Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Goodness from the Internet

Some good advice about being a 'grad student' that I found on the Internet today.


I kind of like what he says here:

"The Internet is full of postgraduate "advice" from bitter ex-students warning people to stay out of graduate school, because they still haven't learned that whining and spending all their time online was their problem in the first place. Some advice about advice, or advice-squared: If someone tells you what they wish they would have done, listen. If they only tell you things they wouldn't have done, ignore them, because they've confused regret with wisdom. "

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Academic Writing

 (19/06/2012, 12:04 pm, B[ritish] L[ibrary])

‘Write for twenty minutes every day’

Found inside an old notebook, on an old piece of paper: my impressions after doing a ‘Creative Writing’ course, with a Guru from my old Graduate School, when the PhD was in full swing. I transcribe the wisdom, unedited (well, not much), for you below.

I love writing. Did I mention that? I really do love writing. I love pretty writing. I love a well-written email. I love a few well-placed, hilarious words. I love a bit of creative writing, like when a tutor on a creative writing course sets you the beginning and end of a short story, and you get to dream up the bit that goes in between.

Popping into my head right now is an odd memory: I see myself wandering in the woods, near where I grew up, one summer. [so one minute I’m writing about writing, the next I dream up this image of what it felt like to be walking through those woods as a teenager. Why?...] In the memory, I must be aged about sixteen, seventeen. I’m probably wearing a denim shirt (or am I?), and I’m probably with three of my friends, picking a chestnut here and there, and chatting.

It’s one of those times you remember wistfully, because that was one of those interludes where you didn’t have to do anything, be anywhere in particular, think about anything; you were just enjoying being there. Outside of that moment, other stuff did exist: family hassles, A levels, choosing futures, worrying about boys. But in my mind now, that moment is isolated in time and space, with nothing before it and nothing after, apart from the vaguest memories; beforehand, we probably met up at a friend’s house; afterwards, I probably made my way home via the town, on a warm summer’s evening, back to a warm house and to my nice family.

There’s something cool about writing, in that it suspends time, and preserves a particular moment. And maybe that’s why I find academic writing scary. It freezes your inadequate little ideas on the page. It fixes them. You have to commit. Is that what you mean? Tick yes or no. Is that the word you are going to use? Is this your final answer? And then the unpicking begins.

Free writing, and creative writing, is exciting because you watch your writing get better and better, if you do it a lot. You reread what you’ve written with pleasure. I think, if that’s what you’re used to, then academic writing is hard, because all of a sudden you’re not ‘free’ anymore; everything you want to write you have to back up with some sort of evidence. Everything you’d like to say has to be considered and logical. Every word has to be used carefully, and not just plonked in there because it sounds pretty, or because you want the sentence to have a nice iambic rhythmey bit on the end. Everything you write is going to have to stand up to scrutiny, and will have to be able to defend itself before a serious examination. This, if you’re a fledgling ‘artist’, one who likes creative writing and who likes putting words together for the sake of stories, or just for the words themselves, then this can feel incredibly daunting, so much so that one day you don’t want to write anything else, at all.

The trick, I am told, is to ‘make it up’, but whilst pretending to be playing by the rules. Learn the rules of academic writing, learn how to play by them. (Provide the evidence they want; learn to phrase your sentences so that you sound like they want you to sound. And then, with the rules at the back of your mind, write how you want to.) I’m not sure if I’ve got the hang of this yet; but it’s getting there…

The other thing is that writing is not a choice when you’re an academic. The whole point of research is sharing research; if you are not communicating what you’ve found, then you’ve failed in your ‘duty’ to the world. Maybe I should think of writing as teaching?... I love teaching, and I love telling my students how excited I am about sharing some little wisp of knowledge with them. Maybe writing a PhD is the same: just sharing knowledge with people, and inviting them to respond.

Once you’ve written your thesis, something happens. The landscape of knowledge out there has been modified. There is now something new out there for people to read and to know. That, in itself, is a pretty cool thought. Your thesis is an invitation to create, to contribute, to join in the discussion. (I don’t really know what I’m driving at here. I’m just repeating the useful and encouraging things that have been said to me by clever people who have tried to help.)

Anyway. ‘If you hate the writing, maybe you’re in the wrong job’, said the Guru (Creative Writing course ‘Guru’) when I told him carelessly that I ‘hate writing’. I don’t hate writing. I do, however, hate the sense of my own vulnerability and ignorance when faced with the need to use my nice writing to contribute to an already well-established academic debate. I guess that’s something that maybe gets better the longer you do this job, and the more you write.

Another thought: the Guru had us writing about our PhD projects for 5 minutes. He then made us count up the words. On average, we had written 130 words each (mine was more). He did the maths for us. Five minutes, 130 words. ‘In 40 hours, you could write a PhD’, he said. I liked this; although I know very well that it doesn’t work quite like that, all of a sudden the PhD didn’t sound quite so unmanageable.

Looking for Work

I am ideally looking for work in the field of my Dream Career.

I understand, however, that before one gets one’s dream career, one occasionally has to go out and earn money to support oneself in a less-than-desirable career. If you can’t find opportunities in the dream career straightaway, it is recommended that you find the backup career, do that one, and then take steps towards finding the dream career (by moonlighting, perhaps), once you have a bit of financial stability.

Or something.

So, since last summer (end of PhD), I have been hankering after a Job – not the Dream Career yet, but a Job, because I desperately wanted to earn some money after the arid, cash-strapped last months of PhD. A Nice Job, so that it wouldn’t make me want to vomit, and so that I would have my head clear and some spare time available in the evenings for planning the Dream Career on the side. I had a clear idea of the kind of Job I wanted, knew I was pretty much qualified and experienced enough to do it, and I went out and tried to get it.

No luck there. No-one wanted to give me The Nice Job. They always tell me, at the interview or job application stage, that they had another candidate 'with more direct and relevant experience' who was able to 'draw on it in the interview'.

So, for the time being, I did the next best thing: I went for what, for the purposes of differentiating it here from the others, I am going to call the ‘Grotty Job’. (Oxford English Dictionary definition of “Grotty Job”: a job which you do not enjoy and which occasionally makes you cry, but which you do anyway and which you are grateful to have, because it pays you money.)

Incidentally, Grotty Jobs are often easier to find than other types of Jobs, because not many people want to - or feel they are able to - do them. You go for a Nice Job, and you find yourself an unremarkable candidate amidst seventy-odd eager, well-qualified people. Many of whom (especially in the current economic climate) have already HELD a similar Nice Job, and are therefore deemed more experienced and more desirable candidates for this one.

Go for a Grotty Job, however, and you get snapped up immediately, with promises that ‘We can get you work by next week, no problem’. You smile and say thank you, but in your heart you are already wondering if you shouldn’t just do a runner.

So at the moment, I am one geological level below where I wanted to be: I wanted to be settled in a (Nice) Job, and be striving, in my own spare time, for the Dream Career. Instead, I am settled into, and feeling grateful to have, the Grotty Job (through which desperate employers keep offering me more Grotty Jobs, with the only difference being that these are permanent and full-time ones; I say no to these offers, because at least the one truly nice thing about the job I currently do is that it's part-time) – so, I am settled in the Grotty Job, striving for the Nice Job, and in the end I am not even doing a bloody thing about the Dream Career, because just to try and arrange some work experience so I can have a chance at the Nice Job is taking up all my time.*

Something’s not right here.


For your edification, here is a very clever blog post someone else wrote, which tells you how to set about getting out of your Dead-End (aka Grotty) Job.


* 'taking up all my time' - I am of course referring to the time available to me once you disregard the time I spend pottering about in my kitchen, writing blogs, eating biscuits, taking long leisurely walks, etc etc etc - generally, the time I spend PLAYING and Having Fun. (You don't need to feel too sorry for me.)

Monday, 2 June 2014

Congratulations, Doctors!

As I continue my little blogging 'empire', there is one thing which has started happening and which has been incredibly nice: people who previously followed this blog under the guise of stressed-out PhD students are now starting to post comments telling me that they've finished (and been awarded) their doctorate.

To get a message like that - to hear from someone who previously wrote 'I know, I hate my PhD too, I can't do it either' - that they have successfully completed this huge thing, and that they found something useful on this blog which helped them, is IMMENSE.

Your comments keep me smiling all day long. Keep them coming!

Dr C.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Managing your Finances

There are courses at my Graduate School about 'Managing your Motivation'. There is a course on 'Managing your Supervisor'. But there definitely isn't one about 'Managing your Finances'. And there most emphatically should be.

When you commit to doing a PhD, you commit to not earning any real money for the next three-four years. Either you are very lucky and you get a grant, in which case you might be earning up to £1200 pounds a month (this is the amount you get if you are studying in London; bear in mind that your rent might be upwards of £700), or you do not have a grant, in which case you are probably working part-time, and you might be scraping together about half that. 

This is all fine. Lots of us intellectual types pride ourselves on being able to live on very little. (What amazing values we have! How different to the people who put money above everything!) And the PhD may well bring with it other rewards, which in themselves seem to make up for the low salary: the fact that you can work from home, arrange your own hours, be free at odd times of the day to go for coffee, do your shopping mid-afternoon. Have the time and freedom to go to the gym. Not have to commute to an office on rainy days. Freedom and joy. There are plenty of people, plenty of friends and acquaintances and housemates, who are jealous of your routine, because they would gladly trade in their own long hours and dreary commute for the simple freedom you are experiencing; the freedom to be flexible and to organise your time as you like.

However, when there comes a time when the PhD goes sour, when you lose your motivation and your will to carry on, when you've hit a dead end and you're not sure how you're going to get yourself out of the tangle, when you start to feel like a bit of an impostor -  the money thing, which initially seemed like a little bit of an annoyance but didn't bother you that much, suddenly starts to bother you a lot more. You don't seem to have so much free time any more, because all of your time is spent on trying to rescue the PhD by frantically following up avenues of research which go nowhere. You feel that if you worked harder, you would surely produce better results. You start to beat yourself up about any time spent away from the PhD. All of a sudden, the joys of the PhD seem few and far between. The message that pops up on your mobile, from a happy PhD colleague inviting you for coffee at three p.m. - the end of her working day - only serves to piss you off, because it reminds you that other people are managing their own time and their own PhDs much better. The tempting invitations to come out and play, which once were exciting and were celebrated as part of the flexible PhD lifestyle that is rightfully yours, may suddenly start to feel like a bit of a burden. (If you haven't experienced this, congratulations. If you haven't ever felt resentful of everyone else who is having fun while you are burdened by this impossible PhD, well done. But then again, if you haven't been through the period of PhD doubt, you are probably not typing 'I hate my PhD' into Google, and therefore you are probably not reading this blog right now.) (Why am I even bothering talking to you?…)

It is at this time that doubts start to appear about your decision to do a PhD. And, alas, the money thing starts to niggle at you as well. You tell yourself: 'Why am I doing this?… I'm not enjoying this. I'm not even any good at this. And it's not like it's a job where I'm getting paid lots of money to do a job I don't like. I'm being paid absolutely bugger all. I'm being paid next to no money to work twelve-hour days in a job I hate!'

This is where you might start looking around at people (corporate flatmates, money-savvy Siblings, best friends who are zooming ahead making a fortune in their own exciting careers) and start to feel like you've made a bit of a mistake. This is, in short, where you start to Hate your PhD.

Unfortunately, how much you earn and how well you are doing at your PhD are both things which impact on your self-esteem. If you are earning bugger all, and your earnings don't go up over time, as is the case with a fixed PhD bursary (and meanwhile, rent and bills and food costs are going up in line with inflation) you may eventually find yourself thinking that you and your skills are simply of not much value to the world. If you find yourself floundering with your PhD project (having presumably been a bit of an academic star all your life, which I guess you must be if you made it this far) you may start to think of yourself as worthless and stupid. How much you earn, and how well you do at your job, both play a part in how you think about yourself. This is one reason why, I think, doing a PhD is such a hard thing: when it starts to go wrong, unless you have self-esteem of steel and you have learned the art of patience and self-confidence, it's difficult for you not to start feeling very bad about yourself.

What to do?…

Here are some of my ideas.

- It would be good if all of us thought really carefully about our finances before starting our PhDs. It would be great if we all sat down and wrote ourselves a budget plan. This is how much I will have coming in; this is how much rent and bills and travel will cost me. This is how much I have left over. Am I content to live on this much (or this little) for the next three years?… It would be even better if we then sat down and took a good, honest look at our monthly expenses from the previous year or so. If we regularly like to spend £20 on meals out and £40 on dresses, then let's be honest; are we really willing to give those things up and live happily within a PhD student's budget? If the answer is no, consider not doing a PhD. You don't really want to. 

- There are books out there on writing a PhD. There are also books out there on managing your money. I think the two should go hand in hand. I can recommend Kate Northrup's 'Money: A Love Story' (which, true to its title, is a bit sickly sweet and annoying in places, but actually makes a lot of sensible suggestions when it comes to maximising your budget and cultivating a positive attitude to your money. I wish I had read this book when I started my PhD.) I also quite liked 'Overcoming Underearning' by Barbara Stanny. The first book gets you to curb your spending and enjoy saving; the second gets you thinking about how much more you could actually be worth in terms of salary, and how to eventually get there.

- Apart from that, I would say: try to keep up the sense of gratitude you felt in the beginning. Be grateful that you can do a PhD at all. Do not let a bad spell destroy your pleasure in the small things. Your life is happening right now. Enjoy your food, listen to good music, see friends, make time for yourself to just sit and do nothing. Go for walks or go to the gym. Look after yourself. Don't beat yourself up about work you didn't do. Regroup your energies for a better day tomorrow. Talk to people about how you feel. Be careful how you talk about yourself and your work: talk in terms of what you're committed to doing, not in terms of what you failed to do. Try to remain upbeat about the opportunities that are still out there for you.

- And finally - try looking at things this way: 'I am not getting paid very much for the work I do on my PhD, and therefore I won't kill myself by working twelve-hour days'. It is possible to do a PhD by working for three or four hours a day, and then having the rest of the time free to recover, enjoy yourself, and take care of any small chores you might want to get done. You don't have to be working stupid hours to complete your PhD; it is possible to do it and earmark plenty of spare time to enjoy yourself. 

I could have done with some advice, when I started the PhD, along the lines of: you are going to be poor for a while. Your earnings won't change, but the cost of living will steadily rise all about you. You will watch your friends getting promoted and earning more and more money, and going on nice holidays. You will experience that low-level stress of when something expensive breaks and needs replacing, or when a friend gets married and there's a trip and a hotel to pay for, and suddenly you are a hundred quid or so out of pocket. 

But it is possible to stick with your project and still be very happy, and live a great life on a PhD salary. If you can just manage not to forget why you are doing it in the first place, and hold on to the positive thoughts about why your (flexible, intellectually-fulfilling, relaxed) life is wonderful.

Because, really, the best commodity that money can buy is - time, and the flexibility to make use of it. That's really all the wealth we can ever have, I think, and the only wealth we really want. Your PhD can potentially give you this. Do not let a bad moment ruin your trip. Commit to your leisure time. Stick to sensible working hours. Do not let your PhD thesis take over every single hour of your day, and invade every corner of your life. And do not let money worries stop you from enjoying and appreciating what you do already have.

I think we just all need to tell ourselves once in a while 'I'm doing great; I have a perfectly lovely life. There's really nothing to worry about.'