Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)

stefan-on-paper-road-bumps

If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.

mother-nature-network-heart-book

If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.

 

Taking a holiday from your research

My brain is tired. I am sure your brains are all tired too. It has been one hell of a year, in global terms. I am sure many of us are really ready for 2016 to be over already. And, given that the festive season is almost upon us, many of us will be seeing out this year with a well-earned holiday. Leave from our day jobs, kids on holiday so less frantic mornings, and time to catch up on sleep, novels, movies and whatever else you do when you are on holiday. It’s also, for researchers, an opportunity to take a break from your reading, writing, thinking and data crunching.

I am a firm advocate of having a holiday from your research. I know, though, that many postgraduate students who are also working while studying see their end-of-year leave from work as a big chance to crack on with the writing and research without the usual disruptions of work. However, as a lovely friend who is coming to the end stages of her PhD said recently, ‘why am I assuming that I will be able to crack on, when I am pretty much on empty now?’ I, too, have been assuming that, once I go on holiday, all the energy I don’t have now will suddenly and miraculously appear and I’ll be zipping around doing crafts and making cookies and finding my desk under the piles of rubbish that it is buried under. I will more than likely be horizontal, with a book, in my pyjamas, bribing my husband and kids to bring me tea and snacks so I don’t have to move.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

I have much writing waiting to be done – primarily for a book project I am way behind on. But there is just no way I am going to be able to do any of it now. And anything I did write now would most likely have to be deleted and rewritten in January anyway. I am, quite simply, on empty. I need to see this for what it is: not as some kind of inability to Get The Things Done, but as a sign that I have actually done many of The Things this year, and now my body and my mind need to rest. Too often, on the hamster-wheel of academia, we don’t appreciate the need for rest, and down-time, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to just keep going. But if we do, we risk damaging our health, both mental and physical. I know I am guilty of bullying myself into keeping going, telling myself that I don’t need down time; I need to be productive.

There is a balance to be struck here. Down time is necessary and useful – it can recharge your creativity, productivity and work mojo. But too much down time can be counter-productive, as it can be really tough to get going again if you have too much time off. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with a regular job, but I have certainly found it to be the case with research, and a PhD. I never really got the balance right during my PhD – I either took too long a break or not enough of one, and I pretty much bunny hopped my way through my PhD in fits and starts of progress and productivity. I always found it difficult to get back into my PhD after each of the end-of-year breaks, largely because I was starting up my writing centre again, with all the attendant busy-work that entailed, and my PhD kept being relegated to ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week’. I don’t have that excuse anymore, but starting up again, especially on a project for which you are making the deadlines, and that requires intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation and drive, can be a challenge.

I do not, sadly, have the magic solution to finding this balance. I do, however, have the advice I give myself. Rather than telling myself I am not allowed to think about my research, I tell myself I don’t have to. I can read, and potter around, and read, and bake and swim and lie in the sun, and not feel guilty about any of it. And I can do that until my kids go back to school. This gives me about 3 weeks off. But, what usually happens while I am pottering and baking and lying in the sun, is that my mind-at-rest will still be percolating away about the book I am working on, or this blog, or the paper I want to write before March, and I will be inspired or have a useful idea that I need to jot down. So, I do. I scribble it into my research journal, or voice-note it on my phone, and then I put it down and go back to the holiday. That way, all the ‘work’ I might do is a bonus, and it doesn’t come with the usual anxiety and stress because I am not expecting myself to do it. This way, I keep things ticking over just enough to be able to pick up the pace when the holiday is over, but not so much that I don’t allow myself the rest I need.

holiday-mode-activated

I wish you all a very happy, safe and festive holiday whatever your chosen celebration, and hope your down time with family, friends and yourself is properly relaxing and rejuvenating. The blog will be back in January with fresh ideas and posts, and hopefully even more! Thank you all for your support this year. 😀

Changing tenses as you write your dissertation

The PhD student I am supervising sent the first draft of her methodology chapter yesterday with a series of questions and notes for me and the co-supervisor. One of them was about tense: she is writing everything in the present and future tense, but wondered if this was a mistake. It got me thinking (again) about tense in the PhD thesis, and the process of moving from future to past as the project progresses.

I have written here a little about the gap between the logic of discovery and the logic of display or dissemination in writing. As you are working, everything is either ‘I am doing this’ and ‘I will be doing that eventually’. This is pretty much the tense in which you write your proposal – proposals are forward  looking. So, as you start you research, you will naturally be thinking now, and on to the next steps, and your writing will most likely reflect this in the tenses you choose. This is the logic of discovery. As you move along, you will make decisions, close some doors, open others, and your argument will unfold and form as you do so.

getty_tense-155096784But not all parts of the PhD are written in this present/future tense, even as you are working out what your argument is. The literature review and conceptual framework sections, or whatever version of these you have, will likely be written in the continuous present, as most journal articles and academic books are. ‘Bernstein argues that xyz’, and ‘Research in the field shows us that these are the gaps in our knowledge about abc at present’, and so on. Then you come to the methodological and analytical framework, and you are perhaps not quite finished analysing your data, and you and certainly not finished with the PhD, so the tense changes: ‘I am analysing this set of data’ goes alongside ‘I generated these data in these ways over this time period’ alongside ‘I am going to be using this framework to organise the data (when I get there)’. It’s confusing, to be sure.

So what to do now, in the midst of your research and writing – can and should you anticipate being finished and therefore writing everything in the methodology in the past tense, or do you worry about that later? It does seem like more work to write in the voice of discovery while you are still discovering things, and then write again later in the voice of dissemination as you reorganise and display your thinking with the benefit of (some) hindsight. However, I would caution against trying to anticipate too much. A significant part of doing a PhD is the process of doing a piece of research, and learning through missteps, successes and issues like the one discussed here how doing and writing about research feels and looks and sounds. That way, you can go on to do further research, either on your own or with others post-PhD, and you can eventually supervise PhD students yourself.

methodology-blog-asiaslagwool-comBeing in the midst of what can feel like confusion and chaos – ‘Do I write this in the past tense, or just write is as I am thinking it and then change it later? Is this right, or not? Do I even still have an argument or a research question?’ – and then finding your way out to greater clarity, or a more sophisticated argument, or a deeper knowledge of your field is what builds you researcher voice and capacity. As the saying goes: the only way through it, is through it. Trying to see the end when you are still in the middle is likely to create more confusion and frustration.

So my advice, if you are stuck in a similar spot to my PhD student is this: be where you are. Think and write your way through this patch, and write in whatever tense and voice feels most authentic to you at this point. The good news is that there will be time for rewriting, polishing and updating before you submit, and it’s quite a pleasant feeling to go back to this methodology chapter after the findings have been presented and analysed, and find that you can edit, sharpen and focus that section to create a tight, accurate and interesting narrative about the nuts and bolts of your PhD. As you do so, every time you do so, your researcher capacity and voice and ability to add to the conversation through the knowledge you are making grows, and that is what being an academic researcher is about.

 

Grappling with complexity in a world gone mad

I’m not sure how to write this post. I have not posted on the blog for a while. I don’t really want to write any more ‘I’m so tired I can’t write posts’, but I need to write something, if only for my own sanity.

The past two months have been a weird, crazy, anxious and difficult time in South Africa, and globally. Here, apart from the ongoing awful behaviour of our president, we have seen violent, angry protests by students in our universities. At the heart of these protests have been calls for higher education to be free for students, especially poor, academically deserving students and middle class students whose family income is less than R600,000 a year (about $42000). There have also been calls for changes to the curriculum – mostly expressed as ‘decolonising’ or ‘Africanising’ the curriculum, and for changes to the ways in which teaching and assessment are constructed and effected. Too many students are disadvantaged by a system that has for too long gone unchanged and unreflected upon. Many universities have had to shut to keep their students safe, and have struggled to finish the academic year. People have been hurt, buildings vandalised, ugly things have been said in the name of progress and change, and many of us who work in education are feeling disheartened and sad. Where do we go from here?

There are significant problems in my country and globally that need to be addressed, and change must happen, but moving from that realisation to making the change stick will take time. And time is a tricky thing in a situation like this, where some students are claiming they will work to keep universities closed until their demands for change are met. This is, I believe, because we live in a world where things happen so fast that slow research, slow thinking, slow changes are less tolerated, or even seen as resistant or lazy. Academics who are under pressure to publish know this well, as do PhD students who take longer than 3 or 4 years to produce a thesis. We should all be able to teach and research and churn out papers, and present at conferences and tweet and blog and Facebook and still make it home on time for dinner. This is obviously a somewhat cheeky comment, but I know many people who feel overwhelmed by the growing pace that seems to surround our work. Reports about mental health issues on the rise among academics and graduate students are becoming more common, as are calls for a recognition of the value of slower thinking, and research, and deeper engagement with complex issues.

I recently facilitated a workshop with lecturers who were trying to work out a set of priorities for their curriculum, as part of a review process. What did they really want their teaching and learning to achieve, for themselves and their students, and their disciplines? What was striking was that one of the most important issues that came out was a desire to have students become more able to grapple with complexity. To not be so stuck on trying to find one single answer to a question, but to see and grapple with multiple perspectives, and learn to build considered arguments. This is a huge challenge for undergraduate teaching, because the average undergrad degree is so short – 3 or 4 years only – and this is a big thing to learn, especially when you consider that many students have spent 12 years in a schooling system that teaches them to learn the answers, rather than to appreciate the nature of working with problems.  I’m wondering how much of what we have been seeing in recent weeks in #feesmustfall protests here, in Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump and that polarising, ugly election campaign in the US, is many people’s inability or unwillingness to see, and grapple with, complexity in the issues we are confronted with. Climate change, globalisation, immigration, different versions of neo-liberal capitalism, state funding for social change – these are such big issues, and they connect into other complexities around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and all of these issues are just overwhelming.

Grappling with this much complexity is a full-time job, and it’s exhausting. And if you don’t have an educational or home background that has encouraged or taught you to stop, and think, and listen and try to consider or empathise with perspectives other than your own, it is commonsense to try and find one answer that feels okay for you, and stick with that. Inviting other people’s reasoning and opinions to challenge your own seems like too much to deal with, so you shut that out and find opinions and ideas that shore up rather than challenge your own. And you mistrust ‘intellectuals’ like your lecturers who would ask you to read books you don’t like, or think about ideas that make you uncomfortable, or engage with theory that threatens to unseat your beliefs. All of this makes it far less likely that we will learn to listen to and talk to one another with compassion and kindness, which we so desperately need to do if these issues are going to be addressed constructively.

I have been struggling to think and write and concentrate in the midst of all of this, as I am sure has been the case for many of you. Globally we seem to be floundering on the edge of something, and we don’t know which way this pendulum will swing us. My research feels silly in the face of all of this. Why even bother? But, then I think about the argument I have tentatively made here, and I think about my kids and my students, and I think ‘No. Stop’. There is value in slower thinking, in deep engagement, and in research that genuinely seeks to build knowledge, and create space for change. Your research matters, and so does mine. Words and ideas that can inspire change matter. We must continue to work on grappling with complexities, and finding answers and ways forward that don’t oversimplify and divide, but create richer understandings of difficult issues from multiple perspectives. There is much to be done, and I think perhaps it is time to get back to work. Who’s with me?

On celebrating achievements and marking milestones

It was this blog’s 3rd birthday on Monday. I planned to put up this post then, but the day got away from me, and then my son became ill and yesterday was a write-off. So, I am trying to get this out today. All this busy-ness, and missing this milestone has had me thinking about why and when and how we should mark milestones during a PhD or similar process, and celebrate our achievements, both big and small.

happy-birthday-blogMilestones 

There are a few particular milestones during a PhD (or MA) that should be celebrated. There is getting into the programme of your choice – big box tick there. There is having your proposal approved – definitely cause for champagne or a celebratory beverage of choice. Or cake :-). Then there is the uber-milestone of handing in the first full draft and then the copy for examination and then the final meisterwerk to be lodged in the library ahead of graduation.

But there are also smaller milestones along the way that may not be celebrated, or seen as cause for celebration in quite so obvious a way. Here, I am thinking of completing chapter drafts, even before your supervisor tells you this draft is finished for now and you can move on to the next step. I am thinking of writing 500 words in a week where you have a thousand other things to do and time is at a premium and your brain is tired. I am thinking of getting a lovely comment of praise on your writing from a supervisor, or even a critical friend. These are, I would argue, also milestones or significant steps forward in your research journey or process, and thus deserve a form of recognition and celebration as well.

Rewards (and punishment)

When you make time to recognise these steps forward, even if they seem small in comparison to big leaps like proposal approval and finishing a full draft or final thesis, you are saying that you have done something of value. You have written 500 words you are happy with, or you have battled through a difficult patch of life and work and still created a draft of a chapter that you are proud of. Whether or not external recognition from supervisors is forthcoming, you need to be able to see, and reward, your progress. 

greatjobRewards can be big or small, but they need to be meaningful to you. They need to create the impetus for you to push forward to the next reward. My rewards were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, or going out for a coffee and a slice of cake, or giving myself permission to binge on a favourite show for a weekend. These things were small, but they made me feel supported and encouraged. They were my way of saying ‘well done!’ to myself.

I didn’t reward myself during my PhD as much as I think I could have, though. I think, far more, I berated myself for not making enough progress, or writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 words. Instead of consciously rewarding myself, I tended towards punishment. As in ‘you haven’t written enough this week, so no weekend for you!’ This was, as you might imagine, counter-productive, as the more I punished myself, the worse I felt about my PhD and the more I felt resentful of its intrusion into my down time.

So, to celebrate…

I thus want to argue, here, that you need to be celebrating yourself, your writing and your achievements, big and small, throughout your PhD. You need to be your own biggest cheerleader, recognising what to others may seem like a very little step – ONLY 500 words? – as a pretty big step in a slow week full of meetings and sick kids and school events and so on. You need to be celebrating these small but significant milestones (or yardstones if you prefer), rather than punishing yourself for not doing more. If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, the small steps are big, and they keep you pressing on (as long as they are close enough together to create momentum and motivation. minions-celebrating

I now reward myself regularly for what I regard as my writing achievements. But, I have to make the reward the same size as the achievement. If I have finished a paper and sent it to a journal, I can have several episodes of favourite show and cake. If I wrote the introduction of the paper, I can have an evening off and time with my novel. If I make the reward too big, especially if it includes time away from writing and reading, then I tend to struggle to get back into it, and the reward works against me continuing on with the momentum. So, you need to be realistic, and measured, and have your eye on your goals, your timeframes and your levels of energy and motivation as you plan your down time, your rewards and your celebrations. But, celebrate yourself you must! To steal a line from L’Oreal: ‘You’re worth it!’