Setting up, maintaining, mending your support systems

A friend of mine asked me recently how I managed to finish a PhD in three and a bit years, with a full-time job and a full-time homelife. I found it quite hard to answer her, especially given that, in retrospect, my PhD doesn’t seem all that difficult now (kind of like when you have done something really tough, like had a baby or run a marathon or climbed a mountain, and you think: ‘I could do that again, that wasn’t so bad!’ even though it was awful a lot of the time while you were going through it). So, I have thought a lot about this, and I think I finally have an answer.

I finished in the time I did because of the support I had. This support came in different forms, and I have divided it into four main kinds that made a big difference during my candidacy: home, personal, work, and PhD-specific.

I’ll start with home, because this, for me, was really important, and also really tough to manage consistently. I have a lovely husband and two lovely, but young, children who need me rather a lot. I also need to be there for them rather a lot, and like many parents I have organised my time and life around them since they were born, and a lot of who I am as a person is bound up in who I am as their mother. Not being very present or in control of all things parenting, therefore, was not really a viable option for me during my PhD. But, as I found out, it was really, really difficult to be a very full-time parent and partner, a very full-time academic, and a very committed PhD student (and not be very stressed and hysterical all the time). My husband, thankfully, is a very capable parent when I stand back and let him do things his way, instead of my way, and he was willing to put me and my PhD work ahead of his own in order to support me (for at least most of the three years). But, and this is the key, I really struggled to let that be. I struggled to let go of being all things to all of my family, and let him manage the kids and their lives so that I could focus on questions of theory, data, tense, fonts and all of that big and small PhD stuff I needed to focus on. It was only really in my final year, when I just had to finish, that I sort of got enough of the hang of letting go, and could actually focus on me and my work without feeling guilty or torn, or left out of what my husband and kids were getting up to while I was alone at my desk, writing. Support at home is essential, but you also need to let your home support you.

The second area where I needed, and was fortunate enough to receive, support and time was at work. I ran a small unit during my PhD and my time was largely my own to manage. This was very fortunate because I didn’t feel like I was clocking in and out with someone looking over my shoulder and accounting for each minute of my day. I was able to, some weeks, carve out a morning (and even have a day or two here and there at home) to focus on my PhD, having reorganised the rest of my workload around these PhD mornings or days. My close colleagues outside of my unit were encouraging, and in my final year accommodated (at least some of) my answers of ‘no, I can’t do that right now, ask me again next year’ with latitude for the most part. Again, though, a lot of what I received hinged on me asking for what I needed, and being firm, once I got the support, in letting it be. I had to learn to say ‘no’, which I am not very good at, and I had to learn to let people help me, also something I am not good at. I was fortunate – my close colleagues were a great source of kindness and support, which made up for the indifference from other less friendly colleagues and management. But I also had to find ways of asking for support and time and space in ways that did not put people’s backs up, or seem like I was asking for favours I was not due.  I learnt some valuable lessons about standing up for myself, and also about diplomacy, tact and timing.

A further area where I needed excellent support was in PhD-specific spaces of supervision and peer-groups. I was part of a structured PhD programme with an active online listserv and regular contact weeks where we all got together for workshops, lectures, seminars and supervision sessions. This support, along with the excellent supervision I received, took at least a year off my PhD in my opinion, as I had both real support, and also imagined chastisement if I did not make progress. I had, in other words, people who were keeping tabs on me, although completely supportively and kindly, and this accountability translated into me egging myself on because I didn’t want to let any of them down (and by extension let myself down). Reaching out to form a PhD support group where you feel you are not all on your own, and that your progress, struggles, and triumphs matter to others, can be a crucial source of support.

Finally, I had to learn to be my own support. I had to learn to encourage myself, and be warm and kind rather then mean and derogatory, especially when days of doing no PhD work turned into weeks and stagnation rather than progress was the order of things. I had to make time for myself, and tell myself that this time was not indulgent, or taking time away from my kids or work: that it was necessary and important and worth protecting. This was really difficult, all the way through. It still is. However, doing the PhD taught me to be kinder to myself, and to be more supportive of my own research, my own achievements and my own struggles. If I am not on my own side, how can I convince others that it’s a side they should be on too? I am much more of a cheerleader for myself now, giving myself more of the kindness I find easier to give to others.

Support systems are not easy to set up, maintain, and especially to mend if they have fallen apart. They require care, time and emotional energy, and these things are often in short supply during a PhD candidacy. However, without these four different kinds of support, something as long, challenging, often lonely and also triumphant as doing a PhD would be much more difficult than it could or should be.