PhD Lessons: Coming back in from the desert…

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Like many other PhD students, I am experiencing some trepidation as I embark on the new academic year – and what is (should be? ought to be? see, I told you there was trepidation) my last year: The year of the big write up. I need to reflect on lessons learnt and lessons ignored after a tough few months. I have allowed myself to hide, certainties desiccating aridly, and it has been a mistake. So what should I have done … and could advise others to do… differently?

I must accept that there was a fairy-tale charm to my first year of study. I adopted the philosophy of saying ‘Yes!’ to everything. I found myself lecturing on ethnography to MDes students, tutored final year BA and MDes dissertation students, attended many (usually free – thanks, Twitter) PhD events across the UK, was selected for workshops with NatCen and AHRC, presented papers in Northampton, Birmingham, London, Glasgow and facilitated workshops for Arts4Health events, conferences and other university projects. My own research data was full and exciting, with ballooning participation and generous, detailed and moving responses from those involved. From this and my reading on method and subject matter I had a journal article and book chapter accepted for publication.

‘Too much!’ I hear you say?

‘No!’ I chirruped. ‘It’s all fine!’

It wasn’t fine.

Lesson 1: Embrace the opportunities, but remember self-care comes first

I started my second year pretty exhausted.  This time last year I was preparing for the ‘confirmation’ of PhD – a checkpoint of ability to proceed which entails a detailed research report and lengthy presentation to assessors and peers.  I also packed up the house we had lived in since 1998 and moved 400 miles north.  Either side of this I presented at two conferences.  Friends expressed concern about how I was managing, but somehow I didn’t pay attention.

Lesson 2: Choose where and when you want to present: Who do you want to see your work? Who would you like to network with?

Over the following months, I didn’t write anything ‘new’.  I had no idea of the hours involved in revising, tweaking, editing and proofing material for publication.  Most of my time was spent revisiting  text rather than creating it.

I also took on more teaching. As a self-funded mature student, I felt the pressure to create a strong CV for whatever comes next and -more pragmatically – earn my fees.  I continued to tutor BA and MDes students.  I taught and assessed two full modules for first year BAs, teaching to the limit of my allocation of hours as an associate lecturer.  A little too late, I realised that I had made this my job: As an ex-teacher, I slipped habitually into preparation, resourcing and providing additional formative feedback and ‘forgot’ I was supposed to be working on something else.

Lesson 3: Take rest: Work needs to be effective, not outwardly ‘busy’.  Don’t get suckered in by all those #amwriting posts… #amthinking and #amrecharging are pretty important

I had reached a tipping point where gaining (albeit valuable) experiences in academia needed to be less of a priority than ensuring I was in a good position to achieve the goal of submitting a thesis.

Lesson 4: Finishing the PhD is the priority

Suddenly it was spring.  I determined to spend more time at home (since the house move, I had committed to so much teaching that it was Christmas before I spent a full week in our new flat).  Full of excitement at kickstarting a new phase, I skipped merrily into Edinburgh for a day conference and instantly flung myself down the stairs at the railway station.

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It turns out that breaking bones – radius, scaphoid ICYMBI – when you are knocking 50 is a bit rubbish.  A succession of splints, casts and physio (still ongoing) means I had to juggle pain management with attempting to think clearly.  I couldn’t drive and allowed myself to drift into that hermit-like existence I mentioned earlier. I didn’t speak to anyone outside my home. A friend died. Things got pretty bleak.

 

 

Lesson 5: Don’t isolate yourself.  Spend time with and talk to other friends, students, supervisors and informal sounding boards.  Loneliness is the enemy of the PhD student*                      

*I totally knew this and would happily counsel others…. realising a little late I wasn’t looking after this myself.  Don’t make the same mistake

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Several things helped me on the path back out of the desert.  One was a brilliant summer school at GSofA in the Highlands.  Seeing more than a few people at a time, not to mention being away from home and husband for a week, plus driving for the first time in three months was a big deal. However, the summer school (and its setting on the beautiful Moray coast) revitalised me: It was a timely reminder that working creatively in research within communities was where I wanted to be.  I still didn’t write, but I did start to do some proper thinking.

 

 

Today I am travelling into university after what feels like an age .  I am meeting PhD friends and want to talk through some of this.  I will also be speaking to my SUPER supervisor and have committed to being honest about how the summer has been, rather than pretending it has been dandy during this arid patch.

These words are the most I have written for months, but I have determined that they are the start of a new phase where I will

  • remember self-care
  • think about where I network
  • rest
  • spend time with others
  • finish the thesis

 

 

 

 

On publishing for the first time

I have been spending the last few days checking the proofs for my first journal article.  This has been a long path and a far more time-consuming and salutary experience than I ever expected.

I might like to think that the image of my academic writing experience is like this:

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when in fact it is much more  likely this:

I am of, course contractually obliged to share the work of the brilliant Bill Watterson here, as Calvin and Hobbes set the right tone for just about any situation… But seriously, I had concerns about getting my research ‘out there’ – Was it really of any interest, never mind quality?  Would I be able to make myself clear?  Could I do justice to what my participants have shared so far?  Was I ready to expose myself to criticism?  Would I just sound like a caricature of an academic writer?  Would the PhD police place a heavy hand on my shoulder and whisper, “I am sorry, madam, we are going to have to ask you to leave”?

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In fact, the writing experience was initially exciting. An early conference presentation held lots of potential and it was almost a personal test to the nascent research to see if a full article could be generated.  It was a useful confirmation that I might be able to manage this PhD malarkey.  My super supervisor provided supportive challenges to imprecise ideas and wobbly organisation as well as useful conversations on suitable journals for submission.

Waving my article off to editors for consideration was a leap of faith and a learning opportunity.  Reviewer comments varied considerably and it was a challenge to read for the first time a critique of style or focus from someone who had not made the research journey with me in one way or another.  My confidence bubble burst as a smugly crafted bit of word-play was queried as confusing; some sections muddied the waters; the abstract promised ideas I hadn’t really delivered on; conclusions were too light. Too, too true.

Thanks to helpful Twitterers on academic writing, such as Pat Thomson and the Thesis Whisperer, I knew I needed to put on my big pants and deal with reviewer comments one by one.  Doing so helped me to address stylistic weaknesses and understand the need for greater clarity and precision.  In many ways, I am far less happy now with the piece of work than I was when I sent it nervously quivering into the ether:  I am far more aware of its flaws.

At least in part, my lack of certainty in the article is because time has marched smartly on in the meantime. It is nearly a year since the original draft was written.   The slow process of submission, reviews, edits and proofing means that I have further data, have refined my thinking and would offer a more nuanced analysis now.  A further factor is the unexpectedly long time taken in revisions and reiterations – I have not done as much ‘new’ writing as I would have wanted in the last few months.

However, the pain has been worth it.  As someone beginning my PhD in what we may politely refer to as ‘later life’, establishing a publication record before I complete my thesis feels crucial in positioning myself for post-doc employment and demonstrating the seriousness of such a career shift.  More immediately, the act of just writing has been invaluable.  A book chapter on ethics has also been accepted for publication in the autumn, full paper submissions to gain a place at various conferences have reinforced lessons learnt about writing more effectively.  All this store of formal writing has meant that scholarship applications and the internal PhD confirmation milestones have been easier (relatively speaking).  Of course, all these words will be reworked and developed in the next year, but having over 30k of them ‘banked’ makes me feel confident for the future.

And so, this is me, writing, writing.  Whether blog posts which help me crystallise thought, draft chapters for my supervisor or ‘side’ projects where reading leads me down paths which don’t really fit into PhD research but are too fascinating to release, writing allows me to celebrate how lucky I am to be doing this thing.

ICYMBI, Feeling lonely, feeling connected: Amateur knit and crochet makers sharing online will be published next month in Craft Research 7 (1) pp.9-27

Ethics, the personal, and the need to care for yourself as researcher

So, not posted for a while – the PhD engine caught up speed and carried me along. I have been / am busy with writing and presenting opportunities… all very lovely. The Facebook research group is amazing and I am tackling the analysis of hundreds of comments.

And then… and then… a stunning blow from left-field.

A warm, talented, generous supporter of the research – M – who had been emailing me with comments and advice, not participating actively in the Facebook group, but known to many members – took her own life following a long and difficult personal battle.

I was really rocked by this – our electronic ‘relationships’ aren’t really weak ties, are they… and the Facebook research group is an example of how human beings can find a significant connection despite not having met ‘IRL’. In addition to the impact on me personally, I needed to act ethically and appropriately as a researcher, but I had no idea how to handle the situation.

I spoke to my lead supervisor, who was kindly supportive and keen to understand how she could support me as ‘person’ first and ‘student’ later. She arranged to speak to the chair of the university ethics committee – a psychologist – to seek advice on a personal and professional level.

I was put in touch with Big White Wall – a free counselling and advice service subscribed to by many UK universities – perhaps your institution uses this service too. I didn’t know about it before, but wondered if I should have.

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I had supportive and practical advice as a researcher – a specific post on the Facebook group, a reminder that if participants were distressed and wanted to remove themselves from the project, then they could, a thread providing contact details for mental health wellbeing charities such as MIND and The Samaritans. Most difficult – a note to the family expressing condolence, informing them about M’s contribution to research and a request for them to consider whether I had their permission to use the data or whether they would like it destroyed.

I am moved by the support at a personal level – Part of my own journey to this PhD focus has been a battle with mental health issues. My supervisors’ care and concern has been touching, as have the suggestions from an advisor on the ethics committee and the incredible pulling together of the research participants as they supported one another.

As a researcher, I think there are two areas I need to think about. Firstly, I have been reminded that the research itself – on how working with textile crafts can have a positive impact on mental health wellbeing – is really important. Many participants feel that knitting or crochet has ‘saved their life’ and I want to explore why and how this is. However, I also want to consider how universities support researchers and equip them with tools to manage unforeseen, difficult or traumatic events in their research processes. My university has already organised training for PhD supervisors on supporting mental health issues emerging in research. I am hoping to speak to the ethics committee and other students about how situations like this could be managed in the future.

I had excellent advice, but it was delayed as there was no existing protocol to follow. This is not a criticism, but a reminder that perhaps institutions and individuals need to think about the ethics of care here – how can researchers be encouraged to more fully consider ways to protect themselves from harm, as well as participants?

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RIP M

For wellbeing & productivity: breathe. pause. be.

Stop.
Wait a minute.
Great reflection and advice here

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Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher. ~ William Wordsworth

Shark Bay, by @debsnet

Like many educators, I love my work and I love to work. Not only that, as a PhD researcher I love my PhD, treating it like a luxury, a privilege and precious ‘me time’.

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

While I’ve acknowledged before that we need to give ourselves permission to take a break, I’m often not very good at it. Sometimes I have to force myself to take a break.

long shadows in red dirt, by @debsnet

After an eleven week term, at the end of which I spent an entire weekend slogging away at my thesis, I was obsessed. Obsessed because all my waking and teeth-grinding-sleeping moments were taken up with work or PhD. My thoughts about my doctoral research were permeating every crevice of my mind and each nook of my time.

Hamelin Pool Stromatolites, by @debsnet

I was delighting in this immersion. I was happy to…

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on getting out of a stuck place

My academic fan-girling of Pat Thompson continues as she makes me feel better about writing / unwriting / rewriting once more

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I’ve recently completed the first draft of (what will appear to the outside world to be) my second book this year. In reality, it’s a book that has been three years in the writing. It’s about the use of a particular social theory in one field of scholarship. There is a lot of work already about the social theorist, so I really feel I need to say something a bit different. No pressure then. But I’ve been stuck in a hard place for a long time. Fortunately, my publishers know me well and have been extremely patient with my tardiness and the academic equivalent of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have a draft. But it wasn’t a messy first draft in which everything was roughly in the right place. This was a draft in which one chapter was distinctly out of sorts, and another wasn’t in rude…

View original post 1,429 more words