I am weak willed. I am pandemic-bored. I am reasonably materialistic.
Not a great combination when other PhD students show off their bits and bobs in PhD Forum, Virtual Writing Retreat (VWR) or on Twitter. This blog is dedicated to the online purchases I’ve made over the last 6 months because I’ve coveted something a peer has shown me. You know who you are!
Please note, many-many-many-many more items have been purchased but I cannot blame my fellow academics for those.
There is always talk of cake and sweet treats whenever I’m in PhD Forum or VWR. Some of my online chums are excellent pâtisserie chefs, one resides next to or above a pastry shop and others live with excessive-baking mums! I am a terrible baker but my wife is pretty good. This is less of a purchase, unless you count the ingredients, and more beg my wife to make something out of sugary buttery jealousy.
Someone (and he knows who he is) lives very near a fromagerie. Following his on-camera show ‘n’ tell of very fresh, very smelly, cheesy goodness, I ordered a box of cheeses for Christmas. It’s March now and I think we still have a smidgen left in the fridge.
So I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to blame this on my PhD chums as I bought it for a friend’s Zoomified birthday last November. But, it has certainly had more outings in study spaces since then: PhD submissions, new jobs, birthdays. I really want a tiara made from stationery items…
We’re not fussy – we drink Prosecco, Cava or Champagne. Not a fan of Asti. And yes, much to the chagrin of an American study buddy, it often arrives via Amazon.
It’s an anti-procrastination app that keeps you from faffing on your phone or, if you use the Chrome extension, from surfing on your laptop when you should be working. In simplest terms, you plant trees and shrubs, if you use your phone, you kill the tree. Added bonus is that you can plant in groups with the fear of killing your study buddies’ trees. You can turn off the killing mode but the idea is to be accountable. There’s also an option to save and buy a real tree that’s planted somewhere in the world. Obviously, as a materialistic fool, I spend most of my coins buying pretty trees for the app. And I procrastinate about growing themed forests… so, oops.
I definitely think one of our PhD chums gets a cut from Forest App purchases because she’s super prompt with the sales pitch whenever someone new to the group asks what’s going on… You know who you are.
I made the mistake of sharing Brian Tracey’s take on an old adage with PhD Forum and VWR chums: “If the first thing you do when you wake up each morning is eat a live frog, nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day!” Tracey advises that your “frog” is the most difficult task on your to do list. It could be the biggest or the most complicated or the most challenging.
Anyway, the idea stuck. Really stuck. And suddenly we were all talking about frogs and tasks – sorry to the person who has ranidaphobia and was suffering in silence for weeks!
Around the same time, I started a Kanban board to organise my PhDing so I also grabbed some frog notelets to indicate those kinds of tasks. If I recall, this caused another study buddy to start a similar search which led to some confusing and unpleasant sexy frog images.
What do you do when you’re bored in the house and your in the house bored? (TikTok reference for the youngsters, there). You cut yourself a fringe/bangs. Because why not.
It didn’t go too badly but turns out fringes/bangs = a lot of hard work and maintenance. Also, fringes/bangs are not very compliant. Half the time I look like Alison Steadman from “Abigail’s Party” (definitely not a reference for the youngsters). Also, I can’t make headbands work without looking like I’m stuck in the 90s.
This PhD Forum inspired item is a headband/bandana/face covering hybrid. It’s so easy to use that even I can wear it.
Yup, this one is genius. It’s like a personalised electric blanket, perfect for all us poor folks stuck working at home in Dickensian conditions. Several study buddies have these so I can’t point the blame squarely at an individual. To be fair, they’re so effective, my wife demanded one too.
Someone declared it was World Sleep Day on Friday 19th March so it was decided that we would all work in PJs or onesies. It meant I had to get some new PJs because all of mine are some sort of combo of trashed T-shirts and holey-leggings.
PANDA HOODIE BLANKET
A lot of my PhD chums have onesies. One of them has a veritable collection worthy of its own catalogue and accession numbers. As a curvy person, I struggle to find onesies to fit but I have acute onesie envy. This beast is an oversized hoodie-blanket, with soft lining, and shaped like a panda. What’s not to love?
When a study buddy sends you beautiful calligraphy of your name, it is simply the law that you must turn it into items you can use on a daily basis.
Well, Rocketbook sales have definitely rocketed this weekend. Badaboom.
I’m not the only PhDer who wishes they could afford a Remarkable2 – but not only are they astronomical (haha – did it again) in price, they also have a delivery waiting time of months and months. The Rocketbook, according to a study buddy who we suspect is on commission, is a cheaper alternative. It lets you write and rewrite over the same pages, scans them into an app, sends them off to email / Google Drive / One Drive / Dropbox and so on.
It only arrived yesterday but I’m enjoying trying it out. I already had a dozen or so Frixion pens at home, which are needed for their erasable qualities, because I have a stationery problem. I may have mentioned that already?
Oh, how I wish I’d been shown the ways of multiple monitors a long time ago. It has cut down on my printing and crossed-eyes-ness when dealing with data. I do frequently lose things because I can’t find my mouse on either screen. Or I’ll be looking at my conf call but not at the camera, appearing somewhat disconnected to the poor people I’m meeting. But I’m slowly getting the hang of it.
I also like to call these wife-cancelling headphones. Actually, I needed these so desperately, I made my wife buy them and paid her back when my student loan appeared. Sharing an office at home is somehow harder than an open plan office at work. I think it’s probably because we project our voices more (well, one of us does) when trying to be heard over Zoom* instead of the general chatter in an office.
* other conf call software is available
I haven’t named any specific study buddies in this list but I’m sure some of you will recognise yourselves. That said, in March 2021 alone, one of you requires a special mention.
…it turns out they’re my jam. Over lockdown (which this family unit is still doing due to my wife’s health vulnerabilities), I have been missing my normal work processes. I am a weird hybrid because I love planning and I love spontaneity so I was surprised to find that I’ve been missing my routine. Or that it was even a routine in the first place.
Essentially, I would drop the younger dog at a daycare facility twice a week and I would use the man-child’s time off from college / work as a third puppy-free day. Then, I would leave the house. That’s the sum total of the habitual part of the routine. The spontaneity came from choosing where I would work and how long I would stick at it, which varied day to day, thus it didn’t feel very regimented.
Favourite locations: * University of Chichester library – Bognor Campus * Chichester College – Brinsbury, also where I worked * Tesco in Chichester or Havant – for the free parking! * Costa, Harris and Hoole, Boston Tea Party – for the coffee-on-tap * Public libraries * The pub
I had favourite places to sit within each location (and would have a private, internalised strop if they weren’t available when I got there), knew the shortest route from the nearest carpark so I could lug books, had auto-connections to the WiFi in each place and could source an available wall socket in under 6 seconds. In the academic and public library settings, I’d even take in my laptop riser, proper keyboard and mouse, and be amused at the looks I’d get. I like a long stretch of work to really immerse myself and get things done. Sometimes, I’d go early (to get my favourite seat) and just do a traditional working day. Other times, I’d work until bedtime in the venues where that was possible. The routine was very flexible.
Then Covid-19 came along*.
Pop. The routine and all its flexibility was gone. After our initial panic about the pandemic, my wife’s health, money concerns and so on, we began to look at ways to create sustainable work conditions – discussed in previous posts here and here – to improve my productivity. I basically tackled the things I thought I was missing by not being able to access my normal routine.
Somewhere comfy to work: I am on the third iteration of a work-from-home space. I now have a decent desk, very impressive chair, foot rest, good lighting, reasonable internet connection. It is all lovely and I’m grateful to the man-child for the use of his room by day (it’s the biggest, nicest looking space and he’s leaving for university in a few days). But this hasn’t increased my productivity.
Space and time alone: I know that the places I used to work in weren’t solitary but they weren’t full of my people. People who talk at you, ask you questions all day, interrupt you and so on… For a while, I commandeered the lounge: my wife and man-child were forbidden from entering unless I initiated contact. Or there was a fire. Or chocolate. Also, it meant I could avoid the general chaos of the house (mess, washing, dishes) which I thought was also a benefit of escaping to study in other places. It was all calm and quiet but it still didn’t improve my productivity.
Coffee on tap: we’ve long had a good coffee machine at home but the cafetière had broken and sometimes all I want is decent, strong, black coffee. I replaced this, topped up my flavoured syrups for fun lattes and even purchased some frappe making powders to enjoy iced coffee. Again, all good but it didn’t improve my productivity.
It transpired that emulating these features of my previous flexible routine did nothing to help with my motivation and efficacy. Honestly, it was confusing and frustrating. Then, in August, as I was limping towards my first year PhD deadline, I attended an online session called Thesis Writing Workshop led by Dr Esther Allen – Research Development Manager for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. I was hoping to pick up some tips and tricks for academic writing at this level. Esther’s content was excellent; she provided a lot of help and guidance for those of us who procrastinate, including exploring the reasons behind it. She also talked about writing retreats… I’d previously seen them advertised at the University earlier in the year but as a distance learner with nothing to write (back then), I’d assumed they weren’t relevant to me. Esther described virtual equivalents which were popping up in lieu of in-person retreats and provided some links. With a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained level of desperation, I signed up for a retreat with Virtual Writing Retreat.
The premise is simple. You sign up and pay a £3 charge which helps them to run the events. They send you a link using Slack and you turn up in a secure, moderated chat room. Here you join a mini group for the session of 4 – 6 other writers. Everyone using this service is writing academically. In your mini groups, you announce your goals for the day: a word count, a chapter, a sub-section, specific edits, a rewrite, responding to notes. Then, at particular times, you check in to report back on progress made towards your targets. If you want, you can use a pomodoro timer so you’re working in sprints and they definitely recommend regular breaks – I tend to use the check-ins for this purpose. Sometimes others offer advice but they always offer encouragement.
My first retreat was the 5th August, from 8.45 a.m. – 3.15 p.m. and I wrote 1300 words. It worked. I immediately booked all the sessions they were running up until my 22nd August deadline: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and the occasional Sunday. It had been so effective, I hunted around for another option for the other days of the week and stumbled upon The Writers’ HQ.
Naturally, I really enjoyed their slogan. For the most part, they are a community of creative writers but there have been academic writers in all the sessions I’ve attended. Added bonus: free! They use Crowdcast to start and end the day; you set your goals in the comments box. Then, you check in at various points of the day on their forums or via Twitter if you prefer. The moderators respond to your comments and make sure everyone has been supported. Peers also comment and offer help.
Each of the two organisations offer something different. Virtual Writing Retreat is academic so the others attending understand what I am doing and why. Writers’ HQ is gloriously funny and sweary. The personality types of the organisers and the writers really suits me.
Why did it work? Which part of my pre-Covid-19 routine was it imitating? I think it’s the small-c-catholicism I carry. My pre-pandemic way of working and the new virtual writing retreats tap into my innate sense of I-need-to-do-this-and-do-it-well-and-efficiently-or-I’ll-let-someone-down. Dropping the puppy off at daycare meant arriving by a certain time; I hate being late (something my wife doesn’t care about, much to my frustration) and I’ll do everything I can to be prompt. The virtual retreat taps into this. No one would scold me for being late but I don’t want to miss the beginning and the goal setting… so I’m up, caffeinated (grumpy) and ready to start on time. Without the retreat or the puppy daycare schedule, I’d start sometime just before lunch as I am a nocturnal creature. Equally, the public but private setting meant I felt compelled to get on for fear others would see I wasn’t working or was mucking about on my phone. I know this is ridiculous as no one else in a library, coffee shop or pub gives two cookies about what I am doing… nor is anyone in a writing retreat going to pass judgement. It’s a self-inflicted compunction. I also feel compelled to get things done in the writing retreats so I have something honest to report back during the check-ins.
Virtual writing retreats are my jam because they enable me to healthily take advantage of my completer-finisher-guilt-ridden personality traits. I will continue to use them as I progress with my research and would pay more for the service (don’t mention that to either organisation!). My only regret is that it took me until August to discover them.
*I am more than well aware that this is a less-than-minor impact of the pandemic and I am just contextualising my experience.
Here is a handy guide on how to approach your spouse or partner as they undertake a PhD. In fact, this would apply to anyone living with somebody undertaking intense studying. Bear in mind, the context of this blog post = a family unit who hasn’t left the house since the middle of March, with the exception of dog walks in a secure paddock and medical appointments. We’re all a little tightly wound at the moment.
>> How long will that take you?
Try instead: never asking this question or any other that relates to timescales or speed of work.
Nothing will take me from feeling focussed and on task to exuding misty-red-rage quicker than this question. I have no idea how long it will take me. But I do know it will now take me a lot longer because I have to remember which figurative thread I was pulling on and which of the fifty-billion-million-tabs-I-have-open I was working on. Why do you need to know how long it will take me? You are a bonafide adult and you can occupy yourself or solve your own problem without any input from me.
>> Oh, I thought it was ok to talk [at you about my work / a meme I saw / the man-child] because you looked up from your screen…
Try instead: smiling, if there’s a brief moment of eye contact. That’s it. Nothing else.
Looking up from my screen doesn’t mean I am not processing something. PhDs are weird… you are holding so many ideas in your head at the same time and sometimes trying to push incongruent ones together. Looking up from my screen is usually an indication I am stretching my back, resting my eyes (which have always preferred to read on paper) or I’m sorting and moving things around in my mind palace. Ok, I’m no Sherlock Holmes but I do often visualise things. I will also say that this equally applies to reading for pleasure. Don’t interrupt me and pull me out of the world I was enjoying!
>> Bringing cups of tea or coffee and then moaning or being cross because they go cold.
Try instead: using one of the many lidded thingymabobs that we have (affectionately called stay-hots, in this house).
I realise this example paints me as a bit of a cow. I’m not ungrateful and I will frequently go without nourishment and hydration for many hours because I am in the zone (reading and thinking for several hours in a row so that I can write, literally, a single sentence). So, bringing me beverages is great and much appreciated. But, if I didn’t ask for one, I’m unlikely to even notice it arrive. Whacking it in a device that keeps it hot for longer increases my chance of drinking it. Also, the “telling off” for letting it go cold is another interruption which makes the answer to “how long will that take you?” even more volatile.
>> Offering to tidy up piles of work or books.
Try instead: doing nothing and leaving things exactly as they are.
For a start, in this marriage, I am not the messy one. In the past, I have had to tidy and clean her many offices because she likes to work in chaotic squalor. We are talking a penicillin level of neglect. The idea of her implying I’m working in a mess evokes words such as audacity, arrogance, cheek and delusion. I am methodical – it might not be obvious but there is always a method. So the piles are thus organised because they denote something: the order in which I plan to read, connections between authors and papers, topics or themes. If you touch them, you affect that organisation.
Also, this is an example where a partner or spouse looks like they’re being kind and helpful but the implication is that you’re somehow affecting the household because of the space you’re occupying. I have enough self-imposed guilt about being a 39 year old student without others piling onto it.
>> I thought you were going to work on [x, y, z], today?
Try instead: not commenting on when and how I choose to take time off.
See aforementioned references to self-imposed guilt. Sometimes, I am just not motivated to start or to climb back into the-monstrosity-of-an-office-chair-I-was-forced-to-buy-to-placate-my-fickle-spine. I just want to scroll through social media, watch Hamilton on Disney+, read a book for pleasure, play a game or message my friends. I know I have a deadline. I know it’s immovable. It is better that I take breaks, even unplanned, during my low motivation moments rather than arbitrarily having a planned night off that risks breaking a flow. Essentially, I don’t need a project manager; in this situation, you are my spouse and you are not responsible for my timesheet. Cheers.
I can guess that anyone reading this who knows me will automatically take my wife’s side… and fairly so. She is lovely and (usually) just trying to be sweet. This blog was more about explaining what goes on in my head when met with these comments, questions and actions. Also, we’ve hit 20 years of “how long will that take you?” It has been applied to my undergraduate degree, my PGCE, classroom planning and marking, coursework and controlled assessment marking, exam board marking (there’s been a lot of marking), DIY and decorating, MA assignments, and my MA dissertation. The answer is always the same and I’m surprised she hasn’t learned it yet.
Please note, I’m not even half a year into my PhD.
Illness-related inhibiting injury.
12 week isolation period.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
First of all, I’ve decided to put my hat in the ring and have a go at winning some funding for the PhD. I’ve spent quite some time on the phone to SFE (they’re really nice to you once you’re a postgraduate borrower of money, it transpires) who assure me that this is all above board and won’t leave me out of pocket if I win the funds. Yes, I’ll not receive any more student loan payments but, no, I won’t suddenly have to stump up thousands to pay them back instantaneously. This is a moot point anyway as the funding is damn hard to get – they even call it an “open competition,” which sounds a little Hunger-Games-esque to me. First to the cornucopia gets the funding?! The White Rose College of Arts and Humanities is a federation of the Universities of Sheffield, York and Leeds; the funding is open to PhD students in multiple schools / faculties across all three and only 40 people are awarded the funding. My guess is that the majority of it will go to 2020 first year students, not those of us who are beginning our second year, because it’s a good marketing tool.
In the first instance, I’ve had to apply to the Information School to get their go ahead to then apply to WRoCaH. Yup, that’s its acronym and it’s pronounced rocker. Whilst I’m very unlikely to win the funds, it is good practice at writing bid-like things and explaining what it is I’m trying to achieve.
Second of all, it is time to euthanise my laptop. I’m hoping it isn’t self-aware enough to read that last sentence and that our Alexa device hasn’t given it a heads up. It is slow and clunky; it basically takes longer than me to warm up in the mornings. Once you have more than two tabs open on t’internet, it grinds to a halt. And multiple applications gives it a stroke. In my head, it’s a relatively new and powerful laptop but, in actual fact, I bought it in 2012. That’s probably geriatric in laptop terms, right? I have to turn my simple needs (fast, number pad for data entry, not too heavy) into technical specifications. And I don’t even know the difference between memory and storage. Plus I’m on a poor-student-budget. Nevertheless, I am committed to spending my loan (after fees) on this endeavour at the end of the month and to ensuring I don’t choose whimsically because I like the colour. I’ll keep this laptop because the man-child will need something for university and it will do until he saves for better.
Finally – and I guess I buried the lead – I’ve resigned from my job. Big, difficult, unwanted decision. It turns out that studying for a PhD full time – and remotely – isn’t conducive to holding down a job, even part time. I knew that the PhD would require self-motivation and discipline but I truly thought that I was enough of a workaholic that I could do it all. I can’t. It’s a very hard pill to swallow.
Currently, I am not in a productive routine and I’m jumping from deadline to deadline. Also, I need the flexibility to engage with the brilliant doctoral programme and academic development opportunities. Not only that, the man-child has hit the needs-me-but-doesn’t-want-me stage of his development (Nanny McPhee reference) and is taking up an inordinate proportion of my time… I won’t go into details because it wouldn’t be fair to share his life. I will say it’s exhausting and I also don’t want to unintentionally let him down because I am spinning too many casserole dishes (bigger and more awkward than plates). Essentially, life, wife, teenager and PhD are all plates that I cannot and would not drop, meaning I had to turn my attention to the work plate. One influential factor is financial stability: I am fortunate and grateful that my wonderful wife has landed an impressive new job and has offered to solely shoulder the burden of the household income.
I am gutted to be leaving my job for so many reasons. I have an excellent boss, who is a perfect mentor and coach for me: supportive and challenging in equal measures. Plus, she lets me flex my initiative. Any Sunday night blues are banished because working with her is a dream. The whole College Group was supportive of my MA, dissertation and research. The campus is so unique with cracking students and staff. It’s going to be a wrench to leave and I am not enjoying the countdown to the end of February.