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 Study, creative writing, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management

PhD on Board: the agony of the final trimester

IMG_3490I can’t sleep. I dream about the chapter I have just written.

People have started asking for advice – on starting their doctorate. To them I seem like a –sort of – old hand now. They want to do one, but where?

Wait – where have I had these experiences before? Oh yes, when I was pregnant. As a mother of two teenage boys, it has been awhile, but it is coming back to me. The anxiety of the final few weeks before birth. Getting advice from everyone, women desperately wanting to be pregnant asking me for advice on when to have a baby and what’s it really like?

The end of a doctorate is just like the end of a pregnancy – the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the all-consuming nature of it. Then there is the sinking realization that you alone are going to have to birth this baby. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger the less time you have.

My supervisor sends me an email. “You’ve put on too much weight!” (Actually, what she said was – “it’s too long!” But you get the picture)

When you are pregnant, it’s a sad fact that people rarely give up their seat on the train for you, but everyone has advice on what you should or should not eat or drink, and especially what to call the baby.

So it is with the doctorate. “What are you doing reading the paper – why aren’t you studying?” or “you can’t have a glass of wine! What are you thinking – you have to hand in soon.” Or “You are calling your exegesis – what?!”

I am taking two week’s leave from my day job at the gallery before my due date. I know the drill. At the last stage, there is no sleep, just swollen ankles, exhaustion and pure fear. Luckily, just as mother nature takes over in pregnancy and washes your brain with hormones that render you somewhat numb to the impending total eradication of your former life, it’s the same with the doctorate.

But this time, what floods your body is adrenalin. It washes through your blood with copious amounts of coffee – like a runner’s high. It’s the result of those endless sessions at the desk, those late nights, those editing sprints and rewrites that give you study high. Or at least that inspired, slightly crazed state that searches for the 4 am miracle. Usually, at 4 am.

A writer I know with a doctorate that’s at least 10 year’s old, almost finished primary school, really, nodded sagely as I related this state of anxiety to her the other day.

“Yes, I remember,” she said, gently. In the same way I’d tell a heavily pregnant woman I remember what it was like. You never forget.

Then she added, “you know once you hand in, it just goes away – all the pain, it just goes…”

Yes – that’s just what they say about labor.

Ah – the actual birth. For women who have been there, a collective shudder. And for those about to hand in their doctorate – nothing is birthed without pain, be it a doctorate or a child or a work of art. At the end, it’s all intense focus and draining, hard yakka.

But just as there is a support team for birth, there is one for the birth of a doctorate. I am so grateful for how people have pitched in to help and offer emotional and practical support. It’s like a collective group around me urging me to – push!

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Here are five reasons why birthing a doctorate is like birthing a baby:

1. Women about to give birth say and do some really, really stupid things. This is a true story.

Just before the birth of my first child, I rang the labor ward and asked a nurse what sort of reading material did she think I should pack? Did she think that I should start off with say Margaret Atwood, then progress to genre crime and onto chick lit and finally, a range of magazines from Vanity Fair to the trashy women’s mags? Her reply:

Nurse: Ooh…so you think you’re going to be reading? (gales of laughter)

And it’s the same with the doctorate. You are too distracted to do anything else. Forget multi tasking. The cat and dog brought in a rat the other day. It has taken up residence under the couch. It comes out to saunter around when I am proof reading. We look at each other. It goes back under the couch. My kids scream and ask me what I am going to do about it. I said “think of a name for it”. What’s the worst that can happen? Plague?

2 There are many forms to fill in. There are forms that were filled in at the beginning of the PhD but have to be filled in again, or are they different forms? Wait, some forms were missed at the beginning, or did they change at the middle? Forms must be sent to the right place at the right time. The website says “It is your responsibility to ensure all forms are completed and correct and done at the right time.” Hospitals are like this. You can’t even get an epidural without filling in a form and by the time you need one you’d sign your firstborn away to aliens. No wonder people freebirth. What’s my course code again?

3. Women are very competitive about birth. Pregnancy is a whole competition in itself. It’s worse after the birth. Men might compare cock size, women compare length of labor, scars, stitches, pain. Don’t even get me started on competitive breastfeeding. PhD students are the same. Who worked longest, latest, hardest, had the least sleep, the biggest bibliography, quoted the most journal articles, had the longest footnotes. 

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4. Conflicting advice Being overwhelmed by conflicting advice is what happened when I was pregnant with my first child. By my second pregnancy, no one bothered to give me advice. Why? I knew all the secrets.

I suspect those doing a second doctorate never get unsolicited advice, either. People just walk away and shake their head, muttering “don’t they know the world has too many doctoral submissions as it is? What about global warming and the environment and overcrowding in the academic job market?”

5. Nothing fits – you’ve grown too big. Everyone, even supermodels, look like they have swallowed a fridge in the weeks leading up to the birth. This is what it is like with the doctorate. Sure, in the early stages, it’s all small bump and looking cute in that outfit, right? Yeah, and your exegesis was small and manageable at the start as well, wasn’t it? The first year of the doctorate is like a babymoon. Then, once the reality sinks in, you wonder why you ever got up the duff with a doctorate in the first place.

In the last trimester, nothing fits – into the word length. You have too much information, too many footnotes, references, ideas and – stuff.

You know what women worry about before they give birth? How are they going to push out something that big. You know what PhD students worry about before they hand in? The same thing. 

creative writing, Doctoral misery

Doctoral despair: what to pack for the bear hunt

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Doctoral misery and deadline pressure love company. So I have to say I was somewhat relieved to hear from a fellow traveller on this journey that she too was having completion issues.

To put this in perspective, I am not talking about some mythical PhD slacker who spends the days on a scholarship playing Solitaire on the computer. Though I have heard they exist…

No, this woman a motivated self-starter who presents at conferences around the world, publishes and teaches. So when she sends me an email saying that she is in the last two months – and too scared to count the days – and things are not moving as swiftly, or as smoothly as she would like, I know that feeling.

Yes, I am having what she’s having. And that’s the fear of the last part of the journey. It’s no longer about formulating ideas, drafting version of the thesis, reading and commenting on journal articles – it’s not even about writing articles or conference papers.

Hell no, this is the real thing. This is fear. This is what sports stars must feel just before the race begins.

It has nothing to do with competence; it’s all a mind game now, in the same way that writing fiction is actually a mind game. This is what internationally best selling author Douglas Kennedy has to say about it about it:

“Writing is a confidence trick you play on yourself… and one which you must perpetuate on a daily basis.”

I’d recommend reading Kennedy’s blog: “left handed writing, right handed thoughts” for an insight into so many aspects of the writing life – confidence tricks, completion, and the curiosity with which he observes people and the world and weaves that into his books. No, he isn’t in my doctoral bibliography – no mutants here, just an acute skill at rendering the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes a little respite from the Gothic is called for….

As for my friend? She writes, ”I shall look forward to seeing you all on the other side of the PhD, although I can barely imaging what that place might look like!”

I had her pinned for an effortless finish and am now somewhat relieved I am not the only one tearing my hair out. At the moment, nothing I write seems profound enough or sounds scholarly enough…yes, it’s the inevitable descent into The Valley Of Shit. This is something that Dr Mewburn wrote so eloquently about in her Thesis Whisper blog entitled – The Valley of Shit.

The Thesis Whisperer is a newspaper style blog dedicated to helping research students, and is edited by Dr Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the ANU.

I met Inger when she was working at RMIT and she asked me to contribute some blogs to her site, which I was more than happy to do – you can read them here.

I have a theory that any time spent reading The Thesis Whisperer is not procrastination, but actually a thinly disguised therapy session….

Inger writes: “There are a few signs you are entering into The Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant.”

Indeed, the photo that accompanies today’s blog was taken on a visit to my father’s village in northern Greece. It seems to sum up this state of mind perfectly. Because I cannot speak a word of Greek, the signs didn’t really help me as we started to trek up the mountain. If I got lost, I couldn’t ask for help. That’s what The Valley of Shit feels like – you can see from the signs that you are there, but you don’t know what they say, and don’t know how to get out.

If you too are in this dark and smelly place, you just have to do what I am doing, and believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps because I am a fiction writer, I am well-used to walking through The Valley of Shit, and know there are only three things you can do – do not lose your nerve, keep on working, and believe in your ability.

As Douglas Kennedy says about being a novelist:  “Even when you’ve hit the twenty year mark, are you also willing to accept the fact that, even when others think you have arrived as a novelist, any truly good and serious writers knows one central truth of this calling, this profession: you never arrive.  You just keep on working.”

That’s right – just keep on working. That’s all you can do when you hit The Valley of Shit – take comfort in knowing everyone completing their doctorate probably ends up here, and probably gets out alive. You just have to keep on working through it.

I am reminded of a book I used to read my boys when they were little – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen. I loved this book even more than they did, as it seemed to sum up the very meaning of persistence so perfectly. I’d bounce the kids on my knee and sing along with the team on Playschool:

“We’re going on a bear hunt…we’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day, we’re not scared! Uh oh, a river – a deep cold river! We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it – oh no! We’ve got to go through it….”

Who needs the philosophy according to Pooh? I’ll take Rosen any day. Good luck!