academic cohort, Academic relevance, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, parenting and study, Time management

Lessons from my doctorate

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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?

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Academic success, Body hair, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, editing, parenting and study, PhD completion, Time management

Staying power: how to finish your doctorate

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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.”

 

 

Academic regalia, Academic rituals, Academic Study, Academic success, Big Love TV Series, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Doctoral completion, Graduation ceremony, parenting and study, The Hero's Journey, Time management

Doctoral graduation: the rite of academic passage at last

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, parenting and study, Uncategorized

Post Doctoral Celebrations: Time to Play

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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.

Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Before Midnight: Women, Motherhood and Creativity

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Do creativity, academic study and having children mix, or is this an oil and water combination best avoided by female writers seeking fame, glory, a doctorate – and publication?

In the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy, the love affair between American writer Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and French singer and student Celine (Julie Delpy) begins because of an impulsive decision by Jessie to ask Celine to hop off a train with him and see what happens – all because they felt a spark after talking to each other.

In Before Midnight  we see the couple after nearly 20 years, with their unfulfilled dreams rising like bile. As I watched the middle aged versions of  Celine and Jessie argue in the final, cringe making “he said, she said” scene in the Greek hotel at the end of the movie, the dialogue succinctly captured the dilemma women face with their creativity. To paraphrase:

Celine said: you never stopped writing or being creative even after we had children, and that’s because I do all the work – I earn a stable living, and I am home every night on time to deal with the kids. What about me, when do I think and have time to be creative?

Jessie says: I wish you’d just take the time and do it, be a bit more selfish about what you need and stop looking after everyone.

I think that says it all, really. Not enough women are selfish about the work that matters to them, and in order to be creative, you need to  spend time alone with yourself, thinking, working, doing the daily grind of writing and making your work. You have to keep up fluency, you have to keep up an inner dialogue with yourself.

The number one advice I’d give anyone wanting to do a doctorate who has family responsibilities is that you have to be selfish with your time.

I attended a very good session early on in my PhD research by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.  This had nothing to do with my research but plenty on how to approach the doctoral journey. I kept their booklet “The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students” and read and re-read it religiously. Every time I got that cold, sweaty panic of “I can’t do this!” I would pull out the booklet and read it again.

Here are the seven secrets according to Kearns and Gardiner:

  1. It’s your thesis – you need to be the driver
  2. Write and show as you go
  3. Be realistic
  4. Say no to distractions
  5. It’s a job
  6. Get help
  7. You can do it!

Apart from points 1 and 2, which are related to work and study skills (more on this in future blogs), the rest of the seven tips are about time management and approach to study.

Here are Kearns and Gardiner’s versions through the motherhood prism:

Be realistic:

Don’t sweat the domestic stuff. Let other people help out and look after your children, and don’t think you have to be the only one to do everything. I have one iron clad rule – who ever is looking after the children is in charge. We have a saying in my house and that’s “if grandma has you, it’s grandma rules”. The kids know this, and obey. Don’t try to rule remotely – let the designated minder take the authority.

In Before Midnight, Julie Delpy makes salad in the kitchen and then complains about this in the hotel room – “look at you, you are the big writer, talking about the next book with your genius friends while I make the salad you stuff down your face!”

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If you don’t want to end up resentful about cooking – don’t cook. Simple. The only people I will cook for are my children, and even then I have taught them how to fend for themselves. Women are prone to being domestic martyrs, and my attitude is – Nigella Lawson has a lot to answer for. It is frankly unhealthy for women to glamorize being in the kitchen, making food for men. Unless you are writing your doctorate about cooking, get out of the kitchen.

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Now, if I was the Julie Delpy’s character Celine, I’d pour a glass of wine, stroll down to the terrace overlooking the ocean, and take my guitar with me and write a song and chat to the men. I wish I could play music, so in my case, I’d take a sketch book instead and draw – and chat to the men. And leave the salad making to the other women for whom this is a creative outlet. Bless the people who like to cook and do it well, for they shall feed you. The bottom line is – seriously, no one wants to eat my cooking, not even me, or my dog. I did not make the Greek dish featured above, although I have tried. It is never as good as my cousin’s, possibly because she spends as much time cooking as I do writing. You need to put in the work for anything to be good.

Say no to distractions:

Children do not in fact impede a creative life, not if you are judicious about what you do and when you do it. I am not the only female writer to find I am more efficient – and selfish – with her time once she had children.

How do we do it? Say no to distractions. This is what Jessie (Ethan Hawke) tells Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight – put yourself first.

Women make many obstacles for themselves, that men do not. Perhaps this is a form of excuse to back away from the demands and intensity of the creative life.

It’s a job:

Sure, we all know a doctorate is a job – but what if you have a full time job and family responsibilities? Then you need to get serious about your time and what you can set aside and what you do with it.

Kearns and Gardiner recommend writing for two hours a day on your thesis – every day. This is good advice. If  you are doing a creative writing doctorate, like me, then you have to juggle that writing time with time on your doctoral novel and time on the exegesis.

I found it impossible to switch from one to the other every day. The best thing was for me to spend a week on the novel, and then swap to the exegesis. And to take small bites at the writing, rather than feel I have to write a huge amount every day. Kearns and Gardiner call this “snack writing”

When research would spark ideas for the novel, I would have the two files open on the computer – exegesis and novel – and write little chunks of each.

A career in journalism has made me a deadline junkie. Give me a word limit and a deadline and I’ll give you a story – it’s almost a reflex action. Therefore, I found it really useful to present my novel writing at workshops and writing groups, or to look around for short story competitions and enter chapters in those.

This same approach served me well for the exegesis – I blogged about my ideas, turned those blogs into conference abstracts, and those conference papers into chapters. By treating the doctorate as a job – professional writing – and chunking that writing and research up into real-world outcomes – conference papers and competition entries – I had my 100,000 word limit and arguments ready within four years.

Get help

My university has a great graduate research centre and I spent my lunch hour going to every class on offer. I also made friends with my liaison librarian and you know that enthusiastic, talkative doctoral student who speaks to everyone – and I mean everyone – at a conference? That was me. Even when I had no idea what I was doing or saying, I waded in, and listened, contributed and learned. Throwing myself in the deep end from the beginning rather than sitting quietly in my room researching made all the difference.

In the last 100 days, I was lucky enough to get even more help – my wonderful second supervisor, who held my hand, did a close reading of my exegesis and really pushed me forward. Then friends from the academy and publishing who offered to do beta reads and provided much needed advice, support and proof reading. Sometimes just knowing at this final lap – the last month or so – someone had your back was enough to get you through the last desperate days. I can’t thank them all enough.

This is what Jessie tells Celine in Before Midnight – don’t try to do everything yourself. Get help.

You can do it!

Yes, you can. You are smart enough, if you made it into a doctoral program. Though I bet like me you have tried to Google “I am not smart enough for my PhD”. It’s not intelligence that gets you through (that’s a given) – it’s persistence. What my grandfather called “stick-ability”. Just don’t give up. The four year journey is one of constant hurdles, ups and downs, dead ends, false starts, brilliant insights, corrupted computer files, library fines, exhaustion, depression and then there is everything your regular life can throw at you as well.

So, what’s the secret? Be persistent – and selfish. Don’t go offering to make anyone’s salad, unless you gave birth to them, and then, start nurturing some self reliance in your children. They can actually cope without you being their servant. If you do everything for them, and other people, you and your doctorate will suffer and your creative life will wither. Learn to say yes to yourself first.

Julie Delpy – I love your movie but I wish Celine was more selfish and less bitter. I am pleased that in this interview, Julie Delpy says she is not the same sort of mother as Celine, but that motherhood helped her contribute to writing the movie. And as Ethan Hawke observes, there are consequences to following your dreams. Indeed – that’s what makes the future, and the unknown, so tantalising. A bit like starting out on the doctorate. Who knows where you’ll end up after a couple of years? It’s a leap of faith.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, parenting and study, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, Frankenstein, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, University life, Writing strategies

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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I had replayed the scene in my head many times – actually walking into the shop and getting my exegesis and novel printed up as per the regulation temporary binding – three copies in total for the examiners – and then delivering them to my supervisor. But in truth rather than joy or elation, I felt sick with exhaustion. Still, it wasn’t me who burst into tears on seeing all the copies snug in the plastic bag, ready for delivery right slap bang on the due date – it was a colleague!

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You should be happy I am finally handing in.”

“But for as long as I have known you, you’ve been doing this doctorate,” she said. “It’s all I ever hear about – it’s like it is part of you.”

I was given the most lovely pot of pink flowers from a student (thanks Yvette!) to congratulate me on handing in. But it still didn’t feel real until I received the longed for text from my supervisor, who hand delivered the bundles of joy (more like writhing mutants) to the Graduate Research Office, after the Dean’s sign-off: “All fine. Well done! Time to relax”. 

When I came home tonight, late after teaching, my teenage son said “well, what now, mum? You can’t tell me you’re going to do another one?”

“No way,” I said. “If you do it right, one PhD is all you need. And I don’t have the energy for two!”

“Well – what are you going to do?”

Well, tonight – sleep! No one staggers to the end of the finish line of a doctorate without being totally shattered, no matter how much support they have. I am humbled by how everyone has come through behind Team Evelyn – from practical support with proof reading, copy editing, helpful academic advice, simply endlessly listening and the friends and family who have helped out by organising diversions and play dates for my kids so I could work in peace, it has all been enormously helpful. And never underestimate the importance of a cheer squad in boosting morale. There’s a reason the home team has an advantage. That boost is the wind beneath one’s wings. Maybe this blog post should be titled “It takes a village to do a doctorate”.

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I started 100 days to the doctorate as a way of doing what I do best –  writing for an audience. Trained as a journalist, where I worked in the cut and thrust of the newsroom of Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper for a decade,  it is second nature for me to put my words on the line. To share the experience, the words, the journey.

By blogging about the manic end of the doctorate, I aimed to articulate [to myself!] what was going on. The last 100 days is the culmination of four years of finding one’s way. Of nudging into the academy, learning names and faces, getting it wrong, stumbling, learning the language, getting it right and then, taking one’s place at the table – well, at the very end…down at the bottom of the table.

Over the past four years, I have blogged extensively about my work, and those ideas have ended up in conference papers that in turn morphed into the exegesis and into journal articles. I have done the ‘working out’ in public, and that has been a very useful step in owning the work, and in seeing myself as part of the academy.

Ah, writers. We sell ourselves short in the academy, I think. Yet here is the thing – a lot of those in the humanities would like to be writers, in fact. And one of the most important things I learned from feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work was her love for words, narrative and SF. But the Creative Writing doctorate is a strange and demanding beast, as much a mutant I think as the mutants I have been researching. We have to create a compelling work of fiction, and an exegesis that ticks all the boxes for academic research. There is much to write about this process, and indeed, I do so in a chapter of my exegesis, so it is still too raw and fresh to write about it here.

So – for now – there is a hiatus, of sorts, as the doctoral submission goes to the examiners – and I wait.

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As Mary Shelley wrote of her hopes for her novel Frankenstein: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. ”

I also hope my hideous progeny, my exegesis and novel about hybrids, mutants and monsters, passes the test. 

Not that my youngest son will have any of that. He threw himself into my arms tonight and declared “it’s Dr Mummy!” which is very sweet. I told him, “no, not just yet – a few more hoops to get through first, one way or another.”

“But – it’s in, right? You got it in on time?” he asked.

“Yes, darling – mummy got it in on time.”

“Great!” He gave me a big hug. “Can my friend come over for a sleepover on the weekend now I don’t have to be really quiet the whole time so you can study?”

Maya, the hard, driven CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, had no idea what to do with herself after her quest ended.

I know exactly what I am going to do with my time. It’s like that when you are a mum – I have a couple of Scout badges to sew onto my son’s shirt, a whole backlog of domestic tasks to tackle, a journal paper to submit in a day and a book I am co-editing due in three weeks. Then – there is the bigger ‘tomorrow’ to embrace.

But at least I will sleep tonight knowing I reached that most prized of a doctoral student’s many milestones (except for actual graduation) and that is the timely completion.

The time-bomb intensity of the race to the end that is 100 Days To The Doctorate comes to an end – but I will keep blogging weekly with updates to share the story of what is next on the academic journey – and what I learned in the past four years – and also, what I wish I had discovered earlier. Yes, it is easy to be wise after the event. 

So, what am I thinking of now?  Just like President Bartlet at the conclusion of my favourite TV show The West Wing.   I am thinking of – tomorrow.