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The Passionate PhD: let excitement and purpose drive your academic schedule

Today, I’m starting a new series of guest posts on academic schedules. Our first guest writer is Deborah. Deborah is an Australian PhD candidate and educator. Research interests include professional learning, teacher growth, professional identity, school change and storytelling. You can find her tweeting as @debsnet and blogging at

“We are at our very best, and we are happiest, when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we’ve established for ourselves. It gives meaning to our time off and comfort to our sleep.” ~ Earl Nightingale

As usual, I park my car and race into the university library for a quick book switch (return old batch; grab new batch). I pass students who embody the cliché of studentdom which I remember from my undergraduate years: they chat to each other, they read books beneath trees, they nestle by a library window with their work. And I think to myself, ‘O, to be a proper university student, one not racing in and out of libraries and supervisors’ offices!’

And yet, I reflect that perhaps it is because my PhD is one of many things to which I am committed that my thesis is progressing as it is.

Almost two years since enrolling in my PhD, I look back and wonder about my research journey. Today, at this very moment, my thesis sits at 77,186 words and includes close to 300 references (surely I am not the only one for whom numbers feel like a comforting measure of progress!). How, I marvel, have I come that far as a parent of two pre-school-age children and someone working 0.8 of a job? While there is much left to do, what is the academic schedule that has allowed me to continue to chip away at the mammoth task of researching and writing a PhD thesis?

First of all, ‘schedule’ is probably a word with too many connotations of order and routine. Mine is not quite as undisciplined as ‘whenever I find the time’, but it does feel like it consists of regular (this is the key!) stolen moments in which my thesis and I hide away together and immerse ourselves in each other.

As someone with a job and children, I have available time after my children have gone to bed in the evening, but I have found that this time of day isn’t conducive to the precision of thought or the kind of mental heavy lifting demanded by my thesis. I can, however, get administrivia and small tasks, which require a lower level of cognition and focus, out of the way in the evenings.

My favourite places to work are noisy cafés. These provide the caffeine for a sharper faster mind, the feeling of a ‘me time’ break from the mundanities of everyday life and a background buzz which helps to give me both a sense of urgency and a feeling that I am somewhere else, in a particular physical and mental place which is separate from my home or office. I also find that in cafés I tend to cap my time at two coffees and two hours; this gives me enough caffeine and enough of a block of intense working time to be productive, after which my productivity and the quality of my thinking starts to slow and deteriorate. And usually after which I need to return to family or work commitments.

In between my short regular bursts of work, my brain has the time to cogitate, percolate and process what I have done and where I am at. Often my best thinking happens in these in-between time, on walks without music, or lying in bed, when my brain seems to be quiet enough to bring problems to the surface and offer solutions. I often find myself rushing to write down the epiphanic ideas that bubble up in these solitary moments. This kind of between-reading, between-analysing, between-writing processing has meant that I am glad that I have been writing my thesis since I began my research, despite warning by some, including Pat Thomson in this blog post. Of course writing from day one means that my first writing needs serious revision, as my writing is evolving, and so is my thinking. I need these little shifts in approach or solving of problems in order to move to the next iteration.

There have been peaks and troughs in my work and personal lives, meaning that at different times my thesis has taken a front or back seat. Regardless of these ups and downs, the things that have helped to drive my momentum have been:

1. I love my thesis.
Well, I believe in my thesis. I am passionate about my area and about my data. I don’t think I could or would have been able to keep at the work if not for my deeply held value for and interest in what I am doing.

2. My thesis is for me.
My thesis is only one thing, of many things, in my life, but it is a thing I have chosen. I am doing it for myself. It feels like a special thing, almost a luxury; an opportunity to spend time challenging myself and pursuing my passions. When I find time to get down into my thesis, it is with excitement. It gives me a break from work, a break from parenting small children. It is intellectual ‘me time’, so instead of being a chore, it feels like a gift, an oasis I get to dip into regularly. My regular-but-not-all-the-time schedule keeps my PhD work feeling fresh and like something I want to continue pursuing.

3. Positive ongoing supervisory relationships.
My relationship with my supervisors has been conducive to progress. They have been able to challenge me sufficiently to incite growth in my thinking and writing, without crushing me too much at any given time (just enough to shift my thinking). While at times we have used Google Docs, Word Tracking and Skype, our regular face to face meetings are the most useful; they allow for important conversation around my PhD work. Again, regularity of meetings has helped me to drive momentum. Nothing motivates me better than a deadline!

4. Perspective.
I found Matt Might’s illustrated guide to the PhD to be grounding. It allowed me to take the view that, while a PhD needs to make an original contribution, this need only be a tiny (but significant) blip on the world’s knowledge landscape. This seemed to let me off the hook of trying to do too much, or chasing down every single interesting theme that emerges.
My main thought on a successful schedule for PhD candidates is around finding what works for you, your research and your life. And doing research in which you are engaged. Engagement and enjoyment allow you to be a little bit obsessive, more than a little excited and sometimes even joyful.

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This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. Really enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of when I was working on my PhD with three teenagers, running two small schools and trying to keep things at home a quality experience for all. I also grabbed moments when I could, did most of my creative writing between 3am and 6am and my creative cognition driving to work and back. I also believe that it showed my kids what was possible…you can have it all, you just have to work out the how.

  2. Thanks Deborah, I also enjoyed reading this. As a 'just starting out' PhD candidate I very much relate to what you said. I take my hat off to you juggling home, work and study especially with small children. I too, love my PhD and steal moments which turn into whole days sometimes, with the exception of what I like to refer to as 'break out' moments during which I mostly cook and clean. It gives me time to digest and think about what I have been reading or writing. I shall return to this regularly to remind myself that it is possible, especially in my time of doubt. Thanks again and good luck with it all! 🙂

  3. Thank you both! It's nice to think that it is possible, enjoyable even, and that we can all find approaches that work for us. 🙂 Deborah

  4. Thanks Deb, great insight. I will come back to you for more one day when I settle on a research topic 🙂 Matt Might's graphic is wonderfully grounding!

  5. My sister sent me a link to this post and said 'I think you might like this' (that was 3 months ago?) I have just now read it and thought 'Oh you can read my mind'! My shoulders are relaxing with the soothing thought of others in the world who 'get it'. Well done you for achieving all you have… I dont have children, just a demanding job and I am making such slow progress. Lucky I chose a subject that I am deeply curious about (Humility and Leadership). Thank you for your blog…. in one of my 10 min 'internet holidays' I allowed myself, your blog was more refreshing than 3 cups of coffee! Go well!

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