It’s a fun job, and I enjoy it

I stole this slogan unashamedly from Happier in Hollywood, a fun podcast about life and work.  Their motto as writers in Hollywood is “It’s a fun job, and we enjoy it!”  It sums up a feeling I often have that doing PhD is an amazing privilege.  Sure, it’s a privilege that I actively despise a lot lately, but I should probably be more focussed on the good side not the dark side.  So in an effort at procrastinating positively, I made myself a happy squirrel reminder.  Seriously, a PhD is a great thing to be doing.  I’m so lucky to be able to give three years to a project this way (and not have to have higher paid work), I’ve got great hours so that I can be a stay at home parent (something super important to our family), I’m very interested in my topic, and I love “thinking about things” as my job.  If I could choose any job in the world and describe it, it would be a professional “thinker about things.”

It doesn’t help to actively remind myself of this most days of the week…

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The eye of a needle

My topic, it’s enormous.  I am still searching for exactness.  Like most PhD students, I have an enormous olympic pool of ideas, research, concepts, theories, but I’m cramming them into a wading pool that is my 3 year thesis.  It’s old hat to say that it’s a thesis, not a Nobel prize, but the reality of narrowing, effectively throwing out (for the next 3 years) ideas and theory and other work is a hard slog.

I’m finding the focusing stage a difficult time.  My topic is the transition to adulthood for people with severe cognitive impairment.  I do socio-legal work that looks at how law works in practice (on the ground, the interface between law and people), and what that might tell us about our society and ourselves.   So in my thesis, I’m interested in intersections between broad ideas (like what is an adult) as they intersect and are represented within regulatory systems.  An example: a person can vote when they turn 18. This is regulated by laws, and these laws are administered by the electoral commission.  All of this, the laws, the regulation, the institution, helps illustrate what we think being an adult IS exactly.  What is voting?  Why is it important?  What do we do when someone can’t vote?  Even more specific: We got a letter for Daelle about her reaching voting age and being registered.  There is a form you can fill out if someone isn’t capable of understanding voting to get an exemption, which means she won’t get fined.  This needs to be signed by a doctor.  So we (and Daelle) intersect with this system of law and regulation and bureaucracy about voting in a particular way.  All of this stuff is our society’s way of defining these bigger shared ideas and concepts.

My project is about where parents andneedle carers of people with severe cognitive impairments (who are transitioning to adulthood) bump up against regulatory systems and law, like social welfare systems, finance and banking, transport, education, healthcare, the NDIS, and guardianship.  I’m looking at severe cognitive impairment because it informs us all not only about the lived experience of their carers (as close as I can get to the person themselves) – which is not very much researched and super important – but also because looking at the “extreme” edges more clearly shows us the core of our ideas about what being an adult means, what being a citizen means, what being “disabled” means, and at some fundamental level, what being a person in our society means.

So yeah, like most people, I have some big ideas to wrestle into 100,000 words in a specific format that shows I deserve a doctorate.  Like everyone, it’s all about wresting the ideas into smaller shapes, that are still meaningful, and that still represent the big ideas, but that can fit into a PhD shaped box.  It’s a mental juggling act.  And my arms are tired!!

Networking, what is it good for?

This is rhetorical of course.  I have to push myself to reach out to other academics and students.  I have grand plans, and can even manage competent email contact, but when the fateful day to have coffee and a chat comes around, I am finding some large scale resistance in my brain.

I can tend to be an insular soul, so meeting new and interesting people and talking about myself in some way that makes my work sound scintillating can be a tad anxiety provoking (for all of us I figure, work with me here!).  But I’m soldiering on.

I set a goal this term to meet up with two women who do great work in my field and also happen to work right at my University, and I managed to actually follow through last week!  It doesn’t help that I had to reschedule twice because of a seizure day and a pupil free day/childcare fail.  These things do not instill one with confidence as one sails out into the big wide world.

Of course, the chat (eventually) went great.  Anxiety = nil; Awesomeness = 1.  I hereby award myself a networking gold star!

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Living it

Like a lot of people who research, I live my topic, it’s part of my own narrative.  This has, for me, a somewhat messy heap of benefits – including thinking of the topic in the first place, seeing that it’s an issue socially and legally, and being in the privileged position of being able to spend time thinking pretty deeply about all of this *stuff*, some of which is my own *stuff*.

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Daelle, refusing to fit into all kind of categories!

But it’s also hard.  Nearly everything I read and think about now is about profound disability.  I read articles about how we define people as “people” – as moral actors.  I read about horrific discrimination, or the lack of value of human rights, or about what on earth human rights (and humans!) are in the first place.  I read about programs for people with severe disability, and about the grief, despair, hope, and joy of their parents and carers.  I read about the nature of our laws of guardianship, our lack of human rights protections, our failures in social services and social administration.  And I am in all of those things I read, or at least a close neighbour.  Then, I think if I wasn’t in it, I would be missing an essential element, some intangible thing, that grounds it all and helps me see it.  I don’t have to hurdle the foreign language of a immersion in research area, I just have to see it when it’s all right there in front of me.

Having it all right there is also hard, I deal with some of the issues that prompted my topic nearly every week.  Our family moves through social welfare systems, financial systems, we make decisions all the time “for” Daelle, we share her care, so we have issues of disagreement and alternatives, we have funding, program choice, transport, therapy, aids and equipment, staffing, all this front and centre, every day.  The constant small hiccups and large catastrophes of having an adult person who can’t fulfill our system’s many criteria of being an adult person.  Where those criteria fall way, way down, how they hurt and harm, how they become endless exercises in bureaucracy, reporting, forms, how something essentially human is lost here….  At least through all this,  I get a constant parade of subject headings for my thesis!

This makes me think a lot about the nature of research, and how we see bias, what meaning we put on it.  I’m doing interviews later, too, and I think this will be interesting to share and think about as I go.  I’m planning on writing on all this in my methods section, maybe a paper too… Maybe!

Procrastination, my friend

It’s been school holidays, then several weeks where it was either a public holiday that week, or a pupil free day, and my brain is confused.  I appear to be lacking the basic motivation to work on my thesis at all, despite my most excellent reading plans.  I have ground to a halt!

I’m not really sure what it is, exactly.  I’m not really behind, I have a good plan, everything is set up and organised, I love my topic and find it all super interesting.  But opening files and writing, or getting out articles to read and make notes is just not appealing.

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Instead, I am organising ALL THE THINGS in the rest of my life, which is fine I suppose but not conducive to being called Dr one day.  I have a bunch of admin for my oldest girl at the moment, and we also got a new giant turtle tank, which had a knock on effect of meaning we now have a new pet lizard, and all our fish tanks are getting makeovers because reasons.  So I find myself buying silkworm eggs and replacement impellers instead of being a good academic.  This too shall pass…right!?!

Must stick to reading goal this week, at least then I’ve got something nice a ticked off a list to point to.  Happy trails, all!!

Read, read, read

I read a lot, I’m a reader.  Thank all the gods.  I have SO MUCH in my (clearly) overly ambitious reading list in Endnote that I’ve embarked on an equally ambitious plan.  I’m setting a goal of 10 papers a week for the next three months while I’m writing up my confirmation of candidature.  I should be able to do it (I hope!) as I’m an embarrassingly fast reader, so at least I can physically get through it.  It’s a total of 130 papers, which sounds like a lot.  I have over 500 things in Endnote at the moment, so if I can manage to stick to it for longer, I might get through most of it!

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Bonus pic of my work calendar!

It took me a while to settle on how to approach reading.  I’m a perfectionist, which is shit sometimes, so I just kind of left engaging fully with a very long list of articles and chapters in the too-hard-because-I-can’t-perform-it-perfectly basket.  That’s a big basket.  I try and deal with my must-be-perfect-or-just-sit-frozen-in-inaction-and-binge-watching-Blacklist tendencies by making a good enough job be 1) okay; and 2) doable.  As in, I have to get in to the tiny boring details.  Which I’m now going to overshare with you all.

I tried to read on my iPad but for key papers (I’ve got about 50 that are pretty central so far) I need a hard copy.  So I am a repentant tree murderer.  I print them out.  I am hoping to move to the iPad soon though, it’s way easier, and I read books on there via Kindle so I don’t really know what my brain’s issue is!

I want to read at least 10 papers a week, and these can’t all be super hard papers because I might be dedicated, but I’m also a delicate flower.  So I try and pick a mix of “get the gist of the work” papers, that don’t need a lot of notes, just a summary, and at least 5 “OMG I have to read and synthesise this or I will totes fail my PhD” papers.  I should point out this doesn’t include anything else I read on my way through the week, like if I’m working on a section and dig through literature as I go.  I’m talking more about getting through a large body of literature that I want to fully understand and appreciate before I finish up.  The body of work that will be the fields I want to contribute to as a researcher and in my career.  Anyway, back to stationery, which frankly is the highlight!

I have nice box that my 10 papers fit in, with my pen and highlighter.  And I have a clipboard for home.  Because I like them and there’s nothing like a clipboard for making you feel super smart and organised.  Try it!

I’m writing up notes for each paper in Scrivener as I go, so I can more easily shift and flesh out notes to be in any final writing.  I posted a little while ago about working at home with kids, and I think having a reading set up at home will mean I can just have this task set for quieter afternoons, and a chunk of weekend time.   The whole project also fits my have a checklist of shit to do goals (“Write it down, check it off”), which is nice.  Might as well work with it as against it.