Beyond the PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, Time management, work-work balance

Life post PhD – embracing the moment at last

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.

xmas wreath

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.

xmas yard 2

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.

biscuits hand

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.

xmas santa

 

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.

 

Advertisements
creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Early Career Reseacher, Graduation ceremony, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, publishing the novel, the creative life

Happy Anniversary PhD: A Year of Living Post Doctorate

IMG_0368

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:

IMG_4434

  •  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.

2013-09-12 14.26.29

 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.

 

 

 

 

Academic Study, Brand Identity, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Marketing, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, publishing the novel, writing workshops

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

2013-09-12 14.18.06

Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

The Rosie Project 9781922079770

I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

The Rosie Effect 9781922182104

Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

IMG_1183

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.

2013-09-12 14.38.21

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.

green sludge IMG_5574

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.

2013-09-14 12.39.56

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.

 

IMG_1233

 

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? 

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, post submission blues

Post Doctoral Wilderness: life as an Early Career Researcher

mannequins IMG_0203

There is no danger of me dropping out of my PhD studies. That’s simply because I went the distance and completed and graduated. My crisis of faith is coming post doctorate. I am like one of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, going through the motions, a mere copy of my former driven self as a doctoral candidate. I have gone through the PhD journey and come out the other end. My reward is this – I am an Early Career Researcher. Whatever that means.

It seems ridiculous to be still complaining of doctoral burnout when I graduated nearly nine months ago. But as this is a warts and all personal insight into the doctoral – and post doctoral – journey, I am telling you like it is.

That nebulous period of being an ‘Early Career Researcher’, of which there is no exact definition, is a hard one to navigate. I work with artists who have had to ‘PhD up’ in their long term jobs as university expectations have changed. A doctorate now allows them more security and the ability to lobby for a pay increase.

For those who have come through ‘the system’ hard and fast as young students, the ECR phase is one where they may grapple with their first foray into the ‘workforce’ and struggle to find a position.

Then there are those like me, and others I know, especially in the creative writing field, who have had varied careers, careers in the media (which has rapidly changed beyond recognition) and for whom a doctorate is no ‘deal breaker’ in the employment stakes. In fact, it may well be considered a hindrance, especially in Australia.

I know that some of the most common refrains about doctoral studies concern completing, and the anxiety of simply staying the distance. So many candidates drop out. But there is also a problem at the other end – the end where we PhD students are extruded from the system like sausage meat. And that problem is called ‘what do we do now’? It is, in short, a crisis of vision.

poster woman glasses IMG_0914

It’s sure as hell one your university isn’t bothered answering. Or has probably considered. Heck – they get money for simply signing you up and having you complete. You expect them to care about what happens when you finish? You want vision – that’s up to you.

Actually, I have found that if you look hard, there is actually some consideration to this ECR dilemma, and there are some universities that do offer support. And, why not? There is counselling after all for drug offenders, for alcoholics. There should also be similar support for those who have completed a doctorate.

I would like to see all universities take some of the fat they creamed from doctoral students and actually put serious effort into addressing the post traumatic stress disorder that comes from completing four years of doctoral study. And I am not joking. Post Traumatic Doctoral Study Disorder (PTDSD) is a thing. 

The minute you graduate, the university is there with its begging cap cajoling for alumni handouts. The entire four years, I can guarantee most students will have had indifferent supervision and support from the university. Yet the minute you have any success, the university is there, media cap in hand, begging for a free ride on your publicity. And I must declare here that I have worked in both Alumni and media sections of academia and they are only doing their job and are not responsible for the grief your supervisor or Dean or examiners caused you!

And so it is. But doctoral students should get something from their university in return for all the financial aid they provide to its coffers, and that’s support for every single one for five years after they graduate with a doctorate. Support that deals with the psychological fall out of higher education, with the agonizing career and research issues, and help in finding a purpose and voice for their work.

Other wise, what on earth is it all about, anyway? Or is it too cynical of me to think the universities are just doing it for the money?

I actually think the most critical phase of the doctoral journey begins once the graduation gear gets handed back.

road IMG_2073

This is the nebulous phase of the ‘Early Career Researcher’. This is the point at which one may be within five years of having received the doctorate, and be, basically, floundering for something else.

It would be a job. More likely, it is a career and direction. It is a job of some meaning, it is the five year plan and future job satisfaction. It is getting published and getting published in the right places. It is impacts, and citations, and brilliantly constructed resumes and it is getting published.

It is making a name for ourselves. It is questioning why we spent four or more years on doctoral studies. It is falling in and out of love with our research. It is wondering if our research is even relevant any more. It is questioning the faith. It is, ultimately, anxiety, lack of direction, and all on top of bone numbing study burn out.

Hell – I know where I felt like this before. This wandering around in the dark in utter fear. This terrifying identity crisis of not being in control but everyone assuming you are the expert. This shattering life changing period of just having gone through an amazing, physically and mentally challenging period of generation only to be then left raising properly the thing that you have created – this squalling, demanding, blubbering, nascent bundle of knowledge called – your research.

Oh yes, I am a mother of two and I can cast my mind back almost 16 years exactly to what it felt like to be a first time mother and holding my baby and wondering ‘what the hell do I do now?’

cherubs IMG_1458

Again – a doctorate is like childbirth, pregnancy, parenting – it is the closest thing men (and many women) have to knowing what it is like to create and birth and then be solely responsible for something. And for the mothers with doctorates, it is a strangely familiar place to be. The academic world for ECRs is as competitive as it is for new mothers. Who has the more glamorous role? Who can afford to outsource? What name did you give your research? Is it the best dressed? Is it going to the best journals? Or is your research that kid with the name no one can spell, with snot marks over its face? And are you the mum who looks like they slept in their clothes after a rough night of teething? Or the sleek corporate mum who can afford to take a little sessional teaching on the side while spending their time submitting polished pieces to top journals while the pesky aspect of working for a living and supporting the family is taken care of by a separate primary breadwinner?

For the record, I’m the mum up all night blogging and submitting to journals and scrambling the get the kids to school on time and then writing and blogging for my day job in a university gallery. I know the hell that is multi tasking, and the plight of being an invisible ‘mummy track’ Early Career Researcher without an academic position or tenure.  Or that mythical ‘research day’. Strange, though, that I have published far more than those lucky sods who have this research day. No points for guessing which mum I empathise with in the movie ‘Motherhood’.

 

If my thesis holds correct, then there will be a way through the forest. At some point – hey, that mythical five years down the track time when I will no longer be an Early Career Researcher – my ‘research’ – my ‘baby’ – will be at school. Able to trade sandwiches, bully and get bullied, start standing up for itself and be independent. Yes. My baby – my research, will have a name for itself, and make my name in the academy.

I hope.

Then again, there are many parents who do a crap job and ruin their kids chances for life. If you ignore your kid and never speak to it or never socialize it or spend time with it – well, bad things happen, right? Said kid will wither and perish one way or another. Same thing with your research and academic career, I suspect. Except there is no State Care or welfare organization to take the research off you for being negligent. No, that’s it, unless you make an effort, your hard doctoral work can just go to hell and be forgotten. There is no such thing as a doctorate being a ticket for life. It is simply the start of the whole journey.

Have I made you feel really anxious yet?

That’s how I felt at a workshop on the perils and pitfalls of being an Early Career Researcher. I came away feeling defeated. Like I had already failed my research by not sending it to the best A Star Preschool (journal). That I hadn’t organized my research enough play dates with the Cool Kids of Academia. My research had to get by with bursts of love while I dealt with its siblings – my actual biological human children, and my actual day job/career that supports everyone. Poor research, it gets attention lavished on it and then has to fend for itself.

The only glimmer of hope was being told at this workshop that ‘you have to start somewhere’ when getting published. And that having some sort of profile – like a blog – was a good thing. And that all the others in the workshop felt the same as me and none of us had the genius research-child, we all had the kids that didn’t sleep through the night and were on the lower percentile growth chart when it came to stellar publication success and giving us all a leg up in an academic career.

We were also, just like a new mothers group [and an Early Career Research group is just like a suburban new mothers group] in that post birth, traumatic stress disorder state. We had burn out, apathy, and a major amount of fear.

Let me tell you – no one and I mean no one at that workshop was confident, focused and optimistic about a tenured position as an academic in the field they wanted to work in. Those with children or commitments were mired in one city – in this case Melbourne – and grateful for whatever sessional work they could get, or unrelated professional work that wasn’t face to face teaching. Others had a coveted ECR position – in which the clock was ticking, in some cases very loudly before funding ran out.

Those who were young (ish) were prepared to chase three year contracts around the globe. Regardless of where they were job wise, everyone was in the same position regarding publication. Oh research – our research babies – are so demanding, and the field is so competitive. Just as well we love you, research baby.  We have a big journey ahead.

motorbike IMG_1999

I feel that by attending the ECR workshop, I avoided the common pitfall of wandering around in a post doc wilderness for longer than necessary. I am not sure I have a compass yet, but at least the workshop pointed me to a door and said “that one – ”

I was reassured that having had the door opened, anyone can do very well if they decide to!  It’s hard work, but the main reason many academics do not do as well as they could, is because the door is often not opened for them. 

I do believe that just as parenting skills need to be taught post birth, so should universities offer Early Career Researchers similar education classes about navigating the stormy uncharted waters of their careers ahead. And for the record, I believe that the definition ECR needs to be those who graduated from the university and not just those lucky enough to score a job in one after graduating.

Academic rituals, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Time management, Writing strategies

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

100 per cent more effortIMG_4450

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?

snacks IMG_4453

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.

IMG_4145

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.

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, University life

Your doctoral cohort: network with your peers

cakes IMG_4177

I’ve been reading Linked In posts about ‘what I’d tell my 22 year old self’ and one caught my eye in particular – and that was ‘network with your peers’ Specifically, writes Nicholas Thompson of the newyorker.com; “many of the good things that have come in my career have come because of the people I got to know in my early twenties.”

I think of my own career and realise how true this is. It’s the people I worked with on newspapers and magazines in my twenties that I still turn to over the years as our careers have morphed in the evolving media landscape.

I wrote and published a book with Dr Caroline van de Pol, who I met on a suburban newspaper, and then worked with on a daily newspaper, and now have shared interests in academia as we have both received our doctorates in creative writing.

But Thompson’s advice doesn’t just hold true for twentysomethings just starting out. As we move through careers, which develop and change in this age of reinvention, academia plays a key role in retraining for the future. Swap “people I met in my twenties’ for “people I met doing my doctorate” and you can see where I am heading – it is your cohort at university that is vital, no matter how old you are when you take on post graduate study.

Thompson says with the hindsight of age that it “wasn’t meeting people who were influential; it was becoming friends, and developing working relationships, with people who would become influential” that was important.

Take this advice to heart, doctoral candidates, and embrace your cohort. What I have learned is the older you get, the more retired and senile your mentors become. Sad, but true. It’s your cohort that will grow and ultimately, help you as you will help them.

Not everyone who does a doctorate does so as a fresh faced 25 year old on the roller coaster from one degree to the next. Certainly, with the creative writing doctorate, I find that most of my cohort are in fact mid career writers who have realised that they need to “Dr Up” if they are to even get a casual teaching gig anymore. And why would they want that? Because it’s always been hard to make a reliable living from just writing creatively. You need to hustle your skills where the money is – be it copywriting, communications and in the old days before the Internet, journalism. Now to make a living doing sessional teaching as well requires you have the edge by having a doctorate. Call it educational inflation, if you like, but it’s reality.

statue IMG_1526

It’s easy with the pressure to complete your doctorate in a ‘timely fashion” to concentrate on that and nothing else. But that’s only one part of the story. Your doctorate is a journey and the people you met on the way will become characters in the story of your life and career.  I am going to give you advice I never got doing my doctorate and this it – it is not what you know, it is who you know when it comes to getting an academic job at the end of your doctorate. Meritocracy is for fairy tales, alas. The cold hard truth is that the jobs advertised are so often done for show – candidates are already chosen long before the key selection criteria is sketched out by some HR consultant. Those who want a certain candidate make sure the key selection criteria fits the person they have chosen so they can get away with this sort of thing.

So, how do you get around this? Networking. And that means – making your self known, useful, by joining up, taking part, putting yourself out there and helping others up, too. Getting to know people. All very well, isn’t it, when you are struggling to finish. But there is an organic way of doing this, and that’s to be part of an academic community that meshes with your interests.

oxford bikes IMG_1566

I went to many conferences before I found ‘my people’. And I am sure these are not the only people who are playing in the same sandpit as me, either. I could find more, and should. But so far I have met a wide circle of engaged emerging academics across disciplines who have helped me as I have helped them, in some small way, to get some recognition.

“Thank you for thinking of me” I have been told many times when I have put someone’s name forth for a panel, presentation, reading, whatever – as they have put forth mine.

Thompson writes: “I’m continually working with the same people I worked with in my early twenties. I assign them stories, or I ask them for advice. They call me. We’ve built up trust.”

Don’t underestimate this ‘trust’. I was reminded of this when researching Bruce Springsteen fandom, of all things, for a paper I am toying with that looks at the power of sharing personal stories to connect with readers. I have good friends who are ‘bronze’ Springsteen fans, travelling the world to see him play. As we watched numerous Springsteen concert videos together and I took notes, one of the words that came up frequently was ‘trust’; the trust Springsteen’s fans placed in him for his authenticity, the powerful personal connection with his lyrics, and the admiration fans have in Springsteen’s trust in his own E Street Band, his primary backing band that he has surrounded himself with since 1972, and grown up with – and grown successful with – over the decades. As we say in Australia, he’s a bloke who doesn’t ditch his mates.

What is true in life and for Bruce Springsteen is also true in academia –  we need to reach out to others, and hold on to those we connect with. Yet no one tells you this when you start your doctoral journey. It’s all about impressing the professors, getting articles into high ranking journals. Completing on time.

I can hear what you are saying: “my doctoral study is so isolated I don’t meet anyone”, and “any event I go to on campus hardly anyone turns up anyway”. So true. So true. So, this is where part two of my advice comes in – network with your cohort AND find that cohort at conferences. That’s where you’ll meet your real cohort – the ones engaged in your research areas, or like-minded interdisciplinary ones.

Alas, while universities like to pride themselves on supporting doctoral students and travel to conferences, that’s not always the case, as Pat Thompson explains. In fact, the talk is cheap and the funding cheaper. Let alone support from supervisors anxious you’ll quickly overtake them.

I presented at three Inter-Disciplinary.Net  conferences in Oxford during my doctorate and through those, I made many global connections that have been important in my life and work.

 

dreaming spires IMG_1391

Maybe you are reading this in some country that seems very remote from the action – certainly in Melbourne, I feel very remote from Europe. But the Internet connects us all. I co-edited an academic book Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous with a French doctoral student from the Sorbonne Sarah Montin, whom I met at one of those conferences in Oxford.

Monstrous_Geogra_52f37c8165b67

We finally caught up again for a stroll around Paris and the Sorbonne when I visited last year – it was wonderful to meet and chat after spending so many hours corresponding via email about the project as we edited it over many months. And Sarah gave me behind the scenes tour of that glorious Parisian university.

Evelyn and Sarah outside sorbonneIMG_1096

Closer to home, I am a postgraduate committee member for ASLEC-ANZ – The Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture — Australia and New Zealand , along with my counterpart, Emma Nicoletti. ASLEC-ANZ membership comprises writers, artists, cinematographers, and musicians as well as academics working in and across several areas of the Ecological Humanities, including ecocritical literary and cultural studies, environmental history and the history of science, anthropology and ecophilosophy. The 2014 biennial conference “Affective Habitus” takes places in June in Canberra and together with Emma and others, we are currently planning an informal post grad event of arts practitioner readings – and who are we turning to? Our cohort. From one toss of the pebble, the circles of influence and connection grow. But first you have to pick up that pebble…

It’s vital to go to conferences because you network and by socialising with your cohort you start making connections and organic links with people who share common research interests. And go to an academic’s book launch and support them! (That’s me in the crowd when Dr Peter Singer launched Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan’s book ‘Animals, Equality and Democracy’ . I got to know Siobhan at a conference in Brisbane at the start of my doctorate, and was invited to her animal studies reading group; the connections I made there carried me to an animal studies conference in Utrecht and into ASLEC-ANZ, and onto the Affective Habitus conference where Siobhan is presenting a keynote address. Connections.

Despite being told over the four years of my doctorate that the only thing that matters is writing the exegesis and submitting and everything else is a distraction, this is the stuff of fear and nonsense. It was the conferences I went to and presented at over those four years that were vital because of the people I met – people who became important in my life in so many ways.

It’s not the people at the top you go to conferences to impress and meet – remember, they may well be dead, retired or wandering in a fog of dementia in 15 years time. No, it’s the newbies like you and me who are the ones to network with – because we are at the beginning of our academic journey and whatever our age, we are enthusiastic, tackling the latest ideas, open to possibilities and (however slowly) climbing the academic ladder. You will do well to keep liaising with them over the years, and like me will find that it is this cohort who hold the key to the exciting opportunities.

So – get out there, chat to that other overwhelmed student you meet and really listen to what they have to say and follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, get their email address, search them out on Linked In – follow their blog. When they get a book published – go to the launch and buy two copies and get them signed, keep one, and gift one and spread the love. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch but keep the momentum building.