A Day In The Life – Ellis Spicer

by Ellis Spicer, University of Kent, Student Committee Chair and Kent Representative.

Describe a typical working day.

They say the life of a PhD student can get a little unpredictable, but in some ways I’m finding the opposite (unless I have particular plans on a specific day for interviewing, archives etc). In fact I’m sitting in my office writing on a very untypical day, one I’ve dedicated to catching up on admin.

But usually, you’ll find me groaning at my alarm at 7am virtually every morning – I’m one of those disastrous human beings that never wakes up on the first alarm, needing one every five or so minutes until I motivate myself to get out of bed. After a compulsory cup of tea in the morning (I can’t function without one), some breakfast and getting ready for the day, I start my walk to campus. I’m getting a lot better at trekking up the hill that leads to the University of Kent, although I’m sure asthma medication has also been helping on that front.

A lovely autumnal view from our Rutherford College Office at the University of Kent

By the time I’ve made it to the office, I usually need a glug of water and a cup of coffee to get my working day properly started. Admittedly this can be anywhere between 9-10am depending on how long I can ignore my alarm for.

I am excessively proud of my little working space when it’s not a mess.

When I’ve got a coffee by my side and my computer is all loaded up, I like to take a look at my to-do-list. You would be right in thinking that I am one of those people. Love a good list, love a bit of order and if the stationery is also adorable then that is even better! Then I start writing more often than not.

I am a fully-fledged victim of the post-lunch slump so if I’m writing a chapter or a conference paper most of my work will be done before then. I’m often so consumed by the writing process my hands hammer the keyboard until my brain enters ‘shut down mode’, I finish what I planned to do that day or if hunger or the need for caffeine intervenes, whichever one may arrive first.

I try and take a break for lunch, even if I am sitting at my desk. Mostly I’ll scour the news to see if anything interesting is happening or read whichever book I happen to be delving into at that point. Even if I don’t leave my desk, I like the mental break from my work I get from these lunchtimes.

Afternoons massively vary, they can vary between admin tasks, keeping an eye on emails, planning outreach sessions or revising my notes from my Spanish class. Sometimes I feel cooped up and leave campus early, needing some fresh air, and it’s those kind of days where you’ll find me in the gym, a new found hobby I’ve become rather fond of.

Evenings become a chance for some PhD decompression, with a focus on indulging myself – whether it’s leisurely reading, Netflix or social time, and I’m rather protective of them. You’ll never catch me working in the evenings because I don’t feel productive in the slightest during them.

What’s your top productivity tip?

See above – I’m not an evening person, I prefer to work in the mornings. I always think people should work out when they work the best and roll with that, there’s no right answer. Know yourself and know your schedule and even if you’re busy you can make the most of the time you have.

What do you do to unwind?

I read a lot of fiction and watch a fair amount of TV on my protected evenings to escape from the PhD bubble.

What is your favourite way to start the day?

With a vital cup of tea, a decent breakfast and an episode of something lighthearted.

A Day In The Life – Stuart Falconer (OU)

by Stuart Falconer, Open University, CHASE Student Committee member and OU Representative 

When it was suggested that I write a blog post focused around a day in my life my first thought was how?! How do I describe my ‘typical’ day – a word I would not associate with any of my days.

I have decided to share a relatively common day during my working week. If we were living in ideals, I would say here that my day starts by waking up and sitting in peaceful surroundings drinking coffee and reading a couple of academic articles. However, we don’t live in ideals, my day starts with my two small children waking me up by charging up and down the hall like elephants, then I head downstairs to be confronted by the world’s most excitable Labrador who needs feeding and letting outside.

Next, I need to sort the kids breakfast as well as making packed lunches for the family because “Tom has packed lunch, so I need it”. At this point I say goodbye to the wife and prepare for the school run and walking the dog (remembering to drop off disco consent forms and confirming son’s attendance at a birthday party) before swinging to the shops to restock on milk and bread. 

Finally, home, I get the kettle on and start thinking about my day. Firstly, I think about my work; as a module leader on an Archaeology degree, I need to ensure my weekly lectures are planned (and reports are written, and assignments marked). So late morning, family sorted, work prepped, I now address that nauseating feeling in the pit of my stomach regarding neglected PhD work.

It is at this point that my priorities list bears fruit! I often find the potential for procrastination is high here, especially with the volume of administrative tasks associated with the PhD that I could ‘just quickly do whilst I have five minutes’. These include skills audits, conference abstracts, transport and accommodation for conferences and training, booking training opportunities, writing supervision notes and sorting my bibliography (I use Zotero) to name a few. Whilst necessary, it is at this point I readjust my focus and either read, annotate and critique academic articles, or I consider different methodologies and how these should mesh with theoretical approaches.

Late afternoon and I have made some PhD progress, but it is time to collect the children and prep dinner for family time. This time is one of the most significant of my day which I would not change for the world. Stepping away from research to spend time on other things is invaluable, especially when those things are friends and family – one of the best ways to relax, share your thoughts and feelings, and, remind yourself that you have a network of support around you.  After dinner, kids’ baths and stories read, I sit down on the sofa with my wife and my laptop (often during this period I tackle the admin tasks). Every day is different with regard to progress, goals, priorities, responsibilities and levels of success. Some days I make incredible progress and feel a little smug, other days I feel are wasted and the all too familiar imposter syndrome kicks in.

I find prioritising and tackling manageable chunks is a good time management method, as is seeking advice of others, and things like reading an article or writing a few hundred words a day, are good working practices to adopt. What I often find is that I adjust time allowances according to my situation. There are times where life is challenging, so I throw myself into my research, a tactic I use in the other direction too, if I have just read an article that I needed a thesaurus to comprehend, I may focus on lecture planning or admin tasks as an escape. There are plenty of opportunities through CHASE and host institutions to seek advice and support on how to effectively manage your time and to organise yourself. Be selective, think carefully about your intended career and what you want from your PhD as this will guide you and your decisions and remember to strike that balance between social, work and academic life!

Having a Hobby and Doing a PhD

by Matthew Jones, University of Sussex, CHASE Student Committee blog officer and Sussex representative  

A PhD can be an all-consuming thing. Indeed, relaxing while doing a PhD might be harder than doing the PhD itself. Often there is a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that you probably should be reading that article about post-colonialism and the materiality of museum collections or writing that thing you promised to write for someone offhandedly in the faculty staffroom. The burden this can have on your mental and physical health can become great, however, this blog is not about doom and gloom. You can take time away from your PhD and build a healthy work/life balance in the process. Of course, there is not a one size fits all solution to this, but I have found that giving time to develop a hobby can be really great way to empty your mind of the anxieties of academia.

I do this by drawing. I have always been drawing since I was a kid conjuring up images of dragons and castles in school exercise books. I remember discovering out how perspective worked when I was in year 3 and becoming the talk of the playground as everyone wanted me to make their pictures look more realistic. This continued all the way through secondary and I took an A-Level in art at sixth form. I even thought about going to art school after my A-Levels but then I realised the life of a starving artist is not for me (so I did history because that makes you way more money).

My art developed through my undergraduate degree to where I focused on making portraits including in my final year where I made portraits of all my housemates and, rather narcissistically, we hung them in our kitchen, so we could stare out ourselves during predrinks. Unsurprisingly my passion for drawing did not abate when I moved to doing an MA in Art History. Now that I am doing a PhD I have come to see that as I have moved up the academic ladder I have become more and more passionate about my drawing. Maybe I use drawing as a way to hide from all my worries or as a genuine safe place where I can be myself, either way, it has become a daily thing that I do to take my mind off the ‘To Do List’ of PhD life that’s always lingering in my head.

Being at University has enabled me to do this. The Art Society at Sussex run a weekly life drawing session and Brighton is full of different galleries and art clubs running sessions on drawing as well as many other fun creative things. Taking a couple hours off on a Wednesday afternoon to go to a life drawing class is not going to harm your PhD. This applies to doing any hobby. Taking time to be yourself, indulge in what you like doing and to grow your sense of self is an actively good thing no matter what your hobby is.

Not to go all Gwyneth Paltrow but consciously uncoupling yourself from your research is not an act of academic self-sabotage. Many people feel like they must spend every waking moment doing activities related to their area of expertise but doing a hobby can actually make you better at working than hitting your head against wall all day because you are tired, and your morale is low. I feel like drawing has made me a better academic. It has taught me patience and the need to look more closely, and multiple times, at what I am drawing. It has taught me that making mistakes is ok as they can be erased and that if you keep working at it something beautiful can come of it.

Basically, as well as being a vehicle for self-promotion and showing off my drawings, I hope this blog has underlined the use and pleasure that can be gained from taking time off your PhD to do something else. It can be scary to do something that doesn’t seemingly contribute to your research, but it can be deeply rewarding, help you grow and can be just very relaxing!