PhD rage

This is a picture of one of the rather nice glass doors in my apartment. If you look closely you will notice there’s a big crack in it, right next to the handle. I blame this crack on Chapter five of my PhD.

To this day I don’t know how it happened, but I managed to cut and paste a crucial piece of text into an old draft file and save it  in my trash folder. Of course I didn’t realise this is what I had done – I just flipped out when I hit ‘paste’ and the expected text did not appear.

My dear husband had the misfortune to be sitting next to me at the time and nearly jumped out of his skin when I started yelling “Where is my TEXT you [insert not for blog swear word] computer!” Naturally when he asked the sensible question:  “When did you last save it?” I yelled at him.

To his credit he just looked at me like I was a crazy person and said mildly “Don’t take it out on me”. Since he wouldn’t let me pick a fight I had no choice but to flounce out of the room, slamming the door behind me.

My exceedingly nice. Glass. Art deco.  Expensive to fix door… Oh Dear.

You probably have a similar story of PhD rage. I say this because doing a PhD can make even the most calm, sensible person irrational, frustrated, obsessive – even certifiably INSANE (hopefully only for short periods of time). It certainly can make you hard to live with. I don’t know if anyone has studied how many divorces are done under the influence of a PhD, but there’s got to be a few.

I share this story because @emma-reid asked me for tips on managing a family and doing a PhD and there’s not too much written on the subject. I don’t have all the answers, but I thought I would share some of my own tactics by way of encouraging you to write in with more:

1. Don’t ask, don’t tell:

I found my topic fascinating, but I tried to remember that my supervisor was paid to listen to me talk about it, not my poor friends and partner.  My family would often ask me how it was going, but most times it was really small talk to show they were concerned, like asking me whether I was feeling better after a cold – which is rather nice when you think about it.

I usually answered with a joke so they didn’t have to become emotionally invested in my struggles. If they really wanted details they would ask and I would try to think of an angle on it they might find interesting. I believe this studied reticence was why some of them even asked if they could read it when I finished (bless them!).

2. Work it baby:

Unless you are taking part in a really structured hobby activity, like sailing or something, you probably wont have hobby time scheduled into your week. So if everyone sees you always doing PhD on the weekend or late at night – the times that other people do hobbies – they will be inclined to think your PhD is some sort of hobby too. This is unfair – especially for part time students, but it is an unhappy truth. Since it is not ‘real’ work people may ask you out for coffee or to a BBQ during your work time – because you need a break right?

Actually you need to work. So what can you do about it? I think  the key is make a schedule and stick to it – morning or evening whatever works for you and let people know it. When they kindly ask you out, instead of saying $%^# off!, you can say: “I’d love a break! After 3pm I will be free”. Which leads me to point three:

3. Don’t spend excessive amounts of time on your PhD:

What’s that I hear you say? ” Come again Inger are you mental!?” Well It’s my opinion that just because Mr or Mrs Bottom is paying a visit to Chair Town  doesn’t mean you are  necessarily being productive.

I could only do PhD writing for 2 hours at a time; after that it was a game of diminishing returns. As long as I did two hours straight in the morning I would give myself license to read email, surf, read papers, go for coffees – whatever else took my fancy for the rest of the day. It obviously worked for me because I finished my PhD early.

4. What’s good for the goose:

I often found myself working next to husband who was merrily killing stuff in World of Warcraft. I tried to remind myself that PhD study asks you to give a up a lot – but that is your choice and you get the benefits later. Others shouldn’t have to give up their enjoyments just because you can’t join in. I tried not to resent that I had to work and he didn’t. I did not always succeed, but I think he appreciated the effort.

5. Feel the love:

I found it hard to adjust to being a student as a grown up because my old ‘just in time’ study methods did not work anymore. At times I resented my family and the time limits they placed on me, but I tried to remind myself that having people (or animals!) love you and depend on you is a good thing. You are less likely to waste time if you know it is a precious resource. It’s easy to leave finishing that conference paper to the last minute if you don’t have the kids to pick up from daycare, the dog to walk or your partner waiting for you at the movies.

That’s my four rules to live by if you want to keep your friends and stay married while you do your PhD. What are yours?

Oh – and one day that door will get fixed I’m sure.

15 thoughts on “PhD rage

  1. M-H says:

    As a part-timer, I find the regularity thing is what matters. I sometimes do things in the evening – like organising Endnote, cleaning up data – stuff that doesn’t require high-level synthesis skills. Other than that I work pretty much every Sunday, and also every second Monday (combination of SDOs and 10 study days a year). This year I have also twice taken a week’s annual leave to get a good chunk of time to work on a big section. I’m making good progress and should finish early if I continue at the rate I’m presently working. I do about 4-6 solid hours a day when I’m working, although on the annual leave weeks I find I can do more – but I’m completely buggered by the end of the week and couldn’t possibly do two in a row.

  2. Kat says:

    My rules:
    1: Don’t get it right, get it written.
    2: Start writing from the beginning. It probably won’t make the cut, but I see writing as a type of fitness. You need to stay in form.
    3: Know your routine: accept it and work with it. If you write best at night, then write at night. If you know that you’re going to procrastinate for the rest of the day, cut your losses, go home early, do the housework and write on the weekend.
    4: Set deadlines. Realistic ones. Stick to them.
    5: Set tasks for each week. Don’t leave the office on Friday until they are complete.
    6: Accept that shit (death, break-ups, sickness …) happens when you’re doing your PhD. Allow time for that.
    7: Your PhD won’t change the world and it won’t comfort you when you’re on your deathbed. Consequently, don’t treat it as though it’s the single most important thing in the world. Nurture the relationship that are.
    8: Stop complaining and just do it. It’s a privilege.

    I’ve written about this in more here:

  3. Pip Bruce Ferguson says:

    My tip for doing the ‘parent + PhD’ thing was a fridge magnet that read “Dull Women Have Immaculate Houses”!!!! Very subtle, isn’t it? Pip

  4. Eleanor McPhee says:

    I second Pip. I have 3 days a week to write when the kids are at school and daycare and I have had to train myself not to worry about the pools of lego and barbies under my feet.

  5. Lorraine Harrison says:

    Ideas for surviving a PhD:
    It is usually a one off journey and be prepared to chop and change your survival ideas.
    See it as a ultra marathon and it does hurt really bad some of the time, but the infrequent highs are great.
    Change the pet name of your PhD; it helps push on; (Mine – Climbing Mt Everest, Monkey on my Shoulder & currently Ultra Marathon)
    Accept that you will go mad and hope like hell your sanity comes back.
    Remember Humor is your best friend.
    Cry a lot, its good for the sole.
    Howl at the moon; preferably when alone.
    Talk to yourself as you understand and love yourself the most.

  6. intelligent&unique says:

    I am currently writing my thesis and all I can think is how lonely I am. My husband and son gone to school and all I can do is sit infront of this stupid computer all day. On the top I have to deal with really stupid people who have nothing better to do than email unnecessary things. I wish I had some support.

  7. maelorin says:

    My PhD is a job, one that pays poorly right now, and demands about as many hours as law-talking did. But it is a job. One that requires structured ‘working’ and ‘not-working’ time.

    Without time out, or time off, my brain just gets confused between ‘focus-now’, ‘think-on-it’, and ‘skiving-off’ time. And skiving off is more fun, so let’s do more of that!?! *sigh*

    I make sure I give myself time off, and time out, to recharge, to reconnect, and to relax. Otherwise this writing up process just might kill what’s left of my life, before I get to the good bit: done.

  8. Bobolina says:

    You got off easy with just a door. I know someone who smashed two laptops, the second one was brand new, while writing their thesis. Yeeesh!

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