Saturday, 13 December 2014

Mothers and PhD Students

I am working a little bit on The Thesis, soon to become The Book. Have reread the examiners’ reports (which say nice things and which also suggest many improvements); have opened the thesis and started to reread it, and have been struck by its beauty, clarity, and general amazingness, qualities which I never expected to find in there. (You remember those months on end when I worked and worked, getting more and more tired and frustrated, and no end seemed in sight?... This is what I was doing in those months, it transpires now: polishing, prettifying, making concise, making coherent. Rendering beautiful. It really is not bad, this thesis. To everyone who is struggling hopelessly with their thesis: it may not feel like it right now, but all this hard work IS making it better…)

In other news: this summer I read an article (which I have been trying, and failing, to hunt out again, so I could put it on here) about a group of mothers who were being interviewed because they had written and produced a play about motherhood. These women were speaking about the isolation and depression they had experienced as first-time, full-time mums; their play was their attempt to externalize some of the problems they’d faced, and to counter the the taboo nature of what they were feeling: depressed, lonely, isolated, struggling with a daunting, difficult task. It struck a chord; reading phrases such as ‘I felt alone’, ‘I felt isolated’, ‘It was too hard’, ‘I felt like I was failing’, I wondered if the new mother isn’t essentially facing some of the same issues as the struggling PhD student: a huge and daunting task, for which she feels ill-prepared; the feeling that there is not enough support from others; the feeling that the task in hand (looking after a baby/ writing a PhD project) is so monumentally important that the possibility of failing is not even to be contemplated; the guilt at not being ‘better’, the comparisons with more successful mothers/ colleagues, the feeling that you should be ‘good’ at this and should not be saying ‘this is too hard; I can’t do this.’

Having recently spent some time in the company of friends who have just become mums, and having admired how they cope with caring for their newborn offspring, I think my general observation would be: it IS kind of the same. It’s the same demons we’re all fighting.

It made me wonder: we feel very alone sometimes… and I wonder how many other people there are in this world, feeling just as alone, and falling prey to exactly the same demons, just dressed up in a different disguise. It made me feel a little bit more empathy towards the people I thought I know well, and the new people I meet.

For an earlier blog post on the link between babies and PhD theses, click here.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

I heart PhD students

A friend of mine, who is a journalist, has recently written a not-terribly-controversial article, in which she takes issue with some young female beauty vlogger’s attempt to reinvent herself as a ‘feminist’. The issue being that, if one minute you are claiming that ‘teenage girls should love their bodies and faces and should, like, go out without makeup sometimes!’, and the next you are making money by encouraging them to spend their own cash on your preferred tube of mascara, then there is perhaps something amiss there.

Anyway, she published this article, and spent the next day reeling from an unbelievably savage barrage of assault on Twitter. The tweets mostly ranged from unbelievably mean (and unjustified) comments on her personal appearance, to suggestions that she should be sued/ shot/ killed.
Attempting to make light of the situation, she tweeted a joke, saying that ‘next time she’ll publish an article called ‘Why I hate One Direction’. This resulted in her getting tweets like ‘THINK TWICE BITCH’ and ‘I FUCKING DARE YOU’.

I personally sometimes am tempted to write something slightly more racy than my usual repertoire, and publish an article containing my thoughts on feminism/ body image/ global politics/ capitalism/ whatever. The thought of saying something which might be deemed controversial, however, and then having to read stupid and horrible comments about myself all day long, is something which has previously entered my mind, and has more than once stopped my hand from hitting ‘Publish’. Now I remember why.

It made me think, also, that I really DO know how to pick my audiences, don’t I?... I have chosen to write a blog which is more likely than not to be ready by only PhD students. Who, in my experience, are basically the nicest, most logical, rational, sensible people there are. PhD students do not, by definition, read something and immediately react with ‘What utter crap. DIE, BITCH!’… No; the very nature of their training and profession means that they consider evidence carefully; they read critically, but with an open mind; they say things like ‘While one might be tempted to respond by saying ‘DIE, BITCH’, IS there really enough EVIDENCE to suggest…?’ and so on. Things are not just black and white to a PhD student, and anything we do not immediately understand or agree with does not automatically get consigned to the dustbin.

It made me appreciate the fact that I work with, and deal with, and write for, academics and PhD students. It made me remember how, when I was on the verge of PhD despair, a Graduate School Guru who was speaking at a seminar on motivation made me feel better by pointing out that there are many things in this profession to be grateful for, one of them being the company of clever, wonderful colleagues and friends.

You are all pretty wonderful. Keep at it. That would be all.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


Tis the anniversary of The End. I am now one year on from the finishing of the thesis. I am cheering for everyone who is submitting their PhD, or who has done so in the last few days.

Today I am working from home. I have a scented candle lit in front of me (recommended by a useful motivational blogger as a pretty thing to have on your desk, to make your work space/ office 'more appealing', and therefore more likely to inspire you to work). I have a cup of tea. I have projects and plans, and ideas and books to read.

I'm still the same as I always was, mind you, I still procrastinate, waste time, wonder sometimes where the day has gone. I still haven't made my six-figure salary (damn) and I still contemplate going off to sing in the street to make some extra money. But I'm much happier. Finishing the PhD has served to make me start taking care of myself, to start treating myself a lot more nicely. I no longer do any of that beating-myself-up stuff that I used to do ('I'm not good enough/ I can't do it/ It doesn't matter what I do, I'll never get there/ This is too hard/ Why do I always do everything wrong?'/ etc etc etc). I don't do that anymore.

It's interesting, too, how I've been reacting differently every time there's a spanner in the works, or a brick wall in front of me. Instead of throwing my arms up in the air and going 'Oh well, too hard', or 'Waaaah! Why can't I have what I want? Why is life so unfair?...', instead I've surprised myself by thinking 'OK, so I can't have it my way. So this means, if I want it, I'm going to have to do it another way. So first I have to do XYZ... And I'm perfectly capable of doing XYZ. Let's do it.'

'I get the feeling that for you, this wasn't so much about getting a PhD', a friend said this summer,'as it was about sorting your head out and working on YOURSELF. YOU were the thing that you had to work on so hard!' And we drank to my success in working on me.

The thing is, I don't mean to brag, but I've noticed some changes. You read enough self-help books, I guess that stuff eventually gets to you. There hasn't been that much of a change noticeable to the outside world as yet. But occasionally, just occasionally, I say I'll do something and then I actually do it. Instead of procrastinating on it for months, and then forgetting it was ever meant to happen, and then wondering why my life is not going anywhere, I've started to make things happen for myself. I've started to notice that the people who get things done in this world are not necessarily the best people at doing those things. They're just the ones who decided to get into action - and they stayed in action. The other day, the Lover noticed this new propensity for actually doing what I say I want to do. He says he finds the new me a bit 'scary'.

'You know, it's actually frightening to think how far you could go, if you really decided to go for what you want to do', he said the other day.

Quotes of the day (from my favourite self-help books, of course) :

'What would you do with your life if you found that you have only six months to live?'


'What would you do if you were very bold, and you knew that you couldn't possibly fail at anything you try?'...

Monday, 22 September 2014

Goodness from the Internet - Boost your Productivity

So I was about to start on a tomato (otherwise known as a 25-minute bit of work), but instead I am going to share with you something which someone has recently shared with me, and which I think is going to make this tomato the best and the most effective ever.

Here is an amazing article based on the blog of Cal Newport about boosting your productivity (we've seen his blog mentioned on here before) :

And here's one specifically for PhD students - this is what I am using today to motivate me to get started:

Good luck, everybody!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Cloud Nine Hath Graduateth

I went down to the student print shop, where I’d sent my thesis to be bound. One final hard-bound copy, to be delivered to the University library.

I was only stopping by to pay for the thesis. The place binds it and then takes care of the delivery, so you don’t have to worry about it. 

Still, I did just have to ask…

‘Could I just, like, hold it?...’

Four years of work, and forty-odd pounds to produce the library copy, I would kind of like to at least run my hands over the shiny hardback covers.

It was first thing in the morning and the person I had been emailed the thesis to was not there. The guy scratched his head, looked around, checked some shelves, picked up a few theses, in their crisp, fresh binding; looked at them, put them down.

‘No, sorry,’ he said. ‘Can’t find it.’

‘That’s OK’, I said. And I left without ever seeing the finished thesis. I felt a little cheated.

But it’s OK, because the following day I Graduated. I pranced around in a colourful, medievalesque gown. I smiled all day and posed for many photos. By the evening I had lost my voice; probably something to do with screaming with delight throughout the day. Had to resort to mime throughout dinner to express my feelings (which wasn’t hard, given that the main answer to everything was ‘yes, I don’t care, I’m deliriously happy’.)

Graduation was fabulous. I urge you all to have one. Don’t even think about skipping it. Fork out the money, rent the plumage and celebrate with your nearest and dearest. Because you're worth it.

(Because I'm worth it... Cloud Nine does a twirl in her PhD robes)