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The Amazing PhD Juggler

I remember not long ago I was in a seminar for PhD students on how to be academic. The academics were cautious with their advice, prefacing their words of wisdom with, “Well, in my case…” or “Back when I was a student…” Of course, they did this because it is them, the people who made it through the academic ranks, who know just how hard it is to be an academic. They didn’t want to false advertise the difficulties in becoming an academic.

A man in the back raised his hand, “How am I supposed to study, publish, teach, mark papers, go to conferences, network all at the same time?”

The faces of the academics on the panel grew solemn, I knew what they were thinking, if you have to ask, you won’t make it.

Currently, I am a sessional lecturer, a tutor, a peer-tutor (because mentoring looks great), a research assistant on two non-thesis related projects, working on four papers (again, not really related to my thesis), attending about five conferences a year, on a grant proposal, co-hosting a podcast, organizing a networking event, taking a methods course, writing this blog post (oh, and I wrote one yesterday) and you know, working on that dissertation thing.

PhD students are often told that we need to think about what skills we have that are marketable to employers. Yet, I know few other professions where people are expected to wear so many various hats, and not because a boss is guiding them to, but of their own initiative. The projects and tasks I work on aren’t because someone is telling me to, they’re because I am actively looking for more; more publications, more CV lines, more opportunities to maybe meet someone who can help me get a job one day. Being a PhD student means you have to juggle, throwing each ball into the air with gusto and grit and hoping that your organizational skills and time management ability will keep them from dropping.

Of course, so far, I’ve mentioned juggling work and study, but there’s other kinds of juggling, too. If you’re one of those brave souls who also juggle relationships, marriage or kids, I am impressed with your circus skills. But even daily personal tasks can be a juggler’s challenge in the PhD experience.

The other day I was the on the phone with a woman who was sending me something I had ordered. Well ok, I’ll just tell you, it was candles, because you know what? PhDs need candles, too. Anyways, she said, “When in the next week will you be home between 9-5?” And with all the flexibility that this career is supposed to afford us, I couldn’t answer. She said ok, “How about the weekend?” No… I would be in the office then, too. She said, “Wow, you must hate your job.”

But I don’t hate it and, in fact, most of us don’t hate it. We love it. We are the amazing PhD jugglers. Come one, come all.

-Mollie Dollinger, University of Melbourne

“We’ve all heard the ‘publish or perish’ maxim.  Before I began my PhD journey I had been teaching middle and high school English and ESL for 8 years. Even though I had engaged in action research and other forms of practitioner inquiry during this time, and even completed a master’s thesis, I quickly realized that PhD work required a whole different set of ‘thinking muscles’ that I hadn’t needed to use in years.  What’s worse, I didn’t know how to write like a doctoral student!  I don’t need to reiterate here the importance of writing and publishing to success in academia.  For me, thinking and writing are almost co-dependent and I knew that I needed to write more and write better in order to develop into the kind of scholar and researcher I hoped to become.  I approached this challenge with my teacher lens, asking myself, how I would teach this genre of writing to my students. This thinking like a teacher has helped me immensely.

Here are a few tips that have helped me confront the writing beast and overcome various obstacles and challenges to writing often and well.

1. Find models of good writing in your discipline and specifically in your areas of interest. Read them with an eye for the writing moves that the authors make.  For example, how do they set up their premise, use warrants to support their points?

If English is your second language, try ‘appropriating’ some sentence frames from authors you encounter.  Sentence frames are essentially fill in the blank ‘templates’ that help you organize your thoughts in a way that is clear and stylistically pleasing according to academic English norms.  As you read more with an eye for writing, keep a list of frames you can use to help you express ideas clearly, succinctly and with some flair. Be sure to avoid plagiarism.

2.  Schedule time every week to work on writing. This can take many forms, but your focus during this time should be on practicing writing, producing writing and learning about writing. Treat this time as sacred.

Don’t wait to be in the mood to write. Just do it. Don’t wait for the perfect time or the flash of inspiration. Just get that rough draft started. Who cares how awfully written it is? Once you get something down it can only get better.

But it’s just so hard to start!! Try this: If you find that you can express yourself with much more ease and clarity orally than in writing, (the opposite is true for me) consider talking it out first, as you record yourself.  Speak as naturally as possible.  Allow yourself to ramble.  Your transcription will be your rough draft. 

3.  Writer, know thyself! Learn how and when you write best and create the environment that is conducive to writing. Morning, night or middle of the day after lunch? With noise canceling headphones or music? At home or at school? Does coffee help or hinder? Pen, pencil or laptop?

Decide what kind of feedback you find helpful and learn how to ask for just that from critical friends and those who will read your writing. Unfortunately most ‘good writers’ can’t relate to the struggle of those for whom writing is a painful chore and it takes a specific type of feedback to really improve your ability to write, and not just improve the piece they’re providing feedback on.

4. Pull yourself together, scholar! If you’re just scared of writing, you’ll just need to get over it. Take the leap, what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be outed as a ‘not-so-good writer?’ There are tons of resources available for improving your writing and many faculty willing to support your growth in this area. 

Remember, you made it into your program because a bunch of people agreed that you had what it takes.  If you’re struggling with the technicalities of writing, chances are you have strong public speaking and presentation skills, and astute critical awareness or an ease with manipulating data.  Leverage your strengths to support your growth as a writer.

-Sian Charles-Harris, University of Connecticut

“Reflecting on the PhD journey, one faculty colleague once told me: ‘there are ups and downs during the process, with moments of jubilation and excitement interspersed with frustration and a sense of displacement’.  This certainly defines my experience so far.  Not only has the PhD challenged me intellectually, it has also tested my personal and professional confidence, self-motivation and resilience.  Beyond open communication with my supervisors, I have therefore found it useful to share my thoughts within the PhD community.  Knowing that others face the same dilemmas with theory, methods and work-life balance can help put many concerns in perspective.  Besides this, I try to be open to every opportunity I am presented with outside my PhD.  From honing my writing skills in different genres of publication, presenting pilot work to Masters level postgraduates and organising research seminars, to chairing my first symposium, applying for a U21 graduate research project grant and working as a research assistant with my main supervisor, all these opportunities have enabled me to apply and reflect on my new knowledge and skills, and given me a greater sense of preparedness for academic life.” 

Alison Milner, University of Nottingham

“I submitted a draft of my full thesis two and a half years into my candidature and was ready to submit two months shy of my official submission date. Friends and fellow PhD candidates thought I was crazy. And I was!!! I learnt from the very start that my thesis was not going to change the world. It’s what you do after that matters. So I kept my focus, broke down my thesis into manageable chunks and kept writing—all these while teaching, working as a Research Fellow and balancing home life with two young children. My advice to all PhD students is “Prioritise and keep the focus”. The light at the end of the tunnel is there…you just have to follow it.” 

–Dr Marian Mahat, The University of Melbourne