On A Roll

Yep, that there title is just an excuse for a terrible pun. Now, I’ve become aware that City Awakenings has become rather less about cities and culture, and rather more about the PhD process and the various experiences that this entails. I fully intend on reversing this somewhat, but really, at the rather solitary ‘writing up’ end of the PhD, space to talk about some of the more day-to-day issues of knuckling down and producing a thesis is something I’ve found really important – both in terms of reflecting on my own experiences here and in reading about how others are getting on in the increasingly wide range of blogs around and about.

One thing that seems to come up with some regularity when talking about getting through a PhD and the coping mechanisms people adopt is the subject of exercise. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve taken up Roller Derby, and that I hoped this particular form of exercise was going to not only get me up from my computer, but also to aid me in being more patient with myself and my capacity to learn (slowly). I’d heard many people suggest that sport can be A Good Thing for the ordinarily stationary PhD-er, that it’s important to get out of the habit of staring at the screen and that the endorphins that exercise provides can make you – excuse the rather bleak Radiohead reference – fitter, happier and more productive. I basically didn’t believe this. Exercise never seemed to make me feel any of these things. But something changed (oh dear, accidental Pulp reference. This needs to stop now). I don’t know if it’s age, the feeling of going stir-crazy at a desk, or just that I may just have found the right sport for me, but I now find myself looking forward to exercise.

Tiger Bay Brawlers vs Helsinki Roller Derby, December 2013. Photo © Simon Ayre

Tiger Bay Brawlers vs Helsinki Roller Derby, December 2013. Photo © Simon Ayre

There are plenty of things that influence this, and I’m lucky to live in a city that has two Derby teams that welcome and encourage novice skaters like me (step forward, Cardiff Roller Girls and Tiger Bay Brawlers – you’ve both been wonderful). The more I think about it though, the more it feels like it’s not simply the fun or the adrenaline or the sheer bloody hard work that’s making me fall increasingly in love with this sport; it’s the attitude. I have a tendency to be a bit defeatist, to look upon my own work rather negatively, to understate my own achievements. I don’t think any of these traits are uncommon in academia (at PhD level or indeed above that), especially given the bleak picture of career prospects highlighted by the current run of UCU strikes, but it’s certainly not a helpful attitude. So rather than focusing on this pit of despair that seems to be UK Higher Education, I’m going to apply the ethos of a Derby Girl:

  1. You get out what you put in. Sure, you can muddle along, but you’ll feel a hell of a lot better about yourself and your progress if you’ve pushed that little bit harder.
  2. There’s no use in comparing yourself to others. This is YOUR trajectory, and everyone learns and progresses at a different pace. There’s as much use comparing how many chapters you’ve got drafted with your fellow PhD-ers as there is whinging that another Derby novice has their plough stop* down to a fine art when it just makes you want to cry.
  3. Support networks are immeasurably important. If you’re struggling with something then talk to someone. Spending one or two evenings a week training to not only play a team sport, but one which exists almost totally at a grass roots level has been a great exercise in fostering the belief that if you pull together and help each other out you can achieve something amazing. Sure, the PhD is something that, in the end, is your own responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you can’t call on the support of others in your position when you feel the need.
  4. Good days, bad days, they all happen. Even on the worst day, you’ve probably made a step towards improving**. As for Roller Derby (can I do something now that I couldn’t do yesterday? Even if it’s only the slightest improvement?), so for PhD-ing (have I learnt/read/written/thought about something that I hadn’t yesterday?). Focus on that, not the time you fell on your head (yes, that’s happened)/got so scared of your PhD you spent the whole day twiddling your thumbs and panicking (yes, that too).
  5. Roller Derby is an amazing exercise in proving that YOU CAN MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. And that in itself is pretty empowering: being part of a group of girls (and a few guys) who’ve helped make a new, women’s sport one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. Who constantly step up to challenges of fitness, funding, visibility and accessibility. And, most importantly, seem to welcome anyone as long as you’re willing to put your heart into it and give it a go.

It’s a pretty wonderful feeling, really, is what I’m trying to get across. And sure, you can’t just crowbar team sports references into a lonely ol’ PhD, but I really think that my Derby experiences are helping me move on with the PhD, and, in some cases, put it in perspective. So perhaps if you’ve hit a dreaded PhD wall, trying out something new outside of your academic life may be just what you need to regain a wee bit of motivation. If not, then hey, at least you tried!

*I’ve tried to keep Derby Jargon to a minimum just as I try to keep Academic Jargon to a minimum at all times. So I suppose it’s a good thing I haven’t started blathering on about jammers and blockers and wheel durometers and ‘wheel squeal’ here. Despite having thoroughly enjoyed a message I got yesterday which simply said ‘YAY for wheel squeal!’

** I should add here that I do NOT mean that PhD students should be working on their PhD every day of every week of every year. I wish that didn’t need pointing out but worryingly it seems that a lot of students feel pressured into this way of working and I reckon that’s pretty unhealthy. If it works for you, great, but there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself time out.

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