Where I have been, and where I am at

So this is my first post.. I am not really one for writing ( hilarious I know, considering I am doing a PhD), but I felt there was a lack of information for people who are doing a PhD part time. For me, when I say part time what I actually mean is that I have a full time job and then on top of that I find hours to do PhD work. I really struggled to find others with a similar experience to mine, and so I thought this blog might be valuable (?).

I have also found myself paralysed by fear that I am not coping as well, or doing as well, as other PhD students. Time and again this has been proven to be untrue (we all suck equally, haha). So I thought perhaps someone would find it valuable to know that doing a PhD is like someone ripping out your heart and then asking you if you feel ok. This is especially true when your topic is your passion, as is the case for me.

So where I have been, is down a road of about 14 concept notes to get entry into the program and eight proposal drafts to be able to submit to faculty. That doesn’t sound so bad right, until you remember that those numbers don’t include the hundreds (literally) of drafts that you work on before you feel comfortable enough to send it to your supervisors for comment. Where I am at, is as follows. I have a few months now where very smart people are going to tear apart my ideas in a very orderly fashion so that I don’t feel too terrible about myself- welcome to Academia. In these few months before my data collection starts, I want to try and coordinate a group of young people, who are also doing PhDs, into some kind of support network. I know for me, given that I am hardly ever actually at university, I have really felt that this network of people who ‘get it’ is missing. If you’re interested in joining, please reply in the comments and I can loop you in.

I am going to try and blog my way through the different milestones, and talk about some of the things that have helped or hurt my progress, in the hope that it will be useful to others.




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An exercise in self torture (my fave)

It has been a while since I updated my blog- maybe it’s more fair to say that it’s been a while since I started pretending I was going to keep a regular blog.. Either way, I have begun data collection and I thought it would be useful to once again put down my experiences.

The reason I flew off the radar is that I was fighting the bureaucracy battle and was drowning in paper work, follow up emails and unanswered calls. I submitted my protocol in July 2016. It then only landed up going to faculty in September. Faculty felt the protocol was not grounded enough in theory and in scope, and I had one month to fix it- because even though those seem like very harsh criticisms, it was actually just an ‘edits and resubmit’ process rather than what they call a total re-write.. In practice though, it was a total re-write, and oh my god it was a stressful month. It also came at a time when work was exceptionally intense and I feel like the months of October and November 2016 are a black hole. I don’t remember doing anything except paid work and PhD work.

To make it even more fun, I had submitted for ethical approval on my old protocol, as my supervisors didn’t foresee any issues with it. Which meant I had to RESUBMIT to ethics in November. As some of you may know, this means another 25 copies of your protocol plus countless forms and signatures. I then only heard back from ethics in March 2017, and then had to start the process of applying for ethical approval in Provincial Departments of Health (PDoH). I swear it feels that no PhD student has ever suffered through as much administrative hardship as me (can you tell I’m Jewish- we SUFFERED)

The PDoH approvals were far less cumbersome, with everything online. This was the one light in this dark tunnel. I received approval fairly quickly from some provinces while other provinces (hint.. it starts with a ‘W’) pushed me hard on why the title of my protocol doesn’t include their name. I must digress to tell you that the faculty insisted my title be as boring as possible and include the names of the main provinces. This proved unendingly frustrating when applying to the provinces who didn’t appear in the title.

Anyhow, in August 2017 I had my first meeting with one of my major provinces and started data collection in the same month. ONE FULL YEAR after submitting my first protocol. In that year of waiting I changed jobs, got a dog, found myself again (yay for an identity outside of work and/or public health) and met a colleague (and now friend) who has become integral to my life, career and person. This person has shown me how to take the good with the bad, to trust myself, to not take myself so seriously and to start a meditation practice (mine is faulty and immature, but it’s there!)

Data collection so far has been incredible. Great to be back in the PDoH space since leaving my old job and head office has been so accommodating. I have been reminded about how the world revolves around relationships. My existing relationship with the PDoH meant that they have trusted me and been willing to back my research- which has made everything so much easier.

Finding time to write notes and think has been tricky. I recently started working 4 days a week, to open up a day for research which has helped tremendously. I also created a little space in my room where I can put down my thoughts and findings to both inspire and remind me to do it. Doing a PhD part time requires discipline that I sometimes don’t have but it has been wonderful to realise how much I am enjoying the process despite this (perhaps the protocol write up and approval phase was worth it?! #BDSM).

Our PhD support group is going strong, sometimes with only two of us and sometimes with four or five. This group has become so helpful in comparing processes, supervisor approaches and creating a whinge space. I have also found that all the blogs I read before that said the PhD is a lonely process are 100% correct. It’s been difficult to try and find the words to describe what I am experiencing and thinking about without boring everyone around me who (GASP!) isn’t interested in public health governance.

Today I signed up to a site called 750 words, which encourages a daily writing practice. Hopefully this will mean a more regular blogging practice too.

J x

When your PhD is enmeshed in your work, and then your work changes..

I am writing this blog on the brink of hearing whether my resubmission of my proposal has been accepted.. I decided not to wait to hear the results before writing this, as I think some of the issues I am dealing with are potentially valuable for others to hear who are thinking about or doing a PhD.

I have been fortunate to land up doing work that I love and am passionate about for the past four years. Over the past two years, I really found my niche, and it inspired me to nail my head to the coffin (lol) on a PhD topic. For what has felt like the whole of 2016, I have toiled over a PhD proposal. It has been challenging in ways I never thought about and deeply satisfying in terms of growth personally and professionally. It has also been so effing hard that half the time I wanted to give up. Thank goodness for friends who keep me sane and focussed, and listen to my sad ramblings which are often literally the same four points in a different order (what fun to be my friend in 2016!).

So I am now in a situation where my PhD is very linked to the work I have been doing for the past two years and now my work is changing! CRISIS, PANIC, WHY THE HELL IS LIFE LIKE THIS?! Although I didn’t need much of a push (I have grown tired of many aspects of my current workplace), it has forced me to start looking at other job options. And here is the trouble, my options are limited by my PhD proposal.. I need (and want) to be involved in certain work for my PhD and so any new job needs to either give me time to do that on the side, or factor it into my work. Not an easy thing to bring up in a job interview!

The reason I thought to write this blog, is because many people warned me not to link my PhD to my work – for this very reason! And I didn’t listen.. But I also didn’t listen because I do think if you’re going to embark on a PhD it should be in something you are passionate about.. So it really is a difficult one. So I am on the job hunt and hoping to find something that will work. I have also asked my supervisor for a chat, as I think so often we forget that these people are not only there to guide on our writing/learning but also can be used as mentors (if they are nice and willing, which mine are, luckily!). It has also allowed me to feel less alone in this chaos and uncertainty, which is a huge help.

If there is anyone else in a similar position, let’s chat! And if you want to join our PhD support network (yum dinners about once every 2-3 months to chat and off load) please just comment on the blog and I will be in touch!



On small wins/growing/dealing with disappointment

I had my faculty assessment, it did not go as planned. Work has been particularly stressful of late and so I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to prepare. Nevertheless, I prepared as best I could and was feeling ok (by ok I mean want to vomit nervous but still able to talk coherently). I practiced my pitch with my supervisor and she said it was good. She was happy. We felt good.

And then we got into the assessment. I had been told to prepare a 10 minute brief. After 5 minutes I was asked to wrap up.. Not ideal but I sped up and wrapped up and awaited the comments. Comment one, a comment around the naming of a table, seemed easy enough. Without thinking I started to reply. One faculty assessor immediately interrupted me and asked me to take notes rather and respond once. Not a great start. Long story short, faculty did not feel the scope was big enough for a PhD and also seemed to struggle with the idea that research around financial management could be qualitative in nature.

One doesn’t expect an issue around scope if you have supervisors and have gone through a rigorous process of developing a protocol. But, as I am learning in life and in this PhD, things are never as straight-forward as they seem. How to manage yourself despite this is where those who are successful separate from those who are not, I guess. My instinct is to pack my WITS bags and tell them all to shove it. After a years work, how can I be expected to go back and fundamentally change my plan. But if I don’t put on my big girl panties, then it will be a year of my life that I spent working my ass off, only to give up before I even really started. I think that’s a worse outcome for me.

So what the hell is this blog post (maybe it’s more like a diary) about? I think to say that I could tell how I have grown through this process (I was calm and collected and non-emotional, what a radical achievement for fireball me). And this means something. And there is something empowering and growing about dealing with disappointment in a mature and productive fashion. I am also learning (fast) that this PhD process is filled with disappointments and stumbling blocks, so best I learn how to deal now. I am writing all this in the hope that some other poor soul, who is struggling to balance (and be great, obvs) it all, reads it and feels hopeful that maybe they can do it, too. After speaking to a friend who is also a fellow PhDer, I can tell you there is huge value in knowing your experience is neither unique nor a reflection on your capability. So tonight I will sulk and mope, as is appropriate after a shitty day, but tomorrow I will start again.





On managing up/Hurry up and wait

Every PhD student will tell you that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. That you need to pace yourself if you want to finish the race. This sounds excellent, and quite leisurely actually, but it’s not always an option when you’re working full-time. I manage my PhD like I manage my work life: deadlines, to do lists and blocked off time that should yield some kind of tangible result. And so, like my studious self, I rushed to prepare my proposal to hand in by 20 July, so I could get it assessed and approved before my October data collection start date. I hustled with university bureaucracy to allow me to present on a “non-presentation” day and this happened to be 4 days after my 29th birthday.. Happy birthday to me.

So, after doing all of this, the date of my official faculty assessment rolled around. The university only confirmed my assessment time 5 days before (one of the other real challenges of doing a PhD while working full time-no one seems to understand that it’s difficult to be in a meeting at 230pm in a different city with less than a week’s notice!), however because I had known at least the date for 6 weeks I was able to make a plan. However, I had made the fatal error of assuming that my PhD was as important to my supervisors as it is to me. Which is flawed logic. It just simply cannot be. As a result of this assumption I never confirmed the date of my assessment with supervisors as I thought they knew that if you hand in on X date, then the assessment is on Y date. This is university protocol and I assumed that as a result, they would block this day for me. In hindsight I can see how ridiculous this was.

As you may have guessed, neither of my supervisors were available on the day. The next available date for assessment is 28 September, which almost certainly means my data collection will be pushed back. This is by no means a tragedy, but it is frustrating and a hard lesson to learn. Seeing as the aim of this blog is to also help others in a similar position, let me spell out the lesson. Your PhD is only important to you. As a result, for supervisor management you need to manage UP. Despite the fact that in many ways they are the guiding lights; when it comes to dates, deadlines and compulsory activities, it is your responsibility to make them aware.

The positive of this mistake, is that I have a sort of extended break from PhD work. Although this is just delaying the inevitable, it has given me more free time to do things I haven’t in a while (like get back to gym) or ever (like write a blog). Perhaps it’s a forced ‘pacing’ of myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have had time for, so it’s not all bad!

Lastly, the little PhD network I spoke of in my first blog has taken off. Four of us met this past week and spoke about life, PhD and balance (it’s seems I’m not the only one for whom this is difficult). So if you, or someone you know would like to join our little group, please be in touch.

Jo x




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