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.



Two faces of a PhD

It’s worth prefacing this post by noting that I am on Day 26 of continuous writing, no respite.  That, and in my ‘spare time’, I’m undertaking another research job and grappling with a different university’s ethics process. Can I just say UTS was a DREAM compared to this one.

Last month I committed to having a first draft complete before I went on a short weekend break to Sydney, to see all my friends I haven’t seen since our move a year ago. A YEAR.  This week the whole trip fell to pieces because of poor planning and bad schedules. (Note: don’t let someone in their final stages of a Phd try and organise 15 people to do anything.)

Add to this I decided to give up sugar, carbs and all good naughty things and to exercise 5 times a week.


For the last week month I have been a complete basket case. I completely related to this post on The Thesis Whisperer as I a) love Never-ending Story  and b) had taken up residence in the swamp for the foreseeable future. To say I am not fun to be around is the understatement of 2016.  And the sadness and anxiety that I feel over my PhD has coloured every corner of my life.

Then  I got a dose of perspective.

Firstly, my best friend, who knew of my general pain through social media/text message/general BFF psychic link sent me a bunch of flowers.  There’s nothing like a bunch of flowers to make you feel better.

Then I spoke to another friend last night who is doing their Honours in Psychology.  I spoke about how badly it is all going.

“But you check in with someone right?” she said.


“And they’re happy with what you’re doing?”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Then what’s your problem?”

And I thought about that a bit.  Every milestone I’ve had to meet with this PhD I have.  And the feedback has generally been constructive and positive.  Sure the last milestone was 6 months ago, but still. The only thing I haven’t achieved that I want (desperately) is to have something published. And maybe that won’t happen. Or maybe it won’t happen until after I submit the PhD.  But in the scheme of things it’s tolerable.

Today I had call with my supervisor.

“How’s it going?” she asks.

“Terrible.” I reply.

And we proceed to talk about how my theoretical and conceptual framework is pretty much where it needs to be and how the ideas have come together in my (very badly written but progressing) discussion chapter.

She didn’t, but could have added:

“Then what’s your problem?”

My problem is that I can’t see the wood from the trees.I’ve spent 26 days sitting at this desk thinking I’ve wasted 4 years of my life.

I have to separate the two faces of the PhD – the emotional and the intellectual. The intellectual knows I have 68,000 words and a few (maybe more than a few) chapters that are 90% done.  The intellectual knows that I just have to keep chipping away and in 2-3 weeks I’ll have a rough first draft.

The emotional thinks I’m never going to be accepted as a PhD. That the writing is rubbish and I’m sick of being cold (bloody Melbourne) and I can’t remember when I last laughed until I cried.  I’ve just cried.

This is the reality I exist within at the moment.  There’s no use pretending otherwise. And I’d like to say I can reconcile the two faces, but in the short term I can’t.  I just have to keep working. And maybe eat the occasional piece of chocolate.


Tying myself in knots

It’s been a rough couple of PhD weeks.  I’ve felt very stuck and inadequate.  While I have been plugging away at my word count (now about 60,000) I’ve been increasingly concerned that I haven’t yet hit on the conceptual ideas that hold my thesis together.  My ever calm supervisor suggests this will come, usually about 5 weeks from submission. But with 5 months before planned submission I’ve getting increasingly terrified.  I really hit a road block with my third data chapter, which really should hold it all together – be outlining my key theoretical contributions.  And they are just not there.  The feedback from AIMAC 2015 is echoing in my head “You are just writing a consulting report.”

I have these interconnecting themes – leadership theory, identity development, communities of practice and social learning, but I can’t seem to put them all together.

Despite being a bit behind schedule I’ve decided to do two things this week:

a) Take a step back and re-read/take notes on the intersection of leadership/development/identity theory.  This may lead to a few things including, a slight rework of my literature review, some changes to my methodology chapter and a centring of identity in my data chapters.

b) Have four days off. I’m finishing my job on Wednesday, and while I’m having an introductory meeting with my new job on Thursday I have decided to consider these days as holiday.  My husband and I are going away for two nights and I’m going to recalibrate.

Today, however, I’ve sat down and read.  A few lines within Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2010)* stand out. They mention using identity as a theoretical and methodological frame to understand leadership development.  Which is pretty much what I’m doing.  Where they examine “future leaders” participating in leadership development programs, I’m examining “emerging leaders and their communities” within the cultural sector.  Where they consider the influence leadership development programs have on identity construction, I’m considering how participation in communities of practice informs identity development.

So my whole thesis becomes:

  • How do creative practitioners in Australia socially construct their leadership identity?

This research uses social constructionist concepts of identity as a theoretical and methodological lens to frame and understand leadership development within Australian Cultural Sector. The research demonstrates how communities of practices play a vital role in facilitating identity work for emerging cultural leaders. 

I’m not sure where this is going, but I’ll follow it and see.


Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2010). Leadership development as identity construction. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 211-231.

Learning from my work – how not to manage change

I’ve been working in my current job for just over 6 months.  I agonised about taking it, I’m not really supposed to work when doing a PhD and the money (hello the arts) isn’t a great incentive.  But I pitched myself forward and really warmed to those who interviewed me.  I got excited. When I got the job I had a few tell me that the organisation was a bit difficult and, given my previous experience, this set of some alarm bells. But my gut feel was positive so I dived in.

Like any job there’s some adjustment.  The team, small yet very flexible and agile (really, not cliché), was close-knit and there’s a lot of ‘this is the way we do things’.  But the way they do things is steeped in history and love for the community in which they work.  It took time, as it always does, for me to find a place where I fit in this group.  How I could contribute without stepping on toes. After a few months I felt a shift.  We found our rhythm. I loved going to the office. Not just to avoid writing, but because these crazy-funny, passionate people were doing great things under stressful professional (and sometimes personal) circumstances.

In my research I’m not really interested in the hierarchical leadership or governance that comes from a board.  Professionally most boards I’ve dealt with have been abstract concepts. A bit scary to present to, but relatively benign.  Not so here.

From early on I saw how the board was combative, difficult, interventionist. It caused the loss of one great staff member and was clearly a thorn in the side of the AD/CEO.

But this was just the start.

A few weeks the board decided to push a massive organisational change. Restructuring the CEO/AD’s role and suggestive a large organisational strategy shift.  I say suggesting as there really has been no evidence of strategy formation or documentation.  The CEO/AD did the only thing she could in choosing to resign on her own terms.

Now the chaos.

Taking a step back, I’m not unfamiliar with organisational change, restructures and the like. 10 years as an HR person, including a heavy period during the GFC, gave me experience in the management of change projects and downsizing.  I understand how these things personally impact individuals, and have been made redundant myself.

Within the arts world it is even harder.  While I was never personally passionate about credit cards, I and my colleagues are very emotionally connected to what we do.  Most people I work with are artists, craftspeople, writers, curators and makers.  We work in this sector for love.  This organisation, more than any I’ve worked for, has given me entry into a true community. It’s been a great insight for how communities of practice evolve and sustain learning, feeding into both my thesis and my plans for a post PhD career.

After the initial shock of the resignation, we had a flurry of board members coming in to ‘talk us through’ what was happening.  But that was all they did.  Talk. Implying all the while that they were struggling with the shock of the resignation, as it was completely surprising to them.  Let’s not forget they engineered the whole process.  Here’s a few other things that did and did not happen:

  1. An interim CEO was appointed within 10 days with no advertisement or call out.
  2. There has been no written communication to staff about what it occurring, why the CEO/AD role was split in two or what the organisational strategy is moving forward.  Instead in meetings we hear words like “synergy” and “innovation” without any real content.  Apparently retail and exhibition space will double and resources be greater, but there is no plan on how this will occur.
  3. All this happened in the month following the confirmation of state and federal government funding, which is contingent on agreed business plans.  Yet suddenly the business plans have changed.
  4. It’s also the biggest month of the year for the organisation, as we run a month-long festival and two large-scale events. Timing is everything.
  5. No communications plan or FAQs have been created or given to either the comms manager or staff.  Despite the fact we are getting bombarded with questions from the community, consequently the narrative of this change is a mess.
  6. Five staff have chosen to resign or not renew their contracts (me included) because of the actions of the board over the past three months.  This is within a core team of under 15.
  7. The board have made it clear that there should be more full-time employees, fundamentally misunderstanding how flexibility of work is the number one selling point for arts workers and the fact that it brings incredible value to the organisation.
  8. Staff who remain have no idea who they will be working for, how their roles will be impacted and are left with a feeling that what they have achieved in the past three years (which is amazing) has not been recognized by the board.
  9. The board say there is a ‘lack of membership engagement’.  Yet in my 7 months I have a) never met a board member or b) never had one come to one of my events.  On Monday we held the largest event of our year, a conference with over 200 people involved.  Not one board member attended or even sent a message of luck to the team.

This last point has me particularly mad, as this is an incredibly engaged community. More so than any arts organisation I’ve been part of.

So what now?  For me I have four more days of work and a heavy heart.  For my friends and colleagues the future is uncertain. And for the community there could be the potential loss of a great institution, with nearly 50 years of history and a passionate voice. This is a lesson for us all.



Hello it’s almost mid- August

How the hell did that happen?

I’m typing from my ‘new’ study in my ‘new’ house which is 85% perfect. Still waiting on furniture (which is a saga in itself), the garden to be cleaned up (starts next week) and all my art to be collected and situated (hopefully next week.)

It’s a great, if sometimes cold, house with lots of character and some great liveable features.  We can’t wait for Spring and our new table and then we can swing open our doors and enjoy a sit down, not on the couch dinner while looking at our real backyard (which the dog isn’t interested in.)

I’m plodding along at the PhD, still aimlessly writing journal articles that go nowhere and data chapters that may turn into something great.  I’m currently working on my last data section before drafting my introduction and conclusion and then DRAFT ONE FINISHED.

I had some serious deadlines. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship extension, but this runs out right at the time my supervisor retires.  So how’s that for a real due date?  Personally this is the best thing for me. I know February 1st is a hard date.  No more. Done.  It’s quite exciting really. If not daunting.

The rest of my time has been dominated by my part-time (sometimes all consuming) job, which I love to bits and am really sorry to be ending.  This too is a saga in itself and I plan to write a separate post on this later today, as it’s quite the leadership (failure) case study.

Onwards and upwards as I start a new, short term, research job at Deakin University in a few weeks which could be the start of something casual for my post PhD life (here’s hoping.)

Life is good, if not a little exhausting.  I miss yoga and I’m not necessarily in the healthiest of places physically. But this is really proving to be quite the year.

Stage two – moving forward

Today is a big day.  Sometime in the next three hours large amounts of money will move through the interwebs and we will find ourselves with a) a huge mortgage (again) and b) keys to our new house.  This is pretty amazing.  Over the next 5-6 weeks I’m coordinating painting, wardrobe building, new heating, blinds and the construction of some custom furniture.  Then an actual move (which is about 1km from where we are living now.)  For someone who hasn’t lived in a house for 25 years this is majorly exciting and it’s the culmination of an 18 month plan that took as from our beloved Surry Hills to our new (forever) home in Fitzroy North.

I’ve also found out that my 6-month contract with Craft Victoria is unlikely to be extended due to financial constraints.  This is a mixed blessing.  I really love working for Craft, I respect what they do enormously. It’s been the best arts organisation to work for.  That said I really hate event management, so I wont miss that. And this will allow me the time to focus on my PhD in its entirety, as opposed to small bite sized chunks that has dominated my working plan for the past 4 months.

These two factors are combining to make concentrating on my thesis difficult.  While the regimen of work kept me very focussed until recently, knowing I’m returning to full-time PhD-writing has eased the pressure a bit. And it’s hard to focus when you’re also thinking about furniture placement and getting into your new, really spectacularly good kitchen.

Excuses galore.  That said, I’ve stuck pretty much to schedule. According to my plan I should be  about 30,000 words in by the end of this week and I’m easily there.  I have four draft chapters and half my introduction done (probably close to 50,000 words).  I really only have two chapters to write from scratch now, everything else is in some sort of draft.  But my poor, lost journal article has fallen to the wayside a bit.

Recently we managed to organise my stage two (the middle assessment phase of the PhD) work requirement by submission rather than presentation.  With my conference attendance and presentation at STPA in Adelaide in December and the submission of 2.5 draft chapters for review it looks like I will get the gold star from the university.  This means I’m really in the down hill phase.  As my scholarship ends in about 6 weeks this is damn important.  Without an extension (and no job + new house + rent for a bit) we are on fragile economic ground for a few months.  Nothing like a bit of financial pressure to hurry you along.

My sort-of-secondary supervisor read my content for the stage two review.  I think my capacity to handle feedback has improved significantly in this process and even though it was constructive, my initial reaction was this is GREAT, because it wasn’t a complete decimation of my work.  Apparently my writing has improved, which is good to know as it needed it, and my ideas are interesting, and progress great.  I’m making a contribution to the field.  All fantastic.

My weakness, and this is not at all surprising me as I know it is my weakness, is the theoretical framework and positioning my literature within the realm of epistemological and  ontological arguments.  I need a clearer argument about what constitutes leadership in my perspective, supported by theory.  I need to relate this to my data.

The good thing, I think I know where I’m headed.  This week I was thinking about the question “does the creative space need a new leadership model?” and my answer is a definitive “no”. I believe the creative industries is already using an existing, but largely unrecognised leadership approach.  My task is to weave this model, which is founded from social constructionist perspective, through my data chapters and position my argument in a cohesive way. At the moment the feedback is I’m just using supporting theory from a variety of schools (which I am) rather than positioning my work.

Am I worried? A little. This is the area in which I am not confident.  Can I do it? Yes. Because I can always see the next step in the process.  Everyday I just need to plug away at it.  (And not get too distracted by rugs on Pinterest.)

Weekly rant

Thanks to what has become known as Black Friday there are suddenly a lot of think pieces about the arts and arts funding circulating.  This is a good thing. I wish I could get online on any given day and read constructive articles about creative culture and government policy.  I wish it didn’t take the wholesale slaughter of our industry for it to happen. (By the way I’m organising an event that with feature a speech on the future of craft writing in the age of free content in July, so it’s on my mind.)

After 6 years of working, lecturing and researching in this space I have some opinions about these issues. Though sometimes I’m not confident enough to put them out there.  It’s generally only when I feel so authoritative on a subject that I know I can answer any critique that I’ll push a button and send.  I’m wary of opening up myself to criticism. (This is why I am never going to be an academic.)

But two nuggets of information that popped up in my social media feeds recently got me thinking/raised my hackles a little. And I guess I’m taking the chicken approach of not responding on the articles or posts instead I’m just expressing my thoughts here (which is not really public as no one reads it.)

The first was a comment about the Australia Council’s new suite of leadership programs being launched at a time 62 organisations were defunded. (Technically the leadership programs were launched about a month ago, but that’s not the point.)  Now I’m willing to say I have some self-interest in this area.  Not only is leadership my bag, but I have shared my research with the team at OzCo in the past. But I still also think it is worth looking at the perceived idea that it is somehow shameful that the federal body that has a significantly reduced grants budget is wasting resources by launching a (partly) user pays leadership development specifically for the sector.

Could money spent on this be spent in different ways? Absolutely.  Should all government funding that goes into the arts go directly to organisations and artists? In my opinion no.  I believe that part of the remit of organisations like the Australia Council is capacity building and that means helping skill those in the sector. We see that through their marketing forums and conferences on learning. What I see in my research is that there is some serious gaps in organisational leadership.  If participants in leadership programs become better managers, reduce role turnover, develop more productive staff by reducing stress, making the work environment better how beneficial will this be for organisations that has faced with tighter and tighter income streams?  I want to make the creative industries a better place to be employed and deliver more for the community, and I want that not just through adequate government funding but also through skilled leaders managing the companies in which we work.

What I’d love to see is this leadership development being offered free. Because I don’t know many arts organisations that have $600 or $900 to spend on leadership development, even though it is a) significantly better value than what you’d get in other sectors and b) badly needed. Importantly, I also want to ensure (and I hope I can play a part) that the leadership information that is provided in these sessions is relevant to the sector, particularly in the sense that it should come from within.  No wholesale importation of leadership theory as it applies to finance and the assumption that what works there works in the arts.

But I don’t criticise the Australia Council for offering the product in the first place.

OK, my second rant involves this piece on ArtsHub.  As a start I do not support the corporatisation of the arts.  I think creative product needs to be valued for more than economic value.  But at the same time I acknowledge that the creative industries (and I do not see this as a dirty word) is adding significant value to the economy and does employ more people than mining and agriculture.  Those in the sector have a tendency to latch on to these labour market and economic statistics to prove the sector’s value to the economy (legitimately) but then can’t cry foul when it is judged as an economic sector. Pledger says:

The ‘creative industries ideology’ talks to the arts as an object for monetisation. 

I don’t agree.  If you read Creative State, Victoria’s new creative industries policy, then you will see in the very first introductory paragraph:

The creative industries are significant to Victoria’s culture, economy and society and central to its future. Creative sectors and occupations account for $23 billion in gross value added, and make up about eight per cent of the Victorian economy. They influence our quality of life and the strength of our communities, and provide a source of inspiration and entertainment. They have wide-ranging impacts that resonate across our culture, society and economy. 

This clearly states that the industry add value to culture, economy and society.  The document goes on to recognise the linkages between creative work and social justice, quality of life, health, tourism along with economics.

To me it is not an either or discussion.   Attempting to isolate the arts as a ‘special’ case in society that deserves funding for its own sake is a) not going to fly in the modern world and b) not doing justice to the true value the arts provides.   This shouldn’t be an either/or argument. Government support in the arts should be both an investment and a grant.

We in the sector do need to get angry and fight for more funding. But we also need to critique the fact that funding seems to exist in a void of no policy at a national level.  There is no cultural/creative or arts industry policy in place and with no framework there is no strategy. In addition the methodology of funding delivery between the Australia Council for the Arts and Catalyst is a complete mess. No transparency, no consistency and no just process.  I highly recommend this article also on ArtsHub posted on these issues.

I’ve put out the call for arts leaders to step up in the past, and in particular we need some arts leadership at a national, policy level.  Think about this as you vote on July 2.

Rant over.