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Lessons from my doctorate

11 Feb

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The only thing sweeter than attaining your doctorate is the academic success of your children – especially if they have grown up in the shadow of your higher education study.

Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’

Rubbish.

Low expectations, complacency and laziness are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.

If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term.

I can tell you first hand that far from harm my children, my back to back MA and PhD while my two sons were young gave them the gift of knowing success demands:

Perseverance, commitment, focus, determination, time management, and deferred gratification.

I never volunteered to help out at their school, I refused to play the game of keeping up domestic appearances, and I rarely even went to school social events. You know what? I speak from experience here – I was raised by a mother who studied, and I have friends who completed their doctorates while their children were young. We are here to tell you the world will not end, nor will social structures collapse, if you do not help out at your child’s school or socialise with the other mothers.

The school, and your children, can do without your input. Leave that to the mothers with nothing else to do.

Sounds harsh, but let’s face it, volunteering at the school, when your time could be better spent elsewhere – like on your own work – is often a matter of ego. You want to feel wanted. Does the bake sale really need your input? Do the other mothers really need to be organised like a pact of sheep to socialise at some cafe to bond every term?

And yes, note I say ‘mothers’. Even in the 21st century, no father frets he isn’t spending time helping out at the school or having coffee mornings with the other dads.

I understand that my views don’t make me popular. But they do produce results.

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The past 12 months in my household have been a demanding ones, with my eldest son completing his final year at school.And although it has been three years exactly since I graduated with my PhD, he still sees me work long into the night on my creative and academic writing, after a day of commercial writing in communications. He knows what it takes to achieve your goals.

And I have to say – he took note. We celebrated last month when his terrific exam results netted him a place in a prestigious university course and put him on track for the architecture career he aspires to.

Unlike many other teenagers, he wasn’t out at parties, he was at his desk. No pain – no gain. If there is one thing I have taught him over the years it is the success that comes from deferred gratification.

At his 18th birthday celebration, just before his last exams, he thanked me for being both supportive and a role model and showing me how it is done. It was so lovely to hear him say that, and I have been thinking since then how ‘doctoral mothers’ bring our particular focus to parenting.

As inevitably we do sessional teaching while studying, we are familiar with the university system, have friends who are also studying or working in universities, and are articulate advocates for our children as they navigate the next step in their education.

We are also networking, analysing, searching out information and generating new knowledge from our research. I am not the least surprised that the mothers I know who have pursued doctoral studies after an established career have all produced children who are similarly ambitious and engaged with their own learning.

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My son is going to university next month open to the possibilities and privileges of tertiary education – having his mind expanded and horizons broadened. The divergent and convergent thinking that one acquires are fundamental to succeeding as knowledge workers in the 21st century, and he is ready for the journey.

Next blog post I will continue on this theme, exploring lifelong learning – are you ever ‘too old’ to study?

Fit to write: staying healthy enough to be creative

1 Apr

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I have learnt my lesson. I know that I can work myself to the point way beyond exhaustion and still keep going. I have such a hard time switching off that I hardly ever do. And that, my friends, is not a recipe for a long and productive life.

It’s certainly not good for a writing life, which needs space to breathe and think and weave and imagine.

And it’s not good for the academic journey, either. You need to know how to make yourself rest and look after your health if you are going to get to the end of your doctorate – and beyond.

I know what burnout is and so do the legion of other doctoral graduates who have come before me. Is it any wonder we all collapse into the post PhD blues after the ‘birth’ of our projects?

In some ways, it is pointless for me to tell you that you need to allocate some time to your health and mental wellbeing when you are a doctoral student. Pointless because I know it isn’t going to happen. Like doctoral students who have come before, you are probably going to work yourself so hard at the end you too will get sick and wonder why you feel so awful when you have achieved so much. Welcome to the world post doctorate.

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Why is this so? Because the doctoral journey demands absolute focus and determination. It’s not about a balanced life. Only a few, even in the crowded world of higher education, really come through compared to the rest of the population, so why be surprised that it exacts such a huge toll? You will, like I did, probably ruin your health getting there. If you had the luxury of taking it at an even pace, chances are you had an easy run in other aspects of your life. That’s not my world, or that of my friends.

This is a true story:

Doctoral intensity demands that you are at your desk, during a ferocious thunderstorm, and when the power blacks out and a loud explosion is heard, you grab a torch and keep writing that journal article by back up battery power. Only to find the next day your car has been struck by lightening.

That happened to a friend of mine who is currently recovering from a bad bout of flu that has seen her in bed for three weeks. Three weeks, she somewhat cheerfully told me, she can use at the end of her scholarship to extend the submission time next year. Only a doctoral student can see such light in illness.

I spent so much time at my desk in the final six weeks to submission that I would sleep only a few hours before staggering back to the computer and sitting there for 15 hour stints. I worked my body harder than a machine – I know, as I was outraged when the people who ran the university photocopy centre refused to run their machines as I demanded, at the rate I wanted, saying it would ‘kill them’.

“But I demand as much from myself!” I yelled at the person in charge.

“Maybe you should rethink your attitude,” came the curt reply.

This was actually rather prescient – no doubt born out of having seen burn out before. The last person anyone should be around is a doctoral student about to submit.

And indeed, it came to pass that I handed in, got my doctorate, and my body broke down. In every possible way. I was gripped with searing hip pain so bad it felt like a chainsaw being through over my body and I am a woman who has had two children. I am well acquainted with that horrific pain. “No core strength,” muttered my physiotherapist. “What have you been doing? Sitting down for years without moving?”

Well, hello – welcome to the world of the doctorate.

“I HAVE moved,” I protested. “Some of the books I needed on the stacks require me to bend – and stretch!

While we are on the subject of core strength, it’s probably not worth remarking on the fact that sugar is what keeps many a doctoral student going towards the end of the stretch. All good intentions are out the window as the bran screams for something to keep it going. And- think about it – where does that sugar go if not being worked off via exercise because you are desk bound? Exactly. Who hasn’t emerged from such intense effort looking like they did post childbirth?

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It’s one thing to say ‘whatever gets you through the night’. It’s quite another to get your body back into shape after submission.

For me, this involved a year long program of diet and exercise and twice weekly sessions of clinical pilates. I was in really, really bad shape and could hardly move. In fact, so wretched was I in the last year before submission that a friend overseas who saw me a few months after I had submitted the doctorate commented “well, you are certainly looking a lot – fitter!” Indeed.

Once I got my health – and body back – my particular passion became a combination of dance and pilates, slogged out at the barre twice a week, and my body thanks me for it, as I stretch out the parts of my body only too happy to collapse in front of the computer.

Let’s face it – my muscle memory is nothing more than sitting in front of the keyboard.

And so, I diligently walk every day, and if I don’t make the commitment, I suffer – my old friend sciatica snakes its tingling, searing pain down my leg in glee at having been woken again.

Yet I realise my commitment to exercise is only half of the battle. There is a mental health aspect to pushing myself to the limit that I find hard to shake. And that’s a habit as dangerous as sugar, inertia and excess coffee.

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Having read transmedia writer Natacha Guyot’s excellent blog post Be Kind To Yourself  I was reminded of how unkind I am to myself, and how I should be nicer. I am a real bitch and slave driver when it comes to myself – as no doubt are many similarly ambitious, driven, focused, Type A’s out there who have taken on the academic challenge and writing as well. Natacha’s post resonated with me!

My second worst habit is going without sleep to fit everything in.  My worst habit is my determination to constantly have it all. I don’t want to give anything up and refuse to make compromises with myself; I want the children, career, creative life, intellectual life, and (after rediscovering it again post doc) the social life.

Okay – so the social life tends to fall off first and I drop off the radar when I have a deadline, and then it is sleep that I let slip – I am always reminded that former British Prime Minister the late Margaret Thatcher ran the country on four hours sleep a night – an impressive woman who also had two children, she got a lot done and had high standards of herself and others regardless of what you think of her politics.

The thing is, physically and mentally, what drives us as writers and academics and what is our strength is also our weakness – our ability to focus and concentrate at the exclusion of all else.

It’s no secret that universities are breeding grounds for stimulant abuse, and it’s not partying that’s the reason. It starts with coffee, caffeinated beverages, caffeine tablets and esculates to whatever can be purchased legally or illegally over the counter or over the Internet. I am not condoning the practice – just stating the reality that is well documented on the internet. Perhaps we could even call it the dirty little secret of academic study.

So – post doctorate, how do you come down off the adhrenalin high? Well, for a start, your body just gives up. You get sick. You are in pain. Your body does it for you. That’s the post doc blues. Most people say they look older. Haggard.

And so you rebuild. Slowly. You don’t get away with flogging your body and life mercilessly without pay back. Folks – it’s going to take some time to put Humpy Dumpty back together again. You really do have to submit and then find time to smell the roses. Daydream again. refuel the mind, body and spirit.

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I can safely say that after 18 months, I am in recovery. I exercise, go to dance class, I am not in pain, I have lost weight, see my friends, cook for my children, read for pleasure and factor pleasure into my life – and fun. Which is probably why people are starting to comment that it must be time I had a book or two published, isn’t it? After all, what on earth am I doing with my time now I have finished and passed my doctorate?

Yet doctoral study habits are hard to break, and I think that a warped sense of what we should be achieving could be a lasting legacy of higher academic study. I am pretty sure it is yet another thing that sets those with a PhD apart from everyone else.

Stop. Be kind to yourself. Look after your body and your mind, and take a break! You have to make sure that you can last the distance or you won’t be fit to write. Anything.

 

 

Impostor syndrome: overcoming the fear of doctoral failure

25 May

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Hands up if you are a perfectionist. Hands up if you wilt and wither at rejection. Okay – we need to talk. You have to accept being less than perfect if you want to pass your doctorate because ultimately, you may be placing the bar too high.

A doctorate has to be ‘fit for purpose’ (ie: good). Not a Nobel Prize winning achievement. In fact, there is a great research paper titled “It’s a PhD Not A Nobel Prize” that I heard referred to throughout my doctorate, by fellow Australians Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley.

One of the key points is this – “All PhDs are not equal and yet most get through”. So there is no point in dropping out because you fear not being brilliant. Reality check – few doctorates dazzle. Sure, you want yours to be the one that does, but maybe there is time for that later, once you have that piece of paper and have learned how to speak the language of the academy. Trying to be perfect can so often lead to failure.

It’s no surprise that the pursuit of perfection cripples progress. Often it’s better to get the job done and warts and all, expose it to the glare of public opinion. We compare ourselves to people who are way ahead in the same game; we judge our work against work that they have honed to a shimmering patina.

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We look at art produced at the end of a career, not the beginning, we sigh and flip through an author’s 10th book and know we can never compete.

Practice, of course makes perfect, but as a doctoral student – or shaky legged newly minted post doc – each step we take is new, unsteady, unsure.

All I can say if you are on the start of the journey is that even after graduation, it doesn’t get easier. Now is the time when you really, really have to accept failure – when you start to expose your research to the cold light of day.

Being a writer doesn’t help. You have your doctoral novel, you hope that might open a few doors, but everyone seems to be doing a doctorate in creative writing these days. What’s your unique point of view? Your angle? Your brand? Your pitch? Are you relying on the power of your writing and imagination, or, lucky you, are you able to ride high on a memoir that mines personal tragedy that resonates with global misery or at least a salacious affair with some celebrity? Ah – I can hear the stampede of salivating publishers as I tap away at the keyboard.

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Writers are so often told “you only get one chance with a publisher?” or “if it’s not perfect then they won’t want it” We’ve all heard the tales of the countless knock backs successful writers have had on the way to publication.  That tends to freeze your soul a little. Especially when you spent four years slaving over your novel and accompanying research. You have passed the doctorate – you don’t want to fail with a publisher.

Get a large group of writers together in a room and you’ll feel the perfectionism and smell the fear of failure. And this is not all in the mind – just because you have had one or two books published means nothing these days. It’s perverse – the door opens, they let you in, then slam the door shut as you as you try for a second or third bite at the pie.

When a publisher takes on a writer, they do so because they hope the book will generate profits, so they take a punt – and hence the door closing if after one or two books those hopes are not delivered in the market place. As I say to my students, it’s not the publishing charity, it’s the publishing industry.

Writing a book is like shooting bullets in the dark and hoping it lands on an object somewhere. On the other hand, a doctorate satisfies a much, much smaller audience. For a start, you have to pass a confirmation hurdle, and then progress hurdles and then a completion hurdle, all in front of a panel that assess your ability to progress to the next level. You are being constantly guided to success, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

So, since there is support along the way in the doctorate or at least safety measures to ensure you are pushed towards success, why do so many doctoral students feel crippled by such self doubt, when they are obviously smart enough to get accepted into the degree in the first place?

“Life is but life, and death but death! Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath! And if, indeed, I fail, At least to know the worst is sweet. Defeat means nothing but defeat, No drearier can prevail!”  Emily Dickinson, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Series One.

It’s the fear of failure and defeat that does it every time. We fear being unmasked as frauds, we fear not being able to speak the language, master the secret codes, come up with the theories or grapple with the methodology that matters in the doctorate.

I have sweated in the fear of failure, and all I can say is that this fear continues even after you have passed the doctorate. In fact, that’s when the fear of failure can be worst! Because now you have to take your research and creative work out of the sheltered workshop of the academy and impress not just a couple of examiners, your supervisor and an academic panel, but people who will put down money (hopefully) into your ideas and research.

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Now is the time you have to write proposals and pitches to publishers or industry. You have to get that research from journal article or lab results into commercial scrutiny. It’s equally as terrifying – if not more – than the four years of defending your research during the doctoral journey.

But be prepared to fail, my friends, because if you don’t try, sure, you’ll be safe, but you may never get anywhere. You have to go forth and be prepared to get your heart broken, again, and again, and again, when you fail to get your research picked up and your book published.

In her biography Bossypants comedian Tina Fey writes: “You can’t be the kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down that chute…you have to let people see what you write. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated…” (pg 123)

Because I enjoy research (code for I can waste a lot of time researching) and I’m a big Tina Fey fan (another Greek-German writer!) I thought I’d find out what else she has said on the subject of failure.

“For my first show at SNL, I wrote a Bill Clinton sketch, and during our read-through, it wasn’t getting any laughs. This weight of embarrassment came over me, and I felt like I was sweating from my spine out. But I realized, ‘Okay, that happened, and I did not die.’ You’ve got to experience failure to understand that you can survive it.” Fail big; you’ll live.

Look at it this way – what is the worst thing that can happen with your doctoral journey? That you won’t pass? Or that having passed, no one is interested in what you have researched anyway?

You see, at every stage, the fear of failure haunts us. Despite having passed the doctorate, the fear of my research being rejected is very front and centre in my mind. I know, I research everything, and what I feel has a name – impostor syndrome, discovered by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 – and still going strong, especially among women. Girls discover early on they are judged by the highest physical, behavioural and intellectual standards, and so perfection becomes the goal and every flaw or mistake is internalized, eroding self confidence. Hello, fraud syndrome. Hello fear of failure, my old friend.

Again, let us turn to Tina Fey for advice, who says “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realised that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

This is beautifully illustrated in a very clever 1996 Whoopi Goldberg film The Associate , in which Whoopi’s character, a successful black woman, has to pretend to be a man to be taken seriously on Wall Street. However, her ruse is so successful she laments “even when I invent a man he ends up stabbing me in the back.”

 

 

According to Dr. Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It (Crown Business, Random House) “The thing about “impostors” is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent.”

The problem is that doctoral study breeds this type of thinking. Your literature review isn’t good enough! You haven’t published enough! If you published the journal isn’t ranked high enough! This dissertation isn’t going to win a Nobel Prize!

Really, it’s time to take Tina Fey’s advice. Chances are you are your own worst enemy and everyone else believes in you – except you. So get out, and believe in your work and expose it to the possibility of success as well as failure. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

As my youngest  son keeps reminding me, “mummy, it’s time to sit down, find a publisher and send your book out into the world. You need to get a book published and make lots of money.

Kids can be tough, can’t they? Mind you, I keep telling him the only failure is in not trying, so I suppose at least I have been successful in passing that message across.

Staying power: how to finish your doctorate

19 May

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One of my grandfather’s favourite sayings is that you need to have ‘stickability’. Well, I’ve certainly got that. I stay long after the party is over, long past the bitter end. When the going gets tough, I simply put my head down and get on with it. That’s how I finished my doctorate on time.

I blame a career in journalism, where only the tough survive the rigour of daily newspapers. All I can say is has made me appreciate every aspect of working in a university. When academics bleat on about how times have changed and how tough it is now they are accountable, I just laugh.

One newspaper where I worked had the charming practice of daily humiliation; little errors from one’s copy were added to a black list and pinned to all notice boards with your name added.  I suppose in these days of HR molly coddling, they’d never get away with it now.

No wonder I have a very high pain tolerance when it comes to people treating me badly, which is one of the reasons I survived the doctorate and completed on time, despite also working full time in a demanding career and raising two children.

I had a very clear vision of graduating, and nothing was going to stop me. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter road blocks and problems, of my own making, from the university, or simply sideswipes from life. Of course I did – we all do. It’s how you overcome them that separates those who finish from those who flounder.

In a blog written by The Thesis Whisperer – “Why do people quit their PhD?”,  a number of reasons for doctoral failure are suggested by Ernest Rudd in his book “A New look at post graduate failure”, I realise I have encountered many of these problems, and had overcome them. Unlike movie stars and models who will lie and tell you they never do Botox and eat what they like, I’ll offer the cold, hard truth.

Here are the problems doctoral students have – and my tips:

Problems with motivation, including boredom, disenchantment and laziness

My biggest problem comes from my years as a journalist – I am a deadline junkie. If I had an open-ended four years with a final deadline, I’d only get cracking seriously at the final hurdle. My doctorate – like yours, I am sure, had built in deadlines every few months when I had to present progress reports. On top of that, I created my own deadlines by presenting papers at conferences. The annual spate of conferences – I averaged two a year, many overseas – meant I kept motivated and interested. As for laziness – it’s not in my DNA. And I think maybe it is easier to do a doctorate when you are a mature age student with a lot of commitments and people replying on you. I never had the luxury of being lazy. Also, I had no social life so I never felt I was missing out by spending all my time studying. Bonus!

Failed lab work

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I never did lab work, but I failed many times on the way to completing my doctorate – dead ends, false starts, ideas that didn’t get off the ground and when they did fell into a bloodied mess. Then too many ideas that threatened to overwhelm. Failure is just another way of moving forward. As a writer, I know you can never achieve anything without failure. Being a writer is actually a great preparation for doing a doctorate because all of the things that people complain about with a doctorate – no hope of a good job, no financial rewards, the isolation, the constant rewriting, the endless justification of your work and ideas to those in power, hours hunched over your desk, the tunnel vision of research and the misery of it all – are actually pretty much what being a writer is all about.

Injury or Illness

Luckily I never encountered injury or serious illness, but I have two children and they frequently got sick and threw my schedule into chaos; I learnt early on to make sure I gave myself enough time to factor in roadblocks. I also made sure I did enough regular walking to physically make it to the end of the doctorate without completely falling apart.

Family commitments, including marriage breakdowns

I have written before about the need to be selfish with your time and need to study. My house was a mess, because my priorities were my paid work, my academic study and my children and everything else got left behind. Sometimes when there is blackness all around, the best work gets done because that becomes a focus and escape.

Loneliness

One of the good things about working full time and studying full time while you raise children is that loneliness is not an issue. Lack of sleep is an issue. If your life is full, if you are really giving in all areas that you can, then you will relish the solitude when you can get it. And it may not be human or physical contact you need either – a pet can help, as can blogging! At the 100 day mark to the doctorate I did two rather crazy things which actually kept my sanity and motivation – I started this blog, and gave into my son’s pleas for a dog (and found I was the one walking it daily – surprise!)

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Lack of University jobs / attraction of a job offer

This is a lame excuse for dropping out of a doctorate. I never imagined it would be easy to get an academic position and have been proven right. You don’t do a doctorate for future career prospects or expectation of a higher salary. I am not sure what the reason for doctoral study is, but it’s certainly not to achieve material gain.

Problems in choice of topic

If you are going to get nothing out of four years of hard intellectual slog except for the indulgence of burying yourself in your research and pushing the envelope in what you can achieve, you’d better be passionate about your topic or you will fail. I didn’t choose a topic because someone else thought was a good idea. I did what I wanted and everyone else be damned. Which is perhaps not the best way to get an academic job, but then again, there seems something soulless about pursuing a topic because it is currently in vogue. Because fashions change. (As Cameron Diaz warned young women embarking on permanent pubic hair removal)

Cross disciplinary research issues (see “Is your PhD a Monster?”for more on this topic)

Hey – my research gets a mention in this Thesis Whisperer blog! One thing I can say about cross disciplinary research issues is that just as my hybrid research revealed our fears of crossing boundaries, straying from a discipline path reveals similar fears. Many supervisors don’t like you crossing over into other areas. How many times did I hear “you are not in the school of philosophy!” or “You are not doing a doctorate in journalism!” Ditto any attempt to seriously look at ethics, bioethics, or any other area not considered on the path to a straight and narrow submission.

However, just as in fairy tales and horror stories, the most interesting things happen when you stray from the conventional path. Yes, it’s hard, but hard can be more rewarding. And while on the subject of fairytales, I do believe that the most interesting directions happen in a doctorate when you start the journey with a story – a “what if?” story….

Problems with ‘writing up’.

I took my cues here from the Thesis Whisperer articles and (lucky me) research talks she gave at RMIT – I was the swot who spent every lunch time at every free talk on research that was available, often repeating the sessions several times. (I also found the talks that supplied sandwiches because I am good at multi tasking) One of the things I have learned is that you need to start writing up immediately. As a writer I will tell you this – all writing is rewriting. I also tested my theories out in blogs, and cast the thoughts out in the public sphere this way; blogs became abstracts for conference papers, which then became articles. Sure, many got knocked back, but eventually, after taking it on the chin, and going back to the computer, reworking and honing my academic language, I achieved success. 90 per cent of my exegesis is now published.

supervision issues (including neglect, incompetence and personality clashes)

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Again, maybe this is my tough as nails journalism background, but who said you were going to get your hand held when you did a doctorate? Also, haven’t you spoken to anyone or read anything about how bad supervisors are? It’s a universal complaint – so don’t complain. Suck it in, grin and bare it and find the help you need elsewhere if you are stuck with a lazy, tenured supervisor who road blocks you and offers no real assistance. You are not the first or last to be in this situation. Get out and network at conferences and find a cohort you can talk to and trust. I was lucky enough to find people, and don’t discount second supervisors or outside support. Ultimately, it’s up to you. As the late Nora Ephron, a wonderful writer across genres, said in an address to the graduates of Wellesley  in 1996, “Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

 

 

Doctoral graduation: the rite of academic passage at last

26 Jan

Evelyn at RMIT graduation

There are two schools of thought about graduation. One is the “I am too cool for school and never attend any of my graduations” and the other is “I have earned this rite of passage, get me that academic gown stat!” I am in the latter school. I always intended to celebrate getting the doctorate.

Alas, what I hadn’t counted on was getting so sick before the ceremony I thought I might not be able to attend.

I have written about post doctoral malaise, and the lingering, debilitating lethargy that hit me once I had handed in. I expected to jump back from zero to hero once I have officially passed, but no – disturbingly, I had no energy. It was as if my body had said, enough is enough. But surely, I would kick up my heels come graduation night, and celebrate?

By the time I actually got to the massive Etihad stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands on 18 December 2013 to receive my formal doctoral degree at RMIT university’s massive evening graduation ceremony, I was so ill I could barely stand.

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I mean this literally – I came down with horrendous gastro only five days before the ceremony, and for days I couldn’t get out of my bed except to vomit. I felt this was a fitting visceral metaphor for purging all those years of doctoral study, for those long, long nights and early morning starts of burning the candle at both ends as a mature age student, worker and mother.

In the worst of those days of illness, I honestly thought I’d be a no-show at graduation. It was bizarre how hard and fast the illness hit me. I have blogged that the key to academic success is brutal self focus, determination and time management – in short, it’s all about organization. So in true form, I organized my parents and children to join me the weekend before the graduation ceremony for the official photographs. And just as well I did. At least I have photos where I am smiling and actually look healthy!

At that point, it all felt exciting – graduation was finally feeling real. When I successfully wrangled my parents and kids into the city to pose for the group photo, it was the first time I had slipped on the doctoral regalia – the gown, the hat (velvet) and the scarlet hood. And it was the first time the “special status” of the doctoral graduate was made apparent.

I needed my gown ironed – someone nearly knocked over a lowly masters graduate to do so. I was suited up, the hood placed correctly, the velvet hat arranged, while undergraduates looked on, possibly queasy with the thought of how many years it would take them to earn the right to wear such academic dress.

I’d like to say I took a moment to savour the end of the journey that began about five years ago, but in honesty I was preoccupied with whether I could get my sons to brush their hair, stop fighting and fidgeting and look up from their mobile devices – and to stop the impressive doctoral hat from falling into my eyes. I should have tried it on when I hired it and picked it up on collection day. Oh well.

At some point, as the kids stood next to me, smiling happily that mummy was no longer doing doctoral study, I must have telegraphed some element of smugness to the fates. Because I was about to be taken down a peg. Big time.

In what seemed to be a sign from the universe about being too proud of my achievements, I promptly came down with crippling gastro that very evening. Thankfully, I had already bought my graduation dress, and the dazzling electric blue patent pumps to match, and had been given the most amazing necklace to wear from my parents as a graduation gift – I was set.

Sick I might have been, but I was also determined and on the big day I staggered out to the pharmacy for over the counter tablets that would make me functional for the event. And just as well, because if the doctoral journey required stamina, so too did the graduation.

The special position of the doctoral graduate was apparent from the minute I was ushered into the VIP room before the ceremony. Separated from the herd, I got to mingle with the other Chosen People – the same academics from the university who previously looked through me as a mere student, were now greeting me warmly as One Of Them. This is part of the doctoral rite of passage – your initiation into the group of academics with whom you are now on equal footing.

There was copious amounts of sparkling wine, yummy catering and much hugging and clinking of glasses. Dr Tsitas! Dr Tsitas! I was greeted by academics I worked with on exhibitions at RMIT Gallery, and those I knew from my sessional teaching. It was a cross between a speed networking event (“Send me your CV!”) to a love-in (“I am so happy for you! This is fabulous!”)

It was reminiscent of that penultimate scene in Ira Levin’s SF novel This Perfect Day, where protagonist Chip storms the bastions of Uni (an all encompassing computer system that controls the utopian world and all its citizens) only to be greeted  as a newly anointed peer by those scientists and leaders who program Uni – and who used to program his life . Chip was smart enough to evade capture, and find his way through the maze to grab the holy grail in an attempt to end the dictatorship. He passed the test. He was allowed into the inner sanctum. The punchline is, of course, that he now gets to program the masses, having proved himself worthy of the task. Someone has to rule, right?

This is what the doctoral celebrations are all about – you, the student, have found your way out of the doctoral maze, and returned triumphant with the prize.  Joseph Campbell would approve. The masks are taken off (them and us) and you are one with the power of the academy. Your doctoral journey is a hero’s journey, after all.

One thing I noticed at this pre-ceremony event is that academic dress is very diverse, something American geologist Evelyn Mervine discusses about in her blog. She writes, “I think it’s wonderful to celebrate academic dress. In these days when students and professors are more likely to wear jeans than a tie, I find the academic dress a fascinating throwback to times when dress was much more elaborate. Today, academic dress looks delightfully ridiculous… as if all the students and professors are dressed up for a Harry Potter movie, perhaps.”

Here is a photo of me with my Handle With Care co-author Dr Caroline van de Pol, who graduated from the University of Wollongong with a doctorate in creative writing, but is wearing different style academic gown (I think it is from an American university). Caroline lectures in public relations at RMIT and had to stand in for a colleague at the ceremony.

Evelyn  & Caro RMIT graduation

The pain of the past four years – those doctoral hurdles, deadlines, papers and most of all, the gruelling paperwork and administration – fell away. I was now part of The Club. Fittingly, this took place in the glass walled VIP room overlooking the stadium – all the hoi poli – the great majority of those without a doctorate, the location seemed to be implying – are below. Here you are, with the Chosen Few. It was so highly ritualized, I was reminded of the HBO TV drama Big Love and the controversial scene where Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) goes into the Mormon Temple’s Celestial Room so she can undergo the endowment ceremony. Just as those in the Temple are dressed in ritual garments, the academics in the VIP room were fitted out in their ritual gowns. No outsiders, please.  Like Barb, you must pass the ultimate test before you are allowed in.

Let us pause for a minute to reflect on my use of the phrase “chosen few” for doctoral graduates, because it isn’t exactly true, is it?  According to Dr Les Rymer (University World News 26 January 2014) “one issue stimulating debate about PhD education is the view that, at least in some disciplines, universities are producing too many PhD graduates and the huge increase in doctoral candidates means there is now a much more diverse PhD graduate population than in even the recent past.”

But, on this night – my own doctoral graduation – we can ignore the facts, and concentrate instead on the fantasy. I sipped on sparkling water, well aware I had to be on stage, in the middle of the stadium, for several hours, so alas, no champagne for me. More to the point, I was gleefully informed by all the academics that I would be sitting for hours on a stage that would rotate, like a giant gyros, basting me and the other doctoral graduates in the sunny glory of success. And overhead lighting. And roaming video cameras. I could not afford to pass out.

I have to hand it to RMIT University – more than 6,600 students gathered at Docklands Stadium to collect their certificates in front of more than 27,000 family and friends in the spectacular ceremony. And, cliche time, everything went like clockwork. At every turn I was marshalled into this line or that line, told when to sit, stand, move to the right or left, and march. Oh yes, there was an entire Magellan like circumnavigation of the oval at Etihad Stadium, which put my new heels – and my somewhat wobbly post gastro gait – to the test. I am pleased to report I made the circuit with no incidents.

During the long, long haul of sitting on the stage while every other single student graduated from the university at the same time (the doctoral students were first, of course), we were supplied with bottles of water and bowls of sweets to keep up our energy levels. Finally, at the conclusion of events, there was another glass of champagne. This time, I took one cautious sip. I felt I earned it.

champagne RMIT graduation

My 12 year old bided the time by opening a Twitter account and sending me a congratulatory message and by the time I located my kids and parents after the ceremony, they were full to the gills with the sandwiches and snacks wheeled onto the oval for the crowd to feast upon. It was nearing midnight as we finally took the last of our informal photos, collected my framed doctoral degree, and headed home.

Like Cinderella, I didn’t get to keep the academic finery. I had to dump the carefully pressed gown and hat in one of the large bins placed around the stadium – squashed in along with all the other gowns.

disgarded gowns rmit graudation

It seemed a sad but appropriate farewell to the fantasy night of graduation – what lies ahead is now up to you, after all. No more university holding your hand.

How odd, after 12 years of university study.

What I know now about doctoral graduation

Go to the graduation –Thank your support team. Honour the moment and dress up and get photos taken. Everyone around you wants to celebrate – and they want closure too. Make sure you organize ahead for seats for family. If you have children, they really, really want closure.

  • Yes, it is more special graduating with a doctorate – you do get ushered into the door of those who have stayed the distance, and it’s all champagne and accolades. Enjoy it while it lasts. You are now one of them – the group of people with PhDs. Share a glass of champagne with these guys who are now your peer group. Smile. In the “real” world, no one actually cares… 
  • You don’t have to know what you will do next. From this point on, you will be asked “what now?” In truth, I don’t think we can ever know just how much higher education changes everything. It’s not the final research or project that you produce, either. It’s the way you approach information, assess and amass knowledge, cast a critical eye over information and learn to think, analyse and argue.
  • Be grateful: You stayed the distance, you passed the test. Take a moment to congratulate yourself and be grateful you had the opportunity to do post graduate study in the first place. Finally…

Do not listen to old applause: Once the graduation ceremony is over, you actually have to start again. A doctorate isn’t an end it’s just a beginning. Maybe you don’t know what it is the beginning of – that’s okay. Just don’t rest on your laurels.

Post Doctoral Celebrations: Time to Play

5 Sep

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For once, I am not going to write about work, or deadlines, or time management. I am going to focus on play. Time off, refilling the creative well. Daydreaming, slacking off, time out and having fun. I think I have earned it. I even have an official letter from the university to prove it.

“You are now deemed to have completed all requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. You may now adopt the title “Doctor”.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a diligent student now in possession of a doctorate must be seeking fun.

So I am heading off tomorrow for three weeks overseas.

And here is the thing, being a mother I am going to have to get selfish again, because this time, instead of putting the  doctorate first, I am putting me first. I am travelling solo.

So much gets put on the back burner when you are completing a doctorate. You focus on the A’s. Everything else but your study and absolute essentials become B’s or C’s.

My mother rang me up and said “All my C’s have turned to A’s. You can blog it.” Like me, my mum prioritises in terms of A’s, B’s and C’s, with the dull, domestic drudgery of cooking, housework and so on at the bottom. Like mother, like daughter. And yes, all my C’s have come home to roost now that I have completed the big A at the top of the pyramid – the doctorate – and have successfully passed.

What’s been lurking at the bottom of my Maslovian pyramid are all the ‘life things’. While I have been working on the apex – problem solving and creativity, my hierarchy of needs has steadfastly avoided things like enough sleep, health, food (unless reheated in a microwave or rehydrated with boiling water) and property (dog now disappears when it dives into the lawn that billows like a green savannah, while inside, dog hair blows like bundles of Spinifex across my neglected floors…)

My immediate family gets a lot done and achieves goal kicking at the apex of the Maslovian pyramid by focusing on the A’s. The trouble comes once you realise that you can no longer ignore the C’s.

You see, for years family members who received their doctorates in their twenties shrugged and told me “you just have to concentrate on the apex” and “focus on what’s really important.

At the end they looked up and went “life? What life?” Much as I am doing now.

I have it seems, forgotten how to play. I keep getting asked how I feel now that I am Dr. Evelyn Tsitas – at last. Four years seems like a long time, right? Longer when you add the Masters degree before it.

My reply to everyone is “I just feel exhausted”.

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Then I heard it on the radio – an interview with Dr Stuart Brown (USA), Founder of the National Institute for Play. Seems like I have not been getting enough play. He is in Australia for the National Play Up Conference in Sydney on September 5 and 6. The conference explores the importance of creativity and playfulness.

It seems like play is essential not just for children, but adults as well. But how do we play more? Especially when we are time poor – as doctoral students are.

Well, Dr. Brown listed off playing with pets and walking or maybe dancing – but also having fun when work and play are indistinguishable. In other words, when you are fortunate to love what you do.

After coming through the doctoral tunnel vision, it is now time to explore the world again, and refill the creative well – by playing. As much as I love writing, I need to get out more.

In fact, that’s exactly what I am going to do. My bags are packed, I have a new novel to take on board the plane and I’m excited. Excited by the thought of watching back to back in flight movies, writing nothing and enjoying a glass or two of red wine. Chilling out. Not being responsible for anything or anyone. Much less a doctorate.

Let’s put this in context. I am not the woman people associate with ‘fun’ in the sense of kick up your heels, stay out all night, hit the bar scene and travel to exotic locations and leave the real world behind. I’ve been leaning in – hard – since I was an undergraduate. My motto has always been “one job is for wimps”. I read Stephen Fry’s biography and found a soul mate. Someone who was addicted to work, and to the pursuit of words and ideas, as me.

In fact, as I read my students’ assignments (on how to market and create their own brands as creative writers) I was struck by how exciting their lives have been – and mine, not so much.

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I never surfed the coast along Mexico, climbed Everest or backpacked through Siberia. I haven’t worked as a roof tiler or boat builder or in remote locations.

So, what have I done? I have studied, worked and written – a lot. I have spent 12 years at university – as a student. Breaks in between, but one qualification after the next, like some people collect stamps on the passports.

I have always had parallel careers which is why I was able to work as a journalist and a playwright and a librettist while also working my way up through higher education. In short, I am a swot. A swot with a serious day job. I never worked as a waitress while writing – I worked in the competitive world of daily journalism, writing at the paper, and then writing when I came home. That has been my comfort zone – being a workaholic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like my comfort zone. I spent my undergraduate degree working for the student newspaper and co-editing a literary magazine, when everyone else was vomiting outside pubs. When I graduated, I walked straight in to a career in newspapers. I loved journalism – chasing stories, interviewing people, getting to go behind the door marked ‘closed’. I am naturally curious with a vivid imagination, and my work was like play.

There was no time for backpacking, long sojourns in the wilderness or the third world. I was on a bullet train called career and I wasn’t getting off. I didn’t pause for breath until I had my first child.

Play? What’s play? Can’t work be play, really?

I know a cinematographer who has been to amazing places – but only for work. He says he prefers it that way. He gets to go behind that door marked closed, and with a camera as well. So when I travelled to Edinburgh for the festival it wasn’t to see acts at the fringe, but my own show  – a children’s opera called Software, for which I wrote the libretto and designed the set and costumes. Okay – so I was working, not sitting on a beach. But it was pretty special – work and play combined, seeing kids in other countries responding to my words. And I didn’t get sunburnt…

And when I go to Paris in a few days, I’ll go head to the catacombs, the museums, the galleries, even though I work in an art gallery. A friend who is there at the same time said “we’ll catch up in the evenings” as she doesn’t want to be stuck going from one museum to the next with me, while I draw. I have a reputation.

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But I do see work and play together, because I love what I do – my academic research and my writing. So when I am in Oxford, I’ll combine a conference with play – though I have been told by friends I simply must go to  The Trout or The Head of the River …And when I am in Greece, for the final week of the trip, it will be to research my next novel. And see family.

Perhaps as a working mother, I should feel guilty about this time by myself to play – shouldn’t I go to a child-friendly resort in Queensland and sit by the pool while the kids have fun? They think so.

But I have to say – I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. When I was my eldest son’s age, my father spent a summer trekking in Nepal, having an incredibly interesting and creative time; as an artist, photographer and architect, he needed time to replenish the creative well. This was his time to play. But too few women do this, and the creative women who don’t simply resent their lives, and the unfulfilled promises to themselves.

I didn’t go to Nepal with my father, and I learnt a valuable lesson. Adults need time out for themselves and play – it enhances one’s creativity to do so. Learn from men – be selfish as a mother. Think of yourself or you will never get anything done that fulfils you. Learn to play – and play solo.

So, bags packed, I am on that plane tomorrow as a woman alone, a writer replenishing the creative well, and a mother on a solo trip – not a guilt trip.

Well, I say that now, with a little pang. Yet I am determined that my sons will learn that just as a woman’s work is important, so is a woman’s play.

This Dr. Evelyn. And I am ready to play. Finally.

Return with the Elixir: The Hero’s Doctoral Journey Concludes

28 Aug

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As the large official stamp went down with a thump on my form, the woman wielding the object at the School of Graduate Research looked up at me and said “So, feel any different – now you are a doctor?”

“No different from a second ago,” I said. How can that be? This is something I worked long and hard to achieve for the past four years. Now I had the literal seal of approval in my hands. I just felt exhausted.

Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

Yes – it’s official. I have now jumped every hurdle.  I have completed, submitted, been examined, made the minor amendments, and handed in the ADR – in Australia, that is the Appropriate Durable Record. At my university, an impressive bound copy of your thesis is no longer desired – rather a few files on a disk that can be uploaded into an Electronic Thesis Repository.

Maybe not as pretty, but certainly global.

I was handed the stamped form. “You may now call yourself Dr Evelyn Tsitas, how does it feel?”

My senior supervisor who was there as I submitted all the signed forms – from the Head of School, the Dean and everyone else on the academic food chain – insisted “You must feel different – it does feel different, doesn’t it?”

Did I miss something? Did I suddenly get sprinkled with gold dust? Did the earth suddenly open up and a chasm of light rise from the centre, did a mass choir burst into song and the seas part? Well, of course not. But I’ll be damned if some sort of secret handshake didn’t almost get enacted amongst those in that office, and there was some sort of respect that hadn’t been there a mere thirty seconds before the official stamp sealed me as Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

This doctorate has been the mythic hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation. In his book Myth and the Movies, writer Stuart Voytilla says this path leads the hero on predictable movements of separation, descent, ordeal and return. The final stage on this quest is Return With the Elixir, where the hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.

Don’t we hope our doctoral research does just that?

Using the example of Woody Allen’s film classic 1977 romance Annie Hall, Voytilla says that the end of the movie finally shows the ability to look back on the good times in a relationship and acknowledge the elixir. He writes “relationships are irrational, crazy, and painful, but we keep going through them because we need the good times.”  That sounds a lot like a doctorate – it’s not all bad. People keep doing them because there are rewards, and some good times. And there is something within us that drives us to complete the enormous task – that quest for knowledge.

As I diligently went through all the corrections required by my doctoral examiners – such as formatting and editing (para 2, page 86 It’s (Its), Page 83: para 3, unclosed quotation marks, etc….I wondered if the final remark from one examiner – that I should have done nothing but the exegesis (and the novel) in the four years – no conferences, papers, certainly no ‘extra curricular’ writing as I am want to do – much less a full time job – was correct.

But what’s more important – handing in a pristine exegesis, devoid of a single typing error OR – making some sort of impact with your research, reaching out to the international community, having the guts to publish your research and make your name in the field? And actually trying to squeeze in a bit of life in those four years as well? Have just a little fun along the way?

This is the dilemma every doctoral student must face.

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Let’s talk about perfection – especially perfection in print.

I have spent most of my career as a journalist, on everything from suburban weekly newspapers, to magazines and daily newspapers as well as freelancing and blogging and here is the thing – there are teams of sub editors to read through and check for grammatical errors that sneak through even the cleanest copy. As writers, we read what we expect to read, and the only way I can see around having to do any minor corrections of formatting and grammatical or typing errors is to pay for several stages of professional editing before handing in the thesis.

Yet this is the real world, where you work until the last nano second on your doctorate, you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and you do your best, but just like with daily newspapers and published books there are errors.

As long as they are not errors of fact, we accept them. Just as I accept that the doctorate is not a perfect finished and polished gem, as one examiner said it should be, at the expense of everything else.

Another academic suggested a doctorate should be ‘fit for purpose’. It is, after all, the springboard for a research career. No one publishes an exegesis as is. The day of the monograph is over. You use your work to create a series of journal articles, you also turn your thesis into a book, but not without going through a major edit with a publisher.

And as for the Doctorate in Creative Writing, the novel you submit will go through many changes after it has found a commercial publisher. These are the realities.

In hindsight, should I have done less as the examiner suggested, and handed in a ‘perfect’ exegesis? I wasn’t asked to change any of my arguments and my research wasn’t questioned, so I can live with correcting typing errors and formatting problems.

Looking back over the past four years, what would I have changed to ensure a ‘perfect’ rather than ‘fit for purpose’ result?

Some things I had to do, such as be a full time worker, mother and doctoral student. Others, such as teaching post graduates, blogging, writing, and editing outside the doctoral structure and presenting my research at conferences around Australia and internationally as well as submitting to academic journals, were all extra curricular.

But would I end up a better academic if I just simply focused on just doing the exegesis? No, I think I would have ended up insular and timid.

Especially in this competitive time when the academic environment has changed so rapidly, it is now crucial to get your research out to a wide audience, and to start making your name with your research as soon as possible, and prove you have a strong network in your field. I went to Oxford last year to present at two conferences, and am back again in September, to present the last chapter of my exegesis. I would rather have those experiences and the connections I made rather than a perfect doctorate without one little error.

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And so it comes down to this – the CV or the minor amendments on the exegesis as requested by the examiners?

I chose the later. And now I have done those pesky changes, I have the stamp on the official form that says I am Dr Evelyn Tsitas, as well as an impressive academic resume and two and a half years of tertiary teaching experience under my belt.

In the meantime, I have lost a lot of sleep, any social life and what little cooking skills I had. Even my microwave reheating techniques are a little dodgy. My kids have become a lot more resilient, though if I want to scare them into behaving I just say the magic words ‘mummy will do another PhD’. That subdues them.

It may contain a grain of truth, in fact. After a break of about nine weeks from the intensity of the doctoral deadline once I had submitted, I didn’t cope with the post-submission limbo very well. I was like a runner, swimmer or any endurance athlete after the finish line – exhausted but flat after the high of competition.

But plodding away at the minor amendments, I started to get the doctoral high again. I enjoy the peace of writing and studying long into the evening after the children are in bed, the dog is quiet and the words start flowing. It’s hypnotic, really. For me, writing is like my favourite scene from Jane Campion’s wonderful 1993 film The Piano.  Just substitute being at the piano keys for the computer keyboard. This scene so beautifully captures the rapture of creativity, when you can totally immerse yourself  in your art, so that nothing else matters; the children amuse themselves, others wait patiently, the light fades, but you are not forced to move on until you are done.

The doctoral pain dissolves, and I can feel that urge again…maybe I’m not quite finished yet? I wouldn’t be the first person in my immediate family to go back and get a second Masters after a doctorate. I wonder…is this Higher Degree Stockholm Syndrome?

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