The Month of Hell (TM)

Overcommitment is a constant problem for working academics who wear ‘busyness’ as a badge of honour. I think the overcommitment problem tends to start duing the PhD. This post from Evan Hayles Gledhill has real insight into why the problem happens in the first place – our own reactions to the hyper competitive research culture. Evan is a PhD student in the English literature department of the University of Reading and the founder of the amazing Logan Institute for the Study of Superhero Masculinities (which is well worth a visit!).

I first saw the film of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), as an undergraduate pursuing a degree in literature and film, around 2004. It chimed with my ideas about the sort of working future I didn’t want to have, and the meaninglessness of labour under capitalism, but otherwise I thought little more about it – until I started my PhD in 2013.

Glengarry Glen Ross is a film about stress, pressure, and the achievement of seemingly impossible targets, in a competition that will see only the top two workers retain their livelihoods. You might be surprised to hear that James Foley’s film is about real estate agents, not adjunct lecturers or post-doctoral researchers.

The catchphrase of the awful office culture portrayed in the film is ‘always be closing’: it’s no good having leads on potential investors, and properties to sell, if the deal between the two is never completed. This constant recap of the relation between supply and demand reminded me of advice given to PhD students and early career researchers – what is the use of all their hard work if

a) no one knows about it or can access their results, and

b) they can’t show how their results answer a question anyone wanted to ask in the first place!

From the first year of my four year PhD project, therefore, I have been looking for opportunities that answer both parts of that equation. However, the injunction to ‘always be closing’ isn’t a friendly reminder to always be alert to the gap between your research results and its audience. It’s a sales mantra, a pressured demand to always have a deal in hand.

I took this a little too much to heart in year two of my PhD, and at the start of my third year I landed myself with ‘the month of hell’™. It’s tempting to apply for any and every call that might give you an opportunity to publish or present. If the conference or the publisher is prestigious enough, it might be worth putting in the extra work to tweak your research, or even explore that odd tangent you keep on the back burner, if it fits neatly into their topic area. BUT I am here to warn the unwary of the dreaded deadline pile-up that Glengarry Glen Ross-ing will inevitably lead to…

At first, ‘always be closing’ meant that as I reached a deadline, and submitted my copy, I made sure I was simultaneously submitting an abstract or waiting to hear back on one. I maintained a steady ‘one in, one out’ policy. So far, so good. Until this summer, I ended up attending three conferences back to back. I had, foolishly, forgotten that although abstracts and opportunities flow in across the year, very often conferences fall very close together, scheduled outside of term dates. I survived June, but I had not learnt my lesson.

The thing about academic deadlines is that they are very often moveable feasts. The initial cfp will say that editors expect full articles/chapters in August, which becomes September after negotiations with the publishers, which becomes October after you have recovered from that nasty bout of flu/laryngitis/food poisoning/malaria that inevitably strikes when you have an important commitment. I realised at the start of August that my autumn looked like this:

September 4 Return edits on completed book chapter
September 19 chapter due for different project, 7500 words
October 1 Another chapter due, 8000 words
October 22 Conference presentation, 3000 words plus slides
October 28 Another presentation, 3000 words
October 31 Edit and resubmit an accepted work
November 4 Journal article due, 7000 words

I was also due to tutor a module I have never previously taught, to continue work on my actual thesis, and work three days a week in a support role for the Europeana Sounds project.

As I write, I am just days from the end of this nightmare, the light is at the end of the tunnel – and it might turn out to be a train! I have not yet alienated all of my students and colleagues, and my housemates have been very patient about my tendency to microwave endless bowls of tinned pasta. I have missed only one deadline by a significant margin (apologies to those editors), despite the aforementioned laryngitis, and a stinking cold this last weekend. But my bedroom looked like this:

Internally, my headspace looks similar.

‘One in, one out’ is a great way to plan your publications and presentations, as long as you note not only the deadline for the original submission, but also the date of the conference itself or the final publication timeline. If you get an acceptance without a clear timeline, ask! At least one of the above publication projects on my list didn’t provide this information up front, and I was foolish enough not to check. And, as much as this goes against everything modern work culture tells us, sometimes you just have to say ‘thank you for the opportunity, but it’s not possible for me to meet that deadline right now.’

I bet some people are wondering ‘where is this idiot’s supervisor??’ He is, very sensibly, looking at me with a very clear, and smug, ‘I told you so’ expression on his usually friendly face. Like all good mentors, he offers advice, and then allows his tutees to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes. If I had not lived through ‘the month of hell’™ I wouldn’t have believed just how tired, messy, and exhausted I became. Some of us need to live it to learn it, so see some you later, in hell!

Thanks Evan! I hope that month in hell was worth it – what about you? Have you ever found yourself this over committed too? How did you cope with it?

Related posts

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How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy

17 thoughts on “The Month of Hell (TM)

  1. I’ve learnt from experience that months, if not years, if not a life lived in hell is never worth it – unless you consider short, mid and long-term compromises to your health an OK thing. There’s no true success if you don’t have your health and a well being.

  2. Very interesting,
    In my cause it’s almost a whole semester rather than one month. 🙂

    During my first semester in my PhD that is dated fall 2015, I decided to take overload course work, I registered Four courses (12 credits) rather than three (9 credits), I thought I’ll drop one off during the first 2 weeks of registration, however, it turned out that, I don’t know which one should I drop; all of them seem interesting therefore, I decided to continue taking them all whole the semester. Mid way, my life because very difficult many HWs to submit, many problems to solve along many other stuff (part-time job, like grading, attending seminars and so on) and the same time I was trying (still doing so unfortunately) to apply for PhD in other school, hoping to find a topic best fit my interests. I thought that my term will Never finish (however, eventually it did) to the extend that one of my colleagues (also taking 4 subjects) told me that next semester we’ll only be doing 2 courses ( of course this in not allowed unless one has finished his coursework).
    Believe if or not, when the term finished we took some break ( 2 weeks vacations) and come to the next term, both me and my friend again doing the same story (4 subjects).

  3. I would cut back on conferences-especially the 3000 word presentations- What’s the point when so many other publication projects are already progressing?!?

  4. My last month included 2 week-long overseas workshops with a final paper submission fit snugly in the middle! I’m glad I wisely chose to schedule a holiday the week after to decompress.

    The problem with reaching your final year of your PhD is that you finally have finished work to talk about and networking you want to do, but all those thesis chapters are still sitting there waiting for you when you get back.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story and the picture of your bedroom – I had a good laugh, out of empathy! As I get older and gain more experience, I’m learning the same lesson… but still have a way to go.

    • Good luck! I honestly couldn’t have done my PhD without the tips and support of this blog and community – sometimes its just nice to know everyone else is in the same boat!

  6. Pingback: Best Industry Transition Articles Of The Week For PhDs (November 12th, 2017) | Cheeky Scientist® | Industry Training For Intelligent People

  7. Thinking it from here, where I can judge on my past with a clearer sight, my happiest moments were of when I was loaded with work to do. Hope everything turns out for the best for you too.

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