Why is it so hard? How I got through my hardest professional hurdle yet
Editor’s note: This story was by Penny Keogh and has been republished here with permission.
Motherhood inspires a different approach to career
A career spent working in PR and marketing agencies took a back seat when my beautiful babies arrived. Like many new mums, leaving a hectic professional life, motherhood wasn't entirely the intellectual experience I was used to. So, freelancing as a copywriter in the evenings while working a day a week as a tutor and lecturer at the University of Wollongong gave me the outlet I needed to inspire that side of myself.
As my babies grew, so did the opportunity to give more of my time to work. A love of teaching inspired my next step, which was to pursue a PhD that offers a natural progression into a career in academia, should I choose that at the end of the study.
But is this really what I want?
Have you ever felt you're standing on the edge of a cliff and you don't know if you should jump? There is the chance it could all go pear shaped. But then, like a Redbull daredevil, you might also have the time of your life with a thrilling fall ending in a moment of supreme satisfaction as you splash climatically into clear blue waters below. Gosh, that sounds like fun. Hard to resist even.
"Why bother with a PhD?" they asked.
"Because I haven't done it," I answered.
As good a reason as any, surely?
Well, maybe not. The pressure on my husband to manage the children has been significant. The loss of income from my time diverted is equally stressful. The weekends that my children don't have me, nor I them, breaks my heart. While I considered this beforehand, I'm not sure I really understood the sacrifice.
Here I am looking happy and ready to take on the world. Little did I know the year ahead would be the biggest professional hurdle of my life!
You don't know what you don't know, so you just give it a go
Isn't it typical? I'd hardly even read an academic paper and still I thought it would be a cinch. After all, with hard work, competence can be learned like anything else? I'm a writer by trade, so how hard could it be?
Academic writing is like nothing else on earth. Where before 1000 words on any business topic might take me between two or three hours, just to get into the PhD program, I spent two weeks trying figure out how to write 2000 words.
But it worked. Tears rolled down my eyes just trying to get in, unsure if I could. Then tears rolled down my eyes again when I did get in, but for a different reason. The adventure had begun.
These are my people: The joy of being surrounded by thinkers
So, when you start a PhD with no research experience in your background, just like for an undergraduate student, the University of Wollongong sets up newcomers with a few introductory research subjects to help you write the PhD.
I walked into my first class, dressed not like a student but professionally as if I was going to work. I wanted to show I had this covered, even though my spine tingled, and butterflies took over my tummy.
It had been so long since I'd had the pleasure of feeling nerves like these. The last time my tummy felt like this was when my third bub Axl kicked inside for the first time.
As the room of 10 students shared their backstory, I was more than pleased to know that so many were just like me. Most were in their 30s, each having kids and professional lives that ran alongside their studies.
Existential conversations then flowed forth and we discussed foreign words like epistemology and ontology. In those moments I found the warm glow inside that comes only from splashing from a great height into blue sparkling water.
Oh, but little did I know that sharks would start to circle soon enough.
I'm an imposter: Feelings of uncertainty shape my approach
I have woken to 4am starts for months on end, just to fit this study around nappies and freelancing. The rigor of an early daily routine has been necessary to keep my mind on the business of writing a PhD.
Sadly though, almost a year in, I STILL haven't found the all-important GAP! How is this even possible? I have been told often this is common, but I always thought it wouldn't happen to me.
Why would I think that? But we all do, don't we? Mmm… there must be some theory on that natural inclination. ; )
For those who haven't embarked on their PhD, the purpose is that you have to find a problem (or gap) and then find a solution. But to find the problem, you have to spend hundreds of hours reading to reveal the problem that has not been solved, and that problem has to be important enough to bother.
Every day I wake up and I read and I write. I read and I write. I read and I write. Every day I look at what I've written and cringe and wonder how I wrote so little the day before. I wonder if it's even possible for me to fully conceive and present this idea in the way it needs to be presented.
Staving off the loneliness: Is it right to complain?
The disappointment in myself and the feelings of loneliness can be profound. I don't want to unload my disappointment on anyone else, because to everyone else it's boring.
I also know I can't possibly articulate the lengths I've gone to mentally hone this particular writing skill. It's such a personal mountain to climb. And I signed up for it, so I really don't have a right to complain. Do I?
Also, in the scheme of things, how bad is it really to say that when before I thought I was a good writer, now in this new context I'm not so sure? For a writer, it's a big deal. Probably not for most anyone else.
The winding road ahead is full of promise
So, I get on with it. You know why? Because despite it all, this is another wonderful challenge of my life.
Why else are we here, if not to grow and learn and discover and love? Hard work also makes me happy.
You know what my PhD is on? It's on brand storytelling. I love storytelling. I've written thousands of stories for brands throughout my career and now I get to really, truly understand that craft better. It's a passion. What a privilege!
I hope to share more of my journey with you as I go on.
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