Flashback Friday: The end of the PhD

The end of the PhD. I remember it well, or so my long line of PhD-finishing blog posts might seem to attest. These include (and this is just a selection) …

The end of a doctorate is a rollercoaster of emotion. One, it turns out, I had largely forgotten. While my blog posts act as bread crumbs back to those experiences, the feelings themselves have faded, softened and blunted over time.

Today, I was reminded.

I still connect with the ‘DocVox’ Voxer (voice-to-voice messaging app) group that helped support me through my PhD. This is a group of mostly doctoral (PhD and EdD) candidates from the USA, plus a couple of us from Australasia. I figure staying in the Voxer group despite having finished the PhD helps me to pay back by continuing to support those who are still on their journey. It was via this group that I was today reminded of the visceral nature of the last bit of the PhD.

This morning a candidate from the US was Voxing about the blind panic they were feeling as they near dissertation submission. As I Voxed a response, I tried to reassure the person that their experience was normal. I recalled how in the last months of my PhD I had brutal insomnia. I clenched my jaw in my sleep despite chomping magnesium before bed to try and calm myself down and slow the mania of my obsessive mind. When I did sleep, I had nightmares, a recurring one of which was that I died and my almost-but-not-yet-finished PhD never saw the light of day, but languished, unexamined and unpublished. As I spoke, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice cracked. Some of that emotion returned in an intense flash. Wow, I thought, I didn’t think I was very affected by my experience. I was reminded as I spoke of the isolation of those moments, ones I didn’t really talk about because despite being surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, it didn’t seem something they would understand.

There are times in the PhD when everyone thinks you must be finished by now but you know you have so far to go, and times when it seems you should feel happy but instead you feel strange and empty. It’s a weird, emotional and quite a lonely time.

*                                    *                                    *

It’s almost 13 months since I was doctored. That moment was a glorious one. I awoke in Washington DC, after attending and presenting at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Conference. I had met a number of my academic heroes, as well as colleagues I knew only through Twitter and those that I met at the conference at sessions or in the epically long queue at Starbucks. I had nailed the presentation about my research and spent an hour in the corridor afterwards fielding questions and discussion. One of these discussions carried over to lunch and an ongoing professional connection. I’d had a great conference and was in edu-nerd heaven. It was the perfect moment for doctoring.

So, the day after AERA closed, I awoke in my Dupont Circle Airbnb apartment and checked my email, to find a ‘Congratulations, Doctor Netolicky’ email confirming the conferment of my PhD. I whooped, I shrieked, I clapped. I cried. I fist pumped. I felt overwhelmed and triumphant.

It was my last day in DC and I floated on rainbow-fairy-floss-cloud-nine as I swanned around the city in the magnificent sunshine. I was on my own, so I took this selfie (below) to remind myself of that elation. The iPhone snap mightn’t look like much to anyone else, but whenever I see it, it catapults me back to that moment of pure joy. Unadulterated I-am-now-Dr-Me exhilaration.

Now I have the luxury of being a pracademic, part school leader-teacher-practitioner, part early-career-scholar-researcher. During the PhD, finishing the doctorate always felt like an ending, but as I look back I can see that it was a beginning. I am now able to luxuriate more serenely in the oasis of academic writing, and to enjoy the gentle challenge of scholarly collaboration and conversation. And to apply my doctoral experience to my daily work.

The emotions fade, but it turns out they’re still there, in memory and in deep in the bowels of the iPhone camera roll.

DC doctor selfie

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.

Why selling a house is like finishing a doctorate

Sold! Now what?

Sold! Now what?

This week my husband and I sold our house and bought another one, so it’s been a week filled with terrifying leaps of faith, trembling uncertainty, and dizzying highs that have involved actual whooping and jumping up and down. During this selling-buying-a-home experience, I was viscerally reminded of what it feels like at the end stages of a PhD.

Firstly, no matter how much work you have put in to getting your home ready for sale (or getting your PhD ready for examination), you don’t know how it’s going to go in the marketplace (or examiners’ eyes). There’s nail-biting insecurity that you won’t get the result you want. The waiting is insomnia-inducing. What if there is a low offer or no offer (a major revisions or a revise and resubmit)?

Secondly, there is no clear ending to the process, and no clear-cut moment to celebrate. We put our house on the market in January, like submitting a PhD to examiners, and then we have waited for results to come in. On Sunday night we received an offer, but it didn’t seem time to open the champagne. Nor did it the next night when we accepted that offer. Yes, we had sold our house, but celebrating the possibility of being without a home for our family didn’t seem appropriate. We put an offer on another house, but until it was accepted we didn’t feel we could celebrate. Even then (and we did celebrate) we are still faced with small milestones to complete and dominoes to fall, before we know that both sales are unconditional (finance, inspections, settlement).

Similarly, the end of the PhD seems to go on and on. There’s thesis submission. There’s the waiting game for examiners’ reports. Often, there’re the revisions. There is acceptance of those corrections and conferral of the degree and the title of ‘Doctor’ (which for me, was marked by having just presented at the AERA conference in DC). The printing of the bound PhD thesis that will luxuriate on the library shelf. The rollercoaster of completion emotions. There is graduation. Then there’s the first aeroplane boarding pass with ‘Dr’ on it, and the first post-graduation event when you get to wear the floppy hat and doctoral robes. There’s even the identity tussle as you come to terms with your doctorness, just as I’m sure my husband and I will need to transition from our current home, which we love and in which we have raised two young boys, to a new home which offers up the stage for the next chapter in our story.

It was interesting for me to note the way that an unrelated life event could bring my memories of the tail end of my PhD rushing back so vividly. Perhaps some of life’s most rewarding experiences are those which test our mental toughness, give us sleepless nights, and which don’t have clear cut endings.

5 things I learned in 2016

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

2016 seems to have flown by at a rate of knots. I am so shredded right now that I feel like all of those ‘me at the beginning of 2016; me at the end of 2016’ memes floating around. But instead of a bleak image of end-of-year despair following this year of Brexit and Trump’s election, I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog post with the above sculpture. Part utilitarian shipping containers and part rainbow possibilities. The mundane made beautiful. Take from that what you will.

I figure that maybe if I take stock of what I’ve done and where I’m at, it might help me shed my 2016 skin and slip more freely into the new year. This year I submitted, was awarded and graduated from my PhD. I’ve since been appointed as an adjunct at the university where I did my doctorate, and have also been appointed to a cool new role at my school from 2017. I’ve had 3 peer-reviewed journal articles published, 3 book chapters accepted and presented 8 times at 6 conferences, including AERA in Washington DC. Emerald Publishing made a cartoon abstract of one of my papers. This is my 66th blog post for the édu flâneuse in 2016. I’ve also written for other sites including The Conversation and the Times HigherEd blog. I won an ACEL New Voice in Educational Research scholarship, and an international award for my PhD thesis. I worked a 0.8 FTE load: teaching English, coaching teachers and middle leaders, and refining professional growth and performance review processes at my school. I parented my two boys, who will both be in full time school next year. The youngest was in part time kindy this year, so I’ve had my last term-time weekday frolic with him.

This time last year I wrote about 5 things I learned in 2015. 2016 has thrown up some similar and some different learnings. Here are my top 5.

  1. Carve out a work routine.

I’ve had what has felt like a really busy year. To manage, I have instilled more structure into my work flow. This is about more than my Post-It note system. It means I try to find a regular ebb-and-flow routine, like blogging here every Friday, and carving out time for strategic project work at school, to make time for it among all the operational and relational stuff that fills my days. It also means figuring out where and how to make time for academic thinking, reading and writing.

This #1 point is totally unsexy and eye-rollingly boring, but it’s becoming more and more of a necessity if I’m to manage the work I have coming my way in 2017.

  1. Prioritise breaks for self-care.

One thing I’ve learned this year was something I already knew but seemed to forget: I need regular proper breaks. This year I didn’t carve out enough time for space, family and myself. Time. And. Spaaaaaaaace. A couple of weekenders does not a break make! Also, I have realised, conference travel does not count as a break. Between presenting, rushing around to sessions, meeting up with people and time zone changes, I often came back more exhausted and more behind than when I left. Doing good work that inspires and nourishes me is important. But taking a break from work to regenerate and re-centre is, too.

Watch out, 2017. I have plans for some spectacular holidays.

  1. Support and trust the individual.

In my work in leading professional learning, coaching and performance review processes, I have become more convinced than ever in the need to balance the individual and the organisation, personal vision and organisational purpose, support with accountability.

In particular, I remain despairing about the increasing media and policy focus on high-stakes standardised testing and performative measures for teachers. I’m also increasingly committed to supporting middle leaders in our schools, who are often forgotten between the popular rhetoric of and focus on the teacher and the principal.

  1. Be who you wanna be, yeah.

I continue to do identity work through my writing, my online interactions and my professional engagements. I struggled this year with fitting into doctorly robes after my degree was conferred, but am now enjoying the freedom that comes with being beyond-PhD. Being a post-doc adjunct whose paycheck comes from industry, not a university, means that I can start to play with ideas that are interesting, divergent and experimental. The joy of being an unpaid academic is that I’m not tethered to the world of academic measures and impact factors, so am able to flex my writer-scholar identity, to see what sorts of crazy-beautiful writing I might be able to work towards. In 2017, I hope to continue in my journey to becoming the scholar, writer, teacher and leader I want to be.

  1. Shift the narrative. Make a difference.

I’ve been exploring voice and activism in 2016, and wondering about what those things might look like. Can I be a part—via my work, conference presentations, online writing, scholarly writing, social media engagement—of shifting education narratives? Can I make a real difference, not just to the lives of students and staff at my school, but to the wider system, to people outside of my local bubble? I’m not sure, but I’m inspired by Tolkein’s character of Gandalf who says, “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” As a pracademic I’m excited about the synergies between educational research and practice, and I’m hoping my own small, persistent nudges at the narratives of education might make a small but important difference.

Cartoons to communicate science? #scicomm

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily–but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care. ~ Randy Olson, Don’t be such a scientist

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. This year I have seen PhD researchers communicate their theses via emoji on Twitter. Today Emerald Publishing and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community released the following cartoon abstract of my peer-reviewed paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’. The paper itself, which has so far been downloaded over 4000 times, is open access, and I have also blogged about it.

What do you think of the notion of a cartoon or graphical abstract of a research paper? Is this a way forward for science communication? Can we use visual language to make research more accessible and more widely read? Could you or would you be open to designing a cartoon strip or graphic-novel-style summary of your research?

designed by Emerald and posted here on JPCC website: http://jpccjournal.com/teacher.htm

designed by Emerald and posted on the JPCC website

Writing productivity this Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo 2016

acwri at Melbourne airport

acwri at Melbourne airport

November isn’t just Movember and Dinovember. It’s also Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), the time for academics to publicly shout their writing goals from social media soapboxes everywhere. Ironically, at the moment work is taking over all my working and spare hours and my academic writing pipeline is suffering from inertia as a result. I haven’t been able to make the time to acwri, despite making constant lists that include acwri targets (respond to revisions! write draft paper! scope out argument! complete literature review!).

For me, academic writing is both unpaid work and a labour of love. While I don’t need academic publications for the work I do in my school, I write journal and conference papers because a) I think my research and writing have something to offer, something to say, and b) I enjoy the writing, the writing-thinking, the off-shoots of ideas from my PhD thesis that I now get to play with, and opportunities for co-authorship.

This blog both gets in the way of my academic writing and helps with it. It takes time and discipline to blog (I try to blog at least once a week, usually on a Friday), but I find that blogging keeps my writing wheels oiled and turning, which flows over into my scholarly writing. By blogging weekly, I never feel out of writing practice, even during these times when my academic writing slows to a barely perceptible drip.

Despite my inertia of the last few weeks, I share below some of my own approaches to academic writing productivity. I could call this ‘5 tips for productive writing’, but I agree with Naomi Barnes that tips aren’t always helpful.

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Count more than you can count

I wrote last AcWriMo that successful writing is more than word counts. Sure, sometimes it’s motivating to hit a word count milestone. Every time I hit a 10,000 word number during my PhD felt like I was getting closer to somewhere, something, the end product.

If, like me, you write a lot and often too much, it can be satisfying to cull words, to watch the count go backwards. I cut 15,000 words from my PhD in the final editing stages. There’s joy in word cutting, too. Refining, pruning excess, making the writing better, stronger, clearer.

Sometimes it’s useful to use a Pomodoro timer or a bomb timer to give a sense of writing focus and urgency. I rarely use timers, but I often write to the time I have. One hour while the kids nap. Forty minutes between weekend commitments. Stolen moments before the family wakes. Having such little writing time means that I am highly absorbed when it comes. There’s no time to be distracted, dithery or unfocused. I prepare writing goals and materials for the times I map out, and when they arrive I write like a tropical cyclone.

Write where it works for you

I need quiet or a steady hum to write. Total silence works, but I can’t often get silence, or even solitude, at home, unless my husband takes our sons out.

A busy café with indiscernible noise also works for me. I love writing in cafes because a) I don’t feel alone as I‘m surrounded by people, b) I’m not distracted by domestic chores, c) there’s good coffee and d) it can make writing seem more pleasurable, like a holiday or an indulgence. I love the low hum of indistinguishable conversation as the soundtrack to writing.

I even considered acknowledging some of my favourite writing cafes in m PhD acknowledgments. The owners and baristas recognised me. I was the polite woman who would sit alone, drinking two coffees over two hours, tapping away at my keyboard or shuffling through annotated drafts. Quarantining myself in a public space for a specific block of time allowed and motivated me to just write.

Write when it works for you

Know your most productive times. I am at my best between 7am and 11am. This is when I zing with energy, ideas and the kind of focus that means that words and solutions come easily.

I am at my productivity worst from about 3pm to 6pm, during which I usually have the least physical and mental energy. Then I have a strange energetic renaissance between 8pm and 10pm, which are often the hours that I blog. Yet, sometimes in the evening I am too tired for anything but the most menial tasks: calendar entries, checking references, basic admin. I’ve learned that it’s better to close the laptop rather than stare uselessly in a kind of slo-mo catatonia.

To write my PhD, I had to leverage my best writing times and avoid my worst ones. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending time writing and not getting anywhere.

Use the in-between times

The shower, sleep, a walk, standing at the checkout, taking children to the park. These are all opportunities for cogitation and idea percolation. I often find, especially if I know I’ll be racing between commitments, I will deliberately plant a writing problem in my mind by thinking deeply on it for a time, and then let go of it, knowing that my brain will somehow continue to chip away at it while I do other things. Sometimes I revisit the problem mindfully, and sometimes a solution or idea will bubble up, unsolicited. Our writing solutions and growth often happen while we aren’t watching.

Work with others

I am new to co-authorship, but am finding that the writing relationships I am now nurturing push me beyond the kind of thinking I do on my own. I’m exploring new theorists and fresh methods. Collaborative writing can grow us beyond our writing selves.

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Despite my inactivity thus far this #AcWriMo, I appreciate the social media reminders of the importance of academic writing, and of making time and space for it. This is true even for someone like me who is on the academia outer, an adjunct and a practitioner in another field.

I can give myself permission to ride the ebbs and flows of work, writing, parenting and being a friend/spouse/daughter/sister/colleague. For now I will keep scribbling my acwri lists, keep revisiting my acwri goals, keep putting my eye to my acwri pipeline. I’ll get it moving again soon.

The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach