Saturday, November 23, 2013

Imposter Syndrome, Going Postal and book recommendations

My favourite book of the last couple of years is Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. It's one of the Discworld novels and in it the protagonist, Moist von Lipwig, is hanged for his crimes and then forced to take on the role of Postmaster and use all his skills as a conman, thief and trickster to make the post office functional let alone successful. And he invents stamps in the process.

I'd read a couple of Discworld novels but never quite gotten into them. I first saw the tv adaptation of Going Postal. Then I downloaded the electronic book. I now also have a hard copy, a french translation and I'm eyeing off the audiobook version despite it being almost four times as much as a paperback. 

Electronic copy
Hard copy
French translation

It was only on the second or third read-through that I realised why I loved the book so much: I identified with the main character. Not because he was a criminal, but because he spends the entire book feeling like a fraud and waiting for someone to bust him. But they never do. And when he does eventually confess to having no idea what he's doing, nobody believes him. 

Now I no longer feel like a total fraud. Most PhD students do at some point. But I am conscious of how much I don't know and expect someone to call me out on the things I'm not confident of. And when I tell people I don't know what I'm doing, to my great surprise they don't believe me. 

 My favourite quote (so favourite it is currently written on my fridge) is:
This is where his soul lived: dancing on the avalanche, making things up as he went along, reaching into people's ears and changing their minds.
I guess this is how I feel when I give a good presentation. Like people don't know how little I know, yet I'm pulling it off! I'm making sense! Or more realistically, it is only when I am changing people's minds that I realise I know what I'm talking about. On the other hand, when I'm less confident, I feel like I've been caught with my arm in people's ears before I've been able to reach their minds.


When I was in the middle of my PhD my friend gave me a book by Stephen Fry. I started reading it but didn't get far into it because it was too close to my reality to provide an escape - it was about a PhD student preparing his thesis for submission. So personally I couldn't recommend it for PhD recreational reading. 

Going Postal, however, has familiar themes for the PhD student and provides a decent escape while subtly suggesting 'Keep going. You may do some good, however inadvertently.' 

But why paraphrase? A few apt quotes:

"This was probably garbage, but it was good garbage!"

"Always keep moving. There may be something behind you."

"Run before you walk! Fly before you crawl! Keep moving forward!"*

"... Because if we fail, I'd rather fail really hugely."

For some strange reason, over my PhD I found this ambitious realism, this optimistic fatalism, hugely comforting.

*I actually used this quote recently talking to a PhD student who'd been offered an amazing opportunity but was feeling inadequate. 

EDIT: Forgetting I had scheduled this post to publish on Saturday, I coincidentally downloaded the audiobook on Saturday.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Working effectively: no guilt, less stress, and more mental health days

I was just talking to a friend about procrastination. She's trying to figure out the reason for her procrastinatory tendencies, ironically delaying finishing overdue work in the process. I started telling her about all the things I learnt last year working on my thesis about guilt and procrastination and managing stress and accountability, and I realised, I learnt an awful lot. Most importantly, the major thing I learnt last year was how I work effectively. I keep forgetting, though, so I thought I should write them all together in the one place.

While not all of these things may apply to you, hopefully you can identify with some points.

1. Guilt makes me less productive
Let's say I had intended to finish writing something by Monday, but hadn't. So Tuesday comes and I try to motivate myself by emphasising that it was supposed to be done by now. Inevitably I end up doing less on Tuesday than any other day of the week. I think in part it's because I subconsciously look for ways to cheer myself up so I am enthused to get to work, and before you know it I've read half the internet and achieved nothing and it's already 5pm so should I work late or call the day a write-off (pun intended)? I try to remind myself to let go of the guilt but sometimes plain forget to.

2. Know when to go home
Some days, around mid afternoon, I'd hit the wall. The brain wasn't responsive and I'd been staring at the same paragraph for half an hour, whether reading or writing. To push on or go home? That was the question. The challenge is knowing whether you really have hit the wall, or whether you've just tied your shoe laces together. I have to admit to relying a little more on coffee and energy drinks than I should've to kick start the focus, but the thesis got done and I've kicked that habit. But important to that was knowing when my brain had genuinely reached saturation point, and taking the hint.

Similarly you have to take care of yourself physically. For me I have to be careful of migraines. The weird thing with my migraines is how often at the start I would not think to do those things which are proven to stop migraines (take analgesia, stop staring at a bright screen, drink lots). So it was important to know when my body had had enough, and to recognise that a migraine, or tiredness, or whatever, would be sooner dealt with by going home than staying and working, or even staying and slacking off. This is an obvious point, but it's sad how easily we forget to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired, or stretch when stiff and sore - and then we're surprised when we're not particularly productive. 

At other times I finished what I set out to achieve that day. Maybe I finished early, or maybe I finished later, but either way I'd be the tempted by the fact that if I kept working I'd be ahead tomorrow. Eventually I realised though that if I did keep working, the next day ended up disproportionately less productive: I'd sleep in, or just slack off, or both. So if you meet realistic targets, go home.

3. The sense of accomplishment lies
You know that inner warmth you get when you've achieved what you set out to achieve and made progress? It's a total illusion! Some days I spent only an hour working on the design for a slideshow, or in a flash figured out something I'd been struggling with, and the inner glow would light me up like fireworks. I'd feel like I deserved to call it a day, or at least take a break, maybe go buy myself something as a reward. Other days I worked long and hard, but didn't actually finish anything per se and there was no glow, no warmth, no sense of accomplishment. Even when I had measurable evidence of how much work I'd done, even if I did what I set out to do that day, even when I'd made progress, I didn't feel like I'd done enough. So don't trust the sense of accomplishment; find a different way to measure success, and then trust that instead.

4. Accountability and tomatoes 
And that brings me to tomatoes. If you haven't heard about pomodoro technique (25 mins work, 5 mins break) or shutupandwrite, there's heaps of information around. This was a big way for me to beat the procrastination. The accountability of working with or at the same time as other people, getting through the 10 minute "surely I deserve a break now" wall, and getting competitive when you hear others typing frantically was a huge help. It gives you another way to measure your accomplishment, and often 25 minutes solid work was more productive than 2 hours unstructured work. Some days the productive measurement is word count, but other times it's not helpful; timing how long you work can be. 

5. There are many ways to slack off
Just as it's possible to slack off from work, it's equally possible to slack off from relaxing. And if I wasn't counting reading the whole internet as work, then I equally couldn't count it as down time. Sometimes I needed to allocate a tomato to going and getting a coffee, or going for a walk in the botanic gardens, or reading a chapter of an entirely fictional and non-academic book. Work effectively - if you're gonna work, work. If you're gonna relax, do something that actually relaxes you!

6. Work ethics
I'd love to have a strong work ethic. I really doubt I do sometimes. But I realised: The reason I wasn't working wasn't because I didn't have a work ethic; I didn't have a work ethic because I wasn't working. A work ethic is something you develop over time, not a fortunate glitch in your personality profile. You earn it. So quit with the guilt (see point 1) and get to work. 

7.  Tears = mandatory mental health day
I had one absolute rule. If I ever got to the point where I was teary and stressed, it meant I had to take a mandatory mental health day. On MMH days I had three things to do:
  1. Clean something
  2. Exercise
  3. Do something as a treat (see a movie, go to a cafe, read a book)
Of course I was lucky to be able to take time off when I needed. And I usually only ever did two of the three things. But stress is poisonous - I've seen friends and family make themselves sick with stress. And so it's important to manage your stress, and give yourself permission to.

Seriously, take lunch breaks, take holidays, and if you're still in tears, take a mental health day. And at any point along this, talk to people - supervisors, colleagues, office mates, counsellors.

So that's what worked for me. I'm now adjusting these lessons to life after-thesis, particularly when working at home alone, and more often than not I forget lessons already learnt. You know, now that I read back over them, some seem really obvious. But I've seen all my friends forget the basics. I've seen myself forget the basics, like 'your brain doesn't work if you don't eat.' 

Some days you need to keep calm and carry on. Other days you just have to shut up and get to work.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The First Submission

I was chatting on twitter with another PhD candidate about submitting the thesis. It made me realise that we all have our stories about submission day. Many have horror stories of an impossible number of things that went wrong. As for me, several moments from the last 24 hours before submission are crystal clear in my memory. Others I can't remember at all.

So I thought I'd write my story of the day before submission. 

It's a bit of an indulgence, but now that I have my results, I can look back on that day with pleasure, not with the uncertainty of the last eight months.

24 hours before submission

I was at a funeral. I had sobbed my eyes out, and I was exhausted, and then I went to uni.

I had decided to print my thesis out at uni for several reasons. 
1) It wouldn't cost me anything other than time and effort.
2) I had a lot of colour in my thesis between colour-coded analyses and headings. This would significantly increase the cost of printing it anywhere else.
3) I'd had some trouble with random page breaks appearing so I wanted to make sure myself that it printed out correctly.

I met up at the office about 3pm with Maria who I had been working with and who, in a supreme bout of serendipity, was also ready to submit her Masters thesis in Classics on the same day. 

I used up a ream of paper starting and stopping printing before I realised that turning the file into a pdf would show problems with the pagination without wasting paper. I still ended up with about 20 versions of the pdf that I haven't deleted yet until finally I decided that THIS was the last one. I didn't look at it, I didn't check again that the page numbers were on the right side of the page, I didn't check if that problematic diagram had played up again, I didn't check if a random page had inserted itself again. I just hit print.

I think it took about 4 hours to print four copies and burn five CDs.
Carefully matching the colour of the CDs with the cardboard folders

As we left the building with our bags full of cardboard folders of precious paper, there was a rainbow. No seriously. And the most unbelievable golden light shining through the uni. It was bizarrely apt.
It looked more impressive in real life

We drove to Officeworks as we thought the quality might be better, and we knew it would still be open at 7:30pm on a Thursday night. However, it turns out that six days before Christmas is not a good time to get binding done quickly. When the shop assistant said it could be done Monday, Maria and I looked at each other and left.

It was the week before Christmas so we went to the Christmas display on the riverbank because we were both too wired up to do nothing. We parked and locked the bags in the boot. I remember being slightly nervous walking away from the car and thinking well at least if the car was stolen or destroyed, I had my USB key with me with the final version of the thesis on it. I remember wishing I could wear the USB around my neck, keep it close to my heart. 

It's a little strange in hindsight.

We saw the Christmas display - the fairy tale characters, Vulcan and his volcano, Father Christmas in his sleigh. We ate cinnamon doughnuts and Maria bought some flashing light thingy. Those were good cinnamon doughnuts.

Submission Day

The next morning I drove to my supervisor's house to get his signature. He was at home recovering from a hip replacement. Then I went to uni. I needed a second signature. The entire linguistic staff weren't in the office - on leave, overseas or simply out of the office. I managed to squeeze in between meetings to get the signature of the Head of School who coincidentally had been my French lecturer in undergrad.

I vaguely remember taking the piles of paper to the Image and Copy centre on campus. I barely remember waiting and picking up the copies. I assume at some point I stuck the CD sleeves in the covers and inserted the disc in each copy. I think I practised my signature a couple of times before signing each copy. I'm pretty sure I was slightly disappointed with a couple of the signatures. But it's all a blur.

Maria was also ready, and Johanna had come into the office as she knew we were submitting. She took photos for us of us with our shiny freshly bound copies.

Submission buddies!

The Graduate Centre where we were to submit is two blocks from the main campus. The three of us walked there, oddly running into two separate PhD students we knew en route. It was like a coincidental parade.

At the Grad Centre, after we each ticked all the boxes, signed all the forms and handed over the Three Big Tomes, the admin person said congratulations and Johanna played a sound effect on an app on her phone: for one a trumpet fanfare, for the other a round of applause.

We left, and called our parents, texted a few friends, and had lunch at our regular cafe. I went back to the office, removed everything from my pinboard except a copy of the title page and the acknowledgements. And that's all I remember.

It was a big day. I haven't yet submitted the final copy, but for the moment I can't imagine it will be as big a day as the first submission day. But maybe it'll surprise me.

So that's my submission story. There was a funeral, an overly busy Officeworks, a supervisor with a walking stick, and a slightly grumpy guy at the Image and Copy Centre. But there was also a rainbow, and cinnamon doughnuts, a parade, a fanfare, and the company of friends.

What's your submission story? I know one friend had to post her thesis and her friends brought party poppers and hooters to the post office. Another PhD student told me handing over the thesis felt like handing over somebody else's baby - you weren't sure whether they would take care of it. Another colleague always expected having her daughter (who her thesis was about) with her when she submitted but by the time she did submit her daughter was in kindy. What's your submission story?

Monday, September 2, 2013


Ladies and gentlemen,

Eight months and ten days after I submitted my thesis, I finally received my results.

My thesis is accepted. The doctorate will be awarded. And all is right with the world.


During all this time I've been silent on my blog but I've always wanted to make this end of the thesis journey more transparent for students coming after me so they know what to expect.

The reason my results took so long is that the first two examiner reports were substantially different. It then took a while to go from one person to another to another and then finally to committee to decide it would go to a third examiner. Thankfully that examiner examined very promptly and I received my results on Friday.

It's a huge relief and I'm a bit numb really. It's a massive weight off my shoulders - after that long you can't help but start doubting the quality of your work and wondering what you should've done differently. That it has ultimately been accepted without changes is a huge honour and a better result than I had expected. It's been a long eight months of wondering, and promising people that as soon as I know they'll know!

For those of you from other countries, the thesis for me is the only form of assessment for the PhD - no oral defense, no viva, no coursework, no exams. So the thesis is the whole thing. And once results are received the question is how many changes you have to make to make it acceptable so you could be facing months or even a year of more work. 
(Here's a handy post from the Thesiswhisperer about the examination process in Australia.)

In hindsight, what I would do differently is start calling the Grad Centre earlier. I waited about four months, when really I should've called up sooner. They were helpful with telling me as much as I was allowed to know and it's always better when you know what's going on, even if it's knowing you have to wait longer. I probably also would've tried to work and travel more rather than try to expect when the results would arrive and thus when I would have to work on revisions.

So what now?

PhD-wise - I still need to make my final revisions to the thesis, but at least I can make changes as I wish rather than have to tick off any boxes or jump any hurdles to meet anyone else's requirements. Then it's a matter of deciding what colour to make the cover of my thesis, print and bind and submit. At some point the doctorate will be conferred and I'll then be able to answer to 'Doctor'. And in about March next year I'll graduate, with a silly hat and Harry Potter robe. So it's still awhile before it's completely done with, but the most major of summits has been scaled, and it's now just the formality of getting up on the pedestal.

Otherwise - get a job. If you are looking to hire, or know of someone who needs a fantastic... whatever I am: PhD, linguist, researcher, analyst, transcriber, editor, proofreader, slideshowster and accidental illustrator - then get in contact.

And after that: World conquest.