Category: PhD journey

A survivor’s tale

It’s only when you go through something you never thought you could ever go through and survive, that you can truly know what you are capable of.

Before that, you only have a faint notion of what you think you can manage, an assumption based on your confidence in yourself. This is a reflection post about the past few months when I came face to face with my own weaknesses and came out with knowledge of what I can and cannot do.

I never knew I could work 12 hour days, sleep for a maximum of 4 hours and get up and do it all over again. I never knew I had the capacity to stay human enough on the outside even though i was on autopilot. It is a wonder that I managed to dress up and look presentable enough for human standards…nothing too impressive but just enough to not attract unnecessary attention to myself. In other words, I did not become a  hobo, although the temptation was so great.

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Image from http://www.deviantart.com

The months between April to June 2019 showed me that I can work under extreme pressure while also realising that I am very task-oriented. If I have a task before me I will work on it until it is done before I can allow myself to rest. I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing. I also learned that the human body will shut down on you if you do not give it rest, hence the 4 hours I allowed myself to sleep when I could. Some days it was less than that.

I also took for granted my ability to FOCUS. I still wonder how I was able to work on one thing for the past three years and I am happy that I managed to complete the project in  record time and survived to tell the tale. I  definitely had days of procrastination and days when I felt demotivated, but giving up was not an option. Now, if I could just apply the same energy and focus to certain aspects of my life, like relation…s, never mind.

The past season of my life has taught me a few good things about myself that I didn’t know before.  Of course, at the time I did not know that these were good things, I was simply going through the motions and actually hating my life. I remember tweeting this on one of those very difficult days:

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Well, now  I have my life back. I survived and I am looking back at the lessons I learned during that time. In summary, this is what I learned about life in my most hectic life phase and I hope this will encourage someone who is close to giving up:

  • You are definitely stronger than you think you are
  • This too shall pass, nothing is permanent
  • There are lessons in every season, your toughest season can become your testimony and might help one or two others
  • Your breakthrough is closer than you think, if you could just keep digging.

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In conclusion, I always like to give credit where it is due. None of my success in the past few months would have been possible without my God. There were times (many times) when I wanted to give up. There were countless times when I felt inadequate and felt that I did not know what I was doing, imposter syndrome anyone? But then there were those days when I would wake up with a random idea at 2 am in the morning and start typing. There were also days when I felt supernatural strength and a solid presence providing comfort during the dark days. God was with me every step of the way.  All glory goes to Him!!! I am capable only because He makes me ABLE. 

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Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com
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WHAT’S NEXT AFTER A PhD?

Hello world!!

The PhD journey has finally come to an end. I should be relieved, I think I am.  Another chapter closed, another milestone and achievement. I wish it was only that, then it would be easy to relish this feeling of accomplishment. But, finishing also came with the big question of WHAT’S NEXT? I never for one second thought that after going through all the stress of writing a PhD dissertation, I would still need to figure out what’s next. But, with all things in life, when you complete one phase, you enter another.

Change is inevitable. Change is uncomfortable…

Struggle 1

My life is about to change. I had settled into the routine student life for the past three years. I cannot imagine getting used to waking up early mornings and working a 9-5 job. During my student days, I woke up anytime I wanted to if I didn’t have early meetings and I could work until late or choose when to finish work. My schedule was flexible especially when I did not have deadlines from my supervisors. I don’t know how I am going to adjust to a new schedule.

Struggle 2

I cannot for the life of me, tell you what I want to do with this PhD. All I knew was that I wanted to do it and I am passionate about the research that I did with children and families. I have no idea if I want to continue doing that or get a job. One thing I do know is that I need a break to clear my head. I am picturing somewhere with clear, blue waters and white beach sand.

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Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

Another thought I have is to continue writing and publishing from my PhD thesis, and possibly turn it into a book.  I have so many thoughts in my head right now, and to be quite honest, this is not what I thought would come after completing this milestone. I thought it would be easier to figure out my life than when I completed my first degree.

Struggle 3

I chose to do my PhD in Hong Kong, but initially, I never thought of making this place my home. I now have to figure out whether I am going to stay here or move to another place. We all know that moving is another big adjustment, I cannot even wrap my head around it. I get tired even thinking about it.  There will be a lot of things to consider: What will happen to my social life? Will I find a new church home? Are the locals friendly?  Most importantly, do I really want to move to a completely new place again at this stage of my life? Unfortunately, if I do decide to stay in academia, I might get a postdoctoral fellowship, which will necessitate a move to a totally different country. The chances of me getting a postdoc in Hong Kong are next to none. It would have been nice to experience life in Asia a little bit more, but it is a lot to even think about right now.

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Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

Silver lining

Wait, it is not all doom and gloom. I am now Dr. GG.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That is definitely a plus and well worth the hard work.  I am completely grateful to my Lord who saw me through the tough times and made my success possible. I also trust that He has my future in His hands, so although nothing is clear at the moment, I am confident in His plan for my future. With that, I do hope I will be back here with good news in a few weeks, telling you all about my next move. Another silver lining… I now have more time on my hands to write. I have so much I want to write about.

If you are reading this and have any tips about making a life transition, drop your girl a message. I always love to hear from you.

Until then,

GG.

The deadline: curse or blessing?

If you didn’t have a deadline would you be putting in as much work as you are doing right now? Or like me, are you the kind of person who works better with deadlines? I am currently facing a one month deadline to submit the first draft of my PhD thesis. I have known pressure before but this time it is intensified .

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Are deadlines a curse or a blessing? I have a few thoughts on that:

If it pushes me to work more diligently than I would on a normal day, then bring on the deadline. 

Some of us really struggle to work without a little nudge. Deadlines help me to organise myself and my work in a meaningful way.  PhD programs usually have a lot of deadlines and because the student is pretty much doing independent research, the deadlines help to give them a timeline. I was told that my first thesis draft would be due in December 2018 back when I started in 2016. But like most people, I felt that was a long way off and I did not feel the pressure of it, until now. Just a little over a month to the deadline. Send help!!

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Image from my Bitmoji

It’s a different story when I am the one setting the deadline and when I have to meet someone’ else’s deadline.

Deadlines that I set for myself are usually meant to motivate and not put me under pressure. Someone else’s deadline comes with apprehension because failure to meet that deadline might have consequences. If it is a job, your boss may expect that you meet project deadlines because failure to do so affects your performance ratings. My own deadlines might be based on meeting some personal targets e.g. that desired weight so I can fit into that dress by New Years’ or something. There is pressure, but the chances of me being penalised for not meeting said deadline are slim.

Chasing deadlines can ruin relationships or at least stall them for a period.

When the work piles up and deadlines are looming, the tendency is often to shut out the world and focus on meeting that deadline. In my little corner of the world I have already let my friends know that I am in hibernation until I submit my thesis. I have asked not to be invited to any social events because I grew tired of making excuses for my absence. The danger with that is people may start to think that you are selfish and you think the world revolves around you. Chances are that by the time you meet that deadline, there will be another one, just as urgent, waiting for you. So when does it end? If you cannot make time for your social relationships, they will either die or people get tired of waiting on you to finish your priorities and they may find people who make time for them in their ‘busy schedule’. So, yes chasing deadlines is not always a good thing if it makes us shut out the people we care about. There will always be another deadline, relationships matter!!

As for me, I don’t know how I am going to fix this one because I feel overwhelmed to the point that even if I choose to be with my friends, I will probably spoil the mood worrying about my deadlines. I would like to hang out without feeling guilty about not working. I believe my true friends will stick it out.

Let me know your thoughts on deadlines. Are they a blessing or a curse? Are you chasing a deadline right now? What has it affected in your life? Drop me a message.  

 

Dealing with short-term illness during PhD

Falling sick during a Ph.D. is one of the most frustrating things. Unavoidable and completely out of our control, but the fact is sometimes the body just gets tired. Short term loss of sleep and short periods of heavy mental work can lead to fatigue. Chronic fatigue symptoms are similar to the flu and can last for up to six months More Here 

When you have article deadlines, teaching duties and data analysis to conduct, falling sick is the last thing you need. Usually, the remedy required is bed rest and lots of relaxation time. How does one cope with this?

  • Get rid of the guilt. I know the pressure to want to work will be great, but you are probably falling sick because of overworking and stress. Learning to let go has been the biggest challenge for me. I was feeling guilty because my to-do-list was getting longer every day I was cooped up in bed. I just had to tell myself that the work will not go anywhere, it will be there when I get back. My health is more important.
  • Run your own race. You will be tempted to think that you are going to lag behind all your colleagues just because you took a week off work to recuperate. I had to remind myself that I am not running a race. The work I am doing is my own and if I fall behind, it is behind my own schedule. Try to control the need to compare yourself with others. It just adds more stress when what you need to be doing is getting better.
  • It happens to everyone. You are not the first or the last to fall sick. This happens to all of us, as long as we are human. Sometimes we exert too much pressure on our bodies and we get sick as a result. I have learned to take better care of myself, knowing that I am responsible for my health. When my body needs rest, I comply with it instead of pushing it beyond its limits.
  • Rest is needed for productivity. Killing yourself with work is not smart. Yes, the schedule is full and there are lots of expectations on your time. But, learning to rest in between will actually boost your productivity. Working for long hours without a break is only going to make you lose focus. I learned to do the pomodoro technique when I am reading More Here. It has helped me to work smarter, not harder.

Three things I wish I knew before starting a Ph.D…

It has been a while since I came on this blog to write about my life trials, successes, inspirations, and reflections. It has been a crazy few months owing to the mental task I put on myself, that is pursuing a Ph.D. My life has been far from normal and at times, clearing my head long enough to write my thoughts down has been a draining task on its own. I just couldn’t do it.

Today, my mental state has once again brought me back to these pages. I remember when I started this blog in 2012, I was seeking an escape from my emotionally draining social work job. Six years later, I find myself needing a mental escape from my draining Ph.D. journey. Life does seem to go round in circles and I find myself in the same place I started.

That’s me…thank God for Snapchat filters

A Ph.D. is the most isolating, mentally draining, intellectually challenging endeavor I have ever done. Granted, when you think of adding those three letters after my name (Getrude Gwenzi, Ph.D.) it sounds exciting and when the end is near you can smell the success and feel you made an achievement. But the mental strain that comes hand in hand with this process is something I have had to contend with. No one told me any of this before I started. I am in no way trying to discourage others from attempting a Ph.D. This is why I am going to turn this seemingly pessimistic post into some advice for those who wish to pursue a Ph.D.

This advice is based on the lessons I have learned myself and things I really wish someone had told me before I started. I am embarking on the 3rd and final year of mine so the following advice comes from 2 years of experience as a Ph.D. student (however, do take it with a pinch of salt, my experiences might be different from yours) :

Lesson 1: The environment you decide to do your Ph.D.in is very important

Friends, I cannot emphasize this enough! When making the selection of which university you want to pursue your research degree, it is very very important to consider the local environment in which that university is located. I came to Hong Kong which is a culturally very different environment. This made my adjustment relatively less smoother compared to if I had moved to an environment in which I was already used to the culture. Going through a culture shock can be tough for your academic process because the language, your ability to integrate with the locals as well as your social life all depend on this cultural environment. When doing a Ph.D., the last thing you need to be worrying about is the way people around you are reacting to your presence or how they are treating you. This adds unnecessary strain. So, please do a bit of research on the culture, ask yourself if you are open-minded enough to live with different people; research the chances of you having a social life (friends, significant others, dating if you are single) because all this becomes important when dealing with the extremely difficult task of doing a Ph.D. I am also far away from all my family and friends, so I have had to make new friends and find alternative “families”. If you are spiritual, find out if there is a church you can go to. Will you be free to practice your religion? Will you find a community to fellowship with? Again, this is relative, but it may be important for your adjustment and ultimately your ability to focus and thrive on your work.

Lesson 2: If you have unresolved mental health issues, it might be best to seek counseling for them before attempting a Ph.D.

As I said above, doing a Ph.D. is in itself a mentally challenging thing. You constantly have to second guess yourself and the #impostersyndrome Definition is always there to remind you that you are not as good as you once thought you were. If you have a supportive advisor, you may be satisfied with your progress, but this is not always the case. So, when things get tough, you don’t want to be having multiple mental issues at the same time. See below for an accurate description of the Ph.D. journey:

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I recently learned that past mental issues may resurface if not dealt with because I am pressed and stretched to the limit, anything can make me cry at this point. Your mental health becomes one of the most important things in life. If you are already struggling with depression and low self-esteem, for example, this becomes extremely difficult so please do seek help. A friend of mine recently told me this and I think it is really valuable.

Lesson 3: A support system is not only key but may be the difference between sailing through and quitting.

If you are like me, you would be the type of person who is stubborn and likes to do it on their own; the type that never asks for help or rely on people. However, this Ph.D. journey will humble you in a way that you realize you cannot be on your own. The whole experience is already isolating enough with the fact that there are not many people doing what you are doing, which makes it hard to find people who can relate to you. It is still crucial to find a small group or even one person you can talk to and really be honest about your feelings with. Most PhDs find it difficult to relate to non-academic people, which makes it difficult to find this circle. My advice is that most research students are just as lonely and will probably appreciate the chance to have someone they can talk to or do non-research stuff with. Also, find a research network near you for support (I will write more on this in a later post).

For now, I will end with these three lessons which in my opinion are the most important. Of course, there are other issues such as financial and academic support, which will all differ according to the kind of offer you get at the university. I am still dealing with my own mental state 2 years into my Ph.D. and it does not get any easier. These three lessons have really opened my eyes to what is really important when doing a Ph.D. and I thought I should share.

Please share with someone who might be thinking of doing a Ph.D. and save a life :).

The not so good days of fieldwork…

Some of you may know that I am in the data collection phase of my doctoral project. I am working on children living in institutional care and care leavers, in particular, how they construct the meaning of family in the context of family separation. Before I began my fieldwork, I was positive I would get the research participants I needed and I followed all the necessary procedures of gaining access. I anticipated some challenges since research is never a straight-forward process, neither is anything where you have to deal with human participants.  However, some challenges are more difficult to deal with than others and I will detail these below:

Dealing with gatekeepers

My research project involves minors (children) who are also vulnerable. They live in institutions where they are wardens of the state, which means they fall under state protection. Dealing with government departments is not the easiest thing to do because of bureaucratic procedures. It took longer than I anticipated to gain the access that I needed into the children’s homes, and even then, the access came with strict conditions that are affecting my data collection process.  In the end, I am doubting my decision to include this group. The care leavers, who are over 18 can give their own consent, which is less of a headache, although they are a hard to track group.

Time-keeping

Research is a process that has a time limit. Everything has a deadline, depending on funds and project requirements. When everyone takes their time to respond to requests for appointments and meetings, they do not take heed of this fact. It is so frustrating, but unavoidable. You have to meet people at their convenience and some people are not nice enough to bother rescheduling when they have missed an appointment. It is up to me to make the 100th follow-up (the exaggeration is necessary, trust me).

Explaining my failures to my supervisors

This is by far the hardest thing for me to do. I struggle with admitting where I have tried something and it has failed. I take it as a complete failure on my part, which is hard to swallow. As a self-confessed perfectionist, I am really struggling to detail my failures during my fieldwork. I know I must learn to do this because they are part of the process. But, I hate failing so much I wish I could document win after win, and not a single failure.

Coming home to my family after an exhausting day

I am living with my mother and nephew at the moment during this fieldwork. I miss the days when I can lock myself up in my room after a bad day because I don’t have to explain to anyone how I am feeling. Now that I am home, I have to discuss my day and discuss other people’s days as well. I have to be sensitive to the needs of those around me, even though I may not feel like it sometimes. The other day, I loved having the support system of my family and friends after a particularly tough day in the field. So, it does have its merits.  But sometimes, I am not up to socializing at all and this is hard to explain to loved ones.

All in all, this process has its rough days. I am soldering on nonetheless and this moment of reflection helps me to keep things in perspective. I am aware that my mental health is of utmost importance during this Ph.D. but I am not always able to deal with the challenges I am facing. Writing about it sure does help…

 

Phd survivor
Image from Quora

 

Till next time.

GG

 

Doing too much…how to know when to stop!!

It is one thing to be dedicated to your tasks and making sure you put in the hours, and it’s another thing to not know when those tasks have become too much. I recently had to ask myself hard questions about my “work ethic”.  Do I know when to stop? Do I know when to say no to some projects?

 

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I almost cried tears of frustration after realizing iv been doing too much with little results. I quickly realized that I have been working hard, but not working smart. I really got to understand what the term “rat race” actually means:

any exhausting, unremitting, and usually competitive activity or routine, especially pressured urban working life spent trying to get ahead with little time left for leisure,contemplation, etc.

The sad thing is I work from home and that means I created my own rat race. I have been working against the clock trying to get academic papers published, do fieldwork for my Ph.D. project, build up my consultancy and, and, and. It is a lot, I finally admit.

Here are some signs that you are taking on too much (from my own experience)

  • you are always exhausted
  • you dread waking up to start the same routine
  • you become dependent on some sort of mood-altering substance (caffeine, alcohol) under the guise of “coping” or “getting through the day”
  • when people ask you what you have been up to, you always say “working”

 

 

Image from http://www.economywatch.com

 

I thought the more tasks I have, the more productive I am being. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had to admit that feeling tired, frustrated and almost always overwhelmed is not making my work any lighter or my life any easier. Risking my mental and physical health in the name of work is also not anything I want to do. This realization was a turning point for me last week. I decided to take a break for the whole weekend and take stock of what is important. Yes, I am still going to be busy this week, but I am pacing myself.  Work is good, but it must not kill me in the process.

Have a productive week!