Mommy PhD: Biting tails

Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Biting bullets

Over the last few weeks of my PhD my Facebook posts grew in number and prophetic statements: “Nearly there!!” I wrote. “So close I can almost smell the printer!!” “Days to go!!” “Hours to go!!”

Well, how naive was I. Those last few jobs stretched on endlessly and took about four times longer than expected. “The tail of the lizard,” my Zimbabwean husband chimed in, “is always the hardest to eat.”

Knowing this, don’t be a fool like me, and think that those final jobs will be done in a flash. One of the big reasons for my delays were leaving those tricky-to-find page numbers of quotes till last. I realised too late that the page numbers for those classic quotes don’t get any easier to find just because you have procrastinated about them for a few years.

Sure, Google did a great job finding some of the sources, but those classic quotes I had from material dating back to 1937 ended up staying in the drafts folder. By that stage of the process my tired eyes simply couldn’t scan the page for quotes anymore.

TIP: Bite this bullet early on and find the quote page number, or ditch the quote.

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: The 21st kilometer

I tried to explain it to a friend: “It’s like the 21st kilometer of a half marathon,” I said. “You know the end is near but you are so tired it takes all of your energy to just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all you can do… keep shuffling forward.”

Never having run long distances herself, she gave me a blank stare. By this stage my own long-distance running was a hazy memory but the last kilometer of those three half marathons I managed to complete, were seared into my memory.

The last stage of the PhD was so arduous that it really felt like the best analogy. The good intentions, the clear purpose and the joy that got, and get me going, on this journey had all but vanished along the way. All that kept me moving forward was bloody-minded determination to cross the finishing line despite the pain.

Like running, like child-birth, like nothing else I have experienced before, I just kept going with the PhD because I couldn’t not finish. And I just didn’t have the energy to decide to do anything different.

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

Mommy PhD: Writing on Mars

 

Let's Pretend_a Bonnie Book_Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Writing on Mars

Cover of children’s book “Let’s Pretend” via Pinterest

 

It’s so important to have separation while studying, but how do you make sure that the necessary separation doesn’t become hurtful? How do you avoid resentful children en route to a lifetime of therapy? This was a tough one for me. I didn’t want Brett and Hannah to feel that they couldn’t have access to me but I also needed them to know that my PhD room was a different room from the others in the house.

When they were very little I would leave them with care-givers and tell them that I was “going to Mars”. “Going to Mars” they understood, really meant going down to the shed-study at the bottom of the garden, but in their vivid imaginations I was on Mars. If they wanted to contact me they would use the “inter-planetary” phone. And of course there were exceptions to the galactic separation. Needing a cuddle with mama was reason enough for warp-speed space travel, with me happily beaming back down to earth, because cuddles are available at any time – no questions asked.

Mommy PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (2)

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Image of the Walking to School Campaign, Victoria, Australia

 

Dark anger about injustice regarding freedom of movement, especially for children, definitely motivated my PhD and its focus. On the flip side, so did joy. Some of my own happiest childhood memories were made on streets. One of my earliest memories is of simply walking along a suburban street. The light is that impossible fresh green which glows through leaves during the first days of a warm English spring. I remember it as one of the happiest, most peaceful experiences of my life. These memories provided a deeper, almost spiritual motivation for my thesis. The substance of the thesis actually found its roots in these early childhood experiences. Understanding these memories as not only key motivators, but also as the essence of my real fascination helped tremendously in defining my work and writing my introduction.

Is it necessary to dig this deep into motivation? If, as a mother, your Masters or PhD process is going to stretch over several years then I think it’s crucial you get to the bottom of what angers, frustrates and really moves you. Without a real, authentic motivation the inevitable question of why you are doing this simply won’t have a good enough answer.

In my experience finding your purpose, is quite difficult to do on your own. Exercises in the book “What Color is your Parachute?” helped me. So did various More To Life courses, especially the Power of Purpose. Talking to friends and family helped.

But once found this motivation is like a mythical potion. When you feel like you’re failing, or question what you are doing, you can revisit this purpose and it will reinvigorate you when nothing else seems to work. Find it, cherish it, and keep it close.

PhD starting out: notebooks

Notebooks

At a student seminar early on in my PhD process a professor urged us to keep a full series a notebooks: a ‘field’ journal (for detailed empirical observations); a ‘daily diary’ (to record dates of interviews, libraries visited, time and money spent); a ‘theoretical’ journal (for reviews of papers) and a ‘personal’ journal, (for musings). I was fascinated by such systems but was never terribly systematic myself. My own set of journals morphed into one morass of reflections-reviews-visits-musings-discussion notes. This meant that my fertile imaginings could run freely (which allowed me to range far and wide), but my ad-hoc approach also had some serious shortcomings (which I will come to another time). The notebooks, though, were (and still are) a reminder that researching is intimately entwined with writing. Buying a good notebook which feels ‘writer-ly’, allowing the physical expression of words, habitually reflecting, reworking words and idea-thoughts freely, scribbling and all for my own satisfaction….to allow this was a significant breakthrough for me (the engineer) on my PhD journey.

When I took breaks from studying for family it was easy to forget how far I had come and the notebooks were my reality check. When I was struggling with low energy, they reminded my of my reasons for starting and when I felt completely blank, they were a source of inspiration. Before I had a PhD proposal, a registration, a supervisor, a PhD desk or an office I had a restless mind, a notebook and a pen. That plus a coffee shop and a clear half hour was all it took to get started.

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