Wednesday, 16 December 2015

PhDs at the Christmas Table

Heading home for Christmas can be a mixed experience. 

On the one hand, it's a fantastic opportunity to get to spend a decent chunk of time with friends and family, and find out what they've been doing. If you're anything like me, most of your friends are going through exciting changes: buying homes, getting engaged, changing careers, gaining promotions. Your family might have plans to travel, hobbies they're taking up, kids who are turning into bright, talented teenagers.

Of course, in these situations the conversation inevitably turns to '..oh, how is your thesis going?' Personally, I find this a bit of a minefield. How do you answer? How much detail do you give? Do they really care?

To try and navigate these conversations, I sometimes have to remind myself of the following.

1. Of course they aren't going to remember the details of your thesis. That's ok.

If your loved ones are anything like mine, the second question after 'how is your thesis going?' is 'what are you studying again?'

After expending that much energy on something that matters that much to you, it can feel hurtful that your nearest and dearest don't remember the details. But they have lives to live and other things to get on with. 

A lack of knowledge about your thesis does not imply a lack of interest in you; the person doing the thesis. Unless this is asked in a snarky way, I take this is an opportunity to practice summarising my research succinctly.

2. Just because they don't share your motivation, doesn't mean they aren't happy for you.

None of my family are particularly academically-minded, and the vast majority of my friends felt no need to do an MA (lucky them). Inevitably, this does lead to slightly uncomfortable questions: 'so are you going to be an academic?' (maybe, but unlikely) or 'HOW long is this going to take you!?' (6 years, most likely) or 'but, why?' (!??) And these questions, while difficult, shouldn't be read as an attack on your life choices. 

For example, I have 0% interest in having children of my own. It's not a desire I understand. But this doesn't make me unable to understand a friend's excitement when their child is learning to talk, or doing well at school. 

Excitement is infectious. If you're excited about your research, your loved ones will understand that, even if they don't understand your motivation.

3. They don't care about your research...

No, seriously. Most of them really don't care.

4. ....what they care about is you and the fact that you're doing it. And that's the most valuable thing.

In all of these situations, you're seeing these people because you care about them and they care about you. And that's the key to all of this. I know that my parents will never have a real interest in the dynamics of late medieval gender. But I do know that they care about me, and want to support me. 

If you need that support - and your loved ones can offer it - don't turn it down because they don't care whether you use Chicago or MLA. 

5. It's Christmas. If you really don't want to talk about your research, don't.

There are periods where the thesis gets difficult and awful and we just want to get away from it. And if this is true for your this Christmas, that's ok. It's ok to use Christmas as a break away from your thesis.*

And it's perfectly possible to be gracious if you don't want to talk about your thesis. 'I'm finding it quite difficult at the moment, but it can wait for January. I want to hear more about your [new job/ newhome/wedding plans].'

*Just make sure that you get what you need (support, writing help, careers guidance) when term kicks off again.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

PhD Gift List

I’ve been overtaken by Christmas spirit this year. The tree went up on Sunday- the cards are written and ready to be posted. All the presents are bought, and the Christmas meal is planned out.

In fact, I'm so filled with goodwill, I've put together a Christmas list, in case you’re struggling to think of what to buy for the PhD student in your life.
The gifts vary in price,  but they do follow a few rules I like to stick to when buying. Gifts should be thoughtful – they should supply a need or feed an interest. They should feel luxurious: even if they don’t cost much, it’s nice to get people something they wouldn’t buy themselves. Finally, they should act as a reminder for the person of how much you like them, so they should make them smile!

Upmarket Caffeine
I don’t know many PhD students who aren’t fueled by caffeine: I certainly am. So it makes sense to  ensure that your PhD student is at least drinking something good. 

If they’re a tea lover, Char tea is a real treat: this Winchester-based company produces delicate, varied teas in useful easy-to-seal pouches. They’re ideal for having at the desk. (Their lapsang souchong is my favourite.)

Coffee lovers are covered too. I've personally been dropping hints about a subscription service. But until I'm having coffee delivered by the month, a lot of my friends recommend Pact Coffee.

Something Nice to Drink Your Caffeine Out Of
There’s no sense having good caffeine if you’ve no means of brewing it.

A good travel mug is always useful. I've been using this Bodum one has three days a week for 11 months and stills keep my coffee hot and (more importantly) sealed inside! 

For the loose-leaf lover – this Sabichi pot is great in communal areas. The leaves stay in the cage so you don’t have to have a strainer, or spend ages over the kitchen sink cleaning it out.

Am I the only person who can’t work with cold hands? Am I the only person who works in a REALLY cold workroom? I hope not, because I think handwarmers would make a great present for a PhD students. Working handwarmers have to be warm (duh) and thin enough to allow you to write/type.

I’m currently crocheting my own, but you can buy handmade versions via Etsy, or more easily available versions at Accesorize.

This is always top of my list. Gigs, exhibitions, theatre tickets. These are often subject to student discounts, and can often be booked quite far in advance. If it’s practical for them to get there, the RSC are particularly good for this: their vouchers are valid for a year.

A Means to Stay Organised
Moleskine planners are a classic option, and very hard-wearing. (I say this based on a five-year old notebook that has survived moves, boyfriends and travel and is still going strong). I’ve got my eye on (read: have added to my amazon wishlist) this Kate Spade planner. A Beautiful Mess are also offering spiral-bound planners, although they ship from America.

A Means to Exercise
I think it’s fair to say that many people would love to do more exercise, but find it hard to prioritise their time (and their money) to make it happen. This is why paying for a workshop/trial membership is a fantastic idea. Many universities have well-equipped sports facilities, and will often run one-day-workshops, and offer a reduced rate to students.

Good Food
There’s nothing that makes people feel healthy, happy, and loved like good food. If your loved one is coming up to a stressful time – writing up, big conference paper – you could help take some of the pressure of them by signing them up to a meal delivery service for the next month or so. Services like Hello Fresh and Gusto offer flexibility (and their meals are normally two portions, so they’ll go twice as far for one person: bonus!)

If you’re feeling less flush – or buying for someone less likely to cook – Graze boxes are a good way to ensure they have something tasty (and reasonably healthy) to look forward to. The service is customisable and flexible. And a good reminder of you each time the box comes through the letter box.

What's on your PhD-wish list this Christmas?

Sunday, 22 November 2015

3 Month Update - November 2015

In Numbers: 
Thesis words written: 3000(ish)
Supervisions attended: 2
Conference papers accepted(!): 1  
Conference papers written: 0
Loaves of soda bread baked: 4 (it's an obsession)

In Words
The last three months have really felt like a period of transition. This has to do with a few things, I suppose. Autumn (and the new academic year) always feel like a new start to me. But there have also been changes in my research environment: finally, there are new PhD students! Up until now, I've felt a little at sea amongst other PhDs who are much further into their research than I am. And while everyone has always been friendly, there's a renewed sense of community now that there are other newbies around

With regards to the research? It's been slower than in previous months. My thesis is based around a codex so, my primary texts are chosen for me. And because the manuscript is a miscellany, not all of the texts marry closely with my research interests. Which, necessarily, makes the process a little more laboured. But, for the most part, there has been something of interest in every text I've read. (Although Maidstone's Penitential Psalms is not one I'm going to be falling over myself to re-read.) But, the primary reading is done! Hurrah!

Now, I'm having to look forwards. And, I'll admit: my primary texts have acted as a pathfinder for me. Thus far, my research has been guided by those texts, the primary bibliography, and my own related literature searches. But now I feel as though I've reached the end of the known world and I'm now heading firmly towards the 'here be monsters' section of this literature review. 

But, there is a reprieve: I've had a paper accepted for Gender and Medieval Studies 2016 in Hull in January. Apart from being hugely excited that the paper has actually been accepted, I'm also somewhat relieved that I have another short-term goal to work on!

So, here's how I've progressed on my goals from last time:

  • Finish my primary reading: DONE 41 items of late medieval literature: read!
  • Decide on my next research goal: IN PROGRESS. After the conference in January, I have a long and disorganised list of 'things I need to learn about.' I need to sit down and work out which things take priority and how to approach them.
  • Send out a call for papers for a conference I’m organising: DONE The call for papers is out, and open! I'm so pleased we've been able to keep the focus on professional development, and the focus broad. You can find the CoP here..
  •  Hit 2,000 page views on this blog: DONE. I thought this one was far too ambitious, but it's been done! Thanks to a post on stress, which you can read here. I was a little anxious about being so candid, but it seems to have struck a chord. Thank you for anyone reading this!

 Looking Forward to February 2016

(just writing that is scary - it will be a year since I started this PhD!)
  • Send follow up emails to interesting people I meet at Gender in Medieval Studies. I know a lot of people dread conferences, but I find they can quite often be quite enjoyable, especially if you meet people who you find interesting. But I am awful at following up with people: I never have any means of chatting with them again. So my aim is to follow-up with anyone who I find interesting, even if it's just to say 'that was a nice chat, thanks.'
  • Do something to celebrate my thesisversary (yes, I am calling it a 'thesisversary'). With all this relentless looking forward, I don't want to lose sight of the progress I've already made. With this in mind, I am going to plan something: it might be a day trip, it might be a massage, it might be a fancy meal. 
  • Attend Old English Reading Group at least one a fortnight. I'm very mindful I don't want to get stuck in an uber-late Medieval bubble. And I'm still upset I can't study both ends of the medieval period. So this is a way to remedy that.
  • Book a trip to Oxford to see my manuscript in person. I have to admit, I think of the manuscript as 'my' manuscript. And although I'm not a codicologist, I'd like to see the real thing, make use of the Bodleian, and catch up with old friends.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

26 Ways to Celebrate International Men's Day

Today is International Men’s day and, I have to confess, I’m scheduling this post in advance. Partly because I’ll be working on academic writing today, but also because I sometimes write vaguely feminist things on the internet. Because I was involved in an open letter to my university. And, because of these two things, I’m expecting a backlash. 

To be fair, I have no means of knowing that I’ll be harassed today. But I’ve been on social media for long enough to know that International Men’s Day is only second to International Women’s Day for producing a huge, misogynistic, anti-feminist backlash. 

I could use this post to outline how frustrated I am by the way International Men’s Day is promoted and how it's appropriated by misogynists.  About which men it speaks for. About the men it leaves out. About the way it fails to distinguish individual disadvantage (something that happens to a man) and structural advantage (the power held by men as a group). And about the way that it does very little to concretely benefit actual people. 

But I won’t. Most likely, these sorts of articles will be published today. More to the point, both this article and (as ever) Rachel Moss’ post make the case more eloquently than I can. So instead, here is a list. If you’re reading this, and you really want to make men's lives better, here are 26 ways that you can actually ‘celebrate’ International Men’s Day by making a difference in someone’s life. 

This list isn’t complete – these are just the organisations (and issues) that I know of, and those that work in the UK. If there are any organisations or charities you think you should be added, or men who I've overlooked, let me know.


If you're concerned about the prevalence of suicide/mental health issues in men:
1)  Donate to [or volunteer for] the Samaritans
2) Help the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) by volunteering, and get more events running across the country
3) Volunteer for Nightline (if you're a university student)
4)  Write to your MP to ask what they are doing to support men
If you want to help homeless men:
5) Volunteer [or fundraise] for your homeless shelter
6) Donate to Shelter
7) Donate to the Salvation Army.
If you care about men who are victims of domestic violence:
10) Write to your MP to ask about the provision in your area, and lobby for better provision.
11) Donate to, or volunteer for Broken Rainbows
If you want to support gay and/or trans men:
12) Donate to Broken Rainbows, a domestic violence support service for LGBT men
13) Donate to Mermaids, which supports young people with gender dysphoria
14) Support Stonewall
If you care about the well-being of ex-service staff (who are disproportionately more likely to be men)
15) Support Help for Heroes
16) Support Blesma to rehabilitate veterans
17) Donate to Combat Stress to support ex-servicemen's menatal health
If you care about the well-being of asylum seekers (who make up 3 out of 4 applications for UK asylum)
18) Support Refugee Action through giving, campaigning, or fundraising
19) Support Asylum Aid to provide legal representation for asylum seekers.
20) Support the Red Cross' work with asylum seekers (donate, volunteer, fundraise)
If you care about the educational attainment of boys:*
21) Fundraise for the National Literacy Trust
22)  If you're eligible, apply to be a school governor
23) Get involved in Widening Participation initiatives [if you're a university student]
 If you care about prisoners (who are disproportionately men)
24) Support PACT, which offers support and advice to prisoners and their families
25) Volunteer to befriend a prisoner
26) Volunteer with the Prisoner's Education Trust
* Although there is still a lot of discussion about what factors influence differences in boys' and girls' educational attainment, but I don't think it's ever a bad thing to improve education. (Source)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Evernote for Research

When I started my PhD, I knew a few things:
1. I'm quite disorganised;
2. I vary between taking notes with a pen and paper, and typing notes;
3. Our flat wasn't large enough to accommodate folders of handwritten notes.

I can't remember how I initially discovered Evernote, but it seemed to be a tool that would suit those three things I knew. Tagging might help me keep my notes organised: being able to scan documents would enable me to work flexibly. And I'm not accumulating mountains of paper.

I'm still early on in the literature review stage, but I've found Evernote to be a really useful tool so far. Rather than offer an overview of how it works, I'm going to focus on the pros and cons of using Evernote for research.

(For context, I use the Evernote app on my phone and also on my mobile.)

Pro: Tagging allows me to cross-reference easily.
Tagging features are almost ubiquitous at this point, but it's incredibly useful for writing a thesis. Evernote allows you to apply multiple tags to a single note. So if a secondary text is referring to one primary text, but also has implications for others, I can tag them too.

Since you can search for specific tags, this means that I can easily pull up all the things I've read about The Knight Who Forgave His Father's Slayer, or all the notes I've made that refer to miscellanies. At this early stage, it's useful. In three, four, or five years' time, it will be invaluable.   

Pro: Evernote allows you to use combine different media.
If I find a diagram, image or figure that is useful to my research, I can quickly take a photo on my phone and save it into a note. Rather than having to pause what I'm doing, scan that page and file it with my notes, I can simply snap a photo (including the source) and come back to it later when it's useful.

I don't really have much need to make use of Evernote Web Clipper, but you might find it useful for your research. It's a browser plugin that will 'clip' webpages and save them to Evernote for you. I might start making use of this when preparing for conferences: this would allow me to keep Call for Papers, travel details and drafts in the same notebook.  

Con: You do need an internet connection.
As I'm using Evernote Web, I do need to be within reach of an internet connection to use it. This isn't too much of a problem for me because I don't mind hand-writing notes so I can work offline. But if you don't care to hand write your notes, this might be a consideration.   

Pro: If I'm working on paper, I can scan my notes and access them away from the office.
I didn't want to commit to always having to work at a computer. Sometimes (especially when working on my own ideas), I prefer being able to draw mindmaps, or work in different colours. So, I write my scribbly notes on paper, then scan and attach them to a note. I tag them as usual and can access them later.

Pro: I can take a note when I'm away from my desk.  
Because I've installed the Evernote app on my mobile, I can also take notes on my mobile. I find bus journeys and walking spark my best ideas. I'm much more likely to have my mobile than a pen and paper with me, so I can quickly make a note.

Con: This is not a word processor.
This is one of my few disappointments with Evernote. Which is silly, really, because I don't think it purports to be a word processor replacement.  It does have some useful word processing features like tables, bulletpoints and hyperlinks. This means it is useful for writing drafts. However, for me, I still need Word for anything that requires footnotes. 

I know using Evernote for a thesis is unconventional (my tutors are still bemused) but it's been 9 months and, for me, it's working well. Do you use Evernote? How have you found it?

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

3 Ways to Cope With Stress

(photo credit: me) 

Having spoken with a few other part-timers recently, it seems that a certain level of stress is a pretty consistent feature of this particular mode of study. The combination of PhD, work and (in some cases) family commitments can be potent at times. I'm in the middle of one of these periods myself.

There are plenty of well-intentioned pieces written about stress. They're full of general advice that might apply to everyone, but I find it hard to make any use of these tips when I'm right in the middle of a stress-inducing period.

So rather than being general, I'd like to be specific. These are all real (hence, a little embarrassing) techniques that I use when I'm stressed. They work for my temperament, my lifestyle and my mood. But they aren't comprehensive.

A Stressful Week: Plan!
This is more of a means to preempt stress and try to minimise the effect it might have on you. I don't just mean writing a to do list here (although I am a big fan!) Instead, I try to plan ways that I might minimse the stress I might feel by planning to do non-work/PhD related things.

For me: This week I've had long train journeys up and down the country. I know that travelling causes me stress because I get anxious about making connections and getting lost. Knowing this, I planned to take along a good book, downloaded some podcasts, and took along a knitting project. All of these things distracted me from worrying and made the entire process easier.

For you: What will cause you most stress this week? Can you mitigate it? What will drain you most? Can you plan for rest periods? Can you alter your workload to make sure that you aren't burnt out by Wednesday?

A Stressful Month (or more):  Count Down!
Sometimes, a busy week isn't the end of it. Instead, you may have weeks which will be high stress. Often, these periods revolve around deadlines, but it may be something else. In instances where the stressful period is defined (eg. you know you have a draft due in a month), I use a countdown to motivate myself to push through.

For me: This is the slightly embarrassing one. I found taking my final exams as an undergraduate hard. I was so stressed I couldn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time. I knew when my exams would be over; I just had to get there. So I did a cheesy thing that worked like a charm.

I took one post-it note for each day until the end of exams. On each, I wrote something that would make me smile. Jokes. Songs to listen to. Things I could do once I finished exams. Then I hid them all over my room. Each day, I would take down one post-it and consider it. I had something good in each day, and reminders of what I could look forward to.

For you: This might be too cheesy for everyone. But there are other ways. Can you reward yourself each day? Watch one episode of your favourite series? Have a small treat to look forward to? Whatever it is, count the days down as you go along.

A Stressful Right-Now-This-Very-Second: Disengage!
This is perhaps the hardest state to write about. Stress is cumulative, and I know that for me, it can build up to a rate I can't sustain. I can't focus. I get headaches. I get shaky. I feel like crying. And, very often, a lot of us get to this stage and we think we can just keep going. And we can't.

For me: I have to force myself to stop. I set a timer for 20-30 minutes. Crucially, I move away from my desk. Then I do something that is fun and absorbing. I force myself to focus on it until my timer goes off. Then I take 5 minutes to regroup, and plan.

This is not an intellectual exercise. So, I like to watch animal videos on youtube. Cats are my preferred genre, but I also like videos about inter-species friendship. If I'm at home, I might take 30 minutes to clean. 

For you: Maybe animal-related videos aren't your thing. What will absorb you? Listening to music? Calling a friend? Taking a walk? Watching an episode of something? Whatever it is, do it for your allotted time, and then stop. (Otherwise you're just procrastinating.)


Of course, these are just the approaches that work for me. Your approaches will vary hugely. And I'd love to hear about them. What do you do to alleviate stress?