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

Somewhat distracted: when your doctorate is more real than life

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It looks as if someone has had a wedding in my house. By that I do not mean it is festooned with flowers, or in a state of elegant expectation. By that I mean there is a thin layer of rice on the floorboards, and I have no idea where it came from.

One day, I arrived home from work to find this mystery greeting. The children denied all knowledge. Of all the things they could consume from the pantry, uncooked rice, they assured me, was not one of them. Still, I insisted the rice be cleaned up, and this request – not surprisingly – has fallen on deaf ears. Some rudimentary attempts were made, I believe, and since them – perhaps a few weeks ago now (I have lost count) I have been kicking the rice under the couch as I walk past. Well, I figure, it will keep.

The quantity seems to be dissipating, and I am now wondering whether it is Marty’s handiwork (I have named my resident rat after Heidegger – read on).

Today, as it is furiously windy, and the weekend, the doors are open. The kids and me are at our respective computers, and doors are slamming shut – left, right and centre. I tell the kids to down put the door stop, the really pretty one I got at the expensive interior decorating shop. The one that cost as much as a nice meal somewhere. The one filled with…rice.

Oh, dear.

We have a new puppy, and I recalled the puppy enjoyed playing with this door stop. And now that I think about it, the door stop was last seen at the same time the layer of rice appeared on the floor.

Have we found the culprit?

My 14 year old shrugs. “He’s probably buried it.” Indeed. So the doors continue to slam. The rice remains on the floor. The rat that the cat brought in to teach the puppy how to kill is now eating the rice from the door stop the puppy killed.

But that is not the worst of it. Oh no.

With three and a bit weeks to go until handing in, strange things have happened. Well – to me. The clearer my research becomes, the less real life appears. In fact, just as Heidegger makes sense, I forget people’s names. I forget their faces.  And my mind hears everything in a far off scramble.

For instance: one of my youngest son’s friends had a birthday party, and his mum texted me the details. Which I read as “Tazer tag party.”

Well, it took a moment to sink in. Tazer tag – a bit adventurous for 12 year old? Hm. Maybe a little – dangerous? Or am I out of touch? So I texted my concern back. She quickly responded with “LOL! tazer tag! It’s lazer tag!!!!” This has now become somewhat legendary in the playground.

Standing at the supermarket with four items in the fast checkout, I present the basket then numbly wonder if in fact $90 is a little excessive for some bananas, milk and bread. Or has milk gone up recently? Should I query – or not? The woman behind the checkout seems to be in a hazy fog as I say “Uh – $90???”

She bursts out laughing “Wow! That’s excessive – it’s actually $9…” And then, when I apologise, she is very sweet. She says, “it’s still early in the morning – it’s before 9 am – maybe you need a coffee?”

The kids joke about finding me caffeine patches and other alternative methods of caffeine release in the body. Maybe not.  I already consume vast amounts of coffee and Diet Coke. Anyway, it’s not that I am tired – it’s that I am so absorbed in my research that I really can’t focus on the world. I spend lunchtimes either in the library or reading philosophy or editing my exegesis, or writing a journal article. Luckily, as I work in a university, this sort of behavior is not only normal, it’s expected and supported. Oh yes, when it comes to being focused on your research to the point of being a little detached from reality, a university – and the other academics in it – are enablers.

Very late one night, I am desperate to discuss philosophers Heidegger and Agamben with someone, to talk about an idea I have had about the hybrid and Dasein. You know how these things just can’t wait? So I send an email to an academic I know, who has been engaging in these discussions with me for several years. Ping! Early the following morning they send back a thoughtful reply, and no explanation is needed – there is the unspoken acceptance of this crazed time.

I bump into a doctoral FB friend on the steps of the university gallery where I work and we engage in a burst of conversation about terminology in our respective doctorates, which is a topic more compelling to us than her recent wedding. Yes, she’s just married and in love, but she is also in love with her research (when she doesn’t want to kill it).

“Hybrid or chimera”? I ask. She counters – “I know – resistance or rebellion?! It’s doing my head in!” We are in our own worlds, oblivious to the bemused expressions on those around us. In our little universe, the choice of word is crucial as it aligns one with a school of thought, a theorist, and gurus; it’s all a code to other readers (and examiners). Every word means something. And something else. In the art world, for instance, one does not select or edit, one curates. This says something about the critical eye and the curatorial rationale behind the choice of works in an exhibition.

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Author Imelda Evans, who came to speak to the postgrads in my entrepreneurship for writers class, turned to me during her talk and said “by the way, I really think you should go back to hybrid – chimera has mythological connotations I just don’t think are right.” Her 14 year old looked up from her book at the back room, and agreed. A discussion ensures. What can I say? At some point, in these crazy last 100 days to the doctorate, your work (if you blog about it as I do) becomes open for public discussion – as it should. Just as we need to be open about our research as academics, we should also be open about the process of discovery, the curves, false starts, and the changes in direction. Indeed, the process of becoming an academic, of owning our research.

As I mull over the hybrid concept, I have been walking head down in thought when away from the keyboard. From the distance, it seems, I eventually hear my name being said, over and over again.

“Evelyn! Evelyn..? Evelyn…???”

And I slowly look up. I am sorry to say that it takes me a little while to place who that person is – and sometimes their name (even if I know them well!) escapes me.

The response from those around the university is the same: “Don’t worry about it! I’ve been there! I know what’s like!” and then they quickly turn away; “I’ll call you – in a few months, okay?”

Indeed, this is what happened when I literally ran into a professor and knocked her spinning as I was deep in thought.

“Evelyn! Watch out!”

“Huh? – Oh, sorry…”

“You look absorbed.”

“I’ve have been thinking about this scene I’m writing, where my protagonist wakes up to discover she has someone’s undigested hand in her mouth…”

“Oh my God – that’s utterly revolting!” said the professor. Then she smiled. “Keep up the good work!”

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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!