Birthing my doctorate


I’ve posted on metaphors before. I’ve found the use of metaphor helpful as a way of conceptualising my experiences as a doctoral student and also of making sense of particular components of that (the literature review as an octopus being pushed into a vase, for example).

After reflecting on the first few research interviews, I started routinely including a question that asked parents to use a metaphor to describe an aspect of their experience, and this has for the most part been an extraordinarily powerful approach. In fact, in a couple of weeks I’ll be opening a conference presentation with one parent’s metaphor.

This month’s post is going back to seeing my own experiences through metaphor – in this case focusing on the gestation (pregnancy) of my thesis. This came about because of a question in the context of students who were ‘half way’ through their candidature. I was going to blog about my half-way update in October, but October was an especially busy month, so that will be held over for the next post instead. My dilemma was figuring out exactly when my half-way point was. Having started part-time, experienced a long down-time before my recruitment yielded results, and then suddenly finding that I have an end point that is visible on the horizon (how did that happen? Squawk!) I could pin down at least three different ‘half-way’ points.

What I found more helpful was to think of my candidature as having three distinct phases (counting from the day of first enrolment): phase one ended with granting of ethics approval to proceed, phase two ends with the completion of data production – ie. final interview – and phase three is all the analysis, writing up, submission and through to graduation. Being an ex-midwife, this lent itself to the image of pregnancy trimesters. And here’s how it looks from there. Warning: there are some massive generalisations in what follows. This is a personal perspective – both in terms of pregnancy and doctorate – and it might not fit for everyone!

Trimester 1: “I’m [having a baby/doing my PhD]!
You’re excited. A bit nervous. Maybe feeling a bit sick, in all honesty. You’re likely to be a little overwhelmed by what you’ve committed yourself to.

You’re learning a new vocabulary. You thought you knew your own body’s basic anatomy and physiology, but this is a whole new world (metaphor within metaphor there…).

Everyone seems to have advice for you, whether you asked for it or not. At parties, you discover friends are simultaneously excited for, and bored by, your new adventure. They say they are there for you, but when you start talking about the details, the glazing of their eyes gives you cause for a teensy bit of doubt.

Unhelpful as the advice usually is, the horror stories are worse. Nightmare deliveries, crashed computers, the loss of any sort of satisfying adult life…people relish their opportunity to admire you while, at the same moment, terrifying your socks off.

Trimester 2: “You look great!/You’re so smart!”
Well, the nausea has passed, apart from the occasional flash of heartburn. You’ve passed the ‘danger stage’ – your proposal/confirmation is behind you, ethics approval is done, and the data has started to come in. It’s interesting! You’re learning! You’re contributing to a better future for the world!

You’re right into the swing of this now. You’re making steady progress in the accumulation of the trappings of your new role in life (baby furniture, wraps, apps for writing/note-taking/productivity/referencing, software and hardware of all kinds).

Importantly, you are starting to have something to show for your efforts, so your pregnancy/thesis is becoming real to the people around you, and (if you’re lucky) they show genuine interest in your progress. People see your swelling belly, or ask how many interviews you’ve done. You understand a whole lot of things that were incomprehensible to you when you started out. You feel good. The advice and horror stories continue, but you think “Hey, I can do this!”

Trimester 3: “Haven’t you [had that baby/finished that thesis] yet?”
That mid-pregnancy glow is fading…fading….gone. It’s starting to feel like a long time since you began, and yet only the blink of an eye. And so little time till birth/thesis submission! You can’t imagine being pregnant/thesis-writing for ever, and yet it’s equally impossible to imagine that this phase will ever end and some unfathomable new life will take its place.

You feel like a whale/fraud. You’re uncomfortable, and (dare you admit it?) a bit bored. Your partner/midwife/obstetrician/supervisor is heartless and doesn’t understand. You are super-sensitive to advice and horror stories (which doesn’t stop people sharing them. All. The. Time.) and arguably even worse are the stories of bliss and ease. You think “Aagh! I can’t do this!” Passing, and not passing, are equally inconceivable options.


In midwifery terms, there is a fourth trimester. Weird though the terminology is, it’s a thing. That time after the baby is born/thesis has been passed, when transition into the next phase of life occurs. Of course, metaphors are always imperfect. We could talk about that time between submission and graduation as a kind of labour, but really I would have to work quite hard to draw meaningful parallels there. Also, I’m only just reaching the end of my second doctoral trimester, so what do I know about the next section of the journey? My friends are mostly a bit ahead of me and I’m watching, listening and learning. I’m lucky that I have a great deal of confidence in my supervisors and feel comfortable to talk to them; I’m discovering that this is not something that can be taken for granted.

I don’t want to be a source of unsolicited advice to those starting out, so if you read on you accept that advice is going to be there.

To continue the metaphor:

1. Gather a support group around you. You know those people who tell you horror stories, or alternatively tales of success that just make you feel like a failure before you even start? They don’t have a place in your group. Smile politely, but inside your ears, be singing ‘lalalalala’. Your support group will have a mix of people – those who know more than you do and know how to teach you, those that are going through some similar stuff and can share as equals, and those that will be quietly present, maybe needed for support/chocolate/fun/tissues and maybe not, but loving you regardless.

2. Filter and focus. This is related to the horror stories and the sheer quantity of information that bombards you throughout the whole process. Gradually you will learn what you need to listen to. Let the other stuff go. Some of it mihght be valuable, but you simply can’t take it all on, all of the time. Filter and focus. If you take away nothing else, take away that.

3. Prepare. This phase won’t last for ever. Also, it will be hard work. So, to get through those two things in good shape: be physically as fit as you can. Get physical exercise, drink plenty of water, eat a healthy varied diet. No kidding, it really matters regardless whether you’re pregnant or doing a doctorate. And if you’re doing both simultaneously, then…yes. Same advice. Put together a list, and start packing your bag. You need things that are informative, things that are inspiring, things that bring you comfort, things that ease the pain. Snacks, heat packs, writing apps, you know the sort of thing.

4. Be open to alternatives. Lofty ideals about refusing pain relief (or being accepted for publication in a highly-regarded journal, for example) are a good thing to aim for, but unless there’s a really good reason, keep your options open. Don’t make these into things that shatter you if they don’t happen as planned.

5. Above all, keep your pregnancy/doctorate in perspective. Childbirth, though undoubtedly a unique milestone in life, is but a small percentage of parenting. Doctoral studies might feel as though they consume you for some years, but you are more than your PhD.

At this moment, I’m approaching my final research interview. I’ve started to draft my Methodology Chapter. I have an out-of-date version of my Lit Review waiting to be given a total overhaul. I’ll be transcribing almost full-time for the next few weeks (I’m still hoping to do this all myself, for methodological reasons…I don’t need to ask for pain relief yet…ok so far…)

I know I have some hard work ahead of me, and some of it is just going to feel like a great big slog. Is it taking the metaphor a step to0 far if I compare the testamur to a baby photo…?

Survive PhD 2015


This morning I recorded a short introductory video as part of my participation in the Survive PhD MOOC (massive open online course). I hope you can see it here: My SurvivePhD intro

Wow, this experience taught me two things.

1. It takes me a long time to trek around cyberspace trying to figure out what I’m doing (and I’m not totally sure I’ve achieved today’s goal, which was to get a short DVD filmed and accessible to the people I want to share it with).

2. I have no intuitive sense of how to manage my balance of privacy and publicity in an online context. I teeter wildly between wanting to share stuff and being paranoid about who will see it and what they’ll do with it.

But what’s the worst that can happen…? Oh, that? Really? Eek.

On the plus side, in the course of my attempts I’ve downloaded another app that might come in handy some day, and changed another password that surely should have worked the way it was. Was this a priority for this particular morning’s work? (Koffkoffsplutter.)

Knowing when to stop


I’m really enjoying my research at the moment. I know this will probably change over the next few months, but for the moment there it is. Enjoyment.

A few things are contributing to my current happiness:
1. Full-time on-campus study is working well for me. I have a routine, a stable workspace where I can have things set up ready to swing into action the moment I arrive, friendly but equally focused colleagues, and access to those secondary but important ‘parastudy’ items (coffee, food, wi-fi, library).
2. I seem to be hitting a good work-life balance – at least for the moment.
3. I’ve stopped recruitment and in a few weeks I will have completed my final interview.

It’s the third of those points that is the focus of this post.

After a rather lacking-in-confidence start, I’m now feeling at ease in my discussions with parents. I have my list of materials – audio-recorder, mapping tools, paperwork – pretty much down pat so I don’t foof around too much getting myself ready to go. I’ve had enough (and varied enough) conversations that although each one is different, I feel capable of responding to most unexpected situations. I have a few core questions that I (mostly) remember to ask in some form, depending on the flow of the discussion. And I know that if I was to stop right now, I have enough information upon which to build my thesis.

So why am I still going? This is something my supervisor has gently challenged me with recently, and I’ve been asking myself the same question. In some methodologies there is a clear guide to help answer this question: you state a particular number of questionnaires to be circulated and your sample is the number returned, for example. Or you code as you go, and stop when you reach saturation and no new ideas are emerging. For me, each interview brings a new slant on the topic. As unique as everyone’s situation is, every parent’s information will in some way be different to every other parent’s.

An added factor for me is that I enjoy the process of listening to the parents who are taking part in the study. It fascinates and energises me. I’m inspired and intrigued by them, and honoured that they trust me with their information.

So, at some point, I will need to draw that imaginary line in the sand and say ‘enough’. At that point, my study lurches into a new phase, and this is perhaps also why I’m putting off the line-drawing moment. It was easy enough to decide to stop recruiting; this did feel like hard work, sending out multiple slightly customised pleas for assistance to reach parents, going back with more information, explaining my ethics approval and why I can’t just change my public documents at will, waiting on all sorts of different agencies’ internal processes over which I had absolutely no control (‘could you just send an email about your study to … and they’ll have a look at it and get back to you’). Deciding to stop recruiting but remaining open to any further requests to participate that might trickle in from past advertising, has been a nice relaxed space to be in.

According to my project proposal and ethics approval, I’m aiming for 30 participants, with individual one-off meetings. There was some hesitation about whether this was too many (as my supervisor pointed out, this could result in a lot of data to manage, and I might stop seeing major new themes emerge well before I got to 30), although one of the academics on my proposal panel queried whether this would be enough to be able to obtain more widely useful findings. At the time I write this post, I’m anticipating a total of 25 parents, but I’ve changed my methodology slightly to accommodate some couples who wanted to meet together in the one discussion, and the option to have more than one meeting if the single one wasn’t enough or time was too constrained. As a result, the number of meetings and the number of parents doesn’t quite match.

I’m transcribing and jotting down my thoughts on emergent themes as I go, and I’m starting to draft my methodology chapter, but once I stop meeting with parents I will need to turn my attention fully to these tasks. And there, possibly, lurking just beneath my consciousness and occasionally popping up its fanged head, is The Thing. I know once I start that phase, the whole candidature moves into its final stages. The abstract ‘when I finish my thesis’ (somewhere, over the rainbow…) becomes a more concrete date. A dog walking over this concrete date would still leave paw prints, but it’s firming up as we speak. And I’m not sure I’m ready! Also, I know this next phase is the bit where people tell me I will start to hate my thesis, and I will start to hate my supervisor (I find that really hard to believe, but this is what I’m told) and it will all turn into a Great Big Tedious Drudge.

Because I feel ambivalent about concluding the interview phase, I’m hoping that my supply of interested parents will simply trickle away of its own accord, so that there will be no identifiable moment when I have to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t meet with you, I’ve completed that phase of the study.’ On the other hand, at the moment it looks like I will have completed all the parent meetings a month ahead of schedule, which makes me happy. Maybe I’m ready to move ahead after all, knowing that there will always be people out there who have interesting things to tell, but who will need to do it some other way than through the this vehicle. Um, what’s a post-doc?

Building a pineapple


I was reading a post by Pat Thomson on her wonderful ‘patter’ blog today check it out here, in the course of which she mentioned the phrase ‘chunks and pieces’. My mindfulness colouring-in book must be working, because my brain immediately started ticking over, making creative links…to pineapples. A tin of pineapple pieces is a very handy thing to have in your pantry. It can be thrown into a beef curry (my version, not anything that someone who had an actual curry heritage would have anything to do with) or stirred through a tuna mornay (and if either of my kids is reading this, I will know, because I’ll feel the draft created by their eyes whizzing around in their sockets…this is not a good thing, just to be clear, but I do like a bit of tinned pineapple in my tuna and white sauce) or, more conservatively, served with vanilla ice-cream or yoghurt.

Pat wasn’t talking about any of these things, mind you. Her post was much more useful, unless you’re looking for a quick tuna recipe, in which case I’m your girl. But the phrase got me grappling with a pineapple metaphor about writing a thesis. The thing is, last week I met with my supervisor and she reminded me gently that I really do need to start showing some more concrete evidence that I’m writing. Assuring her that I write often (which I do) is not really cutting it now. The issue is that I’m not writing anything that she gets to see. I’m a bit private. I’m like one of those pre-school kids who won’t try to read or write something until they know they can do it correctly, although they may be secretly trying and trying, by torchlight, under the doona where no-one can see and so if they mess it up no-one will laugh. Erm, am I giving too much of myself away here?

So I’m thinking about the pineapple idea, and thinking how it’s a bit like writing – we have little pieces of text, which get built up into chunks, and the chunks into rings, and eventually we’ll have a whole pineapple to submit. Except, oops, major limitation in this metaphor: once a pineapple has been cut into rings, and the rings into chunks, and the chunks into pieces, it can’t really be reversed. Uh-oh.

And so the point of this blog post is to say, beware of relying too heavily on metaphor. I love metaphor as a way of expressing concepts, personally, but you really do have to be careful not to extend things beyond their natural elasticity. My supervisor is getting to know me well, and knows that it’s time for a little prod. She’s also absolutely right that I need to come up with an outline of my methodology chapter (this week’s goal) and I need to show it to her (next week’s goal).

I have lots of little pineapple-pieces of text lurking away in Scrivener*. I probably have the majority of my Methodology outline sitting in there already. So now, I just need to publish this post and turn my attention to building a pineapple…

*Free plug for this software, btw, if you’re looking for something that you can write in a non-linear way. Somewhat akin to doing a jigsaw but with pieces that you cut out and colour in as you go (oooh, was that another metaphor I just spied?)

** By the way, I do understand the difference between metaphor and analogy. I know I’ve mixed them up a bit in this post. Think of it as having a few cherries thrown in with your pineapple and ice-cream. Let’s not think too deeply about this one.

The Rapunzel Factor: Letting your hair down when you live in the Ivory Tower


Now that I’m a full-time doctoral student, I’ve been allocated my very own desk space in a shared office. This is such bliss! It gives me a place that I can display visual resources (concept maps, whiteboard to-do lists, a 2015 planner, and so on), and a shelf for all my books (set up in descending order of size – it’s a beautiful thing). Not to mention that I have a filing drawer for my lunch box, a plastic container with cutlery, teabags, corn crackers and a little jar of Vegemite. And my own tea towel. Oh, and (joy of joys) a lockable filing cabinet. I can lock stuff up and leave, at the end of the day, and not have to lug everything home and back again like I did last year.

It also provides me with office buddies. At the moment there are 9 of us sharing the room, plus one in an adjoining room, at different stages of our candidature from newly-arrived to almost-submitting. I know this can be problematic in some shared offices, but we all seem to get on really well – very quiet and hardworking, we are. People take phone calls out of the room. We say hello on arrival, and goodbye on departure, and apart from that, conversation and distractions are relatively minimal without being unfriendly.

Which brings me to the Rapunzel Factor. One of the big risks of doctoral studies, particularly for those of us who are researching alone rather than in research teams, is isolation. Social isolation, peer isolation, academic isolation. Even when we’re together, we can be isolated by our own research focus. We sit there crouched over our laptop screens, ruining our eyes, backs, cardiovascular systems and social lives…all in the name of academia.

So the nine of us decided that it was time to go out together for lunch. I take no credit for this apart from being encouraging of others who mentioned the possibility. One of the recently-arrived students eventually showed more initiative and organisational ability than the rest of us, and put up a sign on the door, the eventual result of which was that, recently, all but two of us were on campus at the same time and off we went.

Over lunch, we were able to chat about things related to our studies, and things related to life Beyond the Ivory Tower. We started to get to know each other – countries and languages of origin (diverse), professional experiences, views about current affairs.

We’ve decided that this was such an enjoyable experience it will become a regular Thing. We still work hard, and mostly in communal silence, but the dynamic of the room has changed. I think we’ve started to consider ourselves as colleagues, which is a more active relationship than the passive one we had before. On the surface, nothing much has changed, but there’s an extra warmth when we greet each other now. I believe next time, we’re going to a Thai restaurant…I’m looking forward to that.

Reading is not a luxury


As I type this, I’m sitting beside a pile of printed articles waiting to be read, absorbed, summarised and filed away somewhere that will make sense when the time comes to look at them again. I’m really interested in what a lot of them have to say, but I just don’t ever seem to have time to read them. Each day, I receive alerts via my email and discover more gems, the abstracts of which I duly check and if they look extremely relevant (I’m getting much more discerning as this degree proceeds) I print them out and add them to the pile.

I’ve been feeling quite a bit of subtle stress as a result of this pile of paper. It sits there like a well-trained dog waiting to be fed or walked. You know the look – eyes fixed on you, motionless with quiet canine focus, apart from maybe the occasional quiver and deep-throated mutter (I swear my pile of papers mutters to me from time to time).

I like reading. In fact, I love reading. My relaxation of choice is to curl up with a book and lose myself in someone else’s ideas. So why am I finding it so difficult to get into this pile of stuff that is interesting, and relevant, and useful – in fact, of critical importance if I’m to complete my degree? What’s my problem?

As I looked at the pile again today out of the corner of my eye (trying to focus on writing a presentation for a forum this afternoon) it suddenly occurred to me – reading keeps being put off because it feels like a luxury!

As I posted last month, I’m in a writing group, because being in a group that writes together seems to help each of us individually to be more productive. No-one has ever suggested a reading group, but maybe it’s an equivalent kind of focus and motivation that I need to simply sit down and read. I have a tendency to skim, or walk around with an article in one hand while making a cup of tea or stirring the dinner with the other (I have indeed been known to walk into lamp-posts because of my reading-while-walking behaviour. It’s a bit humiliating.)

The trouble with walking and reading is that, although it’s better than no reading at all, there are some kinds of reading that need a particular degree of focus. One author I read early on in my doctoral life, whose name I can’t for the life of me remember (please remind me if you know who I’m thinking of), was clear that your physical posture when reading academic documents should be different form that of recreational reading. No couch-slouching for journal articles – these should be read sitting up at a desk, with a pencil, ruler and highlighter handy. The ruler should be used to scroll down the page, ensuring that your eye doesn’t skip ahead, feeding fragmented information into your brain.

It’s worth trying this, even if (like me) you consider that you’re a very good reader. It really does make a difference. It also means that recreational reading still feels like a different activity, so there’s some in-built containment between compartments of your life.

Now, I’m fully aware that some people find reading difficult and tedious at the best of times. I can’t imagine doing doctoral studies if this is your perspective, because both the quantity and the substance of the type of reading you will have to do (there’s no escape) is beyond anything you’re likely to encounter anywhere else. But if you’re reading this, chances are you are not a reluctant reader, because reluctant readers are unlikely, I think, to go searching blogs for more things to read.

I’m interested to hear from other doctoral students, whether PhD or otherwise – how do you approach your reading? Have you kept reading while collecting and analysing your data, or has it been pushed aside until it’s time to revisit your lit review? And what effect have your doctoral studies had on your recreational reading?

And I’m particularly interested in whether anyone’s tried setting up a peer reading group, and what you learned from that experience.

Parallel Play for Postgrads


One of the things that I anticipated when I started my doctoral study was loneliness. Although I wasn’t too worried about this, being by nature an introvert and liking to be responsible for my own work, it wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to. I moved to Sydney just before I started my doctoral studies, so I didn’t know anyone at the uni and imagined that most other doctoral students would have done their undergrads and/or masters programs there. I figured many of them would know each other, and would certainly know their way around. I had psyched myself up and was prepared to be the ‘new kid’ yet again (a familiar and not at all desirable role, after several moves in my earlier years).

As it turned out, I haven’t felt at all lonely. In fact, my imaginings about the social side of doctoral studies were totally wrong. Not only have I not been lonely – far from it – but the majority of my peers seem to have come from other universities, and many of them have come from other countries. I am a ‘new kid’, but so are most of the others. Many are shy. Many lack confidence in conversational English. It’s not at all the socially and academically confident cohort that I thought I’d be bumping along on the periphery of… (on the periphery of which I thought I’d be bumping…along…pfft, whatever.)

The reason I mention all this is because throughout the past 2.5 years of my 3 years here so far, I’ve become part of a group of students who have developed into a very functional writing group. We have a membership of ten, and an active participation of between 3 and 7-ish (it varies according to conferences, paid work, overseas travel etc). As most have now completed their data collection and are in the analysis and writing-up phase, both our focus and our group organisation has shifted. Initially we met fortnightly, talked through literature and our thesis proposals, practiced presentations, did buddy-editing tasks on abstracts and chapter drafts, and shared in each others’ anxieties and celebrations. Now we meet weekly for 2 hours, spend almost all of that writing, and soon we’ll be celebrating the first submission…the first acceptance…the first graduation.

We’ve tried several venues, looking for something with the right combination of background noise/quietness, food, drink, light, ventilation, temperature control, table height, and Skype access (the student who really got the group going has moved overseas, and now participates from the other side of the planet). Recently, five of us spent a Saturday doing a 5-hour ‘writing retreat’ at a room adjacent to a local cafe, interspersing 50-minute solitary writing sessions with breaks for coffee, lunch, and time-limited chats. It was so successful that we are going to be doing this 2-4 weekly from here on, now so many of us are reaching the pointy end of writing-up.

Hence the parallel play allusion. We have been reflecting on how amazingly productive we find these ‘alone together’ writing sessions, and how illogical it seems that it should make any difference to be doing together something we are all perfectly capable of (and experienced at) doing alone. We laughed at the curious looks we got from people who see us seated around a table at our respective laptops in silence, tapping away or looking quizzically into the distance then launching ourselves back at the keyboard.

What makes this group so successful, and what is our secret of longevity? Here are some suggestions:

1. Someone needs to be a leader/co-ordinator, to the extent that they co-ordinate communication, logistics and so on. Who this is might change over the life of the group, and group members are also in contact with each other outside organised group activities, but we’re all busy people and if there wasn’t co-ordination and a designated contact person for group matters, we’d fragment off into our own separate trajectories.

2. Everyone else needs to participate in keeping the group vibrant. In our group, what this looks like varies. Some people are regular attendees at weekly writing sessions; others only get along intermittently but stay in email contact and attend when they can. One has left the uni but remains involved to work on other writing tasks.

3. Activities need a focus. I think this has been a critical point in keeping us so active. I’ve been in groups before (have even led groups before) that have gradually settled into a ‘let’s go round the table and quickly say how our week’s been going’, inevitably running out of time and never actually progressing to other core activities. In the end, they always run out of energy and fizzle out. In our group, we tried setting monthly goals, compiling a table of goals/strategies/outcomes and holding each other accountable, but that didn’t work too well, largely because it took a bit more organisation to put the table together (and remember to go back to it) than we could realistically manage. Now, though, we start each session with a one-sentence statement of what we plan to achieve in the session (“Today I aim to write 300 words in my Methodology chapter”/”Today I am going to draft an abstract for my conference application” etc) and maybe also a goal for what we’ll be focusing on prior to the next group meeting.

4. Let the purpose of the group evolve as the group evolves. I say this with some hesitation because it may not be relevant for every group, but our group has very definitely changed over our nearly-3 years. When we were all new, there was a lot of need to listen to each other talk, around a wide range of aspects of our research-student experience, from emotional support, to information about methodologies, to ideas for presentations. As we each progressed past our proposal acceptance, ethics approval and data collection, we became clearer and more confident about our own particular research, and needed the structure of writing together more than we needed the wide-ranging discussions.

5. Look toward the next phase and plan how the group might work in the future. This includes, eventually, planning the closure of the group if that is decided on. We are starting to talk about who will be the first to complete their thesis and how we will celebrate this. Who will be the last, which is also a milestone for us as a group? (Almost certainly me!) And of course there will also be graduations to celebrate! And beyond…

Several ‘younger’ students have said to me, on hearing about this group, “I wish we had something like that.” My answer is very simple: start one. That’s how ours came into being. No-one put it on for us. One student (not me) talked to other students she knew though a workshop series that the faculty provides for students (a word of advice: go to these), got a core group going, and they all then worked out how they wanted the group to work (see points 1 and 2 above, in particular). It’s also worth asking the relevant doctoral support staff on faculty to help get the word out to other students, if needed. In addition, keep things like Skype and other media in mind, for linking in peers who are off-campus.

Parallel play is usually talked about in terms of preschool behaviour, where kids move around a space in little clumps, ostensibly doing their own thing and yet watching, learning and sharing space and energy with each other. That’s what our group does. Each of us is researching something totally separate, using an array of theoretical and methodological approaches, and yet we share a common experience and are better off for getting through it side by side.



Things I’ve learned from cleaners


Just before I started writing this post, I reviewed my last one. I must say that I’m very glad I said no to those three tempting activities that I’d been considering. I’m not committed to as many things this year as I had been, but somehow the ones that I’m committed to are all expanding to fill the available space in my diary (and my mind). BUT! Here it is, mid-February, and I’m writing another post, on schedule. Being a strength-based social worker, I think I’ll dwell on that for a moment. (Sighs happily.)

I’ve possibly commented in an earlier post somewhere that the appearance of my desk offers a clue into the state of my mind. It’s something I comment on fairly often. At the moment, this will depend very much on which working space you look at – my desk at uni is looking very organised but the dining table at home is a complete disaster, and not because of an over-supply of dining equipment. There’s a very powerful feedback mechanism happening in all this, too. I get up in the morning keen to get on the bus and in to uni. At uni, I have lists on my whiteboard, and a wall planner with targets and coloured dots and sparkly smiley faces. I even have a shelf of good books arranged in size order from tallest to shortest (it’s a beautiful thing, don’t knock it.) I tick things off as I accomplish them. My workspace is quiet and focused.

In contrast, the dining table is strewn with fliers, articles, charging devices, coffee cups, and a laptop that’s gasping its dying breath but still responsive enough that I can get in and retrieve the occasional file.

Needless to say, this is not my favourite place to be.

However, I learned something very useful from a cleaner that I employed several years ago – let’s call her Ivanka – and yesterday I started putting Ivanka’s advice into practice again.

1. Put things into piles.

At the time that I employed Ivanka, I had two small children and was working and studying. I didn’t spend much on clothes or entertainment, so having someone to clean my house became my treat for myself. Ivanka would come in and the first thing she would do was sweep everything on every horizontal surface into piles. No thinking was involved, it was a purely physical activity: clothes, toys, books, papers, the children…well, not the children (they didn’t like her much, by the way. But I loved her.). It was amazing how things looked instantly more manageable, and even if she couldn’t get through all the piles in her allotted time it left me with a home that I felt I could conceivably wrangle back into a presentable condition by myself. And how you feel about things matters….

2. Sort the piles.

Obviously. Having spent a few minutes creating jumbled piles in each room, she would go through one room at a time, one pile at a time, and order would follow in her wake.

3. Every now and then, take a moment to stand and look at the places where the piles used to be.

It wouldn’t be a long self-congratulatory wallow, but once each pile had been sorted into non-existence, Ivanka would stand and look for a moment at the space. These places were evidence of her (your) effectiveness – you transformed that square metre of floor from chaos to clear space! Go you! It’s important to remember to look at these spaces regularly, or you are in danger of forgetting that they are there, and more importantly how they came to be like that, and it’s important that you balance the ‘must do’ thoughts with ‘I can, because I did’ thoughts.

4.  Once a room is clear of piles, give it a joyful going-over with the duster and vacuum cleaner.

Sing while you’re doing it – Ivanka would. If it’s not appropriate to sing out loud because of shared workplaces, have a little sing inside your own head. Remind yourself that you’ve risen over the hump, and now you’re looking at the promised land. Live in the moment – muttering to yourself about how long it will stay looking like this and how no-one appreciates it anyway is Not Helpful. It’s not the point, and don’t do it.

5. Then rest.

Ivanka had a time limit. What she couldn’t do in the time didn’t get done. Well, not by her, anyway. Or perhaps it would wait till she got back to it the following week. Either way, she had a set time, and she would put her head down and slog for that period of time, and then she would walk away until it was time to do it again.

Now these lessons obviously translate well into research and other study activities too.

Literatures? Data? Piles of random and diverse documents on your dining table? The basic approach still works, and I can assure you that seeing the chaotic mountain of stuff shuffled into smaller piles/categories is amazingly empowering. Once I’ve piled/sorted/dealt with the stuff on my dining table, or even one corner of my dining table, I’m turning my attention to my as-yet-incomplete data set. Different mechanical process, same theoretical principle. Bring it on.

PS: You might be wondering what happened to Ivanka. I was about to type that ‘things went pear-shaped’, but as part of the story was her pregnancy, that metaphor probably isn’t in very good taste. But she did indeed become pregnant, and rather than stop cleaning, she decided to sub-contract to her newly unemployed husband, to clean under her direction. Unsurprisingly, his transition from mechanic to domestic cleaner didn’t go smoothly. In the end, we agreed that it was probably time for all of us to start a new phase in our lives. I never did find another cleaner who was up to Ivanka’s standards.

What was that I said last January?


I really love January. It’s a time for refreshment in every way. Our campus closes over Christmas and the New Year, so it’s a good time to simply stay away (although people who are keen/desperate to keep working can still get in if they really need to).

After a very enjoyable couple of weeks hosting family members at our place and a couple of local B&Bs, and a week interstate preparing and participating in a Planning Day for the Committee of Management of which I’m now president, this week marks my first ‘normal’ week for 2015. And I’m loving it.

I’m acutely aware that I’ve only updated this blog twice in the past year, and one of those posts was 51-and-a-half weeks go so it only barely counts. A quick review of that post reveals that I am all good intentions and very little substance. Tsk. I’m quite disgusted with myself. January is dangerous, I said. I always overcommit, I said. I have a brain and self-awareness and I’m going to use them, I said. Did I? It appears not.

But, you now, today being the first day of the rest of our lives, etc, etc, here I am again. And this time things are going to be different.

So I say. But, as the wise and often-quoted Anonymous has said (more or less), you can’t keep doing the same things and expecting a different outcome. In other words, if I post the same reflection that I did on 20 January 2014, which I don’t know how to link to yet (note to self: add this to ‘Goals’), and don’t do anything differently, all the self-awareness in the world will only result in me being cast once again in the parallel roles of ‘lead character’ and ‘onlooker’.

The good news is that a couple of very significant things have, in fact, changed, and this is directly linked to the very reflection I posted nearly a year ago. Sometimes change happens slowly. The forward movement may be virtually imperceptible, but it’s happening. My forward movement didn’t become very noticeable until November and then a few things happened all in a rush. To cut a longish story short, I’ve resigned from my part-time paid work, and am now studying full-time and planning to do a little undergraduate tutoring to contribute to the family coffers (I really hate to be dependent). This means…yay!…I qualify for my own workspace on campus. I ‘took possession’ yesterday and I cannot begin to express the joy of having a wall where I can put up an annual planner and a whiteboard (they have to share the same bit of leaning-space, but no matter), a shelf that fits all my folders and books, and three drawers of filing cabinet space (two lockable). And the room is locked, and I have a key, and the people who share the room are very quiet workers. I’m so happyyyyyyyy!!!!!!

And the most important bit of all this is not what I can see, but what I can do. I can focus. I can work. I can lock stuff up and come back to it in the morning, and not carry it with me (physically or metaphorically).

But my January challenge remains. Can I avoid the segue from January’s energy to mid-February’s overcommitment? Well, I’ve already consciously NOT followed up three things I’d like to get involved in this year: a role on another committee, a voluntary role in a program that provides ‘gig-buddies’ to people with disabilities so they can go to mainstream events, and a voluntary role with the Sydney Heritage Fleet. The latter is a bit self-serving; as much as I want to contribute, I want to learn from people who know about this stuff so I can work on my own wooden boat. All of these things can be picked up later if it seems I have time after all.

Watch this space. If I stay on track, there will be another post in February. And one in March. And so on. Now I’m off to tick ‘blog post’ off my January to-do list. I’m so happyhappyhappyhappy.

A clear desk does not mean an empty mind.


My research will involve exploring participants’ interpretations of certain experiences and situations, and as a result I’ll be thinking a lot about the attribution of ‘meaning’ over the next few years. I’ll be exploring an aspect of participants’ experience that is on the surface quite practical, but unpicking their descriptions of it to gain a better understanding of the meanings that might be hidden in layers beneath the obvious.

Symbols are often designed to universalize communication and transcend verbal language, contributing to shared meanings – think of the wheelchair sign on parking spots or toilet doors, for example. On the other hand, sometimes meaning is influenced by culture and can vary across groups of people. Why, for example, do politicians and media personalities in some countries (anyone feel like making a guess?) insist on pointing at an apparent ‘someone’ in the audience? I presume they’re pretending that there’s a particularly prized person in their sights (“Hey, favoured person! Fancy seeing you here! Must do coffee some time!”). The reality is that in a crowd, about twenty people will all think “He’s pointing at me. Hey, look everyone, he’s pointing at me”…the impact of which is surely reduced by the fact that the nineteen people around you, who are the only ones who would be able to see you and be impressed by your special status, all think he’s pointing at them. But I’m wandering off-topic…my point is (boom boom) that the extension of a finger towards another individual could also be considered extremely rude and aggressive in other cultural or situational contexts.

Bringing this discussion closer to home and into a more personally reflective vein, I’ve been thinking recently about the meaning of place and space, and particularly about their meaning in terms of work, study, fun, and a balanced life.

Several years ago, I worked with a woman we will call Jenny. Jenny was a kind, friendly person, who was particularly good at smoothing troubled waters – an important skill, as we were working in a bureaucratic environment frequently characterised by frustrations, interpersonal and interagency tensions. Our workplace was the sort of open-plan office you see on TV shows: cubicles giving a false perception of privacy, each decorated as a home-away-from-home by the busy corporate types who, in all likelihood, probably did spend more time there than at home. Among all the bright, high-stress, glittering twitter (that’s small-t twitter…it was in the days before Twitter was capitalised) Jenny’s workstation was one of those places that speaks to my inner archaeologist: piles of paper, stacked on other piles of paper, stacked on books; family photos; stress balls and coffee cups with conference logos; and sticky notes pinned on every otherwise-naked surface.

Jenny swore that in this woman-cave, she knew the location of every single item and piece of paper. Unfortunately, my experience didn’t bear this out, as proven on many occasions of flustered ‘it’s in this pile, I think…no, I know it was, but maybe it’s over here…’ I loved working with Jenny and she had many valuable strengths, but when it came to her organisational skills I think she was delusional.

I, on the other hand, consider that my workspace gives a direct message about my state of mind. If it’s looking chaotic, I am probably feeling overwhelmed and out of control. If things are in neat piles, with a sticky label on top (‘work’, ‘study’, ‘read’, ‘file’, ‘shred’, etc) I am reasonably on top of things. Note the virtuous tone with which I make this observation. I am not delusional at all.

Toward the end of last year, I decided to try and make my main workspace, which was at that time the only table in our small apartment, into a ‘paperless office’. (Guess what my motivation was? It had to do with food…) Step one was to move all the papers to a different place – piled in the stacks mentioned above, naturally – and then start working in a clean space, retrieving only what I needed and discarding or saving it electronically as I went. I was amazed at the emotional impact of sitting down to my normal workspace with no papers around it. Even looking at it felt odd. Rather than feeling free, I felt curiously unanchored – which is not quite the same thing – and it didn’t take long at all before the papers were starting to creep back to the table.

Why was this? Well, being brutally honest with myself, I think the logic went like this: chaotic workspace = chaotic mind, tidy workspace = tidy mind, and therefore clear workspace = empty mind. So, logically, there was a link between visible signs of work and actual mental activity. This gave me a new insight into the meaning I was giving to my physical environment, and also makes me wonder whether Jenny wasn’t so much chaotic, as fearful of not being busy, or perhaps not being seen to be busy. Maybe she thought (however deeply buried in her workspace/mind) that her personal value as an employee was somehow intrinsically linked with the visible signs of activity. Maybe Jenny and I actually have a lot in common.

I am trying to re-wire my own perceptions by, firstly, challenging my personal notion of the meaning of a clear space. A clear desk does NOT mean an empty mind. It means (because I choose it to mean) a clear desk, and only that. The housekeeping of my mind is a necessary but separate activity, and the use of electronic files, folders and to-do lists is simply a tool to assist in that, with a lovely capacity to be shut down and invisible at the end of the working day. And that, in turn, creates space for a delicious meal. Symbolically, and literally.