Category Archives: Work and money

Change of Direction

By Madeleine Arber

I am well into the second year of my three-year PhD investigating the effect of chemo-brain on breast cancer patients and survivors in terms of cognition, self-control, and quality of life. Well, I was until I had to make the difficult decision to terminate the project.

Unfortunately, the injuries inflicted (i.e. forming the relationships needed in order to submit an ethical form outside of the university) were not compatible with life (i.e. submitting the dissertation on time).

As much as I loved researching my project and wanted to continue, I would not have been able to keep my head above water financially beyond the third year should I have continued. This was a difficult decision to make, as there is a certain grief comes with having to let go of two years’ worth of hard work.

It is difficult to describe to people outside of the research world what undertaking a PhD is like. It is perhaps even more challenging to try to express to family and friends the complexity in making the decision to end your project. They will see it as a large quantity of time lost on something that did not get off the ground.

For me, however, this was not just about two years of work. There is a relationship between the student and the project. This is something that takes up most of your waking hours (and sometimes some of your sleeping ones). It surrounds you and your thoughts and develops alongside you over time (like a fine cheese). Your project becomes a part of you.

My project somewhat defined who I was as a person. I was the individual introduced at friend’s parties as the PhD student studying… [insert old project here]. It was a fun little fact about me that served as a talking point.

The end-of-project realisation was not something I recognised suddenly, but rather a slow, painful, and stressful decision I eventually came to understand. The project was a dead horse I had been attempting to revive for months because I was in denial. It was the worst break-up I have experienced so far.

Sadly, I did not get to wallow in my own sadness for long (i.e. eat ice cream for breakfast in the bathtub – delicious and not so nutritious!). I have to rebuild Rome from the ground up with a deadline in sight. Fortunately, my supervisory team had a back-up plan that would allow me to submit a dissertation on time.

Nevertheless, even with a back-up plan in place, taking on a new project still has redirected me back to a beginning of sorts. I feel slightly unsteady on my new feet (i.e. project) and I have lost the ‘elevator talk’ skill (the ability to explain your project within the time frame of an elevator’s ride) and babble endlessly; but I have a direction.

I am not quite out of the water yet… but I will submit, more or less, on time. I have hope that the work I started was not for nothing, and that another student may complete it at an appropriate time.

I wanted to share my story for anyone else out there who may be going something similar.

One slave many masters

By Fiona Russo

My husband and I had a bit of a ‘discussion’ last week. Neither of us meant for it to happen, but we somehow got into one of those ‘my life is harder than yours’ competitions. I was lamenting the state of my calendar, complaining that I didn’t have a single day available for PhD work without some type of appointment or scheduling problem in the mix. I was trying to work out how I could pick up the two older children from opposite sides of the city just half an hour apart without leaving anyone stranded or unsafe. I had four very different articles due (as a freelance writer) by Friday, and only three half-days’ worth of child-free time.

He was lamenting his priority list at work, talking about how there were never enough hours in the day and he was going to have to forego some important tasks because he was too stretched to fit them in. I started to say (quite stupidly, I realise) how much I envied him the luxury of dropping some items off the list. ‘You know, since your single taskmaster [his employer] can obviously understand that you are but one man with a limited amount of resources at your disposal’. Ha!

I suppose I was looking for some understanding about how difficult it is to balance being one slave to many masters. I feel like I can’t afford to drop ANY balls, because each comes with reasonable demands that are equally important/urgent. My problem is that there are just too many of them. In return, Michael explained that he feels similarly at work, not because he has ‘many masters’, but because he feels the pressure of being our primary breadwinner. He feels that he has to overachieve and outperform everyone else all the time, more so because he wants to be available to the family in the evenings and at weekends.

Luckily, this potential pressure-cooker situation wasn’t so awful. We were both being very careful not to descend into argument territory, but it was a close thing. Sometimes it’s really tough to see each other’s perspective when we’re too busy keeping ourselves afloat.

This week, we had the chance for some role reversal. He had just finished a major project at work and had put in significant overtime. He was taking a well-earned couple of days off and had offered to facilitate the kids’ schedules so that I could spend some uninterrupted time in the office. This is an opportunity I don’t often have, so I gratefully downloaded the information he’d need:
“In the morning, Dylan feeds the cat and packs the snacks, Emily makes the sandwiches, and Susannah packs everyone’s bags. You’ll need to leave by 8.15am to drop off Susannah [6] by 8.30am. Dylan [12] and Emily [16] should be dropped off by 8.45am – they can’t catch a bus to school because there aren’t any at the right time in the mornings – they can bus home in the afternoon. Charlie[5]’s ECDP sessions [Early Childhood Development Program for children with disabilities] don’t start until 9am so you’ll have to double back for that drop-off – she’ll need to wear her Theratogs there, I’ll show you how to put them on later but factor in about fifteen extra minutes for that – Nanna does pick-up on Tuesdays so don’t forget to leave the wheelchair and parking pass. On Wednesday Charlie’s off to kindy but you’ll need to pick her up at 1pm and take her to the hospital to get her new AFOs [orthotics] fitted. You can drop her back at kindy after if you like. On Friday morning, she has speech and occupational therapy in Ipswich at 9.30am for an hour. Dylan should be home by 4pm every day – if you’re not home, ask him to text you to let you know that he got home safe, Susannah goes to after school care on Tuesday and Wednesday but needs to be picked up at 2.45pm on the other days, Emily has Music Extension on Tuesday afternoon until 5pm – she’ll ask if she wants a lift home – she’ll bus home around 5pm on Wednesday and then she’s going straight from school to work on Thursday and Friday so make sure she packs her uniform please…”

…I trailed off. Michael was looking at me with his mouth open, blinking rapidly.

“Are you okay? Is this too much? I can do some of the morning runs if you like – the timing takes some getting used to.”

“No, no, I just think we’d better write some of this down. I can’t believe you hold it all in your head.”

To add insult to injury, Michael’s week of ‘relaxation’ came with a side of nasty illness (always the way, isn’t it?). To his eternal credit, he didn’t succumb to the dreaded lurgy and did all of the running and ferrying and fetching and managing as promised, getting himself some antibiotics and snatching the odd micro-nap along the way. He made copious notes about schedules and appointments, and worried the whole time about the growing pile of work on his desk in the city as he deliberately avoided his phone and emails.

As for me, I was wracked with wife-and-mother guilt as I went to work in the morning without having changed a nappy or made a single breakfast. I tried madly to meet every goal I’d set for myself that week. I turned myself inside out trying to format my lit review without worrying about whether Dylan got home safely, or organise my reference material and not wonder whether Michael remembered to leave the parking pass at school for his Mum, or attend a meeting without feeling guilty that somewhere in the same building (I have a hospital-based supervisor) Charlie might be feeling scared as they plastered her little legs, or listen to a lecture and not feel anxious about Susannah forgetting to go to the front gate after school on Thursday.

I think we each got a good taste of life in the other’s shoes, and by Friday evening we were having a different kind of discussion.

“I’m completely knackered.”

“Me too.”

“Movie in bed?”


(five minutes later) “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz……”

My first marking experience

By Ruth Wagstaff

The first time as a marker can be daunting.  At least that is how I found it.  I have spoken to other PhD candidates who took to marking like a duck takes to water, and I am the first to admit  I have a lot to learn from the marking “ducks”.  But this blog is not for the marking ducks.  This blog is for those feeling daunted by the prospect of marking.   It is a reflection of my first marking experience, the strategies that I would use next time round, and proof that it is possible survive and thrive.

Not every essay will be easily understood.  Sounds obvious.  The undergraduate essay is designed to allow the marker to see how a student is thinking and is linking concepts.  Essay writing is a complex skill, and it is not uncommon for literacy skills to suffer as students take their first steps in writing an academic paper.  The end result is that the argument can be as difficult to find as car keys tossed aside because one was too busy to put them in their usual place.

Strategy – have realistic expectations of essay standards .

Marking can be mentally draining.  That shouldn’t have come a surprise.  But did.  It took a lot of concentration to understand the essays, to assist with helpful comments,  and grade according to the marking criteria.

Strategy – take breaks, do some weeding, have a cuppa, and ring a friend for a quick chat.

Marking is not a walk in the park.  I had a visions marking while relaxing outside in the sun–a cuppa in one hand, and the other tapping out helpful comments.  Reality was very different– I was inside, stressed, and wondering why had I said yes.  And why was I stressed?  I didn’t understand role as a marker, and what was expected of me.

Strategy – ask the lecturer questions about anything related to the marking, and be honest with how I am coping.

Navigating new UConnect tabs can be like opening up treasure chest or Pandora’s box.  I have a confession. I thought I would be an expert at navigating UTeach.  I am an expert at JustU, ULearn, and  UAsk.  But, quickly realised that I was no expert because I could not find the link to access the assignments.  I had visions of crashing the USQ computer systems and deleting vital student information. (Have I mentioned I have a tendency to catastrophise?)  Once I finally admitted that  The Markers Guide was making no sense, I sent an urgent SOS to the lecturer.  The lecturer made one phone call,  the problem was identified, and in less than five minutes I had all the access I needed.

Strategy – forget pride, and ask for help because I am not expected to know everything.

So, my first marking experience was characterised valuable lessons about expectations, being kind to self, and that I have a tendency to catastrophise. I was also reminded me of the incredible resource that we have in USQ staff.  It was no walk in the park, but it was a worthwhile experience  And yes – I will do it again and put the strategies into action.

To Mark or Not to Mark: That is the Question

By Ruth Wagstaff

Wow! An invitation to mark real undergraduate papers was on the top of my daily emails.  I knew at some point in my PhD I would mark.  It just seems to go with the territory of being a PhD candidate.  Now I was face to face with the big question,”To mark or not to mark?”.  I decided to take on the challenge, and in the process learnt that there is a time for marking and a time not for marking.

In all honesty, I took on the marking because I needed money.  Marking offers a good hourly rate.  I dropped from a 5 to 4 day working week so I did not go insane while juggling work, family, the dog, and study.  This one job would make up for wages lost, so I felt like I  had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Besides, the contract said that I could mark an allotted number of papers in a set time frame, and I knew that with clever time management I would have no problems fitting the marking into my already tight schedule.  I figured that if a paper or two took longer than the allocated time, I could order a home delivered pizza, and the dog could wait for her walk for a few days.  I was absolutely convinced that I had the time.  I had to have the time because I needed the money

Once the marking started, I went into panic mode.  I felt very inadequate.  The time to mark a paper sometimes took two to three times  longer than the allotted marking time.  Not only did the dog missed her walks, I ate several home delivered pizzas, and the washing was thrown into the dryer.  You see, when I start to learn a new skill, it takes me far longer to carry out the task than someone already experienced.  I did get faster at marking, but it still took me longer than the allotted time.

Marking is a skill that PhD students need to learn.  It is part of our apprenticeship. I also believe that ultimately, it will help me become a better writer.  I am unlikely to do mark again until I am a full-time on-campus student, but, I will mark again and the dog will have less walks, I will eat home delivered pizza, and the clothes will go through the dryer.

So, what is my answer to the marking question?  My answer is do not mark only because you need the money, because if time is money, there better ways to make it.  Mark because it is an essential skill to  acquire, and will ultimately assist in your own development as an academic writer .