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Step BackIt turns out that when you’re working on a PhD, it becomes THE project, THE challenge, THE alpha and omega and immensity of weight that is always on your shoulders and it makes you unsociable and it makes you cut yourself off from everything and you should seriously think about doing one. I swore I would never whine about such a privileged position where reading counts as work, so hopefully I avoid it in what follows and I think it applies to any big project.

I had been warned, and sure I know the stereotypes. But I blithely ignored all the flashing red lights, thinking that I’m a wonderful sociable well-rounded human being who is involved in lots of things and the thought of being a hermit to work on a novel or discover the secrets of the universe I could contemplate, but to work on my thesis? Never. The thought of producing something that is long and boring and potentially not at all useful to struggle? Never. And yet, look at me now!

Look ma, top of the world! Yet here at one of the most elite institutions, it sometimes feels like the gasworks where Cagney met his glorious demise.

So there are a lot of difficulties in being an experienced activist in a youthful academia where seems like most people have never left the ivory tower, of trying to bring practice and theory and a whole lot of fury together, and still feeling like a angry poor kid amongst the rich while still being able to laugh at myself. Academia isn’t really meant for people like me, though it should be. Still, at this point, the main challenge is just to get the thing done. It’s hard to describe the weight of it really, it’s always looming and you always feel slightly guilty and you’re always behind. There’s the immense problem of money of course, living as a student is not at all fun after a certain point in life, particularly if you have family who are hurting – that just adds a whole other layer of frustration and helplessness to the one you get from not being able to buy new shoes and in a bad month, luxuries like coffee. Worst of all, your whole being is geared towards getting through these hoops where a few people are given this immense power over your career and your future. It doesn’t matter who they are or how lovely they may be, it is still a rather terrifying position. And infuriating after having been a successful community organizer. So finishing. That’s the thing.

I was doing it part time because I needed money. I had to re-evaluate my whole strategy, which required a big step back. I don’t do that enough probably, when you have way too much to do you just do it. But I had a long hard think and realised it’s better just to put all my efforts into it and finish so I can earn more money sooner. Take out the damn loans. But now the pressure is on to actually finish and my supervisors think I’ve maybe taken on more than I can handle. So for now it’s nose to grindstone until I’m at a point where I think I can re-evaluate what I can handle, what I need to do. I’ve split up the work into sections that need doing, and I make sure I spend several hours doing work in each area on each and every work day. Even the stuff I really hate like transcribing interviews. Much as I hate it, I like checking it off my to do list. Every Tuesday morning I look at what I’ve done and think a little about how to do what is left. Think about the big research picture. Change up my plan for the week if I need to.

Because finishing also requires being clear about what this is – a hurdle I have to get over to get into academia and teach and do participatory research and help channel resources where they are needed and write books and articles that might make a difference, which is what I want to do. This dissertation doesn’t have to do any of that, probably shouldn’t do any of that, and in fact the simpler the better, right? It just has to satisfy the school’s requirements.  To improve my chances of getting hired I need to have a good CV – I’m teaching and even lecturing this year, time consuming but check. I need to try and publish an article or two in a high-ranking academic journal, that really is what matters more than anything else. Apart from a solid pass of course. But this isn’t my life’s work and it doesn’t have to be amazing. In this crazy world, people actually spend a year or two after finishing their PhD turning that boring hoop-jumping product that they’re already so tired of into a book. That’s crazy. But so it is. I accept it. I just need to finish something I’m reasonably proud of.

Another part of stepping back was thinking about what extra stuff I can manage. And so to do that I thought about what made me stronger, happier, better. My top three things: the handful of people I really love, so I make time for them. Mostly when they are in my immediate vicinity of course because I’ve never been good at distance communication, but hopefully my friends forgive me. Second is my writing (of fiction). So I make a tiny little amount of time for that too, first thing in the morning. Third is struggle, so I’m still involved with Lambeth SOS though I have cut my level of volunteering back too. Luckily it overlaps quite a bit with the people I love category. And everything else pretty much? Gone. I think. I keep stumbling over little things here and there that I have to do because I’m perennially excited about everything, but I’m working on just working on the important things.

The last part of stepping back? Working out regularly (will I ever be able to afford the gym or yoga again though? Fingers crossed), walking wherever I can, and making sure I take at least one day mostly off a week. Sometimes two! It doesn’t work every week, but it sure makes me feel better. Like taking real holidays too. Makes me work better too. Cake does that as well. I enjoy eating cake. Drinking coffee. Seeing bare branches against the winter sky. I embrace the cliche of enjoying the small things.

So a lot of focus, but a lot of balance too. And the big lesson learned? Step back and re-evaluate more often. At every level. It will do you good.

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