Welcoming 2013

This is not another blog post about New Year’s resolutions and how to stick to them, I promise….

My new year is off to an excellent start. Today is day one of getting back to the grindstone after ten days of madness en famille, but I’m spending it sitting at my desk at home with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, another blanket over my lap, a cup of piping hot tea beside me and a box of tissues to hand at all times. Unsurprisingly, I am in no mood for making new year’s resolutions. And in even less of a mood to keep them. And just thinking about my history with resolutions, I want to say that I blame reality and the world and society for any resolutions I’ve ever made that I’ve not kept!

Calvin and Hobbes: "Reality continues to ruin my life"

Calvin and Hobbes: “Reality continues to ruin my life”



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Developing a career plan

Career planning is a distraction from everyday task lists, but it cannot be ignored as the PhD comes to a close…

This week, instead of doing my PhD, I have been thinking about what I want to do after my PhD. Somewhat futile, since the thinking about the after has delayed the after actually coming about… Yet, all PhD researchers that have an end in sight inevitably get distracted with thoughts of the future, and this may be no harm. In fact, it may be a smart move, considering the story in the Guardian newspaper from August that many recent PhD graduates really struggle to find a job, and that doesn’t mean for those of us who may want to stay in academia with its famous lack of opportunities and lack of job security.

But even if a future in academia is not on the cards, it is worth reflecting on the sort of skills that have been developed during the PhD process, and how/whether they can be applied to other sectors. I’ve started asking myself some questions:

– What do I enjoy doing?

– What am I good at?

– What are the skills I’ve developed over the last number of years?

– What are the skills/what is the knowledge I would still like to learn? (How and why?)

– What is my expertise?

– Who/what organisations/companies/institutions are looking for that type of expertise?

– Where would I like to be in ten years’ time (or even five years’ time)? And how will I get there?

I have  a few people on my radar who have the sort of jobs that I would like. My mission over the last week was to figure out what skills do they have that I may be lacking, what experiences have they built up that I may still need to add to my CV, what path did they take to get into their current role and was it the best/most efficient pathway? Can I follow their footsteps?

It’s a very useful way of really identifying a few of the next, short-term steps that I need to take to get to where I want to go. And even better, with the world of “Linkedin”, it’s actually quite easy to spy on other people’s career paths! (Is that a bit cheeky?)

I’ll keep you posted, and in five years will let you know if I’m happy with where I’ve ended up!

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Chapter drafts and dust balls

I just don’t know how people do it… Cleanliness as the first casualty of overwork

There are many examples of people who work on their PhDs, have a part-time job, and a family and social life, and I am just baffled about how they do it. I don’t have children and the work I do on the side of my PhD is usually part of a strategy to advance my post-PhD career (publications, teaching, event organisation, module development, research projects etc.). But even at that I struggle with overwork, lack of sleep and grumpiness around my husband (who, incidentally, also works super long hours)!

Recently my husband and I were looking forward to friends coming to visit and stay with us from Switzerland. But we were both so busy with work and so tired in the evenings that we simply didn’t get around to cleaning the apartment. That was until the very evening before these friends were due to arrive. Then with a last-minute deadline gusto we set about doing laundry, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, and cleaning on the one and only evening that we could take off. The whole experience was horrible! It took four hours to get through the work, and we had lots of stupid arguments about vacuuming and dusting and scrubbing the shower!

That sort of angst is not worth it.

As a follow up, we have decided that it is perhaps best for our relationship and for our work-life balance that something gives. And in the end, it is the cleaning that is the first to go. We can’t reduce our workloads at present, we can’t ignore our sleep requirements, so we’re going to ignore the dust balls that go floating through our living room. Or at least, pass the responsibility onto someone else. Practical decision: let’s find a cleaning service.

It kind of grains against my sensibilities that we have proven too busy to take proper care of our home. But, sometimes pragmatism must win out over pride. Drafting chapters, and not sweeping dust balls, is number one on my to do list!

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Extra reading: Vagina and the End of Men

What to read in that rare “downtime”…

As a PhD researcher, I spend a lot of time reading. Whether it is news reports, policy documents, journal articles, academic books, it all adds up to a lot of time following words along a page or screen. While this probably is a main reason for the frighteningly rapid deterioration in my eyesight over the last few years, it can’t be helped. It’s one of the major parts of the job!

But reading is also a leisure activity. Over the years of this PhD journey I have gone through ups and downs with leisure-time reading. Sometimes I pick up a novel and hide away for three days just to finish it (which means three days without head space to think about the PhD). Sometimes I go for months and months without reading anything unrelated to my PhD, but then I begin to feel somewhat out of touch with the social conversations going on around me.

So I’ve found a new middle-ground. I now read nonfiction that is unrelated to my PhD! That way I don’t get so engrossed in the book that I have to physically take holidays to get it finished (30 minutes before bed is sufficient to get through it!), and I also don’t get the feeling that I’m totally disconnected from the world around me.

My latest nonfiction reading was Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina”. You may have noticed from some earlier posts of mine (e.g. on Street Harassment or on Women at the Top?) that I have strong feelings about equality of all sorts, but especially between men and women. It’s a tricky topic.

I had originally thought that Wolf’s book would be a bit of feminist manifesto, but I was wrong! It is in fact an easy-to-read history of the role of the vagina (or the “feminine”) in history, and how this has developed from an attitude of reverence towards it to one of shame or debasement over the centuries. It’s an interesting discussion of Western/modern attitudes to women and to sex in general and how it has become distorted over the years. (As an aside, pornography is probably one of the major examples of disrespecting women and/or the feminine. An article in the BBC magazine even asks the question: should we educate our children about pornography? More young people today are confused about the difference between pornography and reality…)

Wolf draws on plenty of emerging scientific evidence about the nerval connections between the vagina and brain to argue her point that a happy vagina = a happy, creative woman. But, it’s not a feminist call to ditch men. In fact, Wolf  does state that a healthy relationship between a man and a woman is an excellent way to achieve a healthy vagina. Conclusion? (Heterosexual) Women need men.

But don’t stop there.

I’ve now moved onto reading a book by Hanna Rosin called The End of Men and the Rise of Women, and I’ve gotten through about half of this book already. This is a fascinating book to move onto immediately after finishing Wolf’s book. Rosin’s argument focuses on the US and how the economic recession there has affected the balance of women and men in employment. As the traditional manufacturing economy has collapsed in the US, more men than women lost their jobs, and the balance is that more women are now working than men. However, this doesn’t mean that men are competing with women for jobs – no, they are rather sitting around being depressed! Her stories tell of women who have higher education, higher drive to find work, more transferable skills, but men who are still not interested in retraining in what have been seen as traditionally women’s professions. Teaching training and nursing schools still struggle to recruit male students, while these health, education and service industries are where jobs are to be found in the recession!

But that’s not all. Not only are women making more money than men, and more women are employed than men, but the women are also STILL doing the lion’s share of the housework and childcare. What are the men doing? It’s a good question. Several of the cases in Rosin’s book point out that women have decided they are better off taking care of the house and children by themselves. A man is seen by several of these women as “just another mouth to feed”.

So – do women need men, do men need women, should we just stop these sorts of conversations?

I am looking forward to Rosin following up with a new book in about fifteen years that I hope will describe how the women currently in the lower levels of the economy (albeit in greater numbers than men), rise to the top. Will our working lives look different with women in command? That still remains to be seen.

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Street Harassment

And now for something completely different…

I had a bit of an unpleasant experience on the streets of Brussels recently. It was beyond the usual name-calling, propositioning and car-honking that many women experience (myself included) when they walk alone through the streets of many towns in the world. Unfortunately street harassment is too regular an occurrence. I never quite understand it: what do these (usually) men think they can achieve by shouting at a women or honking at her or (as in this rather unpleasant case) spitting at her?


Anyway, my distress after the event turned to anger, and I decided to find out more about street harassment generally. I wanted to find out about its causes and about how to combat it. So much of the problem of street harassment is related to the respect for women in society (or lack thereof), and hence related to issues of gender equality. Deep-rooted issues that take time to repair!

In my search, I stumbled upon this website: www.stopstreetharassment.org. I quickly learned that street harassment is a global phenomenon, but there are positive actions that can be carried out! This organisation tries to improve awareness of the issue and allows people to share their stories related to street harassment. I contributed the story of what happened to me in Brussels on their website. If you are really curious about what happened (you should be), you can read my story here.

And do read more of the stories (both the positive stories promoting change, and the negative experiences) on the stopstreetharassment blog. One step to improving the situation includes raising awareness, so why not start with raising your own awareness of this issue?


22 October, 2012 · 09:56

Bad back posture evolution in postgraduates

Well. PhD comics says it best.

Courtesy of phdcomics.com

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Sit up straight!

Healthy body, happy mind, productive PhD researcher! Again, it seems mother was right…

How many times did my parents annoy me by telling me to “sit up straight”. Ah the wisdom of our elders. I should have paid more attention. It is a little bit frustrating to have to say: oh it turns out my parents were right about that all along. If only I knew then what I know now (isn’t there a song about that?).

Today is a tough day in the office. I have just taken some painkillers to combat the back pain I’ve been suffering since yesterday. It’s lower back pain on the right hand side, and I know it’s not due to any major injury, because I haven’t fallen or lifted heavy things or anything like that. It might be due to stress. It’s been hectic, to say the least, for the last few weeks. It might be due to fatigue. But the bad posture I have when sitting at my desk is certainly one major factor.

I have been working furiously at my desk, for long stretches of time, over the last few weeks. I managed to ‘get into the zone’ with work and writing and haven’t been careful about taking breaks. You know that feeling when things are just flowing and you’re afraid that if you go for that cup of coffee now, you’ll lose the rhythm? That’s where I was. It’s usually a good feeling, but my body evidently disagrees. Now my back is in pain and it’s distracting me from work and I actually have lost the momentum! Just goes to show – my body can only take so much, and if I don’t want to be prevented from working I have to be more reasonable with myself.

Today I am very consciously sitting with my feet flat on the floor, back straight and attempting to get the 90 degree angle right for typing, and the monitor high. I’ve swapped chairs for one that has a straighter back, hoping that will help force me to keep the position. But I imagine it’s not ‘just like that’ that I will get over this back pain. Hopefully I will be able to get some rest to help recover. And I must avoid heavy lifting (could be challenging since this weekend I’m taking care of my young nephews who love to be carried!).

Hopefully I can develop some positive habits to prevent future pain too. Right now, this back pain is rather distracting. Perhaps I should indeed listen to my parents a bit more…

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