I had an interesting week last week. My partner was away visiting her family, so I was alone for just over a week (well, alone with the cats). It made me realise a few things about myself, working on a PhD and the struggles it involves.
My partner had gone away before during my PhD tenure, so that wasn’t necessarily new. What was new, however, was that I had an office with which to work from home, there was great sporting events on and we weren’t based in Coventry where I could go to my office on campus. This led to an interesting combination of probably watching too much sport and not necessarily getting enough writing/revising/editing done.
One of those reasons for not getting enough writing done was that I did actually go to campus one day during the week. I had left some research and draft copies of old chapters back in the office and felt like I needed all the notes I had made to properly revise this current chapter. So I went back pretty much just to collect that stuff. I had one or two other minor things to do whilst in Coventry, but for the most part that was it. I usually try to coincide my trips with something else — teaching, a supervision, a research seminar, etc. — so that I don’t feel like I’m spending most of the train traveling in vain, but the timing for any of that didn’t work out. So I was pretty much on campus just to pick up those small things. Thankfully I ran into a friend who shares my office, so at least I got to see a friend.
Back when I was living in Coventry and in the office every day, I saw him three or four times a week for a year. Now I see him once or twice a month, if I’m lucky. Probably even less now that teaching is over. I miss the camaraderie we had, the constant discussion of music — he’s also a big fan, and writing his own thesis in a different aspect of music — and the constant tea outings. It was a similar relationship with many of the others who shared the office with us. When working there on a regular basis I might not have always got the most work done because of the tea and jokes in the office, but it was a very friendly atmosphere and we all supported each other. We were all genuinely excited by the others getting accepted to conferences, finishing drafts, obtaining funding for a project or all the other things we do as PhD students. Now, though, I’m hardly ever in that office, so almost never see any of them. It’s not really the same atmosphere working in the local library or even my home office. I might see a lot of the same people, but I’ve not had conversations with any of them. It’s a lot more lonely now. I’m also more easily distracted, checking email and Facebook and things because I think they might have posted something (they haven’t).
With my partner gone for over a week, this loneliness intensified and my work habits shifted time frames. Usually I would make sure I’m awake and ready to arrive at the library when it opens, putting in a full day there, then coming home to spend time with her. Last week, though, I slept later, went to the library later, worked at home later and stayed up watching the sporting events (I was gutted with that US loss in the World Cup; it was a well-fought match. Also, horrible news about Brazil’s Neymar. I was also rooting for Federer in the Wimbledon tennis, who managed a good comeback but in the end couldn’t pull it out. Alas.) Not having to fit my schedule around someone else’s meant I could do what I wanted, when wanted. There were numerous days when I started working just a bit later than normal, took a longer-than-normal break for lunch, watch a bit of the sport that was on, then continued working well into the evening; where on normal days I would have come home or left the office long before.
In some ways it’s nice working to a more flexible schedule; in others, not so much. Mostly because I would convince myself that I would do it later, and whilst later always came, the work I promised myself I would do never did. Having that other person around to help drive home mental deadlines was wonderful for me. Whether it was the people in the office or my partner at home, having someone to work with or around is important for me. Not that I can’t or won’t motivate myself to work when necessary, but it’s nice to have something to look forward to when coming home. A full day’s work is more satisfying when someone at home shares in the success (or wallows in the misery, if necessary). It was similar with office mates because we would encourage and challenge each other (well, I would be by them — ‘oh, you finished a chapter, I’ll do my own then!’ I would think).
Having friends outside of the PhD is great and necessary, too. It’s not quite the same as a partner at home or people in an office (or even just the department) because they don’t quite understand the intricacies of PhD work, so don’t offer quite the same levels of encouragement (or rivalry), but they do offer something else vital. Time away from the PhD. Having a hobby outside of academia is fantastic, I highly recommend it. Having one that involves other people (playing a sport, a member of a club of some sort, being in a band, volunteering at some event, whatever) is even better. We all need people in our lives. I’m lucky to share mine with a partner at home on a regular basis. Those office mates weren’t so bad either.