My PhD oral defence is in nine days, four hours and 31 minutes. I have an app on my phone telling me so.
The work is done and it’s nearly all over… a wonderfully surreal time for a learning-obsessed person like me, and a good time to reflect. Here I’ll share my current ideas on what success means for a 37-year-old engineer/psychologist and how it relates to the superpowers of successful women.
The first superpower of successful women is the ability to say no. Easier said than done perhaps, but I think saying no sits more comfortably with women who are honest about the limits of their energy. When we take on too much, we can get it done, but there’s always a cost. In a previous role, a woman I worked with took on a lot and would sometimes stare at her computer screen and endless to-do list and sigh “I’m just so bored of this work”. After discussion we concluded that wasn’t bored, but tired. Reward comes from doing your best work, but you can’t do your best work when you’re tired. The hours in the day easiest to sacrifice are sleep, and I believe we lose perspective on the power of sleep all too easily (particularly when we are tired…there’s a catch 22)
The second superpower, a la Ocean’s Eight, is having a support network. Find other women with a brain and a voice, and become friends with them. The older we all get, the more useful it is to know others with a wide range of social, family and career experiences so that we can share and learn together. Negotiating (and sticking to) part-time working hours can be tricky. Taking time off work to be with a sick parent can be really tough. Knowing how to find a new working role or how to engage with industry groups can be fraught with unwritten rules, many of which are there to be broken- but the stronger your network, the more confidence you’ll have to trust your (informed) opinions and keep moving forward.
The greatest superpower of all is the ability to define success for ourselves. If we can own success as subjectively defined, we transcend other people’s definitions of who we should be and what we should be chasing. When I started my current job we had an induction day, part of which was dedicated to defining our own values, and to trade them off against each other until we could list our top three. Mine were integrity, family, and number one: peace of mind. Clearly, these and other values interrelate, but it’s helpful to know what you think you stand for when you need to make decisions. If I need to decide whether to forego collecting my child from school so that I can attend an “important” meeting, only I can know how that action will affect my peace of mind.
Looking back on my career to date, it’s the feeling of control over those decisions that makes me feel successful. I’ve spoken at conferences and travelled and done rewarding work, but I’ve also watched my kid come 37th in cross country and share his writing with his classmates, and I’ve made those choices on my own terms. So to me – and the point here is that it’s different for everyone – success is having the energy and confidence to make my own micro and macro decisions about how I live my days and direct my career. I decide for myself how I will plan my week, how much “intentional free time” I will enjoy. I don’t need to have something else in my diary to say no to social events, because I know how much energy I want to have when I wake up on Saturday morning. And as I grow I’m always learning how those choices impact on my family, my relationships and (therefore) my inner peace.
One of my PhD supervisors, Professor Nicola Starkey, is a life and career role model for me. We were discussing my oral examination last week and I told her I’m worried that I’ll get nervous and start talking off-topic. “Bridget, don’t worry. I’ll sit next to you and kick you under the table if you do that.” And she will, you know: because she knows when to say no, and the power of the support network. We are all superwomen, all in this together.
Bridget Burdett is a Chartered Professional Engineer and a Principal Researcher at Stantec in Hamilton. She passed her PhD oral examination this month and will graduate with a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Waikato in December. Her thesis title is “Mind wandering during everyday driving”. She lives in Hamilton with her husband and their ten-year-old son.