My PhD – 2 months in

I was told at the orientation session that when you hand in your completed PhD thesis you get a balloon. Well, that makes it clear when you have finished, but how do you tell when you have started? It is not like a normal course, when you rock up to your first class and voila, you have officially started.

The first few weeks were exciting. I met lots of smart and interesting new postgrads. There was free food. And I still hadn’t gotten over the fact that I was being paid to study. In Australia we normally pay to study and over the years I have racked up a nice little debt, but if you get accepted to do a PhD it is free. And then, if you’re lucky, you get a scholarship and they actually pay you for the 3 years it should take. That’s me. Someone decided to pay me to study – BRILLIANT!

But two weeks later it turned into – someone decided to pay me to study – FUCK! That is a lot of pressure. What am I supposed to be doing exactly? Am I smart enough, disciplined enough, creative enough? Is my research important enough? Am I worthy? The rollercoaster had started its first downhill run. Luckily I have studied enough to know that this is to be expected.

Call it sporadic, organic or just plain lazy, my study methods before now were hit and miss. I could procrastinate for Australia. So, I needed to find myself a different way of working.

I study at home, which should be lovely. I tidied up my shelves and set up my desk so I can watch the chickens scratching around the backyard, or look out another big window to the dappled light under my neighbour’s tree. I cleaned up my computer and labelled all my folders. But when I try and sit down, it seems that my chair is spring-loaded, because it is seriously difficult to stay at that desk. The kitchen may be too close. And my neighbour cut down the tree, so my gentle light is now blaring sun. And, I have been struggling with a desire to wash the car, something I never struggled with before. I have sudden urges to cut my nails, pluck my brow, sweep the deck, bake a cake, reorganise the pantry, dance with the dog. Even when I think I am working well, I can find myself in another part of the house wondering how I got from my desk to there.

I have to bargain with myself, trick myself into working. If you read for another 20 minutes, you can have a piece of nutella toast. I tried the Pomodoro technique, which worked for a few days until I forgot it existed. But all is not lost. My note taking has improved, I now read and then take notes straight away, instead of reading a lot and then waiting for inspiration. I write anything down that comes to me, I don’t judge it. As someone somewhere said – you can edit shit, but you can’t edit nothing.

Getting paid has made a big difference, not just by freeing up more time to study, but with guilt. This is a job, a ridiculously cool one too, and I have always been a pretty diligent employee. I like my employers to get their money’s worth, so I have got more organised, but I am still a long way from the image I had when I started. I thought I would be getting up, washed and dressed, walking the dog, coming to my desk energised and ready to work by 9am, reading and writing and becoming more intelligent by the day. That is not the case. Some days the kids come home after school to find me at my desk, still in my pyjamas, unconscious and drooling with a half eaten slice of nutella toast stuck in my hair. I hope that there is at least some information absorbed by sleeping on a book.

It is the same old story: the more I read, the more I realise I don’t know. I have a long way to go until I feel like I am really getting somewhere. But it is still early days and the good thing about rollercoasters is that once they go down, they have to go back up.

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