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Life post PhD – embracing the moment at last

21 Dec

xmas yardI have a friend I have been trying to see for a few weeks. It’s nearly Christmas and everyone is catching up as if the world is about to end. Yet each time we set a date she cancels. And I totally I understand why. She is in doctoral lock down.

Indeed, last time she cancelled I told her I didn’t expect to see her until June 2016. In fact, if I did, something must be wrong. Because in the last hurdle of the doctorate nothing else matters but the looming deadline.

I know the feeling all too well.

From where she is sitting, with the panic and fear and dread and utter anxiety of writing up ahead of her, my words can seem like platitudes. Because I have done it – I ran the race, I finished and now I have the PhD.

In truth, part of me misses that doctoral bubble because doing a PhD is pretty much free reign to just think, even if like me you also held down a full time job.

It’s hard to constantly set the same goals you did when you were doing a doctorate – that narrow focus, and every six months another public milestone to achieve – a graduate research progress report, or a conference, a journal article, and then checking in with your supervisor.

Once you have that PhD, you are on your own, baby. When it comes to your research, no one cares what you do and when you do it, or if you never achieve anything ever again. However, you will also find a lot of other people who don’t have a PhD but think they should start being rather unpleasant to you. Over the past two years, I have had many bitchy comments such as “you can’t do THAT? But I thought you were smart – you have a PhD!” and “only academics call themselves Doctor and YOU AREN’T ONE so I wonder why YOU bother?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise professional jealousy, but I understand why many people (especially in Australia) hide their academic achievements. Certainly it’s not something you’d put up on a dating site.

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I admit that angst over ‘doctoral embarrassment’ (the state of being apologetic for being more highly qualified than those who resent you) may seem like distant dream to those like my friend who are battling to actually complete their PhD on time. I get that.

Just as I get the ‘life on hold’ pain that comes with the final stage of the doctoral journey. It’s head down, bum on seat, and focus, focus, focus.

And yet….I think that intensity and focus, the necessity of having to defer so much life and gratification, is part of the pleasure of academic study’s intense focus. You get a free pass in not caring about anything other than your work. Strange as it may sound, enjoy. It will not come your way again (well, until you do another doctorate…)

On a recent walk with the dog, I saw a young woman studying in her bedroom window. It was a Sunday night, and rather than watching TV, talking to friends, or anything else, she was at her desk, the light on, head down, and working. Outside, her family had strung up Christmas lights around the garden. Inside, the only light was her desk light, shining brightly on her to guide her way.

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I felt a pang of nostalgia – I knew well that focus, and in a way, missed it. Now all timetables are self directed. What am I writing now? It’s up to me. I can wander around at dusk with the Corgi checking out the fairy lights. I have the time for life. And the opposite of that, its intimate partner, is that I have to motivate myself to write and research.

Throw yourself into life, my friend, and there isn’t much left over for the mind. Balance? I’ve yet to find it. Maybe that’s why I miss the doctoral zone.

Of course, those years of focusing on my work meant something had to give, and it was my domestic and social life, which I am now enjoying making a priority again.

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Yet it seems very indulgent, still, to meet a friend on a Sunday afternoon and bake Christmas ginger biscuits and decorate them with my youngest son. A whole Sunday afternoon! That is five hours I would never have allowed myself when I was doing the PhD.

As I sprinkled coloured sugar crystals over the xmas biscuits and joked with my son and reminisced with my friend, I felt  myself being utterly in the present in a way that a doctoral student never is truly there when engaged with life.

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So, Merry Christmas to my friend and all of you who are in the last few months of your PhD – heartfelt good  wishes for your success and while you will no doubt find it hard to relax during the holiday season, remember that a time will come when you, too, can ‘waste’ a Sunday baking gingerbread biscuits. And each bite will be all that sweeter for having deferred the gratification.

 

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.

 

 

Happy Anniversary PhD: A Year of Living Post Doctorate

9 Dec

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My mother, who is not Greek, recalls nostalgically that for the first year after she married into my father’s Greek family she was referred to as ‘nifi’ – or bride. After the first anniversary however, it was, she says “no more nifi’. Brides were now a fully paid up member of the married set, no longer a precious newlywed, and afforded no special treatment. It’s a bit like that post PhD. I am at the end of my first year post graduation. After December, I’ll no longer have ‘just got’ my doctorate. The anniversary is nearly here.

I know that next year I won’t be a special new graduate. The clock, in fact, is ticking on how much I can achieve until my PhD becomes, well, irrelevant. As publishers are quick to point out, a writer only gets one chance at newness. Everyone loves a bride, a puppy, a debut author, a recent graduate.

Happy anniversary PhD. Now what?

I think it takes at least a year after graduating to overcome the exhaustion of completing a doctorate. My brother (the other Dr Tsitas in the family) warned me not to make any major life decisions for at least two months after submission. He was right. It’s an enormous achievement to have submitted and passed – and the actual graduation is a highpoint of course.

And then what?

Unlike Bella’s rapid transformation in The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn – when she becomes a vampire, the process of becoming who you are post doctorate takes longer, alas. If only we could wake up transformed from our experience, remade somehow from our doctoral journey.

Life isn’t like Bella’s transformation. Change comes in spurts, identity forms from experience and confidence is hard earned – especially in creative writing. I’ve met many people who graduated with a PhD in creative writing – from different universities, at the same time as me, and the story is the same. Some have sent the manuscript of their creative project confidently out to every publisher around, only to be knocked back time and time again. Others have applied for writing grants and submitted to competitions confident that four years of research would stand them in good stead.

Nothing. Even with a polished piece manuscript, it’s a hard slog, especially for those who have opted for the notoriously hard to crack literary fiction market. And while I know those who have had creative non fiction published, they are quick to point out that the rewards are hardly financially lucrative.

Let’s put it this way – even with a book published, a successful graduate in creative writing on their first PhD anniversary may find themselves in a sessional teaching position – that’s if they are lucky – and wondering what’s next?

For many there is the anxiety and grind of trying to find a job post doctorate – and I am not talking about a coveted, academic job – simply any full time job that will pay and lift them out of poverty. You have to wonder at the wisdom of spending years on research and playing your part in advancing knowledge when it is not rewarded by society. In fact, it is actively punished. Many PhD graduates sadly omit their highest degree from their resume when not applying for academic jobs.

The only thing that comes close to this disparity of effort and reward is working in the creative arts. Society rewards those who make money, while perversely holding to contempt those who have sacrificed to pursue research.

Although I suffered the post doctoral slump and exhaustion as hard as anyone else in my first year post doctorate, at least I wasn’t in the black hole that so many find themselves in. I already had an interesting full time job in a university, so I wasn’t fretting about why I did the doctorate if it didn’t magically produce an academic job.

And while I haven’t got the creative project out widely to publishers, I have had all the chapters of my exegesis presented at conferences and published in academic books and journals and am ready to pitch the research as a book, and send the novel to publishers.

It really is a long, hard slog to find your place post doctorate, and on the eve of my first anniversary, I am pretty happy with where I am.

I have always seen the doctorate as the long game – like long tail marketing, it has a slow burn pay off in every aspect. Although it is hard to see the reason you did a doctorate after the initial euphoria of submission has passed, especially if it doesn’t lead to an academic job. But I have discovered the following things in my year of living post doctorate.

In your honeymoon period post doctorate you can:

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  •  Watch box sets of all the TV series you didn’t have time for while studying. Then realise you don’t have the energy or concentration to follow a story arc over 60 episodes of anything and no one wants to talk to you about Mad Men anyway as that’s ancient history.
  • Read for enjoyment and indeed enjoy non academic books so much you keep forgetting to get off at your train stop (or, in one case, forget to get on a plane).
  • Go back to the gym/yoga/walking/running and immediately have to see a physiotherapist to repair damage from lack of core strength gained sitting on your bum for four years
  • Embrace the school ground again and actually talk to other parents at school functions – and realise that you have nothing to say to them anymore.
  • Defend your thesis so well in public that you you bludgeon everyone with a lengthy explanation of your research. Everyone. Such as the person you meet at the dog wash. The guy who delivers the box of fresh vegetables. Your hairdresser.
  • Change all your business cards to the title Dr. And don’t care if people think you are a wanker for doing it. You have earned it!

Indeed, I think there is a certain settling in period, or honeymoon period, post thesis that lasts from when you graduate to when the new batch of doctoral candidates graduate. In that year, you and those around you are getting used to your new status, and your new pace of life.

And in the age of everyone it seems getting a doctorate, how do you make your achievement stand out, how do you justify the years and sacrifices spent on obtaining your goal?

In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer by Associate Prof Martin Davies Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, and a Senior Learning Advisor at Federation University Australia, he talks about what he learnt from one doctorate that was transferable to the second.

Yes, I know. The idea of doing a second doctorate seems inconceivable that first year post doctorate. A bit like having another baby less than 18 months after giving birth. But just as there are women who have large families, there are people who do two doctorates. Mind you, a year post doctorate is a little like getting through that first year with a new baby – you start to sleep through the night again, go back to the gym, see friends and enjoy life. I imagine it’s as hard to go back to doctoral study as it is to unfold those ugly maternity clothes and imagine swelling up into them again…

If you have spent your first year post doctorate wondering why you spent four years of your life on deferred gratification, stress, overwork and anxiety, and are wondering if you will ever see any rewards from your efforts, the following tips gleaned from Associate Prof Martin Davies blog post may be useful.

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 After a doctorate, you now know how to:

  • Manage a large project over a long time period, with an immanent deadline, and with virtually no assistance.
  • Take on a project and finish it on time, and without help.
  • Transfer the skills developed in doing a PhD – such as academic literacy, constructing an argument, marshalling evidence, citing sources, and so on, to anything else one does in the academic domain.
  • Write an academic book between 80-120,000 words in length, and on any topic.
  • Construct an argument on a unique topic of your own choosing
  • “Narrow down” a topic within a few weeks to something manageable, and interesting, and focus.

Happy anniversary PhD.

 

 

 

 

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

28 Oct

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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? 

 

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

10 Jun

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If you had all the time in the world to write, would it make you a better writer – or would you just have more time to procrastinate? Even if you love to write more than anything else, why is it that a deadline is the push you need to get it done?

Perhaps one reason you are falling behind in your book, doctoral writing or dissertation is that you are not putting in enough writing time. Maybe you are skimping on your daily word count. Are you cheating in your assessment of what you actually do each week when it comes to writing? If you added up all the time you actually spent physically putting words down on the page, what would it add up to?

And if you simply can’t get started – why? It’s time for some reassessment of your work habits, and a little look at the cheating and self-delusion that writers, like dieters, are all guilty of doing of indulging in. Go on, admit it – when you told your supervisor that you wrote for five hours last week, was it in fact one hour and the rest of the time googling celebrities without makeup?

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Dieters delude themselves that it’s not cheating if they eat when no one sees them. Writers delude themselves that they are writing when no one sees them. Which is why so many seem to need a deadline to get anything done. It’s like the equivalent of a public weigh-in.

I am no stranger to the motivation of a deadline. What writer hasn’t cleaned the stove, mowed the lawn or rearrange the sock drawer to avoid the blank page? Doctoral students are even worse, with that supposedly long period of time stretching endlessly into the distance – until the final deadline looms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about deadlines these past few days because I’ve been talking a lot about them in a writing master class I am doing. Other people might spend a long weekend down at the beach, I spend it – writing.

What, you might ask, did I expect to get out of a writing master class, now that I have a doctorate in creative writing under my belt?

As one woman said “I am doing this because I am a life long learner”. Indeed. Also, the simple act of being surrounded by writing peers at a similar level of expertise is galvanising. The quality of feedback is invigorating and challenging, the camaraderie as the social ice thaws is comforting, and hearing other experienced writers talking about their struggles is enlightening.

In fact, no matter how accomplished, it transpires that writers are all prone to the same self doubt and procrastination. Here are common comments during the coffee break –  “I am so lazy!”, or “I am a fraud!” or “I can’t do this!” and “what makes me think I can ever write anything good enough?”  This is what US psychologist David Rasch PhD – author of The Blocked Writer’s Book Of The Dead calls “the jerk in my head”.

All of the 12 people in the master class were talented, prolific, experienced, published and devoted to their craft. But one thing really, really resonated with everyone was the communal cry of “we just don’t get enough done!” and “I need to have better work habits!”

One  participant had the enviable lifestyle of all the time to write – no kids to mind, daily paid job to do, or elderly relatives to nurture. He had the money, the support and the space and no distractions. Unlike another writer of 10 published books who is also a full time primary school teacher and writes books in the school holidays, this man appeared to have a dream existence. Except he wasn’t writing. He was procrastinating.

 

I suggested some obstacles, boundaries or roadblocks –  sometimes having everything is actually limiting. A form of creative agoraphobia. Maybe that’s why writers procrastinate – because it focuses time when they have to really, really get something in. And that narrow window of opportunity then casts a beam of clarity over the problem at hand.

Or – maybe not. It just makes us stressed and irritable. I am no stranger to the all-nighter, probably because I take on many projects, work full time and have two children. But what I do know is that there are many ways to approach your writing, and you need to find the one that works best for you. How will you end up with a reasonable body of work? By putting the time in. The same could be said of having a reasonable body of course…you have to put in the work…not just think about it…

 

Here are some ideas canvassed in the master class: – which writer are you?

  • Binge writer: you starve yourself of writing and time, then hit the computer and pour out the words in a block of time, alienating yourself from the rest of the world.
  • Helicopter nibbler – you don’t have the time to write every day because of other commitments, but the weekend seems so far away…so you keep in touch by writing little notes to your work, making sure you maintain the love with your project.
  •  The five: two writing diet – you are a weekend writer only. The rest of the week you think you might write, but don’t. After all, You haven’t finished watching Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
  • The early morning writer – you start before the family gets up. By 8 pm, you can only concentrate on TV.
  • The late night writer – for night owls – you write when you have the children to bed. This is because you can’t even write a shopping list in the morning that makes sense.
  • The word count writer – you write 500 to 1000 words a day, whenever, no matter what. This adds up. You have a book finished in six months!
  • Once a week writer – you write only one hour a week on a Sunday – and make sure you write 2000 words in that session. See above!
  • Endless plotting writer – maybe it’s not JUST about the words – but the other complicated, moving parts of a novel – the plot, characters, the twists and turns, the set ups and payoffs…maybe you set aside a specific block of time each day or week – half and hour – to work on this AS WELL as a separate block of time for actual writing. You also have a book finished in six months, but are late paying bills and have no personal relationships. You are obsessed and driven – are you doing a doctorate?
  • Vomit draft writer – you don’t worry about the perfect draft first off – you write the entire “draft zero” or “vomit draft” and then have time for editing, and rewriting. People use the words fast paced, action packed and could do with a close edit for your work.
  • None of the above. You want to write but get nothing done. But your next holiday is planned and you have a table covered in books that could be the inspiration for your novel, if only you’d stop watching Game Of Thrones.

Think of your writing life like other aspects of your life that you need to do to remain a functional person – you need to eat, shop, clean, cook, take care of friendships and family, you need to read, plot, write and engage with the writing community in some way as a writer. Just as you should exercise regularly, you need to write regularly.

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No time for writing? Nonsense – you can fit even 10 minutes a day, can’t you? Save the big burst up for when you can carve out time, but just as there are many forms of eating (snacks, dinner out, leisurely brunch) so too are there many forms of writing. Just do it!

The trick is to find a pattern for yourself, and factor it in, every day, every week, week in and out. Remember the worst thing is starting, so some tricks, like retyping the last paragraph of your story when you start, or making sure you always finish some writing off so that it’s never a neat ending, and come back into that sentence, might work for you.

What ever you do – start. And put in – the time and effort. Nothing happens without it. Books, and doctorates alas, do not write themselves from your imagination and research without your physical input.

 

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.”

 

 

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