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https://happyseptember.wordpress.com/wikileaks/

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Well, I don’t know how much the ideal of using PhDs as a force for peaceful change in the world can be translated into reality. Some of the challenges facing academic researchers today are pretty tough:

  • Cuts in state research funding stemming from wider austerity measures
  • Cuts in state teaching funding, ditto above
  • Hence even more increased competitiveness in research council, private sector, and non-profit organisation research funding
  • Hence marginalisation of ‘blue skies’ research and increased focus on hypothesis-driven, certain-outcome investigations
  • And an (in my view) unhealthy obsession with the concept of research ‘impact’, which is materialistically, instrumentally, and unpragmatically defined.

In fact, research impact is probably a whole separate post in itself, which I might address another time.

In a way, I don’t think we can totally blame many of today’s academics for being so fiercely competitive in activities like grant applications, networking, and self-promotion (‘selling yourself’, as it’s sometimes put). It’s a culture that has evolved out of necessity for researchers – for us – to keep up with the ever-changing ways the wider political and economic climate affects academic life. If public spending and inflation had never gotten out of hand (in an ideal world, obviously), there would never have been a need for austerity (except perhaps under hardcore right-wing administrations, but then again they wouldn’t exist in an ideal world). If so-called ‘free market’ ideologies hadn’t been applied so rigorously to higher education (by, I might add, a certain hardcore right-wing administration in the 1980s UK), there would be no league tables, university rankings, research assessment exercises or ‘excellence frameworks’, and no student consumerism. In other words, we could perhaps have an academia in which we collaborate rather than compete, do research for peace rather than for prestige, and aim for pragmatic, real-world impact rather than impact based on paper citations or journal rank.

When I was first starting out I imagined academic researchers to be progressive, politically rebellious intellectuals who questioned everything, especially the state and self-serving politics, and who actually believed in something, some values or principles or things they hold inalienable. Well, as people further along in their careers probably know already, it’s disappointing to see that’s not the case! Even in my own limited experience, I’d say probably 95% of the academics I’ve come across have come across as intellectually exhausted with keeping up with today’s research life and struggling to produce research that has direct usefulness for some form of social progress (as opposed to just constituting another publication for their CV with a vague statement about how the work might one day aid in the understanding of such-and-such a pressing world problem, pending, of course, much future research).

So where are we going with this?

I’m just saying I guess I realise it’s easy to say we should use PhDs to bring about sustainable world peace, but how to change today’s evolved research culture to bring that about is a harder, and as yet unanswerable, question (but you never know what might come out of future research!). I think right now though, before the whole of degenerating academia can be changed, each PhD student has a choice to do research directly and expressly for world peace, if they want. It’s a tough choice because to be ‘successful’ in today’s academia, the research community expects us to have ‘high impact’ publications in ‘high impact’ journals, an eyeball-popping funding record, and a glamorous employment history at ‘high rank’ institutions.

But then…

What if I publish open access journals because I believe all researchers, and anyone else, should be able to read and use my work without having to pay subscription fees to print journals, which essentially take papers from researchers for free, publish them, and then sell them back to researchers for a fee for cutting our forests down?

What if I assess the impact of my research, and others’ research, based on what real-life, observable outcomes it has brought about for real people, rather than how many times it is cited, how many times its journal of publication has been cited or how highly it is ranked, or what its rejection rate is?

What if I evaluate researchers’ employability from what they have done with their funding, rather than from how much of it they have been awarded?

What if I believe all higher education and research institutions should be cleansed of segregational, class-creating ranking systems and of all activities relating to self-promotion, advertising, and corporate marketing, and instead be formed into an equal, international intellectual network in which funding is distributed according to the ability of projects to directly solve world problems, and as equally as possible, and in which there is as little professional hierarchy as possible?

What if I think today’s researchers must believe in something and be willing to not conform to established academic culture in many ways in order to stand up for those things they believe in, rather than stay silent in the safe little position they have found in such trying times of austerity?

What if?

Dissatisfaction with oneself is one of the fundamental qualities of every true talent.

It’s amazing how many PhD-related injuries I’m suffering from at the moment.

I’ve had a bad back for at least 6 months now. I used to think it was because something was wrong with the way I sleep or the bed I sleep on, but it has persisted steadily through attempts to change sleeping positions, sleep on an extra layer of doona, and sleep more hours or fewer hours. Now I think it happens because I have to sit in a swivel chair in the office all day, then go home and sit in another swivel chair all evening, then sleep on a potentially dodgy bed, then wake up and do the whole thing again. Sure, I take breaks during the day – I get up and take a walk, chat with people in the hall, make tea – but the bulk of my time is spent sitting rigidly in a swivel chair, typing, emailing, worrying and procrastinating.

Then there’s the dry eyes. This undoubtedly occurs because of the long hours spent in staring contests with the screen or paper in front of me. I don’t wear glasses and have always had pretty good vision, and I don’t hunch my back or try to stare too closely when I’m reading, yet still after a few hours I find my eyes have started hurting or stinging and they will not be relieved until I close them. Sometimes I have to call it a day and go to sleep, as the dryness can’t seem to be blinked away immediately.

Alongside these there are also migraines. I have never suffered particularly badly from them, but lately I’ve found I go home with a throbbing headache almost every evening. The aches usually begin in my frontal lobes, then my temporal lobes start throbbing, and then every so often there are these stab-like pains from deep inside my limbic system, right in the middle of my brain below the surface. Because I don’t take pharmaceuticals if I can help it, I usually have to sleep it off, meaning it usually takes the whole night to get rid of the migraine. Then I wake up and get back to work, until the next migraine comes along again.

Hmm. What else?

I have a broken toe at the moment. The way it came about is, surprisingly for me, not directly related to my PhD, though it is perhaps indirectly so. This occurred during a sudden urge to stretch my back after a long sitting session in a swivel chair, when I got up abruptly and stepped out from behind the desk, only to hit my toe against the protruding leg of a dressing mirror. Fortunately most of the pain, swelling and bruising has now gone, through the splint bandage and cotton wool looks set to stay on a couple weeks more.

Oh, and my sprained wrist. My left wrist has been playing up for quite a few months now, despite not being subjected to any more wear and tear than my right wrist. I’m right-handed though, so perhaps my right wrist has developed more strongly than the left. I do a lot of typing, not to mention other activities when I’m taking time off (like cooking or cycling), and though the pressure on each of my wrists seems pretty equal to me, for some reason the left one gets these dull aches, especially when I flex it backwards. Anyway, my wrist is now bandaged to keep it straighter and more stable, though I am still, obviously, typing this with it!

And finally: My thesis gut. With so much time spent sitting around, my brain cells are usually the only part of my body to get a strenuous workout (although I do 30-minute brisk walks during the academic year to get from home to the office and back). For some reason, though, I often get vigorously hungry and can demolish a large plateful in 10 minutes or so. This has led to a feeling of bloatedness or bulging in my stomach, which is strange for me as I tend to have a very fast metabolism and seem to burn food quickly. It is the strangest thing in the world to feel completely stuffed and still have pathetic stick-insect-like proportions.

I think these sorts of complaints are pretty common among PhD students of the world, and I am sure many of them suffer more than I do. But equally, I think about the people who are homeless and destitute, and the children lying in hospital beds, and I feel fortunate.

If you’re still reading this, good luck with whatever challenges you are taking on in your research today. I feel the beginning of a headache coming on, so I think I’ll sign off here and get back to my data collection and soul-searching.

I have been procrastinating for a year and a half in finding out the answer to a question no one else cares about: Where is my research going next? What is the final leg of its journey? That’s what I have to find out.

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I still believe that one day we can use PhDs and higher learning to create worldwide peace among all people, irrespective of colour, creed, age, sex, or class. Let’s create a world in which there are no boundaries between schools, colleges or faculties, or between disciplines, no borders between countries or peoples, and no possessions. A world in which there is neither poverty nor greed, in which humanity transcends both wealth and politics.

Well, after over a fortnight of air-headedness in relation to my entire PhD enterprise, I think I’m finally getting back into the habit of working hard.

Yesterday I resolved to create a meticulous plan of work covering the next 8 months to submission. I’ve found this immensely motivating in the past, when I used to exist in a bizarre kind of high tide/ low tide work arrangement (periods of not much going on, then high-stress periods of a thousand things to be done at once, then not much going on again). The plan of work essentially involves mapping out every single thing, however big or small, that needs to be done over the time period being covered, over a week-by-week and month-by-month timeline. Mine end up looking a bit like those timelines on Facebook Walls, except they go horizontally. In fact, they are exactly like a Gantt chart, although their visual arrangement is different, as for some reason I find Gantt charts irritating to look at (might be something to do with all those coloured blocks).

Sitting down to reflect on the plan in my journal (I have a notebook-type journal to reflect on my PhD as well as this blog…talk about procrastination), I noticed that the time ahead, despite still appearing nerve-wracking and chaotic from where I’m standing now, is actually clearer now in terms of what I have to do in order to achieve what I want to achieve. In other words, whereas before my idea of what I’ll be doing over the next 8 months was vague and blurry, now it’s so much more definite, detailed and mapped out (even if only provisionally) through the timeline. In still other words, I now know where I’m going!

For me, having a clear plan in my mind, and on paper in front of me, of everything I need to do, is reassuring about my capacity to work hard and achieve good things. I’ve got something to do each day, and that motivates me to get it done – not just to be able to tick the boxes, but to have a sense of progress that I’m gradually moving towards more and more significant milestones. In other words, knowing where I’m going motivates me to work hard to get there. Or in still other words, I’m getting there!

And sitting here now reflecting on this whole thing (there’s a lot of this reflection stuff in social sciences), I can’t believe I didn’t realise earlier how work plans and motivation to work are so closely linked for me. I suspect this is because I was going through that inspirationlessness phase for a fortnight and therefore didn’t have any motivation to reflect, although seeing as I work in the social sciences then I’d expect I should reflect on that sort of thing regardless, seeing as I was able to reflect on my own inspirationlessness. Put shortly, even on reflection, I don’t really understand why I wasn’t able to reflect on why I was feeling the way I was, and find a solution to it faster. In fact, I have experienced this sort of confusion over what does and doesn’t motivate me to work and what triggers my inspirationlessness and what works to fix it quite a lot, even as an undergraduate, and I still don’t understand what sense I should make of it.

And you know what? I probably never will.

Because however much doing a PhD is a journey designed to help us becomes doctors (from the Latin doctoris, ‘teacher’), or learned individuals of our discipline, it just as much leaves us still bewildered at our own inner workings of thought and emotion, even after so many years of work.

Yes, this is my second post today. Sometimes I lie low for weeks on end and sometimes my mind races at breakneck speed.

I’ve been starting to think maybe the ‘inspirationlessness’ comes from the fact I am writing a thesis rather than a paper, or series of papers. It has always tickled me how futile a thesis seems when most theses are only ever read by a pair of examiners, and are subsequently bound and filed away on some lofty shelf in the British Library to collect dust til Kingdom come. Most theses are never read by anyone other than the people who examined them. There seems to be nothing to hope for, nothing to strive for in writing them.

Hello there, PhD. I realise now that whatever work I have done on you these last 2 years, I have done because I have strived for it to be read by people other than my eventual examiners. I have a paper published and a paper under review that both came from you, and although they have been rewritten to suit their respective journals, they contain the basis upon which quite a lot of you will eventually be written.

Actually, they contain about 100 pages of the basis of the thesis. Yikes.

I bet I can write this if I write it as a paper. I bet writing would be a lot easier if we reminded ourselves we do have the choice to publish our work, to make it actually useful to the world, even if only in a minute way.

Yesterday I did absolutely no work on my PhD.

At all.

I mean, usually I’ll at least make the effort to open one of my draft documents and stare at it for a while, willing myself to write something, even if it’s just a sentence or two, or I’ll read some papers from my literature folder and will myself to come up with some amazing new research idea. But yesterday I did nothing at all. I spent the morning bumming around on the internet, wandering aimlessly from one site to another, just looking at different things out of curiosity. Then I had lunch. After lunch I was exhausted from doing so much nothing all morning, so I napped for about 4 hours. Then I spent a couple hours reading a humorous self-help book (I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me!, by Stuart Smalley, but really by Al Franken – a brilliant collection of pick-me-up diary entries). Then I had dinner. After dinner, I watched Ellen, Jay Leno, and Conan. Then I went to bed.

And all through the day I couldn’t believe how exhausted I felt by having done nothing. It’s like I’ve been without inspiration for my PhD for so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have that get-up-and-go attitude towards my work. Right now I’m in a place that’s eerily quiet, except for my own inner voice telling me that hope seems to be fading, and misty that I cannot even see what’s around me.

And the one thing that’s constantly in my mind, day and night, is that I want to, have to, submit in May; that there is so much work still to be done; and that I have absolutely no idea how to do it.

Yes, this is me, the one who used to work 85-hour weeks on my PhD, enthusiastically planning studies, writing up papers, and dreaming about the next conference in my diary. Well, OK, I still work 85-hour weeks, but most of those hours are spent worrying about my PhD rather than actually doing anything productive.

Where O where did that energetic young lass go!? I feel like I’m a decade older than I am. I guess PhDs age you, like wine. I’m just not sure the result is as sought-after. Hmm…

Yes. Today I blog from the quiet, misty depths of complete, unadultered inspirationlessness.

I have an ideal ‘me’ in my mind I’d like to be. In those inspirational Hollywood films where a protagonist struggles and struggles, and then finally finds a way to succeed. In those time-lapse montages they have, of the protagonist working away, diligently, with intense concentration, we get lost in the soundtrack of slow, yet fast-forwarded progress. In Misery, the trapped Paul Sheldon sits at his typewriter, tapping away tirelessly at the keys, churning out page after page of work, stretching, grimacing, straining his neck, churning out more pages. Eventually, he finishes the book.

Mine is still hopelessly at its beginning.

I guess I’m blogging about this because I feel better blogging than not doing anything at all. At least this gives me half a chance to reflect on how I feel and what I think, and maybe, how I could find a way to get out of this annoying ditch.

I really just want to get out!

Here are some of the strategies I’ve tried:

  • Constructing those tables that list every section and subsection of a given thesis chapter, their main argument, the lesser points within that argument, and the evidence to be cited there in;
  • Just free writing without any planning;
  • Writing in a casual style as if I were explaining the material to an interested lay person;
  • Typing on the computer;
  • Writing with pen and paper, old school;
  • Writing at my desk;
  • Writing on the balcony with a sea view;
  • Writing in my journal randomly, alternating at will between my PhD, life, and my PhD again.

Annoyingly, none of the above has worked lastingly, and I just don’t feel I have produced as much work to as high a standard as I could or should have. I feel I’ve been mucking around, without a clear goal in mind, except that I want to finish my PhD, and that I haven’t really been doing much to achieve that.

Just like the grass always looks greener on the neighbour’s side of the fence, I guess everyone else’s PhD looks better from here compared to mine. And as much as I know it’s a misconception, it really does seem like everyone else has better ideas, is doing better research, has published more papers, is writing more words, paragraphs, and chapters, and is just generally more worthwhile than I am as a researcher.

So there.

Now, I know that’s not true. I know, and believe, that we – all PhD students – are about as good as each other. That’s why there are generally fewer classification systems for doctorates than there are for, say, undergraduate or Masters degrees: Because it’s generally accepted that whoever is smart enough to start a PhD in the first place, be fired with enthusiasm for it, keep working on it diligently even after that enthusiasm fades, endure the late nights, early mornings, all-nighters, cracked knuckles, sprained spines, throbbing eyeballs, splitting migraines, and aching wrists that come with the job, take the criticism, defy the marking-undergraduate-papers-induced insanity, write the thesis, and somehow make it to the viva alive, will get their PhD, and there isn’t really much point in classifying different levels of PhDs.

So where am I going with all of this?

Well, I have no idea. That’s what I love about blogging – it’s perfectly acceptable to have no idea what you’re trying to say. Unlike writing your thesis. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

From the quiet misty depths of inspirationlessness, signing off now.

Peace.

After some particular recent events and in deep retrospect of other things that have occurred in the last decade of my life, which I cannot at this moment bring myself to write about, I have come to the definitive conclusion that men simply cannot feel anything.

That’s all.

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I’ve spent the morning managing to avoid most internet-based distractions and instead constructing some notes as a basis for writing one of my thesis chapters. Progress is slow, though in retrospect, most progress in PhDs is slow!

The notes are structured so as to make me think about my argument in a way more detailed than I’d done previously. Specifically, they are structured in a table, where across a given row I state the subsection number and subheading, then the key message to be conveyed in that subsection, then the different points that make up that key message, and finally a list or indication of the evidence/sources to be cited in the subsection. The table carries on (very calmly I might add) with other subsections, messages, points and citations to give a full account of just about everything that needs to be said in the chapter.

Not bad, theoretically. Maybe I’m getting somewhere.

I have tried this approach before when I have felt the PhD Dream to be futile. For example, I entered a phase last summer in which I was writing up two simultaneous versions of a paper (one for a conference, and another for a journal). Although there were only two versions to be written, the paper itself was written and rewritten at least four times, and edited many more times after that, because, like many PhD Dream Chasers, I often can’t write a paper perfectly the first time. I begin writing, and then I start to ramble on about theoretical intricacies not directly relevant to the aim of the paper, and before long I have forgotten what that aim is anyhow. I then have to go back to the start – not just the start of the paper, I mean I have to delete 90% of what I have – remember what my aim was, structure the paper a better way, and rewrite. And it is just so difficult to part with a lot of the material I produce the first time, because I develop a kind of attachment to it.

It’s like my PhD is my baby, and I can’t bear to just get rid of whole parts of it. It breaks me.

Anyway, because of all this stuff I’ve just explained, I’m fully anticipating writing my chapters at least twice each, and a lot more editing than I can imagine. I’m headstrong enough to still believe I can submit in May, but no doubt I’ll have been to the fiery depths of hell and back by the time I get there.

Now I’m going to keep calm and carry on chasing this futile PhD dream.

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!