By Jeff Gough
Sometimes, the hardest part about doing a PhD, is not really the PhD.
For me, as the sole provider for a family of two adults, three children (including a teenager) and a mortgage, the greatest pressure comes in the attempt to balance the need to work, the demands of family, and the desire to do research. It is a real juggling act to keep all of the balls in the air at the same time.
Initially I thought working fulltime as a Research Associate would be a great way to earn an income during my PhD and be a wonderful adjunct to my learning, and in many ways it has. I am eternally grateful for the experience. The insights and knowledge I have gained into the real world of the researcher has been invaluable and has fore-armed me against many pitfalls. However, coming home after a full day of research, doesn’t make you conducent to sitting down and doing more research. Especially if they are quite different areas of study.
Add to this the reality that your kids want to interact with you when they see you, because that’s what families do, so you still need to pick up some of the parenting duties. Along with the handyman requirements that keep the household operational. And the end result is that you have intensely conflicting demands on your time.
Sure, you can say you’ll get some PhD stuff done after the kids have gone to bed, but let’s face it, once you’ve wound down for the day, it’s hard to get wound back up again. Motivation is like the cat of human behaviour. It does what it wants, doesn’t come unless it feels like it, can never be found when you’re looking for it and turns up for some attention when you’re busy doing something else.
While the idea of working to support your knowledge addiction is fundamentally brilliant, the reality is far less grandiose. I can’t describe how envious (and guilty) I feel sometimes when I walk past the PhD room and see the students in there, all working diligently on their respective Theses, knowing that I’m only attending to mine for a few hours a week.
However, another round of scholarships has just closed and my application is in. I’m hoping to be successful this time around. In the end though, I can’t rely on that to be the case, because in the back of my mind hides the thought that my work contract ends in September. Well, the thought isn’t really hiding there so much as its presence is being ignored, in the vain hope that the thought will get bored and go away.
In the event that things go pear-shaped, instead of the cherry shape that I’m hoping for, contingency plans need to be made. My degree is in psych, so I’m redeveloping the thought workshops I trailed last year into a set of formal seminars to take to the market place. So in addition to work, and family, and study, I’m attempting to start a business to help replace the work I will lose in September. I need to up my presentation skills a bit though, so I’m also engaged in a short series of presentation workshops learning how to work in front of a camera (something I find far more anxiety inducing than working in front of people). Of course, there is an opportunity to do actual paid work from this as well. Another possible avenue for income later in the year.
Oh, did I mention that I also organise the Brisbane part of a worldwide charity event which happens at the end of September every year, raising money for men’s health issues ($2m we raised last year for prostate cancer research). Plus I’m hoping to do my Confirmation in November. The back half of this year is going to be bigger than ten big bears.
Usually when I tell people all of this, they just stare blankly at me and sometimes offer an opinion that starts with ‘F’ and ends with ‘that’. To be honest, if you had have told me 5 years ago that I’d be doing all of this, I probably would have offered the same opinion. The question, ‘How do you manage’ is one that falls out of people’s faces sometimes when they’ve shaken their head back and forward for long enough.
The truth is, I don’t know. There is no secret to making life work, you just do it. You do it because you have to, because the alternative is doing nothing and where’s the future in that? I think about the things I need to do, but I try not to dwell on them. I try to engage my curiosity such that I work on the logistical aspect of it all, on the puzzle of making the pieces fit. A curiosity about the challenge and finding the solution. After all, I’m training to be a researcher, curiosity is part of who I am.
On the flip side, I try not to over-think it. Identify what needs to be done, acknowledge that it’s huge and daunting and anxiety inducing, and then just do it anyway. The most important aspect I think though that gets me through, is that in the end it all means something. I’m not doing this for someone else, I’m doing this for me.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how”. You can endure exceptional circumstances, if what you are doing has meaning for you.
When it gets too much, look inside, find the reason why you are doing this and then give it a hug.