May 2012

I’ve learned a few things in the past few weeks during this life overhaul.

can do this.  I don’t really miss fun things to eat like candy.  This may change, but for the moment regret is stronger than the lure of the Reece’s Pieces in the workroom or the yummy Belvita breakfast bars (technically not a “bad” food, but calorific).

Cooking takes a lot longer.  I’m doing grilled chicken and it takes a while to prepare on the stove.  I do make sure to do more than just one day’s worth, but I’m not used to slaving over a stove.  I’m much more of a “whack it in the oven” kind of girl.  

And the grocery shopping.  Yikes!  About 2-3 times a week I go get produce and other groceries.  Finding the best deal on packages of vegetables, deciding which yoghurt has the most beneficial nutrition, and wading through the crowds takes a while, especially since the tourists have descended on York.  (Walkways and sidewalks are called that because you walk on them, not saunter, not take pictures, not somehow magically make yourselves wider, people!)

I am drifting off to sleep better and waking more easily without the sleep aid.  Like many people, I have insomnia.  I always thought that my doctor was right–some little pharmaceutical nudge must be the best thing.  Well, even though I wake up 3-4 times a night now (though this may be related to the rather extreme heatwave we’ve been having, or “extreme” when it comes to York, I suppose), but I’m not groggy and disfunctional in the morning.  

I am, however, achy.  I’m not seeing results yet, but I have to think that this is worth it.  I read recently that it takes a good solid four weeks to see results in yourself.  I’ve been really examining and controlling my diet (counting calories, too) for about two weeks and recording my exercise for about three.  Let’s hope the next week brings some noticeable results so that the aches will be worth it!

I am stronger than I think.  I can go without that serving of bread or that sprinkle of sugar in my tea.

All of this is making me more confident in my work and in my life in general.  No, I still don’t like big groups or presenting or having my supervisor read and comment on my work.  Some of those things are is part of life.  However, I feel better during the day.  I feel more rested and less foggy, I know that I can look forward to meal times because I make almost everything I eat myself (and chart things like M&S prepared salads on MyFitnessPal, a website that has nutrition lookups for almost every brandname food out there).  I make time to enjoy that food while I catch up on Doctor Who for half an hour at work.

I also make sure to get out of the workroom in enough time to exercise, eat dinner, and get ready for bed.  No more isolating nights until 10pm and feeling drained the next day!  

I know lately I’ve been talking about personal issues rather than intellectual/professional/academic.  However, I think that if I can chronicle my progression in my schedule and health revamp then I can inspire others and during tough times myself.  

These nutrition and exercise changes are helping me to combat stress, and therefore they help me in my work.  More control over my schedule helps me get things done, so I’m grateful that I’ve started it.


March and April brought my first professional engagements at conferences and classes.  After the end of the term at York, during which time I had shadowed and had a fun (but at times trying) time teaching for the first time, I attended the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature’s first conversation.  The SSMLL and the Corpus Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity jointly hosted “Classicists and Medievalists in Conversation: Epic“.  Of course, this event seemed tailor-made for my interests.  I was an undergraduate classicist with a focus on epic, and I am a current medievalist focusing on epic tradition in medieval romance.  This was technically a conference, but it was organised to be a more informal forum for discussion. The short panels left plenty of time for discussion afterwards.  There were lots of big names in the room, and I was particularly starstruck by Philip Hardie whose books I’ve consulted frequently over the past several months.  I think I was a bit timid–this was my first big-girl (as in not just postgraduate) conference, and the discussion tended to be dominated by more experienced, published, and employed academics.  I felt a bit out of place, as much of the discussion was on material I’d never encountered before.  However, it was a good way to dip my toes into the conference pool.  My full conference report can be found here.

St. Hugh’s College, Oxford
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Two weeks after the day-long Epic conversation, I went to back to Oxford for the Romance in Medieval Britain Conference at St. Hugh’s College.  This was a three-day event, and the papers were absolutely fantastic.  I got to see two of my fellow PhD workroom friends present papers, talked with academics I’ve encountered at Cambridge and Durham, and meet other new researchers and post-docs with similar interests.  I was pleased to find that there were many others working on various Troy Books and ecphrasis, there was one panel whose papers fit incredibly well with my MA dissertation on hospitality and generosity in Gawain romances.  It was tiring, but extremely rewarding and fun.  After the last panel, I got to walk around the manuscript exhibit at the Bodleian Library.  While perusing the various sections, I bumped into another PhD from the conference who was visiting from Toronto, and we had a lovely afternoon walking in the sunshine.  My goal is to present a paper at the next RMB in two years, and I hope to keep up with the contacts I made this year.

Old Main, Gustavus Adolphus College
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After that crazy two weeks, I went home and then up to Minnesota to speak at Gustavus.  I shared my study abroad experience at the annual “Why Classics?” event and got an overwhelmingly positive response from the faculty.  The following day, I taught a class on the Aeneid in the Middle Ages with particular attention to the text of Chaucer’s House of Fame (Book 1) and sections of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I was a bit disappointed that the students didn’t seem to work with the Middle English, and I discovered that I should have spent more time on SGGK because the text I provided for that had a modern translation.  I was expecting a Latin class to be a bit more receptive to engaging with the language, but I understand that it was something new for them.  However, I think the class went well even if I presented many novel ideas in a short amount of time.  I spoke with the only medievalist in the English department (who, of course, had been working in admin while I was a student), and he said he struggles each year when deciding on Chaucer text.  To use or not to use the Middle English?  It’s something I don’t think we should struggle with; Chaucer’s Middle English isn’t particularly difficult, and I’ve seen many undergraduate classes who read all the literature without translations.  It’s something to consider in the future, and I’d never thought about it before.

Being back at Gustavus as a speaker was a bit surreal.  I stayed in the guest house and was driven to and from Gustavus by my old advisor.  I was privy to all sorts of gossip and opinions from the faculty about which I had no idea as a student.  It was interesting to be on the other side of the fence–the side shared by professors I highly respect and adore.

I had a fantastic time being a “grown-up” academic for the first time.  It’s scary to be there, and entering into the ivory tower is daunting.  I hope that with practice I can work up to feeling more like I belong among those academics.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.  But this is the only pop culture reference I could think of with “relax” in it, so get your mind out of the gutter.  This is not that kind of blog.

This blog is about my journeys in graduate school, and if I can go through a rough period and come out with advice and life experience for others, then I’ve accomplished something.  If I can articulate my triumphs, setbacks, and activities to my friends back in America, then this blog is doing its job.


The Valley

It’s now May and all of those conferences and engagements are over.  I’m back in York after a trip to the States and back to work.  I confess that it took me a really long time to get back into work mode.  You may have heard of the Thesis Whisperer.  (And if you are a student and haven’t heard of her, well, go to her page.  She’s worthy of the title “sage” when it comes to doling out advice about research writing and living.)  A few days ago, she posted on “The Valley of Shit“.  When I came back from the States, I was definitely in the Valley.  I suddenly realised that the listless, “meh” feelings I was having (and am still having to a lesser extent) came from me being intensely homesick.  I didn’t feel homesick last year.  Perhaps everything was new.  Perhaps classes and having others in my course kept me from feeling it too much.  Perhaps seeing my parents suddenly seeming older over Christmas flipped some daughterly switch.  Whatever the reason was, the fact was that I was slogging through my work–when I did work–feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere.  Feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere made me not want to work.  And on and on it went.  Yup, I was knee-deep in the Valley of Shit and didn’t know how to propel myself forward.  I was stressed and couldn’t force myself to really and truly relax.


The Plan

I finally just cried about it.  One big, huge, wailing ball of bawling mess.  I cleaned myself up and made a decision to make a schedule for myself in which I would make time for me.  I’m not talking necessarily about films, making tea, or writing letters; I do all that anyway.  My new mission was to work an allotted amount of hours per day and make absolutely sure that I got home before 9 pm and fit in workouts many times a week.  I would burn off the worry in the form of dedicated exercise (and free exercise thus far–YouTube has an impressive selection of full-length Tae Bo workouts that I can adapt for my bad knees).  After that exercise, I would actually sleep for 7-8 hours a night, which means not getting to bed at my nightowl-preferred 2 AM.

Since I was born, I’ve had health problems that affected my physical abilities and weight.  With all of this worry and anxiety about home, my parents, and my work, I felt like now was the time to really focus on making my mind and body healthy.  I’m still in the early weeks, but I want to make healthy living a priority.  This means waking up early, going to the workroom for at least 8 hours on a work day while munching on homemade lunches and snacks, getting home to exercise in the evenings, and then enjoying a healthy, fresh dinner.  I’ve never been one for “student” food, but I didn’t really keep fresh vegetables in the house, either.  That’s changed.  My favourite meal is now at least half a bag of greens (and by “greens,” I mean real greens that have nutritional value–not iceberg lettuce), a whole pepper or a bunch of tomatoes, a bit of smoked salmon, some goat cheese, and vinaigrette dressing I make from scratch.  Delicious!  Instead of snacking on whatever happens to look good on the day, I bring a lentil salad from M&S, some fresh fruit, yoghurt, and low fat cheese, and I make up my own mix of dried fruit and nuts for that 4 o’clock snack craving.


The Hard Stuff Still to Come

Of course, with improvements to my diet and workout schedule, I’ve had to make sacrifices elsewhere.  My bank account is less than happy with me.  I can’t be as flexible with my time in the evenings.  I have to, have to get to bed at a certain time.  Lack of funding and sleep always brings its own challenges, and I’m learning now how to overcome these new trials.  I have seen that perhaps my friends won’t be understanding when I can’t get cocktails or play the hostess.  This isn’t just about one night of fun.  This is a badly-needed life overhaul.  I need to make sure I have enough time to properly relax.  I need to do what many doctoral students have advised: make this thesis a job rather than a monster constantly hanging over my head.

My work itself is still trying.  I have my upgrade coming up at the beginning of July.  This is a formal meeting among my supervisor, my TAP (Thesis Advisory Panel) member, and another member of the department’s faculty to evaluate my progress and formally upgrade me to official PhD status (or technically “confirm my enrolment” as a PhD student).  From what I hear, it’s not a terrifying process on the day.  I submit 10,000 words to the three faculty members and will make sure that I prepare documents outlining my entire research project, showing a list of activities and lectures, and generally making me look good and productive.  Usually, this process isn’t until some time in the second year.  However…  Here’s the clincher: in order to teach next year, I must have upgraded.  This means I have to have upgraded before the beginning of autumn term, and this in turn means before the end of summer term.  While the meeting itself may not be stressful, the preparation is.  I have a sizeable chuck of that 10,000 words to write and a lot, a lot, a lot to read in order to write.  I have to edit the last section I submitted because not only does it need fleshing out, but it also needs all the footnotes.  I have to present good work to the upgrade committee, and that means more time in the workroom.

If I can suggest anything to others, it’s to write, cry, talk about things bothering you.  Stay connected to your friends and family; I know the support from my favourite people has helped me to continue with my programme here in the UK.  Make a budget and stick to it.  I don’t just mean a monetary budget here.  Schedule your life and budget the time you have for everything: breaks, work, television, preparation in the morning, everything.  There’s a reason my mom encouraged me to set out my clothes the night before, used an egg timer to ensure I was brushing my teeth enough, and always had a mammoth calendar on the fridge: scheduling works.  Plus, if you make a schedule, chances are you’ll remember the lectures you want to see and the lunch dates you have.  A great tool is Pomodoro, which is available as a Mac app and on Chrome.  You can set this little tomato for a set amount of work time which is followed by break time.  It also keeps track of each “Pomodoro” (set of work + break time) you complete, rewarding you with a longer break after several sets.

So what does all this scheduling, worrying, and upgrading mean for me and my road to overcoming my unintended sojourn through The Valley of Shit?  It means putting myself first, and that may mean putting socialising further down on my life list than I’d like.  Don’t worry–this should just  be until the big day in July, and my true friends should understand that I really can’t go out.  I don’t have the money, the time, or the energy to stay out until midnight.  It’s not because I don’t want to, but because I have to get over this hump and through the Valley.  I think I’ll be a better, more relaxed person when I climb out.