When does it get better?

It’s been nearly four months since submission. The early glow of handing the thesis in has worn off, as has the rush of getting my conference paper done. Beijing, with all its fun and learning, has faded in my memory and even our holiday (five weeks in Scandinavia and the Baltics) seems like a long time gone.

I started to really worry about my results at the end of July. Thinking, optimistically, that eight to ten weeks wait was reasonable. Three months came and went, and I signed up with a new supervisor as my old one retired. A formality, they said, as surely there won’t be much to do. August was cold and I tried to write a journal article from the thesis, but my heart wasn’t in it. How can I have faith in my research when my fate is in the hands of the examiners. They may hate it. They may hate me.

Jobs were applied for. I went to yoga. Consoling myself that I never expected to get on with the next phase of my life so soon. 2017 was always going to be the transition year. In the middle August my new supervisor said the examiners had an extension, so I was looking at the last week of the month. That Friday came and went. As did the following Monday. “Surely we can ask?” I emailed. The research office promised to “put pressure” on them. Weeks pass.

Now it’s September and I’m paralysed. I can’t write. I’ve been offered some limited research work but I have no confidence in my own capability to do it, so am hesitant to agree. I didn’t get the jobs I’d applied for, which logically I know is a good thing, as neither were right for me, but emotionally I’m crushed with further self doubt.

I’m 43 years old. I’ve wanted to do a PhD since I was 10. Yet I feel this process has unraveled me. I have had a successful, intellectual, well paying corporate career, yet now I feel unemployable. I am at a loss to what my future will hold. I’m riddled with anxiety and lack of faith in my own future. This was not what I expected.

When does it get better?


AIMAC 2017

I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room, after a much needed swim, contemplating heading out into the smoggy, polluted, 34 degree heat of the city.  I’m doing a food tour tonight at 7pm – a wise move as the night time is much nicer than the afternoon – but I know I can’t laze around for a whole day.

There’s no reason for me to write up a report on my AIMAC 2017 experience, it’s not like I have to justify the funds received by UTS *grumble grumble*. But for a long time I saw this conference as the symbolic end to my time in academia, a good bye to the ideas of theory and the networks I’d built over the past 4 years.

Two years ago I sweated it out in 36 degree heat (with much less air conditioning than here) at AIMAC 2015.  You can read about my experiences here, here, here, here and here. (Gee I wrote a lot!)  AIMAC 2015 was a transformative experience for me, in the sense it not only introduced me to a community of academics and friends, but also exposed me to broader academic ideas and behaviours (the good and the bad.)

In some ways AIMAC 2017 could not compete, I am not as ‘young and impressionable’ academically as I was then.  The rude, hierarchical nature of the industry doesn’t surprise me, but is still just as offensive.  I had a groups of ready made friends, especially my current boss from Deakin and those I did the 2015 doctoral symposium with, so I was never without someone to talk to.

This conference for me was really about communicating my research, or a part of it, gauging a reaction and seeing where it might fit in the broader arts management constructs.  After day one I was in some ways a little flat, it didn’t excite me as I’d hoped.  I saw three leadership presentations and they were all very traditional and positivist in nature, which meant I was going to ruffle a few feathers.  It was nice, however, being able to provide advice and guidance to new researchers.  I remembered how I felt coming in two years earlier, so I made a point of offering all the support I could to those at their first academic conference.

Day two and I presented my paper.  I don’t think I presented as well as I would have liked, but it was still good.  Happily the audience loved it and I got a lot of really excellent feedback for the rest of the conference.  Importantly the facilitator, who was the editor of a journal, said he “looked forward to me book” (so do I!) and encouraged me to write up the theories of my work and potentially submit to his journal.  Also, a number of the scientific committee mentioned they had heard good things (even if they didn’t attend the paper) and had read the full submission, suggesting I was on the radar in some way.  I got excellent questions, one from a member of the scientific committee that suggested she agreed with my findings, and all in all I felt really proud.  It made me very focussed on four things: 1. not giving up about publication, 2. potentially, somehow, getting  international research opportunities to do a cross cultural analysis,  3. coming to AIMAC 2019 (which is in VENICE!) and 4. writing a really provocative paper or article on arts leadership theory and it’s need for critical expansion.

I was buoyed by that morning and the conference kicked up a notch for me then.  I saw some really good papers, particularly those that were a call to action about theoretical change. I learned the term “set jetting” as in visiting movie sets as tourism, and discussed post-series depression about the end of Harry Potter. I also met three Melbourne academics (of course) I hadn’t met before who immediately suggested they had work for me and threw business cards my way.  One was from Deakin and the others from Uni Melb, at MBS, which really interests me.

I have a feeling that my future work life might be varied and interesting. A number of opportunities, both academic and non-academic seem to be coming my way. This is exciting.  But it also highlights the role conferences like AIMAC have in building careers, and again raises issues of the economics of academia (as it is not cheap to do these things.)

While I’m not writing a travel post about Beijing on my other blog, or I haven’t planned to, I’ll mention that this has been so far a really easy experience.  I’m in a very nice hotel on the Peking University Campus, within walking distance to all we needed for the conference. All the food has been provided, and has been good to very good, and the hotel pool has been a godsend. Transport, taxis and metro, are great and relatively cheap. If only the weather/pollutions wasn’t so horrendous.

Anne and I did skip one late afternoon session to play hooky and wander through the Nanluogu Xiang, or Drum lane, one of the historical hutong areas. I might dispute it’s historical veracity as I’m pretty sure it was all rebuilt and more Disney than authentic.  But it was fun to be out in the city, get a street made jianbing for dinner and buy knick knacks.  As a group the conference also went to the 798 art district which was great, but I think we needed a day, not 2 hours.  But it’s a design store lovers paradise.

This afternoon I’m heading into Tiananmen Square to wander around, might do an audio tour I have about 1930s Peking, and then I start the eating adventure.  Tomorrow after a late checkout I’m spending my afternoon at the Summer Palace before heading to the airport and home.  (To repack for Europe on Monday!)


The economics of research

I just received an email from our Graduate Research School.  I had applied for, and been approved for, funding to support my attendance at a conference in China in a few weeks.  The funding wont cover the whole trip, mainly my airfare, but it was a reasonable level of support.  I consider this conference my potential academic swan-song.

It turns out, which I probably should have known, that you cannot receive funding if you are in the examination period. This means I will not receive the support that I had expected and budgeted for.  This isn’t a criticism of the Uni/Faculty, I should have realised, by reading the fine print, that this would be the case and based my application to attend an international conference on a realistic financial picture. I have finally got the time and the content to really showcase the outcomes of my research but ironically I lose the support I had relied on to go because I’m too far into my degree (it’s 2 weeks away so I can hardly withdraw now.)

All this has me thinking about the economics of undertaking a research degree. Other than my scholarship (which covered 2.5 years of a 4 year degree) I haven’t had any financial support from the government or University. I’m very grateful for this support, don’t get me wrong. Unlike many, I did a Masters by coursework that cost under $10,000 (significantly less), but most of the courses I see know in arts management are well in excess of $30,000.  My PhD technically cost me $300 per year (UTS admin fees.) I’ve personally paid to attend two conferences prior to this, one international and one interstate. It was through those events that I managed to secure contacts here in Melbourne that lead to a research assistant gig.

During the past 4 years, however, I was not supposed to work more than 8 hours a week.  I was fortunate enough to have a casual teaching position which gave me $10,000 a year (which I worked out equated to $5 per hour given the workload) , 2-day a week part time job for 6 months that paid less than what I earned when I went to Uni the first time (and that was the early 90s) and a RA contract that I’m still working on even though the money stopped in February.

Yet I’m in a very fortunate position.  I’ve had a secure career outside the arts/academia for a number of years and this has provided me with a buffer.  I’m also married to someone who works a corporate job. We are very privileged.  It is that privilege that has allowed me to spend 4 years doing this.

But now that my PhD is almost over (let’s not discuss results and revisions as I’m currently in a state of peak anxiety) I’m contemplating my future – vocationally, academically and financially.  The Uni that I have been engaged with here in Melbourne has expressed the idea I should apply for a post-doc.  Leaving aside the question as to whether this is something I want to do (and I’m not sure I do), it means I need to spend at least 12 months attempting to get solid publications out of my thesis in the hope I can then obtain a grant for a post-doc place.  That’s 12 months of work with no salary or wage of any kind and no guarantee of a job at the end of it. I’m not academically strong, I’ve worked damn hard to get this far, but I don’t see myself as having the stamina to aim for an academic career long term.

To build an academic career you need to publish.  You need to go to conferences.  You need to work outside your PhD (unless independently wealthy).  But even for someone as secure as myself this is a huge financial ask. For those who do not come from the same social-economic background as myself it is basically untenable (and I know the people in my cohort, so I know how narrow the economic background is.)

Being in the arts makes this even more challenging.  In this excellent article Becca Varcoe discusses the privilege of “doing what you love” and the impact economics has on the make up of arts organisations.  I know that gaining a PhD  in the arts has probably decreased my earning potential, not opened the door to a whole new career like it might if I’d been in business or technology. But at the same time the arts has to STOP EMPLOYING PEOPLE LIKE ME as the last thing it needs it another middle-class, white, middle-aged, Gorman wearing, statement jewellery buying person with a higher degree.

The system is just wrong. And the impact it has is broad.  Not only does academia suffer, students suffer for lack of good teachers, the arts suffers as it doesn’t reflect the community in which it operates, those in the system suffer economically and, increasingly, psychologically.

I don’t have the answers, other than to stop cutting higher education and a complete economic overhaul to reduce precarity of employment (a strong creative sector union option for those not in secure employment would be nice.)

I’ll just go back to writing my journal article that one day might secure me a job…..

Hallelujah: PhD Submission thoughts


So there you have it.  3 years, 9 months (which I believe is pretty much average.)

I’m very conscious that it is far from over.  Every day I fluctuate in terms of my expected examiner mark, but I hope for 2 or 3 deep in my heart.  It would be great to be able to graduate this year, but I suspect, as graduations are in September/October, that I will end up graduating in 2018.  Which might be better, as those I am closest with at UTS will also likely be in that group. As I have 6 months on them (at another Uni) I was the first to submit.

Am I relieved? Yes, but I’ve really just transferred my anxiety to new points of focus.  Will I pass? What will the examiners say? (I think this will be contingent on which of my four nominated take the gig, 2 are arts management and 2 are critical leadership scholars.) Will I ever get a paid job again? (I’ve been rejected for 2 roles in the last month, but timing is an issue as I’m heading overseas shortly.) Do I want to continue with academia at all? (I was asked about a post-doc application recently, but I need to get some strong publications out before that is even worth seriously thinking about.) Will I ever get published?

Today is the first day I’ve had a chance to stop and think, I went straight from submission to a weekend away (learning to bake leavened bread) then a frantic rush getting a conference paper in last night.  This week I’m back working on some research with my local contacts and my mother arrives on Thursday (!!!)  There’s no real holiday planned until I head overseas in July.  Until then it is all about publications and my presentation to AIMAC in Beijing in June.

But what are the initial thoughts about my PhD journey (sorry, I hate that word but it is apt.)

  • Everything I was told at the start, about the need for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing support, was true. Listen to that early advice.
  • The networks I made in my first year, through orientation and workshops, were crucial to survival through the process.
  • The period of completing the first draft, from July to December 2016, was probably the toughest period I’ve ever had psychologically. I questioned every life decision I ever made, from career choices to my marriage.  I was so lost in the process I couldn’t separate the PhD pain from any thing else. Having a counsellor through that time would have helped.
  • Comparatively my PhD experience to date has been easy.  I haven’t had to work significant hours to support myself (though the work I did do, teaching, research work and with arts organisations, helped bolster me intellectually, financially and creatively), my marriage is intact (and I can’t say the same for all my peers), my health is good (I need to lose 12kg but that’s not life threatening) and those closest to me are well.  Speaking to colleagues I know how lucky I have been.
  • The time from the end of draft one to submission was actually sort of nice. Hard work but you could see the end and the the progress you were making.
  • Having a tough editor was frustrating, in the sense it took forever, but it has turned a very average document into one I hope will pass and I learned from him.
  • Every time I re-read the final draft I made changes. And half of those changes ended up mucking something else up.  One <enter> and everything goes pear-shaped.  I found missing periods on the first page on the LAST DAY.  It will never be perfect.
  • There’s always a new avenue to take.  This morning I just came across a 2008 paper by one of my potential examiners that would have been a vital addition. I can’t believe I didn’t find it before.  I have a strong suspicion this will bite me in the a** if she (or her peer) are the ones examining.  Reading it I felt sick with all the potential arguments I have left unaddressed. But it is what it is, you have to stop at some point.

I’m preparing myself for 7 months of limbo.  Holiday, revisions, attempting to publish and really thinking about my next career.  I want to be creative in my job search, while I will have a crack at publications and post-doc work, I’m not setting my heart on it.  But I can’t go back to earning $20 an hour in an arts job I’m over qualified for.  The PhD has taught me so much, my skills are far more advanced than they were 4 years ago.  I want to be able to use them in a context that suits my values.  (I’m very fortunate to have space to look, I’m supported.)

I’ll be back for a few more posts to communicate how it all worked out…before I draw a line under PhD 2017.

Guess what?

I’m touching base here out of no purpose other than a bit of boasting.

As of today I am well into draft three of my thesis, have an abstract underway and even have a title that no one has complained about.

I’ve even locked in a submission date.  I feel terrified and joyous at the same time.

It’s worth mentioning here, that after 3 years and 3 months, I finally have a research question.


For the record:

What role do communities of practice play in the social construction of leadership identity in Australian arts and cultural workers?

I’ve just sent off a few things to my potential editor for background, have about 3 more weeks of work, and I’m going to send it to a few friends to read.  A UTS peer was horrified when I told her this yesterday, she couldn’t imaging giving her thesis to non-academics.   But really, don’t you want to positively impact your industry outside of academia? I know I do (cause it’s highly unlikely I’ll be working IN academia.)

Anyhow, happy Friday.  I’m heading to Adelaide to drink wine and read fiction.



A non-Phd request

Here’s the thing. Politics is all over social media, and there are a lot of people who just wish it would all go away. But, if you ever thought “how could they do that?” when reading about the Holocaust, well take a look at where we are today, right now, right here.
In fact, do me a favour, DO NOT LIKE THIS POST. Clicking like or writing some “you go girl”, “isn’t this awful” message on social media is not going to change a single thing. If you think, unlike our sad excuse for a government, that people should be treated with dignity and respect and you, like me, are terrified as to the events unfolding around us, then I ask of you this:
1. Subscribe to a newspaper or some form of journalism. Understanding what is happening in our world, despite the barrage of noise around us, has never been more important. (I’m not here to tell you which one, but if you think the Herald Sun meets this criteria then maybe this post isn’t for you.)
2. Call or write your political representatives and remind them, in the most forceful tones, that locking people up, refusing refugees a safe haven, calling people ‘illegals’ IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. Our spineless PM, Treasurer and Foreign Minister today became the first world leaders to publicly support (or at least not disavow) America’s #muslimban because we are the gold standard in racist, inhuman immigration policy. Our representatives must know that we won’t tolerate the rise of populist politics.
3. Make yourself visible. The days of slacktervism need to be over. March, protest, speak up. When those around you are quiet, fill the room with your disapproval.
4. Support those who are fighting for you. Whether it be the ACLU (who would have thought that we would love the lawyers so much) the ASRC or another group that fights the good fight, stop buying the odd coffee and GIVE THEM SOME MONEY OR TIME.
5. Use your consumer power. Boycott those who support the extreme right and support those making the world a better place. Do your research, follow the money. Know that your money makes a difference.
Be on the right side of history.

Pushing on

It’s two weeks before Christmas and I’m struggling to get my PhD mindset in the place it needs to be. In November I finally limped over the line for my first draft.  I can’t really describe what a terrible place I was in mentally and physically at that stage.  I knew that the PhD was going to take it’s toll, and I’d been very fortunate to make it through 3 years with minimal pain.  But the last few months have been a different story.

It’s not just the mental, and physical, challenge that undertaking this exercise has brought, but also the emotional and psychological toll on me and my surroundings.  Combined with this, 2016 has just been such an incredibly sad  year, culturally, politically, socially.  Speaking to a few friends, we all agreed it was hard to bring yourself out of the well of despair.

For me, immersed in this solo activity that makes you doubt yourself every day, I lost all perspective as to why I was unhappy.  Was it the PhD? Was it my marriage? My health?  My choice to move back to Melbourne? World events? I questioned every part of my life (and found most of it lacking) despite being in an incredibly privileged position.

A few weeks respite, a trip to the beach for WARMTH, and some feedback on draft one and I was in a much better place.  I’m still not sure I can do the PhD thing, every day seems harder than the last, but I keep putting one foot in front of the other.  But I also have thrown myself into Christmas planning (I love Christmas), have forced family to visit me, gone out to see friends and have achieved a few physical milestones (I swam 1km in a 50m pool today for the first time in my life) that have made life seem just a bit better than in was 2 months ago.

I’m two weeks in to the second draft of the PhD. It’s not going great.  Structurally my supervisor had some brilliant ideas (as always is the case) and I can see how changing things will make it better.  Thankfully there was no feedback that the whole argument fails to stand up, which I was pretty concerned over. But, as always, I’m struggling with writing which I know is just not up to scratch.  I need to keep pushing through though, get a second draft in by mid-January, one that is structurally and language wise very much an improvement on the first.

This post is an attempt to get my head in the writing game.  I’m a day or two behind in my schedule and I know that next week will be lost to pre-Christmas delirium.  I’m also looking forward toward 2017, knowing I’ll have a little bit of work (my research assistant job is ticking over) but that I can reasonably expect the PhD to dominate things for another 7 months or so.  It feels like a long time.