Cafes, Drafts, Escapes.

I have finished the second chapter! Well, for a given value of finished. I haven’t written the conclusion. I’m contemplating leaving all of the chapter conclusions until the very end – give myself some space from each chapter before I try and summarise the main points. Is this a good idea?

I spent most of last week in various cafes with my laptop. I’ve definitely found that working outside helps me concentrate, I tend to get very distracted at home. Although I also found that in doing that I left myself very little personal time. By the time I got home each night I didn’t have the time or energy to make a proper dinner and I definitely didn’t have time to go to the gym. I’m pretty sure that’s just weakness from not having been in full-time employment for the last year and a half.

I do feel pretty accomplished right now. I’ve written this chapter in two months, give or take, and I feel like I can finally see myself progressing. So much of what I did in first year felt like treading water. I never felt like I was really achieving anything and I felt so buried by it all. It’s all coming together now though. Those months of research, tears and spider diagrams are adding up to something that (I think) makes sense.

Having said that, though, I reread some bits of my first chapter yesterday – I’m borrowing from it for a paper I’m writing – and it’s a bit embarrassing how bad it is. Three months ago I was proud of it. Shows what a bit of time and space can do for the writing process, I suppose. I’m not going to edit it again, though. I want to try and bash out all of my chapters ASAP and then go back to them all. Editing is easier to dip in and out of when I’m teaching, so the more I can get done during the holidays, the better.

This week I’m hopnig to get this paper drafted and I’ve got a meeting with my supervisors before heading away for the whole of June – trekking down south via various people’s houses and ending up in Exeter before I head abroad for a week. I’m taking my work with me, of course, and plan on seeking out some hidey-holes to start drafting my next chapter in. Work/Life balance? I think it’s going well.

 

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Time Flies

I was talking to my lovely housemate about how it was already nearing the end of January. How? She’s in the third year of her PhD and teaching on two modules this term. She said that last year flew from January through to Christmas and that she can’t believe that it’s all come round again. For me, time didn’t start thundering out of control until October when I started teaching. January to April was mostly spent getting my head in order, and then I just did lots of reading. Reading is pretty hard to quantify in an objective manner, so it really felt like I hadn’t achieved anything.

I now have a chapter, a module of lesson plans and 2 round of marking under my belt (I finally finished that last five essays). So that feels like something. Of course, I still feel woefully behind on my personal targets. I really need to get this chapter edited and sorted and sent back off to my supervisors. I wanted to have started my second chapter by now really. Not least of all because there is an AMAZING conference in America in September that is currently accepting abstracts. I feel like it’d be a bit of a copout to send something based on this chapter as I’ve already done a paper on it and have an article based on it being published. So. Need to get my thinking cap on IN A BIG WAY. And soon. Really soon.

I’m going to spend the next three days editing my chapter and finishing my lesson plan for Thursday. On Friday I’m helping in a workshop and then heading straight off for the weekend with my besties down South to finally do our Christmas.

Next week I will definitely write that abstract.

A photo posted by Emma (@emma_spud) on Jan 24, 2016 at 5:52am PST

 

What A Difference A Year Makes

This time last year I wrote my first post. It was about how I had spent the prior four months feeling woefully out of my depth and struggling with depression. I’m pleased to say that this post will be vastly different.

I often feel as though I’m achieving very little in any given week, and in all honesty, when I started contemplating this post last week I felt as though I’d achieved very little in the last year and a half. However, I’m feeling slightly more positive today, admittedly after a truly disgusting amount of caffeine and some rather frantic procrastination cleaning.

On paper, these are my achievements of my PhD so far:

  • Very rough introduction drafted.
  • Almost complete chapter drafted.
  • RF1 passed.
  • RF2 passed.
  • Five conferences attended, two spoken at.

I had initially, naively hoped to have the intro and first chapter entirely finished and the second chapter started by now. I absolutely did not factor in the amount of time and energy that goes into teaching, even when it’s only one module a term; that’s something I’m going to need to take into account this year.

Whilst my achievements may be fewer than I would have liked, they are ultimately overshadowed by my state of mind. This time last year I felt utterly worthless and genuinely considered quitting the PhD. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and no idea how to work it out. All of the motivational posts on pinterest couldn’t help me shake the notion that things would never get better and that I had little or nothing to offer to life, let alone academia. Luckily, that same sense of helplessness meant that I couldn’t work out a different direction to take, and so I carried on plodding along. Eventually my spider diagrams and half-digested journal articles started to click together in my brain and I gradually came up with some plans and ideas.

Although I hated them at the time, the things that pushed me through that block were the Rf1 and RF2 – hoop-jumping paperwork and presentations that make you explain and justify your project. For the RF2 I had to provide a chapter plan; at the last minute I chucked one down on paper, believing that it was just there so that I had something to say, but it stuck and gave me the structure that I needed to push on with my thesis. I could never have gotten to that point, however, without the months of reading and hopeless spider-diagramming that at the time felt utterly useless.

One of the turning points last year came in March, when I watched James Hayton’s video on surviving the PhD – which I blogged about at the time.. It gave me a new perspective on what the PhD actually is, ‘the entrance qualification to the world of professional academia‘ rather than the culmination of your academic achievements to date. It means that, of course you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ve never done anything like this before.

Another thing that helped me was attending conferences. Meeting other people who share your interests and worries, listening to people who are passionate about their work and having people get excited about yours is an invigorating experience that boosts your energy. Submitting abstracts and writing papers is also great for creating firm deadlines and helping you articulate thoughts that you might otherwise leave until later (forget).

Less tangible things that I have achieved this year are things like making amazing new friends, getting out of my comfort zone more often (attending conferences, talking to new people, talking in front of people), traveling, learning to ski, learning yoga, getting fit, getting healthy (or at least healthier). All of which have attributed to my increasing sense of wellbeing. Of course, I still have slumps, but I’m more able to deal with them. The sense of utter despair has dissipated, and when it starts to creep back in, I’m more able to knock it back.

My aims for the year ahead are to write a couple more chapters, try and get at least one paper published (publish or perish), and to travel more. I’m hoping that I get better at teaching, I think I did ok last term, but I want to do the very best by my students. Ultimately I’d like to happy, or, at the very least, moderately stable.

Feminist Research Methodologies Conference

Friday saw the culmination of almost a month’s worth of work. I presented my paper on trans and feminist theoretical interactions (available to read here) at the Feminist Research Methodologies Conference at Sheffield Hallam University. It seemed to be received pretty well, a few people asked for my slides. I had started to regret spending so much time on something that probably wasn’t going to go into my thesis, but the conference gave me a boost. Everyone needs an excuse just to do a bit of research into something they’re interested in rather than something practical. I also got to meet other people interested in my area, which is always nice.

The conference itself was brilliant. I was astonished by the sheer range of speakers – different universities, different areas, vastly different topics and opinions. It was a really well put together day. And it was bloody amazing being in a room full of feminists.

Another person on my Panel, Ben Vincent, presented on their research into transfeminism beyond the binary. They mentioned the importance of trans women openly being a part of the feminist movement. A key point they made was the policed access to feminism experienced by those who identify as non-binary or at the intersection of non-binary and woman, particularly if they are assigned male at birth. They defined non-binary as a family of identities and reflected upon the difficulty of occupying gendered spaces and receiving medical care as a non-binary person. It was a fascinating talk and their research looks really interesting. I’m hoping to pick their brains in the future.

After the conference a friend and I attended a Kathryn Wiliams gig in Sheffield cathedral, which was lush. You just can’t beat cathedral acoustics. I think the main thing that I miss about attending church is the reverberation of clear notes in high stone rafters.

kathryn

The plan for this week is to get back into writing my chapter. It’s due at the end of the month and I’m away for at least two weekends, not to mention lesson planning and marking. I’m also working on a short story for publication, the deadline for which is also at the end of the month. It’s going to be a bit of a squeeze getting everything done in time. But that’s good I suppose. Better than being bored witless.

Achievement? How long’s a piece of string?

I didn’t blog last week for no reason other than it slipped my mind. My teaching prep felt impossible and took me way longer than it should have which meant that I was then rushing to get in all of the reading I had planned for this conference paper. I’m actually really enjoying being really busy – it helps keep me focussed, it’s cut down on my procrastination and subsequent sense of under-achievement. But for weeks like last week and the week before, it feels like I’m running to keep up. Which leads me nicely on to the fact that I’ve taken up running (again).

I mentioned in my previous post that exercise is helping me remember that my body is more than a vehicle for my brain and a handy prop with which to hold books. But in taking up running, or jogging really…probably somewhat closer to a moderately paced lumber, I’ve realised again how taking up a new exercise is like doing the PhD. Especially if you work in fits and starts like I do. I mentioned this in my PhD Plank Challenge post back in March – but what do you know, nothing has changed and I keep on making the same discoveries. Essentially it’s about working your way up slowly from complete incompetence to a sustained and regular achievement. I seem to get stuck about half way every time I try. I like the initial sense of accomplishment – whether that’s completing a certain amount of time spent running, or writing 500 words every day. The bit where I struggle is when the initial high has worn off, but you still haven’t quite built up that sense of take-it-for-granted-habit. You sink back into the mentality of ‘well, I was really good yesterday, so it doesn’t really matter if I have a little break today, I totally deserve it’, which is fine, until the next day where you think ‘I’m still kind of recovering from doing so well the day before yesterday, and it’s ok because I’ll do brilliantly tomorrow when I’m really well rested’. Newsflash. It isn’t going to happen. You’ll wait until something comes up and makes you get your arse in gear, whether thats a deadline or the fact that your jeans don’t fit.

The other thing that hinders this development of a constant sense of achievement is the fact that in the PhD accomplishment is pretty hard to measure. It would be easy to say ‘do 500 words a day or you’ve failed’ – but then what about days where you’re reading texts – should you have to finish a whole book or you’ve failed? Or maybe half a book? But what if the book is really complex and each page takes ages to pick apart? Well, in which case, surely you can measure it by hours worked? 9-5, right? Like a job. But realistically, are you actually properly working for those hours? Or are you making yourself feel like you’re working simply because you’re at your desk and there’s a book somewhere in the vicinity? This is, again, where I think pomodoro is handy – you can keep track of exactly the amount of time you’ve been properly working. Saying that, I can’t remember the last time I actually used pomodoro.

Something that I’m finding really handy is having an external source of accountability – in my case it’s working in the living room with my new housemates, both of whom are also PhD candidates. We tell each other off for procrastinating and help each other brain storm. This is something I would have found massively helpful when I started and I’m so grateful to have it now. I can’t express enough how important it is to have a sense of community during the PhD – whether that’s having other PhD mates, or working up at uni in a post-grad suite, or keeping in contact with other PhD victims online via hashtags like #phdchat #phdlife #acwri etc.

This week I’m teaching my students about career prospects, which is hilarious seeing as my current life plan is to stay in education for as long as possible and then hope that it sorts itself out.

Feminism and Shoulder Stands

This week’s teaching went much better I think. They seem to be more productive when I ask them to work in pairs than in groups. I think it’s because they each get more of a chance to talk about their ideas, rather than leaving it to the more verbose members of the class. I’ll definitely be bearing that in mind for future lesson planning. I’m not doing any teaching this week as they have a library workshop, but I’ll be offering the spare hours towards tutorials closer to the essay deadline.

Productivity-wise I haven’t been great this week. My lesson planning took longer than I thought it would and I gave myself a day off on Friday that seemed to extend through the whole of the weekend except for a couple of hours of reading on Sunday. I really need to crack on with a conference paper that I’m presenting at the end of the month. I wrote and submitted the abstract in ten minutes and honestly didn’t think I’d get chosen to speak. That showed me. The conference is on feminist research methodologies and I’m going to present on transfeminism. I think my plan is to give a bit of an overview, as most people outside of my research area won’t know much about it. I’ll probably talk about previous interactions with mainstream feminism and the future possibilities of the two working more closely together. I haven’t done a terrific amount of work on transfeminism, so I’m mostly doing lots of reading at the moment, which is nice. Just got my fingers crossed that I can get it done in time…I don’t have much choice really.

I saw my supervisor this week to talk about my first chapter. She seemed pretty pleased with my progress. We’ve agreed that I’ll get the draft to her and my director of studies by the end of November and have a big meeting in the last week of term to discuss it. This means that November is going to be pretty manic as I’ll be working on the conference paper until the end of this month probably.

In other news, my yoga classes are progressing. We started on shoulder stands on Friday, which I just couldn’t for the life of me do. I’ve been practicing every day and I think I’m vaguely getting there. I’m probably doing it wrong, but I’m still counting it as a personal win. When doing the PhD you tend to forget that your body isn’t just a handy piece of transport apparatus for your brain. Having something like yoga and morning gym sessions with my housemate is helping me remember that it’s all connected. My brain actually works better when my body is working too. Not that it makes getting up at 6:30 any easier.

Feedback and Fresher’s Flu

Seriously, I was only up at uni for one day and I’ve only had one new housemate and yet I have been truly felled by fresher’s flu. Ok, that’s a bit melodramatic, but I’m feeling rough and I couldn’t sleep until about 6am this morning. Blah blah blah.

Other than that this week has been pretty good. I got feedback from both of my supervisors on the report I have to submit. My director of studies said that it’s the best bit of writing he’s seen from me, which is thrilling. He also said that if my rapporteur gives me gyp over it he’ll be ‘incandescent’. So I’m feeling more positive about that. Again, I owe it to all of the help I received on twitter, three people in particular were brilliant and sent me fab emails that stopped me from completely falling to bits.

I had to add a couple of hundred words to the report after the meeting, mostly just repeating what I’d already said in order to make it explicitly clear that I actually know what I’m doing. Now I’m mostly gearing up to start teaching the undergrads next week, which isn’t being helped by the fact that the world is currently a terrible place filled with sadness, tissues and cough medicine. Not to mention sherry. Lots of sherry.

This past weekend I was up in Chester for a family weekend away, which was lovely but exhausting. Monday was spent catching up on sleep, emails and meeting my new housemate. Yesterday was sacrificed to the report and wallowing in snotty self pity. Today has mostly comprised of lemsip, buying more sherry and cough syrup and staring balefully at the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I’m away this coming weekend as well, so I should really try and crack on.

In other news, I started yoga classes a couple of weeks ago. I’m rubbish, but I’m really enjoying it. I wasn’t really expecting to get anything other than some bendy stretchy time out of it, but it’s actually really peaceful. Much recommended. Also supposed to be very good at fending off scholar’s hunch.

Scrolling Through Past Emma’s Open Tabs

You know when you go away for a while and when you come back everything feels strange in it’s familiarity? The haphazard way that you made your bed before you left. The one pair of socks that you left on their airer hanging stiffly because you forgot to buy fabric conditioner. Little piles of mess pushed to the corners of the room because you couldn’t be bothered to tidy them away when you still needed to pack, and was that really the time, and you needed to be on the road in ten minutes.

Today I opened my computer for the first time since I went away. Tabs and open windows greeted me. A half finished report, university guidelines, PDFs, a finished chapter that I was liberating quotes from. It’s been in the back of my head that I have work to do, a presentation to make, a report to edit, a chapter to start, but somehow the urgency that only seems to visit in waves has ebbed. I can’t tell if it’s an arrogance of assumption that I’ll just get it done, or if my mood is taking another dip.

While I was away I thought a lot about what it means to me to be a PhD student. I began to notice that when I introduce myself to new people I always take the time to emphasise that it’s a PhD I’m doing at uni. I use it almost like a justification – oh, I don’t have a job because I’m doing a PhD; I don’t have a house because I’m up North for a bit writing my thesis; what do I want to do with my life? Oh, well, when I finish my PhD I’ll probably go into lecturing if I can find a job, and what about you?

I’ve always based my self-worth on my academic achievements; I’ve never been pretty or handy or particularly eloquent, but I can write a bloody good essay. I tend to downplay my PhD, I say that reading is the only thing I’m good at (true), that I have no idea what else I’d do with my life (also true). So what does it mean when I base my self-worth on something that I then downplay?

I think that the reason I’ve begun to notice all of this is because of how insular and independent the PhD is. At undergrad and masters level you have a constant stream of deadlines. You write essays and get feedback. If you’re lucky, you get praise which then acts as validation. We’ve all been well lectured on the dangers of external validation, but that tends to come in the form of ‘you don’t need a partner to be happy’ and ‘you don’t need instagram likes to believe you’re pretty’. I imagine that gaining an internal sense of validation is an important part of becoming a functional adult human, I just have no idea how to go about that. Suggestions on a post-card.

Next week’s blog will definitely be about having achieved something work-wise.

A Colourful Balancing Act

I’ve actually had a really good week. This might be the first time I’ve said that on this blog. I really feel like something’s clicked. This week I’ve written about 2,500 words and finished colour-coding my N-Z folder. I’m going to start on the larger A-M one today.

This week started pretty slowly – I was determined to achieve something so I opened one of my favourite thesis books and started writing bullet-points about the sections I’d post-it noted as important. The first day I naively wanted to write 2000 words, because if nothing else I’m blithely optimistic about my ability to sit still and concentrate. I think I clocked about 400 words that day. The next day I decided to use the pomodoro method, which I first spoke about here, in which you work solidly and without distraction for a timed 25 minutes, and then have a five minute break. It always works for me, I don’t know why I keep forgetting that. I think it’s out of some weird belief that I shouldn’t need to use it. I used to be able to sit and research for hours at a time and be perfectly happy; I don’t know when that changed.

After that first day I decided that a 500 word a day target was slightly more realistic. It was, and on my writing days I managed to achieve or surpass it, which made me feel a bit more confident. On non-writing days, I’ve been colour-coding. I very briefly started it just after I’d alphabetised my folders, and then promptly ignored it in favour of doing literally anything else. This week, with my shiny new pills and motivation, I blasted through the smaller of the two folders and have really gotten into the swing of it. A few weeks ago I settled on some likely chapter headings, I’ve assigned each chapter a colour and now I’m reading through all of my notes and post-it-ing according to theme. I’m hoping it’ll make my writing a lot faster, as I can just flick through my notes really quickly and find the most pertinent information. I’m wishing I’d been this organised from the start, but it took me ages to narrow in on what my chapters were going to be.

This week I also made myself a standing-desk:

It’s so much better for my back and it’s less depressing than being forced to sit hunched over for hours at a time. I bought an inflatable balance pad online – it means that you constantly readjust your posture, which is good for all of your muscles and spine. I think that’s had something to do with my positivity this week; it’s kind of fun wiggling around while you’re working.

Non-work-wise, on I spent a few hours getting stabbed with needles. But who can begrudge that when you end up with something as beautiful as this?

I’m determined to keep the motivation up this week too. I finally feel as though I’m getting somewhere.