|Photo by Markus Spiske | unsplash.com
Recently I (RED team member – Jamie) celebrated the publication of an article called Curating care-full spaces: doctoral students negotiating study from home (co-authored with my colleague Dr Genine Hook). Our article is a personal account that traces periods of our own doctoral journeys when Genine and I managed heavy care responsibilities and worked from home. Genine shared her story of writing her PhD in a walk in wardrobe as she was a sole-parent carer for her son, and I shared my story of caring for my mother and writing my PhD inside my parents’ old bedroom. When I shared the news of this publication online, La Trobe graduate researcher Jane Mantzalas contacted me to share some reflections of her own experience of working (and caring) from home. It is important that we recognise that graduate research is not only written in ‘ideal’ environments. Sometimes, in order to manage other priorities in our lives we need to curate different kinds of spaces in order to get our work done. I have invited Jane to share her experiences in this post.
I am a first-year PhD student from the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (School of Psychology and Public Health) where I am investigating autistic burnout. I’m also the mum and primary carer of three school-aged children. To balance the demands of full-time study and motherhood, I work from home and only go to campus for weekly supervision and to occasionally attend workshops/seminars that aren’t accessible via Zoom. My work is structured around the school run and I need to maximise every minute, so a daily commute is impractical. Most nights, I try to study after the kids are asleep (if I can stay awake) and while I aim to keep the weekends for family, part of me is always thinking about my research. Working from home gives me flexibility to take care of the kids when they’re sick and I’m very fortunate to have supportive supervisors and children.
My workspace is in our playroom and while it’s functional, the room wasn’t designed for doctoral study. Over the past 7 months, the space has evolved organically as books and papers have spilled over onto shelves that used to hold toys and games. It often feels makeshift and disorganised which can be stressful and interferes with my productivity. I have a Pinterest board of my dream workspace but for now, I make do. The room is a shared space and there is no door to separate my two worlds which often collide. My desk, which is visible from the kitchen, is a beacon of guilt when I’m not working, and I feel equally guilty working when the kids are home. When we use the room together, I’m constantly interrupted and wear headphones to block out noise. School holidays are especially challenging! But when the kids leave me messages of encouragement on my whiteboard, it helps put everything in perspective.
One of the pitfalls of working from home is the isolation. While I’ve had some lovely conversations with people on campus, I haven’t formed ongoing friendships, and because every minute of my day is accounted for, it can also be difficult to maintain existing relationships. A PhD is a huge and difficult learning curve and sometimes I worry whether I’m doing it right. I regret that I can’t attend interesting seminars and networking events which often take place outside of school hours, but I develop my research skills by participating in the Zoom workshops offered by the RED Team and library. Twitter has become an important way of keeping up with current events and research in my field, and @AcademicChatter; @Momademia; #phdlife; and #phdparent are great for connecting with other PhD students around the world.
I’m still learning to negotiate my PhD and caring responsibilities, but what is clear so far is the importance of self-care (I go for a walk every day to clear my mind); accepting that it’s impossible to do everything well all of the time; and that it’s pointless to compare yourself to others who don’t have the same obligations. Knowing that people like Jamie and Genine did it gives me hope that I can somehow do it, too.
Jane Mantzalas is a graduate researcher in the Austism Research Centre. You can contact her on twitter @JaneMantzalas