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.

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.

PhD Plank Challenge

It struck me this week that a PhD can kind of be related to the plank challenge – and not just because I’m struggling with them both. The idea of the plank challenge is that you improve your ability at something (planking) by incrementally increasing the amount (time) that you do over a number of days/weeks. It started as planking for 20 seconds for the first couple of days, then it increased to 30 seconds for a few days, then to 45, then a minute and so on. It works on the basis that you slowly improve every day – it takes dedication. It’s no good doing the first three days and then ignoring it for a week – when you come back to it, it will have increased the difficulty but you’ll have less foundational ability to draw from having let yourself slide back into having the core strength of overcooked spaghetti. I think the PhD is the same.

You enter into the PhD with the naïve belief that this first bit will be easy, you might even be able to skip ahead the first few steps and jump in at the middle and let the challenge improve you from there. You would be wrong. You’ll find yourself panting and grimacing for twenty seconds and dropping thankfully to the floor when the timer goes off. Some people would let this discourage them, some let it make them determined. The Thesis Whisperer recently wrote a blog about the reasons people drop out of PhDs, and a lot of it seemed to be due to discouragement and lack of motivation. Once you fall off track, it’s harder to get back on, so perhaps the best thing to do is to keep chugging, even if it’s only a centimetre a day.

Anyway, back to my plank challenge analogy. So, you’ve accepted that you have to start at the beginning, you’ve overcome the first couple of hurdles, you’ve probably strained a toe due to bad technique, but you can see yourself getting better. You can’t necessarily see the results yet (abs are a long way off) but you might start to believe that one day it’s possible. Here’s the thing, even when you’re improving, there are going to be days when you struggle. There are going to be times when it takes you a week to complete one day’s challenge when it’s bumped up to 1 minute 30. There is going to be times when you backslide from where you were yesterday, and maybe yesterday was a fluke and you’ll actually never do that well again. The key thing is to keep on trying. Even if you don’t do as well as you did yesterday, even if you don’t improve as quickly as the app seems to think you should, you’re still making progress. Claim the small victories.

On that note, this will be my last Friday post, not that anyone cares, but I’ve decided that Mondays would be more useful. This is largely due to the video I watched last weekend of James Hayton talking about how to survive a PhD (that I summarised in this blog post). Hayton says that you should start each day with a small manageable task so that you begin with an achievement to buoy you onwards. I’ve decided to expand on this and start each working week with a summary of my achievements of the week before. Start the week by claiming a small victory. I found that writing the Hayton blog post this Monday set my week off to a good start and made me feel like I’d achieved something, which encouraged me to extend my winning streak throughout the week. It’s also a relatively easy task to get me used to being back at my desk and thinking critically after a Sunday of slobbing around in PJs chain watching whatever series I’m currently hooked on.

I haven’t written anything this week, but I’ve been reading up on phenomenology and I’m slowly coming to terms with its intricacies (slowly). I’ve felt a huge sense of relief since I sent my last piece of work, as it was something that had been hanging over me for months. Now I get to read new bits of theory just to see if they’re useful, which is lush.

I had a meeting with my supervisors yesterday which was really positive. They seemed to like the piece of work I’d sent, which has made me feel much better since the paperwork cock up. My director of studies asked me loads of really challenging questions about my project – where I lay my hat in the particular theoretical continuum I’m working on, what stances I most identify with, what definitions I’m using for my terms and why. These are all ideas that I’ve vaguely thought about in the process of my PhD so far, but they’re also all tricky enough that I’ve kind of been working around them and hoping that they’ll magically fall into place without me having to tax myself too much…that’s not really how academia works though, I guess. It might be handy if I start directing my weekly 1000 words at these questions, and any others that are raised, so at the end, even if I have thousands of words not necessarily for my thesis, at least I’ll have a thought out reasoning for multiple aspects of my terminology, stance and theory. We’ll see.

Word count: 0

Gym sessions: 0 (whoops)

Sit Still and Sulk

This week has been pretty sedentary. I didn’t leave my house for four days. Whoops. I did however write 2000 words. And I think I’m happy with them, which is something that hasn’t happened in ages. It’s a piece of work that I’ve been putting off and putting off because it’s on a topic I’ve covered before and I couldn’t work out how to write about it without basically copying what I said in my MA. I sulked for the weekend and most of Monday and Tuesday about it. Eventually I just decided to go back to the beginning.

Instead of just re-reading the notes I already have on the subject, I went back to the primary and key texts, which seems obvious, I know, but once I’ve made notes on something, I tend to stick with those out of pure laziness. Upon returning to the first primary text I found a section I don’t remember reading before and it fits perfectly with my thesis, it uses the key word in my title about four times per sentence. Ideal. So that reinvigorated my interest somewhat, and seemed to help everything piece itself together. I’m still talking about the stuff I mentioned in my MA, but I’ve streamlined it and this new angle has let my discuss similar ideas while using a different entry point making it feel new to even the most easily distracted parts of my brain [most of my brain].

I also realised something pretty crucial this week. Exercise helps you think. I know that every motivational pin on pinterest and all of the exercise advice out there tells you this, but I tend to ignore stuff I don’t want to admit to myself. Like the fact that I’ll never get my Hogwarts letter. Or that I’ll never have a pet dragon. Up until the past fortnight I’ve been doing pretty well at going to the gym at least a couple of times a week. But then I stopped. And now my brain has too. Gone is the easy bounce of idea to idea, and instead there’s a slow drag, like pulling yarn out of an angry tub of lard. So now that I’m on track with my words-a-week goal, I’m going to add ‘getting off my arse’ to the list of things I want to achieve every week.

This coming week I’m going to continue with last week’s writing and as a reward I’m going to read Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology which looks all kinds of awesome and perfect for my thesis.

Word Count: 2000 ish.