Mommy PhD: The last 500m

Mommy PhD: The last 500m

Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Last 500mSurely, I thought, I will get to the printer today?! All I need to do is to convert my Word file to PDF and then we are done?! Well, it seems that every step of the PhD process is designed to test your fortitude and iron will.

There must be a special place in hell reserved for the programmers who put together the software for converting Word to PDF documents. Maybe they had some real belly laughs around the water cooler about those random errors generated by the Word to PDF conversion of long documents. Haha!

When you finally, finally decide that the thesis is finished and that you are ready to take the next step and that the next step is a mountain called Adobe is sore indeed. I probably should have smelt a rat when the publisher laughed when asked him if he did the Word to PDF conversion in-house. Hahaha.

I had already read the horror stories online and had decided to enroll help to do this. But what should surely have taken two minutes ended up taking nearly six hours. You would think converting Word to PDF simply means the output PDF pages would look exactly like the output Word pages, right? But no!!

Figure captions, which were perfectly placed in Word suddenly unmoored themselves and floated around the page in the PDF; labels on figures would similarly go walkabout; page numbers would fail to correlate and most mysteriously the notes formatting simply failed.

In the end I checked it again, sent a little prayer and whisked it off to the printer, reassuring myself that the reader wouldn’t be familiar with the Word version and so wouldn’t know what they were missing out on.

TIP: Leave yourself wide margins of time at the end. Find a friend, or pay someone to help you with desktop publishing. By then you really won’t give a damn about line spacing, but first impressions and the finishing touch really do count.

Mommy PhD: Practical tips to overcome a crises of writing confidence

Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Just write

Write for an audience: Print off a list of all the people who want to read what you are writing and write for them

Revisit inspired times: Flip through your notebooks to reconnect with energy and enthusiasm from earlier in the process

Intellectual nourishment: Reread an inspiring paper

Seek out the muse: Check out the latest writing of someone I admire

External affirmation: Print off the nice things people have said about me and my writing and put them on a board

The right context: Create a more beautiful physical space for my writing

Work to schedule: Make time in my diary for my writing

Play to a schedule: Make time in my diary to do fun, happy things

Just write.

Anything.

Now.

Mommy, PhD: Ice-cream and endings

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The day I dispatched my PhD I was, frankly, exhausted. It followed a week of nervous jangling with layout and photo resolution issues, a month of seemingly endless checks on the thesis text, three months of wrangling with my supervisor and six months of tying up empirical loose ends. Exactly as some friends predicted, I was completely depleted. I ‘celebrated’ with a huge glass of red wine and a bowl of ice-cream. Inebriated, and with an ice-cream headache, I slumped on the sofa and fell asleep in front of the TV. There was an anticlimax and a feeling of complete disorientation. Some lightness, yes, but also the realisation that while so much was completed, I now had the viva voce process to face. I wrote nervously to my supervisor: “what now?” My supervisor wrote back with hearty congratulations and some kind words but also a reminder that the process was far from over and that the viva could well throw up more revisions, and some months of work.
When would it end? Well, of course it wouldn’t ever really end. The day came when I called myself Dr Kane for the first time. A type of closure. The learning, understanding, expanding, growing, that very process that I had yearned for, in fact the reason I started the PhD in the first place – that hasn’t ended. I’m still doing that and, probably will still be doing that for some time to come. That was and is me.
The pushing, the proving, the tightening, the endless, endless, pulling together of a PhD? Yes, that ended. Hurray.
What are you looking forward to after your PhD?

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.

On PhD humiliation: letter to a friend

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Hi Beth,

It was good to see you yesterday, although you did seem out-of-sorts and, as you said yourself: shattered. As I sat there I was quite torn. On the one hand you were asking for my thoughts and recollections, but on the other hand it seemed that more than anything you needed to have a good howl. I hope you got that (howl) before the end of the day. So in answer to your question, here are a few thoughts. I hope they help, but I think the howl will probably help more.

The PhD process brought me to some of my lowest lows in my work life so far. Bringing our as-yet-unformed work in front of so-called experts is exposing, even humiliating. It’s hard not to feel demeaned and belittled in front of rigorous academic critique. I remember phoning Rob after one such session and choking, sobbing over the phone. That was my lowest point and I nearly, nearly gave up. On one level a PhD is simply a qualification in bloody-minded persistence. It’s about not giving up, and about keeping going through times exactly like this.

In retrospect (and I know this is probably not much consolation) I can see the emotional lows are a big part of the process. You will reach a stage where you know the answers to the questions raised by experts or you can see the questions for what they are – irrelevant. Then there you are, standing firm on your own piece of ground and robust in your position.

Remember, also, we are ‘disabled’ to some degree by our age, gender and past as practitioners. Academic language and norms are not the same as the languages we use in practice. As difficult as it is to learn a new language, so it is to learn academic norms of communication. This will feel a real struggle at first but once mastered you have a huge advantage because you will know how to speak in practice AND in academic words. Bilingual. Not all academics have that. Similarly as a woman you may struggle to be heard in your male-dominated discourse, but once you’ve mastered the use of male academic language then you have the advantage of being able to slip in-between those worlds.

So well done on getting this far. Hang on in there. Persistence is key. More than anything, just take the next step.

Warm wishes, Lisa

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