May Day

For the last year I have had a post it note (I live and die by post it notes), on my desk which says: 29 May: FFD.

This is (my) short-hand for ‘first full draft’, and this date has been my fantasy goal, the magical date on which I would submit a FFD of my PhD to my supervisors, a date I have been counting back from. Today is 29 May, and I do not have an FFD.

When the announcement came that schools would lock down on Friday 20th March, to my shame one of the first things I thought about was that meeting this deadline was now unlikley to happen, and how angry I was, and how disappointed in myself I felt. I spent a number of weeks trying to work out why this was, that in the midst of a global pandemic, with so much terrible stuff happening, why I was fixating on this date, and my feelings about my relationship to it. I am not proud about the answer.

I have written before about being an outsider in my PhD research, so I won’t go into it here again, suffice to say it’s a part of me that will never go away, and I can’t change that identity. But my singular desire right from the start of my PhD was to finish in three years. Partly because I am only funded for three years, but partly because, vainly, I wanted to be that person who did it, that person who defied all the cautionary  tales which float about when you start, that ‘no one finishes a PhD in three years.’ I’m not the brightest student, but I was determined to be the most industrious, and the most organised. I would finish on time.

So, coming back to my pride. Finishing on time was what I wanted to be known for. Not for doing amazing research or having an incredible writing style, because those things still feel very much beyond me.  Smarter people than me will say it’s clearly to deflect away from my discomfort at being an outsider researcher, and to mask my imposter syndrome. I want my research to matter and have integrity and impact (who doesn’t), but more than anything I wanted to beat the system.

Understanding that the longed for date of 29 May was not going to see me submitting the FFD still left me feeling like a failure. A failure for not being able to turn the work around on time, to skillfully balance home schooling and home life. To be clear – my supevisors and my university are, and continue to be, nothing but supportive, and there was never any pressure to keep working under the circumstances. But I still felt like a failure.

Once I eventually accepted that my reduced productivity was due to a global pandemic, and not because I was lazy, and once I slowed down properly (and turned off social media), my reasoning caught up. Because even with a supportive partner and supervisory team, the fact remains that working whilst your child is off school is going to seriously impact on, well, everything. Not just ‘the PhD’, but your whole day, your whole month. And the next month, and the one after that. With no news about a return to school for my son’s year group, this lifestyle is going be around for quite some time, so I need to stop fighting it.

This post isn’t really saying much, and I don’t want to compare how much work I might (or might not) be doing with others, as this is unhelpful, especially between parents. I am also now in the highly fortunate position of a funded 6 month extension, allowing me to work at a more sensible pace. My son and I can now make origami fish, and we’ve swapped Joe Wicks for sea swimming.

I have a feeling my PhD may even be better for this slowing down, because I now have to work in thumbnail sketches, not broader strokes. Rather, it is a small hiccup, a note to my future self, that a change in circumstances is not failing. It just means writing a new post-it note.



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