Real Work

It has been a while since I posted. I had started asking myself why this was, and I hadn’t found any clear reasons for it other than feeling like I didn’t have something to blog. On the surface, this seems slightly ridiculous, as there have been some good, interesting and thought-provoking things that have popped up recently. I have finally heard back from the ethics committee with conditional approval for my project. So, while I have racked up some more achievement badges that wasn’t the post that I wanted to write right now.

This came up earlier this week. I was tired. I know I tend to be a bit scattered when I’m tired. I’m also more susceptible to all manner of negativities and I found myself struggling with the notion that I am not doing legitimate Work. In a psychotherapeutic frame, this would be a script (or a ‘tape’ in Old Analogue), and it runs something like this: “Reading is Not Work. I should be doing something more productive.” Given that research involves reading, and a lot of it, this script is disruptive and troubling. Reading is exactly what I need to be doing because it would be impossible to do a literature review without it. However, the struggle appears not to care and my focus ends up in even more disarray. Rather than soothe myself with tasky activities until it passed as I have done previously, I chose to sit with it and think it through.

In my first few months, I had proposals to develop, scholarships to apply for and systems to organise. I was on something of a roll and it was usually enough to keep this script at bay.  I was also finding my feet in a new work environment, surrounded by the final stages of a very busy bigger project involving lots of hum and activity, writing and completing. After setting up systems, dealing to administrivia and getting myself settled, it was difficult to feel  okay with spending large amounts of time reading. The project ended and the frenetic activity along with it, but I still feel like I should be producing more (is that it?), achieving more (I get heaps of feedback from supervisors telling me that I’m achieving spectacularly) or completing more (even sillier, I’m not at completing stage yet). So why is this still a thing?

Perception of Work

As I pondered, I noticed this script being driven by notions about work that aren’t relevant to this setting.  “Work” involves making and doing, and you have something to show for it. Considering that my previous employment didn’t involve producing tangible objects, I found this odd. However, maybe it isn’t. There were fixed activities that had to be done within specific time frames (externally or self-imposed) that could be counted as products of Work. Some tasks that I did had to be completed in order for colleagues to do their work and there were always letters, assessments and other documentation to ‘show’ for it. Now I am relieved from all of that, and mightily relieved at one level. At another level, that ‘worth’ of work has been so tied to completing things it is a struggle not having piles of things I can point to as evidence for work I’ve done this week.

Our culture has a weird relationship with Work.  It may make a valuable contribution to society or be personally meaningful if we’re lucky. There is also a sense that Work it is not to be enjoyed and possibly a downright unpleasant duty or obligation. Work is something to be tolerated, complained about, and the main good thing to come from it is getting paid. Classic industrialist-era alienated labour, and we’re still living it even though we’re supposedly ‘post’ industrialist. I and many other people who have hobbies that involve making stuff will often say that we wouldn’t want to turn it into a money-making proposition, because then it becomes Work and introduces obligation. It changes the dynamic and expectations. It’s hard to think of doing something you love as properly Work.

Maybe it’s about reward. Feeling like I deserve to do things that I am Good At and enjoy. Reading is something I have loved since I first learned how (just ask my parents). Words, books and language are treasures and reading-for-pleasure is something I often treat as a reward to myself. As a result, if I’m feeling like crap or other practical tasks need to take precedence, reading takes a back seat. Currently I have a growing pile of books with bookmarks wedged part way through. I end up doing the same thing with my knitting, putting it off because there are other things that need to be done with the time and so I miss out on spending time doing something I enjoy. Maybe it is the enjoyment part.

This struggle is about making myself feel like it’s okay to bury myself in reading, even reading with a purpose, and get out of the habit of thinking that it is self-indulgent timewasting. Popular notions of doing a PhD as a self-indulgent, navel-gazing return to ‘being a student’ certainly don’t help. It is a significant shift from my previous work, where reading was a luxury that had to be foregone or relegated to non-work time. Maybe, rather than trying to make myself ‘feel okay’ about it, I need to learn a new take on what constitutes Work for the purposes of research where reading is a core activity and not just a luxury to be put off for the sake of getting other things done.

This is not to say that I don’t have strategies and systems in place to support myself while I’m doing this work. I do. I’ve found even more through reading books, blogs and other resources on how to do a PhD and I use them as well. Some days more than others, perhaps, but pretty effectively overall. I’ve even established myself as a resource person for others on this score. This isn’t the hole the script is creeping through to catch me out.

Valuing Work

Still, how do I remind myself that what I am doing is Important Work, Real Work? I am getting paid for it, so that’s one socially accepted measure. Others are interested in what come out from it, so that’s another. I think there’s Important Stuff to say about my topic and I want to do the saying of it – definitely one for me. There are things to show for it but this is long haul. It’s no sprint. There won’t be a publication or finished ‘thing’ next week and that’s as it should be. Maybe the training metaphor is useful after all. My previous work was lots of sprinting, and this is long distance work. It is about valuing this thing that I can do and want to do. It is about valuing MY knowledge work, even though I am really at the beginning of it. There have been enough expressions of confidence from others in my past and current activity to have answers for even my most strident self-criticisms. If others can see it, why am I giving myself such a hard time? Knowledge work is Real Work. It is Important Work and it is something that I am Good At.

Actually, I think it is a blend of all these things. It isn’t simply the wider sociocultural attitudes about work, or it would have been easy to toss them aside and gleefully reclaim student status. It isn’t just about feeling not good enough, or that this isn’t serious enough to be considered proper Work. As a multitude of other writers, academic and otherwise, have observed, Knowledge Work has some similarities with classic ‘production’ but it also has some distinctly different characteristics. It is not a simple equation. You cannot start out with a clear image of the end point, because if you already knew what you were going to find then there is little point in undertaking the research. It is more like distance running than sprinting. There will be outcomes along the way, but the Big Thing needs a lot to go in before it will be ready, and that takes time.

A point in this post from The Thesis Whisperer helped disentangle the mess in my head. While the post’s topic was adjacent rather than directly relevant, it included the reminder that PhD thesisizing and knowledge work is indeed Work. Important Work. Real Work. This is where I was tripping up. The literature review is all about reading, thinking and more reading, with bits of writing. All the things that previous years of work experience had drummed into me were Not-Work, or at least Not-Sufficiently-Work-To-Be-A-Priority-When-Other-Things-Need-Doing, are now exactly what I am supposed to be doing right now. It’s not a self-indulgent luxury, nor timewasting.

Time for a new note next to my monitor in my line of sight. That’s something I know does work for me when I need to rewrite scripts.

Knowledge Work is Important Work and Real Work.

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6 Responses to Real Work

  1. rephraser says:

    If you really must have something you can point to, to show that you have been making progress in your work (the project manager would say ‘measurable progress against milestones’), even if you don’t have completed deliverables to point to (eg chapters), you can look at other things – how many new papers did i read this week? How many insights did I gain? How much did I contribute to my analysis, in terms of new aspects to a point? Did I make an advance in my thinking? How many sentences of paper summaries did I write? How many new authors did I discover?

    If you can’t turn the script off some other way, there’s always a measurable thing you can point to. In some ways, having something to measure (even if it isn’t words on a page in your literature review) gives you something objective to measure against, so if you’re starting to worry about whether what you are doing is ‘work’ or not, you can point to something measurable that has changed and progressed you towards your eventual aim.


    • justblade says:

      Sometimes this does work and does help. Beyond a certain point I’ve noticed this can actually feed the script rather than starving it, which is part of the reason I decided to sit and examine it instead of brushing it off. Some quantitative “stuff” measures are helpful and important, and as I’d reflected while I was writing, I do this and do it reasonably well. It hasn’t been enough to diminish the confidence-sapping inner critic, which at times sounds like all the unpleasant TL meetings I’ve ever had! I do like having stuff I can point to, and things like my Impressive Annotated Bibliography is one of my enduring joys in that category. Funnily enough, it’s having the system that I developed being admired by others that is the most satisfying, even though the entries grow in number each week as well.

      I think what I need is to keep working on my perception and relationship with my Work. That includes reminding myself that knowledge work is valuable and important. Also that I am allowed to do things that I enjoy! 😉

  2. The Practical Scholar says:

    Imagine how much worse the mental script gets when you aren’t getting paid to do your research. 😉 True confessions time: My senses of obligation, duty, and accomplishment get all tangled up when I start falling behind in tasks for my “real” job (teaching high school) and spending too little time with my family in order to research, read, and write for the PhD. (The “when” clause is probably extraneous, since I live in this state nearly 100% of the time.) And I feel strangely guilty when I get (what seems like disproportionately) excited about an A+ and glowing comments on a paper. It seems like such a small thing to be happy about, especially since I sacrificed so many other things to get that done. No matter how much I try to recognize academic work as Important Work, there’s always a niggling doubt that this is really just an expensive hobby that I pursue to the detriment of everything else that Really Matters. After all, the PhD won’t pay off financially — any increase in salary potential is chancy and long-term at best, and it’s offset by the actual costs and opportunity costs of pursuing the degree. The reasons for pursuing it — a job I’ll enjoy more than the current one and the opportunity to continue my research — seem quite selfish. When I start to feel like that, however, I tell myself that I have a right to pursue a life’s work that I enjoy and that means something to me. It helps . . . a bit.

    • justblade says:

      I grok that! To start with, I was not being paid. I’d resigned from a reasonably well paid full-time permanent professional position to take up the PhD programme full time. My partner and I had agreed that if I were going to do it, that I should do it full-time rather than trying to do it part-time and combine it with working. I was truly lucky to be granted a fellowship a couple of months after I’d started, but I did start out on the prospect of doing it on my and my partner’s own resources.

      It’s so easy to see all of those practical things like cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, doing stuff for other people as far more important and productive than “just” reading … I know it will take time to rewrite this script however that’s no reason not to do it, I reckon. I may be thinking through it all again in a few weeks but I won’t be exactly here again. It won’t be next week anyway, because I have a presentation to do at the department postgrad research seminar!

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