A year on: my first year post-PhD

I have been trawling through my blog archives, reading what I was writing and thinking about a year ago. I have friends who are close to submitting their PhD theses for examination, and others who are not yet where they wanted to be by now, and this has all given me pause to reflect on where I was a year ago and where I am now. A year on: am I where I wanted to be by now? I am, and I am not. There were many plans – some more realistic than others – that have and have not come to fruition. Now feels like a good time to take stock, and perhaps learn a few more lessons to take into 2015.

It has been a hectic year on the work and home fronts, and I had such big plans for my writing out of the PhD. Such idealistically big plans. I did not really have a holiday when I finished my PhD. Yes, we had a small trip at the end of last year, once the thesis was being examined, but I could not fully relax. I thought about the examination process a great deal, worrying about whether my thesis reached my examiners, and whether they were reading it, and whether they liked it, or found it interesting, useful, persuasive… I am a worrier by nature. My husband has often said that if I didn’t have anything to worry about, I would be worried about that! So, I spent most of December, January and especially February, as the examination period went into overtime, worrying. It was not relaxing. So I was not in a good space for thinking about papers. I wrote a very vague list of papers I could write from the thesis around March, and stuck it up on my wall at work. I even pinpointed possible journals. And I scribbled, in my research journal in tentative pencil, some plans for abstracts and such. Waiting to get the reports and corrections back kind of consumed my headspace. I got physically ill too, for a fairly long period, as my body realised we weren’t doing the thesis anymore and kind of fell apart in a heap for a while. So, the early part of the year was not as productive as I had thought it might be talking to colleagues who seemed to churn out papers right after submitting. I just didn’t realise how emotionally and physically done-in I would be after I finished my PhD, so I could not make room for that in my plans.

Then I got the corrections and reports, and was able to complete them fairly quickly so that I could graduate. That was most certainly a high-point, and top of my ‘to-do’ list for the year. It was a glorious day, and week, and coming home I felt certain that I could focus on writing, now that the PhD was formally concluded. I did put in a successful abstract for a conference, and actually wrote a short paper for the conference that I was quite pleased with. I thought writing this paper would get the writing wheels turning, and that the papers would now come. But then there were tutor workshops and a staff development course, and external moderation and so many emails, and it was easier to just focus on all of that than to take the time to do more reading (more?) and thinking and restructuring and cutting and writing. I had time, and even headspace, but a new emotional struggle in the form of feelings of inadequacy. Far from feeling smart, and well-read and knowledgeable coming out of the PhD, I felt small, and ignorant of so many things I haven’t read about, and I really have battled to feel confident enough to put myself out there. So, more delays with the papers. More emotional blocks I was not expecting to have to overcome.

Now, sitting at the end of the year, I have mixed feelings. While I am proud of myself for finishing my thesis, and for writing a solid, well-argued piece of work, I am disappointed with the ‘meh-ness’ with which I have treated the writing coming out of the thesis. I have let the doubts and struggles hold me up (even though I am not too hard on myself for this because, to be fair, I didn’t know I would have to deal with those). I have made smaller things at work that could have been delegated or put aside way more important than my own writing, and this had fed, rather than assuaged, the feelings of inadequacy and not-knowing-anything-of-any-use that I have been battling with. I have realised that the thing that will make me feel more confident and more able to speak up about what I think I can contribute to conversations about teaching and learning in the disciplines is to write at least one paper (for now) and send it to a journal. I need feedback from my peers, and I need critique even. I need to see that my ideas need work, but they are not rubbish or silly or of-no-real-use. I think as I start publishing my work, and developing my ideas, and reading more (more!) I will grow in confidence, and the doubts, while they will never really go away because I suspect this is part of what it is to be a good researcher – critical doubt – will eventually become more manageable. They will have less power to block me and overwhelm me with anxiety. Well, this is my hope.

Next year I will be a postdoctoral fellow at the university where I undertook my PhD study. I am looking forward to having time to read, write and think. It feels like a largely blank space right now, stretching out before me. But I must be careful here, and learn from this past year: I must make room for emotional stumbling blocks – and make room in my plans for time to deal with these without feeling shame and anxiety because I am not making progress; make a flexible ‘to-do’ list for writing, but make the writing more important than emails and other things that can wait. I need to learn to give myself (and my work) permission to be important and worth a lot of my time (and therefore sometimes also my family’s time). Finally, I need to develop a new vision and an updated alter-ego – maybe I shall call her Postdoc Girl – that will focus and guide my time, so that I am standing in a firmer and more confident spot next December. I think we all need something to focus on and to have as a motivating tool. Life is too full and too busy to leave motivation and focus to chance when you are working on something like a PhD where finishing a thesis is key,  or a postdoc where publishing a book or papers or even both is so vital. Perhaps you could take a moment to take stock of your year, and what you planned for and what enabled you or got in your way. What could you learn from your year to make next year more successful or less fraught? What kinds of changes could you make for the coming year? Make notes, and keep them somewhere you can access them easily. Refer to them as the year goes on, maybe in regular check-ins, and let’s see if we can’t make 2015 a year that sees us reach more of our writing and research goals. Good luck!

What I learned during #Acwrimo (and what I didn’t)

AcWriMo, for those who are in the dark (as I was before I took part in one) stands for Academic Writing Month, and this month seems to be largely November around the world. A group of colleagues and I signed up for our own AcWriMo as a group, with a commitment to to make and keep to our own chosen writing goals and post updates on our shared FB page about our progress. The idea is to set yourself a goal that is bigger than your usual writing goals in any given month – to be realistically ambitious, if you like. You write as part of a community and share your goal with others, so that you have support and encouragement around you, a sense of shared purpose, and also quite possibly a gentle form of accountability (although you don’t get into trouble or anything if you fail miserably to achieve your goal).

Thank goodness for this last part, because I did fail. Pretty miserably. I wrote about my goals towards the beginning on November here, and I must say, I really did think I had pared back a lot on my overly idealistic goals and was finally being more realistically ambitious. However, I achieved only 1.75 out of 4 written pieces that I set myself as goals. I wrote 3/4 of a paper that I am now ignoring rather pointedly, and a (pleasing) abstract for a book I really want to contribute to. I have not even planned out the 2nd abstract I planned to write (and the deadline has been moved quite a bit back, which doesn’t help with the fear-factor-panic-motivation), and I did not even attempt the other paper for the special issue. I spent one week out of the 4 actually writing and reading every day. One. So, there you go. That’s my AcWriMo confession. I am, to say the least, disappointed with my poor showing, but rather than eat too much chocolate in an attempt to console myself (although I kind of did this too, sadly), I thought I would blog about it in an attempt to reflect on and learn something more about my writing habits, enablers and big brick walls.

Enablers – start with the positives: Even though I did not get to where I wanted to go with my writing this last month, I really loved being part of this big writing community. We all posted quite regularly in the FB group, and sent each other virtual ‘high-5’s’ and encouragement, as well as sympathy and images of Pusheen the Cat. It felt like a warm, encouraging and connected space, and if you’re going to push yourself to reach deadlines and do more than you usually do, that is a good space to be in while doing it.

Habits: I learned that I have to work on my own research reading and writing first thing, before email is opened or the internet is activated. I am too easily distracted, especially towards the end of a long, busy year, by things that are much easier to do than thinking and writing papers, so if I am to focus, it has to be early in the day, and before I engage with the distractions. Another thing I learned was that I need to spend a fair bit of time thinking – percolating – before I can really write. This is a good thing to work out, because I can organise my time and headspace accordingly, but the downside is that my thinking can easily be hijacked by other things, like work. So I have learned that I need to be firmer with myself about making myself sit down and just write, and work on thinking while I write as well as before and after. I think if I could have just made myself get words out every day, even if they were mostly crap, I could have finished the paper. You cannot edit something that does not exist – it’s bringing my ideas into existence on a page that needs some work.

Big brick walls: I have to admit that I was fairly shocked by how easily my mojo shifted to ‘meh’ after a motivated and energetic first week where I got a lot done and felt really accomplished. I let it happen so easily, without much of a fight at all. I let work commitments that could have waited become really urgent; I agreed to do things I could have said ‘no’ to because I just had to do them; I packed up my office, when that could have been done this week; email became the most time-consuming task of the day… Interestingly, I could see this happening at the time – all these distractions and day after day of no writing – but I felt quite helpless to do anything about it. On reflection, I can see that there was a big emotional reason for all this drifting and procrastinating that I did not account for when I signed up with my ambitious plans in October. I am leaving my job this month, after 6 years, and even though I am moving on to something new and exciting next year, this is huge and a bit scary for me. A big part of my identity has been this role I have had for the last 6 years – my first real academic job – and I am finding it hard to let go. I think a lot of the ‘meh’ about writing after week one stemmed from a more emotional fatigue and resistance and I didn’t really make room for that in my plans.

So, what I learned from AcWriMo:

  • I do my best thinking at odd moments, and not always when I am in front of my laptop, but I write most productively in the mornings. I need to learn how to structure my days to take advantage of that time and I also need to keep a notebook with me, to jot down ideas when the muse grabs me.
  • My mental energy and focus is very much affected by other, seemingly unrelated, things that affect my emotional state, and I cannot easily switch the latter off or escape into reading, writing and thinking. I need to learn to be more aware of what else is going on in my life, and account for these potential brick walls when I plan my writing and research, so that I can actually be kind to myself and not feel like a failure.
  • I need to switch off the internet when I am writing. I am too easily distracted and until I have worked on my concentration span and increased it to more than 15 minutes, I need to minimise distractions like Twitter, Facebook and email quite deliberately.
  • Finally, I respond well to bribery, so I need to give myself small rewards, like tea, walks, snacks and chapters of my novel, to get me through as writing and thinking, especially on new work, can be tough, and take a lot out of me. Kindnesses to self are key :-).

I am going to try my own AcWriMo again in February next year, and finish this 3/4-done paper and write the other one that I had planned to write now. I thought January, and then paused and thought about the school holidays and back-to-school shopping and moving house, and stopped. If I am to do better next time, I must put into practice my learning from this time. So, February it is. Watch this space for updates…