Winging it

22 Aug

Winging it

This quote found its way to me and I had to share. It’s so appropriate for so many of the discussions I’ve read in PhD land, particularly related to impostor syndrome and the constant battles with confidence that so many of us have despite knowing that we know some people are winging it too…

Recap: #ECRchat on Changing Track, 1 August 2013

16 Aug

After the post I wrote yesterday about having to change my project this blog from ERCchat is one to come back to. My to-do and priorities lists are about to get jiggled about.

The heart vs head…

15 Aug

I feel a bit broken today. Broken for a country I love that has descended further into turmoil, and broken because the changes I thought I might have to make to my fieldwork plans are probably just the beginning of a retreat away from a project I (and, I think, my supervisors) really believed in. My heart and head are in conflict and it’s coming to crunch time…

My research explores activism in Egypt. Having worked and lived in the country on and off for over two years, I have a deep affection for Egypt and the many people I grew to care about in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and beyond. There was always something special about arriving back in Egypt: my Arabic skills would wake up at passport control, groggy from the months of rest and the late night arrival, and, as the taxi reached a familiar flyover in central Cairo, I would feel, in some ways, that I was coming home.

As part of my fieldwork, I was hoping to return to Egypt and explore political learning with community activists as their struggle for democracy continued. But as the situation escalated since the protests of June 30th, my researcher ‘head’ is being battered with the ethical concerns for the safety of participants being asked to discuss politics and thoughts of ‘the political’, and the university’s risk assessment for me as a researcher in the field. These battles mean the time has come to make some changes to my research project. Not completely, but enough that my heart feels a sense of sadness for the stories that cannot be told in the way they need to be told.

One of my criticisms of the academy has been the lack of research in authoritarian states and in the middle east – but today, it feels like I’m perpetuating that bias. It’s not a decision I take lightly, and I’m determined to remain focused on Egypt and Egyptian activists, but theoretically and methodologically, the plan we were so sure of has to evolve and take into consideration the heart and the head.

When we start a PhD we know there will be inevitable changes along the way: a new theoretical direction emerges from an illuminating reading session, or a new way to use a method previously dismissed seems possible, relevant and necessary. People in my department who know my work is on Egypt have enquired of my plans, many suggesting simply, ‘you can just apply the framework to somewhere different though, yeh?’. For me, changing case studies is not an option I’m ready to consider: my heart is still connected to Egypt, even though my head knows of the practical and ethical concerns of the university, not to mention my partner and family.

But maybe it’s being stubborn and maybe it will come back to haunt me, but I think we have a commitment to doing research that needs to be done, and that contributes understandings that can help to make the world a better place. If I were to back away from Egypt now, I would feel I was letting down all the Egyptians who made me so welcome for so long.

The immediate challenge is to use my head to adapt the research theoretically and methodologically because my heart tells me the ongoing revolution in Egypt is too important to walk away from…

The library during university holidays is…

6 Aug

…quiet, peaceful, productive

…a place to Get. It. Done.

…full of people actually working rather than sitting on Facebook all day

…a place to be inspired and reminded of our goals and ambitions

This time last year, I was in the library every day, diligently writing, writing, writing my Masters dissertation. There was a very tangible goal in sight that carried the focus through every 12 hour day: sharing the goal with other students kept us all motivated, determined and desperate to make it through the final couple of thousand words. 

While there were also many exhausted moments of frustration that summer, walking through the same doors today was a journey back into my most energised and motivated period of study ever – and that energy was back with me today. Perfectly timed. I felt excited to walk along the corridors of books knowing I’d made the right decision back then to accept a place and keep studying, even when others thought I must have been losing my mind. After 15 years out of academia, the thought of leaving behind the chance to keep learning, exploring and engaging was one I wasn’t ready to consider, and today it really, really dawned on me: I get to do it all again.

As PhD students, most of us know we are lucky, privileged and fortunate to be able to immerse ourselves in a project we (hopefully) feel passionate about. A little walk in the quiet of the vacation time library was a perfect reminder of the joys of studying.

Hopefully, I’ll be writing the same kind of positive note to myself next summer…  

The trouble with summer?

2 Aug

I love summer, but being based in Manchester, in the north west of the UK, we don’t always get one. We do reliably get 3-4 months where we can reduce layers from four to two (and maybe a cardigan!) but we haven’t had a period of more than about two weeks of good sunshine for what feels like years: official reports say the last prolonged period of sunshine was 2006…

But this year we can now declare we HAVE had a summer. A lovely, gorgeous, warm, make-your-veggies-grow-wonderfully, fabulous summer. Which makes motivation for a PhD topic that’s already being tested by political unrest and foreign office blocks on my intended fieldwork all the more difficult. I can read in the sun, I can write/type in the sun, but I can’t ignore it when it’s outside winking at me, and I admit it’s scuppered my ability to get 6 hours good work done each day. And with a lack of 6 hours good work a day comes a huge side order of guilt; I feel cheeky for having time off from the PhD. It’s clearly a common theme in this blog that I feel I should be working ALL the time, even though I know it’s not possible. So I am taking a moment to think about what I have done with this troublesomely lovely summer, and for my own sanity, I’m going to list things I have achieved (note: achieved, not done… I’m making that distinction on purpose!) in these 7 weeks since my end of year 1 viva (many of which have been put off for anywhere from 3 to 13 months… agh!)

Work: Read one whole (very relevant) book and around 150 pages of journal articles/reports. Two days paid academic work. Written about 1500 words, literature searched and planned. About 30 hours blog/news reports on current events relevant to my research. Home: plastered, painted and decorated hallway, lounge, dining room. Sorted the garden. Sorted post and filing,  the car and all those boring chores. Me: made it back to yoga (which makes me very, very, very happy!). Back up to 6+ mile runs and feeling good. Had time with many, many friends in France and London and locally, and lots of fun, days out, evening walks and time with the other half: festivals, art, movies, sport, travel. I finally got into a rhythm with the volunteering, have applied for a couple of interesting posts, and progressed on the freelancing.

And I had a haircut.

Although this summer may feel cheeky because I haven’t been cooped up reading, typing, typing, reading, I might finally be learning that productive time off is what will keep me sane and motivated for the long haul.

ImageI spent some time running in meadows, through woods, along the river. The flowers bloomed this summer so I also ran about and took photos. This picture reminds me of one of those lovely runs… 


The balance from running

26 Jul

Done a lot of running here

I’ve been silent on my blog for a while… I started posts, then stopped them… wrote a LOT (about 23,000 words) in April / May of academic stuff then just stopped. And ran. And ran some more…. it was beautiful!

For a couple of weeks, every time I put on my trainers after 8.30am (I am normally an up-and-out-the-door-by-7am runner) I felt a teensy bit of guilt nag at me: for being free to do this during the day when I should have been ‘at work’; for having what feels like ‘me’ time ALL the time (the PhD is surely a form of me time?); for enjoying life so much. Then I decided I should slap myself around the head and remember I left my (well paid) job because I had no life beyond that, and what I did have made me more stressed. I worked 70+ hours every week meaning that running, yoga, reading for pleasure, my own political activism, friends, had all slipped down in the pecking order. So this picture is here to remind me of one important part of what got me here and why I have to enjoy it: work life balance.

The conference nuggets and baby steps!

26 Mar

Now, I’m still a baby in PhD land, a conference novice, so forgive me for an extreme naval gazing moment (yes, again!). This post is really for me to acknowledge the baby steps we take during a PhD, and to hold on to a feeling of achievement I gained from noticing the difference between a conference in November (8 weeks into PhD) and now, March, (6 months in). Part of the difference is in my attitude, part in the content, and part in the implications for my work.

Among many reasons, we go to conferences for those golden nugget moments: the little spark that illuminates a new direction or a different meaning on some part of your work, or maybe even opens a new path that changes your perception of something you thought was or wasn’t related to your PhD. It can be the moment when you realise a critique you have (but perhaps are still reluctant to say aloud because conferences can also be intimidating places at times) is the same insight you should apply to your own work. Or it is the moment where you connect with someone else’s ideas in a way that clarifies and sharpens your own understandings.  These kind of golden nugget moments are exciting and provoking, challenging and rewarding.

I had a few nugget moments today, particularly one that arose out of a discussion of contrasting understandings and practices of solidarity. When one audience member responded to the presenter, I felt an argument brewing against what he’d suggested. I pondered (no really, I actually put my pen in my mouth and gazed upwards…. oh, dear, dear, dear….). I scribbled frantically and knew I’d had a moment where I could see real progress. But then a second, golden, nugget…


I realised that, whereas the November conference had me festering in a bewildering pit of my own fear at how much I didn’t know and excitement at how much I wanted to know, not only was I was now able to actually understand more of what people were saying (I’ll readily admit I remain befuddled at much of what social scientists say…) but I was growing in confidence in my own opinions and responses, arguing against their suggestions in my head and tracing my own journey to that standpoint. Ok, so it’s a seemingly trivial moment, but the golden nugget moment I’m taking from this conference is that the greatest achievement for me if (when… when… when!) I complete this PhD will be surviving the process and learning from all the positives and negatives that come with it – not simply the topic but all the other ‘stuff’ that makes the PhD such a unique experience. It really IS the journey, but it’s a journey full of tiny steps that will (hopefully) come together in one big, happy leap.

The ‘no’, the guilt and the change

20 Mar

Last week I attended a coaching workshop for PhD students. Aside from the moments where I felt sick, tears welling, lump in throat sticking, it was a great day – full of realisations and reflections that will hopefully make life in PhD land a bit easier over the next couple of years (please, I want to do this in 3. Not 4. 3. Three… yes, three).

One of the exercises encouraged us to think about barriers and ladders, thinking about the risks we need to take to take control towards our own progress . Amongst others, I realised one of my barriers is my distinct, definite, debilitating inability to say NO. No to the conversation started by my desk, No to a quick coffee (ok, tea) break, No to the long overdue ‘catch up’, No to “can you help with this…?”. But underlying all the times I’ve refused to say No or ‘not now’ is my definite success at saying ‘YES, COME ON IN, LET’S PARTY’ to something so much more powerful: guilt. Feeling guilty that I’ll come across as rude when I don’t take my earphones all the way out and stand up, feeling guilty for always seeming reluctant, feeling guilty that I feel like I’m always cutting things short.

So rather than putting myself in a position where I end up feeling guilty about saying no or taking control, what have I done? Removed myself from the whole situation and am now working at home, tucked into a much more comfortable work-chair, with daylight, blanket on lap, one cat by my feet and the other on a bean bag winking from her snooze. It feels good. I’ve had the most productive three days of my year. Yes, it’s a bit more lonely and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t become disconnected from everything that goes on in uni life… plus, I can see why so many 3rd year PhD-ers prefer to work from home but seem a little bonkers! But for a week where a deadline is looming then working from home seems to have done the trick, even if this is one giant avoidance tactic of the fear of saying ‘no’!

The Tigger is back!

4 Mar

My philosophy of life could probably be summed up as one of extremes and my daily moods reminiscent of two central characters in Winnie-The-Pooh; most days I am will be either full of Tiggerly vim and vigour being overly-enthusiastic, excited, giddy (and probably highly annoying) or pessimistic, full of doom and much more like Eeyore. No in-betweens. All or nothing.

Embarking on a PhD has definitely tested my (predominantly) Tigger tendencies; it seems there’s a distinct lack of bouncy-jolly-ness in academia which has made me question my ability to stick with it but that’s for another post on another day…

Over the last two weeks, the atmosphere in PhD-land seemed to be perfect for Eeyore to find a resting place and get comfortable. As I continued to write, I was finding myself much more inclined to think every sentence was terrible, that every article I read was incomprehensible, that I wasn’t going anywhere except down. With a supervisory meeting looming, I wasn’t holding out much hope that the few thousand words I had written was remotely what they wanted to read.

And this is where PhD-Land is clearly going to keep surprising and shocking me, and why I want to write these moments to look back on. In PhD-Land the word ‘good’ is magical. And in that meeting it was also preceded by an even more magical one: ‘very’. I could have fallen off my chair and bounced back to my desk. Yet had that word ever been used to evaluate any one of my lessons when I was teaching I’d have been devastated – good was NOT good enough. Neither was very good.

But in PhD-land, good / very good feels incredible. It feels magical. It feels like Winnie himself has given me a giant bear hug and told me I can do a Tigger dance and Eeyore wants to join in! Tigger’s glass is definitely half-full and I’m going to try and remember this moment and drink it in very slowly!

The Big P…

20 Feb

I’m sure every PhD student goes through it… in fact, maybe someone should do some research to see if there is a connection between the P word and the C word. I think I could safely hypothesise that when Confidence takes a dip, Procrastination soars.

In the last three days I have caught up with many an important task: completed emails and urgent Amnesty International actions; trawled Manchester trying to find an NHS dentist; ensured fridge, cupboards are stocked; ensured freezer has stock of meals we can just defrost and munch (for when the brain gets into gear again and I end up staying at the office until the late hours…); cycled the long way to and from the office; made sure washing is up-to-date (including the dodgy crusty tea-towels from the office that I brought home to clean); changed lightbulbs, sheets, towels; called my dad for a chat to discuss his birthday; started writing my blog… I can only be a bit proud that I stopped short of making a new ‘studying’ playlist, though I do think I might have to at least edit the current one!

The morning was generally ok, started well at least; I read a couple of interesting chapters and made some useful notes and convinced myself there was a bit of progress towards pinning down a couple of concepts I’m looking at putting into my framework. But it seems like there’s a motivational blockage that really needs a bit of feedback from either supervisor to find the drive again. I’ve not discussed my work with either of them since the middle of December and can’t muster the energy to carry on going with no sense of whether the path I’m on is in any way pointing in the right direction. But I have got ingredients for a yummy dinner, am off to swim training soon, and have an assortment of healthy packed lunches ready and waiting.

Procrastination: another one of the things to be calmly aware of so it doesn’t get a grip on the PhD process? Hmmm…. Now, bathroom could do with a mop….