academic cohort, Academic relevance, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, parenting and study, Time management

Lessons from my doctorate

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The only thing sweeter than attaining your doctorate is the academic success of your children – especially if they have grown up in the shadow of your higher education study.

Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’

Rubbish.

Low expectations, complacency and laziness are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.

If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term.

I can tell you first hand that far from harm my children, my back to back MA and PhD while my two sons were young gave them the gift of knowing success demands:

Perseverance, commitment, focus, determination, time management, and deferred gratification.

I never volunteered to help out at their school, I refused to play the game of keeping up domestic appearances, and I rarely even went to school social events. You know what? I speak from experience here – I was raised by a mother who studied, and I have friends who completed their doctorates while their children were young. We are here to tell you the world will not end, nor will social structures collapse, if you do not help out at your child’s school or socialise with the other mothers.

The school, and your children, can do without your input. Leave that to the mothers with nothing else to do.

Sounds harsh, but let’s face it, volunteering at the school, when your time could be better spent elsewhere – like on your own work – is often a matter of ego. You want to feel wanted. Does the bake sale really need your input? Do the other mothers really need to be organised like a pact of sheep to socialise at some cafe to bond every term?

And yes, note I say ‘mothers’. Even in the 21st century, no father frets he isn’t spending time helping out at the school or having coffee mornings with the other dads.

I understand that my views don’t make me popular. But they do produce results.

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The past 12 months in my household have been a demanding ones, with my eldest son completing his final year at school.And although it has been three years exactly since I graduated with my PhD, he still sees me work long into the night on my creative and academic writing, after a day of commercial writing in communications. He knows what it takes to achieve your goals.

And I have to say – he took note. We celebrated last month when his terrific exam results netted him a place in a prestigious university course and put him on track for the architecture career he aspires to.

Unlike many other teenagers, he wasn’t out at parties, he was at his desk. No pain – no gain. If there is one thing I have taught him over the years it is the success that comes from deferred gratification.

At his 18th birthday celebration, just before his last exams, he thanked me for being both supportive and a role model and showing me how it is done. It was so lovely to hear him say that, and I have been thinking since then how ‘doctoral mothers’ bring our particular focus to parenting.

As inevitably we do sessional teaching while studying, we are familiar with the university system, have friends who are also studying or working in universities, and are articulate advocates for our children as they navigate the next step in their education.

We are also networking, analysing, searching out information and generating new knowledge from our research. I am not the least surprised that the mothers I know who have pursued doctoral studies after an established career have all produced children who are similarly ambitious and engaged with their own learning.

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My son is going to university next month open to the possibilities and privileges of tertiary education – having his mind expanded and horizons broadened. The divergent and convergent thinking that one acquires are fundamental to succeeding as knowledge workers in the 21st century, and he is ready for the journey.

Next blog post I will continue on this theme, exploring lifelong learning – are you ever ‘too old’ to study?

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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.”

 

 

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!”