Keep your eye on the prize instead.

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