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

Happy Anniversary PhD: A Year of Living Post Doctorate

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My mother, who is not Greek, recalls nostalgically that for the first year after she married into my father’s Greek family she was referred to as ‘nifi’ – or bride. After the first anniversary however, it was, she says “no more nifi’. Brides were now a fully paid up member of the married set, no longer a precious newlywed, and afforded no special treatment. It’s a bit like that post PhD. I am at the end of my first year post graduation. After December, I’ll no longer have ‘just got’ my doctorate. The anniversary is nearly here.

I know that next year I won’t be a special new graduate. The clock, in fact, is ticking on how much I can achieve until my PhD becomes, well, irrelevant. As publishers are quick to point out, a writer only gets one chance at newness. Everyone loves a bride, a puppy, a debut author, a recent graduate.

Happy anniversary PhD. Now what?

I think it takes at least a year after graduating to overcome the exhaustion of completing a doctorate. My brother (the other Dr Tsitas in the family) warned me not to make any major life decisions for at least two months after submission. He was right. It’s an enormous achievement to have submitted and passed – and the actual graduation is a highpoint of course.

And then what?

Unlike Bella’s rapid transformation in The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn – when she becomes a vampire, the process of becoming who you are post doctorate takes longer, alas. If only we could wake up transformed from our experience, remade somehow from our doctoral journey.

Life isn’t like Bella’s transformation. Change comes in spurts, identity forms from experience and confidence is hard earned – especially in creative writing. I’ve met many people who graduated with a PhD in creative writing – from different universities, at the same time as me, and the story is the same. Some have sent the manuscript of their creative project confidently out to every publisher around, only to be knocked back time and time again. Others have applied for writing grants and submitted to competitions confident that four years of research would stand them in good stead.

Nothing. Even with a polished piece manuscript, it’s a hard slog, especially for those who have opted for the notoriously hard to crack literary fiction market. And while I know those who have had creative non fiction published, they are quick to point out that the rewards are hardly financially lucrative.

Let’s put it this way – even with a book published, a successful graduate in creative writing on their first PhD anniversary may find themselves in a sessional teaching position – that’s if they are lucky – and wondering what’s next?

For many there is the anxiety and grind of trying to find a job post doctorate – and I am not talking about a coveted, academic job – simply any full time job that will pay and lift them out of poverty. You have to wonder at the wisdom of spending years on research and playing your part in advancing knowledge when it is not rewarded by society. In fact, it is actively punished. Many PhD graduates sadly omit their highest degree from their resume when not applying for academic jobs.

The only thing that comes close to this disparity of effort and reward is working in the creative arts. Society rewards those who make money, while perversely holding to contempt those who have sacrificed to pursue research.

Although I suffered the post doctoral slump and exhaustion as hard as anyone else in my first year post doctorate, at least I wasn’t in the black hole that so many find themselves in. I already had an interesting full time job in a university, so I wasn’t fretting about why I did the doctorate if it didn’t magically produce an academic job.

And while I haven’t got the creative project out widely to publishers, I have had all the chapters of my exegesis presented at conferences and published in academic books and journals and am ready to pitch the research as a book, and send the novel to publishers.

It really is a long, hard slog to find your place post doctorate, and on the eve of my first anniversary, I am pretty happy with where I am.

I have always seen the doctorate as the long game – like long tail marketing, it has a slow burn pay off in every aspect. Although it is hard to see the reason you did a doctorate after the initial euphoria of submission has passed, especially if it doesn’t lead to an academic job. But I have discovered the following things in my year of living post doctorate.

In your honeymoon period post doctorate you can:

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  •  Watch box sets of all the TV series you didn’t have time for while studying. Then realise you don’t have the energy or concentration to follow a story arc over 60 episodes of anything and no one wants to talk to you about Mad Men anyway as that’s ancient history.
  • Read for enjoyment and indeed enjoy non academic books so much you keep forgetting to get off at your train stop (or, in one case, forget to get on a plane).
  • Go back to the gym/yoga/walking/running and immediately have to see a physiotherapist to repair damage from lack of core strength gained sitting on your bum for four years
  • Embrace the school ground again and actually talk to other parents at school functions – and realise that you have nothing to say to them anymore.
  • Defend your thesis so well in public that you you bludgeon everyone with a lengthy explanation of your research. Everyone. Such as the person you meet at the dog wash. The guy who delivers the box of fresh vegetables. Your hairdresser.
  • Change all your business cards to the title Dr. And don’t care if people think you are a wanker for doing it. You have earned it!

Indeed, I think there is a certain settling in period, or honeymoon period, post thesis that lasts from when you graduate to when the new batch of doctoral candidates graduate. In that year, you and those around you are getting used to your new status, and your new pace of life.

And in the age of everyone it seems getting a doctorate, how do you make your achievement stand out, how do you justify the years and sacrifices spent on obtaining your goal?

In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer by Associate Prof Martin Davies Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, and a Senior Learning Advisor at Federation University Australia, he talks about what he learnt from one doctorate that was transferable to the second.

Yes, I know. The idea of doing a second doctorate seems inconceivable that first year post doctorate. A bit like having another baby less than 18 months after giving birth. But just as there are women who have large families, there are people who do two doctorates. Mind you, a year post doctorate is a little like getting through that first year with a new baby – you start to sleep through the night again, go back to the gym, see friends and enjoy life. I imagine it’s as hard to go back to doctoral study as it is to unfold those ugly maternity clothes and imagine swelling up into them again…

If you have spent your first year post doctorate wondering why you spent four years of your life on deferred gratification, stress, overwork and anxiety, and are wondering if you will ever see any rewards from your efforts, the following tips gleaned from Associate Prof Martin Davies blog post may be useful.

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 After a doctorate, you now know how to:

  • Manage a large project over a long time period, with an immanent deadline, and with virtually no assistance.
  • Take on a project and finish it on time, and without help.
  • Transfer the skills developed in doing a PhD – such as academic literacy, constructing an argument, marshalling evidence, citing sources, and so on, to anything else one does in the academic domain.
  • Write an academic book between 80-120,000 words in length, and on any topic.
  • Construct an argument on a unique topic of your own choosing
  • “Narrow down” a topic within a few weeks to something manageable, and interesting, and focus.

Happy anniversary PhD.

 

 

 

 

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

Post Doctoral Wilderness: life as an Early Career Researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I hope.

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

Have I made you feel really anxious yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic cohort, Academic conferences, CliFi, conferences, Early Career Reseacher, networking

How to survive academic conference season

 

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I am not the only one to emerge from the intensive academic conference ‘silly season’ wishing I’d never submit another abstract again, yet with my head brimming full of ideas and the warm glow of nascent global friendships an email away.

Back six or eight months ago, when I first saw the call for papers, the reality of the workload and time juggle (not to mention travel) that is conference participation seemed a distant problem.

Conferences are jammed into the European summer (June-July) and teaching breaks, but I reside on the other end of the world, and so many people I met at both conferences in Australia said the same thing: jetlag, exhaustion and time poor. It takes time and money to get across the globe and add onto that presenting…not easy.

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Mind you, if you live in Melbourne, June-July is bitter cold and the thought of a conference in somewhere warm is very appealing. However, I have deluded myself more than once into imagining Oxford is warm in July…and turned up for a conference only to be confronted with worse weather than back home (in winter). So I spend the first day or so scurrying around looking for warm clothes as locals assured me they ‘had their summer already’ and it was a very nice – week, which I alas missed. I realised that when you are Australian, you do not go to Europe for the nice summer weather.

After several trips overseas in the past few years for conferences, I was happy to stay closer to home; a conference in Canberra and then one in Melbourne – at RMIT no less – so I really was within my geographical comfort zone!

In fact, at the Motherhood, Feminisms and the Future conference held at RMIT University, when asked, “where are you from” I would reply, “here – right here”. There is something about being on home ground that is very convenient, but then again, the camaraderie that results from everyone being together in a foreign location has its own benefits.

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With conferences there are lots of different hurdles and expectations. First, you have to find out what is available and in what area you might like to present. When I was a doctoral student, this seemed very hard to decode. Was it laziness or pure obstruction or the assumption that you ‘just knew’ where to find out about conferences that resulted in those in academia never (and I mean NEVER) passing on useful information such as where to find CFP or what the heck CFP meant in the first place?

I always tell my students that the Call For Papers is where to look, which websites to go to, and how to find out about conference alerts. I am very grateful for the one confident and well published professor who did the same for me. Then it’s a matter of working out strategically where you’ll get the most bang for your buck (literally, if travelling). Again, most academics seem useless at mentoring students in this regard.  And so we stumble on, learning by trial and error.

Ditto the much overlooked topic of how to submit an abstract that will get you noticed. I actually had an academic say to me “no wonder your abstracts are accepted, they have sexy titles, snappy writing and play into the key areas the conference organisers want to promote.” This said with a snide sneer and derision. And I am thinking – “getting noticed and getting your abstract accepted – isn’t that a good thing?”

I have presented at many different types of conferences – interdisciplinary, literary, ecocritical, feminism, bioethical, animal studies – what I have discovered is that, in the humanities at least, there are many ways of spinning your topic so that you can present a different version of your broad research area to a different audience.

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This I think is not a bad thing, because if we are to use our research in a wide context, to a wide audience and speak to our research as public intellectuals post PhD, then testing out across different disciplines while forming those ideas is certainly a help.

My doctoral research has taken me to conferences where I have presented papers on topics such as animal experimentation, bestiality, geography and monstrosity and post apocalyptic dystopia…and I can feel the pull of cannibalism calling to me (in a speculative fictional context of course!) I am so very excited by cannibalism right now and how it is being explored in Cli-Fi.

Ecocriticism (and Cli-Fi) is one of my academic passions – and the opportunity to put together a panel for the recent Affective Habitus conference (the subject of my last blog post) was too good to pass up. However, a few weeks later, the Motherhood and Feminisms conference at RMIT was also a perfect fit, providing me with an opportunity to present a paper on a book I co-wrote with Dr Caroline van de Pol on high risk pregnancy. I published Handle With Care as a Masters student, and am soon to relaunch it as an ebook, aimed at midwifery students. So the timing was perfect.

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What I hadn’t anticipated was my level of exhaustion. I thought that with the PhD now completed, I would have so much more time, so back to back conferences would be a breeze. In fact, I did three back to back international conferences as a doctoral student, which makes me wonder how on earth I found the energy. Much like a woman who looks back on surviving raising triplets, I shake my head in amazement. I also wonder what’s wrong with me now that I am drained by my recent conference adventures.

I am not the only one – so many people at the Motherhood conference were on their third conference in a row, having crammed as much in as possible. First, if you are from Australia (or New Zealand) it’s a long way to go to head to Europe or America to present a paper so you might as well do two – or three conferences. It’s more time and cost effective. Also, if you are a full time academic or sessional, then you’ll need to cram everything into the break in the teaching semesters.

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I have often written that doing a doctorate is like having a baby. I now think that the conference circus is like maternity as well. How else can I explain that as soon as I finished writing this blog, and vowed never to subject myself to another conference again and instead just ‘concentrate on my writing’ (as if the two are somehow unconnected…) than I discover two conferences in Sydney that have grabbed my attention. One is the Independent Publishers Conference (again, right up my areas of interest) and the other the Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence, Liminalities conference…both in Sydney, both on at good times for me in the exhibition cycle of the university gallery where I work.

It’s like wanting another baby again…except without the lifelong commitment and childcare issues that go with it.  Dammit! How can I pass up weaving an abstract around ‘Hybridity and trangression’? I mean – this is the stuff of my doctorate. This is what I spent years studying. This is what I dream about.

I have come to realise that once you step through the door marked ‘doctorate’ there is no turning back. Some people get excited by cheap airfares to Bali, others by a shoe sale; for me, it’s those dead/alive dichotomies that do it every time.

As for my exhaustion? My energy levels and enthusiasm? It appears that I didn’t need to give up on conferences – I just needed a good night’s sleep.

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Conference tips from a conference junkie

Remember – if you have beginner nerves, the more conferences you do, the easier it is to present your work in front of everyone:

  • Sign up for conference alerts in as many of the areas as you have an interest. Sometimes you won’t feel like trawling for a conference, and that’s when a CFP that pops in your inbox that ignite that spark of interest all over again
  • Audiences are forgiving when you are starting out
  • It is worth the time, money and effort because you will gradually make a name for yourself among the people who will be your academic peers
  • Conferences are about dipping your research toes in the big pool of water that is the latest global thinking on a discipline
  • A good keynote speaker can give your research ideas a jet propelled push into a new direction or confirm you are on the right path
  • You’ll meet interesting people who literally speak your research language
  • Conversations over conference dinners can open up new ideas and directions for you
  • Be generous with your knowledge and helpful and understanding to others. Academic karma is real
  • Don’t eat from the vegetarian/vegan/gluten free platter unless you have specified such food options or someone who won’t or can’t eat certain foods will go without.
  • A conference paper is about 20 minutes so your word limit should be under 3000 words…time yourself!
  • Don’t send your audience to sleep. A conference presentation is a performance. An animation, a taster. It’s not a book chapter.
  • Take along business cards. Get on twitter and have your twitter handle up on your powerpoint.
  • Attend everything, participate, ask questions, say thanks, be appreciative of the organisers, be generous with your comments and praise to others, be nice. Enjoy yourself. Embrace whatever the conference location has to offer.
  • Be open to every conversation, even if it is ‘off topic’. I received an intensive session on a future book that was on the back burner – all because I sat opposite a fascinating lecturer whose area is contemporary German literature. When she said ‘take down these names, read these people – take notes!’ I realised the reason you go to a conference dinner is exactly this. Sometimes, virtual reality just doesn’t cut it. And serendipity is all. I felt the stars align that night, and as a writer and researcher felt incredibly grateful for such an encounter.
  • Last tip – a conference is not just about you presenting your research. It is about sharing, networking, establishing collaborations and global friendships. Be generous with everything you have to offer – and be kind. Otherwise, why bother getting together at all?