Last Tuesday I attended a humanities training course with the catchy title “Introduction to the DPhil”. The class began with discussing some of the usual suspects (What is the DPhil and why do we do it?) but we soon reached the bit that interests me most: “How should you organize your day to day life?”.
“Treat your thesis like any other job. Eight hours a day, five days a week,” explained the wonderful post-doc teaching the class. There was a general murmur of approval among the twenty or so attendants and a simultaneous look of embarrassment as they realized that they were very, very far away from that noble goal. Me being me – a person with an unhealthy obsession for measuring time expenditure and planning ahead – I couldn’t help raising the obvious issues and so pointed out that while I admire the goal of “treating your thesis like a job” I have found it to be impossible. I can usually manage no more than 4-5 hours of work on my thesis (currently I am reading Leibniz, Kant and Russel – some very dense shit) until my brain melts or I get incredibly tired. Unless, of course, there is a deadline coming up, in which case the rules of engagement change drastically but that’s to be expected (thanks adrenalin, you’re always there when I need you). But without a deadline, between 3-5 hours a day is about as much as I can do 5 days a week (in other words: whatever gets done before lunch). And of course, I also have to take some classes, work on other publications, do networking, take some organizational roles, patatin patatan (the post-doc teaching the course was French, so I slipped into my favourite French manirism) – are we supposed to do that on top of the 40 hours a week we spend working our thesis? And anyway, I asked the teacher, do we actually have a number on how many hours post-docs spent on their thesis all together? How much time did you spend on your thesis?, I asked.
Thankfully the teacher interpreted my bundle of question as a sign of surprise and desperation rather than an attack (writing it down now, I see how it might have been interpreted the other way). She smiled and said that she was a terribly bad example because by the end of the third year, she had written about 30% and did not have a structure and was unsure about her argument, at which point, she got an offer for a post-doc position in Oxford, decided that she wanted to have finished her thesis before going to Oxford and then wrote the whole thing in three months, sleeping no more than four hours a day. But it was horrible, and we should not do it like that. Also, the teacher added helpfully, the Oxford humanities centre conducted a study and found out that the average non-natural-sciences DPhil student writes his thesis in between three to four hours a day. Hands shot up and an increasingly relaxed newbie DPhil asked “3-4 hours 7 days a week?,” which was answered in the negative. “And without holidays?” asked someone else. “No, of course not, 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week with 4-6 weeks of holidays”. Within ten minutes, the amount of time we should work on our thesis had dropped from 40 hours a week to between fifteen and twenty with holiday allowance.
That night, as I was making myself a cup of tea in the MCR kitchen, a friend of mine came up to me and told me that he had read my blog and wondered whether I really work only 15 hours a week and whether it is even possible to do a DPhil like that. I didn’t have time to answer that question fully because the discussion veered off into a fight on the merit of qualitative analysis in the social sciences (I think; I really didn’t follow). Instead I left the room and sat down next to another friend, who has just finished his DPhil, and took the chance to tell me he thought I was right. It had taken him a year to figure out that nothing intellectually productive happens after lunch and that one should do about 3-4 hours of thesis work and spend the rest of the day on doing all the other things one also has to do.
And that’s my answer. Do you really work only 15 hours a week? Yes and no. I do only about 15 to 20 hours of work a week that is directly related to my DPhil thesis. And yes, given all we know it is entirely possible to finish a DPhil thesis like this. However, I work about 40 hours a week. The post-doc teaching the “introduction to the DPhil” was right in saying that we should “treat it like a job”, the only problem is finding out what you should be treating like a job. In my case, my job is becoming an academic. An important part of this job is writing a DPhil thesis but it is not the only part of the job. And if you think about it, there are very few professions in which the job description tells you the exact thing people spend most of their time on. Think of a photographer and the amount of time they spend taking pictures versus the amount of time they spend fixing and researching equipment, preparing a shoot, doing post-production, learning new tools, taking classes, etc… Or think of a model. Most models surely don’t spend the majority of their time strutting down a catwalk and looking glamorously malnourished but rather working out and preparing meals and getting a bikini wax.
If you look back at my glorious schedule, it has nothing on it that I consider unrelated to my job – showering and doing the laundry still happens off the clock. Instead it consists of some core activities, things very obviously related to my job, such as 15 hours of working on my DPhil and some less obviously job-related activities. However, all these things are related to the job of becomming an academic in English literature. I do about four hours of Italian a week because I am working on a paper which requires me to research something in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Venice – so actually, when learning Italian, I am working on a publication (the information gained in Venice might also be important for a chapter of my thesis, so I am simultaneously also working on my thesis). The same is true for the courses I’m taking, which include everything from “introduction to the DPhil” to fundamentals of photoshop, some are directly related – I need photoshop for the Venice paper – some I only do so I have gained a skill which might come in handy later on or just look good on my CV. Similarly, all the lovely social seccing I do, does not only give me the warm fuzzy feeling of fulfilling my democratic duty, it also allows me to say that I have organizational skills, which is especially important if I ever want to get an academic position in Germany (and that’s pretty likely). Even this, writing a blog, is part of my job since academic visibility is becoming increasingly important.
So yes, if you are doing a humanities DPhil think of yourself as someone who has a job. This will make it easier for you to get up in the morning with a sense of purpose. It will also make it easier for you to enjoy your free-time because it will give you the amazing feeling of having finished your job and actually being entitled not to think about work for a whole evening or, decadence of decadences, an entire weekend! It will also make you feel entitled to tell other people that you can’t hang with them on a Tuesday at 11am… Because you have a JOB (and people who have jobs don’t hang on Tuesdays at 11am). However, be careful to find out what your job is, and what tasks it consists of. Don’t try to force yourself to read and understand Hegel eight hours a day for three days, only to realize on Thursday that you have a massive pile of relatively unintellectual tasks, which you will now have to do in your most awake and intellectual hours. Your job probably consists of many very different tasks, once you realize what these are, you can make sure that you do them at the right times. And believe me reading Kant is much more fun, when you actually have all your brain to work with. Filling out forms and complying with the needs of bureaucracy, on the other hand, is much less horrid when the brain is too tired to scream that it could be doing meaningful things right now.
and yes, this weekend my job included a day trip to London… it could be worse, I suppose.