Shiny balls



Struggling with balance isn’t new for me; I’ve always been a full-throttle, grab-life-by-the-shoulders-and-shake kind of person. So when it came to starting my PhD, saying yes to opportunities to learn and stretch myself alongside the PhD was second nature. I’ve always worked full-time while I studied so “having it all” seemed not just attractive but feasible too.

For most of us, the end of this journey won’t be the start of a new chapter with a Research Fellowship. The employment statistics in academia are thoroughly depressing and it is worse for women than men. The casualization of teaching, the small numbers of fellowships and the increasing competition from around the globe mean you’ve always got to have an eye on how to edge ahead. Which means saying yes, and often, right?

As time slips away and the PhD finish line still seems a long, long way away, I’ve found myself re-evaluating what Hugh Kearns dubs the “shiny balls”. Like the solid plastic tube Hugh holds up in lectures, I can only squish so many balls into my life; what’s falling out the tube is my PhD.

This isn’t all about work. I’d love to have a solid wall between my personal life and the PhD but the reality is they bleed through each other like cheap ink. I can’t tell my three-year-old his dress-up day isn’t important or that I can’t be there when he is sick because I’ve only just got a run on with this concept.

At some level I’m trapped by the 1950s housewife expectations alongside all the research. I bake cakes for birthdays, write personal notes to friends, organise playdates and house repairs. I’m the washerwoman, cleaner, personal organiser and event planner. Despite my best efforts, the timetables of other life events (illness of a parent, separation) won’t march to a different drum beat because it’s at an inconvenient time in the PhD. Most of the time I am so flat out exhausted that if a brilliant idea smacked me in the face I wouldn’t have the energy to engage.

And yet once I commit to all these shiny opportunities that will give me some intangible “edge” I’m in boots and all. At one point I had three part-time jobs on the go at the university, all trying to get that leg-up so I am employable at the end. Join to that a couple of student representative roles, some peer support and I found myself working harder than ever before and still feeling like a complete failure because the PhD progress has been glacially slow. At times on this journey I’ve run myself so ragged that I’ve had glandular fever and shingles.

So where’s the tipping point in this story?

I went to a conference in Melbourne and then took two whole days for myself at the end of it. I re-engaged with friends whose calls I’d been too busy (or too scared) to return because I knew they’d ask me about the PhD and I’d have to be honest with myself as well as them. I read nothing. Not a single journal article. I shut off email. I took some time to think. I walked, I bought flowers for a friend. I drank some fabulous red wine. I stopped.

And the world didn’t come crashing down.

A dear friend and mentor has been checking in on me for the past few months and reminding me that I needed to “fly the plane” and ignore everything else. Whatever loud alarm is going off, if you take your eyes off the act of simply flying you’re definitely going to crash.

So gradually and painfully I’ve started shedding some of those shiny balls. I’ve slowly started to recognise that the fight for a job at the end only becomes real if I ever reach the end; and unless I clear these “extras” out of my life I’m not going to get there. I’m putting some existing commitments at the head of the work queue to get them off the list, easing out of other commitments and consciously not taking on any more work. I’m working on the gaining the wisdom to know the difference between the things I can change and the things I can’t.

I still feel like I’m “trying to catch the deluge in a paper cup” most days, but at least now I am edging forward. The goal now is simpler: just don’t give up. Maybe it will take me longer to complete this journey; maybe I won’t get the golden ticket of an academic job at the end. But if I emerge intact with the thesis finished, that’s surely a better outcome than the path I was headed down.

Author Bio: Belinda Lawton is completing a PhD in the Crawford School at the Australian National University