Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving Monday up here in the North (you know, Canada). We celebrated yesterday, so today was like most Mondays, wherein I did a lot of work and exercised. And it was actually very satisfying to work on a day most people are off. Look at all the things I got done while other people were relaxing and eating turkey!

But one of the things I did not get done was a blog post. So you will have one later in the week (I hope), all about analysis chapters and how to show your data (the important part of the thesis, let’s be honest).

Cruising

I’ve spent a lot of the last week on a boat, and it occurred to me, somewhere in the sun, surf and suffering heat, that the analogy that love/life is like a ship does have something to be said for it. But more specifically I think the PhD journey is like a journey by ship: often stormy, often scary, sometimes calm, and always adventurous and exciting (in good and bad ways).

I have been on little tiny boats ten feet long all the way up to thousand foot long cruise ships, and all methods of transport via water have been part of my life since I was born. I grew up on a lake, learned to swim at age 2, learned to sail at age 5, learned to drive a motor boat at age 7. I started cruising when I was 11. By 21, I was out on dive boats regularly, on lakes and rivers and open ocean. The lull of the seas has always attracted me.

So yes, a PhD is much like a journey by boat. A long journey by boat, where you are fairly certain of the destination, but you don’t actually know if you will reach it. Maybe you’ll end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. Maybe you will jump ship at a port along the way and decide to stay there. And maybe you’ll turn back in the first weeks because it just is not for you.

Journeys by sea rarely turn out quite as expected. I’ve run into storms and hurricanes, mechanical failures, intense temperatures and sudden weather changes. The PhD is the same way. You never quite know what will come, and there is always going to be the unexpected. Some days will be wonderfully clear sailing, others will be seas so high you are sure you will flounder.

But as with a boat, the only thing you can do is ride it out. You can choose to get off. You can at times be thrown off, but in the end if you want your PhD, you’ll ride it out no matter how stormy it gets. And you’ll know fear, but don’t ever let that stop you. Don’t ever let fear be the reason you get off the boat. We all fear during our PhDs. Some of us were down right terrified! But don’t let that fear stop you from going on. Let other things stop you. Let life decisions, family, lovers, careers, realisations stop you. But never ever fear. Every sailor knows fear, but if they let it stop them, they’d never get on a ship again. There are a lot of reasons to fear during a PhD. To be scared. But keep going anyways, because that ship will one day reach its destination, and you would much rather be on it then lost along the way.

*Warning: not my best analogy, but the boat has been rocking for three days since I got off it and sailing is on the mind.

An Afternoon in the Country

There’s a theory that being out in nature is good at reducing stress. I’m not sure why anyone had to do a scientific study on this, as anyone who’s been out in nature knows it’s very peaceful and calming.

When you’re doing a PhD it’s hard to take a break. This is especially true if you’re doing it part-time and also working or raising a family (or both!) There are only so many hours in the day, as you’ve all learned. But taking those breaks and actually getting away from it all can be a very good thing.

I still relish the opportunity to get out of the house and go for long walks. So many people underestimate walking as a form of exercise, but it’s easy on your body and also burns a lot of calories, if you keep a good pace and walk far enough. And it also means you can get out in nature. I’ve been very lucky in that everywhere I’ve lived there have been places nearby to go and walk in nature. I enjoyed day hiking while in England, and I’ve started doing so again now that I’m back in Southern Ontario. Most people don’t realize, but we have hundreds of kilometres of public hiking trails in this part of the province. In fact the longest hiking trail in Canada literally crosses the road on which I live.

You may not have a trail so close, but if you have sidewalks or parks then make use of them. Take an hour off and go for a walk. Take a whole day and go for a long walk around the city in which you live. It’s an entirely different way of seeing the world and it’s very relaxing. And if you can get close to trees/grass/flowers/etc then do so, because it will calm your mind and lower your stress levels, and that’s very important while you’re doing a PhD.

 

A Deviation

Though the remit of this blog is to discuss issues surrounding being a PhD student (and by extension, what comes after you graduate), that does not mean I’m not willing to deviate a little.

If you are one of the lucky ones who found decent employment after (or even before) graduating, then congratulations.

If, more likely, you have not, or worry you will not, I hope this post appeals to you, at least to give you something to think about.

I have been unemployed for a year now. That is since my last job in my field. I have worked two jobs during that time, but neither are the sort of thing I’d brag about on my CV and neither took much more brain power than a high school student would need. I disliked them both and worked them only for the money involved.

I only graduated in August, according to my university, so in their minds I have only been unemployed for three months now. Which is definitely a more optimistic way of looking at things. However, on the flip side, it means I’m facing a year OR MORE of looking for a position that remotely makes use of my education, as opposed to my ability to smile at customers even while they are frustrating me. A good skill to have, but not what one goes to university for 10 years to develop.

I acknowledge the job sector is hard. I acknowledge that I know intelligent people who have done wonderful things, but have so far been unable to find a stable job in their field (or, in some cases, any job in their field). That is not how the world should work, but it’s how it currently does, and may for many decades to come.

But I’ve given up bemoaning this fact. I have given up being angry when people ask me ‘so, found a job yet?’ as if it’s that simple. I have given up struggling with whether to take the retail job to make money, knowing it will leave me less time to pursue employment in my field. I have, in other words, given up worrying about anything that does not further my ends of being a professional.

And that was my choice to make. It’s not an easy one, and for some people it may be an impossible one. It means I’ve made sacrifices. I live with my parents to save on rent. I spend almost no money on anything, even when I need something. It means a lot of pressure and stress knowing I have to develop a good career at some point, and that because that career will start later than most people’s, that will effect the rest of my life, not to mention my retirement. But I didn’t pick a PhD because it was easy, and I hardly picked museums because I thought it would be a relaxing career path. I picked it because, to me, there was no other choice to be made.

My that doesn’t mean I sit around all day and job search. There are certain things about doing a research degree that are wonderful. And other things that are not. And having very little time to pursue other possibilities or interests is one of the main things I missed the most while doing my PhD. But I have all the time in the world to do them now. So I’m writing novels again (right now, two at once). I’m looking into agents and publishing opportunities. I’m painting again. I’m handwriting again (a lost art in a world of online communication). I’m taking simple joys in decorating for Christmas and finding the perfect gifts for people I haven’t been able to shop for for years and that I can give to them in person. And a lack of money doesn’t stop me from doing any of those things.

And next year? Next year I’m going to travel. There are limitations to what you can do when you work full-time, and I will never, ever let that stop me from seeing the world. But since I have a pretty good chance of being unemployed for another twelve months, at the very least, I am going to travel when I can, particularly doing such trips as a full-time job would not afford me the opportunity to do. And yes, it may seem like I am spending money on frivolous things. But travel is never frivolous if you do it right. It shows you more of the world. It allows you to meet people you would never otherwise have met. To experience a new culture. To open your eyes and develop you as a person. Travel is a necessity of life, for me, as much as a roof over my head or food in my belly. As much as air to breath. I am always most happy when I’m travelling.

So, writing, reading, painting, travelling, thinking, and a dozen other things I’ve been wanting to do. And these days? I’m not feeling guilty about any of it. And that is the biggest change from my PhD.

 

Traveling – When To Take Holidays

I think, given my mental state, that this is a perfect time to blog about holidays.

To put this into perspective, I feel like I got off a transatlantic flight two days ago. I haven’t been on a plane in a month, though, so this is entirely the expected outcome of working 70 hours in 10 days without a break. Yesterday was my first ‘day off’, but I didn’t exactly ‘take it off’, because we were ordered not to come into work. Today I was in for four hours, felt like I was slogging through waist deep mud, and finally packed it in as a lost cause. There is no point doing work when you’re not up to snuff. It’ll either take you four times longer, or you’ll have to redo it.

So we get on to the topic of holidays and the PhD. There will come a point when you need a break. It may be after three years, it may be after three months. Everyone is different. If you need to take more breaks than the next person, don’t apologize for that. Every department should give you the number of days (non-national holidays) that you are allowed to take off while still doing your PhD. My department only limited the number in my third year, at which point I’d already taken off more days than was strictly suggested. You are, after all, there to do a PhD.

But sometimes, you need to take holidays. Consider them mental holidays, or sanity days, or whatever, but you need them. You are going to put yourself through considerable hell doing your PhD, even at the best of times, and your body, brain and emotions are going to suffer for it. So take a break.

When to take a break is usually the biggest issue. You might know you need one, but maybe you have field work coming up and you can’t fit in a few days off in the middle of them. Maybe you have a chapter due, and you really have to finish that first. My best advice is to take the holiday before you well and truly need it. It’ll be of more use to you that way, then waiting until you are so overworked and tired that your holiday will not be long enough to recover.

You don’t have to go away for three months. You don’t even have to go away, but if you have a hard time turning off and stopping yourself from working if you’re ‘at home’ then go. Even if that’s just to the next city. Get away from your office/department/house and take the time. Distance yourself. Try not to feel guilty about doing so.

Sometimes people need to take a sabbatical in the middle of their PhD. That’s okay to, though if you’re an international student on a visa, it does create problems. Talk to your university/supervisor/border control first, before you just decide to head off for a few months. If you can take a sabbatical, and your advisor agrees it’s a good idea, then do it. Distance yourself, do other things, give yourself time to well and truly contemplate life, the universe, and everything.

If you can only take holidays, though, but feel you need the ‘sabbatical’ idea, then save up your holidays and go all at once. Get as far away as you can afford to, for as long as you can go. I’d recommend not going home. Home creates it’s own demands and issues and people asking you ‘how’s it going?’ like that isn’t the most hateful question in the world. Try to go away where you will actually be alone (or with people you like and who understand).

Or you can do what I did. I went walkabout for 5 weeks in my second year. Literally. I needed a break, and I was desperately in need of some distance, and more than anything I was seriously considering quitting the PhD. I needed to take the time to sort out a lot of things in my head, and understand where I stood, without feeling like I needed to just get on with the PhD. The point was that I wasn’t sure I wanted to get on with the PhD.

I went walkabout. For five weeks. For 650km. With only a rucksack of a few items on my back, and just enough money to stay in the very cheapest places, eating the cheapest food, I set out to walk the Camino, from France, across northern Spain, to Santiago. And it was fantastic. I mean, I spent nearly 3 weeks in agony most of the time, and I was always cold or too hot, and I never got enough sleep, and I ate the same thing nearly every day. But it was the best thing I could have done. I was too tired to think about my PhD. I was too tired to worry. I could only focus on putting one foot in front of another, when to eat, how to get warm, and whether I had enough energy to wash my socks. It’s the little things in life. It’s what I needed. I needed to get away from everything, and walking across a country was the best way to do that.

I’m not suggesting you do that. That might be the worst idea ever for you. But it worked for me. I learned a lot somewhere on a trail in northern Spain, but the thing I learned the best, and the one that was most important, was that the PhD would not break me no matter how hard it got. And knowing that? Makes a huge difference.