Tag Archives: Doctor of Philosophy

On rejection and disappointment


Ditch (Photo credit: Ben Bunch)

I’m battered, and bruised, and in the market for a thicker skin.

I sat down this morning to write, and found that I needed to blog instead. Where I’d like to start is this: doing a PhD is not just doing a PhD. When I first started I read lots and lots of PhD advice, especially on The Thesis Whisperer, and I took it to heart. I don’t just want a publication at the end of this; I want teaching experience, and connections with peers working in similar areas, and some conferences under my belt, and a job.

In the last two years I’ve published six papers from my PhD (some of them are still in the pipes). I just finished my first semester of teaching. I’m the Faculty representative for our Faculty Higher Degrees Research Committee. I won the Faculty level Three Minute Thesis Competition last year and this year have been asked to administer and compere the event. I applied for and received funding to present at both a local and international conference, and I’ve written two thirds of a PhD. My scholarship runs out in December next year and I’m well on track to finishing in time. This is not a skite list: it’s a testament to clear strategic thinking, a certain type of stubbornness that insists that if I do the right things in a professional manner I will be employable at the end of all this, and an utter belief in the work I’m doing.

To top it off, I recently founded a peer reviewed, open access, gender, sexuality and diversity studies journal with a group of postgraduates at my university. I’m one of the managing editors, and we recently released our first issue. I did this because it fills a need, and because I’m passionate about creating space in the academy for voices that are still unheard. I also did it because when I started my PhD a trusted friend and former academic told me it was probably best to have a Plan B, C, D and possibly E in the event that I would be unable to get a job at the end. The journal is thrilling, and spectacular, and I truly love doing it, but it’s cost me more hours than I can count, and a huge amount of emotional energy (often at the cost of my partner and children).

But all of this was ok. And then these things happened, all in a row:

  • I came back from my overseas trip and couldn’t right myself again. Sliding doors. The realisation that, without children, I would have emailed my supervisor a simple ‘sorry, it’s too spectacular here in Paris, I’ll see you in a year or so’, and to my partner ‘get yourself on a plane’. But I have children. And they’re the reason I am where I am, and the reason I write what I write. So here I am, back, with honey toast handprints on my jeans and requests for water in the night.
  • I came back from my overseas trip to 80,000 words of marking that needed to be turned around in three days, and ended up injuring my arm and shoulder, and I’m still injured (brace, ice, warmth, anti-inflammatories, keep going).
  • An AWOL postgrad that I’ve never met sent me a horrendous email out of the blue that attacked me and my research. I was shocked and disbelieving. I cried for hours. Academia, it seems, can be rough.
  • A top international journal rejected my breastfeeding chapter because it was too claustrophobic, and just depicted the woman and baby, without locating them in space, or in greater discourses around class or race. I wasn’t writing a social political history of breastfeeding, and it was meant to be claustrophobic, and I told myself it just wasn’t the right place for it, but you know, it still stings.
  • And then the nail in the coffin: one poem, ‘this mother thing’, that was accepted into an anthology early last year. I followed up once, and was told it was still in the pipeline, and so I left it alone, not wanting to be a nag. Then last week I saw an article from The Age about it on one of our lecturer’s doors, and contacted the Editor to find that my poem had somehow slipped off the list. Goodbye publication in a hardback anthology launched at the State Library of NSW with some of Australia’s top female poets.

I’m exhausted and heart sore. I know why writers put down their pens and go to work digging ditches. We tell writing students to separate themselves from their writing when they send it out. Your writing is not you. It’s not true. It’s me. It’s me sending a part of myself out into the world and when my writing is judged it’s nigh on impossible not to feel judged myself. So I’m doing the only thing I know to do: I’m writing more, and sending out more, and trusting that amongst the nos I will also get yeses. But it’s hard, and it hurts, and I’m tired, and it hurts.

Library shenanigans and a scholarship

English: iPhone

Sparrow will be one on Thursday. One like I’m happy to play by myself until I see you Mama and then you have no idea how terrible it’s been and you need to pick me up, you know, now. One like too busy to sleep in the day. One like climbing up and falling down, and climbing up and falling down, and climbing up and falling down. One like pointing and making pretend phone calls and shaking head no and saying bubbles and signing fish, dog, Mama, finish, food, shoe, again. One like whole body cuddles and a smile that gets in somewhere and warms me from the inside out. And Monkey is now well and truly three. Three like seventy percent of all communication is a boss or a whinge. Three like spiralling whys that, if they go for long enough (and they do), become kind of existential and self referential but simultaneously deeply exhausting (and deeply boring). Three like I-just-found-my-mama’s-buttons-and-I’m-gonna-press-em-all. Three like hippo kisses (a kiss without the smoochy sound at the end), pig kisses (lots of kisses planted in the same place very quickly), and “thanks for cooking babe” and waking up singing. Three like noticing everything, like showing me the world every day, brand new.

When I started my PhD six months ago, I ransacked the library and borrowed around twenty books. The idea was I’d read one every week or so, pull out relevant quotes, write responsively, and return them before they were due. So, so, wrong. They have remained unread. They’ve had three renewals. A couple of recalls forced me to get through some of them. Last week I had to beg a fourth renewal. Literally, beg. I used the small children card shamelessly and the librarian finally gave in. The thought of getting those books off the shelves again at the library was making my toes curl. Last night I finally pulled them all out with this plan: mark up what I need to read, then get in to uni to photocopy many, many pages, and finally return them. Problem is I can’t get to uni without Sparrow and Monkey before we go away. My solution today was to start scanning them using Scanner Pro on my iPhone and uploading them directly to Dropbox. I feel glad at the prospect of using less paper, and already fatigued at the thought of creating that many pdfs, a photo at a time. Lesson learnt? Please, Karina, don’t borrow more than five books at a time.

Last update is this: I got a full time scholarship. I was so excited when I found out that I shook for the next hour. Next year will look nothing like this one. I can’t wait.

Festival, not freakout (and the glacial PhD)

mwf logoI’ve been trying to get to the Melbourne Writers Festival for some years. I was planning to go when I was pregnant with Monkey, but had pre eclampsia and was spending four hours, three days a week hooked up to monitors and having my blood pressure taken. In 2009 I had a ten month old baby who hadn’t slept through yet and festivalling was definitely not on the agenda. Last year I thought I’d get there for sure. Then my lovely wife was hit by a car while she rode her scooter to work and I was the only able bodied (34 weeks pregnant) person in the house. This year is my year.

Am I excited? A bit. Am I utterly panicked at the logistics of going to the festival, blogging about it, and managing Sparrow and Monkey and the rest of my life? Completely.

I think it’s a coping mechanism. Worry is easier for me than joy. It’s been that way for most of my life. Joy (excitement, happiness, gleeful anticipation, all of that good stuff) is something I have to work incredibly hard at. So I’m repeating this mantra: festival, not freakout. Festival like fun, like sun, like words and books and like-minded people. Festival like food for my brain, and my heart, and the part somewhere in between where poetry lives. Festival, Karina, not freakout.

And then there’s the glacial PhD. I feel like someone shot the starting gun and I’m wandering around in circles behind the starting blocks trying to work out which way to run. And trying not to run. I took myself out to the bungalow on Tuesday night and got two hours of study in (incredible achievement for a tired Mama – Sparrow was in the Children’s last week with an intussusception). Unfortunately my head did not think this was an incredible achievement. My head was so concerned about how to keep track of what I was reading and then where to file what I found that what I was reading barely registered. I’m floundering.

Today Sparrow and I went to the library and it took four hours to borrow some books, track down some theses, talk to my faculty librarian and get back to the car. For most of that time he was something to be managed while I tried to get tasks done. This is what I missed: the cuddle he gave me when we got out of the car (he goes still and melts into my shoulder for sometimes a whole minute before sound or movement draws his attention). The miso soup he lapped at, catlike, on my lap outside the Japanese place on campus. The grinning “ba ba ba” when I stopped trying to get him to sleep and got him out of the ergo for a feed. The way he holds one foot while he drinks and absorbs only everything. Every thing. He fell asleep on the way home so I’m sitting on my chilly front step drinking tea, eating one of the season’s last tangelos, and writing this post. I am remembering that I would not be attempting this PhD if I’d never had kids. So in the spirit of thx thx thx (and also because I’ve been practicing gratitude for about fourteen years – it works, but it needs to be practiced):

Dear Sparrow,

Thank you for being my constant companion so that I am required to treat the small moments I have like a rare treasure. Thank you for sleeping better in the ergo on my back so I can use your pram as a book barrow. And thank you for grinning at nearly everyone we meet on campus – you have made conversations with strangers an easy thing.

If you see me at the festival in the next couple of weeks, do me a favour. Stand next to me and repeat: festival, not freakout.

Fighting to write

Robert Smith playing live with The Cure at The...

Image via Wikipedia

I suspect some people may be questioning my sanity at signing up for a PhD with a baby and a small child (I certainly do in my darker moments). With enrolment day rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking about why it seems to make sense. It makes sense because I have to fight to write.

I started writing poetry when I was in my teens. Dark stuff it was, mostly inspired by Sylvia Plath and written listening to The Cure and The Smiths. By the time I was twenty one or so I had gotten some work published and won a couple of things. I come from a family of (mad) writers and was headed that way myself. I thought that it had to be hard, this business of writing. Melancholic. Filled with pain. I also thought that I needed the perfect environment to write in, and the perfect writing practice. I wrote The Artist Way’s morning pages for a number of years in my early twenties. I would set myself up at my desk with my view and my music (more melancholic mix tapes), with my favourite pen and notebook, with Champion Ruby, a zippo and an ashtray. I would smoke and ponder and write. But I never really wrote. I wrote about wanting to write, I dreamt about being a writer, I sometimes talked about wanting to be a writer, but what was I writing? Beyond morning pages, not very much.

I’m writing more with a baby and a small child than I’ve written in a very long time. Sparrow still has bronchialitis and has been dripping snot and tears all day. He usually settles in about two minutes and sleeps pretty well. Tonight we put him into his cot at 6.30. It’s 8.10 and we’re still settling. In twenty minute shifts. So in the twenty minutes that my partner’s in with a very sad Sparrow patting and shushing and picking up and putting down, I’m writing this post. When lines of poetry enter my head (and I’m blessed that they often do) at the park, on a pram walk, in the supermarket, pushing a swing, I grab my iPhone and speak them into the voice recorder, then transcribe those lines at night. If Sparrow falls asleep in the car, I write in the driveway. It is never the perfect time, I will never have the perfect practice, but I’m actually writing. And for the first time in my life, I’m happy to call myself a writer. When people ask me what I do, it’s one of the things I say (without a smirk crossing  my lips or a twitch of embarrassment running through my torso).

My children have not driven me away from writing, they have turned me towards it. Every day I fight to write. I can’t afford to sit and ponder, to scribble and fiddle. I am forced to write in snatches and snippets, to be efficient, to value every spare minute, and that’s why I think a PhD and kids go together. Ok, so I’ll probably read this in a year and cringe at my naivety and optimism, but I’m willing to give this academia thing a bloody good try.

Writing to write

I’ve been wanting to do a PhD in Creative Writing since I was 15. Last week I got an email saying I’ve been accepted into a PhD at Latrobe. 21 years later and it’s actually happened. First, elation. Second, fear.

I have a five and a half month old baby and a two and half year old, and I’m starting in five or so weeks. I’m thinking that I may look back at the next four or so years of my life with sympathy and disbelief.

But I’m doing it anyway. And I’m going to write to write. I have a feeling that blogging about writing will actually create more (not less) space to write.

So this is it. Here we are. Come with me.