99 Jobs but a Thesis isn’t One: Pitfalls of Trying to do All the Things

Robyn Pritzker | 6 March 2017

Twenty hours per week, six hours per week, forty hours per week: these are the figures constantly swirling around in your head if you are a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. If you pick up extra shifts in April, you can’t do more in May. Does your weekly limit on hours run from Monday to Monday or Sunday to Sunday? What exactly constitutes “outwith term time” for a January-December academic year? When is your summer holiday? How many hours can you work in June? When will you be able to look at your thesis again? How long will you be calculating these numbers before you lose your marbles altogether?  Back when you started your degree, you remember thinking twenty hours per week was manageable–just under three hours per day, or fours hours per day if you wanted your weekends free. That seemed okay, you would still have loads of time to do other things if you worked twenty hours per week, like your actual degree!

So, you balanced working some hours at one job and the rest at another, you still met all your deadlines, and you felt like maybe you could have it all. Then you saw your colleagues starting reading groups, organising conferences, managing academic projects, and you felt like you weren’t doing enough. You knew you wouldn’t get paid for doing any of this, but you didn’t want to fall behind professionally, so now you’re trying to incorporate more of these things into your schedule. You got plenty of research and writing done last term, so you have more flexibility to take on additional university-related work.

A month later, you’re running a little behind getting through your reading group materials, because you were trying to finish a chapter to send your supervisor. You nearly finish the assigned essay before you run to the group meeting, but you skim the last twelve pages. You apologise for being a little late. The next week, you also apologise to your supervisor for waiting so long to get the chapter sent in. The day after, you can’t do anything because you have to go to work. Over the weekend, you try to catch up on writing, but a friend you haven’t seen in ages wants to go to dinner, so you pencil that in. By Monday you start to feel your schedule catching up with you. Your supervisor has suggestions and edits for your chapter, but you can’t deal with them until you handle the tasks you were supposed to do last Friday for your second job that you forgot about until you saw a terse email an hour ago. You didn’t have time to make lunch so you go to buy some food and realise you’re out of cash and don’t get paid for another five days. You would just use your card but you know you have a direct debit coming out of your account this week and haven’t checked your balance. Hoping for the best, you enter your PIN and run back to the office. Another email arrives, your boss, asking if you can cover a half shift since someone is ill. You know you don’t have time but you need the money. You agree. During your shift you can’t stop thinking about all the work you haven’t done on your research. Days later you realise you never responded to your supervisor, or your mom’s text, or filled out that paperwork you should have done a week ago. You send several emails beginning with “sorry for the delay.” You don’t remember if you added everything on to your to-do list that you were meant to, and you honestly can’t remember when you last felt in control of your life. You go to sleep early and you wake up ready to try again. You still haven’t touched your thesis.

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An early indicator of my distaste for paperwork

* * *

Whether we’re fully-funded, partially-funded, or simply wishing our way through monthly rent payments, most research students worry about money. If your fees are covered and you have a stipend, you’ll likely still be worrying about where to get a grant to go to a conference. If you have a hefty student loan and help from your parents, you’ll be wondering how you’re going to afford to replace your computer, which is six years old and can’t run any software you need for your project. Perhaps you have plenty of funds for yourself, but you need to help support your partner, your child, your parents, or someone else. Concern about how to pay the bills and make it from day to day are hardly unique to graduate students, but we are often pressured by very specific regulations and limitations about when and how we are able to be compensated for the work we do.

International (particularly non-EU) students generally have less access to research council funding, and other types of scholarships most common to British universities. I wasn’t able to apply for one of the main sources of funding for Americans hoping to do graduate work in Britain (Marshall Scholarships) because I have an undergraduate degree from a Canadian university. Smaller grants are few and far between, and most are for travelling, research residencies, or other specific purposes, not daily life. Beyond the obvious concerns about how to pay your fees and expenses, we also have to worry about whether we’re more or less competitive researchers because of how many funding bodies we have on our CVs.

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An attempt to exercise control over the university. No tables were harmed in the making.

I don’t have any answers about how to solve these problems, nor do I  think there is a definitive solution. What I do think is that we should be talking more openly about these stressors.  Academic communities should be finding ways to improve, not worsen the pressures weighing on their graduate students, and listening to what those students say is paramount. The slippery slope from stress to poor mental and emotional health is omnipresent and often the line between is blurred by our insistences that we just have to make it through another week, another month, another term. It is too simple to say that doctoral students should simply learn to manage their workloads more responsibly: for many, working the maximum legal number of hours is a necessity and not a choice, and any professional training on top of that often cuts into the time we need to develop our theses. It’s a notable privilege in itself to be able to continue studying for further degrees, or any degrees at all, but we as students and researchers will struggle to better the communities we move through if we are not encouraged towards open discourse and active response to difficult situations.

About Robyn

Robyn is a graduate of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh. Her research involves the Victorian print trade, women, authorship, and digital humanities. Otherwise, Robyn is an avid ghost story reader with heterochromia and a penchant for the outdoors.

Article edited by Sarah Stewart and Gina Maya.

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