The nod of approval

And after a few weeks off and some really lazy Easter antics… I ‘resurrected’. I did it in the back of both good and bad news, but for today, I will only focus on the good stuff. The bad stuff, in the end, has not turned out to be so bad, and it has been positively embedded in the good news. Let me try to be more specific and clearer about what I mean.

Two weeks ago I was told I had been given a scholarship for a project I submitted a few weeks ago. The awarding body is essentially the agents of the polysystem I am currently working on, and it’s meant to take on the project I have been working on for months, and give it a financial push.

This is great news because the Mongrel PhD in me thinks that, at least, half of this year’s university fees will be paid within the next few months and I will be able to breathe out of my overdraft for a couple of months before taking one final plunge into the fee-paying/overdraft pool. I say this many times to my colleagues, but having experienced both sides of the coin, I prefer being short of time than being short of money – time can be expensive, but it definitely does not pay the bills. So getting this award/scholarship is great news from this particular point of view.

The most important thing, however, is not about my temporary exit of the red number balance club. This is an award given to researchers in the field of Catalan studies, about a very specific historical time, and normally involving a particular author, which up until recently, was the main author in my thesis. This is the second time I receive this funding. The project this time is even better than last time around, so I am hoping it will receive even better feedback. I have been assigned a tutor for this, someone who is, very obviously, an agent of the Catalan polysystem. A great authority in the field, who thought that my project was worth investing in. I cannot put into words how much that means to my research. In the last few months of the year (particularly after my first ever article was badly rejected), it became very obvious that my post-doctoral life was outside academia – within an HEI setting, but not as a researcher.

One of the reasons behind it was the lack of funding in Britain anyway. This award is important in many ways, but particularly in the sense that having two funded projects by the Institute of Catalan Studies can only mean that they trust me to deliver as a researcher and that I am good enough to be doing what I am doing, despite certain doubts around the edges.

I can see the irony in all this – perhaps if I was doing my research somewhere else, I would become an academic. The legitimization of my research, this nod of approval from those in a really high status withing my field, is a big deal. And if I was completely over the moon the first time around, this second time around is even better.

Going back to what I outlined at the beginning, the ‘bad news’ of the last month were that my chapter three was, after all the efforts, a piece of unreadable, dodgy research. I need to revisit some of the points and I have taken a completely different approach, an approach that my supervisors have blessed as the potential proof of ‘having found my own academic voice’. This is quite a painstaking process, particularly when my change of direction means that this will no longer be part of my final thesis. However, this is the project that has received the award, making it very much worthwhile to keep on working on it, and grinding through the process, never mind how hard I find it.

The award has provided clarity to my next few months – this project will be done then, and after that I can move into the reality of building the first chapter of my thesis. But at least I know that re-drafting this project for the third time in six months is not a wast of time, but an investment in money. And with those good news, I roll on and start preparing my Annual Progress Review and the defense of my new structure, which will see me put 40,000+ words into the shredder.

Wish me luck.

#stayresilient #alwaysamongrel

How to build resilience, Mongrel-style

I often include the hashtag #beresilient in a hell of a lot of posts. Out of context, this can just sound like empty words, or yet another useless hashtag in the world of overhastagging (if you don’t know what this is, then you don’t have an Instagram account and a few stupid friends – congratulations, you are not missing out on anything). However, I feel very strongly about resilience, and I think it is *THE* top quality that one earns whilst doing a PhD, and certainly the one I am proudest of. The other day I was in a Planning your Career workshop, and I think I made my point about it – resilience is what lets you actually finish your PhD.

But resilience is not something that comes along and naturally occurs. It’s got to be built slowly. Not only that: everyone will react differently to the challenges that a PhD poses, so whilst some people might learn a lot from the difficulties and build a wall of resilience, others will either ignore the learning opportunities, or, if push comes to shove, they might even quit their PhD. I have found plenty of challenges along the way – being self funded from the very beginning, having to go part time, working zero hours and job instability, working full time and having no time for anything, anxiety issues, stomach ulcers, journal publication rejection, countless funding rejections,… to name the most important! This does not mean that I consider myself an expert in resilience or that the following list will be useful for everyone. I feel I know what I am talking about a little bit, and some people might find it helpful. As I always say, I think full timers particularly can learn a lot from Mongrels, so here is my contribution.

These are put together in no particular order:

1. Have a can-do attitude. Try everything.

At that Planning Your Career workshop, the presenter made a really good point that a lot of vacancies in the current job market are filled not by those more prepared, but by those who work the hardest. Putting that into context, if you think that you don’t have the right person specs to, in this case, apply for a job (when you probably do, being a PhD candidate) then somebody else down the chain might give it a shot and get it. Just try everything. If you have an interest in it, and might help your research, then apply for it – whether it’s a grant, a research trip, a conference, or a Tesco Clubcard. The fear or procrastination loop that the whole “oh, I’m never gonna get it” starts is the most toxic element of the dark side of the PhD. Get out of it and fast!

2. Fail miserably at something after trying really hard – and bounce back from it.

Perhaps not immediately, but you need to put these failures behind you and let them be your springboard into better things. As one of my supervisors told me once after my first article was rejected for publication, “the first pancake always has lumps in it”. Most times even the second or third pancake has lumps in it, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it another shot and have a great pancake in the end, right? There’s a lot of motivational posters out there about how success in life is not measured by how little times you fall, but how many times you stand back up after falling. Or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and other cheesy songs.

The thing is, all those cheesy posters and songs are right on the money. If one failure leads to giving up, then that attempt will go in vain – you will not learn anything, you will not improve the quality of your work, you will not give yourself a chance to learn from it. It also means that, the second time you fall (because you will), you will know how to take it – with a pinch of salt, and then keep going. Which leads me into point 3

3. Go back to your mistakes, analyse them, reflect on your practice, take away what is important, learn from them, and then DISCARD them.

This is a process I follow from my refereeing ‘career’. I totally hate watching myself referee on video (because you can’t change what you have done), but it is a great way of correcting mistakes and discussing with your peers. Mistakes happen in basketball all the time, whether you try your best to avoid them or not. You can minimize their presence or their impact upon your overall performance, but you cannot get rid of them – so embrace them as they come.

It is very easy, particularly in refereeing, to get stuck in a mental loop following a mistake. That is why sport psychologists earn a good living! You know how much this affects the game and you know you could have done much better. You think about ways you should have acted around it, and reenact it in your head a million times. The thing is, this spiral will only make you miss the next calls, creating an even worse scenario of nor just one bad call, but three or four in a row. It’s really important at that point to pick yourself up no matter what, and concentrate on what comes next – the next call is your most important. I think there is a lesson there than can be transferred to PhDing – if you made a mistake or failed at something, learn how to do it better (reflect on how you could improve), and then discard the situation.

4. Rejection is part of life. Don’t take it personal.

I can definitely speak for this one. That article I was speaking about before is perhaps one of my biggest failures. The editor of the journal knows me (I met her in a conference and she really liked both my presentation style and my topic), and to a point wanted me to learn as much from this rejection as possible. She said they normally don’t send the specific comments when they reject articles (maybe they don’t reject that many), but that these will be useful for me to improve the text. Well, the comments were harsh. They ripped through my text and my researcher persona like a school of killer whales. They thing is, I sort of agree with what they were saying – but they had no tact whatsoever, perhaps not expecting me to ever read it.

It was hard to not cry my eyes out and keep my head held high. And it was very difficult not to take the comments personally. The thing is, someone had reviewed my article, and thought I was inaccurate about things I said, which is fair enough. As much as what I write is part of who I am and undoubtedly integral to my research, those words were not said to attack me at a personal level. There’s nothing wrong with me per se, it’s just the assertions I was claiming to be factual were perhaps too risky. And it took a bloody long time to get that paper written in the first place, and then rewritten to a standard that my supervisors felt it was adequate. So being torn apart by an external reviewer hurt a lot. But it was nothing personal. The moment you understand that it’s not really an attack on your research, but ultimately a way to make it better, you will be able to move on having gained resilience in the process.

5. Stick to your priorities and your plans – but be ready to embrace change at a really short notice!

I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted my PhD to go before I even started it, and of course that went out the window when I didn’t get any funding. Then I have made up probably a million plans – writing plans, research plans, idea plans and thesis plans… They have all changed several times, and adaptability has been the key. Reducing full time hours to part time hours and readjusting to having more (outside) responsibilities was also an important step.

The key learning here is that plans are there to help you get towards your goals, but they are not rigid structures: planning is essential but plans are useless, according to the Vitae website. This is good advice. You need both overall vision and minute planning, but as research (and other life events) goes along, you have to be ready to change all your plans at very short notice. In recent times, I am trying to follow an idea that I had after chatting to one of my supervisors. I have already spoken to other two people and tried my new proposed structure and change my conception of the original idea several times. This might change the entire focus of the thesis. And I am zero worried about that.

6. And finally, keep the ball rolling, no matter what.

There is nothing in life (and in PhDing) you can’t put behind you and learn from in a positive manner. Life won’t stop because your proposal was rejected. Reinvent yourself and move on – give it another try, why not. Just keep the ball rolling. And above all, be resilient.

Time management from Mongrels: Smash it!

When do you PhD?

Someone asked me that the other day. Seems like a very reasonable question, given I try to tell people that I don’t do my PhD full time but have a full time job instead. When you add to the equation that I play and referee basketball, which takes up the best of two nights a week and a full day during the weekend, things get difficult to understand.

Do you have a life?

I have not been asked that one, but it is read all over the face of people who wonder when do I actually get to do some PhDing. I have been told by many people before that they have “no time”. There are many self-help books out there negating that in principle. I would say I have very restricted time, and because of that, I have become very protective of the very necessary minutes here and there that make up my PhD.

I don’t do crazy wake up times. In winter, I struggle to get out of bed before 745. I am lucky (to a point), because Glasgow is a lovely place over the summer – the sun never goes down, being so far up north. So when it’s bright outside, I find it difficult to sleep – all I want to do is be all outdoorsy (maybe not at minus three degrees like today, but you get the picture). So in the summer I do get an extra thirty to forty-five minute block of activity before the wife is even up. It is normally reduced to about 20 minutes of actual productivity – by the time I have a coffee in my hands and the computer is on, is almost 720.

In this first block, I work by instinct. Did I leave something urgent to write or think about the day before? Had I scheduled myself to write a certain amount of words? Do I need to read something? At that time of the day I work in oximorons: I am still half asleep and some of my ideas feel half baked at times, but I have uninterrupted concentration on the task, so at least I *have* ideas. Later in the day I reassess whether that idea was okay or if it needs more work or just to be binned and started over again.

I don’t allow myself many distractions, but I know how dangerous they are. For weeks at a time I used to make myself wake up at 7 against my body’s will and ended up checking Facebook or the news. I reconsidered my time wastage against my body’s needs and decided that I would assess my readiness to work from my bed: Am I going to get up and waste my sleeping time? Don’t get up then. Sleep for another 45 minutes. Your body will thank you. I now set a quiet alarm (my watch has one, and it’s so nice and soft and marvelous!). I am normally not fast asleep by then. Today, for example, I did set the alarm, but I was too tired to get out of bed, so turned around and slept for another 40 minutes. And right now I feel refreshed.

Another thing I have changed since working in an office environment is the time I leave the house. I now try to leave at the same time as my wife, even though it takes me twice as much to get ready. This is not due to vanity, it’s because putting on cold clothes and preparing my lunch are activities I dread and I delay them as much as possible. She gets on with them and is ready to go by 815. I enjoy having my coffee and a blank stare for ten minutes whilst my mind wonders, so I am always late.

Leaving at the same time as her (or at least trying) allows me to get to work half an hour before I am meant to start. My office space, the one I have for PhD things, is just around the corner from my work office. In there, I enjoy a good 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted activity again. I have noticed that working there is actually more beneficial than I initially thought. I used to go to the office for two hours before work when I worked in hospitality (9-11), and I always managed to do lots of writing and reading there, but having reduced the time I can spend in that office space has pushed my productivity-per-minute. I sit down, open my notebook and put my thoughts on the pad. I have to do it that way because in that small window and having a computer from the 80s in that office, it is really not worth it trying to open a word document. But normally I have been working on something just before at home, and I somewhat remember what I wrote before.

I am preparing a presentation for one of my supervisor’s modules, and I was asked to put together some thoughts about this translator. I wrote 1,000 words about it yesterday. Today I just opened the pad as I got in – I was late, and only had 15 minutes. In 15 minutes I managed to write a full page (roughly 200 words?) and lay out some points to continue later on. This is still quite surprising to me when I think about it, but it must have something to do with the comfortability that that space provides me with, and the good “me time” with my pad when I have one sole focus. Of course I wish I could stay there for a longer window, maybe an hour or two, but I will take what I can and run with it.

Once I am at the office, PhDing is left at the margins of tasks. There are a lot of every day things that your degree needs that are solely admin. And I work in admin. It is easy to write up some minutes to a meeting, prepare an agenda, schedule when to write, schedule the week workload, write up scholarship applications and other boring tasks when pretty much that is part of your daily job. So I try to get those done among the other admin tasks. I find it easier and quicker to do that as part of the daily routine as my mind is already thinking in admin terms. Believe me, it is easy to write in “minutes to a meeting” language once you have done three in a row…

After work, I am now trialing having another block of writing. I still haven’t figured out how it’s going to work as I can’t establish a pattern. Sometimes I go to my office space, sometimes I go home, lay on the couch and read. I normally have until 6ish, but then again it is hard to do any work after 5 o’clock. I normally just read. It is something that one cannot help but doing when PhDing.


Finally, the controversial point: I don’t work on weekend. I physically can’t. I need one full day of rest doing absolutely nothing to enjoy with the family, which is normally Sunday. Saturday, I combine resting with refereeing here and there and everywhere. And yes, on occasion I take a book with me – since I don’t drive, they make excellent company on the train. But I normally get very little done, no matter how hard I try. And I have stopped trying hard.

I do get in the end about 10 hours of work a week, if I am lucky. It is not a lot, but it’s a good as part-timing goes. I think that, considering the time I actually spend working on my PhD, I get quite a good productivity-per-minute ratio. Of course this cannot be recreated in longer time periods: the more you work, the least you will get done in percentage. It’s like Test cricket v Twenty20. I think the Twenty20 analogy is very useful for me: you have very few overs, so smash the ball to the boundary as much as you can and get all the runs you can.

I will soon be also trialing having a day off from work per month to full immerse myself in writing activities. I have not yet thought through how that would work out, but I will give it some thought, do it, and then write about it. I am thinking of modelling it in a “thesis boot camp” style, so it needs a fair bit of planning (just to make sure I have food at the ready at all times and a stress-free environment). We’ll see how that goes.

Ps. I only got into cricket over the Christmas period. Look at me talking like I know shit.

Lunchtimes feat SMLC PG YT*

In reply to my latest post about being alone, some people did ask me if I was doing fine. For everyone’s peace of mind (or not), I am. I just wanted to reflect on something that has been bothering me for a while and that is the feeling of being alone in your PhD. Add up the fact that during my first year I had virtually no contact with other PhDs in my subject area, and any contact occurred then always implied me making coffee for them. I did meet a lot of PhDs this way, and even made some friends (some people really appreciate some supportive chat whilst waiting for their caramel lattes), but that had some limitations. Also add in the fact that I was a self-funded full timer and my wife was still living in Australia, so you can gather the picture. As I said the other day, there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.

In any case, after the sufferings of year 1, year 2 appeared to be a much better set up for me. One of the best things about my current job (social-wise) is that I work in the same building as most of my colleagues. At 1pm, everyone drops their pens and head down to the common room for some lunch and the consequent lunch talk. We’re roughly the same same 5-10 people all the time, and it is an unspoken pact really. We are all hungry. We are all working. It’s time to get together for some mental detoxing, some bitching, and some soup.

We don’t have an on-going appointment, but given that some people have their offices along the corridor and they most likely want to work, we close the door behind us. This also prevents undergraduates from lurking around and overhearing some of our rants. This behaviour, however, has led some academics to believe that we are actually having a proper meeting, that ours is the close-knit society of the postgrad lunches, and sometimes they actually ask for our permission to enter the room. Some sit with us, but remain quiet, perhaps intimidated thinking we are in a meeting. But we are not. We are just a bunch of young researchers having lunch. It’s just food, it’s not political.

I can only praise the therapeutic effect of these lunches. Because not everything in life is academia and books and reading and writing and more writing. Or work. There are no guidelines to the conversation, so it can range from in-class anecdotes, to knitting (many skilled knitters in the group, which makes me awe at times since I can barely understand 30% of the words that are being said – whoops), to flatsharing woes and accidentally some research. I think it is great we manage to get a proper break – some times it feels like all you think or do is research, and many people have lunch at their desks “because they cannot possibly stop”. I’m glad we defy that theory.

I also feel that the social side to this is very much needed. I suffered a lot from being actually lonely in my first year, and because of my work duties, I could barely participate in the life of the school as such. People only remembered that I was doing a PhD when they came for coffee. And for a while you think “meh, it’s all good”, but you end up feeling like you do not really belong to the school because effectively you are not collaborating in any way to it, and not really being part of it. So for me, lunch actually is the time when I feel more like a colleague, like a “fellow researcher” and I think everyone gets a sense of what being in the team is like.

There is no cheese involved in this post, by the way. Only Brie on occasion.

*SMLC PG YT stands for School of Modern Languages and Cultures Postgraduate Young Team. “Young Team” is a Glaswegian phrase to describe a gang that gets up to no good, and the Strathclyde Police used to publish a list of the most dangerous “Young Teams” back in the day. We are researchers so clearly we also get up to no good. Thankfully we are not in anyone’s watch-list. For now.

Holiday packing for Mongrels

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Sitting at my office space last night, I didn’t do much work – my head is already on holiday. I think everyone feels a little bit like that. I look at the screen and see the words I should be writing, but all I can think of is food, and free time, and eventually sun and heat. In an unprecedented move, we are going to Barcelona for Christmas to visit my family (and eat my body weight in prawns) and then to Adelaide to visit the wife’s family (and get a tan, and get all sorts of Port Adelaide gear, and eat my body weight in prawns). We are flying in three days, so no wonder my mind is already there.

We have a friend staying over until Friday morning, and then we will be going crazy about packing and cleaning the house and all that stuff. Yes, I have not packed. I have not even given myself time to think what I want to pack (and I might need to, cause I have a ridiculous baggage allowance this time). We have not decided what bits of the house we are going to leave uncleaned. I have not decided what I want to wear. I don’t own a bikini, so I don’t even have gear to survive Australia (living in Scotland really reduces the amount of summer clothes you buy by 150%). I have not purchased 50 factor sun screen. I don’t own a pair of sunnies. I am still thinking of some Christmas presents and doing absolutely nothing about it. I haven’t yet thought of what I want to visit in Adelaide (other than the aforementioned Port Adelaide store in Alberton). I have no idea of how we are going to spend our days in Spain. I feel I literally know nothing.

Well, not nothing. Important stuff, I happen to know.

I have an appointment to renew my Spanish ID card and I have penned myself for 2 full days of research at the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya, perhaps the most decent library there is in Barcelona, and the source of most of my original sources. Source of sources, yeah. I have been eyeing this book that the wife got me that she thought would be “right up my alley”, Helping doctoral students write by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson. So that is in the suitcase. And I have spent the last few hours of my life scanning as many articles as possible and transferring them into my Dropbox so that they are accessible on my tablet, with the typical PhD saying of “just in case”. Which really means “I will have them accessible yet not access them at all and then feel guilty about it”. But it’s always good to have them as back up plan in case mingling with the family gets utterly annoying (“oh sorry, I have some work to do, I can’t play bingo with gran”).

If those feel like some terrible priorities, we have also shortlisted every single sausage joint and churro serving cafeteria between here and Adelaide and that will be the basics of our diet: German hot dogs and Spanish doughnuts.

Fatty foods and the occasional reading. My kind of holiday.