PhD lifestyle guilt



I’m going to take a moment out of my busy study schedule to interrupt yours by telling you about my experiences with PhD Lifestyle Guilt. This is, as the name might suggest, the perennial guilt about having the sort of life where ‘work’ involves sitting around on the couch reading interesting stuff, and getting grants to go to international conferences.

Of course the PhD Lifestyle is not like that for everybody. I’m fortunate enough that, in Australia at least, writing a thesis in the humanities means no coursework. And no coursework means very little reason to be on campus. Ever. The communication with my supervisor usually happens by email, phone or Skype, and I have chosen a research topic that doesn’t require lengthy or convoluted studies or data collection.

“So you’re just basically writing a really, really long essay?” a friend one asked, suspicion and resentment in her eyes.

Yup. I’m just basically writing a really, really long essay. Google Scholar is my friend, and seeing as I can access my university online depository from anywhere, I rarely have to visit the library. Life is easy.

Hence the guilt.

I often downplay how much I’m enjoying the process of the PhD because, a year into it, I still can’t believe how good I have it. Others, specifically those working 9-to-5 in a an office for a boss, don’t have it so easy. To assuage my guilt, I fill my days with ‘real’ PhD work. I assiduously note the exact amount of time, down to the quarter hour, I spend each day on strictly PhD-related work. Not reading emails, not reading the news, not even reading the Thesis Whisperer blog; just ‘real’ work. I do this so I can tell anyone who asks exactly why I have been doing with my time. No one has actually asked yet – but you never know right?

I set myself little tasks and sit by my computer until they are completed. I create arbitrary deadlines for producing small chunks of chapters and conference papers – then stress about not meeting them. That constitutes work, doesn’t it? I minimise procrastination with every trick I know. I don’t check emails first thing in the morning, thus avoiding the inevitable vortex of replies-to-replies-to-replies and clicking on links to irrelevant things that seem like they absolutely must be read right this very minute. I don’t allow myself to log in to Twitter before 5pm. And I don’t indulge in reading things that won’t in some way expand my body of knowledge on my thesis topic. But just last night I spent nearly an hour reading an article – an academic, densely referenced, big-word-using article – that was only tangentially related to my own research. So why did I read it so thoroughly? I was actually enjoying it. It was so well written it was a pleasure to read.

Naturally, I then felt guilty.

All this guilt and shame is ridiculous, of course. After all, part of my raison d’être in being a PhD student is the lifestyle. Yup, the lifestyle. Not academic kudos. Not improved job prospects. Not the vanity of putting ‘Dr’ on my future business cards. But the lifestyle.

The flexibility of independent study has allowed me to follow my partner interstate and, frankly, I like having very little structure in my days. I like working evenings and weekends if I want to, and not getting out of bed before 9am. I love taking several hours out in the middle of the day to go for a swim, or ride my bike around nearby bushland, or a long run in preparation for an upcoming half-marathon. I love being able to watch Bollywood films and documentaries on India (the geographical focus of my thesis) and chalk it up as research. And I love that my office chair is actually my sofa, and that my desk is really a coffee table.

Unlike many people, I much prefer working from home than in an office – I don’t have to commute and I don’t get caught up in the office politics or the constant distractions of phone ringing, people knocking on doors, having to chit-chat with colleagues, etc. Sure, there’s distractions in the home too – those dishes in the kitchen sink aren’t just going to wash themselves! But at least these distractions are of my own creation. I have no-one but myself to blame if I cave into the temptation of spontaneously vacuuming an already clean floor just because it seems easier right now than reading through a stack of articles on hydro-hegemony in the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya region. Ah, so begins the cycle of guilt!

A friend of mine recently completed her PhD on a topic very similar to mine, which she did in a lifestyle very similar to mine. And you know how many hours a day she averaged on ‘solid’ work?

Three. Monday to Friday. Three hours a day.

A quick glance at my conscientiously kept spreadsheet of hours worked since enrolment tells me I am well on track if I take my friend’s example as a standard.

So why do I still feel guilty about having spent half a Saturday writing this blog for you?

Author Bio: Paula Hanasz is currently writing a thesis on the geopolitics of water security in South Asia at The ANU. She is enrolled at the Australia National University but currently spends more time on her couch than in her office or the library.