How to Cure Tunnel Vision: Reading Outside Your PhD

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A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there

– Anne Carson, Plainwater Essays.

A scholar is also someone ‘who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand’, writes Carson, and I might add: perhaps sometimes to their own detriment. It can be so easy to get tunnel vision when you’re doing a PhD but this is a desperate call for PhD students, from humanities or otherwise, to see the value in their sister-fields, to not be a mad puritan like I was and to give into any seemingly incongruous thing that sparks their interest.

For far too long I only read things I deemed beneficial to my research. They had to be linked. Not tangentially, but obviously, irrefutably linked. Not only did it make me miserable, it stunted my growth as a writer. Anyone who works with language knows the wealth of words you’re consuming flows through you and back onto the page as you write. I needed to hear from other disciplines, I needed some surrealist erotica, I needed some random 18th century history. It allows you to approach your own topic with a new fervour. Instead I had been starving my own vocabulary by denying it sustenance.

My topic is experimental poetry. I fell in love with experimental poetry because it was a welcome departure from traditional lyricism. But when this has become your job and you are reading experimental poetry day-in day-out for work, you do not want to come home and sit down with Stein’s Tender Buttons. You just don’t. It doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate it. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it in your life anymore. But they don’t say ‘variety is the spice of life’ for nothing. Recently I’ve tried to treat my instagram as a kind of visual library of my favourite reads and I’m proud of the diverse authors and subjects it catalogues.

I mistook single-mindedness for dedication, when in fact it’s a bore. It’s unnecessary. everything is linked, of course it is. You only have to stand where you can see the lines. 

 

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Cheats and hacks for new MA, MFA and PhD students

So if you haven’t checked out my blog post on productivity apps (see here) you should do that now.

But I also wanted to publish a few more tips for postgraduate students that I’ve gathered over the past year.

One thing that is invaluable to me is a site called Simple Wikipedia. That’s not the bog-standard wikipedia you usually use. This one writes everything as simple and as plainly as possible (it was originally for people who are learning English as a second language). It is excellent for theories you don’t understand (it FINALLY explained phenomenology to me). Can’t understand Derrida? No idea what Heidegger is on about? This is the website for you.

Googlebooks. They don’t always have what you need, but more often than not, I can find a quote I need, make a note of the page, go to the first page of the ebook to make a note of the publisher and date and bobs your uncle. I’ve got my reference without having to purchase or request it.

Scrivener. Scrivener is designed for university students to complete their dissertation on. It costs about £30 to download (it’s a one-time purchase). It’s compatible with Word, so you can export and import chapters easily. It keeps all your chapters in order and helps you visualise what your final thesis will look like instead of having 101 word documents floating around.

Although I don’t use EndNotes for references ( partly because my university uses a really perverse old-fashioned referencing system that doesn’t seem to be supported by modern software and partly because I just can’t be arsed), I have been told its really useful.

Moleskins. This is a really awful thing to say because they are seriously overpriced but there’s just bloody something about them you can’t get anywhere else. My boyfriend, an art graduate, got me into them, so maybe I should send him the bill for current my moleskin addiction (I have about 5 stashed and ready to go right now, plus my collection of used ones I refuse to throw away). The pages are good quality, they have an aesthetically pleasing minimalist vibe, they come plain or lined or squared. They scream pretentious college student but I don’t care. I love them. Coincidentally they are also perfect for my next tip…

Bullet-journaling. I’ve written a brief blog post on this which check it out here if you’re interested but basically, its a way of organising your workload.

Lastly stay on top of your self-care routine and try not to beat yourself up to hard for procrastinating (see my post Being a Lazy Shit, Self-Sabotage and Hardcore Procrastination).

The Art of Email in Academia: A Social Minefield

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 14.32.20I’ve seen this apprehension over emailing a superior so many times in various memes. You send a diatribe to a lecturer who you low-key love and admire and they reply with ‘okay. Sounds good.’ Or ‘thanks for this’.

And you’re crushed. And you stare at it. And you reread what you sent. But you made witty jokes. You poured your heart and soul into that email.

Amazingly, as a fresher, you don’t really appreciate that they probably have 101 responsibilities, 3 seminar classes, marking, convening a module, a conference next week, a lecture in an hour. They’re absolutely not there to stroke your ego. But, I would argue that some of them could probably do a better job of nurturing up and coming academics, with just a few words of encouragement.

Still. You’re not a fresher anymore. You’re a fledgling academic and by the time you reach PhD you are getting better at navigating the minefield. It’s kind of like Victorian letter-writing. An art.

You learn to be brief. Polite. I’ve also found that the fewer lines I send, the more concise I am. The longer of a response I get. Why is that? Treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen? No idea. Maybe people feel confident that they won’t be dragged into a huge debate or reading your mammoths emails. But brevity is key.

Another facet to the art of email, is seeming confident. If you sound hesitant, if you downplay your achievements, people will write you off as young and naïve and in need of instruction. You might be many things, but if you’ve got to this stage, you’re a good deal better equipped than you think.

I’ve learnt that it’s pretty damaging to be self-deprecating. It’s appearing confident that is the key to a lot of (arguably untalented) academics success. They will say the most obvious, uninspired statement with an air of confidence and it will be met with a sound of hearty approval, they will conduct poorly attended and badly organised events and spin them as triumphs in their cv.

You must, and I’m chastising myself as much as you, write confidently. When I’m writing an email, I will quickly make sure that my language is not apologetic but as self-assured as any well-established academic.

Oh and if you really like someone, you can even throw in a ‘Warm Wishes’.

Networking, Anxiety and the Culture of Drinking in Academia

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When I came to uni, I knew the students would be getting hammered. And puking in taxis. And hotboxing bathrooms. And snorting crushed paracetamol they think is coke in sticky nightclubs.

I never thought about drinking in relation to lecturers. I mean they were responsible adults, Proper Adults, they weren’t spending their mornings learning how to fry an egg for the first time in some ungodly halls-of-residence. They had mortgages and wedding rings and careers.

But there it is, every book launch, every reading, every evening event, every conference has wine. Lots and lots of wine. It’s the overworked lecturer’s weapon of choice. And the fact that I don’t really drink is something which continues to embarrass me. And in some ways, holds me back. Networking is reliant on those trips to the pub. There are cliques, as there are in every walk of life, and it pays to be in them. Something touched upon in this article in the Guardian’s Anonymous Academics section.

During my MA, most people would go to the pub after class with our tutor and socialise. I only went once or twice where I forced down a cider and said nothing. I didn’t feel tipsy. I sweated through all my clothes, was clearly uncomfortable and left early which was a relief for both parties.

When I was invited to sit in on a meeting amongst lecturers, we met in the pub over drinks.

When I meet other students and we workshop each other’s poetry… yep, you guessed it.

And I know everyone wonders, why the sobriety? They don’t ask. I just see the question forming in their minds as their eyes linger on my orange juice.

Which excuse should I give? Well, I hate hangovers. I’m skint. I don’t want to get cocky and say something I regret the next day which, from past experience, I undoubtedly will.

But mainly, truthfully, I don’t want to rely on alcohol as a crutch. If I use it to socialise, I know things will be much easier for me. I’ll talk confidently. I’ll get a lovely pink flush and feel fuzzy and warm and my anxiety will shut up for a second. And I like that feeling so much, that I know I would depend on it.  Like I think a lot of academics, unblessed in the charisma department, waiting out the painful lulls in conversation, end up doing.

So there. I’ve said it. The pub aficionados piss me off. I’m not up for bantering with the in-crowd over a lager but hey, if you’re someone who is, maybe offer to buy those outliers a coffee sometime instead of writing them off.

Yours faithfully,

a sober old bore

bullet-journaling and the ABC list technique

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 13.42.12Earlier this year a lecturer told us fresh faced PhD students that the only barrier to completing our monstrously huge thesis was ‘unclear expectations and lack of definite goals’. He advised us to ‘be very specific and break everything down into very small parts’ e.g. make 10 bullet points on that article OR redraft 500 words today. He didn’t actually refer to the phenomenon that is bullet-journaling, but a lot of his advice tied in nicely with keeping a bu-jo.

I pull out my moleskin either the evening before or first thing in the morning and start setting myself clear, concise goals. I can flick back to my “Monthly Goals” (.e.g. have reached 2000 words. book that holiday destination) or even “Weekly Goals” (e.g. clean the kitchen. submit that article to the student newspaper. eat at least one piece of fruit a day!!!) to check how I’m progressing and what I need to work towards that day. A typical page might look like: Tuesday- buy milk. write a letter to Amy. prepare notes for seminar. cancel payments to gas company. edit 200 words of my first chapter. I may not get it all done that day, but that’s fine. It rolls onto the next day. You can use symbols to show varying degrees of importance (also known as the ABC list technique, the way I think of it is A = Absolutely must get done. B =Better get done. C = Can’t really be arsed but could get done). That said, beware “C fever” i.e. ticking off the easiest tasks in order to avoid the ‘A’s!

A lot of people take great pride and beautifying their journal and although I began using various colours and floral borders initially, I never kept up with it. Now I only use a blue highlighter to emphasise the days of the week and titles and that’s about it. If you look on pinterest and Youtube you can find some bu-jo master pieces with very pretty themed designs (Fall, Winter etc) to try and copy.

As you can tell, my bullet-journal doesn’t just concern PhD tasks and deadlines but  general admin. On one page I keep a running log of everything I’ve bought. I have a ‘Need for the household’ page. A ‘Wish-list’ for Christmas. A ‘Books I need to read’ page. And a ‘Presents’ page for up-coming birthdays. My bu-jo is seriously my saviour and secret weapon, I don’t know how I juggled things without it.

You can check out the ABC list technique here.

“Rest, Recovery and Reflection” are integral to your PhD

 

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I saw the above quote from one of the many woke instagrammers I follow and it leads me onto my revelation this week, it’s something I always forget at the time and realise how valuable it was afterwards. Stepping the hell away from my work. Everytime I work obsessively on something and pick it apart and beat myself up, I forget that all I need to do is step away from it for …2 or 3 days max and when I return, not only will I realise that it’s not as terrible as I thought- but I’ll be able to edit with fresh eyes. At the time, this is the very hardest thing to do because I’m in this ‘panic state’ -I’m telling myself if I just keep working right up to the deadline it’ll be alright. Of course, I forget that if  I’m sat there worriedly staring at the screen- I won’t be able to do my best work. I won’t even be able to identify what to change or what direction to take it. So, this week, I decided that even though I was behind with my deadline, I would take 2 days off – just cleaning and doing general up-keep around the house, planning my holiday, walking. It was then that I would be doing the dishes and I’d suddenly have an idea about my thesis (“Oh that could go there…” “maybe I could focus on this instead”). It was as if stress had been a constrictive band around my mind, when it was finally freed of the pressure I’d put on myself it began to spark ideas and some of the excitement I’d first had in the project returned.

Now I quite enjoy a good bullet-journal video as much as the next person but the other day I definitely wandered into the overtly self-help, new-age side of youtube…you know the ones who constantly promote their new “life-changing” book (for only $40, impressionable subscribers!). Still, I came across a woman who recommended something a bit different in terms of setting goals. She advised you draw your current self with the worries like speech bubbles and then the future self, as you would like to be. I will admit, I was hesitant to do this. I mean- how could it be any more helpful than the lists I usually make in my journal? BUT, I have to say, I quickly realised drawing it out helped me identify what was bothering me a lot easier than my usual list-making. It might be because I’m a very visual person, but scribbling that little figure (tired, dishevelled) surrounded by concerns and then again (fresh, decidedly not wearing yesterdays clothes) really helped me identify what was bugging me.

My first figure was plagued by thoughts like “I’m online too much” and “I don’t get to do as much reading as I’d like”, “I want to learn a new skill but I don’t make time for it”. And the second, new-and-improved figure boasts that they do in fact remember to take their vitamins everyday and drink water and that they have found a way of limiting their time on social media (a girl can dream).

It definitely felt like a restorative, grounding exercise to combat the ‘free-fall’ of a PhD. I say free-fall because of unprecedented amount of freedom  suddenly bestowed on the PhD candidate. No clear goals or looming deadlines. Hey wait isn’t that the dream! you might cry, carving your own path?  I’m afraid to say, dear reader, that as fine and dandy as that might first seem, the realisation quickly sets in that you are alone and you’re going to have to hold yourself to account. For someone like me, whose time-management skills are subpar to begin with, it’s a hard pill to swallow. If I’ve learnt anything in the past 9 months, it’s that the first year is a crucial transition period where PhD students  learn how to adapt to this new style of working.

My advice is to keep checking in with yourself (preferably once a month or more), keep re-evaluating your work-routine (what works and what doesn’t) and keep venting about how bloody hard it is (to friends, family, peers, supervisors).