Mommy, PhD: Finding time – saying no

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If you’re going to find time then you’re going to have to start saying “no”. This may be one of the toughest tasks for a mamma doing a PhD. No to birthday parties (your friends’ and your children’s). No to nights out with your bestie, with your partner. No to time with dear family. No to ‘unmissable’ movies, shows, openings. No to must-attend school events. In the end no to even the essential things – the walk, the exercise class, the weekly shopping, the Doctor check-ups. For me the only way to finish was to adopt, for a time, the life of the ascetic. Pared down, inward looking, intensely centered and removed from social context.
And although it had its costs (to friendships in particular) it had a simple, restorative beauty of its own. And through it I discovered a real gratitude for down time doing the simplest of things which I reconnected with post-PhD. Yay to coffee and cake with a good friend. The joy of it. After months without it.

Mommy PhD: Writing drafts

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“Sorry!” she wrote, asking for feedback, “it’s very draft!”
I remembered my own early pieces submitted to supervisors and their noble quest to find something to cheer about them. I am so grateful for their grace.  “Wow,” they would say, “you really are uncovering some interesting material.” Looking back now, I see that those pieces were barely notes. Her “draft” was far better thought through than anything mine had been. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to articulate anything in the early PhD stages, when so many options are still open, so much is unformed and there is so little (theory, experience, data, information) to hold onto. I was lucky to have experienced supervisors who understood that early PhD writing is a struggle and they saw my efforts for what they were: hard won fragments scraped together with much effort. I’ve seen other supervisors in action who were far less empathetic, and timed their critique so badly that it crushed the young shoots of research work.
My view is that everything we write – everything – is a draft until that very last day when we hand it in and it’s done. Revealing those drafts can be humbling and scary. Do yourself a favour and find people who will see your drafts for the acts of struggle and courage that they are. Avoid like the proverbial plague those readers who confuse ‘support’ with poisonous criticism, personality attacks or ways of boosting their own sense of power. And be grateful for the graceful.

Mommy PhD: F-f-f-formatting

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The biggest time sink as hand-in date approached was no-one’s fault but mine and it boiled down to indecisiveness about formatting. The classic procrastination was over labels on figure numbers.  Do I choose “Figure 8: Classic picture” or “Figure 8 Classic picture”? Who cares really? It doesn’t matter that much. In that late-PhD fog though, I just couldn’t make up my mind and so I ended up with 40 figures with colons and 50 without. Changing that around at 1am was, to put it mildly, a drag. I wish I had given it a bit more thought and been brutally decisive very early on.

Similarly, references came back to haunt me. Wanting to push ahead I had paid a student to build up my database. Oh, what was I thinking? Using an undergrad student who didn’t know the difference between journal article names and journal names! Scary but true and pretty alarming to discover half way through your reference list.

TIP: Use willing students to help where possible in your research process but check their work!

The biggest time drain, though, was simply due to formatting a PhD size document. By the time I was finished my thesis clocked in at 353 pages. (That’s not untypical). A simple check on header formats would take an hour. Even adjusting and checking chapter headings took half an hour because there were 15 of them. Before you get too far into the document indulge in a day or two to choose formatting that really works well for you. And then stick with it.

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