Monday, 29 June 2015

On Balance (or off it)

This week will be the first week since the start of June that I've been able to divide my time equally between my PhD and all the other commitments I've racked up. And to be frank, the lack of balance has been throwing me off recently.

This isn't really a complaint: I've done amazing things since the start of June that I never would have thought would be achievable in the next three years, let alone within four weeks. (If you're wondering how the Aspire conference went - it was amazing. I've actually not blogged about it yet because I want to do it justice.) But the lack of balance has been worrying me: suddenly my PhD seemed a remote idea; something quaint and loose and not pressing; something removed from my everyday life.

As a part-time PhD student and sufferer of imposter syndrome (you too? Wow! Great! We should talk.) this had been really worrying me over the last two weeks. If I can go a month doing barely any PhD work and not really minding, does that mean I care enough? Should I even be doing this? Who was I kidding, I'm not made for PhDing - I love public speaking and coaching and innovation...maybe this is a sign. Maybe I'm wasting my time!

And so on.

But, I also know that I need to be forgiving. I need to make the same allowances of myself that I do of everyone else. And I need to remember that having other elements to your identity, to your life, doesn't invalidate your identity as a researcher. (Even if the consistent noise on twitter about wordcounts and editing progress make me think every other PhD student doesn't sleep.) This isn't because I'm a special snowflake: even the most dedicated stay-in-the-lab-till-midnight PhD student is more than just that.

I suppose that for a part-timer, you have to prioritise all those other bits at the very least because otherwise you don't have money for food. But the last few weeks have done more than that: rather than seeing my enthusiasm for other times as a weakness, I'm trying to remind myself that I LOVE enthusiasm. I love it in others, and I love it in myself. And having more of that, for more things, surely can't be bad?

And speaking of enthusiasm, guess what?

I can't WAIT to get back to research later this week. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

On Panels

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel as a student panellist.  Having seen the verbal mauling that can happen at academic panels, I was nervous (read: terrified). But I said yes: I need to get over this fear, and what amazing opportunity to do it.

I was lucky - the panellists were supportive, the audience posed interesting questions, and I was able to answer them! Here are a few things I learned from my first ever panel.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
With other types of public speaking, I actually try to go in feeling that I don't know everything. This gives me wiggle room, so I can respond to the people in the room rather than reading off my script. But normally when you do public speaking (a talk, a training session, a briefing) you control the content; a panel is audience-led.
Fearing the hostile questions, I read. A lot. I summarised articles for myself, wrote down key facts. This meant I was able to go in with bullet points of things that I wanted to mention in response to the areas of discussion. If anything, I wish I'd prepared more. When asked to introduce myself, I didn't have a pithy, witty summary like the other panellists. And a few questions threw me off.
2. Meet the panellists (and the chair) before the start of the panel.
As I mentioned, the other panellists were great. I met them briefly before we went on and had a quick chat. This helped me remember names and made me feel more comfortable going on to the stage. It meant I had a feel for who I could bounce off in the discussion. (Which it turns out is great if you're a bit stuck for an answer!)
But since the panel was right at the start of the conference, we didn't have much time beyond introductions. Given more notice, and more time, I think I would make sure I had longer to get to know people.
3. You're allowed to make jokes.
I am a chronic wise-cracker.  I am perfectly capable of speaking in public without making a joke, or a wry comment, or a witty riposte, or a humorous barb....but I hate it.  So, going into a very formal industry panel, I was desperately trying not to be light hearted.
Of course, I cracked. Trying to be po-faced just made me more nervous: it was another thing to trip up on. It isn't anything like me. And, really? It was fine. A few people laughed (ok, I got a chuckle or two). But, the point is that in actually acting like myself, I was much more relaxed. Of course, I wasn't doing a stand up set, or being inappropriate. But just that touch of levity was well-received (I think) and more to the point: stopped me freaking out.
4. Be prepared for people to introduce themselves.
This was the most pleasant surprise of all. I expected that I'd get up, say my bit and get on with my day. But throughout the day, people were introducing themselves, commenting on the panel and picking up on some of the discussions we'd been having.

For someone like me who hates small talk, this was perfect. It was a great way to meet lots of people, to talk with them about something consequential, and then introduce ourselves. And more than that: people were really sincere in taking an interest in what I'd said: that was incredibly heartening.
5. It's like riding a rollercoaster.
When I've been on rollercoasters, I think it's a great idea. I get all excited. I queue for ages. I get in my seat. And as soon as the safety gear comes down, something in me changes. "Why I am I doing this? This is terrifying. This is really happening. Oh god, we're moving. Oh Christ, we're all going to die. This is awful it's too late to get off. Oh god, we're at the top, oh no, oh no oh - WOOOOOOHEAYEAHEYEAYH!!!! Oh. Is it over? Oh.......LET'S GO AGAIN!!!"
The same was true of the panel. First comes excitement. Then comes blind panic. Then comes adrenaline-fuelled excitement.  And, much like my first go on a roller coaster, my first experience of a panel has taught me that you just have to ride it out.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Trailblazing Women 2015

(Isn't it just the way? Not long after I resolve to start posting on a weekly basis, things get busy and I get behind. It’s not strictly PhD-related, but I wanted to use this post to talk about a conference I’m attending soon. I should be back to PhD-relating things soon.)

The Aspire Foundation aims to create a world ‘where women and girls are empowered and authentic leaders in both the developing and developed world for the sake of equality, justice, balance and success.’ They’ve worked with over 1 million women since they were founded by Sam Collins in 2001: as part of their aim to reach even more women, they’re running a two-day Trailblazing Leadership event. Which I am absolutely honoured to have managed to secure a scholarship for.

At this point I should give a shout out to Karen, my former colleague (hi!). Without her insistent encouragement, I would never have heard of Aspire. Last year, she suggested I attend an Aspire webinar. I was starting to get cold feet about the prospect of quitting my job, moving across the country, taking on 6 years of self-funded study and then having no guarantee of security afterwards. (Can you blame me?) I think the webinar was ‘Strategic You 2015.’ The aim was to discuss what goals you had in mind for the year ahead, how to implement them and how to balance them. That webinar really helped me: by the time that hour was up, I felt this quiet, diamond-hard certainty that I was ready to take this chance.

Between then and now, I’ve learned a little more about academia. And I wasn’t comfortable with everything I learnt. Some of that diamond-hard certainty was being undercut by the feeling I’m getting (at this early stage) that academia isn’t for people like me. 

So, when I got an email about the ‘Trailblazing Leadership’ event in March, I naturally thought “that sounds great, but it isn’t for me.” I don’t think of myself as a leader. And I certainly didn’t have enough money to fund my attendance. But the more I read about the conference, the more it seemed to me that people like me are exactly the sort of people who don’t have a voice in academia. And when I heard that Aspire were offering scholarships, I felt that same diamond-hard certainty that I should at least apply.  So I sent an email. I was invited to apply. And I did.

I applied because I’ve had female mentors for most of my academic career. These people took an interest in me. They challenged me. They held me to account. My personal and intellectual development has been thanks to them. The only problem is that there seem to be fewer and fewer women available to lead, or to mentor. I’m very lucky that I like and respect my supervisors immensely, but academia doesn’t encourage a culture of mentoring outside of that supervisory relationships. If I look to my peers (fellow PhD students) we’re all competing for finite resources: funding, conference papers, jobs. And I don’t think that this intense culture of peer competition and lack of mentoring makes for happier graduate students, better researchers, or improved academics. In fact, I feel the opposite is true.

I applied because the whole thing about this PhD thing is that I’d quite like to be an academic. (I know, I know. It’s unlikely. But I could post a whole other post about my issues with that. So humour me for now.) So, I’d like to be an academic. Which means I’m effectively training for a career that favours people who aren’t like me.  Peer reviewers will assume my work is biased because I'm a woman. So, this means that when I am trying to publish and get a permanent job I'm less likely to get a permanent, full-time contract than a male. And if I do have children, I’ll be seen as less productive than my male colleagues: in fact, they’ll gain a net benefit from having kids.
I applied because this is all depressing and awful. But it isn’t just a broad political point. For me, it’s also intensely personal: my husband is an academic. And he’s a brilliant academic. (Again, I could write an entire post singing his praises but I’ll save that.) He’s an innovative, supportive, dedicated teacher. He’s a flexible, incisive researcher. He’s an engaging, personable presenter. All of these things mean that – as far as I’m concerned – he should have all the accolades in the world. But he should get them because of his qualities, not because of his gender. But as things stand, no matter how much we support each other, he is likely to do better because of something he can’t control.

And that’s not fair. So I applied. 
And I was accepted.

And now I’m nervous! At first, it was about what to wear (business casual? Conference wear? What are either of those things? I can’t afford to buy new clothes!! Will people know if I wear second hand stuff? What do I do??)  Luckily, Aspire have clarified that there’s no formal dress code, smart casual is fine. 

 So now I have to be nervous about the usual things. Like the fact that I’m awful at remembering names, and there are no name tags. Like the fact that when I get nervous I talk a lot. And a lot of it’s nonsense. But I’m also nervous about something specific to this conference: all these women are contributing amazing things to the world. And me? I’m contributing a potential thesis that I don’t have a research question for. What can I contribute?

I hope to find out that answer to that question at this conference. And I’d love to let you know how it goes, if you’re interested.