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?