In a bid to compromise with myself, and regain some energy whilst continuing with my ‘Happiness Project’, I elected February’s project to kick-start my PhD preparation and application – one of my 19for2019 tasks. I knew this project would allow significant amounts of alone-time (which always re-charges my battery levels), it would lure me into reducing my training sessions, and was something I could pursue whilst feeling pathetic and germy. It did the job – I not only got better, but I am now further along in achieving my goal.
At the beginning of the month I charted where I wanted to be by month end. This is what success looked like to me:
- More concise/established understanding of research area
- Identification of potential supervisors and obtained initial feedback
- Understanding of the application & funding process.
- Implementation of a time-line
- Conducted preliminary reading around my research area
- Started a dedicated financial fund
I thought I’d get in a quick win to get the momentum going and started a dedicated fund for this mission. Seeing the value tick up over the course of the month made me feel like I’m one step closer – it also put other purchases into perspective. If I got lunch paid for by work then I allocated the value I would have spent into the account. Southeastern trains delay repays? They went into the account too. Every little helps. If this is going to be my life for the next five years I have to start living and breathing it – I have to make it my purpose, and the fund made it an everyday focus.
Now on to the real stuff – the research: I started off small and dedicated one day of my weekend to reading around the topic, forming a reading list, gradually striking off things that I didn’t want to pursue. I was narrowing down the focus but it was still hazy for the first couple of weeks.
Towards the end of January I had attended a women’s networking event in London (unrelated to academia) and happened to find myself sitting next to someone who had just finished her PhD in gender and politics – now an academic at Cambridge Business School. I mean, what are the chances of that?! There was a tiny part of me that believed in a god that day….sometimes the world works in mysterious ways. I have to credit my new friend with helping me to piece together a timeline that was in-keeping with the stages of application. The difficulty of applying for a PhD when you’re outside of an institution is that you don’t have the luxury of being able to knock on an academic’s door spontaneously and ask for their guidance – I was beholden to their kindness and interest in my research area to obtain a response to my emails. But with my newfound secret mole within academia I had the inside track.
After contacting a couple of potential sponsors, at my new friend’s insistence, I was connected to the PhD facilitator for Gender at my chosen institution, who was incredibly helpful and generous with her time. She pushed me in ways that catapulted me out of my comfort zone and firmly into the ‘stretch’ area – our call was two weeks before the school funding deadline and she wanted me to submit a proposal. Now, whilst I was quite happily pootling along reading at my leisure and pondering my path forwards, this completely altered the speed of my timeline. I found myself drafting a research proposal one Sunday, surprised that I had the ideas and concepts already within me – this supervisor had just pushed me to stop procrastinating and put pen to paper.
I haven’t applied yet though; the academics have my proposal and in the meantime I’ve been wondering whether it’s the right proposal. Am I making the right research decisions bearing in mind it’s going to dominate the next five years of my life? So yesterday I wrote a second one, and I’m still in a place of limbo. I wonder whether this is reflective of my modus operandi more generally? I’m extremely effective at driving towards things, putting in the graft, but when it gets to crunch time and I have to make a decision which closes off another avenue then I become paralysed in indecision. It infuriates me. It seems I’m fearful that the other life will cease to be available if I select against it.
I know I have to make a decision and I need to actually apply. Suddenly I’m no longer looking at a January 2020 start, but a September 2019 start. It could be the end of one chapter and the start of another. Maybe subconsciously I know that once the application is submitted I would be starting off a domino effect that I’m powerless to stop, it would bring change to my life in more ways than one. But it’s what I want. And so after a weekend of pseudo coaching I’ve decided that the best way forward is to present both proposals to the PhD facilitator and obtain her guidance; she was a good egg.
Looking back on the month, and despite my final moments of hesitation, I definitely moved my PhD application forward significantly – by leaps and bounds. By making it my monthly project I was able to focus on it whole-heartedly and prioritised it above my other ambitions. I reduced my training in order to dedicate my energy to it, I sacrificed The Economist to maximise the time I could dedicate to reading; it meant that I could remain in that mental space throughout the course of the week. It avoided the “where was I?” procrastination which can rinse my time of productivity at the weekend. I was in flow.
Pursuit of a PhD is something I never thought I’d be able to return to after I chose an alternative path in 2012, and yet every day it gets a little bit closer, a little bit more real, and slightly more achievable. Maybe that’s the learning from this month: we make decisions based on the information that we have available at that moment in time, but we’ll find our way back to a path if it leads to our true purpose. There is no right or wrong decision – no definitive closure on a path not travelled; who knows when the paths may intersect.