PhD, Interrupted.

PhD, Interrupted.

On 1st May 2018, I return to doctoral student-dom. I’ve ‘been off’ for 6 months, since my supervisors gently pointed out I *might* be heading for burnout and I should really (REALLY) consider interrupting my studies to ‘get sorted’.

If you take a moment to look around the inter-web, there are very few references or sources that give the student perspective on Interruption of Studies. Information is largely formal, process- and bureaucracy- focused, and, importantly, negative in tone, with references to things like ‘academic consequences’, phrasing that frankly sends a pretty unpleasant chill through the spine. One article I’ve seen was entitled ‘The Gamble of a PhD Hiatus’. Gamble? Hiatus? How to make you feel bad if you’re considering time away or what?! An Interruption is a risk, it’s damaging to reputation, it means a loss of momentum… You can maybe understand the negativity at a basic level – think about it: “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking!” we may say/shout, the action considered most impertinent, not at all a good thing to do. In academic circles, Interruption, despite being sold as something to help nonetheless cannot help but push forward such associated ideas as, ‘you’ll fall behind’; ‘someone may well overtake you, cover your research topic and usurp your expertise whilst you’re off’; basically, ‘you can’t cope or hack the pressure, so really should you even be in academia at all?’.

When my supervisors brought up the possibility of inserting a ‘break’, I was to put it bluntly not happy. I was working my damned-hardest, and it felt like a kick in teeth. As a part-time student, balancing research with an exceedingly busy home-life and another job in a thoroughly unpleasant working environment, I thought I deserved a bit more credit. I pretty much knee-jerk-reacted and created my own interpretation of their words as being ‘you’re simply not good enough’. My PhD days in the week were the ones I looked forward to and they were telling me to give them up (admittedly they weren’t saying forever, but I occasionally have a tendency to dramatize…).

Suffice it to say, after almost running out of the supervision meeting room, my reaction to the proposal of Interruption developed into anger, based and focused on a number of aspects – I would instantly suffer the unanticipated loss of the needed income from my stipend (not helping but adding to existing stresses) and, most importantly, I was being told to put a passion I’d been working really hard on aside. Tantrumming thoughts arose: “maybe, for instance, if I hadn’t had to spend so much time doing ‘program-required’ training courses and writing essays on using the library or qualitative research methods, given I already have a qualitative-research-based PhD, perhaps I could have used time more productively?”; “maybe I should just pack it in, I don’t NEED a PhD, I could just do a book myself – I don’t need all that academic tick-boxing and red-tape-processing fencing me in” etc. ad infinitum. It took a few days to calm down and be able to think rationally about the situation, to realise that my supervisors had in fact done me a favour – this project is supremely important to me and I really wasn’t producing my best work, ‘doing it right’. Over a Thai dinner during a rare child-free weekend away in Edinburgh, it was my husband who eventually pushed me into recognising I was *perhaps* overreacting, and, actually, I really ought to continue with the project.

Having now almost had the six months I took, here are the two BIG THINGS I would say about an Interruption of Studies at PhD level:

  1. There is no break, there is no absence, there is no ‘being off’ – Interruption by no means whatsoever causes you to ‘leave’ your research (topic). In my case, I can’t really do that anyway, it being so intertwined with my daily life and all. Even if that weren’t the case though, a form saying ‘you have interrupted your studies’ does not automatically bring with it an interruption of your thinking. You’re already committed. Ideas remain and arrive, and interest remains and develops. The ‘world outside’ sometimes prompts a thought that connects in a way that you feel you must record. Once you’ve embarked on a PhD, there really is no way to fully detach from your subject, regardless of what the paperwork says. During your supposed break, you may still find yourself reassessing the topic, developing a new way of looking at it, or identifying a new angle that you want to approach it from – this is still working on your doctorate. You may also engage in activities or do bits and pieces of your own writing as they come to you, which you may (or may not) draw on later down the line. I, for instance, have had some personal writing on my bereavement accepted for a publication (without intending to do anything of the sort 6 months ago), and in this final week of ‘the break’ I will train as a Mental Health First Aider – not directly associated with my research subject, but definitely relevant in terms of knowledge and skills I can use for the PhD later on. I suppose my point is, during a study-break you don’t have to do anything, but it is likely you won’t be able to help yourself from doing something. Thus, Interruption doesn’t just equal increased viewing of daytime TV and, woo hoo, a holiday where you laze about (at home) – it does not remotely deserve to be thought of as being of this character.
  2. An Interruption of Studies is not a 100%-guaranteed cure for stress, and that should not even, I think, be the goal of one. Yes, it offers a bit of extra time to address (some of the) circumstances that led to the need for some form of break in the first place; but the end of an Interruption doesn’t mean, ‘Right, all is now PERFECT. Got over it. Done, dusted. Now, where was I?’. I’ve used my time to go back to counselling, which I didn’t really realise I needed at the start, and it has been good to have the space to talk through the various life aspects impinging on my studies. But I am not cured – I have learned new things about myself, how to manage myself in relation to others, how to recognise and not give in to Imposter Syndrome symptoms etc., but I have not banished all difficulties for good. Do we return to study at ‘full strength’? No… but maybe we do so at fullER strength, which is enough. I’m a little anxious/apprehensive about returning to the project, about how smoothly the transition back into both the role and topic will occur, but I think it would be a bit odd if that wasn’t the case, if I were entirely, 100% confident. The value of an Interruption, I would say, is actually becoming more aware of yourself, especially of how to work with yourself, not just with your research topic and/or your supervisors, in managing the intense process that doctoral study is and will continue to be, once the formal time-off period has officially ended.

If I were to briefly summarise then, my Interruption, rather than an unfavourable loss of ‘work time’, can be seen and described as the insertion of self-care, -reflection and -development time that can only benefit my future working processes once I formally re-enrol as a doctoral student.

Now that can’t be a negative thing really, can it?

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The Clef and The Hummingbird

The Clef and The Hummingbird

At the foot of the Penglais Road hill in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth, there is a small, almost shack-looking, one-storey beige building that is the West Coast tattoo parlour. I passed it almost daily, during my commute to the lectures and seminars and Union Bar nights-out of my undergraduate-student days, each time tempted to investigate more. A friend of mine had had a large red rose with green splayed-out thorns and leaves printed into her lower back and I thought it was lovely, graceful. At the age of 19/20ish, though I never voiced the thought, I really wanted my own tattoo, something ‘little and pretty’ was my thinking. Then I heard a rumour story about another friend who’d fainted and fallen off a chair due to the pain whilst having one done – I never found out the truth basis of the tale, but nonetheless even the slightest idea that such a needle response could happen kind of put me off. I moved on to other desires.
Now, however, a little over six years on from my little brother and only sibling taking his own life, I have two tattoos.

Tattoo1

My first tattoo is my ‘reminder of him’. I chose to have it done to tie in with my brother’s birthday, three days after my own in August. I decided on a treble clef design that incorporates a semi-colon, tattooed on the inside of my left wrist – the sign of music to symbolize my brother’s love and talents, and the semi-colon to signify his struggle and passing, and my nod to Project Semicolon, which focuses on the prevention of suicide through raising awareness and fighting the stigma that exists in talking about suicide. The inking experience was more emotional than I had thought it would be, despite how swiftly and efficiently it was carried out. I asked an already-tattooed friend to accompany me – just because I decided to have it done, does not mean I forgot the ‘friend-fainting-and-falling’ story. She held my hand and told me to wiggle my toes to give myself a different bodily area to concentrate on whilst the needle pierced my wrist. I was surprised at how much that tip worked, but it didn’t stop me from thinking about my brother. I welled up. And then it was all over, and I fell more in love with the image on my skin than I had expected I would.

Tattoo2

My second tattoo is my ‘reminder to self’. The timing chosen for having it done, lunchtime in the middle of an average week, tied this one into daily, continuing life. The experience was a bit more surreal than the first – I went on my own, listened to the artists debate the merits of tinned peaches and carrots immediately prior to the inking, and it hurt much, much more. For this image, I chose an outline of a hummingbird positioned on the front of my right ankle, a very visible location for myself every day (especially in the morning). The image was not a random choice – having lived in Mexico for almost two years I’ve seen a few of these tiny, most beautiful of birds; my husband and I even visited a local café called El Colibri (The Hummingbird) every week. But these coincidences aside, it is what the hummingbird means that led me to choose the image –  this animal is about overcoming challenges, being mini yet full of strength and courage to handle the troubles and pains it encounters. The feathered-friend also symbolises love and looking for the nectar in life always, despite the traumas that present – even its wings adopt the ‘eternity’, figure-of-eight shape.

It is so easy after losing a sibling to suicide to get stuck. It can feel like you’re in some kind of existence-time-warp because no matter how many new things you do, experiences you have, that one day that changed everything can repeat in your mind at any moment of its choosing, pulling you backwards and demanding your attention over and over again. There is a want to remember and a want to move forward that live in tandem, that are experienced like the rise and fall of sea waves as ‘the days/months/years since’ accumulate. Bad intersects with the good, and sometimes things can feel so inter-tangled with one another that it is hard to suss out where and who exactly you are, especially on an emotional level.

Karen Leader writes about tattoos as being ‘Stories on the Skin’, that they can represent ‘layers of meaning’ and be empowering for the person who has them – far from the derogatory connotations they often have, tattoos can be used to creatively symbolise key events and moments in your life, as a means of helping you tell your story. Dickson et. al. adds to this by referencing Atkinson’s 2003 analysis that tattoos can be a means of self/identity expression, especially where there have been “role transitions, changes in life that have important impacts on identity.” (108). I relate to that very much, and I also take a lot from Leader’s comment that:

“Tattoo narratives…tell a story from the past, but have a unique presentness to them. They do not record a frozen moment in history, but a continual process of becoming” (Leader, 2016: 190)

For me this is how my images work. Skin holds and shows its natural stories through things like aging-caused wrinkles, spots or scars; my tattoos are the special editions I’ve added to my library. Their permanency on my skin entirely reflects my relationship with my brother, the very marking nature of ‘the day the world changed’ and the continued learning-to-live-with my loss. I want to remember my brother, his person and life; I want to remember, as strange as it sounds, that his death was self-inflicted, as a reminder to talk and raise awareness about suicide (as my tattoos can be really helpful as conversation starters), to do my bit in combatting the stigma that it has; but I also want the loss to not take over my whole being and life, wishing to live with and despite it. My tattoos help me do all these things. And at a very basic level, sometimes it is simply useful to have externalities to prompt the self when there is a ‘rough day’ going on – my clef gives me something physical to run my finger over, to trace the line and and remember, something to grant permission to indulge and wallow a little; my hummingbird is something physical to help in giving myself comfort (as well as sometimes a good talking to) in terms of ‘this is just one bad day; remember all the rest and keep going’.

Getting my tattoos was not an impulsive act – they were carefully thought out and reasoned in relation to the events and emotions I have lived, and continue to live, through. I’m ever so glad I have them.

*This post will also appear in upcoming US book publication ‘Surviving Sibling Suicide’, being compiled by Lena Heilmann Ph.D.*