Mommy PhD: Writing drafts

Mommy PhD: Writing drafts

“Sorry!” she wrote, asking for feedback, “it’s very draft!”
I remembered my own early pieces submitted to supervisors and their noble quest to find something to cheer about them. I am so grateful for their grace.  “Wow,” they would say, “you really are uncovering some interesting material.” Looking back now, I see that those pieces were barely notes. Her “draft” was far better thought through than anything mine had been. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to articulate anything in the early PhD stages, when so many options are still open, so much is unformed and there is so little (theory, experience, data, information) to hold onto. I was lucky to have experienced supervisors who understood that early PhD writing is a struggle and they saw my efforts for what they were: hard won fragments scraped together with much effort. I’ve seen other supervisors in action who were far less empathetic, and timed their critique so badly that it crushed the young shoots of research work.
My view is that everything we write – everything – is a draft until that very last day when we hand it in and it’s done. Revealing those drafts can be humbling and scary. Do yourself a favour and find people who will see your drafts for the acts of struggle and courage that they are. Avoid like the proverbial plague those readers who confuse ‘support’ with poisonous criticism, personality attacks or ways of boosting their own sense of power. And be grateful for the graceful.

Mommy PhD: F-f-f-formatting

The biggest time sink as hand-in date approached was no-one’s fault but mine and it boiled down to indecisiveness about formatting. The classic procrastination was over labels on figure numbers.  Do I choose “Figure 8: Classic picture” or “Figure 8 Classic picture”? Who cares really? It doesn’t matter that much. In that late-PhD fog though, I just couldn’t make up my mind and so I ended up with 40 figures with colons and 50 without. Changing that around at 1am was, to put it mildly, a drag. I wish I had given it a bit more thought and been brutally decisive very early on.

Similarly, references came back to haunt me. Wanting to push ahead I had paid a student to build up my database. Oh, what was I thinking? Using an undergrad student who didn’t know the difference between journal article names and journal names! Scary but true and pretty alarming to discover half way through your reference list.

TIP: Use willing students to help where possible in your research process but check their work!

The biggest time drain, though, was simply due to formatting a PhD size document. By the time I was finished my thesis clocked in at 353 pages. (That’s not untypical). A simple check on header formats would take an hour. Even adjusting and checking chapter headings took half an hour because there were 15 of them. Before you get too far into the document indulge in a day or two to choose formatting that really works well for you. And then stick with it.

Mommy PhD: Writing on Mars

Mommy PhD: Writing on Mars

Let's Pretend_a Bonnie Book_Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Writing on Mars
Cover of children’s book “Let’s Pretend” via Pinterest

 

It’s so important to have separation while studying, but how do you make sure that the necessary separation doesn’t become hurtful? How do you avoid resentful children en route to a lifetime of therapy? This was a tough one for me. I didn’t want Brett and Hannah to feel that they couldn’t have access to me but I also needed them to know that my PhD room was a different room from the others in the house.

When they were very little I would leave them with care-givers and tell them that I was “going to Mars”. “Going to Mars” they understood, really meant going down to the shed-study at the bottom of the garden, but in their vivid imaginations I was on Mars. If they wanted to contact me they would use the “inter-planetary” phone. And of course there were exceptions to the galactic separation. Needing a cuddle with mama was reason enough for warp-speed space travel, with me happily beaming back down to earth, because cuddles are available at any time – no questions asked.

PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (1)

PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (1)

I have a pet theory that the PhD process is at least part about unresolved issues from childhoods. At least, it was for me. (There are probably less expensive, less time consuming and less stressful ways of working through such matters than by doing a PhD by the way). At 40 I still felt angry at streets which seemed to treat the working class kid I was in an unnecessarily cruel way. These streets created dark scary alleys I had ran through and un-crossable chasms of deaf, inhuman vehicles. Someone (who?) had designed long winding suburban routes that made my journeys on foot long and painful and had designed roads which created the pools of water I had to wade through.

At 40 I still felt pained remembering Harry, a close cousin lost to a road traffic incident. This tragic loss of life compounded my frustration with the status quo. Moving to South Africa, one of the most road-violent countries in the world just highlighted the injustices further. Some years into the PhD process, when I was struggling to gather the necessary level of de-personalised ‘objective’ dispassion for a good piece of research I realised that my research question was driven at least in part by this anger. It’s OK, I realised, to be motivated by the anger, but in a PhD you can’t let the anger blind you.