Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, the creative life, Time management, work-work balance, Writing strategies, writing workshops

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

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Want to finish your PhD on time? Wondering how you can juggle a creative life with work demands? Do you think you’ll never write that book unless you are given a grant or a fairy godmother taps you on the shoulder and turns that pumpkin into a quiet retreat where you can spend months thinking and perfecting your craft?

I can tell you how to achieve your goals, but you aren’t going to like it. Because you have to be focused, have tunnel vision and be obsessed. You have to concentrate on ‘A’s – higher order priorities – only.

You cannot waste your time trying to have balance in your life. I speak from experience. Anyone who completes their doctorate on time while doing what I did – juggling another full time job and children – does so at the expense of a balanced life. What you need is focus to the point of obsession. If you come out the other end and have managed to maintain friendships, if your body hasn’t been completely wrecked in the process – well, congratulations.

Where did you find the time? Because obsession is what it takes, my friends. Ruthless obsession. No half measures, no pausing for breath, no chilling out. You can do that later. Once you graduate. That’s when you get a life. or should I say – pick up the pieces.

 

I can tell you that it is possible to hold down a paid job and finish your doctorate. It is possible to have a paid job and write a book. It is possible to juggle all of these things and the demands of children. You just have to be prepared to give up a lot of other things in order to achieve your goals.

The work-life balance and completing your doctorate are a myth. You do not get to work full time and study full time and have a clean house. See friends. Exercise. Cook. You get to work on life-survival mode only.

I know this because I am laughingly now trying to embark on a ‘well balanced life’ and failing miserably at all the bits that veer off my comfort zone – namely work and writing. I spend hours cooking new meals to stock pile the freezer for my kids, do some gardening, walk the dog everyday and throw myself at my dance classes on the weekend. Only to find that I had hardly any time for writing after I have come home from a day at my university job.

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I keep saying to friends “I can’t understand how I managed to complete my doctorate full time and also work in a another paid job full time.”

Well, now I know. It’s because I did nothing else, really. Friends, the garden, the pet, my health – it all languished. Of course, I am now paying the price – there is always a price to pay, you understand. I am ‘wasting’ time with dance and pilates on the weekend because my body has seized up like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz. The minute I take my eye off the garden, it reverts to type – and that is weed infested, scrappy, algae ridden mess of overgrown lawn, or the hedge threatening to poke out the eye of any innocent passerby, and a disused spa that is the alarming color of green.

All year I have been meaning to ‘do something’ about the empty spa, which the previous owners used as a sand pit. My kids are long past the stage of wanting to play in wet sand, and even the dog got bored in there, especially when it filled with water. I did wonder what to do, but I had a few papers to write. They took priority this year. And as I have mentioned previously, I am in two writing groups, tackling two novels. That takes time. And I have a full time job. And two children. So – the old spa filled with rainwater, and then mutated into the green sludge.

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I did empty it the past weekend, putting aside the nagging writing deadline. Perhaps procrastination is why I spent time bucketing out the toxic mess. And then, that night, it rained more than it had all year. The heavens opening up to spite me. As if to say ‘you wasted writing time on this? Pathetic’.

Evelyn versus life. Life wins. Again! The only thing to do, it seems, is focus. Be obsessed. When you see the achievements of people who do so much – be assured – they are getting very little done in other areas.

The question you must ask yourself is are you prepared to do what it takes to get what you want? Just what are you willing to sacrifice to get your PhD? “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) is one of those bold and sweeping films that reflects the passion of one person’s creative vision and a determination not to give up. Director Werner Herzog was obsessed about completing his film, featuring a 365 ton ship hauled up a 40-degree incline in the Peruvian jungle. As the German film maker says in “Burden of Dreams”, the documentary about making the movie, “I don’t want to be a man without dreams”.

 

As I have said before, the life of a writer is very much like being a doctoral student. Think deferred gratification, the constant pressure to write up and justify your ideas. Sweating over your unique point of view and losing yourself in research.

I am about to do an intensive weekend of pitching to publishers, and at this highly competitive workshop, where participants are hand chosen by our mentor, there is an enormous amount of anxiety and effort in getting one’s taster just right for the marketplace.

That takes time.

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Where does that time come from?

One thing that writers are obsessed about is time to write. Because give or take J.K. Rowling and a few others, most writers need a day job to keep the wolf from the door. They may juggle work in a bookshop, doing sessional teaching, or that classic standby – work in the hospitality industry, but they do work in jobs that pay a wage.

That means writing has to be squeezed into other time. One writer I know has a small child, a paid job four days a week and is also studying. “I am sick of getting up at 5.30 am every day to write, because my study time is in the evening after I have come home from work and done all the parenting things,” she said.

How admirable that she gets up at 5.30 am every day to write. That’s commitment. Of course, pick up any book on doctoral research and you will find, in the index “time management.” There are many sensible suggestions, such as Eviatar Zerubavel‘s in “The Clockwork Muse” which extols you to allocate writing to a specific daily or weekly time slot that ensures you get it done on a regular basis.

“If you cannot ‘find the time’ to write, you will most likely discover that, by establishing a regular weekly schedule that includes just forty-five minutes of writing every Tuesday and Friday morning, for example, you will inevitably manage to get some writing done!”  Zerubavel writes (“The Clockwork Muse”, page 5).

Yes, indeed. I totally agree you need to write regularly and never fall into the trap of needing great, uninterrupted blocks of time to do your writing. But the fact is,  as a creative writer, not just someone ‘writing up’ research – you need to get into the zone. You need to go deep, think deep, immerse yourself in writing. A doctorate in creative writing is all that and more. You have to give yourself over to the writing and research, and any doctoral student will tell you that calm and steady may be a fine and valid way to get things done, but the intensity of doctoral study means that you can’t do it all. You cannot raise a family, work full time, and embark on full time doctoral study without giving something up.

That something, of course, is ‘life’ – and so-called ‘balance’ – forget it. You can claw your way back to reality after you complete. You don’t have time for a well balanced life.

 

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Although I now have my doctorate, I still practice deferred gratification in order to complete writing tasks. It’s a matter of priorities. I regularly turn down social invitations, or cut short evenings out in order to get back to the keyboard. I am enjoying Stephen Fry’s new book ‘More Fool Me’ (unlike many reviewers) and he writes about how he never let a rip-snorting cocaine habit get in the way of his exemplary work habits. Even he would turn down extended sessions of substance abuse in salubrious establishments in order to hit the keyboard, or hit the screen the next day without having his work suffer.

Alas, I can’t report anything so fascinating. But I regularly spend my lunch hour in the library doing research, rather than walk around the city for relaxation and exercise. The truth is that if you want to achieve anything, you have to make choices. What are you doing with your time?

When it comes to time management, you have to accept that time is not on your side. It can slip through your fingers if you are not careful, frittered away on ‘life’. Forget the work-life balance. Forget “free time”. Say goodbye to endless socializing, and when push comes to shove, focus only on the necessary tasks at hand. Get up hours earlier and write. Or write long into the night. Use all your lunch breaks to read or research.

We all have the same 24 hours a day allocated to us. It’s up to you to decide if you want to squeeze the very last second out of those 24 hours to achieve your dreams.

From the time I was 18, I juggled creative writing, journalism and academic study at once. It is second nature to me to spend so called ‘free time’ on anything but relaxing. Like Stephen Fry I find work (writing) more fun than fun, and I am the first to admit I don’t even know how to relax. But each different creative strand I engage in feeds into the other.

And if I am boring, well, so what? Obsessed athletes are no doubt boring as well, and at least I am only obsessed with what I read and write, not eat, drink and exercise. In fact, before anyone admonishes me for my truthful admission that you have to work bloody hard to get a doctorate, think for a minute about athletes. Does anyone criticize Olympic contenders for being so utterly driven?

 

 

The fact of the creative life is that it takes a long time to see monetary rewards for your work, and if you aren’t prepared to live hand to mouth forever, you need to get a paid job to support the creative work. I have yet to see writers wearing T Shirts with sponsor logos from stationary suppliers in the way athletes wear T shirts with nutritional supplement sponsors emblazoned on their chest. maybe we are just useless at creative sponsorship. Or – just maybe – seeing a writer spend endless hours hunched over a desk is simply not that interesting. But it is endurance, none the less.

There is a reason no one wants to sit and watch writers cross out one word after another, to make painful progress across the keyboard. That’s because writing takes longer, and is harder, than many people can imagine. If you are not getting where you want in your work, ask yourself – are you putting in enough time? Really? 

 

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Academic rituals, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Time management, Writing strategies

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

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If you had all the time in the world to write, would it make you a better writer – or would you just have more time to procrastinate? Even if you love to write more than anything else, why is it that a deadline is the push you need to get it done?

Perhaps one reason you are falling behind in your book, doctoral writing or dissertation is that you are not putting in enough writing time. Maybe you are skimping on your daily word count. Are you cheating in your assessment of what you actually do each week when it comes to writing? If you added up all the time you actually spent physically putting words down on the page, what would it add up to?

And if you simply can’t get started – why? It’s time for some reassessment of your work habits, and a little look at the cheating and self-delusion that writers, like dieters, are all guilty of doing of indulging in. Go on, admit it – when you told your supervisor that you wrote for five hours last week, was it in fact one hour and the rest of the time googling celebrities without makeup?

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Dieters delude themselves that it’s not cheating if they eat when no one sees them. Writers delude themselves that they are writing when no one sees them. Which is why so many seem to need a deadline to get anything done. It’s like the equivalent of a public weigh-in.

I am no stranger to the motivation of a deadline. What writer hasn’t cleaned the stove, mowed the lawn or rearrange the sock drawer to avoid the blank page? Doctoral students are even worse, with that supposedly long period of time stretching endlessly into the distance – until the final deadline looms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about deadlines these past few days because I’ve been talking a lot about them in a writing master class I am doing. Other people might spend a long weekend down at the beach, I spend it – writing.

What, you might ask, did I expect to get out of a writing master class, now that I have a doctorate in creative writing under my belt?

As one woman said “I am doing this because I am a life long learner”. Indeed. Also, the simple act of being surrounded by writing peers at a similar level of expertise is galvanising. The quality of feedback is invigorating and challenging, the camaraderie as the social ice thaws is comforting, and hearing other experienced writers talking about their struggles is enlightening.

In fact, no matter how accomplished, it transpires that writers are all prone to the same self doubt and procrastination. Here are common comments during the coffee break –  “I am so lazy!”, or “I am a fraud!” or “I can’t do this!” and “what makes me think I can ever write anything good enough?”  This is what US psychologist David Rasch PhD – author of The Blocked Writer’s Book Of The Dead calls “the jerk in my head”.

All of the 12 people in the master class were talented, prolific, experienced, published and devoted to their craft. But one thing really, really resonated with everyone was the communal cry of “we just don’t get enough done!” and “I need to have better work habits!”

One  participant had the enviable lifestyle of all the time to write – no kids to mind, daily paid job to do, or elderly relatives to nurture. He had the money, the support and the space and no distractions. Unlike another writer of 10 published books who is also a full time primary school teacher and writes books in the school holidays, this man appeared to have a dream existence. Except he wasn’t writing. He was procrastinating.

 

I suggested some obstacles, boundaries or roadblocks –  sometimes having everything is actually limiting. A form of creative agoraphobia. Maybe that’s why writers procrastinate – because it focuses time when they have to really, really get something in. And that narrow window of opportunity then casts a beam of clarity over the problem at hand.

Or – maybe not. It just makes us stressed and irritable. I am no stranger to the all-nighter, probably because I take on many projects, work full time and have two children. But what I do know is that there are many ways to approach your writing, and you need to find the one that works best for you. How will you end up with a reasonable body of work? By putting the time in. The same could be said of having a reasonable body of course…you have to put in the work…not just think about it…

 

Here are some ideas canvassed in the master class: – which writer are you?

  • Binge writer: you starve yourself of writing and time, then hit the computer and pour out the words in a block of time, alienating yourself from the rest of the world.
  • Helicopter nibbler – you don’t have the time to write every day because of other commitments, but the weekend seems so far away…so you keep in touch by writing little notes to your work, making sure you maintain the love with your project.
  •  The five: two writing diet – you are a weekend writer only. The rest of the week you think you might write, but don’t. After all, You haven’t finished watching Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
  • The early morning writer – you start before the family gets up. By 8 pm, you can only concentrate on TV.
  • The late night writer – for night owls – you write when you have the children to bed. This is because you can’t even write a shopping list in the morning that makes sense.
  • The word count writer – you write 500 to 1000 words a day, whenever, no matter what. This adds up. You have a book finished in six months!
  • Once a week writer – you write only one hour a week on a Sunday – and make sure you write 2000 words in that session. See above!
  • Endless plotting writer – maybe it’s not JUST about the words – but the other complicated, moving parts of a novel – the plot, characters, the twists and turns, the set ups and payoffs…maybe you set aside a specific block of time each day or week – half and hour – to work on this AS WELL as a separate block of time for actual writing. You also have a book finished in six months, but are late paying bills and have no personal relationships. You are obsessed and driven – are you doing a doctorate?
  • Vomit draft writer – you don’t worry about the perfect draft first off – you write the entire “draft zero” or “vomit draft” and then have time for editing, and rewriting. People use the words fast paced, action packed and could do with a close edit for your work.
  • None of the above. You want to write but get nothing done. But your next holiday is planned and you have a table covered in books that could be the inspiration for your novel, if only you’d stop watching Game Of Thrones.

Think of your writing life like other aspects of your life that you need to do to remain a functional person – you need to eat, shop, clean, cook, take care of friendships and family, you need to read, plot, write and engage with the writing community in some way as a writer. Just as you should exercise regularly, you need to write regularly.

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No time for writing? Nonsense – you can fit even 10 minutes a day, can’t you? Save the big burst up for when you can carve out time, but just as there are many forms of eating (snacks, dinner out, leisurely brunch) so too are there many forms of writing. Just do it!

The trick is to find a pattern for yourself, and factor it in, every day, every week, week in and out. Remember the worst thing is starting, so some tricks, like retyping the last paragraph of your story when you start, or making sure you always finish some writing off so that it’s never a neat ending, and come back into that sentence, might work for you.

What ever you do – start. And put in – the time and effort. Nothing happens without it. Books, and doctorates alas, do not write themselves from your imagination and research without your physical input.

 

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, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, parenting and study, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management

PhD Student vs Life: How To Do It All But Not All At Once

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Four weeks post submission: I am still wandering around like a dazed zombie trying to get remotely interested in life. An official letter has arrived from the university. My status has now been changed to “submitted”. It is about this point that people are expecting that you have ‘bounced back’ into the world of the living. Everything still appears as if through a thick pane of glass. Ah – that may be because of the other deadlines.

Accusingly, the dust seems to rise higher everyday in the house. I don’t care. I have become so adept at not looking at what’s going on around me, I wonder if I will ever be able to focus again on the things that once mattered. Will my home ever be again the palace of my dreams?

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Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a little hiatus in my postings. Ah – the post submission illness and general malaise has been hard to shake, as have the children’s understandable demands now that “mummy is back”.

I wonder why I am feeling this way, when I get a frantic call on the mobile. “I’m driving in now – can you text me the name of that printing place?” It’s my friend and long time writing partner, Caroline. She’s about to submit her doctorate and I can hear in her voice the same crazed about to submit panic that I had in my voice less than a month ago. It’s coming back – like childbirth.

I sent Caroline an email a few days before, alerting her to the fabulous commercial printer that I used – the one who doesn’t have to “let the machines have a little rest” and can deal with a tearful, sleep deprived doctoral student with kindness and calm.

After Caroline submits later that day – oh, joy! – I receive an ambitious text from her. “Right, now we are off to the theatre! I’ll book the tickets, we’ll have a drink to celebrate!”

I text straight back. “NO! Organise nothing – I am still a train wreck – you won’t believe how bad you’ll feel. Prepare for the great post submission blues.”

I had a back-to-back task of co-editing an academic book directly after my submission, and that was even harder than submitting the doctorate, as I had no energy left whatsoever and was sick as well.

Post submission, people are asking me how I managed the four-year juggle of young children, full time work, full time doctorate and part time teaching and blogging and still managed to submit on time. The answer is simple. Like Vincent Freeman in the film Gattaca I saved nothing for the swim back. If you want to achieve something – push it to the max.

At the time, I didn’t exactly realize this was my strategy. I worked hard from the outset, meeting all my goals – and the university goals – along the way. I spent just about every lunch break in the library or attending research strategy classes held by the university’s School of Graduate Research. In my final year I snuck into the sessions for emerging supervisors to get the inside track on what examiners were looking for (these sessions even had free food…) I spent my holiday leave presenting papers at conferences. I blogged about my research ideas, and turned these blogs into papers, articles and finally chapters in my exegesis. And I won’t even begin on how I plundered those around me for dialogue and characters in my doctoral novel.

In short, I never took my foot off the pedal. And in the last 100 days, I worked around the clock, hard and focused. It certainly explains how I feel now! And I am not sure that this is a strategy anyone wants to hear (or for that matter, follow), but the only way to ‘do it all’ is realize that something has to give. I did not by any means have a ‘balanced life’. My house looks like a bomb site, I more or less stopped socialising. At different points over the four years, some things had the volume turned up in my life and I had to deal with them with periods of brief intensity, but otherwise, I shut out that which would cause me to go off track. I simply ignored many important aspects of my life.

And now I am far from shore, and I need to swim back. At the moment, I am floating in the water, looking up at the sky and thinking, can I just drift a little longer before I have to start making it to land? Before I have to deal with ‘real life’ again?

I have found great resonance in the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, reading The Poetics of Space.  It is perhaps fitting in my current state of mind that I prefer to read about Bachelard’s analysis of housework than actually do any – I understand his idea of making housework a creative activity and that by approaching it with consciousness it rejuvenates everything.

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That said, I still balk at the layers of dog hair and the soul destroying topography of a teenage boy’s room.  I threw out a large garbage bag of suspect food from my fridge (what lurked at the back shelf could probably be classified as a biological weapon) but the long overdue cleanout of the pantry can wait. Oh, Bachelard, the housewife may awaken furniture that was asleep, but shifting forgotten tins of flour just awakens the weevils.

I plan on seeing Caroline next week, and over that joint celebratory glass of wine will ask her how she managed her candidature, full time lecturing and three (adult) children. I will report back – hopefully she will have saner advice than me.

However, like me, I suspect that she will say she cut back on many things to focus on what was important. Come to think of it, it’s been at least 18 months since we had a purely social get together. Most catch ups have been frantically wedged into a spare half hour at a café on campus.

The truth is that as far as time management goes, the only way to ‘have it all’ is to accept you can’t have it all at once. And it complete a doctorate with a Big Life you must let just about everything else fall by the wayside.

Seriously, I have been staggering around with a grand post submission plan of “getting the house in order” when I realize the task is simply beyond me.  Apart from the occasional cursory clean and survival cooking, the fact that the house is standing at all is a testament to the power of dust to hold everything together – and the fact that the kids have learned to help with the housework.

My mother – who graduated from two universities in one day – always told me that ‘dust will be there tomorrow’. However, as Bachelard noted, a human being likes to ‘withdraw to his corner’ and that it gives him physical pleasure to do so. And that’s hard when the corner is a little – squalid.  My mother would say, sit somewhere else, and read a book – then you won’t notice the mess.

So, in that spirit, for those of you still slogging away on the doctoral-kids-work juggle, here is my adopted anthem about endurance and perseverance – Sail On Sailor, by The Beach Boys; lyrics by Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Jack Rieley and Ray Kennedy.

Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
Feel the stinging I’ve been given
Never ending, unrelenting
Heartbreak searing, always fearing
Never caring, persevering
Sail on, sail on, sailor

Sail on swots– with the wind beneath your sails. Ignore the dust. I guarantee it will still be there when you submit. Keep your eye on the prize instead.

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

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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I had replayed the scene in my head many times – actually walking into the shop and getting my exegesis and novel printed up as per the regulation temporary binding – three copies in total for the examiners – and then delivering them to my supervisor. But in truth rather than joy or elation, I felt sick with exhaustion. Still, it wasn’t me who burst into tears on seeing all the copies snug in the plastic bag, ready for delivery right slap bang on the due date – it was a colleague!

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You should be happy I am finally handing in.”

“But for as long as I have known you, you’ve been doing this doctorate,” she said. “It’s all I ever hear about – it’s like it is part of you.”

I was given the most lovely pot of pink flowers from a student (thanks Yvette!) to congratulate me on handing in. But it still didn’t feel real until I received the longed for text from my supervisor, who hand delivered the bundles of joy (more like writhing mutants) to the Graduate Research Office, after the Dean’s sign-off: “All fine. Well done! Time to relax”. 

When I came home tonight, late after teaching, my teenage son said “well, what now, mum? You can’t tell me you’re going to do another one?”

“No way,” I said. “If you do it right, one PhD is all you need. And I don’t have the energy for two!”

“Well – what are you going to do?”

Well, tonight – sleep! No one staggers to the end of the finish line of a doctorate without being totally shattered, no matter how much support they have. I am humbled by how everyone has come through behind Team Evelyn – from practical support with proof reading, copy editing, helpful academic advice, simply endlessly listening and the friends and family who have helped out by organising diversions and play dates for my kids so I could work in peace, it has all been enormously helpful. And never underestimate the importance of a cheer squad in boosting morale. There’s a reason the home team has an advantage. That boost is the wind beneath one’s wings. Maybe this blog post should be titled “It takes a village to do a doctorate”.

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I started 100 days to the doctorate as a way of doing what I do best –  writing for an audience. Trained as a journalist, where I worked in the cut and thrust of the newsroom of Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper for a decade,  it is second nature for me to put my words on the line. To share the experience, the words, the journey.

By blogging about the manic end of the doctorate, I aimed to articulate [to myself!] what was going on. The last 100 days is the culmination of four years of finding one’s way. Of nudging into the academy, learning names and faces, getting it wrong, stumbling, learning the language, getting it right and then, taking one’s place at the table – well, at the very end…down at the bottom of the table.

Over the past four years, I have blogged extensively about my work, and those ideas have ended up in conference papers that in turn morphed into the exegesis and into journal articles. I have done the ‘working out’ in public, and that has been a very useful step in owning the work, and in seeing myself as part of the academy.

Ah, writers. We sell ourselves short in the academy, I think. Yet here is the thing – a lot of those in the humanities would like to be writers, in fact. And one of the most important things I learned from feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work was her love for words, narrative and SF. But the Creative Writing doctorate is a strange and demanding beast, as much a mutant I think as the mutants I have been researching. We have to create a compelling work of fiction, and an exegesis that ticks all the boxes for academic research. There is much to write about this process, and indeed, I do so in a chapter of my exegesis, so it is still too raw and fresh to write about it here.

So – for now – there is a hiatus, of sorts, as the doctoral submission goes to the examiners – and I wait.

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As Mary Shelley wrote of her hopes for her novel Frankenstein: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. ”

I also hope my hideous progeny, my exegesis and novel about hybrids, mutants and monsters, passes the test. 

Not that my youngest son will have any of that. He threw himself into my arms tonight and declared “it’s Dr Mummy!” which is very sweet. I told him, “no, not just yet – a few more hoops to get through first, one way or another.”

“But – it’s in, right? You got it in on time?” he asked.

“Yes, darling – mummy got it in on time.”

“Great!” He gave me a big hug. “Can my friend come over for a sleepover on the weekend now I don’t have to be really quiet the whole time so you can study?”

Maya, the hard, driven CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, had no idea what to do with herself after her quest ended.

I know exactly what I am going to do with my time. It’s like that when you are a mum – I have a couple of Scout badges to sew onto my son’s shirt, a whole backlog of domestic tasks to tackle, a journal paper to submit in a day and a book I am co-editing due in three weeks. Then – there is the bigger ‘tomorrow’ to embrace.

But at least I will sleep tonight knowing I reached that most prized of a doctoral student’s many milestones (except for actual graduation) and that is the timely completion.

The time-bomb intensity of the race to the end that is 100 Days To The Doctorate comes to an end – but I will keep blogging weekly with updates to share the story of what is next on the academic journey – and what I learned in the past four years – and also, what I wish I had discovered earlier. Yes, it is easy to be wise after the event. 

So, what am I thinking of now?  Just like President Bartlet at the conclusion of my favourite TV show The West Wing.   I am thinking of – tomorrow.

 

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!