18. Coffee and editing: tales from the fourth year

It’s the 20th of January and, after coming back to work after the holidays on the 2nd, I finally feel like I’m back in the swing of things. My name is Matthew, and I’m a PhD student in that progressively dense, foggy space between the third and fourth years of my studies at Newcastle University, trying to finish a PhD on the confluence of transcontinental railways, geopolitics, imperialism, and ‘civilisation’ between c. 1875 and 1930. I’m at the point where I’ve got a good draft of every chapter and I’m trying to knot them all together into one smooth stretch of scholarly rope. It’s proving really difficult, and it would also make my usual ‘week in the life’ excruciatingly dull to read. Monday: drank coffee and did some editing. Tuesday: drank coffee and did some editing…and so on and so forth. This week has however been a little bit more varied, with a trip away from Newcastle and a couple of meetings to break up the monotony. This means that what follows is probably only pretty, as opposed to excruciatingly, dull to read.

Monday begins with, how about that, some coffee and some editing. I’m currently working on editing and slightly reworking my first empirical chapter on the German/Ottoman Baghdad Railway, having spent the last month or so doing the same to my introductory chapter, my theoretical framework, and my methodology. I’m happy with all of those now, so they’ve been ‘banked’ away as finished, only to be looked at again once the complete full draft is together. To be honest it is slow work, going through comments on the chapter from my supervisors, trying to clarify or remove some of the waffle and sharpen the arguments and key points I’m trying to make. The chapter is in a good state, but suffers from unnecessary detail in places. Some of it goes into footnotes and some of it gets removed entirely. Tuesday begins the same way, but at lunchtime I’m on the way back home to get picked up by my partner. She’s spent the last two years doing a part-time MA at Warwick University in Educational Leadership (whatever that means), and Wednesday is her graduation. The thought of one-and-a-half days away from the screen still conjures squirms of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, but it is something that I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, miss. So at around 3pm we start on the four hour journey down to Coventry. I have a book with me – Gitta Sereny’s ‘Into That Darkness’ – which is the second of the twenty-five ‘non-work’ books I resolved to read in 2017 as my New Year’s Resolution. I finish the last 70 pages or so just before it gets too dark to see. We arrive in Coventry at just before 8 and, after a quick bite to eat at a nearby pub, head to bed early.

The graduation takes place at 11am on the next day, but maddeningly I’m up at 7am and at the appropriate university building just after 9am. After a brief stop for coffee, I take my seat at around 10.20am and wait for things to get started. It’s been a while since I sat through a graduation, and this one taught me that graduations need at least three things. Firstly, canned applause (my hands were really sore by the end); secondly, complimentary deodorant (I was drenched); and thirdly, optional wee bags (I was very nearly even more drenched). A reasonably difficult Sudoku or crossword wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Still, before long it’s over, and after taking the necessary photographs it’s time to hit the road again. I start on book number three, a short and simple little rag entitled ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by some old German nobody called Friedrich Nietzsche. I get 40ish pages in before the light fades. It’s just before 7pm when I get back, and my housemate and I have some food and watch a couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica before the waves of tiredness lap over me. After a day-and-a-half effectively off work, I need to be up and ready to go again on Thursday morning.

Alas, it’s not to be, as I mess around for a couple of hours before heading off to a meeting at 11am. This meeting is with the Module Leader of the third-year undergraduate module I’m the Teaching Assistant for. I did the module last year, too, and we got the highest teaching feedback scores from across the whole department, so the meeting proceeds from a kind of ‘if it ain’t broke’ style premise. The seminars I’m leading are remaining almost exactly the same, and we talk about the microscopic changes to other parts of the module and to one of the assessments. The afternoon sees all of the geography postgrads congregate in the coffee room for one of our newest PhD students’ birthday. We have an ingenious system among the postgrads at Newcastle where the person whose birthday it has most recently been sorts a cake and card for the next person. We have chocolate cake, sing happy birthday, and although an incessant segment of my brain continually edges my eyesight towards the clock and the amount of editing I still have left to do, we stay in the coffee room for a good while, talking and laughing. We also decide where to go for a drink that evening to celebrate the aforementioned birthday. Drinks on a Thursday night are usually a huge no-no – ‘it’s a schoolnight, you slacker’ whispers the incessant segment of my brain with scarcely concealed venom – but what the hell. So, at 4.30pm, we head off to a fine local drinking establishment called Dat Bar, and stay there until 10pm. Slightly tipsy we disperse, and my housemate and I stop for a nightcap at another fine establishment called Bar Loco before completing the 15minute walk back to our house.

And then it’s Friday, and here I am, with that very same incessant segment of my brain jumping up and down in fury at the fact I’m writing this blog post instead of editing my chapter. A few months ago I would have let this incessant segment dominate my time, shouting its orders through a megaphone and throwing books and lightbulbs at me every time I seem like I’m going to get another coffee or have a 5minute break. Now though, it shouts at me as if through a window: I can still hear it and make out the words it is saying, but I can tune them out and choose not to obey them. It’s already sent me a strongly worded letter decrying my plans for the weekend: a meal out with my partner on Friday evening, then a trip to Newcastle vs. Rotherham at St. James Park on Saturday before a few drinks on Saturday evening for a friends’ birthday. It got particularly livid about my plans to have a lazy Sunday with a mild hangover doing washing and some meal prep for the following week, alerting me to its wrath by sending both a carrier pigeon and a thinly veiled threat via the Beacons of Gondor. ‘You have marking to finish!’ it shrieks when learning of my plans to possibly even have a nap on Sunday afternoon. ‘And what about your chapter?! You’re spending a day doing basically nothing when you could be finishing your PhD!’

Ignoring the fact that there are voices inside my head, there’s a genuinely important message in all this, something I remind myself of frequently and something that is worth thinking about. When you come towards the end of your PhD, you can place yourself, consciously or not, under overwhelming pressure. Your 6pm finishes can creep slowly later, your working week can increasingly bleed into Saturdays and Sundays, and you can often feel like your entire life is placed under a suffocating blanket of stress as the clock ticks down and your supervisors still insist on you tweaking this section or that argument. On top of this, you will often be juggling this pressure with a number of other tasks. You might take on (more) teaching to keep your finances ticking over, you might be frenziedly filling out postdoc or teaching fellowship applications, and – if you’re serious about staying in academia – you’ll quite often be spending all of the spare time you have trying to draft papers and manoeuvre them through the labyrinthine peer review process. Not only this, you’ll be trying to understand (let alone demonstrate) the dreaded word ‘impact’, you’ll be attempting to maintain and extend your networking reach, and you’ll be doing all of this alongside your other, non-academic responsibilities, whatever they may be.

The point is that we have a tendency, often because we think we’re getting paid to ‘do what we love’, to allow work to colonise our lives; to allow it to stretch its tentacles into all aspects of our existence, constricting anything and everything even slightly detrimental to our levels of productivity and efficiency. And we have a tendency to think that it’s both normal and necessary to our future careers. It isn’t. I’m increasingly convinced it’s vital that PhD students of all stages draw themselves firm boundaries, work bloody hard within those boundaries, but then switch off as much as possible outside of them. So I guess what I’m saying is that when you get an invitation to go out for drinks on a Thursday evening but want to finish this or that section, or are contemplating spending that spare Sunday doing another full day on your methodology, ask yourself: is it really necessary to do so? Will you fail your PhD if you don’t spend that one day or that one evening doing a few more hours work? If the answer is no, then go out for those drinks or spend that Sunday doing something you will really enjoy. Go to the cinema or to the coast. And don’t regret it or allow any incessant segments of your brain to make you feel guilty. You’ll still get your doctorate, the paper will still be written, and the right job will still come along. Most important of all, you’ll have a much less of a stressful time about it along the way.