Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, the creative life, Time management, work-work balance, Writing strategies, writing workshops

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

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Want to finish your PhD on time? Wondering how you can juggle a creative life with work demands? Do you think you’ll never write that book unless you are given a grant or a fairy godmother taps you on the shoulder and turns that pumpkin into a quiet retreat where you can spend months thinking and perfecting your craft?

I can tell you how to achieve your goals, but you aren’t going to like it. Because you have to be focused, have tunnel vision and be obsessed. You have to concentrate on ‘A’s – higher order priorities – only.

You cannot waste your time trying to have balance in your life. I speak from experience. Anyone who completes their doctorate on time while doing what I did – juggling another full time job and children – does so at the expense of a balanced life. What you need is focus to the point of obsession. If you come out the other end and have managed to maintain friendships, if your body hasn’t been completely wrecked in the process – well, congratulations.

Where did you find the time? Because obsession is what it takes, my friends. Ruthless obsession. No half measures, no pausing for breath, no chilling out. You can do that later. Once you graduate. That’s when you get a life. or should I say – pick up the pieces.

 

I can tell you that it is possible to hold down a paid job and finish your doctorate. It is possible to have a paid job and write a book. It is possible to juggle all of these things and the demands of children. You just have to be prepared to give up a lot of other things in order to achieve your goals.

The work-life balance and completing your doctorate are a myth. You do not get to work full time and study full time and have a clean house. See friends. Exercise. Cook. You get to work on life-survival mode only.

I know this because I am laughingly now trying to embark on a ‘well balanced life’ and failing miserably at all the bits that veer off my comfort zone – namely work and writing. I spend hours cooking new meals to stock pile the freezer for my kids, do some gardening, walk the dog everyday and throw myself at my dance classes on the weekend. Only to find that I had hardly any time for writing after I have come home from a day at my university job.

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I keep saying to friends “I can’t understand how I managed to complete my doctorate full time and also work in a another paid job full time.”

Well, now I know. It’s because I did nothing else, really. Friends, the garden, the pet, my health – it all languished. Of course, I am now paying the price – there is always a price to pay, you understand. I am ‘wasting’ time with dance and pilates on the weekend because my body has seized up like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz. The minute I take my eye off the garden, it reverts to type – and that is weed infested, scrappy, algae ridden mess of overgrown lawn, or the hedge threatening to poke out the eye of any innocent passerby, and a disused spa that is the alarming color of green.

All year I have been meaning to ‘do something’ about the empty spa, which the previous owners used as a sand pit. My kids are long past the stage of wanting to play in wet sand, and even the dog got bored in there, especially when it filled with water. I did wonder what to do, but I had a few papers to write. They took priority this year. And as I have mentioned previously, I am in two writing groups, tackling two novels. That takes time. And I have a full time job. And two children. So – the old spa filled with rainwater, and then mutated into the green sludge.

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I did empty it the past weekend, putting aside the nagging writing deadline. Perhaps procrastination is why I spent time bucketing out the toxic mess. And then, that night, it rained more than it had all year. The heavens opening up to spite me. As if to say ‘you wasted writing time on this? Pathetic’.

Evelyn versus life. Life wins. Again! The only thing to do, it seems, is focus. Be obsessed. When you see the achievements of people who do so much – be assured – they are getting very little done in other areas.

The question you must ask yourself is are you prepared to do what it takes to get what you want? Just what are you willing to sacrifice to get your PhD? “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) is one of those bold and sweeping films that reflects the passion of one person’s creative vision and a determination not to give up. Director Werner Herzog was obsessed about completing his film, featuring a 365 ton ship hauled up a 40-degree incline in the Peruvian jungle. As the German film maker says in “Burden of Dreams”, the documentary about making the movie, “I don’t want to be a man without dreams”.

 

As I have said before, the life of a writer is very much like being a doctoral student. Think deferred gratification, the constant pressure to write up and justify your ideas. Sweating over your unique point of view and losing yourself in research.

I am about to do an intensive weekend of pitching to publishers, and at this highly competitive workshop, where participants are hand chosen by our mentor, there is an enormous amount of anxiety and effort in getting one’s taster just right for the marketplace.

That takes time.

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Where does that time come from?

One thing that writers are obsessed about is time to write. Because give or take J.K. Rowling and a few others, most writers need a day job to keep the wolf from the door. They may juggle work in a bookshop, doing sessional teaching, or that classic standby – work in the hospitality industry, but they do work in jobs that pay a wage.

That means writing has to be squeezed into other time. One writer I know has a small child, a paid job four days a week and is also studying. “I am sick of getting up at 5.30 am every day to write, because my study time is in the evening after I have come home from work and done all the parenting things,” she said.

How admirable that she gets up at 5.30 am every day to write. That’s commitment. Of course, pick up any book on doctoral research and you will find, in the index “time management.” There are many sensible suggestions, such as Eviatar Zerubavel‘s in “The Clockwork Muse” which extols you to allocate writing to a specific daily or weekly time slot that ensures you get it done on a regular basis.

“If you cannot ‘find the time’ to write, you will most likely discover that, by establishing a regular weekly schedule that includes just forty-five minutes of writing every Tuesday and Friday morning, for example, you will inevitably manage to get some writing done!”  Zerubavel writes (“The Clockwork Muse”, page 5).

Yes, indeed. I totally agree you need to write regularly and never fall into the trap of needing great, uninterrupted blocks of time to do your writing. But the fact is,  as a creative writer, not just someone ‘writing up’ research – you need to get into the zone. You need to go deep, think deep, immerse yourself in writing. A doctorate in creative writing is all that and more. You have to give yourself over to the writing and research, and any doctoral student will tell you that calm and steady may be a fine and valid way to get things done, but the intensity of doctoral study means that you can’t do it all. You cannot raise a family, work full time, and embark on full time doctoral study without giving something up.

That something, of course, is ‘life’ – and so-called ‘balance’ – forget it. You can claw your way back to reality after you complete. You don’t have time for a well balanced life.

 

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Although I now have my doctorate, I still practice deferred gratification in order to complete writing tasks. It’s a matter of priorities. I regularly turn down social invitations, or cut short evenings out in order to get back to the keyboard. I am enjoying Stephen Fry’s new book ‘More Fool Me’ (unlike many reviewers) and he writes about how he never let a rip-snorting cocaine habit get in the way of his exemplary work habits. Even he would turn down extended sessions of substance abuse in salubrious establishments in order to hit the keyboard, or hit the screen the next day without having his work suffer.

Alas, I can’t report anything so fascinating. But I regularly spend my lunch hour in the library doing research, rather than walk around the city for relaxation and exercise. The truth is that if you want to achieve anything, you have to make choices. What are you doing with your time?

When it comes to time management, you have to accept that time is not on your side. It can slip through your fingers if you are not careful, frittered away on ‘life’. Forget the work-life balance. Forget “free time”. Say goodbye to endless socializing, and when push comes to shove, focus only on the necessary tasks at hand. Get up hours earlier and write. Or write long into the night. Use all your lunch breaks to read or research.

We all have the same 24 hours a day allocated to us. It’s up to you to decide if you want to squeeze the very last second out of those 24 hours to achieve your dreams.

From the time I was 18, I juggled creative writing, journalism and academic study at once. It is second nature to me to spend so called ‘free time’ on anything but relaxing. Like Stephen Fry I find work (writing) more fun than fun, and I am the first to admit I don’t even know how to relax. But each different creative strand I engage in feeds into the other.

And if I am boring, well, so what? Obsessed athletes are no doubt boring as well, and at least I am only obsessed with what I read and write, not eat, drink and exercise. In fact, before anyone admonishes me for my truthful admission that you have to work bloody hard to get a doctorate, think for a minute about athletes. Does anyone criticize Olympic contenders for being so utterly driven?

 

 

The fact of the creative life is that it takes a long time to see monetary rewards for your work, and if you aren’t prepared to live hand to mouth forever, you need to get a paid job to support the creative work. I have yet to see writers wearing T Shirts with sponsor logos from stationary suppliers in the way athletes wear T shirts with nutritional supplement sponsors emblazoned on their chest. maybe we are just useless at creative sponsorship. Or – just maybe – seeing a writer spend endless hours hunched over a desk is simply not that interesting. But it is endurance, none the less.

There is a reason no one wants to sit and watch writers cross out one word after another, to make painful progress across the keyboard. That’s because writing takes longer, and is harder, than many people can imagine. If you are not getting where you want in your work, ask yourself – are you putting in enough time? Really? 

 

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Holy Matrimony! The peril of the ‘married name’ for women in academia

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Mrs George Clooney may rue the day she changed her name after marriage to her Hollywood superstar. Statistics being what they are, she may want her name back. And that name is Amal Alamuddin – the name she used at university, the one she used to become a high flying lawyer (currently advising how Greece win back the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum) and the name she with which she basically made a name for herself.

At the same time, more or less, UK heiress Jemima Khan has announced a decade after divorcing Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan that she intends to revert to her maiden name. She writes in the New Statesman that she feels sad about it because she used her married name for so long. And for good reason – use it long enough, and a new name becomes your identity. A woman may build up her brand under the adopted married name, and that’s not an easy thing to change. Brands remain, for better or worse, longer than the shelf life of many relationships.

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Eleanor Robertson from The Guardian speculates that Amal Alamuddin Clooney may have decided on the American actress tradition of hitching the married name to hers – a double barrelled effort – but she still may be on dangerous ground when it comes to her brand and identity. For a man may take his name back if things turn sour.

Flamboyant Australian businessman Geoffrey Edelsten has waded into the debate about whether or not a woman should change her name on marriage by demanding that his estranged wife Brynne stop using his surnameAccording to Daily Mail Australia, an enraged Mr Edelsten said: ‘Stop using my last name, Brynne. You are only using it to get publicity and attention, it’s desperate.’

Edelsten has declared that Brynne, who has a reality TV show that is based on her brand as a glamour wife, ditch her married name, demanding that she “Make a name “ for herself [and] stop leaning on mine, it’s an embarrassment to me and a desperate act of attention.”

This is perhaps a cautionary tale about why women should not change their name on marriage – and a more convincing argument than any a feminist can muster. The former Brynne Edelsten is now Ms Brynne Gordon.

Eleanor Robertson defends Amal’s choice by arguing that “the political valences attached to taking your husband’s name are different for different groups of women, but the arguments we hear most centre the perspectives of feminists with a prominent platform.” However, it takes a woman a long time to build up her resume and credibility, and that shouldn’t be thrown away lightly, no matter if that knight in shining armour happens to be George Clooney.

As MamaMia blogger Jamila Rizvi observed, why wouldn’t the former Amal Alammudin – a renowned lawyer and person of note in her own right – want to keep the name under which she had accomplished so much? The name that she was born with? The name that says more about her culture and ethnicity than her husband’s name?

The fact is that these choices are not the same for men, and that women in academia should think carefully about casting aside their names. The lure of the wonderful and lavish wedding is embedded in popular culture. But isn’t it possible to have the ring, the big dress and the presents – and still keep your name, just as your husband is keeping his?

Amal’s choice is quite pertinent to doctoral students and post docs, because the higher degree journey comes at all stages of the lifecycle, and with it love, divorce, remarriage, recoupling, and conscious uncoupling. None of this means terribly much for men, but for women on the academic journey it comes with the political choice of surname.

If you meet that special someone while a doctoral student (don’t ask me how this is possible, because don’t you have study to attend to???) and decide to be married, will you, like Amal, opt to be Dr Mrs His Surname? Or Dr Mrs Mine & His Surname?

I married very young but was never expected or asked to give up my name. I kept my Greek name through all my degrees and decades of marriage, and though now uncoupled, when I received my doctorate, it was in the name I was born with. My children, who have their father’s name, have never felt confused that their mother has a different name. Indeed, I have a different name to my own mother, though she is still married to my father. She is not Greek and returned to her own more ethnically appropriate name decades ago after Women’s Studies courses at university caused her to question the convention of changing your name on marriage.

My mother taught me this – in your career your name is your business card. It is, like the former Amal Alammudin, the name with which you make your mark on the profession. As a writer, I take my name very seriously. A career in journalism taught me the importance of one’s byline. Indeed, fellow Australian and writer Kathy Lette, who defended Amal in the Herald Sun (Saturday 11 October 2014) has kept her own name despite her long marriage to UK lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

If you think you can take for granted the fact that you may keep your new married name forever (or indeed, want to keep it forever), think again. Once conscious uncoupling has been achieved, you may find yourself with the added burden of starting over with your publication record and explaining your name change. Just because you are traditional and did your husband the huge ego boost of severing your identity and taking his name, doesn’t mean that when you tire of each other he will not decide that he has other uses for his name, and other partners-in-waiting with which to bestow his mighty gift. Or that he simply doesn’t like you having his name when he no longer has you.

Then again, you might feel you no longer want the name now you are by yourself, and remember, if you never changed your name in the first place at least you won’t be stuck with the name of someone you are no longer with.

You – my dear traditional female academic who has attached so much importance to your acquired name – may find that there is a battle over naming rights. Before you can say “look me up on Google Scholar” you may be asked to hand back your name. Your ‘married’ name that is. Yes, start again with your publication record.

It is simply something men in academia never have to contemplate.

Whether or not to take a man’s name on marriage is something that used to divide younger women from their older married cohorts. Back in the 1980s, no self respecting feminist would use the title ‘Mrs’ let alone dump their surname at the altar. These were the days of being proud to use Ms as a title (before you became Dr) and you could take comfort in watching strong female TV characters like Murphy Brown, who were single, feminist and making it  – and having a great time – in the tough world of media (with their own name).

These days, of course, young women are jumping at the chance to add “Mrs” to their name, and are keen to adopt their husband’s surname as a badge of pride, or, more likely, as a sign of success at having finally nabbed one of those commitment-phobic men.

Just what men think about this name changing game has rarely been investigated, presumably because we expect men to puffer up with pride that a woman will shed their identity for the privilege of being their wife.

But what about when the often inevitable split happens? It used to be one of the reasons women were cautioned not to through away their moniker. It’s not only time consuming to change all one’s official paperwork to a new name – come divorce, and it has to be changed back.

The trouble is, that name – the name you, a married woman, have adopted with such pride, is one that you worked hard to elevate as your own brand in whatever career you developed. You changed your twitter handle to hubby’s name – and now he wants it back? What’s your twitter handle going to be now? @Washisname? That maybe all very well if you have a reality TV show, less convincing if you are attempting a career in academia, for example.

I am intrigued by why men encourage and agree to women taking their name on marriage. Presumably it is an ownership deal for them. Perhaps, as a woman, I simply do not understand why men agree to a woman taking their name. It is not about love, that’s for sure. Love does not need to have matching names (unless you are very insecure). Why then?

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The trouble with taking a man’s name for an academic in need of a publication record is that few women pause to consider that their man’s name might be up for grabs in a divorce settlement. Perhaps it will be a chattel that is disputed in court, bartered, say, in exchange for jewellery given or fought over in return for part ownership of a holiday house?

And is a man’s name, like his fidelity and love, something that can be regifted over and over again in new marriages, leaving an endless trail of wives with the same surname? Or should the previous owners be forced to relinquish the naming rights?

Geoffrey Edlesten has revealed that a newly acquired name may be as transient as most marriages. According to The Daily Mail, Geoffrey has said that he wants his new paramour, Gabi Grecko, to take his name when he marries her. ‘I love Gabi and I want her to use my name once she feels comfortable to do so.’

I rather like the American celebrity ritual of adding the husband’s name to their name on marriage – such as Christy Turlington Burns and Robin Wright Penn. And then dropping it like Farrah Fawcett (Majors) or (as listed on wikipedia) the actress “previously credited as Robin Wright Penn” as they drop the bloke from their life. It suggests that coupledom is a temporary condition, one that should not impinge on one’s identity. It says ‘ I will placate your ego by hitching your name to mine, but like the caravan annex, it will be abandoned by the road side once I decide to pack up and make a getaway, without any costs to my identity.’

 

The image of abandoned surnames littering the highway of love is rather compelling.