Skills Shortage! Or The Replicator’s Conceit

Experimental archaeology has run as a thread throughout my postgraduate studies, and I’ve conducted a number of different types of experiments on Pleistocene hunting weapons. Something that was clear early on in designing my experiments is that we have a present-day skills shortage in terms of how humans used early hunting spears.

Once upon a time I was a professional violinist, and it always amused (read: annoyed) me when people assumed that being in a professional orchestra wasn’t that difficult. Typically it would be a middle-aged businessman joking at a post-concert dinner, but it also often arises in public commentary regarding orchestras on strike. I started violin at age 4, and practiced and rehearsed most days, building up to 3 to 5 hours per day during my teenage years, and significantly more at university. I probably under-practiced compared to many of my peers. Those years of study didn’t just involve technical proficiency but also performance experience, theoretical and historical underpinnings, listening to recordings, going to concerts, and much more – in other words technical skill was a big component, but it was also highly socially and culturally conditioned. I know this isn’t relatable to Palaeolithic technologies, but I think having had a job that was founded in two decades of investment in embodied skill and experience made me approach experimental archaeological replication studies with a dose of skepticism.

To Re-search

We design research to create new data, but we also re-search what others have said to understand foundations of theories and models. My first ‘whhaaaat?’ moment doing my own first original research project was about the estimates for hand-thrown spear velocities. I was trying to replicate Gravettian tanged points as hand-delivered spear points and needed good velocity data. What were the estimates based on? It turns out they were mostly based on archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists throwing stuff.

For example, Calvin Howard conducted an experiment (Howard, 1974) to evaluate spearthrower (atlatl) performance. In that context spearthrower darts were also thrown by hand, which were then used to estimate throwing velocities of hand-thrown spears/javelins (Hughes, 1998). But…who did the throwing? According to Howard, ‘Thrower “A” is the writer and thrower “B” is his 18 year old son.’ And this is just one example! Many other studies involve students and authors as spear thrusters and throwers. Steven Churchill (1993) admits that our understanding of hand-delivered spears is based on unskilled use:

“There is very little mention of the accuracy of this weapon in the ethnographic literature, although there is ample evidence from experimental research that it is an inaccurate weapon in the hands of anthropologists.”

Ethnographic literature shows that in spear-using societies, use-training began early in childhood and formed a significant part of the ‘education’ of male children (Bourke, 1890; Davies, 1846; Hart & Pilling, 1960), something also seen in societies using bow/arrows for hunting (Figure 1). Amongst the Chabu in Ethiopia, children learn to use spears as young as 6 years old through play and direct experience (Dira & Hewlett, 2016). Neurological studies show us that important developments in relation to fine motor skills need to take place in childhood (which is why you can’t just pick up classical instruments in your late teens and head for a professional path). You must lay down foundational sensorimotor coordination throughout childhood.

Figure 1. Hadza hunters, Lake Eyasi, Tanzania Photo Credit: Woodlouse [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Do studies based on use by researchers whose work and skills are primarily desk-based, and who have relatively little if any experience using spears, let alone equivalent decades of motor skills and experience actually tell us much? I would argue that even a few months of throwing practice does not begin to approximate years of socially embedded work-themed play and learning.

The Replicator’s Conceit

Still, too often we are seeing research where authors themselves replicate spears without discussion as to their training (or lack thereof) or any external validation of skill level, and rarely with an acknowledgement that their skill may be limited in comparison with humans who subsist(ed) through hunting with traditional weapons. I’m a small person with no weapon training and a history of shoulder injuries and yet I am frequently asked by archaeologists whether I participate in my own experiments. What would that tell us? That a small, injury-prone, unskilled person doesn’t throw very well.

I don’t think we see this kind of conceit as often in relation to prehistoric skills that are replicated more frequently than spear use. A Bronze Age sword replicator recently commented in the Must Farm documentary that although he’s the best there is, his replicas aren’t a match for Bronze Age craftspeople. Stone tool knappers also often explore the implications of their limitations:

        “…we cannot determine how challenging or difficult producing a stone-tool type or using a particular production technique would have been to a prehistoric knapper, who, unlike modern knappers, may have spent his or her life making and using stone tools, may have started learning at a much different (likely younger) age, and may have been surrounded by teachers or peers who had already learned the “trick” necessary to achieve production success…Thus, caution and restraint should be exercised when it comes to specific proposals about a prehistoric person’s stone-tool production learning trajectory, perception, specialization, or skill mastery.”                                                                – Eren et al., 2016

Perhaps one reason behind this difference is that replicators of objects can visually analyse how their work compares with artefacts, whereas use is harder to ‘see’.

Later prehistoric weapon studies, such as those on spearthrowers, are also having interesting discussions about the significance of training, age, physique, gender, and weapon design in relation to performance (Whittaker & Kamp, 2006; Whittaker, Pettigrew, & Grohsmeyer, 2017). We must think carefully about estimates of spears based on unskilled or limited skill use, and what this might mean about current models about the evolution of human hunting. I worked towards this in my doctoral research, using trained javelin athletes, military personnel and martial arts specialists to evaluate spear performance. None of these groups are perfect proxies but it’s a start, providing comparative datasets of groups of humans, which can begin to build a large-scale picture of relationships between skill, human variability and performance. Others have also recognised these problems, with new and exciting research involving skilled users. I can point in particular to research on Neanderthal spears by Alice La Porta, as well as by Gaudzinski-Windheuser and colleagues as examples of good practice regarding replicating hand-delivered spears with skilled participants. Together this new spate of research helps us appreciate the significance of skill and experience and to re-evaluate controlled experimental setups. Hopefully such work begins to undo some of the damage we’ve done in underestimating the skills of people in the past.


Bourke, J. G. (1890). Vesper Hours of the Stone Age. American Anthropologist, 3(1), 55–64.

Churchill, S. E. (1993). Weapon Technology, Prey Size Selection, and Hunting Methods in Modern Hunter-Gatherers: Implications for Hunting in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 4(1), 11–24.

Davies, R. H. (1846). On the aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land. Tasmanian Journal, January, 409–412.

Dira, S. J., & Hewlett, B. S. (2016). Learning to Spear Hunt Among Ethiopian Chabu Adolescent Hunter-Gatherers. In Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers (Vol. 15, pp. 71–81). Tokyo: Springer Japan.

Eren, M. I., Lycett, S., Patten, R. J., Buchanan, B., Pargeter, J., & O’Brien, M. J. (2016). Test, Model, and Method Validation: The Role of Experimental Stone Artifact Replication in Hypothesis-driven Archaeology. Ethnoarchaeology, 8(2), 103–136.

Hart, C. W. M., & Pilling, A. R. (1960). The Tiwi of North Australia. New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston.

Howard, C. D. (1974). The atlatl: function and performance. American Antiquity, 102–104.

Hughes, S. S. (1998). Getting to the point: evolutionary change in prehistoric weaponry. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 5(4), 345–408.

Whittaker, J. C., & Kamp, K. A. (2006). Primitive Weapons and Modern Sport: Atlatl Capabilities, Learning, Gender, and Age. Plains Anthropologist, 51(198), 213–221.

Whittaker, J. C., Pettigrew, D. B., & Grohsmeyer, R. J. (2017). Atlatl Dart Velocity: Accurate Measurements and Implications for Paleoindian and Archaic Archaeology. PaleoAmerica, 3(2), 161–181.

What’s in a name? Defining prehistoric weaponry

I have researched Palaeolithic weapons for almost 10 years and (miraculously) I still love writing and talking about them. I’ve written up some basics below on prehistoric weaponry, including some definitions, classifications, and a few archaeological ‘firsts’. But I want to think very briefly first why we need these definitions and classifications.

We use definitions to make our communication simpler but I don’t know whether Palaeolithic hunters would have been overly concerned with our debates about thrusting versus throwing spears, or ‘simple’ versus ‘complex’ projectiles. For one thing we see among contemporary hunter-gatherer groups that these distinctions may not be that meaningful because they often use the same weapon in multiple ways (for example using the same weapon thrown by hand or thrust into prey, depending on the situation).  On the other hand, certain innovations may have had profound implications for successful and reliable hunting, which would have been especially significant in colonising northern regions. Another thing we like to do in weaponry studies is create classifications not just by delivery method or by size and shape, but also in linear stages of simplicity —> complexity. Again, such a classification system might be useful for us as researchers, but for Palaeolithic people, who probably often used multiple systems side by side, these taxonomies can be problematic for how we interpret the archaeological record. I will save an in-depth debate on the utility of and problems with these models for another post, but for now it’s enough to say that these terms are useful, but have their limitations.

Weapon types

Thrusting spear: also called ‘lance’. A weapon with a pointed business end, used as a contact weapon to penetrate prey without leaving the hand. They can be as simple as a shaped wooden stave, have carved barbs, hafted barbs, hafted stone, bone or metal points. The earliest thrusting spear is generally thought to be the Clacton spear point, which is a robust broken fragment of what is understood to have been a much longer weapon. The Clacton spear dates to 400,000 years ago and can be seen in the Natural History Museum. Other candidates for early thrusting spears include ‘Lance VI’ from Schöningen (Germany) dating to around 300,000 years ago, and the Leheringen ‘lance’ (also Germany), dating to around 125,000 years ago. Indirect evidence is in the form of damage to the bones of prey such as those from the Neanderthal site of Neumark-Nord (Germany), and stone points such as those from a site in South Africa with dates as early as 500,000 years ago.

The Clacton spear point, dating to around 400,000 years ago. © Annemieke Milks
Me at work
Throwing spear experiments from my PhD (sometimes they break)

Throwing spear: also called ‘javelin’ or ‘hand-thrown spear’. A spear that is eithersingle or double-pointed, and is thrown by hand, without the aid of any mechanical enhancement. Throwing spears are generally heavier than spearthrower darts, but this can vary from fairly lightweight spears such as those thrown by Aboriginal Tasmanians to very heavy spears, such as those thrown by the Tiwi. Like the thrusting spears, they can have many different types of points. Because most of the Schöningen spears (mentioned above) are double pointed, and at least some have their point of balance in the front, they have been suggested to have been designed for throwing. Not everyone agrees on this interpretation of the Schöningen spears, but I have done experimental work with replicas showing that they certainly do fly (coming soon!).


Spearthrower: also called ‘atlatl’ and ‘woomera’. A spearthrower is a stick which has a hook or a cup at the end which is held in the hand and used to propel a spear. The spears that are thrown by spearthrowers are usually called ‘darts’, and are often light in weight and fletched. The system works as a lever, which is different from a bow and arrow. The first direct evidence of spearthrowers come from sites in Europe, dating to the middle of the Upper Palaeolithic, around 19,000 years ago (find a great summary of early examples here). Much has been written about the spearthrower by specialists, and you can even take part in competitions! Here’s a list of some articles where you can read more about spearthrowers.

An_Ornately_Carved_Atlatl (1)
A carved spearthrower. Photo by Jennifer R. Trotter CC BY-SA 4.0,


Bow and arrows: Like a spearthrower, this is a projectile that uses stored energy in the bow to propel an arrow, but in this case the potential energy is created using a spring (the string of the bow). Arrows can be simple pointed wooden shafts, or tipped with any number of materials including bone, stone and metal. The first direct evidence is from Stellmoor in Germany, dating to around 10,000 years ago and was unfortunately destroyed during World War II. But stone points from a site in South Africa may indicate the use of bow and arrows as far back as 71,000 years ago. Here’s an interesting article on innovations in bow and arrow technologies over time.

Stellmoor arrow fragment. Rust 1943


Throwing sticks and boomerangs: Throwing sticks can be straight or curved (which is why they aren’t all ‘boomerangs’). Based on use by recent hunter-gatherers and foragers they are generally thought to be used to kill small prey including rabbits and birds. Thrown by hand, they fly by being spun along the long axis. The earliest straight throwing stick may be one of the many wooden artefacts from Schöningen in Germany, dating to around 300,000 BP. The earliest examples of boomerangs come from the site of Wyrie Swamp in Australia, and date much later, to about 12-10,000 years ago.

Wyrie Swamp
Fragment of a boomerang from Wyrie Swamp, Australia. © Annemieke Milks


Weapon delivery systems

Contact weapons, as opposed to ranged weapons, are a significant component of human weaponry. Contact weapons make contact between the person holding the weapon and a target, without letting go of the weapon. They can be intended for penetration or blunt-force trauma. They were often used to dispatch prey that has already been wounded or otherwise disadvantaged, and frequently functioned as melee weapons in collective violence. Contact weapons include:

  • thrusting spears (‘lances’)
  • clubs
  • pikes
  • axes
  • knives

Simple projectile weapons are those that ‘do not involve exosomatic energy storage…launched at targets with unassisted bodily force’ (Shea & Sisk 2010a; Shea & Sisk 2010b). This category includes

  • hand-thrown spears (javelins)
  • throwing sticks and boomerangs

Complex projectile weapons are ‘composite, multi-part tools where human energy is mechanically enhanced or stored by a non-projectile part’ (Shea & Sisk 2010a; Shea & Sisk 2010b) and include:

  • Spearthrowers/darts (atlatl)
  • Bow and arrows
  • Slings

Weapon Manufacture

Composite weapons are those that have multiple parts. For example, a wooden shaft for a spear that is tipped with a stone point, using some sort of binding and/or glue. As opposed to an untipped wooden or ivory spear, such weapons have many components and creating them requires different levels of technological know-how. Spears, darts, and arrows can all be as simple as a shaped piece of wood, or with barbs carved into the wood. Or they can be very complex with hafted stone points, bone or ivory points or barbs, microliths (tiny pieces of stone), metal, and even things such as sting ray spines and shells. 

I will talk in another post about additional methods and materials for hunting including nets, traps, and poisons.

Further reading

Knecht, H. (Ed.). (1997). Projectile Technology. New York: Plenum Press.

Iovita, R., & Sano, K. (Eds.). (2016). Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Stone Age Weaponry (Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology Series). Cham, Switz: Springer.

Cartmill, M. (1993). A view to a death in the morning : hunting and nature through history. Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press.

Thieme, H. (1997). Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature, 385, 807–810.


  1. Rust, A. 1943.Die alt- und mittelsteinzeitlichen Funde von Stellmoor. Karl Wachholtz Verlag, Neumünster.
  2. Shea, J. & Sisk, M. 2010a. Complex projectile technology and Homo sapiens dispersal into western Eurasia. PaleoAnthropology, 2010, pp.100-122.
  3. Shea, J. & Sisk, M. 2010b. Letters to the Editor: Defining complex projectile technology: a reply to Whittaker. PaleoAnthropology, 2010, 1.


Tiwi throwing spears

For better or for worse (a bit of both I think), ethnographic research and ethnohistoric accounts have played an important role in how we have interpreted the archaeological signatures that people from the past have left behind. This is nowhere more true than the study of how recent hunter-gatherer groups have manufactured, curated, and used weaponry for hunting and violence. Such evidence has featured heavily in understanding changes in weapons and hunting throughout human evolution, though more recently ethnographic sources have been used to form overviews of hunting weapons and strategies, and these have been used in turn to uphold models of large scale change over time.

In this post I want examine one particular aspect of how reference to ethnographic literature has affected how we model hunting and weapons in human evolution. Usually discussions pertaining to hand-throwing spears that refer to the ethnographic record focus on the Tasmanians, who threw relatively light and very long spears by hand. An analysis of various groups who threw spears suggests that the Tasmanians were the only group to throw at significant distances and that overall hand-thrown spears are only effective up to about 8 meters away from prey1. In this post I want to discuss another group of Indigenous Australians – the Tiwi – who are less often featured in arguments about the role of throwing in our deeper past, and also about whom erroneous statements have been made 1,2.

The Tiwi are a group of Indigenous Australians who inhabit the Tiwi Islands on the northern coast of Australia (Figure 1). Together these islands, including the largest two of Melville Island (Yermalner in Tiwi) and Bathurst Island, cover 8,320 square kilometers consisting mainly of open woodlands, savannah, and rainforest and have a tropical monsoonal climate.

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Figure 1. Map of the Tiwi Islands.

The Tiwi were famously resistant to colonization, and unlike the Aboriginal Tasmanians retain total control of their islands to this day. Their spears were clearly lethal weapons: with them the Tiwi provided themselves with terrestrial and marine food resources, solved interpersonal disputes, and lethally wounded would-be colonizers3,4. As someone who researchers early weaponry, I’m interested in their spears for two reasons. First the Tiwi traditionally only used hand-delivered spears, having had no mechanically-projected weapons such as the spearthrower or bow and arrow 5,6. Therefore their skills in spear throwing — both for hunting and for human-human violence — probably best reflect what humans are capable of in the absence of other weapon systems. Second, unlike the Tasmanian weapons, their spears were large and heavy. My doctoral research focused on the earliest spears, including complete examples from the 300,000 year old site of Schöningen in Germany 7,8. These look to have been relatively thick, and some have suggested their heavy mass would place significant limits on their effectiveness as flight weapons. Therefore the Tiwi spears give us an interesting reference point to try and understand whether there is a weight limit for throwing spears by hand.

Until the arrival of colonizers the Tiwi did not use other materials such as stone or bone to tip weapons9. Instead they used both plain wooden spears and carved barbed spears, with the barbs carved into the wood shaft rather than being attached with hafting materials. Elaborate and painted Tiwi spears were typically used ceremonially, while simpler spears were functional4,10. Although I had read about their unbarbed hunting spears, unfortunately I couldn’t find any examples in the stores of the museums I worked in during my doctoral studies, mainly because museum collections are biased towards more elaborate and colourful objects. So I was thrilled to see an example (Figure 2) on display at the South Australian Museum, confirming their existence. Number 5 in the display case (the darkest spear) is the business end of a Tiwi plain wooden spear.

Tiwi spears.jpg
         Figure 2. Case of spears in the South Australian Museum. Number 5 (the dark one) is a Tiwi spear.  Image by A. Milks
Figure 3. Antilopine kangaroo (Macropus antilopinus) Image credit: By Howard Cheng – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Tiwi hunted and fished for many different sizes and types of prey including kangaroo, dugong (Figures 3 and 4), and even saltwater crocodiles, although the anthropologist  Jane Goodale, who studied the Tiwi way of life, remarked that the latter were hunted with metal-pronged spears and that it wasn’t clear what was used to hunt crocodiles prior to contact with colonisers.

Figure 4. Dugong (Dugong dugon Image credit: By Geoff Spiby /, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In the early 1900s the biologist and anthropologist W. Baldwin Spencer, staged a throwing competition in which nine Tiwi men took part 10. Spencer chose the 3.2 meter long spear – which weighed a whopping 1814 grams – because it was average in terms of size and weight. (As a reference point, male Olympic javelins weigh 800 grams, and are between 2.6 and 2.7 metres). This heavy mass is corroborated by another source writing that spears were as long as 4.5 meters and weighed up to 2700 grams 5. The Tiwi managed throws of over 40 meters in Spencer’s ‘experiment’ (Figure 4) although they were not throwing to hit a target. Goodale noted that the Tiwi got as close as possible to prey when hunting with spears, a tactic that would be useful for any weapon in a hunting scenario, because the closer you are the easier it is to hit the prey with a good shot. But another source estimated accuracy distances by the Tiwi – those from which they can hit a target – as being up to about 50 meters 3.

Spencer 1914.jpg
Figure 5. Tiwi spear throwing competition, staged by anthropologist W. Baldwin Spencer. Original caption reads: Natives throwing spears on Melville Island. In Spencer 1914, p.365.   Public Domain

Especially with heavy spears the fitness and skill built over years of learning to throw must have been a significant factor in hunting success. Given the combined sources I’ve discussed in this post, I expect the reality of the accuracy distances of Tiwi spears was probably less than 50 meters, but greater than the proposed limit of 8 meters for hand-thrown spears1. The variation in throwing distance estimates of the Tiwi provides an excellent example of why we need to use ethnographic sources with caution, and read and cite widely wherever possible. The Tiwi provide a fascinating glimpse into the potential for hand-thrown spears, including very heavy ones, to be effective and lethal distance weapons.


  1. Churchill, S. E. Weapon Technology, Prey Size Selection, and Hunting Methods in Modern Hunter-Gatherers: Implications for Hunting in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association ? 4, 11–24 (1993).
  2. Churchill, S. E. & Rhodes, J. A. in The Evolution of Hominin Diets (eds. Hublin, J.-J. & Richards, M. P.) 201–210 (Springer, 2009).
  3. Morris, J. Relationship between the British and the Tiwi in the vicinity of Port Dundas, Melville Island. Historical Society of the Northern Territory (1964).
  4. Hart, C. W. M. & Pilling, A. R. The Tiwi of North Australia. (Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1960).
  5. Basedow, H. Notes On The Natives Of Bathurst Island, North Australia. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 43, 291–321 (1913).
  6. Davidson, D. S. Australian Spear-traits and Their Derivations. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 43, 41–72 (1934).
  7. Thieme, H. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807–810 (1997).
  8. Schoch, W. H., Bigga, G., Böhner, U., Richter, P. & Terberger, T. New insights on the wooden weapons from the Paleolithic site of Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89, 214–225 (2015).
  9. Goodale, J. C. Tiwi Wives: a study of the women of Melville Island, North Australia. (Prospect Heights III, 1971).
  10. Spencer, W. B. Native tribes of the Northern territory of Australia. (Macmillan and Co., 1914).

Normalising ‘Doctor mummy’

A few years into my PhD I read a post by a researcher whose blog I enjoy. He was finishing his own doctorate, and in the post suggested that during a PhD a healthy work-life balance and successful relationships are nearly impossible. This bore little resemblance to my own experience, which involved undertaking a PhD while having a young child.

Fast-forward a few years: while my osteopath fixed my back – wrecked from the final weeks of writing up – he offered me his opinion that ‘PhD’, when undertaken by a married woman, stands for ‘Pretty hasty Divorce’. I was affronted by his misogyny, but it also got me wondering if these two opinions were somehow related.

I certainly wouldn’t accuse the researcher of being sexist, but if we promote the idea that healthy relationships are incompatible with undertaking research, this discourages any primary carer of a child from even applying. Mothers being fulfilled by full time work, whose children are happy and whose needs are met is not exactly news, so why did so many say to me ‘I don’t know how you do it…’?

My daughter was two when I started my ‘Theseus’, as she sweetly calls it. She’d never remembered anything else, and apart from the final crazy months, always took my work for granted. For several weeks after completion she told anyone who would listen about ‘doctor mummy’. I was fortunate enough to have a studentship, which covered childcare costs while I researched full time. My partner works abroad most of the year and although the sole parenting I did during those periods was challenging, when he was home he did lots of chores and childcare. He also read my thesis several times over, acting as my editor throughout. From the beginning I committed to treating the PhD as a full time job: no less, and no more. This meant 40-hour workweeks, regular family holidays in line with university staff allowances, and no working in evenings or weekends (until the final push at the end).

I did my best. Among other things throughout the doctorate I published, taught, spoke at multiple international conferences, travelled abroad several times for data collection, and ran an experimental programme collaborating with colleagues from multiple universities. I’m not pretending it was easy, especially as I had no family nearby to help, but I enjoyed it. I want to encourage others so here are some personal suggestions based on my experience that may be helpful.

  1. Think carefully about your supervisors. Will they be supportive of your life? Both of mine have children, and I knew them well enough to be sure they’d be understanding and would trust me. The same went for lecturers I was teaching for. I was always up front about scheduling limitations and they went out of their way to accommodate me.
  2. Work efficiently. I’m fortunate that during my training as a professional musician (my first career) I had my entire childhood to learn how to commit regularly to deeply focused and structured work. I firmly believe that just putting in more hours doesn’t result in better work, but making a consistent commitment to uninterrupted work has positive results. If you begin work and can’t concentrate try the timed method, maybe with shorter periods. Consider setting timers with regular breaks (I like 50 minutes work, 10 minutes break for a series of 3 to 4 hours, then a longer rest). Try a self-control app if you gravitate towards online distractions. Or, get outside and work in motion: I often used walks to hash out an idea or practice a presentation. If you’re still not doing good work, shift your goals for that day to easy tasks – the focus will return another time (and indeed save these jobs where possible for such times). I’ve almost finished reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and was intrigued to find some of my own good habits in there (though I normally hate self-help and rules-based books, and agree with those who think social media is an important feature of science communication and academia). I also totally agreed with Kelly Dombroski’s point of view on how Newport’s book should better reflect women who are carers.
  3. Connection is still important. Because a commute to the university involved hours on Southern Fail, I was not as present in the department as most research students and worked a lot from home. On the one hand the total quiet this afforded (as opposed to noisy research rooms) meant days free of distraction, with the isolation a pragmatic sacrifice. But feeling connected to others helps when you derail. I cultivated a small but reliable base of colleagues for advice, feedback, and (very) occasionally going out. In my PhD cohort was a brilliant researcher who had a baby younger than mine and who paused to have another in the middle, and this helped me remember I wasn’t the only one.
  4. Be discerning. In general I didn’t do as many ‘extras’ as I could have without family commitments (and of course I worry that this means I haven’t done ‘enough’ to secure work in the next stage). Things sometimes felt important because other research students were doing them, but I tried to remember they were a draw on my time, energy and focus. Prioritise with a hard, cold eye and say no to time-suckers, but yes to things that may lead to important connections or work.
  5. Don’t let the workaholics get you down. Be the tortoise: win your own personal race, and filter out competitive noise. They don’t award you a ‘PhD, with a special distinction for working the most hours’. Most people grossly overestimate how many hours they work anyway.
  6. Share your vulnerabilities. I wasn’t sleeping for the first year because we still had interrupted nights so the exhaustion was tricky. I also had periods of self-doubt. One of the worst came towards the end of my doctorate before a trip abroad for last minute data collection. I burst into tears in front of colleagues and my supervisor at a conference reception, and their response was amazing. I have no regrets sharing my anxieties along the way with anyone who would listen. The best colleagues are human and want to help.
  7. Take shortcuts. Whatever makes your life easier and calmer, just do it and don’t feel guilty.
  8. Celebrate leading a balanced life (live the life you want now). A work-life balance involving healthy relationships is not only possible, I believe it is beneficial to mental health and therefore to your work. Spending time with family, relaxing, being physically active, and having fun all contribute to our ability to make important connections, have ideas, and focus. Holidays provide the mind with much-needed long breaks – some of my ‘Eureka!’ moments came when I was on holiday and not sitting at the computer. Doing a PhD is an ultramarathon: pace yourself and stay energised.

The above are only my ideas and experiences – I’m sure others vary, and I’d love to hear them. Like most researchers, I am highly motivated and struggle with perfectionism, so having a child to love and care for kept the PhD in perspective. I’m not suggesting that my situation is the same as others or that my ideas will work for everyone. But if you hear someone (or that little voice in your head) telling you that you can’t – or that they can’t – undertake and finish a doctorate while being a parent, I hope this offers a different framework.