How not to do a PhD…

Please note, I’m not even half a year into my PhD.

  1. Remote studying.
  2. Puppy.
  3. Job resignation.
  4. Massive illness.
  5. Illness-related inhibiting injury.
  6. Strike action.
  7. Global pandemic.
  8. 12 week isolation period.

Remote studying

It. Is. Hard. I already knew this as I undertook the MA as a distance learner over two years. But this time around it’s harder and it has taken me a while to put my finger on why. Firstly, the distance learning course is (naturally) geared to distance learners: all the resources and opportunities were accessible. Secondly, everyone else on the course was in the same boat and, over time, connections were made. Even though I was hundreds of miles away – thousands in some cases – from other learners, we shared ideas, chatted, attended lectures together, proof-read each other’s work and moaned / laughed / vented about the same things. With the PhD, there are other remote learners but we’re not as well connected. There are opportunities for us to join in with CPD and learning experiences but not everything is set up for us; there have been frequent activities I’ve wanted to attend but they were on campus only. The school I’m in is excellent and very thoughtful in terms of its remote students – everything they offer is mindful of those of us who are not on site – but the wider opportunities across the faculty, University or partner organisations are not always available. And I can’t afford to keep dashing up to Sheffield because I think a 2 hour activity will be beneficial: petrol, hotel, food, doggy daycare. Thirdly, I’m not able to work in the labs Monday to Friday, nine-to-five, which automatically lends a certain structure to the week and a sense of I-have-got-to-get-on-with-work-and-put-my-phone-down-because-the-other-researchers-can-see-I-am-not-being-productive. I thrive on that kind of intrinsic guilt. Finally, no matter how much I try to stay on top of emails and notifications, I have a feeling of being disconnected or of missing out on things that perhaps I would have noticed by simply occupying the same space as the other students and researchers in my school.

To mitigate how I was feeling, I started working in the library of my local university once a week (and, after I quit my job, three times a week). This gave me the structure, uninterrupted study time and sense of I-have-got-to-get-on-with-work-and-put-my-phone-down-because-the-other-students-can-see-I-am-not-being-productive-and-I-have-paid-a-fortune-to-be-here-in-carpark-fees-and-doggy-daycare.

I also began an online course offered by the University’s English Language Teaching Centre called Online Thesis Writing Course. It’s specifically for remote students and those who are on-campus are firmly told to attend the face-to-face sessions instead. I’m halfway through the course which delivers all the basics you need to know to build a thesis, including those aspects you felt too stupid to ask about. There are weekly compulsory tasks, assessed homework every two weeks and a final assignment which entails submitting a chapter or part of a chapter for critical guidance. As a completer-finisher, this has motivated me to undertake a lot of work that I was finding too vague and scary: I’ve clarified my aims; I’ve refined my research questions; I’ve drawn a physical plan of how my intended methodology will meet these aims and seek to answer the research questions; I’ve started a reading plan, now I actually know what a reading plan is; and I’ve thought about the overall structure of my thesis.

To tackle sense of being lost, I’ve started to use more organising functions to keep on track of information, ideas and messages: sub-folders within my internet bookmarks, Google Workspaces on my Google Drive, bookmarking on Twitter when I see something of note, a to-be-read document of materials I’ve encountered but haven’t yet had time to deal with, more sub-folders with my emails and an interactive, prettified to-do list on a Google Sheets.

Rainbow list – you can see I’ve been putting off the ethics lecture!

I’ve found an affordable Air BnB near the University, which also has free parking and WiFi, so I can make my trips up north more affordable. (Side note: clearly, this is now on hold.)

Puppy

Ok. This one is my fault. I wanted a puppy. I got a puppy. I knew a puppy would be hard work.

The puppy is cute. The puppy is also, predictably, hard work. I think I mentioned that already. She arrived in November, essentially 5 weeks after I started the PhD. Anyone who has had the pleasure of a puppy will know their needs are constant and not conducive to long bouts of intensive study (on my part).

She has taken really well to training and was doing well with crate training until she developed a bit of nervous anxiety: bangs, the door opening, keys in the door, people walking by the window, her own face in anything reflective all cause her to defensively bark. We think the terrible storms triggered this and we’re working to correct the behaviour. She is a super sociable dog and loves nothing better than doggy daycare… which meant that I used such facilities twice a week to carve out study time for me. I also enlisted the man-child to have sole responsibility for her one day a week; initially, this meant I could go to work and, latterly, it gave me a third day of study. We’ve also had three separate bouts of puppy poorliness which have meant she’s had to stay home to get better and, thus, slowed my studies.

Here, more puppy photos because why not.

Job resignation

I loved my job. I love the people and the place. But in the lead up to Christmas, it was fast becoming apparent that I couldn’t balance the inflexibility of work with PhD needs. It meant that I was missing out on digital and on campus opportunities because they clashed with work days and I was struggling to find work-life balance with my family because I had to study solidly at weekends to make up for working in the week. Having completed a crazy, two year MA, alongside working and the annual pressures of long exam marking cycles, I owed it to my wife to make an effort to be present some of the time! I had a choice to make: puppy, family, PhD, work. I couldn’t do them all and only one of them could really be removed from the equation.

I gave a long resignation period and planned to leave at February half term.

This risked having a negative impact on my study because it dried up my cash-flow. In essence, my tiny salary was paying for my petrol and the doggy daycare. Without it, I would lose the two, uninterrupted study days I’d created. This lead me to look for more flexible income streams and I took up tutoring with a company that enables the use of an online platform. After the cut this organisation takes, the three students I took on covered my doggy daycare, petrol and parking.

Massive illness

Straight after my mid-January MA graduation (as in, literally the next day), I was struck down with norovirus. This was diagnosed by 111 remotely. Dear Goddess, I thought I was dying. Bodily fluids aside (no one wants to hear about that), I also had a raging fever for two days and a cough that lasted over 7 weeks. I must have taken half a dozen different cough medications, after speaking to the pharmacist. Nothing worked. It was the kind of cough that meant I often couldn’t actually catch my breath, walk very far or go up the stairs. I couldn’t sleep flat, so I’ve been on the sofa since then (see numbers 5, 7 and 8 for why I’m still on the sofa now). Being sick and coughing for so long meant I also pulled muscles around my rib cage so I was also even wonkier than normal. Do any of the symptoms sound familiar? The household and I are now wondering if I had undiagnosed Coronavirus. I hope not as I went back to work after 5 days. (EDIT: I had an antibody test in August which was negative for Covid-19… so this was either flu or a standard norovirus).

Naturally, this illness really knocked my productivity. I was exhausted, unmotivated and uncomfortable at a desk for any length of time. I had no idea it was going to persist for this long so I didn’t bother applying for a leave of absence (our equivalent of sick leave). It’s the end of March now and I’m still tired and coughing occasionally.

Illness-related inhibiting injury

Week four of my cough brought with it some additional muscle / rib cage issues. I happened to cough, whilst getting out of the car, after my very last day at work. I felt something go down my right side and assumed I’d pulled a muscle. From then on, when coughing, it felt as through someone was lancing me with a hot blade. I didn’t want to take my cough to the GP and spread it about so I rang 111 who suggested painkillers, ice and heat on rotation. Plus holding a cushion or similar to my side when I needed to cough (as if I was going to go everywhere with a cushion handy, just in case). I took things easy for the rest of the week but my wife will tell you that my definition of take it easy isn’t actually resting up. I still did puppy classes, went on walks, popped back to work to say goodbye to folks and introduce them to the puppy, studied at a desk and so on. I just didn’t lift anything up.

By the following week, it was feeling much improved but the puppy had started her aforementioned third illness: blood in her stool. As I was gearing her up for an early morning vet visit, something literally popped on my right side. I screamed. And found I couldn’t move. It took me 15 minutes to get movement back and I somehow managed to get the puppy into the car (crying the whole time), drive to the vet (crying the whole time) and into the surgery (still crying). I asked my wife, who was on a train, to ring and make a GP appointment for me. We’ve not long been with this vet and I’m not sure they knew what to make of me and the state I was in. Anyway, they took over with the puppy, treated her and put her back in the car for me. Again, I somehow managed to drive home (still crying, in case you’re wondering) and back into the house. The second pop happened as I lowered myself into a tub chair in our dining room. (Crying.) A little while later, it became apparent that I could no longer move; I couldn’t get out of the chair. In a way, it was good the puppy was so poorly. This was 9.30 a.m. and she essentially stayed by my feet all day. My wife was in a meeting in London, unreachable, and the man-child was in Hereford. I sat (crying) staring at the dining room clock for three hours. My cough was still present but I couldn’t bear the pain of coughing, so most of the time I was humming and growling to try to suppress it; as you can imagine, this was alarming the puppy and the dog! After three hours of this, my body took over and coughed without my permission. Three things happened simultaneously: immediate relief as I brought up phlegm, the third and most brutal pop, and I blacked out. I only know I had fainted because I woke up with my face on the dining room table and both dogs trying to jump up at me. The pain in my side was searing and the spasms flared every few minutes. I rang the GP to explain that there was no way I could get out of the chair, let alone to the surgery for the afternoon appointment my wife had secured. The receptionists at our surgery are infamous for their dire bedside manner but my hysterical crying clearly elicited a sympathetic response. At 3.30 p.m., I had a telephone consultation and the GP diagnosed a likely intercostal tear. He prescribed me all the meds and asked if I could get someone to pick them up.

In the end, I emailed my Mum at work because she doesn’t look at her phone whilst she is at her desk. By 5.30 p.m., I was dosed up on painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories. I definitely scared my Mum as she’s never seen me in a state like that before. Also, the wife felt terrible as she’d been inaccessible all day.

Having quit my job so that I could focus on my studies, I spent the next few days sleeping in a chair and unable to be at a desk. What is up with that, Universe? When I was up to it, I made it to my chiropractor who confirmed the torn muscle but also diagnosed that the popping was a herniated thoracic disc… which explains the slow recovery. Up to 12 weeks. As the rest of the household now has to carry the weight of domestic tasks, I’m considering it payback for the litany of surgeries and acute illnesses the wife, man-child, dog and puppy have endured over the last decade, causing me to play the role of benevolent nurse at least once a year.

A recap: I first became ill on January 15th. Today is March 30th and my back still isn’t 100% and I have to study in short bursts. I’m still on the sofa because I can’t bear to lie completely flat. I’ve been battling with my health for nearly 11 weeks now. I don’t have a full GP record of this as I used 111 and pharmacists – I managed to acquire a med cert for 2 weeks of my troubles but not enough to really apply for a retrospective leave of absence. Plus, I decided that I’d rather power on and catch up rather than pushing back my first year deadline. Also, as someone who is self-financed through the delightful and empathetic (!) Student Loans Company / SFE, I don’t want to do anything with deregistering and reregistering that could mean my finances are fudged. I’ve been burned by them before, during my undergraduate degree.

Strike action

Please note that I wholeheartedly support the strike action by HE staff this year; these comments only pertain to my own experience as a student. I’m lucky that these were only a minor irritant: it meant some of our planned sessions were cancelled or postponed and it also meant I couldn’t reach out to staff when I had questions. Spread over 4 weeks, the strikes just meant I felt a little disconnected again but by this point I was working on the online course I mentioned above so I was fully occupied.

Overall, as this overlapped with my illness, quitting work and my injury, it just felt like are-you-kidding-me-another-thing?!

Global pandemic

Clearly this has now affected everyone and, as I’ve written before, I know many other people have it a lot worse than I do.

Initially, it was small things. The University pulled face-to-face teaching. Ok, I’m working remotely but I had booked and paid for a week in Sheffield using Air BnB so I could attend a range of lectures, meetings and events. It was to be the first time I could spend a prolonged period of time immersing myself in PhD life. I’m lucky that Air BnB told everyone to issue refunds (which I’ve now spent on loo roll and dog food).

Then the universities started to close their campuses, which meant I could no longer work at the local university’s library. Next, the schools and colleges closed and exams were cancelled, so I lost 2/3 of my tutees. Yes, I miss the income but I’m also gutted for them as they were making brilliant progress and would have far outperformed the predictions the schools will now have to provide the DfE. Doggy daycare facilities remained open but for the sole use of key workers, puppy classes became 1-2-1s and then stopped altogether. The University stopped its library postal service. My wife began working from home (she has severe asthma) and the man-child’s college and workplace both closed. Boom. Suddenly they were both here 24/7, as was the puppy.

We had some food in the house but none of the important things: wine, chocolate, biscuits.

Studying (as the country was gradually shutting down and universities were playing catch-up with digital delivery) was a bit weird.

March 24th brought a national lockdown; by this point, we had already been isolating for 5 days. We had a daily schedule as my wife tried to work, I tried to study and the man-child tried to write college assignments (BTEC, so it’s still go-go-go for him). We were initially using local dog walking paddocks because they guaranteed no contact with anyone else. The sunshine helped as we sorted the garden, soaked up the rays, baked and had some quality time together. It was easier for the man-child after the 24th because it meant all his friends were in the same boat.

The puppy is sly and we quickly had to amend the schedule to make it very clear who had responsibility for her (green paw symbol). Otherwise, she had started to chew wires, eat poop (a habit we had been reducing) and generally cause mayhem. We also limited phone time (I mentioned this in the last blog post). Sofa: I’m still sleeping on it. Turns out that helps for social distancing, too.

12 week isolation period

My wife got The Letter. Long and short of it is that she is under house arrest for 12 weeks from the date of the letter: March 27th. She cannot separate herself from the rest of the family because of the size and configuration of the house, so we are now shielding her by also going into isolation.

Day 1 of this realisation really punched a hole in our holiday-spirit approach to Coronavirus.

Suddenly, group dog walks are a no. Going to the paddocks is a no, to remove all risk of contamination. Quick dashes to the local shop, adhering to social distancing rules, are a no. The man-child and I can walk the dogs from our front door once a day and that’s it. For 12 weeks. Or 3 months. Or 84 days. We each have a preference for which sounds better.

Our last action was to fetch a click and collect order from Tesco, which we essentially did in a hazmat suit and with a litre of disinfectant. Sleeping on the sofa is now mandated by the Government so that my wife and I can maintain appropriate distance (plus my back still isn’t right). And now we stay in until June 27th. That is, of course, if Coronavirus got the memo and sticks to the script. In reality, this could be much, much longer. (EDIT: flipping doodah, Jo… you got this very wrong! It’s February 2021 and you’re still shielding!).

It will certainly take us up to my end of year period, when I should be submitting materials, undertaking a presentation and then completing my confirmation review. My new reality is that all of my research has to be undertaken in this tiny house, in the presence of two other large personalities.

All of which is to say that we spent this Sunday finding a solution. It was better than having another meltdown.

I have reconfigured a corner of our lounge. I now have a chair, foot rest, side table, desk, elevated laptop, book stand, lighting, Harry Potter themed items and my library books. Literally, my library books as I can’t return them to either library at the moment. I’ve tested it out today and it seems to be a productive and plausible space to work. I’m fortunate that my wife has offered to take the bulk of the puppy duties to enable me to catch up. Also, as we now eat at 7 p.m. (ish) and do family things from 8 p.m., it means there’s a natural cut off for using the space.

When I was asked to do a PhD, and warned coached about the trials and troubles of doing a doctorate, I can honestly say that over half the items on this list were never mentioned. Moreover, I am fully aware that if I had not left my job in February, I’d still be at home now and able to work uninterrupted on my PhD. On either full pay or 80% pay. Yeah, thanks again, Universe.

2 thoughts on “How not to do a PhD…

  1. EDIT: in hindsight, we’re wondering if the norovirus in January was actually an early case of coronavirus, given it floored me for months. No antibody tests available so we can’t know for sure.

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