Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reflections of an overworked, overwrought, overlooked archaeology PhD student

I’m really delighted and honoured to be able to publish this piece by Dr Margaretha Marie-Louise Vlahos. Be under no illusion, it is a harrowing read in places as she details the difficulties she experienced on her journey from deciding to enter University to eventually receiving her PhD. I’ve heard tales of physical and emotional difficulties faced by many PhD students, so I know that she is not alone in her struggles, but these are rarely addressed in public. For this reason, I believe that it is a remarkably important paper that should be regarded as recommended reading for anyone contemplating a higher degree of any kind – not just archaeology. I applaud Marie for her bravery in undertaking this piece and for the honesty of her writing. I also hope it brings comfort to those who need it, knowing that they are not alone.

I commend it to your attention …

Robert M Chapple

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Reflections of an overworked, overwrought, overlooked archaeology PhD student

Dr Margaretha Marie-Louise Vlahos (Archaeologist)

I awoke one morning over twelve years ago and asked myself a question, the answer to which would completely change the course of my life. This question came about because my daughter was about to begin school. What was I to do? I knew returning to work would be a challenge. When women make the decision to stay at home and raise their children, the years that pass, along with rapidly evolving technology often render their skills redundant, as was the case with myself. This often means that when women return to the workforce after a prolonged period, they have to start at the bottom and work their way back up the ladder. This was if indeed I could find a job. I had been looking, regularly browsing the employment pages, in preparation for this moment. Wanned skills left me with few options. I had spent more than ten years in the banking and finance industry and could attempt to return, however, I knew from experience that returning Mums were employed on a part time basis, usually re-entering at the bank teller level. I was pleased when I left the banking industry to start a family and in my eyes, going back would have been a step in the wrong direction. I needed more out of life than that. I wanted to be productive, I wanted to work, but I also needed job satisfaction. I asked myself, if I could do anything with my life and there were no boundaries, what would it be?

The answer came quickly with a resounding ‘I would be an archaeologist’. It was always a dream. My next question was ‘what is stopping me?’ There were of course boundaries, some real, some imagined. I could have put it all in the too hard basket and forgotten the whole conversation with myself. However, once that tantalising idea entered my mind, I could not let it go, especially as the idea of living with regret did not appeal to me. Rather, I chose to identify those boundaries and investigate whether or not I could indeed overcome them. I didn’t know if I was up to the task but I would never know if I didn’t try. So try I did, and here I am.

I was high school dropout. I left half way through year 11 – a disillusioned teenager. It’s not that my grades were bad, they were above average, I just couldn’t see a direction. After bumming around for a while riding dirt bikes with my brother I eventually took finding a job seriously. I was lucky to find employment in the photographic industry. I have always had a love of photography and this fed my creative side. I spent many enjoyable years in the industry and indeed I fell in love with a photographer and we married.
Me at 18 bumming around riding dirt bikes
One night, not long after the morning I awoke questioning myself, I dropped the bombshell on my partner. It came as a total surprise to him. I had done the research; my employment prospects were not good. I figured I could improve those prospects with a degree under my belt. More importantly, I had a passion I felt I needed to pursue. I truly believe that if one has a passion for something and they pursue it, they will become good at it and success and money will follow. That was the theory I presented.  I was not even sure if I had what it took to get into University. I had not completed high school. This meant I would have to study to gain entry. I asked his permission and he reluctantly agreed. Now that I look back, I wonder why I didn’t just make an announcement rather than ask permission. It was a big deal and it needed discussing. I spent the next 18 months, whilst caring for our daughter, studying from home via correspondence to (hopefully) get the score required to enter University for a Bachelor of Arts degree. I was thrilled when my results were more than adequate. In 2003 I began my Arts degree, double majoring in archaeology.

I did extremely well. My grade point average was high and I made the Dean’s list every semester. I always gave it my best. I was not there to play games. This was my life and my future career I was working on. It was serious business – I had to succeed. I always knew I would have some limitations/constraints because of family commitments and I was fine with that. I was not 17, single, with the world at my feet. I always tried to keep a balance between my home life and family and my study commitments. Four subjects per semester proved to be a challenge. I knew that I would not be able to attain the grades I needed and keep a balance with my other commitments if I continued at that rate.  So the following semester and for the remainder of my degree, I reduced my study load to three subjects. This increased the length of my degree from three years to four, however it allowed me to achieve a final grade point average of 6.75/7. Even though I strived to maintain a balance between my studies and my family commitments, the end was not going to come soon enough for my partner.

I can remember staring out of the window in the first lecture of my second year, listening to my professor telling us that we were second year students now and that things were about to become much more difficult. I fought the urge to get up and walk out. Things were already difficult for me. The idea of things getting harder was almost too much to bear. It was not that the work was difficult, but the life unfolding around it became a struggle. I had come so far, I could not give it up.

I had very little support from both friends and family. No one seemed to understand my passion let alone understand the importance of archaeology. I was told by friends and family that I should be studying something ‘useful’. Accountancy was one recommendation, ‘there’s money in that’, they would say, ‘at least that’s useful’. Statements like ‘she’ll never get a job’ and ‘archaeology, what a waste of time’ were also thrown around. Anyone who knows me well enough knows I am not a numbers person and I would not be a successful accountant. I was told I was too old and that I should have done it when I was 17. I was told I was being selfish and that I should be working in any kind of job to help bring money in. I was criticised and ridiculed and lost a number of friends. I tried to not care about what other people thought about me and my choices, but deep down the criticism and ridicule hurt. Humans generally strive to be accepted by the group or community and rejection is difficult for most. It is even more difficult to accept when it comes from one’s partner who is supposed to be a best friend, on your side and your soft place to land. It is difficult to describe how it makes one feel when someone whom you love dearly refers to your passion as ‘nonsense’. Why did no one understand me? Why was I expected to make such a sacrifice with my life, when we already enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle? I did not feel the need for a bigger house, fancier cars, more expensive wine and overseas holidays, particularly at the expense of me having a fulfilling career and job satisfaction. We spend so much of our lives working; surely we should try to make our work enjoyable. Was I wrong to feel this way? We only have one life. We don’t get another shot at it. We have to do what we feel we have to do. Whilst we need to be there for others, we need also to be there for ourselves. Again, I told myself ‘I have come so far, I must not give up.’

I was top of my class in historical archaeology. I was told as a student, I was one of the best critical thinkers my lecturer had seen. At the end of my Arts degree, with my high GPA, it was suggested that I enrol in the Honours programme. I would have a great career ahead of me. Without an Honours degree, it is all but impossible to gain employment as an archaeologist in Australia. So I signed up and a year later came out the other end with a first class Honours degree. I could have left it at that. However, I had the potential to take it further and complete a PhD. I figured that if I could get a scholarship, I could earn some extra money which might make everyone happier.  I also figured that I might as well take it as far as I can go. It would give me more options and open the doors to academia should I choose to go there, which otherwise would remain closed without a PhD. Jobs in archaeology in Australia at the time, even with an Honours degree were almost nonexistent due to the Global Financial Crisis, a lack of funding and a lack of Government graduate positions. I wrote a research proposal and was accepted with an APA scholarship for 3.5 years. Then the ‘fun’ really began.

The Holmes and Rahe stress scale is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness. Each stressful life event is allocated a score. A score of 300 or more presents a risk of illness.  I listed the stressful life events which I experienced during my PhD candidature and was shocked to learn that I had tallied a score of 606. Some of the more stressful events include: Death of a close family member; a change in health of a family member; marital separation; divorce; change in financial state; unemployment; foreclosure of mortgage or loan; change in residence; change in living conditions; change in schools; change in social activities; eating and sleeping habits and outstanding personal achievement. I had experienced all of the above plus some, all whilst trying to complete my PhD. Little wonder the score was 606.

Interestingly, undertaking a PhD is not included in the list of stressful life events - that’s an extra bonus and extra points. Neither is domestic violence nor euthanizing a long loved family pet – I need to add more points. I had witnessed the slow, physical and mental decline and ultimate death of my father who had only just retired. He had battled with diabetes for many years and a series of strokes lead to his reluctant admission to an aged care facility. Concurrently I witnessed my mother diagnosed with breast cancer and watched her struggle with chemotherapy and the traumatic loss of her hair. The whole family was in crisis. It was difficult to see the relevance and the importance of my PhD compared to these other life events. It paled in comparison to important things in life and I struggled to put it into perspective. I wondered why I was bothering with it. Where would it lead me? Was it all going to be worth it in the end?

Thankfully, I had already completed my fieldwork at this stage. Having to take time away from the family and spend a week in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth collecting data was incredibly stressful also. I was told by academic staff that it could not be done, that four weeks would not be sufficient to get the data required. I made sure that I did it in the time that I had and I came back with more data than I needed. My head was so full of emotion that I found it incredibly difficult to think let alone string words in any type of a coherent academic sentence. I didn’t visit my parents often during this period because it was incredibly traumatic. This created intense feelings of guilt. Was I being selfish again? Or was avoidance essential for myself preservation and survival? I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Between being a dutiful daughter and caring for my own well-being.

With a score of 606 on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale (not including the extra points), why was I not sick, really sick? In reality, I was. I was mentally ill. I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and suffering from depression. I felt like a rubber band stretched to the point of breaking. I wondered if this was the onset of a nervous breakdown. Not knowing what a nervous breakdown even felt like – how would I know? I decided I needed to see someone, and fast. I made an appointment with my GP who was visibly shocked when I explained everything that was happening in my life. I told him I was reluctant to take anti-depressants. I didn’t believe that I had any kind of chemical imbalance in my brain. He agreed that my depression was reactive and not clinical and that my physical and mental response to the stress was normal. Indeed, if I were not reacting in such a way, it would have been quite abnormal. It was of some comfort at least to know that I was ‘normal’, whatever that really means. He prescribed sleeping tablets so that I could at least get some sleep and referred me to a psychologist for counselling. The counselling did help somewhat. The Australian government provides up to 12 free sessions a year, although it is dependent upon the practitioner as to whether they are part of the scheme. I had my free sessions once a week, but then the practitioner no longer bulk billed and I could not afford to continue as my scholarship had ended. Finding find the time to continue was difficult also. In hindsight, I should have found a way, because things got much worse.

On the outside, for the most part, I looked fine. A little tired around the eyes and a little sad but nothing that a bit of makeup and a smile couldn’t hide. No one knew what was really going on inside. This is the insidious nature of depression. It is not always visible. Other than obvious changes in eating and sleeping habits my stress manifested in other quite dangerous ways. In order to stop myself feeling pain, guilt and anxiety, I became numb. My body was like stone. I built impenetrable walls around myself; I figured that way I couldn’t get hurt. It seemed every time I managed to pull a few bricks out and let my wall/guard down, I would be open to hurt and disappointed again and so the wall would go up even higher and thicker than before. My driving became erratic. My music was a little too loud, my foot a little too heavy and my judgement a little to inaccurate. I took risks. I was reckless. I made mistakes. I didn’t care. I drove tired. I could not focus. I could not control it. The only time I could control it was if I had passengers – precious cargo. If it was just me, it didn’t matter.

The fight or flight response in me was powerful. I just wanted to run as far away as I could yet I had nowhere to go, no way to run, all I could do was fight. Besides, I had a daughter and a family to care for. I could not just run away or crumble in the corner. I decided to put my big girl panties on and deal with my issues and my stress myself. Something in me snapped. I had to do something in order to survive. So I devised my own strategies to combat stress. I was my own therapist. I have always recognised the power of visualisation and meditation. I would perform mental exercises whenever I was faced with a challenge. I visualised my brain as a bulk storage facility, a type of filing cabinet, if you will. I identified each one of my problems and allocated a box for each. I had a head full of boxes. When I needed to work on my PhD, I would sit quietly and visualise slamming all the other boxes shut. I would visualise nailing each of those boxes shut using a very large hammer and several very thick nails. It was my way of burying my problems temporarily to enable me to address the most pressing. It was prioritising my thoughts, organising my mind. There were days when a box would fly open due to some trigger and I would be forced to deal with it at the time until I could nail it shut again. There were also days when all the boxes would fly open at once and I would be overwhelmed. It took great mental stamina to pick myself up after a good long cry, grab that hammer again, and nail those damn boxes shut. Repeating this process in my mind was mentally draining, but it was effective. Whenever I could, whenever I needed to, I would linger in a long hot bubble bath, sometimes for hours. I would pamper myself with a facemask, a pedicure and a manicure (although my nails were virtually nonexistent from anxious biting and picking). I would emerge a new woman. I would spend some quality time with my daughter doing silly things or I would bake, sometimes at midnight. These are simple, yet effective strategies. They worked for me, they may not work for others. We all have to find our own ways of coping. I am glad I didn’t resort to any form of substance abuse. I didn’t smoke, I rarely drank, my mind was in enough of a mess to not want to mess it up any more with substances.

In March 2012 my husband and I separated for the second time. We had tried counselling but there was just too much hurt, too much damage.  I did not believe that a leopard could change its spots. Of course, the ones who suffer the most in such situations are the children. I became acutely aware that I was not being the best Mum I could be for my daughter. She hated seeing me in the state I was in. Even she could see that it was not going to work. She just wanted her happy Mum back. That was going to take some time.

In April 2012, I received an email from my Advisor expressing his concern. I only troubled him when it was absolutely necessary and throughout the term of my candidature, we met on no more than six occasions. He believes that students must learn to be independent researchers and to stand on their own two feet. However, I could barely stand. I could barely pull myself out of bed. He had not heard from me for over 12 months, or I from him. I was working from home, or at least attempting to. I was called in for a ‘please explain’. There was pressure from the Graduate School and milestones to meet. There was a danger that if I did not progress, my candidature would be cancelled. They were getting tough on students. Considering my emotional state and the imminent death of my father, we agreed we needed to stop the clock and I took a six-month break.  I ensured, as difficult as it was at the time, that I did not leave my project in a state of disarray. I knew that if I did it would be even more difficult to pick it up again when I returned. I had my data and I knew what needed to be done when I was capable of doing it. The following month my Dad died. I was the only one present at his death. It was a cathartic experience for me when his suffering had finally ended. It was as if a great dark cloud had lifted. I literally had awoken the next day feeling lighter and like a different person. It was only then that I realised just how acutely the stress had borne down on me.

My wonderful desk at the School of Social Science,
University of Queensland
I recommenced my PhD in Oct 2012. I told myself yet again, ‘I have come so far, I cannot give up’. It was agreed that it would be better for me to go to Uni rather than work from home - less distractions, less isolation, more connections, a better environment. I was allocated a desk and had deadlines to meet. After an initial panic attack on my first day back (I actually forgot to breath and nearly passed out at my desk), I managed to pick up where I had left off. I started churning out the chapters one by one. I set myself a goal of writing 2000 words a week. At that point, I was going in to Uni three or four days a week. My advisor was astounded. He and several others had their doubts as to whether I would see it through to the end – who could blame them.  I was not about to be his first failed PhD student. I was not about to let him down. I also was not about to let the Uni down and more importantly I was not about to let my daughter or myself down. Her words ‘you can do it mummy’ will always ring in my ears.

I wanted to be finished by April. However that was unrealistic. I was over it, well and truly. We set a deadline for a full draft in early November 2013. I felt like an utterly exhausted runner in an 800 metre race, literally crawling to the finish line. I remember being incredibly excited when I had an actual full draft sitting on my desk. I also remember being completely astounded when twelve months later, to the day, I had a final draft. On the 5th of November 2014, the Dean of the Graduate School notified me that I had completed all the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy. After 6.5 years (11 years in total), it was finally over.

I used to look at people with doctorates and think, so what, big deal. They are only human. Yes, we are only human, however now that I know what is involved in wearing that floppy hat, I have far greater respect for the undertaking. I know I am not alone in the struggles I had endured during my journey. Anyone who has undertaken a PhD has endured some form of difficultly. It is not so much the nature of the research but rather it is the sustained nature of the task. Life keeps on happening. It will also keep throwing us curve balls, quite often when we least expect them. We have to try to deflect them as best as possible, any way we can. Better still; hit the damn things out of the ballpark. I felt like I was standing in front of a pitching machine.

I have been brutally honest here and I wonder if I have divulged a little too much. But this is my story, warts and all, and if sharing my experience helps anyone in anyway then I have achieved something. They say a PhD is a lonely road but it should not have this lonely. They say it is a difficult task but it should not have been this difficult. It is not that I found my project difficult, it came easily to me. I loved it and I never lost interest. I didn’t struggle with any aspect of it, I struggled with the life that unfolded around it.

Graduation day
Many people have asked me how I did it. I usually answer them by saying, ‘I don’t really know’. Then I explain some of the strategies that I adopted to help me cope. I have shared my experiences and strategies with a number of fellow students, in the hope that they may help should they face similar challenges throughout their candidature.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I should have continued with counselling. I should have fought the isolation and loneliness. I should not have retreated or built walls. I hope I am never again placed in a position where I feel it necessary to build walls around myself to protect me from anything or anyone. It is true that anything worth doing or having won’t come easily. It takes hard work, patience, perseverance and endurance not to mention Jedi level juggling skills.  It would have been nice for it to have been just a little easier, however the cards fall the way the cards fall. I have learned so much, not just about archaeology and the research process. I have leaned who my real friends are. I have lost friends and discovered new ones – friends who will be lifelong friends. I have learned to appreciate simple things in life, like sunlight on my skin, sand or mud between my toes and raindrops on my face – small things my father would have yearned for whilst laying immobile waiting to die. I have learned that money is necessary to survive but not as important as other things in life. I have learned much about myself. I have discovered what I am capable of and that I can be stronger than I ever imagined. I believe I have the ability to be able to deal with whatever life throws at me now.

I have no idea where I will be in five years time. I have always been one for planning and being prepared. I have no idea what awaits me, and that uncertainty scares me somewhat. I think it is best for me to view what lies ahead as an adventure rather than be fearful of the unknown. Finding employment in archaeology is the biggest challenge. I keep telling myself as does everyone around me, ‘something will come up’. In the meantime, I am working on building a publication record and as I write this, my first publication is in press with plans for more in the not too distant future. I am ready to begin the next phase or stage of my life.

In conclusion, I would like to offer some thoughts for anyone considering undertaking a PhD in archaeology or indeed in any field. Firstly, if you have the passion and you have the opportunity, take it – regret is a bitch. Secondly, do not suffer alone – get support wherever you can and don’t be afraid to admit that you need help. Thirdly, do not ride on the shirttails or lab coat of an academic who has a pet project and needs research done and who may offer you a topic on a platter – choose your own. Be passionate about it. If you don’t you run the risk of losing interest when faced with adversity, and that will make the task almost unbearable. I know that if I had lost interest, I would have struggled even more to complete it. Finally and at the risk of sounding cliché, grab life by the horns and pull with all your might. We only get one chance at it and it is over all too soon. Do whatever you feel you need to do to make it count.

Me getting my butt rather dirty at the Ageston Plantation Archaeological Project,
Alberton, Queensland, Australia

Some time ago, Robert invited me to write a piece about my experiences or indeed about anything relating to archaeology to share on his blog. I figured it would be best to wait until my PhD was over and then reflect on my experience. As I recall, mental health and depression amongst archaeologists has been a theme previously featured on Robert’s blog. I wish to thank Robert for the opportunity to share my story on his blog. If it serves to perhaps inspire, encourage or help even one person, it can only be a good thing.

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