Tuesday, September 3, 2019

PhD Life: It isn't glamorous...

...nor is it anything like I had expected. The thought of being Indiana Jones was one reason why I pursued my education seriously. I realized by 8th grade that to be a doctor, you needed to be smart, smarter than everyone else. So, I pushed myself to do the next level higher, taking the high-track classes rather than the average level classes. Each year, I pushed myself to the next level, never caring that I wasn't truly prepared for it. By the time I was a senior, I had taken 4 years of science (advanced biology and chemistry in the same year), 3 years of English, math, history, French, and never once gave myself a study hall. I used an academic waiver to remove the need to take P.E. (Physical Education) and spent all of my evening and weekend time studying until I went to bed. It was rare for me to have completely finished my homework each night. Sometimes I would do it before school started in the morning, or during lunch (when I would spend 30 minutes in the lab). Or sometimes, in the class just before the homework was due.

During this time, I was also a figure skater (had been since I was 2 years old), a member of a couple of clubs, a regular volunteer at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center, and I worked 20 hours a week. I also had boyfriends, friends, and carried on crafting and painting and reading.

My senior year was a turning point. I had just turned 17. I began taking psychology at the local community college on Saturday mornings, for three hours. I front loaded my first semester so I could graduate early. In January 2001, I was officially a college student. I had to juggle a full 15 hour school schedule, high school final exams, a 30 hour a week job, and a boyfriend. In keeping with my goal to become smart, I took three advanced placement classes. By graduation day, June 2002, I went from being 'average' smart, to contending with the top 20% of my class inside of four years.

To say that I was wound like a tight coil would be a severe understatement. I lost a whopping 65 pounds between my sophomore and junior years. Because I had languished under my own whip to become smarter, I didn't always do well. Smart kids (those top 20% and above) ridiculed me when I would receive a failing grade on a homework, quiz, or a test. One particular episode still haunts me today. A teacher publicly congratulated me for improving my vocabulary test from a D to a B by the end of the first semester. I was humiliated at having my grades described to everyone and it did nothing to relieve the ridicule I received on a daily basis from my fellow classmates (though it was usually just a few bullies). I also hated it when some bullies started caring more about me as a person because I 'became hot' by losing weight.

You could say that I had had enough by the start of my senior year. I didn't want to be around people who didn't respect me and what I had accomplished by myself. I didn't have well-educated parents (though they were loving and supportive and made sure I knew about 'the real world'), access to tutors, siblings, or friends who could tutor me for free. I did everything through sheer force of will. And it didn't stop there.

Whenever there has been something 'hard' to do in my life, I will do it. Not for the martyrdom, to make people pity me because my efforts result in few gains. I do it for the passion. Because I am interested. I want to learn more.

I finished my bachelor's degree with a 3.76/4.0 (department GPA) and a 3.48/4.0 (overall GPA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006. My senior year at UIUC was thoroughly loaded with anthropology courses, and with that, about 500-1000 pages of required reading each week. I binge-watched anime on weekends just to have a brain-break. I also took up Kuk Sool Won and achieved first degree black belt the summer after I graduated University (2007).

And then I began pursuing higher education. In 2010, I received an MSc in Museum Studies with Merit from the University of Leicester, after having suffered the financial crisis in 2008/9, switching jobs, and working full time while living just above the poverty line. I began Expertly Dyed as soon as my dissertation was in the mail. I was halfway started when I received confirmation that I passed my degree.

After an educational hiatus, where I worked as a teacher in Korea, an independent fiber consultant, and continued on my Expertly Dyed pursuits (starting my YouTube channel in 2012), I felt that it was time to return to academia and pick up my dream where I left it five years previously.

You're probably wondering why I wanted you to know my educational history from the time I was 13 years old. Some habits die hard.

I completed my MA in Archaeology from the University of Leicester with Distinction in 2016. I presented at two conferences. I also traveled to a new corner of Britain every other weekend. I was a dancer, reenactor, department groupie, and I exercised nearly every day. I went out drinking with friends on weekends. I ate cheese and crackers for dinner on some of my busiest nights. Wednesday pub nights with the department were my one opportunity to eat a proper meal each week. I lost weight. I did nothing crafty: no spinning, knitting, weaving, dyeing...nothing. And yet I studied textile production in Iron Age Britain.

My PhD experience has been the exacerbation of all my previous experiences with education and work/life balance. I work myself to death, I don't spend enough time on me, and some days I'm frankly shocked that I haven't collapsed with exhaustion.

I concocted an entirely unrealistic future for myself when I was 13 and I continued to fall back on those outdated principles until quite recently. I thought I had to become the expert and to know everything. I grappled with impostor syndrome (like many PhD students today). I couldn't handle being told my writing was sloppy or unfocused. I nearly fainted when I was told that 'I needed to be more serious about my research' and that I 'needed to do more'. I was utterly broken. How could someone like me possibly have time to do more and be more serious? I had already received high praise in the form of a Distinction and feedback at conferences. I am 35. I have been serious about my education for 22 years. I have gone far beyond just 'doing more'. What was missing?

My biggest personal issue with my pursuit of a PhD is that I'm not Indiana Jones. Being a doctor isn't about being the smartest, per se, it's more about understanding who you are and what you need. But here's my big moment of self-reflection about my PhD:

I do what I do because I want to do it.

I am halfway through writing my PhD thesis. I have presented at 12 conferences since January 2017, with 3-4 more planned for the remainder of 2019. I have conducted 2 major experiments for my PhD research (which is not an experimental PhD), with 2 more scheduled for September. I have met with senior academics in Iron Age studies and textile studies. I've done these things because I wanted to do them. I want to present high quality research and hold myself accountable because I have deeply critiqued my own work and the work of my predecessors. I want to develop textile archaeology to be the mainstream topic of study it deserves. I can't do this alone, nor am I alone. I am there, in a community, of similarly minded people who do what they do because they want to do it

This brings me to my final point about work/life balance. If I was told to do 6 conferences a year by my supervisors, and I had to do it, I would probably stress out. I would cry. I'd be anxious and work 15 hour days and on weekends. If anything were to set me off, I would probably have a complete breakdown with collateral damage. My work would be my life. I'd have no way of disengaging. I would probably binge drink (which I nearly started to do at the start of 2019). And worse, it would feel inescapable.

Something I didn't know about myself is that I am incredibly self-motivated by difficult tasks and I think the reason why I have managed to accomplish so much was because I knew my limits. I enjoy being busy and productive. I like being able to do 10 different activities in a day. I like keeping a schedule. I like being a part of things. When I do feel stressed out, anxious, depressed, exhausted, lethargic, etc., it's because I'm not keeping a good work/life balance that is suitable for ME. 

Sneak peek at the new series I'm launching on YouTube!

It is important to be introspective, and the demanding work of a PhD project can often prevent you from reflecting on yourself, your motivations, your needs. I need to be writing up my chapter on needles right now, but my need to share these thoughts has superseded my need to write my chapter. I won't fret about my chapter writing because I have a plan. It is scheduled to be worked on today. I want to write this chapter on needles. I submitted an abstract for a conference this morning and I worked on a journal article submission. Later, I will finish my weaving experiment today and get ready to pack up for the European Archaeological Association conference. I want to do these things. I am happy, stressed, excited, and a bit anxious. My life as a PhD student is the opposite of glamorous--certainly, no one will be writing 'Love You' on their eyelids any time soon. It's an exercise in coordinating 10 spinning plates with just my two hands. But I know that if it all becomes too much, or I need help reassessing my work/life balance, there are people out there who want to raise awareness for mental health issues among PhD students. 


  1. I'm very removed from the whole academic sphere now (which might be for the best) because I had a full-on breakdown mid-way through that Masters year, and I know I would've self-imploded at some point during a PhD. I haven't seen you in years now (which sucks!) and I haven't really got much to add because you know you're doing a fantastic job at all this, I will just say that from what I've seen and experienced, the academic world itself has quite a lot to answer for when it comes to the inordinate pressures it places on student's mental health, and a real long way to go in improving how it deals with all that.
    But yeah. Proud of you! Hopefully I'll do my PhD one day (though I do love the job that I've managed to fall into). Looking forward to more YouTube videos. --John

    1. You're the best, John! Thank you for your nice words. Academia does have a lot to answer for. I was very good at ignoring many of the issues I suffered while going through the MA, but my PhD taught me that I really can't do that...ever. I refuse to sacrifice my life for academia, so I will not work nights and weekends, and I will not work beyond a 40 hour work week (although there are some extenuating circumstances, but that balances my 25 hour weeks).

      I think I've shown that you can do stellar research without giving up everything. You need breaks, you need crafty time. You need to be social, without booze. I've tried to begin a mentoring program dedicated to mental health issues for students that is operated by students. There wasn't much resistance to the idea, but there isn't much collective support in the department because there are professionals who do that. I think there needs to be a step in between where students can talk frankly about their issues before deciding that professional help is best. Who else will know the pressures experienced in archaeology than an archaeology student?

      I actually miss the MA crew, but that's what happens when you lurk in academic corridors--people eventually graduate and move on.

      You're brilliant and you represent everything that academia needs: intelligence, wit, sharpness, and depth (<--- that's key, because I think academics often just do research and academic reading nonstop). But, only if you want to do it. :)