Researching with Challenges: Disruptions at Home

Editor’s note: this article, published in 2015, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

This week at Thesislink we are talking about some of the non-academic challenges that postgrad students can face during their degrees. Check back here each day for discussions on dealing with parenting responsibilities, financial stress, illness & disability, and disruptions at home.

It’s entirely possible that some postgraduate researchers have immaculate home environments, where they are never disturbed, nobody in their household ever needs anything or has feelings, where their computers are powerful and infallible, where their library books are never overdue, there’s a housekeeper to take care of the vacuuming, and their cats never knock over their coffee mugs near their keyboards.

It’s possible, but not likely.

Most of us have some degree of disruption at home – whether it’s chores piling up, flatmates practicing the drums at 2am, or a spouse or family member in need of attention.

At the very least, things things can be a drain on our time and energy. Fun anecdote: last Sunday I had planned to write. Instead, some drunken moron  pulled my building’s fire alarm at 2am, and I got to spend much of the morning standing out on the street in my pyjamas.

fire alarm
Our alarm has since been relabelled: “PULL DOWN (unless you’re just drunk and bored, you $&@*).”

At the more serious end of the scale, disruptions at home can cause emotional upheaval and destroy any ability to concentrate. Family problems, legal troubles, or a broken relationship can take away so much more than time. Problems that big can cause extreme stress and grief, and they can make research seem impossible. In fact, a longitudinal study of students leaving their university programmes found that over 30% cited personal or family problems as a contributing factor (Wintre, Bowers, Gordner, & Lange, 2006, p.121). Even the best, most capable students will have trouble succeeding if there is too much weight on their shoulders.

So, whether you’re dealing with annoyances at home or major upheavals, what can you do?

Find the quiet

Never underestimate the power of earplugs. Noise-cancelling headphones playing classical music are great too.

But even with the best noise-beating gear, it’s not always feasible to work at home. I learned this early in my doctorate when I lived with my punk rock-loving sister. Fortunately, in New Zealand, we have public libraries and parks in every suburb. And at AUT, we have three campus libraries, plus postgraduate study rooms in many schools and at the University Postgraduate Centre. Check here for a list of student spaces on each campus.

Build your ideal workspace on campus

If you are an AUT doctoral student, you are entitled to the appropriate physical spaces required for your work. It’s even enshrined in the postgraduate handbook:

In addition to project resources, the University makes a commitment to support doctoral students by providing the following: … (2) An appropriately equipped working/quiet study/writing/shared office space… In the case of laboratory and experimental subjects: adequate bench space, routine/basic consumables needed for the research, technical support and supervision for the use and maintenance of instrumentation. In the case of creative practice areas: access to adequate studio space. (AUT Postgraduate Handbook 2015, p. 24).

If you don’t have that kind of space now, talk to your faculty postgraduate staff. All faculty postgrad contact people are listed here.

Once you’ve got your workspace sorted, make it comfortable and distraction-proof. Fill desk drawers with fuzzy slippers, blankets, snacks, and ear plugs (see above). Set up your preferred writing software with a distraction-free editing function (check out our previous post here for info on these). Make sure the lighting is right. Then enjoy your personalised workspace.


If you’re experiencing a serious life event that will affect your work, talk to your supervisor. It may feel strange to tell your academic advisor about non-academic problems, but if your work is affected, then your supervisor will want to know.

There are Student Advisors on all campuses who can talk with you about academic and personal issues, and who will direct you to the relevant service to help you with whatever problems you’re facing.

You can also talk to an experienced counsellor for free, either face-to-face or online, by contacting an AUT Health, Counselling and Wellbeing centre. Check their website for contact details.

Set forgiving schedules

When you’re planning your research progress, take into account that not every day will be a productive day. There will be set-backs. There will be disruptions. There will be good weeks and bad weeks and bumps in the road. A bad week isn’t the end of the world; even a bad year doesn’t make you a failure as a researcher.

If you like to plan your research, build some flexibility in to your plans. Make sure that if you don’t finish Chapter Three on August 1st, you can adjust your plans. Remember: researchers are allowed to be human, and unproductive spells are normal.

Take time out

When life knocks you down, it might be advisable to take some time out. Perhaps giving yourself a mental health day will help – we all need a good cry under the covers from time to time. If some time off helps you to return to research refreshed and focused, then it’s well worth taking.

Source cited:

Wintre, M. G., Bowers, C., Gordner, N., & Lange, L. (2006). Re-evaluating the university attrition statistic: A longitudinal follow-up study. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21(2), 111-132. DOI: 10.1177/0743558405285658. 

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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