I am the poster girl for 'how not to do a PhD, but make it work anyway'
When I am feeling my most discouraged and whipped by this PhD I tend to start listing mentally, everything that has happened in my life over the past 2.5 years that have made it impossible for me to “properly” get this thing done. Pathetic, I know, but somehow I think it is kind of a common “poor, poor, pitiful me” thing to do. But, I recently got to thinking that, funnily enough, when I am feeling particularly buoyed and optimistic about getting this thing done, I turn to that very same list, and use it to pat myself on the back in an “against all odds” sort of way. The ol’ man and I, will, from time to time, start trying to list all the major happenings of the past few years only to give up mid-way through because it becomes a tad overwhelming. At some point, me doing a PhD, in another country, while raising six children seemed like a good idea – if someone is able to remind me of that specific good idea I would be most grateful because most days it completely escapes me.
I have to preface this all by saying I have – from day one, from the first inkling or seedling of a thought that I should pursue a PhD – had this pestering voice in my head telling me (loud and clear) that I have no business doing a PhD in the first place (Hello major imposter syndrome!). I really think I am fairly justified in listening, even just a little bit to this pestering voice for the following reasons: I am the only person in my immediate family to have gotten a degree of any kind, I have an uncle on my mother’s side who has a Bachelor’s degree and no one on my father’s side has ever attended university. I dropped out of university before completing my BFA because I was pregnant with my first son. I went back 5 years later (we only had 3 kids at that point) and finished. I then went on to have 3 more kids, keeping one foot in the opera/theatre world, doing a bit of performing and teaching privately from my home. Two years after my youngest son was born I lucked into an adjunct teaching job because of my professional experience in the field. I loved it and decided I wanted the opportunity to move up and get a more stable job in academia. So, I went into an MFA program at Goddard College – a non-traditional, low-residency, Interdisciplinary Arts program; not your typical route to a PhD. No
So, I have a “sketchy” academic background, six children, I am researching voice for the theatre (not a lot of people breakin’ the banks to help me fund that), and let’s not forget I am a woman, in my 40’s – not your typical postgrad – no, not typical in any way. So already the odds are stacked against me. Oh! And did I mention that I am self-funding?! Save for a few government bursaries for middle-aged women with lots of kids researching theatre, I am doing this on student loans.
One might say I was (and still am?!) behind the 8 ball…
But despite all that I still thought it was a good idea. Riding on the momentum of my MFA (which in and of itself was difficult but definitely transformative in many ways), we (the ol’ man and I) decided this would be an adventure worth taking. Doing it in the UK seemed to make the most sense because there was a supervisor there who met my research needs (someone experienced as both a classical musician and a theatre artist) and they offered the opportunity to do it as a split site location student as moving the whole family to the UK for my studies was not going to happen.
We decided that to make this whole thing more manageable, we would move across the country to Montréal where all the ol’ man’s family is, giving him support when I was away and making popping back and forth over the pond a little less daunting.
It all sounds so easy, right?! I would go away for 2 weeks to a month every semester, teach part-time and he would work full time and hold the fort while I was away.
Piece. of. cake.
Except. Nothing is ever simple for us. You would think I would know that by now; not much is simple with six kids because, well, there are simply so many people involved.
Early in my studies, I was in a panic because I did not have a clue as to what I was doing – how does one “do,” “write,” “participate in” a PhD? So I read books and scoured the internet for helpful hints; everything from “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minute a Day” to numerous inspiring articles such as “10 Steps to PhD Failure.”
I can remember sitting reading one of these articles with much anxiety as I started ticking off all the tasks I had already completed in one called something like “Top Reasons PhDs Get Derailed.” Yes, I am the poster girl for how-not-to-do-a-PhD-but make-it-work-anyway.
And I, or rather we, as this inevitably affects all of the family, are still limping along.
So. Here’s the list (which is surely not complete, because… well… life).
It may conversely make me weep, or pump my fist in victory or maybe both.
1. We sold our house, I left my adjunct job (a small university that I liked very much), and the ol’ man quit his solid construction job and we moved 5 of the kids across the country (our eldest, 20 at the time, stayed.)
2. We arrived to a new province, a new language, new schools, new jobs, and then…
3. …a month after we arrived, I left for my first one-month stint in the UK.
4. My mother-in-law, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, refused all treatment and died a year after we arrived.
5. My father decided he could no longer care for my mother, who suffers from dementia, and moved her into a full-time care facility. I flew back (5+ hours) multiple times to help with the transition.
6. Our eldest son, who had been dealing with addiction issues, reached out for help. We used the money we had made from the sale of our house to bring him to Montréal and put him through rehab for 3 months (He has been sober for 2+ years now, is a straight A student, works to support himself, writes, plays music – we couldn’t be more proud of him).
7. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer one year after my mother-in-law died. He is now in remission and doing well.
8. Son #2 fell down a long set of stairs at the metro (subway) and broke his shoulder. He required surgery to insert a steel rod and months of rehabilitation.
9. We moved from the first house we rented in Montreal to a larger one.
10. I got really sick with a mystery illness about one year in. I developed eczema all over my face and I lost my voice for one month – one whole month with little to no voice – kind of ironic as a doctoral researcher studying… VOICE! The doctors I saw diagnosed it all as stress-related (No s**t, Sherlock!).
11. I spent a month in New York performing a show at a theatre festival, (the family came and joined me for a week.)
12. I have presented my research at 8 conferences and travelled to 5 different countries.
13. I have made no fewer than 12 transatlantic flights in the last 2 years, 5 months, 24 days… that does not include two separate research trips to New York, 4 flights back to Vancouver and a job interview in LA.
Don’t try this at home kids. PhDs + big families + grand ideas = not for the faint of heart (And if I told you I don’t often feel faint then that would make me a big liar!)
Well, I am not weeping. So, it must be a fist pump kinda day.
Mamalegato is a mother to six, PhD student, and theatre artist. This story was published on March 24, 2016, on her blog, Mamalegato's Marathon (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.
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