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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, post submission blues, staying healthy, Time management, Uncategorized, work-work balance

Fit to write: staying healthy enough to be creative

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a true story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

That takes time.

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Where does that time come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

Lean In: Getting your PhD fast, focused and finished

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Are you Leaning In? Or Falling Over? Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for women’s career success has angered as many as it has inspired. But her advice can be applied to finishing your PhD, if you have the determination.

Lean In, Women, Work and the Will To Lead the controversial new book by Sandberg, the Facebook Chief Operating Officer, advises women not to get a life, but to focus as hard and fast as they can on their career.

The big lesson of Lean In is don’t pull back and don’t hold back for lack of confidence. Men Lean In, women traditionally wait to be asked. Men go for it, women go slow. But Sandberg said the only way to get ahead is to Lean In. And she has set up a “global community”  to help women do just that.

If you are a working mother, and have actually been leaning in and just got to the point of falling over and are still not a board member somewhere, well, according to Sandberg, it might just be your fault. Maybe you need more advice!

With this in mind, and given I have now seven weeks to go until I hand in my doctorate, here are my Sandberg inspired tips on how to Lean In to doctoral completion.

10 Tips for Leaning In to Doctoral Completion

  1. Bum on Seat. You have to put in the time. Time, time, time. And more time. Get a comfortable chair. And get up every hour and have another coffee. Or your body will seize up. Australian author, the late Bryce Courtney, said when writing his first book he got his wife to tie him to his chair and desk with a length of rope. It’s a good idea. (Fifty Shades of PhD anyone?) Lean In hard, just don’t forget to sit upright occasionally, or you will fall over.
  2. Unplug the Internet. Okay – Sorry Sandberg, but to Lean In, you have to Lean Out of Facebook! Sure, you can plug it back in, but it’s like that fat photo you put on the fridge. The one that makes you go – “maybe not”. Or better still, you don’t buy crap for the house anyway. Likewise, there’s no idle net surfing. You surround yourself with text books and journal articles and print outs of your exegesis only. Sure, it’s boring. People who only munch on carrots and obsessively work out in the gym are boring. But it gets results. You have to be as obsessive as someone in training for a marathon or skinny jeans. Be as smug and self satisfied as them. Lean In!
  3. Take leave from your day job. My nagging PhD student brain whispers: ‘No sitting on any beach for you, swot. You have work to do! Lean In’ I am rationing out all my leave and taking it in as many week long bursts as I can in the lead up to handing in the PhD. Again, see boring. You are boring. Get over it. You have a deadline. Of course it’s about delayed gratification. The only thing you can’t delay is the deadline. Luckily, my career has been in print journalism, and The Deadline was the driving force of my work life. Journalists flounder without a deadline. A deadline galvanizes them into action. The profession has come in for much criticism of late, but an ability to get the job done to deadline is something that every hack can be proud of. They know how to Lean In. Well, until the deadline…
  4. Decline all offers of social activity. Let’s face it, at this point, you are good for no one. You are boring, your company sucks. And no one got to be a success like Sandberg, or finish their doctorate, by doing frivolous things like socializing. Besides, all you do is talk about your exegesis. Seriously, you are better off staying at your desk and putting in the words. Anyway, you can’t drink, it slows your brain down. You can’t afford to take your foot off that pedal (you have to Lean In). Just say no. This is how much I say no – the last face to face conversation I had with someone I wasn’t related to or worked with was when I bumped into the partner of a close friend while waiting for a delayed train. I told him to say I was Leaning In, and I’d be in touch with her in 9 weeks.
  5.  Don’t cook. I burnt precooked bread rolls the other day by warming them in the oven and then going to check a reference in a book. My boiled eggs could be used as medieval weapons of torture. My coffee is over brewed. My only advice at this point is reheat and buy pre-made. And get the kids to fend for themselves. Tell them mummy is Leaning In! If you have a baby or toddler and are completing your PhD, you obviously come from a different planet of super women and I have no advice for you. See if you can be a Lean In Community mentor. You are already Leaning In!
  6. Exercise. Okay, so this may seem counter intuitive, as I have just said focus, focus, focus on your work, but here is the thing – exercise makes your body and brain go faster, and it clears out the cobwebs. After sitting at my desk all day, or going to work, then coming home and then hitting my text books, exercise acts as way of clearing out one way of thinking before I tackle the other. A blast of David Bowie’s new album The Next Day while briskly walking the streets with the puppy puts us both in a good mood. As Carrie Fisher once famously wrote “Do it for the endolphins”. A better way to Lean In while exercising is to do it whilst listen to podcasts of academic lectures. You have been advised.
  7. Get away from your desk. Mix it up. You can Lean In anywhere as long as you are working! If it is sunny but not unbearable (Australia has had a record breaking summer) I will head outside and sit in the shade and edit my work for an hour, just to get a change of scenery. Likewise, taking the notebook around the house can be an idea, unless like me you have children and pets underfoot who become noisy and demanding when they finally see you have emerged from your cocoon. They will start wanting things like affection and attention, not compatible with the Lean In Lifestyle so time it when they are playing multi-level user games on Skype.
  8. Accept the pain. No one did a PhD in one hundred days. You start, you work, you put in, you Lean In, but at some point, when the end is in sight, you just have to deal with the reality – it’s bloody hard! This is when you really have to Lean In Hard. You need to work-work-work and focus. You need to stop doing everything else and work even more. This sage advice from a friend is tapped to my computer screen – it’s basically a Lean In Mantra; “the mountain never seems as impregnable as when the climbing actually starts. Only conviction and persistence can now drag the dream into existence: this is a fight you are going to win, but not without some degree of pain.” So true.
  9. Embrace – gratefully – any offers of help. Hopefully you will emerge from this final sprint with body, mind and soul intact and be able to reciprocate in the future, but if any of your smart, gorgeous and kind friends in academia offer to do a beta read for you, say yes! Even if you secretly fear that what you write is a load of rubbish. Remember Sandberg’s warning – women suck at self confidence, men aren’t afraid of putting it out there, even if they secretly think they don’t have what it takes. So Lean In, and hand over the work, suck it up and accept advice. And don’t overlook your junior IT department, either. Women with a scrap of sense who have children would have been letting them have the sort of free reign to technology that would make the Facebook team envious. Embrace your kids’ IT support. And if you breakdown crying after a virus corrupts days of work, feel reassured they’ll at least realize  nothing worth achieving comes easily. And it will make them feel even prouder for helping you salvage your files.
  10. Have a (better) reward system: We swots are pathetic about this. A fellow traveller posted on Facebook that she was going to reward herself after a hard slog of study by going out and sitting in a library and reading Kant. I make such bargains with myself; if I finish writing a chapter, but a certain time, I will print it out and take it to the funky new café that’s surprisingly opened in my very suburban neighborhood.  And I will do my editing there. Note – I did not say I would meet a friend, or read a magazine, or anything like that. That’s not how you Lean In. Your rewards are the sort of boring rewards that fitness obsessives have. The only way to have your cake and eat it too is with a red pen in your hand and your exegesis covered in crumbs. What sort of reward do you think you’ll get from Leaning In? A date with Kant is as good as it gets. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or easy ride. Lean In – and enjoy!
Academic Study, Smarty Pants Women, work-work balance

International Women’s Day – Celebrating Smarty Pants Women

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Today is International Women’s Day and I am celebrating Smarty Pants Women. It’s a phrase actor-writer-college student Justine Bateman uses on her blog for women who have gone back to university as an adult.

Hey – that’s me. It might be you, too.

As well as casting light on positive achievements, International Women’s Day acts as a reminder of the continued gender inequality around the world. Case in point – all the talented women sneered at by Academy Awards host Seth MacFarlane in his musical skit “I Can See Your Boobs” just recently.

I could write about Seth’s appalling song and dance number, but others have done this very well.  As Jamie Lee Curtis pointed out in  “And the Oscar goes to…Hell” “I am sorry that this is what we are talking about and not Argo’s lovely win or Jennifer’s amazing performance or Daniel’s eloquence and humor and grace or the fallout from the sequester.”

I say let’s talk about the wonderful way of karma, and how Adele took out the Academy Award for best song (Skyfall), even though Seth was nominated. Ha! “I can see your pout, Seth.”

And let’s celebrate Smarty Pants Women who have made successful careers in industries that privilege appearance, but opted as well to extend their minds and education anyway. Here are five examples, and to them I say:

 Happy International Women’s Day, Smarty Pants Women.

Justine Bateman 

I searched out Bateman in the first place because she was in a 2006 Canadian made for TV movie called Hybrid, a movie about xenotransplantation. She’s in my doctoral research material!

Bateman, College Freshman at UCLA, is a writer, producer, actress, director, and founding partner of FM78.tv, a production company focused on the future of entertainment. She testified at the Senate Commerce Committee about Net Neutrality (IMDb, 2007).  

The former Family Ties actress has a great roll call of “Smarty Pants Women” on her blog. This inspired my own title for this blog. Bateman defines Smarty Pants Women as those who embrace College Life when they aren’t the accepted College Age.

What I enjoyed reading in Bateman’s blogs is that she has worked in an industry that has seen profound changes. Entertainment, and the Hollywood factory, has undergone the turmoil that has seen my old alma mater, print journalism, reinvent itself.

Bateman has turned to university to keep ahead of that reinvention curve. Whether you are undergoing doctoral study, any academic study, or just on the path to reinvention in your careers, there’s something to be said for reading about someone’s else’s journey.

Lily Cole

Okay, Cole may be a lot younger than the others in this blog, but she deferred her place at Cambridge twice while she carved out a hugely successful modeling career for herself, with work for all the leading fashion houses including Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Versace, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Louis Vuitton.

Then, while studying History of Art at Cambridge University, the British model spent three years juggling her studies with modelling and acting assignments (filming for her debut in Doctor Who during her revision schedule). Cole aced a double first class degree, which are only awarded to those who gain top marks in their first and final year exams. As The Daily Mail commented “Most jet-setting supermodels barely have time to do their own make up let alone sign up for a full-time university course.”

Cole is now acting full time, after juggling modelling and Hollywood. (Snow White and the Huntsman).

Eva Longoria

More than a Desperate Housewife, Eva Longoria received her Bachelor of Science from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Chicano Studies at California State University – Northbridge. Her thesis is on Latina Entrepreneurs and Latina leadership, with a focus on women.  In January, The Wall Street Journal profiled her rise as an influential Hispanic activist and power player in Washington, D.C.

Christy Turlington

The ’90s supermodel graduated cum laude in 1999 from New York University (NYU), where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Religion and Eastern Philosophy. She received her Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University when she was forty. Today, Turlington serves on the Harvard Medical School Global Health Council, and as an advisor to the Harvard School of Public Health Board of Dean’s Advisors. She is the founder of Every Mother Counts, a campaign to end preventable deaths caused by pregnancy and childbirth around the world.

Sophie Ward

Actress Sophie Ward (Land Girls), in her mid forties, is doing a PhD on the narrative of thought experiments (which she calls a meeting of philosophy and literature), with classes at Goldsmiths University in London. She is studying part time while acting, writing a crime novel and raising children, but goes to classes once a week alongside students in their twenties. Not surprisingly she reveals she is quite disciplined.

She is quoted as saying: “I won’t use my Doctor title when I get my PhD. That’s just not the done thing in Britain, is it? “I did play a doctor in Heartbeat and I still have people come up and say ‘I wish you were my doctor’.”

I say, go for it. Copious use of Dr as a title once you get your PhD is surely no different from wearing revealing clothes. If you’ve got it (intelligence and education) then flaunt it!

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral misery, work-work balance

Elvis Costello and Stephen Fry: the creative work-work balance

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I have a fading newspaper clipping taped to the wall near my computer. It might seem a strange motivational message because the title is “Elvis Costello quits recording Albums”. The article contains a quote that is alarming for those heavily engaged in creative work.

Costello tells music writer Iain Shedden“You can’t spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do. You have to choose.”

Really? But I don’t want to choose! I want to know that when one door opens, there are endless possibilities.

The industrious English singer songwriter was referring to his decision to stop making albums. Shedden says it’s a declaration that reflects the shift in the way that people now consume music. The industry has gone through changes now hitting media and publishing, professions I have called home. Writers are wondering, like Costello and other musicians, how to make a living from what they do.

But while Costello might be chewing over how to go about recording or releasing new material, he hasn’t stopped actually making music, writing songs or collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet.

The market place may shift under you, buckling from the seismic changes wrought by the Internet, but as a creative person you need to keep on producing material.

Be it writing fiction, music, academic articles, whatever, you need to be engaged in creating content. Because no matter what unforeseen changes there will be in the distribution of that content, one thing is for sure. Creative output will always be required.

I am a firm believer in the power of the narrative. Everyone needs a story – businesses, major corporations, politicians and children. They all need to read other people’s stories and have their own story told. And who writes, researches or sets these to music, these stories of our hearts and minds, the threads of our lives and the tentacles that connect us together globally? Writers do this.

The trouble is, creating, and at the same time trying to earn a living, comes at a price. As Costello knows all to well, the work-work balance is a bitch. Can you do everything? It’s a juggle that doesn’t get as much media coverage as the work-life balance. Possibly because there are less people trying to do work-work rather than work-life.

My motto is you can sleep when you’re dead – there’s nothing decent on television anyway. Besides, I believe for creative people, there is no downtime. Everything is an inspiration and everything engages our rapacious curiosity. I am reminded of Stephen Fry, whose latest autobiography The Fry Chronicles  details this restlessness and engagement.

Fry works, works, works. For him, work is more fun than fun. If there is a work-work balance, like me he hasn’t found it. He works like someone is chasing him or he is chasing something. He has a writer’s desire to find out why – why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, and why they create what they create. And that’s because, as he reveals, he finds other people more interesting than himself.

I also find work more fun than fun and prefer spending time around people who push their comfort zones and stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do. I am fortunate in that my work puts me in touch with people who are more interesting than me. Apart from my blogging, fiction writing and the impending deadline to hand in my doctorate, I have a full time job in arts communication working with Australian and international visual artists who never fail to inspire and a weekly evening stint of sessional teaching that sees me nurture focused and driven post graduate creative writing students. I believe we learn from everyone if only we stop to listen.

So then, how do we find time to do all the things we want to do creatively? Well, here is the thing. Alas, Costello is right. You can’t! Sometimes you just have to say no. Just as Costello has decided to say no to making more albums, I have reluctantly said no to several additional projects until the looming doctoral deadline is over in May. The idea that women can “have it all – but not all at once” equally applies to the creative life. I don’t like saying no, but there are priorities.

My mother gave me good advice early on about time management. She graduated from two different universities on the same day so knows a thing or two about the work-work balance. She taught me there are As, Bs and Cs and that they must be shuffled around. If she calls and I’m stressed about a project, she’ll ask “is it an A?” That is – is it a main priority right now? No? Then drop it, and concentrate on the A.

Only you know your personal A, B, and Cs. But I would suggest that in the doctoral journey, while there are periods of intensity that mean your research is the A in your life, there is much to be said for the engagement with other doctoral students over the four or so years. The Bs and Cs are part of the process, too.

Joining reading or writing groups, attending workshops, going to conferences, actually meeting other people and talking about your work – and more importantly, finding out about their work – are all part of your doctorate.

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry says when he was at Cambridge, it was the people at university and those connections he made that were his education. It doesn’t hurt that the roll call included Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

If you are lucky enough to find your creative other half –a collaborator and muse to spur you on, a Hugh Laurie to your Stephen Fry – then never let them go.

And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching, but look in the right places. Get up from your computer, go to a conference, and talk to people. Listen to them. They have the same frustrations about their research, the same anxiety about their ability and the same dreams about their future.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are an introvert. But there are tips you can use. A recent post in The Thesis Whisperer by  Julio Peironcely, a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands, provides good advice about advance preparation for conference attendance and dinners, so you won’t sit there resolutely chewing a bread roll and wishing the ground would consume you before you have to try and make small talk. I highly recommend this post, it may be about science conferences but it applies to everyone, and as a creative writing student I am going to make sure I try all of Julio’s tips before my next conference dinner. A career in journalism means that I always heed to advice to talk less about myself and ask questions and listen to the other person, however, I am pleased Julio deems questions about your new friend’s journey through the infamous valley of shit (the ultimate in doctoral dispair) acceptable for dinner table conversation.

Knowing how to make the most of meeting like-minded people in structure environments like conferences is essential, as the people you want to share your creative world with are unlikely to be found in the pub on the weekend slumped in front of a large screen TV, or dozing like an inert kipper on a tanning bed. For a start, it’s really hard to read – or write – in either of those environments.