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PhD Starting out – “the space”

(The first in a series of posts baring some hard-won lessons about being a PhD student, freelance worker and mom)


For the first year of my PhD I worked in a space which we called the “office” but which was, in practice, the dumping ground for the detritus of family life. When Brett and Hannah were at school I would sweep the piles of school notices, invoices, junk mail and post to one side and try to ignore it while poring over my books. When the children came home I would relocate (after the biscuit sharing, story listening and homework guiding) with my pile of readings to bedroom or local coffee shops. I quite liked the arrangement. The commute to the “office” took, well, thirty seconds and working in coffee shops helped me to feel like a grown-up again. While I was in an intense reading stage this ad-hoc desk appropriation was feasible. It worked less well once I started accumulating photocopies of archive materials and the readings numbered more than fifty. There came a time when I needed more…and once I had experienced that “room of my own”, I wished I had taken the step of creating it much, much earlier.

If you are serious about your PhD you need space. You need a room to call your own. Two reasons. First, you will be accumulating a lot of stuff. Even with the electronic storage facilities available you are unlikely to get away with less than a couple of bookshelves of materials. I ended up with a filing cabinet and three shelving units worth. It’s hard to fit that in around the Lego box and the Barbies. Secondly, it’s impossible to focus when your kids are anywhere near earshot. We just aren’t wired to ignore our children. Being out of earshot was necessary for depth, which is necessary for the PhD.

Of course, creating space is not always easy. We solved it by building (quite literally) a shed in a flower bed in the garden. It was small, only just big enough, but once insulated, and painted and kitted out it was perfect. A haven. Most importantly it was separate and it was mine. The paintings, the notices about hotdogs, the final demands for school payments, all of these stayed in the home. When I walked into my PhD space it was all about my writing.

Also importantly, I could leave things mid-process on the study desk when I needed to walk away. On the last day of term I would turn my back on my studies and then come back again two weeks later and (bliss!) it was all perfectly, delightfully where I left it. A little dusty perhaps, but untouched by human hands. In terms of productivity, and sanity, this was huge.

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