Guest Post – Doing a PhD with a chronic illness: a bridge over troubled water

I am a PhD student. I am many other things, too. For example, I have MS (I prefer to say ‘have’ rather than ‘suffer from’). MS is short for multiple sclerosis: a chronic, auto-immune and neuro-degenerative disease. This means that my body attacks itself – my central nervous system, to be precise. Your nerves control pretty much all of your body: your muscles (and sphincter muscles), sensations (numbness and tingling), speech, concentration, and so on. Because of that, potentially, everything is ‘under threat’. And then there’s the physical and mental fatigue, which is difficult in itself. Having said that, not everyone who has MS will have the same symptoms (or all of them); MS is said to have a thousand faces. No doctor can predict how your individual case will develop, and while nowadays there are treatments that may help slow down the progress (if you’re willing to accept the risks and side effects), there is no cure. You simply have to live with it.

Now, I’m not going to use this space to provide a description of MS (there are many websites, such as this one, which do this very well). Nor am I going to give general advice on how to deal with doing a PhD and having MS at the same time. Instead, I’d like to share part of my personal story of living with a chronic illness and how this has affected the way I view my PhD. By doing so, I hope my story will speak to other people who are dealing with similar issues. You are not alone.

There were two good things about my diagnosis: a) I had an explanation for my physical and mental symptoms, and b) it was made when I was already one year into my PhD. I’m not sure I would have had enough self-confidence to undertake such a ‘daunting’ project if I hadn’t already started it – and what a terrible mistake that would have been. Having done one year of research, giving up wasn’t an option. However, the first few months after my diagnosis were a period of huge doubt, fear and uncertainty for me. I simply couldn’t get my head around anything other than myself and my condition. My ever-so-supportive supervisor advised me to take a few months’ suspension, which, after some deliberation, I did. This break from my PhD happened to coincide with the summer months, so I ended up spending some of the time exploring the Greek islands, some of it finishing another project that needed my attention, and some having regular psychotherapy.

In hindsight, taking the suspension was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It gave me the time I needed to find myself again and see my PhD from a different angle. Yes, I feel vulnerable and yes, my fatigue makes sustained working and travelling (to conferences, for example) difficult. Some days are good and some days aren’t so good. But I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve come to realise that the years I’m spending on my PhD will be probably be some of the best in my life: doing something I love, being my own boss and having flexible working hours. Doesn’t that sound like a dream job (well, except for the lack of money, of course)? I’m looking forward to everything that’s still to come: completing my thesis and sharing my findings. What I’m not looking forward to as much is what happens after my PhD: will I be able to find a job (okay, I could end the sentence there!) with my condition? When will I tell my prospective employer? (This article sums it up quite nicely.) Will I be able to make enough money to earn a living with fewer working hours? So many questions costing me so much energy – which I don’t have in excess! But then I remember the wise words of my therapist: ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. Also, I’m trying not to compare myself with other PhD students (comparing ourselves with others is something many of us tend to do in general as well). Constantly asking myself why I’m not as far along in my research as other people who started at the same time as me isn’t going to help me. It’s just one more item to tick off on the ‘things-that-cost-me-a-lot-of-energy-and-aren’t-worth-it’ list.

I still have doubts, fears and uncertainties today, but I’ve come to see my PhD as an ally, not as a burden. My thesis and I are forming a partnership; sometimes we get along well and, at the best of times, we even stimulate and encourage each other. Sometimes we go through more difficult times and one of us needs more attention than the other – occasionally at the expense of the other. But, in general, we try to accommodate each other’s different needs: if a deadline is looming and I’m having a bad day, the PhD comes first and life is more difficult; but my PhD won’t sack me if I have a period when strenuous work is impossible. In many instances, my PhD is a bridge over troubled water, so to speak – the thing I can hold on to when I worry about the future. It will always be there and it won’t leave me unless I decide that’s what I want. It gives my life sense and continuity: the things I need the most. That’s how my PhD is helping me, and I feel thankful for that.

 

Note

I have decided to write this blog anonymously. My condition is not a secret, but it is something personal – something that I do not (yet?) feel comfortable sharing with the ‘worldwide’ web. Besides, while MS is part of who I am, it is not everything I am.

Dedication

This post could also be called ‘perseverance’. In terms of life, the both are often interchangeable, though their definitions are not. You need to be dedicated to do a PhD, but you need the perseverance to complete it.

But it can apply to any task in which you set out to accomplish, particularly one that has some level of difficulty.

I thought I was dedicated to my PhD. I thought that would be enough. That alone is not enough. You need it, yes, but being dedicated does not mean you don’t wake up some days and go ‘I can’t’ or that you lose incentive. Perseverance is the drive to keep going despite these occurrences. And it took me a while to find it.

It took me 800km across Spain, in fact. Which, in terms of perseverance, was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. And it was all that kept me going. The drive to just keep walking no matter how difficult or hard it was. When that carried me to the end, I knew I had it in me to finish the PhD, no matter how hard it seemed or how many days I thought ‘I can’t’.

I thought I had lost that perseverance, somewhere in the last year. Life hasn’t been particularly difficult, though I have not – I feel – lost my dedication to my craft. But I have not felt that I needed to persevere at any point. I’ve been content to be patient. And so, like any habit you don’t use very often, you start to wonder if perhaps you can still do it.

I can, apparently. Which is good to know!

Just for a few days, I tried my hand at something I knew would be difficult, but that I was determined to do. I knew determination alone might not be enough, and it wasn’t. I had to persevere despite being tired, despite pain, despite it being hard. I had to overcome that in order to do it. And I did. These small reminders of past struggles are no bad thing. They renew your belief in yourself.

So for all of you out there that are struggling. That are determined to do a PhD, but aren’t sure that determination is enough: it probably won’t be. But perseverance will, and you will find that, somehow and in some way. Just keep walking.

Feelings of Inadequacies

In the last couple of days, several people I know have brought up (separately) the fact that for kids these days there is very much a ‘everyone’s a winner’ culture. I never had that growing up. You won or you lost. You got first place or you got second or you were the runner up. Or you were everyone else that tried hard and didn’t get a ribbon. Or you were 10th in your class. There weren’t ‘participation’ awards. Showing up was not enough; you had to try your hardest. And even if you did, that was no guarantee of doing well. 

This culture of my childhood taught me that hard work was the only way to get ahead in life. Showing up to life was not going to make you successful. You had to work for it. And sometimes you were going to fail. And that’s good. Failure is how you learn. If you are told that no matter what you do is good and okay and you get a shinny ribbon for it, you are never going to want to try harder. You are never going to do better. You are never going to work.

I learned that if I didn’t work, I didn’t get ahead. That understanding carried me through four university degrees. I look at kids these days and I’m not sure if they have it in them to get through life. I’m not sure they have a working culture and a try harder culture built into them.

But I’m not a teacher. I’m not even a parent. And I’ve been told time and again that that means I don’t get to make comments about what’s good for children.

[We’re ignoring the fact I was a child once.]

But what I do know is that the reality of life is stark and brutal. It’s not all participation awards. It’s not all ‘show up and get a pat on the back’. There are times that no matter how hard you try in life it won’t be enough. You’ll fail the exam. You’ll miss the award. You will just not get the thing because there are 300 people trying for the thing and only one person is going to get it. And someone’s going to just flip a coin to figure that out. You can try your hardest; life can still be down to luck of the draw.

I’m not sure they teach that nowadays. But I’m grateful I learned it early on in life. I’m doubly grateful because I grew up with a lot of opportunities and a lot of chances, and a above average IQ. I grew up with good schools and good support systems. But that doesn’t automatically equate to ‘fantastic easy life’. Reality doesn’t work that way.

So I try my hardest in what I do. And I know that sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes it will never be enough. But I know that. And when I do ‘fail’ I’ve learned not to blame myself. If I did my best, then that’s all I can do. Sometimes failure happens anyways. Sometimes you lose anyways. Not everyone wins.

But there’s this one part of a PhD that didn’t mesh with that. That I struggled with all the way through. Because I knew some people were just not meant to do a PhD. Some people don’t have the opportunity and/or the work ethic to do it. Some people aren’t meant for university in general. That’s fine. I wish they told more kids that, because maybe fewer would get to university and flunk out, because they are told all along that you must go. But I digress.

The thing that never quite meshed with my understanding that people do ‘fail’ or leave their PhDs is that, even though I was trying my hardest, even though I knew I might not get my PhD, I felt failure. Constant failure. I felt that I was to blame. I felt that I wasn’t good enough. It was the first time I had tried my damnedest in life and still felt…not good enough. Still felt like I was losing. That I was failing. And I blamed myself.

This perpetual feeling of inadequacy hung over my head for four years. And I know it hangs over the heads of many other PhD students. It’s one of those things we don’t really talk about. The feeling that no matter how hard we try, we’re still not good enough to be here. To be doing this. To get our PhDs. In ours heads, we already feel a bit like we’ve failed, before we ever even get far enough in our PhDs to do any actual ‘failing’.

It’s hard to deal with that psychologically. It’s hard to live with that day in and day out. If you fail at something and you did your best, you can work through that. You will probably still be disappointed, but if you did your best, you did your best.

During a PhD, doing your best never feels good enough. You always feel like you should be working harder (even though you know you can’t). You feel like everyone else around you is better at this than you are. You constant feel like a failure.

People who have never been to university or never done a PhD seem to wonder why doing a PhD is so stressful. Why people have breakdowns or leave their PhDs half-finished. Or end up depressed.

I’ll tell you why. Because feeling like a failure every day is impossible to live with and not suffer consequences. Because no matter what you tell yourself in your head, that feeling doesn’t go away until you are holding your PhD degree in your hand. And by then, you’ve dealt with it for years. And the consequences of it.

This post is not meant to be overly optimistic. But what it is meant to do is to tell all of you people out there doing your PhDs, who feel like they aren’t good enough to do it, aren’t good enough to get it, aren’t good enough to be there, that you most definitely are. If you do your best, that’s what matters. And like everything else in life, doing your best does not automatically equate to success. But doing your best is all you can do, and you need to tell yourself that every day. It’s enough for you. It doesn’t matter what the result is. You deserve to be doing this. You deserve to be there. Whatever happens, work your very hardest every day and do your very best, and forgive yourself for what comes next. It’s not your fault. You are most certainly adequate.

 

The Start of Something

Something happened to me at the end of April. I went for an interview where I figured I had a 50/50 chance of getting the job. That is really the best chance I feel I’ve ever had at a job. I didn’t get the job. It was the perfect job.

The next day I woke up and decided to reevaluate my life. Since 2008 I’ve been on the same path: education in museum studies, work experience in museum studies = job in museum studies. I knew it was time to make a decision. Continue along that same path, or try a new one. I don’t want a career change. I don’t want to leave museums. This is my passion and my life and I’m not ready to give that up. But it seemed clear to me that morning that something had to change.

And the only thing I could think to change was the jobs I was applying for. And since I had been applying for all jobs I had any sort of experience for, clearly that meant the next step was not applying for jobs. So I stopped. I haven’t applied for a job since the end of April and that was quite a while ago.

Instead, I decided to take May and reevaluate everything. What I wanted out of life, where I saw myself in ten years, how important (or not) money was, where I could live, how many hours of the day I was willing to work, whether I was willing to give up things (after already giving up a lot).

And, last month, I came to the conclusion that I want a lot. I don’t think I deserve a lot. I don’t think it’s my right to have a lot. But I want a lot. I’ve travelled the world, completed four university degrees, made friends across countries, studied languages, and seen some of the most beautiful places. And I want that to be my future too (with fewer university degrees). So how to get it?

In the UK, museum freelancing is common. Very common. A lot of people I know do it and did it before their PhDs. It’s how the industry has developed. And I figure, why not here? There are fewer and fewer jobs in this country, and more and more museum graduates. Something has to change. And I feel this is that change. This is where we need to go, if we’re going to keep closing museums, understaffing and underfunding them. This is the only place it can go.

So I am embarking on an adventure. Much like my PhD, I am unsure and terrified, but excited. It will take time. It will take work. But this is the right choice for me. This is the direction I realise I have always been working towards, without realising it. The pieces are all in place, now I just have to put the puzzle together. And I feel able to do that.

So as of June 1st, I am a freelancer and consultant for the museum industry.

Over the coming months, I have a website to create, a blog to set up, and a business plan to write. I am already making contacts and networking with potential clients. I feel good about this. It’s direction. It’s ’employment’. And it feels good.

Now, when people ask me ‘what are you up to? Have you found a job?’ I have an answer. It’s shocking how good that feels.

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.

Being Alone

This is going to be a very honest post. I hope it resonates with people, but if not, at least I feel better about being open and truthful. I think we spend too much time thinking other people will criticize us, or look down on us, or we worry just in general about what people will say or do if we’re open about how hard life is sometimes. But life isn’t easy, and it’s not always good, and not talking about it when it gets bad does no one any favours. One of the things I learned during my PhD is that every hard situation and every bad thought I had, someone else had too. And there’s comfort in that.

I’ve talked about loneliness already, and about how difficult it can be to feel part of a community when you are a distance student, and how isolating it is even when you are on-campus, because you are doing your own project and you don’t necessary see people every day.

But afterwards can be lonely too. It doesn’t just end when you finish a PhD, though it can. I know people who are not lonely now that they’ve finished, and mostly that’s because they had a great support system already in place. I thought I did. I had friends and family and I’m back living within driving distance of nearly all of them. I thought that would be enough. But there is something about finishing a PhD that makes you different than others, and it will be brought home to you regularly. Every time you tell someone or mention your PhD to people who do not have one you will get the ‘wow’ reaction. And it doesn’t feed your ego (well, it might, but I have no ego to feed, I spend a lot of time still thinking I don’t deserve my PhD), but it does make you feel different. And not in a good way.

I get a lot of reactions from people of ‘I could never do that’, ‘you must be so smart’, ‘I’m impressed’, etc. None of these comments are particularly helpful to me or my psyche. But all of them make me feel different. Not above others, but separate from them, and that induces loneliness. The fact of the matter is that while doing my PhD I had a whole community of people around me who understood. Even if I didn’t see them every day (or even every week), they were there when I needed them. There were people who just got it. I don’t have that now. I still keep in touch with my department gang, but they’re a long way away and we talk even less now, and maybe that’s not a good thing. But we’re out in the world and supposed to be starting our careers and so continuing the ‘PhD community’ doesn’t seem to make sense. But it creates a sense of loneliness that I know others have felt. And when your career isn’t going well, it’s worse.

I thought living back amongst family would help, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t see them all that often. They have their own lives. My friends have their own lives, and those lives are very different from a post-PhD career trajectory. I go months without seeing them. It’s hard to organize anything because they have families and husbands and full-time careers. Those all come first for them, and that’s the way it should be. I hope those would come first for me if I ever have any of them.

But there’s a sense of isolation now that I’m done and dusted my PhD. Now that I’ve graduated. Now that starting a career is all that’s left (and it’s not going so swimmingly, let me tell you, not that I thought it would). I am struggling with a lot of things and feeling alone is high on the list. I volunteer and I see other people my age at work, but it’s not ‘friends’, and I find it hard to meet others, especially in the community I live (median age: about 45). I know I should get out and do more, but a lot of the ‘more’ takes money, which I don’t have, being unemployed right now.

But I get the sense that people don’t talk about this stage in life. It’s still taboo to have a conversation about life after university when you don’t have your dream job, or your dream house, or your dream family. But a lot more people these days don’t have those, and are 35 and struggling with their career and feeling alone. And if we talked about it, maybe people would feel less alone. And maybe there would be less of a stigma surrounding the fact that not everyone finishes college at 23, gets a career and a family and is set for life. A lot of people struggle for twenty years or more to have those things, and some never get them (and some never want them, I should point out) But the sooner we all talk about how ‘different’ things can be nowadays, the sooner people like me stop feeling like we’ve failed, because we aren’t set up in life, because we chose university over a relationship, or because we chose a career that isn’t easy, or whatever the reason (all of which are completely valid and okay!).

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.

Writing and writing and writing, oh my!

It’s been a while since November, hasn’t it? I’ve been busy since then! With the PhD done and dusted, I’ve had so much time to enjoy  the artistic pursuits I’ve missed. I have an oil painting that’s almost finished and I’m rather happy with it (although there’s this one tree that’s bugging me). And, as you might recall from last November, I’m writing. I’d say ‘again’, but as I wrote a novel in the final year of my PhD, I never really stopped. I just took breaks.

This winter, I’ve been editing a great deal. Editing a novel is a lot like editing a thesis, and can be just as horrific. I took November and December to write a full novel (80k) and am looking forward to April when I’ll edit it. I have two other novels to edit this year as well, and one to write in November. In other words, I’m as busy as an author would be, but have get to see any money from this. But I write for the love of it, not for the money, and always will.

I’d love to take a year and just write, but of course I’m doing all of the above this year as well as job searching, as well as volunteering 2-3 days a week, as well as travelling, and as well as blogging and other minor projects that do actual support my career path. I’m doing things that I enjoy doing, that I want to do. And at the end of the day, that’s developing me as a person and making me stronger and calmer. It’s hard to be ‘unemployed’ and it’s hard to readjust after the PhD, but sometimes that time period afterwards can be absolutely wonderful if you let it.

 

Feedback and Evaluation

The biggest difference between a PhD programme and, say, an MA, is the lack of constant feedback and the daily obligation to be accountable to your whereabouts and your work. You might go weeks (or months as a part-time student) without talking to another PhD student or your supervisor. It means the onus is on you to do the work. This can be difficult, but what is especially difficult is a lack of regular feedback. There’s no papers or exams with a mark telling you you need to work harder. There is only you.

If you are lucky, your supervisor will expect some sort of regular contact and an update on how your work is going. If you aren’t lucky, you may have to go find this yourself.

But it’s not just your supervisor you can go to. Other PhD students in your department are a fantastic resource. It can be difficult to approach someone you don’t know (particularly if you’re a part-time person), but it shouldn’t be hard to find contacts for other students, at least those you share a supervisor with. If you can find even one person that is your Person, this can make a big difference to getting you through your PhD. If you can’t find one in your own department, look further afield. I found one on Twitter!

When you have someone, or more than one, make use of them as a resource, but also offer to act in the same capacity for them. This may be as simple as setting a deadline and asking the other person to hold you accountable to it. It may be as complex and involved as asking for feedback on a paper or on research you’ve done. If your Person doesn’t have time for such things, find a new person (or another person). It’s good to have more than one, and often it’s very useful to have different people for different sorts of help.

But once you have tracked down someone who can be a good resource for you, exploit them (I mean this in the nicest way possible – and remember they will likely do the same to you). Ask them to read the paper you are writing. Ask them if they will be a sounding board for an hour while you work through a difficult theory or thought you are trying to get straight in your head. Ask them to read over a paragraph you are struggling with. Just ask them. It’s so hard to ask for things when you are PhD student, because you forever feel guilty for needing help and for bothering others. Get over that right now. You can’t finish a PhD completely on your own. You need help and you need support and that means bothering other people. The system works because those other people bother you (or other people). It’s the circle of PhD life.

If you aren’t sure, start by asking for help that won’t take up too much time. Struggling with the wording of a sentence? Can’t quite put into words the theory you’re using? Not sure how something will sound to someone outside your field? You can always build up the relationship to full on feedback.

But other students can be the best source for this, because they want it themselves, and because they will inevitably be coming at your field of study from an outside perspective. It’s why it’s best to get someone who is not your supervisor to read your finished thesis before you submit, because they will find things that you and your supervisor never noticed. Persons can be good for this sort of thing, if they have the time, but often non-PhD student Persons are best for reading whole theses.

But you need to ask for feedback. Everything you’ve done thus far in life has had some sort of feedback, even if that was just a verbal ‘good job’ at the last place you worked. As human beings, we crave this, even if it’s a critique, because it makes us feel good about ourselves and challenges us to do better. You need someone to give you feedback and evaluation of how you write, what you are writing, your research question, your analysis, etc. If your supervisor cannot always be available to do this, you need someone else to help. And even if your supervisor is, it’s best to have a second opinion. Other people will not catch the same mistakes, but they will catch new ones.

So find a Person or Persons. Make friends with them. Offer to support them. Ask for help. Ask them to be honest with you. You don’t want someone who just says ‘great job, sounds fantastic!’ because it probably doesn’t sound fantastic. You want someone who will go ‘well, actually, I think you need to rewrite this, I don’t understand it’. The more constructive criticism your Person can give you, the better.

Near the end of your studies, when you are reaching those final words before editing your thesis as a whole, find a few Persons you haven’t approached before. Ask them to edit, ask them to proof, ask them to comment. Ask people who know absolutely nothing about your topic. Ask people who are not academics, and ones who are. The more feedback you can get and opinions you can hear on what your thesis is like, the better you can make it before submission, and the more prepared you’ll be for your viva too.

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.