The switch to Part Time

This is a long overdue post, so I am just gonna go ahead and get it over with. I am now a part time student. When I say “now”, I mean it’s only been recently (or it feels that way), but it has been back tracked from October. I got the switch in December, but for the record, I have been part time since October. In hindsight, it was a great decision, and at the time it really looked like the only solution.

Back in November, and as I have explained in this blog before, I was sick. I was sick and I don’t know why, and some blood tests and stomach ultrasounds later, even the doctors don’t know why I was sick. As usual, they attributed my sickness to excessive nerves and stress. Since it’s rather difficult to prove otherwise, I was left with no choice but to believe what the doctors were saying. I had really bad stomach cramps, like I’ve never had before. They all started after I had been at the AngloCatalan Conference in Manchester in November. My partner thinks it’s something I ate which took three weeks to process. I think I prefer that explanation to having “a possible ulcer”, “potential IBS”, or “stress-related stomach disorders”. Whatever it was, it left me defenceless. I am a productive bean, and I can handle many spinning plates, and certainly I do many, many things in life. But being sick, not being able to predict if I’d be able to go to work or even get out of bed, left me totally knocked out. I had to quit a game halfway through it, I had to cancel many days of work and of basketball officiating, and I had to take a real break.

With so much time in my hands, my mind wandered. Trying to find a cause for my state was a priority. At that point I realised that my body was telling me to slow down or stop completely. I entertained the thought of switching to part time, but I wasn’t too sure about it. When the days off sick and the cancellations kept accumulating, I realised that it could not be another way. I usually work around 25 hours in hospitality per week. Even in my most organised weeks, I cannot dedicate more than 20 hours to my PhD. That is really the definition of part time. And trying to pretend that I could carry on being a full time was just lying to myself. Having the physical time to do things slowly, and the allowance, was key to get back on track.

When I got sick, I was halfway through writing my Chapter 2. I really didn’t know where I was going with it, so I think it just helped the stress. I was two months away from it. I decided not to get back to it in December because it made no sense. After the switch was completed, I decided to give myself and my body some holidays. I went home for Christmas. My stomach felt healthy again. In January, I went back to writing Chapter 2, and I finished it. Last month I corrected Chapter 1 and I just finished the review of Chapter 2. Supervisors were happy and acknowledged the fact that my academic English is getting better. The switch to part time then did wonders to me.

Speaking to your supervisors and letting them know how things are going is the key, really. There is no point in pretending everything is okay when you really are sick. And the worst thing you can do in that sort of situation is ignore your body and keep going, because then you will get truly sick. When I first told my supervisors about wanting to switch to part time, they were very positive about it – knowing that I am a particularly self-driven person, they did not fear that going part time would make me go ‘lazy’ about things. And it has worked out really well.

Sometimes, having the time to mentally breathe is all you need.

Writer’s blog

I was in a workshop yesterday called “Beating Writer’s Block”. This image was displayed at the very beginning, and it made me think some interesting stuff about it. I thought I would share.

I have not written in a while here, and there reason is not writer’s block. I really had things to say, but I never have the time, and to be honest, blogging took a plunge in my list of priorities. Or it didn’t really, as I don’t think it was ever that high up the scale. But I enjoy blogging, I just had way more pressing things to do than that. And I did not feel I needed to write for fun, which I guess was a mistake. In any case, going to this workshop yesterday totally made me feel that I need to go back to blogging because it’s fun. I also need to be back because I have a responsibility towards fellow Mongrel PhDs. With great Mongrel power comes great Mongrel responsibility, if you wish. Someone has to jot down what doing a Mongrel PhD is like, in the hope that someone out there will feel comforted by the shared feeling.

I do not have, or have ever had during my PhD so far, writer’s block. Why did I attend this seminar, you may ask? Well, first of all, to tick the box. There was a parallel seminar running yesterday called “Writing in the middle of your PhD” and I could not get in. Me and my problems with MyCampus, part eleven. So I decided to go to this other seminar instead. What was I expecting to achieve? For myself, perhaps nothing. See the thing is I have never given too much thought to this whole Writer’s Block concept, and the only time it has come up in reading was whilst enjoying Paul Silvia’s How to write a lot. In there, Silvia describes ruthlessly a reality that I had never considered before:

I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures – they’re charming, and they don’t exist. When people tell me they have writer’s block, I ask “What on earth are you trying to write?”. Academic writers cannot get writer’s block. Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the arts department. You’re not crafting a deep narrative composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart. The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might. People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire. Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.

Paul J. Silvia, How to write a lot, (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2007), p. 45.

I think Silvia says it all. Ever since I read that hilarious piece of writing, which amused me incredibly, I have been a non-believer. I wasn’t a believer before, really, but now I really don’t see the whole point in it. Much like Calvin’s argument here, I feel that writers consciously choose the block in order to disguise deeper feelings. The block doesn’t pick you because you’re a fraud, or because it feels you are weak or have nothing to say: you pick the block for those same reasons. And once you get to that conclusion, you will feel that believing in the writer’s block is no longer an option.

However, whilst people were listing the reasons why people might choose the block (not quite with those words, but you know), common features of human behaviour arose: fear of failure, fear of being caught out, having nothing to say, lack of self-confidence, etc. I felt, so about ten minutes, the slight worry that one might feel when leaving an exam: you think you have done reasonably well, and then you meet with your peers outside, and they are all chatting about the things they wrote and had issues with, and you realise you never even considered those issues. “Oh, crap”, is the feeling. Whilst people were listing their feelings, I had the slight worry that I have not felt any of those feelings so far, and that maybe to be more Pedigree PhD, I should feel them – just to know what it is about. Then I realised that, like with everything else, we all take different approaches, and it was unreasonable for me to attempt to feel something (negative) that I can’t even understand where it comes from. But that was it.

Yeah, I am glad to be back. Mongrels need representation.