Thursday, 18 May 2017

28 Things No-One Tells You About Being a Part-Time PhD Student

How fitting: in my last post, I wrote about having to learn to say 'no' to things. And as my circumstances have changed, and the months have gone on, one thing I've had to consistently say 'no' to is this blog. 

It's not so much finding the time to blog. Instead, the challenge has been finding the mental space to blog. Starting a new job, in a new industry, in a new function has been a steep learning curve. Combined with the ongoing learning curve of my thesis, it's left very little mental space for reflection.

After 10 months of radio silence, I'm not promising gold. In fact, all I'm offering is a buzzfeed-style listicle.* And a very specific listicle, at that. But, some words are better than none. So here we go.

Here are 28 things no one told me about becoming a part-time [self-funded, working full time] PhD student:

  1. People at work will tell you: "I don't know how you manage it - I can't imagine studying as well as working!" 
  2. Full-time PhD students will tell you: "I don't know how you do it - I can't imagine working full-time as well as studying!" 
  3. In both situations, you'll feel both flattered and uncomfortable - all you can think about is the long list of things you haven't done both at work and in your studies. 
  4. Then you realise that all the working academics you know work about the same hours you do. You wonder if this will ever get easier.
  5. This will probably make you very anxious and mean you handle a well-intentioned compliment quite badly. 
  6. You'll develop a good "elevator pitch" of your thesis more quickly than other students - mostly from explaining your thesis to colleagues. 
  7. Staying up past 11 or sleeping in past 6.30: you are allowed to pick one, not both. 
  8. You'll learn how to manage your time, more because you NEED to, than because you WANT to. 
  9. In fact, time is now your most precious resource. You'll start hoarding it protectively pretty quickly.
  10. You'll also develop a routine that works for you. Again, this is not neccesarily because you want a fixed routine, but because it works.
  11. You can get more done in 2 hours than you think you can. 
  12. You can get less done in 2 hours than you think you can. 
  13. The timescales seem dauntingly vast - 2 years to upgrade!? 6 years to finish!? 
  14. This is made more clear by the way other PhD students are moving at a much faster pace than you. 
  15. This will bring back horrible memories of anything to do with running at school, where you always brought up the rear. Your ego will have to learn to cope.
  16. If you work in a field related to your thesis, be prepared to answer questions like "how you can possibly spending all your time on that once niche?"
  17. If you work in a field unrelated to your thesis, be prepared to answer questions like "How can you possibly enjoy both?"
  18. When paid work is hard, you'll appreciate your academic work. 
  19. When your thesis is grinding you down, you'll appreciate your achievements at work. 
  20. Either way, you'll find the skills you develop in your thesis work could well help you at work. And vice versa.  
  21. You'll find yourself talking to your supervisors about your paid a lot. Then you realise it's because they care about you as a whole person, not just a word-producing machine. At this point, you feel very lucky. 
  22. You finally understand what people mean by the term 'support network.' Mainly because you now rely on it in lots of small ways.
  23. The bitterness of not being eligible a discount on your Council Tax will not fade. 
  24. The novelty of getting student discounts won't fade either. 
  25. This is despite the fact that every time you hand over your NUS card to get a student discount, you quietly pray they don't ask any questions like: "how old ARE you?" 
  26. In fact, questions like "You're still a student? At your age?" and "You're going to be HOW old when you finish?" will become a pretty standard part of small talk with anyone new. 
  27. Sometimes you'll kick yourself because it feels like you've chosen the worst of both worlds: more hours, more responsibility, more stress. 
  28. Other times, you'll be grateful because you feel like you've chosen the best of both worlds: a steady income, development, and pursuing your passion. 
  29. But most days? This is just the way things are. And for the most part, it works.

*What a hideous word. I apologise.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

On Saying 'No'

I struggle with saying no. I feel like I have to build a roster of achievements to try and compensate for pursuing a PhD without funding. Since the opportunities don't come as part of my funding, I have to make them for myself: interning for 8 hours a week; organising a graduate conference; planning outreach activities for 7-12 year olds. Each has been rewarding in its own way, but doing them while working (and researching!) has been stressful.

I'm sure you know where this is going: I took on too much at the start of this summer because I couldn't say no.

There's another reason I need to learn to say no, and fast. As of this past Tuesday, I'm working full-time. This is good news! The job plays to my strengths, and offers plenty of learning opportunities. But it also means sacrifice: less research time; fewer conferences; postponing teaching for a few years.  This means I'll have to be more intentional with how I use my time.

There's a risk of being too instrumental in how you spend your time to the point of selfishness. I'd never want to get to the stage where I'm only chasing prestige. But there's also a need for balance. So in the future, I'm going to ask a few questions before I take on anything new.

Will this let me do more of what I love?   If the aim of these opportunities is to build experience and build a network, there's no sense in doing things half-heartedly. No one wants to be remembered as disorganised, disinterested, or distracted.  For me? I love sharing my enthusiasm about my research. For you? It might be writing; it be archival work. Either way, focusing on opportunities you're enthusiastic about enables you do things properly.

My second question seems to contradict the first: Will this opportunity challenge me? Will it enable me to develop? Building on your strengths is good, but it's too easy to bobble about in your comfort zone

For me? I gravitate towards anything that requires enthusiasm. So outreach events are exactly my forte. But I'm terrified of anything that sounds like academic competition. You might be the opposite: public speaking might terrify you. In the end, academics need to do both so it's worth developing both.

And then there's the question I most often get wrong: how much of my time will this opportunity take up? It's the question I've got wrong over the last few months: "of course I can intern for 6 hours. And do conference admin for 2 hours. And read 4 journal articles. And still be a pleasant human being to live with." You can imagine how well this goes.

This is a brilliant way to feel unproductive and anxious. It's also a cycle. Overestimate your ability > fail to finish tasks > feel like a failure > place more demands on yourself to compensate.  My new rule of thumb? Estimate the time commitment. Multiply it by at least 1.5. If it still seems reasonable, it probably is. 

Three questions do not mean a perfect PhD/work balance. But my hope is that thinking a little more critically about these opportunities will enable me to focus on the right ones for me.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Stupid

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few weeks. I wish I could say it was because I was being brilliant. It’s not. Instead, I’ve spent the last month feeling stupid. Dumb. Idiotic. Wrong.

This is because I’ve reached the hard bit in my research. I’ve reached the stage in my thesis where I’m researching the very thing that makes this thesis worth doing: the new approach that will actually make this an original contribution to the field. So far, this has involved researching approaches – and even disciplines – well outside my comfort zone. It’s involved venturing into new parts of the library. It’s involved trying to understand foreign concepts, then try to apply them.

And while I recognise that is possibly the single most important part of my research, I hate it. I hate it because it makes me feel stupid. And while I’ve been wallowing about feeling like an idiot, I’ve also been trying to figure out what kind of stupid I feel. And I think there are three flavors of stupid I’ve been encountering:

1) I feel stupid because I don't understand this idea clearly.
2) I feel stupid because this seems self-evident, so I must not understand it properly.
3) I feel stupid because I can't see how this topic is in any way related to my research. Even though it seems like it should be.

Like a box of budget Neapolitan ice cream, each flavour is disappointing in its own way, and putting the flavours together doesn't help. It's wearing when the stupid keeps popping up day after day, in article after article. And - much like with budget Neapolitan ice cream - there's only so much you can take.

I wish this post offer you three pieces of advice to help you when you're feeling this way. Unfortunately, I'm right in the middle of the stupid, so I don't have advice. All I can offer is the same perspective I try and offer myself:
1)  It’s possible the stupid will pass once ideas have had time to percolate?
2) Maybe I do understand this thing?
3) Maybe this is a moment of developing academic judgment?

Unfortunately, the stupid doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up any time soon. I still have a lot of reading to do. And while some ideas are starting to formulate themselves in my head, it doesn’t feel like anything definite yet. 

If I have answers, I'll let you know. In the meantime, I'm going to keep wading through the stupid. 

Monday, 4 April 2016

PhD and FOMO

Story time: a few weeks ago, one of my best friends from university came to visit. It was the first time she's visited since I started the PhD, and we had a fantastic time. There was only one thing that made the weekend less than perfect. From time to time I would get a pang of jealousy. Not a malicious one. But the sort of pang where you think, 'god I wish my life was more like that.' And I felt awful about it.

Let me tell you about said friend. She's talented. She works hard. She lives in a city she loves and owns her own home. After a few years of hard work and low pay, she's now established in an industry she loves. And, knowing what she's like, I know that she must be amazing at what she does.

And yet. Knowing all this - how talented she is, how hard working - didn't stop me comparing our lives. Unfavorably, of course. And even though I love doing my PhD, I recognise that it's the root of a lot of my comparisons.

Even though I enjoyed that weekend, I've been thinking about this Fear of Missing Out ever since. I don't know how other people cope with FOMO, but I'm trying to focus on gaining perspective. Here's how.


Most people focus on the positive.
When we meet up with people, want to be positive. We all do this: we talk about a successful conference paper we gave, not the rude question that followed it. We'll mention our new job, and focus less on our tiring commute. We'll talk about our new home, not about the cost of replacing the kitchen.

This makes sense. Most people want to spend time talking about what makes them happy and fulfilled. Most people don't want to come across as ungrateful for their successes. When you meet up with people, they're offering to share the best of what's going on with you. And that's something to be celebrated.

Success and fulfillment aren't limited commodities.
This is so obvious I feel silly typing it. But, success and happiness aren't limited commodities. Someone's career success doesn't mean everyone else is going to languish. Someone's new puppy doesn't mean there are fewer dogs out there to adopt.

This truth - while obvious - is important. Acknowledging it frees you up to be genuinely happy for the people you care about, instead of quietly resentful.

Be realistic
I find I often  like the idea of what other people have: important jobs, fancy houses. But if I'm honest? I'm less keen on the practicalities of these ideas. While I wish I could do lots of international travel, I'm quite happy not having to pack my bags every week or two. While I'd love to be able to decorate my home, I'm grateful that when my washing machine broke, I could just call my landlord.

Every success has some sacrifice involved in it. And my friend doesn't live with the idea, she lives with the sacrifices too.

Remember that this isn't a race.
I feel ancient by PhD standards. I've just started my second year and I'm 26. I won't finish until I'm at least 30. It's likely to take several years after that to land a permanent job. Whatever age you are, your friends outside of academia may well be reaching milestones that you aren't.

But this isn't a race. The age of 26 is not the finish line. Not is the age of 30. Or 40. Or 50.  There is plenty of time to buy a car, or a house, or have children, or run that marathon.


Do you get this feeling sometimes? How do you cope with a fear of missing out on the rest of life?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 5: Lessons Learned

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper.

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research
Part 3. Write, Write Again  
Part 4. Fine Tuning

1) Everyone writes to their own schedule.
When I've spoken with people about this project, reactions have varied. Some people think 14 days isn't long enough. Others have wondered why on earth it would take so long to write roughly 2,500 words. In short, I've realised I work quite slowly. It's likely that practice will enable me to work more quickly. But I doubt I'll ever be cavalier enough to write a paper on the way to a conference, or while I'm there. 

2) It helps to walk your audience through your ideas.
This (along with 4.) is the most important technique in this whole process. By framing my paper around what the audience knew, I could easily identify where to offer more detail. Focusing on the audience also made it easier to identify where my argument needed to be stronger This meant that when I sat down to research my paper, I had a list of things I needed to know. This is useful if - like me - you have a tendency to fall into research rabbit holes.

You don't need to do this with coloured pens or pencils. You could do it in blue biro on a piece of lined A4. But whatever method you choose, focusing on the audience will change the way you write.

3) Taking 'quick notes' can be a false economy.
Like the use of coloured pens, this might be something that only applies to me. I've spent most of my academic life loathing the process of writing. I've always found it to be long-winded, stuttering and dull. This is because my plans always contain either a) a scribbled half-quotation that I can't quite read or b) a note like 'see J.Blogs page 50.' This means pulling out my original notes and rifling through them. Or worse, going through the book or article, and trying to reconstruct which bit of page 50 was relevant.

Writing down quotations in full meant that when I sat down to write, it was surprisingly easy. I didn't use all the quotations I wrote down. In most cases, I re-drafted the contextual sentences I copied down. So, some of the time copying down notes didn't produce results. However - for me - it was worth the extra time because it made writing less painful.

4) First, record yourself. Then, re-draft.
This. I know I've already been harping on about this on twitter. But, really. I found that recording myself reading my paper has improved it for the better.

Firstly, recording myself meant that I could identify which sentences or phrases are jarring when you try and listen to them. This makes sense: papers are heard by our audience, but we write them as though our audience is readers. When I listened back to the recording, some sentences that sound fluent and clever on paper just sounded convoluted. 

Secondly, recording myself - and listening back to the recording - meant that I could identify where my argument got a bit fuzzy, or a bit lost. This has enabled me to go back and tighten up those sections, and make my argument clear. 

Is it a slightly painful process? Yes. Is it awkward? Absolutely. But recording yourself has benefits in a way that practicing in front of someone doesn't.  But I believe it will make it easier for people to engage with the final paper. And, ultimately, the means the paper will do exactly what it's supposed to do: share new research with a broader audience.

And with that, it's done. I have a paper which is almost ready to present. You (hopefully) have come away with something that might help you write your next paper.

I've really enjoyed having a chance to reflect on writing. It can be a fraught process, especially at the start of a PhD. If you've read along with the whole series so far: thank you.

And happy conferencing!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 4. Fine Tuning

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper. I would love to hear how you handle these challenges, so please join in the conversation!

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research
Part 3. Write, Write Again 

Day 13
That introduction is still irritating me. On reading through my paper again it seems clunky. I spend a good hour or so trying to come up with something that's punchy rather than procedural.

I fail.

Instead, I decide that it's ready for my supervisors. They're both experienced academics and fantastic public speakers. They're also generous with their feedback. I have the usual moment of anticipation/worry/imposter syndrome when I send off the draft. I feel the fear and press 'send' anyway.

In the afternoon, I work on my handout. This involves a lot of quote-checking and fiddly formatting. I'm halfway through  a rant about Microsoft Word I realise the 14 day paper project is almost over.

Day 14
Day 14 actually comes nearly a week after Day 13. Extra work commitments mean I don't have a single PhD day. I meet with my supervisors. I expect them to agree with me that the introduction is haphazard.

Turns out, they love the introduction. But they do pick up on my other weaknesses. Both suggest more on the debates around these texts. After 45 minutes of discussion, we realise that the arguments I'm making should - really - lead to an entirely different conclusion. This is a little embarrassing. (Who writes a paper that doesn't support the conclusions they draw?) But, thinking this through now changes how I think about this codex as a whole.

I leave the supervision a little flat. All I can think about is how there's still so much work to be done. After wallowing a little, I get some perspective. This paper will be better for that work. Ultimately, the thesis will be better.


And with that, the 14 day period is over. And my paper is not finished, exactly. Admittedly, I could give the paper as it is. But I also want to make it as good as it can be. Is this how other people approach papers: always striving to improve them? Or is done good enough for you?

While I make my revisions, I'll also think about what this experience has taught me. So there's one part left to go in this series.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 3. Write, Write Again

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper. I would love to hear how you handle these challenges, so please join in the conversation!

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research

Day 9 (Half Day)

Extra work pressures mean that I only have a day and a half of PhD time this week. I get through my admin tasks surprisingly quickly. With no excuses left, and a full plan, I start writing. At this point, I remember something: introductions are HARD.  Or rather, I find them hard.

I know historians have a habit of start by describing a moment, an event, or a quote. I'm trying to do the same. Since I'm late Medievalist, this (of course) means quoting Chaucer. But there's a fundamental problem: I find this method effective when other people do it. But when I do it? I want to punch myself.

I cringe and keep going. By the end of the afternoon, I've written the literature review section. 600+ words down. I congratulate myself and spend the night knitting.

Day 10 

I write best in campus computer rooms. With this in mind, I arrive early and start writing. Within three hours, I have a first draft. Hurrah! After running some errands and having lunch, I begin re-drafting. I re-draft using a pen and paper because I find it easier. Most of my edits are to clarify points. I take this as a good sign: no restructuring!

The only problem: that Chaucer-themed introduction still seems a little tenuous. I spend ages fiddling with it, re-writing it in my head, approaching it in different ways. Finally, I accept what I have.

Since it's Friday, I'm heading out for beer and pizza with my other half. I end the day feeling pleased with my progress. But also mindful that I only have four days left!

Day 11 (Half Day)
Studying part-time means it's hard to build momentum for writing and redrafting. I come back to my fist draft 5 days after making my initial edits. I type up my edits. 

In the evening, I seek feedback from my first port of call: my husband. Usually, he reads a printed copy of the paper. I suggest something different. I read the paper to him, as if I were presenting. I figure that what is clear on paper isn't always clear when read aloud. I feel  self-conscious, but this helps. He identifies a few areas where the argument isn't 100% clear. He's also thinks the Chaucer introduction needs more clarity. I take notes.

Day 12
Usually, I do a lot of ad-libbing when reading papers. While ad-libbing works for training, it doesn't always work for presenting a paper. So, today I focus on polishing the paper so I can avoid ad-libbing myself into a tangent.

I record myself reading the paper aloud. Like last night, I feel self-conscious. And I feel even more self-conscious listening back to my recording. I sound posh and pompus, but also young and terrified.

However! This is a brilliant approach. So much of the phrasing that works in written pieces doesn't work when speaking aloud. Recording means I can correct these now, rather than risk being unclear. 


And with that, I only have two days left. I still need to design my power point. I also need to design a handout so that the audience has quotes to hand. But at this stage? I feel good. I have a lot focus because I know that I'm going to have to document my progress.

But I still struggle with my introduction. And I'm having a crisis of confidence about using handout. What are your thoughts? How do you approach introductions? And are handouts passe? I'd love to hear your thoughts!