Shiny balls

This post is by Belinda Lawton who is doing a PhD in the Crawford School at the Australian National University

Struggling with balance isn’t new for me; I’ve always been a full-throttle, grab-life-by-the-shoulders-and-shake kind of person. So when it came to starting my PhD, saying yes to opportunities to learn and stretch myself alongside the PhD was second nature. I’ve always worked full-time while I studied so “having it all” seemed not just attractive but feasible too.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 3.38.37 pmFor most of us, the end of this journey won’t be the start of a new chapter with a Research Fellowship. The employment statistics in academia are thoroughly depressing and it is worse for women than men. The casualization of teaching, the small numbers of fellowships and the increasing competition from around the globe mean you’ve always got to have an eye on how to edge ahead. Which means saying yes, and often, right?

As time slips away and the PhD finish line still seems a long, long way away, I’ve found myself re-evaluating what Hugh Kearns dubs the “shiny balls”. Like the solid plastic tube Hugh holds up in lectures, I can only squish so many balls into my life; what’s falling out the tube is my PhD.

This isn’t all about work. I’d love to have a solid wall between my personal life and the PhD but the reality is they bleed through each other like cheap ink. I can’t tell my three-year-old his dress-up day isn’t important or that I can’t be there when he is sick because I’ve only just got a run on with this concept.

At some level I’m trapped by the 1950s housewife expectations alongside all the research. I bake cakes for birthdays, write personal notes to friends, organise playdates and house repairs. I’m the washerwoman, cleaner, personal organiser and event planner. Despite my best efforts, the timetables of other life events (illness of a parent, separation) won’t march to a different drum beat because it’s at an inconvenient time in the PhD. Most of the time I am so flat out exhausted that if a brilliant idea smacked me in the face I wouldn’t have the energy to engage.

And yet once I commit to all these shiny opportunities that will give me some intangible “edge” I’m in boots and all. At one point I had three part-time jobs on the go at the university, all trying to get that leg-up so I am employable at the end. Join to that a couple of student representative roles, some peer support and I found myself working harder than ever before and still feeling like a complete failure because the PhD progress has been glacially slow. At times on this journey I’ve run myself so ragged that I’ve had glandular fever and shingles.

So where’s the tipping point in this story?

I went to a conference in Melbourne and then took two whole days for myself at the end of it. I re-engaged with friends whose calls I’d been too busy (or too scared) to return because I knew they’d ask me about the PhD and I’d have to be honest with myself as well as them. I read nothing. Not a single journal article. I shut off email. I took some time to think. I walked, I bought flowers for a friend. I drank some fabulous red wine. I stopped.

And the world didn’t come crashing down.

A dear friend and mentor has been checking in on me for the past few months and reminding me that I needed to “fly the plane” and ignore everything else. Whatever loud alarm is going off, if you take your eyes off the act of simply flying you’re definitely going to crash.

So gradually and painfully I’ve started shedding some of those shiny balls. I’ve slowly started to recognise that the fight for a job at the end only becomes real if I ever reach the end; and unless I clear these “extras” out of my life I’m not going to get there. I’m putting some existing commitments at the head of the work queue to get them off the list, easing out of other commitments and consciously not taking on any more work. I’m working on the gaining the wisdom to know the difference between the things I can change and the things I can’t.

I still feel like I’m “trying to catch the deluge in a paper cup” most days, but at least now I am edging forward. The goal now is simpler: just don’t give up. Maybe it will take me longer to complete this journey; maybe I won’t get the golden ticket of an academic job at the end. But if I emerge intact with the thesis finished, that’s surely a better outcome than the path I was headed down.

Related posts

Single parenting through a PhD

Parenting through a PhD

The perils of PhD parenting

15 thoughts on “Shiny balls

  1. Oh such a timely post for me. I was half way thru my phd at 39 years of age and determined to finish by the time I turned 41 then a surprise, miraculous baby came along. Phd becomes part-time data cleaning and collation begins (much bigger job than it should have been) and before I knew it at 41 surprise baby number 2. People think I should have been able to plan this but 14 years of unsuccessful trying and dodgy chromosomes meant I couldn’t. So now I have a toddler, a 2-mth old infant and my biggest problem child – the phd. I’m trying to get funding to go full time next year – put mothering on hold a bit and finish. Because I love my problem child and I want to continue my career.

    But at the moment it is all a bit much. Not sure I’m doing any of my jobs very successfully. It’s always so nice to know I’m not alone and I think that some ‘me’ time is exactly what I need.

    All the best to you, Clare

  2. Pingback: Juggling the ‘shiny balls’ if life – caroletansley

  3. For me also – I am somewhere between overcommitting and realising the need to pare down. Personally, this will mean eventually having to give up the fear that a PhD is “not enough”.

    (For the like-minded, the chapter on ‘Velocity’ in Cameron’s ‘The Prosperous Heart’ resonates with this theme)

  4. Thank-you Belinda for your timely post but also for validating the journey of those of us who tend to prioritize family over Ph.D. My kids are now teenagers and I thought that this would mean a shift in my priorities toward finishing my doctoral degree, but parenting never ends. There are no easy answers but I am so happy to know that I am not alone.

  5. I love this analogy. I have the shiny prize at the end (the tenure-track job), but still have not finished the PhD, and the crazy shiny balls keep coming at me: publishing opportunities, conference organizing, service opportunities, exciting new courses to teach – and that fear that if we don’t take them all we’ll be harming our career. I keep telling myself this is a long-term commitment and that my goal is to maintain health and sanity and joy in the long-term – I’m very inspired by the Slow Professor movement – but some days I am just too tempted by those shiny balls! My solution is to find something outside of work to obsess over positively, a hobby – marathon training, knitting, whatever brings you joy and a feeling of accomplishment, so you don’t spend all your free time feeling bad about stagnant PhD progress.

  6. Pingback: Juggling shiny balls | Research Tales

  7. Ah Belinda – how all too familiar your story sounds. I am at the pointy end of my PhD – I started with an APA scholarship, full time study, a no fuss 11 year old boy, an intact marriage, a rural idyllic lifestyle and two parents. Now, I am working full time with part time study, a gorgeous but busy 17 year old, no marriage, a safe but less than idyllic suburban lifestyle, and ow only one parent with dementia. I often ask, as you seemed to be doing, why did all these things wait until my PhD started? We know of course they didn’t – PhD are art of the this thing we call life. I can only thank the stars that I had a supervisor who encouraged two intermissions and one stretch of sick leave. I am ow in my seventh year of a 3 year PhD, but still on track (just) and starting to see the light. I sooooo hope you are seeing the light – it sounds as if you are. I keep thinking – “it doesn’t need to be perfect or earth shattering, it just needs to be done”. Best of luck to you – what an awesome thing it will be to wear the floppy hat and reflect on what you have achieved!

  8. I like your analogy about ‘trying to catch a deluge in a paper cup’! My experience was similar – it took me more than 10 years to complete, and during that time I worked mostly full-time, had three voluntary roles, sat on university committees, took care of an elderly relative, ran a household, spent time with friends and family, and all the other things we all do. Towards the end, I cut down on my commitments and I think it made a difference, but at the same time, having fewer balls in the air means that there’s more pressure on completing and doing well. I often thought of myself as a piece of farm machinery – once you get on the right path, nothing is going to stop you, and you’ll mow down the various obstacles to get to the end. All the best Belinda – and remember to take care of yourself.

  9. Saying “no”, or “not right now”, “not anymore” to opportunities that I would have LOVED to take (or continue with) has been the hardest part of my PhD life so far.

    I absolutely relate to what you’ve gone through. I now have the ability (read: have given myself permission) to properly stop here and there to recharge, instead of trying to be everything for everyone and doing everything PLUS the PhD. It caused me a lot of guilt and anxiety to begin with, but like you say, the world doesn’t come crashing down – and I find I’m much more enthused, energetic, and engaged with work once I’ve taken that time out for myself. #academicselfcare is a real necessity, otherwise I would burn out – again. It has taken years but I’m finding my healthy, sustainable pace.

    Best wishes for your thesis and beyond, Belinda!

  10. Fajnego masz bloga. Uwielbiam tu wracać bo wszystkie wpisy czytam z ciekawością. Twoje wpisy czyta się z przyjemnością co sprawia że człowiek się nie męczy siedząc tutaj. Oby tak dalej.

  11. I stopped teaching because it was a “shinny ball” for me, yet, the less i did, the less motivated i became. I used to be always “almost there” with my thesis. But now it is different. Your post reminded me of my own struggles and the sad news that motivation fairy is never coming, she never will. It is all about grit, not motivation, in this marathon. Getting so fed up with it but also strong in what you think is enough to defend it.

  12. Ciekawy masz ten blog. Uwielbiam tu wracać bo każdy twój wpis czytam z uwagą. Notki czyta się lekko co sprawia że człowiek się nie męczy siedząc tutaj. Oby tak dalej.

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