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

Staying power: how to finish your doctorate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems with motivation, including boredom, disenchantment and laziness

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

Failed lab work

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

Injury or Illness

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

Family commitments, including marriage breakdowns

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

Loneliness

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

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Lack of University jobs / attraction of a job offer

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

Problems in choice of topic

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

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

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

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

Problems with ‘writing up’.

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

supervision issues (including neglect, incompetence and personality clashes)

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

 

 

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

Post Doctoral Celebrations: Time to Play

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

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

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

So I am heading off tomorrow for three weeks overseas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion

Through the labyrinth: passing my doctorate

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At last – the long wait is over. The doctoral results have come through.  And it ended in rather dramatic circumstances. I discovered I had passed my doctorate via a text message from my supervisor: “call me NOW!!!” and an urgent email saying “OMG Evelyn – you are through and you have done it and done so well! Congrats!!!”

Where you are when the big news arrives is always important – and who you are with. I was in the university art gallery where I work as a publicist, emerging after a long meeting regarding an upcoming exhibition. The group of people from the music industry waited patiently for me to show them out, while I rushed to check my phone messages. It was after 6 pm and being a working mother, it’s always wise to see if there has been a hitch in the complex after-school child-minding procedures.

Suddenly I was jumping up and down and yelling out “I have passed! I have passed!”

They are used to dealing with major rock stars so I guess a little flamboyant gesture on my part meant nothing. “What have you passed?” one inquired, politely.

“My doctorate – I have passed my doctorate!”

There was hugging, pats on the back – and then the questions:

“So – do we have to call you Dr Evelyn?”

“What did you do your doctorate in?”

“How long did it take?”

My brain was in that adrenalin buzz when thoughts tangled like cotton wool on carpet. I mumbled, “No – not yet – paperwork- ceremony – humans animal hybrids in science fiction – took four years – felt longer…”

“Human animal WHAT???” came the bemused reply.

“Go on – tell them what your conference paper is about,” said the Gallery director, smiling.

You see, I had just outlined the dates of my upcoming holidays to the group at the meeting – telling them I’d be in Oxford in a few weeks, presenting a paper at the 8th Global Conference of  The Erotic: Exploring Critical Issues. They were about to find out what a strange topic it was that I had selected….

“The erotic and the non human – specifically, bestiality and science fiction…well, with hybrids…”

There was a moment’s silence. “Fantastic!” “Very interesting!” Well, these guys are used to dealing with big name rock stars and their foibles, so I guess the exhibition publicist travelling across the world to talk about mutants and erotica isn’t so alarming.

The advantages of working in the arts are that, frankly, no one is shocked by anything. The advantages of working in a university are that everyone understands and appreciates all the anxiety of the years wandering through the doctoral maze.

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When I told the esteemed musicologist who is curating the music exhibition with the director, he became quite emotional. “Oh – that is just so fantastic – I know how good it feels to have passed.”  It was a heartfelt comment – both as an academic who once jumped through that hoop himself, and as a supervisor mentoring his own students through the labyrinth. While everyone is happy for me, those who have been through the doctoral process, or are going through it now, know how it feels to have finally passed.

It feels fantastic!

As luck would have it, I was due to meet a fellow crime writer, the author Angela Savage , for drinks after work. She is also interested in doing a doctorate and I was to give her some tips, and celebrate the release of her latest novel, The Dying Beach. Now at least I felt qualified to give advice on the doctoral maze!

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I told her the good news straight away. Angela, an early adopter of social media, had her smart phone out in a flash and posted a picture of me looking happy and a little dazed on Facebook before I knew it. I am pictured sitting in The Moat, the bar and café located in the basement of the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing in Melbourne’s grand State Library, smiling like a Cheshire Cat, sipping a red wine cheekily (and aptly) called Ladies Who Shoot Their Own Lunch  for like me, Angela is a winner of a coveted Scarlet Stiletto trophy for Crime Writing. I was proud to take a glorious photo of her beaming and triumphant when she won her Red Shoe trophy, so it felt like the tables were turned. Indeed, at that moment, it started to feel as if those four hard years were actually behind me.

But – not quite. I do have to some make minor changes to the exegesis, which are the dreaded ‘literals’ – misplaced words, errors found in errant upper and lower case, and so on – the sort of thing that a thorough going over by a copy editor would sort out. I can live with that. Juggling two children, a  full time job and a full time doctorate meant something had to give. So, if my final presentation was a little ‘wabi sabi’  at least I can be pleased with the fact that I didn’t have to change any of my arguments, ideas, or content in my novel – for both the exegesis (about 38,000 words) and the novel (about 70,000 words) were both part of my doctorate in creative writing.

I have a full three months to resubmit a pristine version of the exegesis, and I have two gratifyingly glowing reports from the examiners who loved both the academic work and the novel. In fact, I have quotes I’d be keen to use on the back of the novel as a selling point once it is published. I had the added bonus of examiners who had taken the time and effort to suggest ideas for further refining the manuscript before submitting to publishers. They put considerable effort into their reports, for which I am very appreciative. I know how hard it is to get such strategic and insightful feedback about your creative writing.

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As I am heading off overseas on my much deserved holiday – and conference trip – in early September, I will get this revision into the Graduate Research Office well before the three month period is up. I want this doctoral monkey off my back, and I want the paperwork finalised, ready for the next countdown – 100 days to graduation at the end of the year.

There have been endless hurdles along the way during the past four years – from confirmation of candidature to six monthly progress seminars and the final completion seminar, then submission – and the limbo wait for the examiners reports – and finally, minor revisions.

But I have also discovered there have been endless celebrations as well at the end – excited family and friends taking me out for indulgent events to mark submission and then the results. And I am not finished yet. As a lecturer told me once when I was an undergraduate – celebrate all your successes [for they may be few and far between]. How I feel now is best summed up by this exuberant song by Queen. “We Are the Champions”:

it’s been no bed of roses

No pleasure cruise

I consider it a challenge before

The whole human race

And I ain’t gonna lose

There is of course that big, final celebration of graduation, which I fully intend to participate in, floppy hat and all. It’s a rite of passage after the long journey through the maze of higher education – the Bachelor of Education (when I wanted to be an art teacher), the Graduate Diploma in Media Law (when I was a journalist), then the Master of Arts in Creative Writing (resetting the clock post children to a new post-newspaper career) and finally completing the Doctor of Philosophy. That’s more than a decade as a university student – though not undertaken all at once.

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I guess the other question that has come up in the past two weeks since I discovered I passed is whether I would do any more study. I know plenty of people who have a PhD and two Masters degrees. Others who have two doctorates. Am I done yet? I met someone at a party on the weekend who was about to embark on her second doctorate. I felt a little envious. Oh, a new start – a new topic – a new university – a new challenge…

It’s a bit like looking at your cute baby lying momentarily asleep and peaceful in the cot and thinking – I’ll have another one – without fully comprehending in the fantasy the complete upheaval in your life that frankly, never ends. So, maybe I should quit while I am ahead. Then again, unlike having children, there’s no biological clock when it comes to studying. Never say never – right?

Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

The post submission blues: the doctoral let down

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It may be less than two weeks since I submitted in my doctorate, but that “rush of love” and “the intellectual satisfaction” of submission that dear friends with doctorates advised would appear has not yet descended.

If this were a jazz song, the lyrics would go “Baby, I got the post submission blues…” Admittedly, this is a good space to be in – better than “Baby, I need an extension…” or “Darn it, honey, I couldn’t submit on time…”

But I have to tell you there is no smug satisfaction from submission – not right now.

There is the anxiety of waiting for the examiners’ reports, similar to the anxiety of the results when you send off writing to a competition, the publisher’s response to the first three chapters of your book (what, no bidding war?) or the editor’s report when you send off to a journal. Magnified, of course. To a truly sickening level.

In fact, the last time I felt this anxious was after my youngest son was born and was whisked away to the special care unit for several days. To put it into perspective, not being able to hold your baby because he has to get help – now! – will never be on the same level as needing to respond to requests for changes, minor or even major – in an examiner’s report. At the crossroads of life and death, you realise what is important, and what, in the end, probably just comes down to more work if necessary – and ego.

I realise I am not alone in my anxiety. I searched out post submission blues and discovered that this is a recognised, though not talked about aspect of the doctoral process. It’s good to know I’m not alone. Ailsa, from Auckland, who has just submitted her PhD in education, relates her anxiety and that limbo land feeling. She turned to making patchwork quilts. I simply turn to my true north – writing. Knowing that this post submission anxiety is standard issue makes it less of an issue. Sort of like knowing that it actually takes a few days for your milk to come in after giving birth (called the ‘let down’), despite all the time and effort in pregnancy and childbirth.

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So I’ll coin the phrase “the doctoral let down” – waiting for the reports to come in. My mental lethargy probably makes sense after the intensity of the last few weeks. When it came to getting the submission printed – a trial that is well known and features in The Thesis Whisperer this week, I was quite indignant that one copy centre I approached warned they let their machines have “a little rest” during the day and therefore couldn’t guarantee same day printing for all my copies.

Well, I gave them a serve. If I could sit at my desk writing for a 12-hour stretch, how dare a mere machine need a rest. The voice on the other end of the phone understood but was firm. They had obviously dealt with the crazed caffeine-fuelled doctoral student close to submission before. It was gently suggested that maybe it was this particular doctoral student who needed a “little rest” – and that they would not be flogging their machines to death for me.

While established mums pass on information to new mothers, there seems to be no such informal information swap doing the rounds about different stages of the doctorate. While in that intense 100 days phase, I was given sage advice from older hands who had never uttered a word of such things before (probably because they knew I wasn’t ready to hear it), no one mentioned “post submission blues”.

Once you have had a kid you never bother to tell a pregnant first timer some of the grim realities post birth. Not because you don’t want to scare them, but because you know they have baby brain and can’t hear you. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the human race continues. If people realised what would happen to one’s body and life after a baby, zero population growth would have happened a long time ago. Prince William has admitted to worrying about the lack of sleep that awaits him. Clever man. Fear is good.

Now that I think about it, post submission blues is like the postbaby blues they warn you about and is very real. As much as you wanted a baby, there is a hormone crash after three or four days that makes you weepy. Then there is sleep deprivation. For many unlucky women there is crippling postpartum depression as well – I managed to avoid that, but the reality of parenthood is that you are consumed with a new baby and its demands. Whereas post doctoral submission, there is no instant gratification of a new person to care for and hold. There is just waiting. And waiting leads to anxiety.

As university students, we are expected to celebrate at the final graduation. All that mortarboard flinging in their air, the wild parties, the excitement. And it is exciting – the family gathered, the photos, the ceremony.

But post submission? Nothing. A few “well done” comments and hugs, some cheering from those closest to you and those who have been through the mill. If you are lucky as I am, you have good friends who understand and celebrate with you. But the rest are leaving the “big moment” to the “real thing” – that end of year graduation event where you get to finally wear the floppy hat.

Mind you, my wonderful mother presented me with a beautiful necklace after I submitted, and I did take the opportunity to buy myself an artwork of a Kingfisher with a huge fish in its beak, symbolic I thought of biting off more than you can chew and then chewing like mad.

This state of limbo is a strange and exhausting time. I feel like I am a slow moving cog on the wheel of life, hardly able to concentrate on returning emails in the evening, much less applying the mental clarity to new work that I mustered every night after work for the past four years. Whereas doctoral life was a steady hum of work, kids, study, writing, conferences and writing workshops, it has dwindled into work, kids – bed!

While I have returned all those overdue library books, my study is still a bombsite of stacked journal articles, piles of drafts, and towering piles of books on transhumanism, monsters, mutants, and Human-Animal Studies. Friends have been scrambling to get their hands on my novel and are reading – and enjoying it – but that’s not the same as the examiners’ reports.

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One thing we are never given any preparation for at university is the post submission blues. Or how fragile we will feel after we hand in. If we think about it as similar to the end of a theatre performance for an actor that makes more sense because live performance is emotionally draining.  And the come down is equally confronting. We have used up all our mental strength and physical energy creating a major work. One old hand warned me today not to make any major decisions for two months because post submission was like a version of post traumatic stress disorder. He had found himself in a similar state of shell shock.

Indeed, my sneaky body knows a major project has been handed in, even if my mind refuses to accept it. My body, the little engine that could, has been chugging along on minimal sleep, a lot of caffeine and social outings comprised entirely in the past six months of going to work, dropping the kids at school and taking the dog for a walk and studying for hours every night. Now as I venture out again with friends, my body is finding ways to fight back.

Indeed, malaise, aches, pains and sheer exhaustion mental and physical have been my lot. It is as if my body has said “right, that’s it!” – and the affects of 100 days of massive exertion and adrenalin leaving my body have seen me numbly flicking through magazines at lunch time while staring into space for the most part. Then a sinus infection took up residence in my head, landing me in bed. I have very dark hair in contrast to my skin, and when I get sick I look like an extra from Twilight. A fact commented on by all around me; “you look so pale – what happened?”

I have just handed in my doctorate!

As much as I am loathe to admit it there has been the shock realisation since submitting that that I am not, after all, a machine. Damn. Because one of the kids just asked me to contribute to the school bake sale. You know, make a cake after work tomorrow night as I don’t have a doctorate to do any more. I hate cooking with a passion. That second PhD is starting to look appealing, even now…