Tag Archives: PhD

Knowing when to stop

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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?

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Summertime, and the livin’ is…dangerously easy

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January is a dangerous time for me. I don’t mean Australia’s spiders, jellyfish, snakes, sharks, crocodiles, mosquitoes, or even the weather extremes and increased risk of sunburn (curiously, the latter causes by far the most actual damage to tourists, and yet they continue to squeal about everything else while doing everything in their power to get sunburnt…weird…).

The danger that I’m referring to is the renewed energy I always feel at this time of year. The enthusiasm. The vigour. The excitement at new possibilities. All good things, but the concern is this: over-commitment.

It’s more than just New Year’s resolutions. Sure, plan to lose weight, get fit, spend more time on the things that matter. Pfft. Who’s to know when, by January 4, you have had a lunch of chocolate-covered blueberries before returning to the computer, your loved ones having nicked off to watch Australia and England slug it out on the cricket pitch (…or was that just me..?)

I’m talking about serious commitments. The sort of commitments when People Notice. And not only that, but There Are Consequences, not only for yourself but also for others. Things like “Yes, I’d love to join your choir”, “Your committee is desperate for new members? Not a problem, I’ve always been interested in what you do.”, “A vacancy in your music teaching load this year? Yay, I’ve been wanting to get back into my double bass lessons”. Et cetera. I’m 54 years old, and you would think the last…oooh, 40-ish?…Januaries would have taught me something about realistic workloads.

What this says about my intelligence and ability to learn from past experience is perhaps a little worrying. It’s not a question of lack of insight. Some years back, a friend and I were reflecting on our shared dilemma – life is short, and there’s lots to fit in. We both consider ourselves capable and curious women – itself a dangerous combination, because people seeking volunteers pick up this combined ability and interest with a ‘sixth sense’ usually attributed to the non-human animal world. We discovered a shared tendency to say yes to requests, even though we were already overloaded, because (a) we possessed the knowledge and skill to do said tasks, and (b) they sounded interesting/worthy/fun. We used to meet regularly and practice a little mantra we developed: ‘I’m sorry, I’d love to, but I can’t just at the moment’. (Hi, I’m Postgradpanda, and it’s 5 days since my last acquiescence.)

In January each year, previous deadlines have general been met (or irrevocably missed), the crazy social whirl that is Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year/whatever has subsided, and the memory of November (and many months preceding it) has faded. I feel refreshed, and the days seem longer and more relaxed. Of course I can fit everything in…I’ll have time for A now that I’m not doing B any more… conveniently forgetting why I dropped B in the first place.

So if it’s not about lack of insight, why do I keep finding myself in this same place every January? Well, I think there are a few reasons for me – there will be  other reasons for other people.

1. Upbringing. I’m not blaming my parents, but they do share some responsibility, being busy and overcommitted people for as long as I can remember. I’m the eldest of four – my dad was doing his PhD when I was born and my mum went to night school between babies 3 and 4 to complete her secondary schooling, after which she went on to do further studies in midwifery, Infant Welfare (as it was then) and finally, once all her kids had grown up, a Masters in Health Education. When we were kids, they led a youth group for many years, and have both been, and continue to be, very active in many aspects of church leadership and pastoral care. On their ‘retirement’, they picked up the pace, incorporating viola lessons (dad) and art lessons (mum) into their schedules. Needless to say, I’m incredibly proud of them both…but, really, there is no growing of grass under their feet.

2. Reward. I get something of value out of every single thing I do. A friend (not the one mentioned above) told me the other day that she does nothing unless she is paid for it. She has reasons for taking this approach – she’s in a very different phase of life to me. But I was still a bit taken aback. Apart from the obvious thing that everyone who works in the not-for-profit sector would immediately pick up (the entire sector would collapse if we all took that approach), there are so many non-monetary rewards worth pursuing. Social connectedness, a feeling of self-worth, the joy of learning new things, the knowledge that you have made the world a slightly better place for someone, even if that’s a very indirect benefit (a good policy is a beautiful thing. I mean it. Good policy work makes the world a smoother, happier, safer place to be.)

3. Fear. Fear? Yes, fear. Fear of what it will mean if I’m NOT overcommitted. Of course, it could mean that I actually do the most important things, more effectively, and reach December 2014 in good shape at every level. But what if it also means that something worthwhile didn’t happen that could have, had I only stretched myself that little bit more? And, further below the surface and a bit embarrassing to admit, what if I discover that things carry on perfectly well without me???

Well, let’s try it. In the course of reflection as I wrote this blog post, I decided I need to do more than just reflect. I need to make some changes, and the changes I am going to make are not earth-shattering. Basically, I am going to try REALLY, REALLY HARD to simply walk my own talk. I have a calendar – I will use it. I have separate workplaces for paid work and study – I will use them. I have a couple of very good apps (more about that in my next post, I think). I will use them. And I have a brain and some insight into the sneaky ways I trip myself up. I will use them.

Working from home, or living at work?

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A fellow PhD student (not in my faculty) recently mentioned in conversation that she occasionally sleeps over at uni to get tasks completed, and once spent three unbroken days on campus. I was a bit horrified, I must admit. Apart from the lack of comfortable facilities (I’m thinking of a bed, in particular, which I could do without for a single night but not for three days in a row) this seems very unhealthy at a psychological level. Surely if your workload – or work habits – result in overnight stays, at least one of those aspects needs a serious examination?

It occurs to me, however, that working from home can end up being just like this, with the added benefit of a bed but the added disadvantage that when you see a fluff bunny on the floor you think ‘I suppose sooner or later I’m going to have to clean that up’.

Until very recently, I have undertaken both my paid work and my unpaid study from the salubrious location of my dining room table. To begin with, I cleared everything away each evening as a symbolic gesture, a demonstration that I understand boundaries – I am, after all, a social worker. I always sat at a different chair for meals than the one I worked in. But gradually there were activities that needed to be left out for the night, then for a few nights, and finally it became apparent that perching our dinner on our knees on the couch was simply the way we now lived.

Similarly, as there is no room for my bookshelf elsewhere, it lives in my bedroom, with the result that the last thing I see at night and the first thing in the morning are my folders of completed assignments, journal articles (I’m not one for reading quantities of text from the screen), and stationery.

I offer the following thought to anyone contemplating the ‘luxury’ of working from home:

  • One of the benefits of working from home is that when you get a break, you can clean the toilet.
  • One of the disadvantages of working from home is that when you get a break, you can clean the toilet.

Think very, very, carefully about whether you really want to work from home, and how you will manage it so that you don’t end up feeling like you are living at work. There are certainly advantages either way, and no one correct fit for everyone. In my experience, though, the tentacles of ‘work’ creep insidiously into the nooks and crannies of your ‘non-work’ life. I don’t only mean hours, either. I mean thoughts, emotions, your very identity (not to be too dramatic or anything). The very benefits of not having to get dressed, put on make-up, spend time travelling between locations, deal with workplace culture and relationships, as well as the possibility of multi-tasking different aspects of a many-layered life, sneakily morph into the significant disadvantages of blurred boundaries, isolation, stir-craziness, multiple distractions and endless opportunities for procrastination.

A few weeks ago, my eye was caught by a flyer sticky-taped to the wall of a local shop, advertising sub-lease of a desk space in an open plan office. Curious, I decided to check it out, and as a result I now work 2 days per week in an office, ten minutes’ walk from where I live. Ironically, the space is available because so many of the resident team now work from home. There’s a quiet focus among the ones who remain. I’m finding that my productivity goes right up when I’m there, and I can’t begin to describe the lightness of locking my filing cabinet and walking home at the end of the day.

As my PhD is part-time, I don’t get an allocated desk space at uni, but I have a locker and I’ve commandeered a filing cabinet drawer in a shared Research Student office. I’m able to keep my laptop and USBs in a backpack, and the books and papers that need to live at home are contained into a place that can, when necessary, be relegated out of sight and (more or less) out of mind. I still do some work and study from home, but am not immersed in them.

This balance is working very well for me. I no longer feel like I live at work. And equally importantly, my partner no longer feels like he lives in my workplace