balance

Just over two weeks have flown by since I last blogged, oh-so-confidently, that I thought things were beginning to settle down. Well.. they are. And they aren’t.

See, in all the advisory reading I did about embarking on a PhD, one idea chimed across the board – that the next three (or four) years would absolutely fly by, and that while 3 years sounds like absolutely ages and ages to research anything, in reality, it won’t feel that way. After waking up to find that two weeks have gone in the blink of an eye I very much fear I might wake up next Wednesday to find that the final submission deadline is upon me. Ulp.

But really, it’s been just.. what, 6 weeks (tomorrow) since the beginning of the PhD. That’s just 42 days (Is this what Deep Thought was referring to?). I have another 1,418 before I HAVE to submit. Phew. I can breathe a little easier now. But still, it’s not a lot. Take out weekends, holidays, even if you’re not taking holidays, days like Christmas where you’re made to feel a scrooge by family if you don’t work (and really, working on Christmas day? Tut) and that number will start to whittle down rather alarmingly. No, I’m not working it out – I’m worried enough, thank you. Some of this is triggered by an article that I read recently from The Times, Your First 100 Days as a PhD student. First 100 days? Er, when is that? (I did work that one out…. taking out the 2 weeks holiday I intend to take at Christmas, 18th January). There was me, reading on Facebook (instead of writing) … you can envisage it – ‘article, ooh, Whysitimportant… *click*.. oh, holy, moley… I’m meant to have done all that?!’ [I firmly believe that articles like this should be banned.] While I’ve made a note of these things that I’m meant to have achieved, 100 days in, like a good little PhD student [pats self on head and wiggles happily cos, yanno, did something right] I’m also wondering about balance.

See, my funding provider, the wonderful AHRC Midlands3Cities [no, I’m not just saying that – they really are wonderful and if you ever ask me why you shall probably regret it because I’ll still be telling you why, 3 hours later] requires that a certain form be completed for every (monthly) supervision. This form is intended to be a record of the PhD, if you like, of what was done, what the supervision team and the student intend to do etc. – sort of like, an agenda and minutes combined. I have my second supervision next week and I dutifully sat down to do this form. The first part asks what the student has done between now and the last supervision – training, work completed, etc. Once I finished, I sat and looked at the screen.

I have to say, I was impressed. I did all THAT?!

My fellow PhD students (and those that have the coveted title) are probably nodding furiously, as they envisage their own lists of achievements from the previous month. There’s no doubt that I (and all my other PhD students) are working very hard. The question that flitted through my head though, as I read that pesky Times article, is … am I the right kind of busy? Am I pouring my energies into the right things?

The PhD, after all, is at it’s core, about one thing and one thing only: the thesis, and passing the viva. It’s the marathon of research projects, the long, lonely hog. In the end, it won’t care whether you did this class, or attended that meeting or arranged that conference. Sure, attending a class may help you to achieve part of your research aims, and things like organising conferences definitely add to your CV… but at the end of the day, if you don’t get the thesis done, you don’t get that coveted title, and not having the title makes the chances of getting any kind of work in academia vastly more difficult.

And that article is ALL about The Thesis. It says we should do the following: read one, top to bottom. Set up a blank thesis. Organise your research questions, write, deal with the housekeeping. Etc. Nowhere in there is there mention of any of the add-ons that we’re encouraged to do, except, towards the end, the nod to socialising.

And of my long list in my supervision report? Just two are related to The Thesis. (Although, in my defence, all are important and Needed To Be Done. Definitely.)

Oh, perhaps I’m worrying about nothing. After all, this is the beginning of it all, when you lay down connections, working practices, and projects for the next three years and all that does take a certain amount of organsiation. I get that. Still… I feel I’m struggling to do enough reading, or at least, struggling to find the time to read. I can’t help but worry – if it’s still like this in a year, when do I find the time to research?

And then you’ve got to think about the other kind of balance, the one that we’re all urged to consider – work/life balance, and mental health. Questions like – Are we taking time out to relax? (I’m typing this on a Sunday afternoon. What do you think?) Are we making time to socialise, to see existing friends, to make new ones? Are we taking ‘me’ time? Are we planning a holiday? (hell, yes!)

You get the picture.

Thing is, I’m not stressed, in the conventional sense, in feeling that I can’t get things done or that I’m not capable of achieving them. No, this is more a vague worry that perhaps I’m chasing after projects or events that I should perhaps be saying no to. Doing the PhD equivalent of …Squirrel! (If you’re not an Up fan, that one might pass you by). That perhaps I should be foregrounding the reading that I’m meant to be doing just a little bit more.

This is part of what it means to be a PhD student. You don’t get your hand held. You make your choices, the choices as to whether it’s a good idea to do that project, or read that book. You take the responsibility for your research project. And that means a certain amount of angst, wondering whether you’ve made the right call. You make the decision whether you’re going to spend the afternoon reading this book, or bunking off to, I don’t know, watch a film. Sometimes the film might be the (mentally) healthier option, but in all the advice about balance, I rarely recall mention of balance between different types of work. Balance between reading an article and going out to teach. Both are work, and both have a role to play in your PhD and the development of the researcher and academic you want to be.

Where does the balance lie?

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