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Here’s another piece of commentary that’s just begging for more outrage at the sorry state of women in academia.

Isn’t it sad that a bloke knocking at the door of a young female academic assumes she isn’t a Doctor? Only men can have PhDs, right?

Isn’t it sad that despite comprising 45% of the academic workforce in academia, women comprise only 20% of professors? Only men make good professors, right?

Isn’t it sad that the majority of women working in academia are in non-academic roles, like admin? Women are only good at timetabling and photocopying, right?

Isn’t it sad that the bias in favour of research, research, research makes it harder for women to achieve professorships than men? Teaching, which women do more of, doesn’t count, right?

Isn’t it sad that, despite campaigns set up to counter it, girls are still relatively reserved about studying science, not just at university but also in school? Only boys are good at science, right?

Right?

So it’s with a heavy heart that I’m about to log out of my work station, travel over to another campus of my university, and present a paper on the economic state of higher education today.

In my own quiet, personal way I am going to the conference wearing a daggy turtleneck, trousers, and messy hair in protest of this sorry state of women, and of the men, like Dario Maestripieri, who help perpetuate it by objectifying them.

 These titles are, if you need explanation, derived from the home countries of the external examiners my supervisors and I are considering.

Yesterday I met with my supervisor to talk about externals again. Since our first choice declined because of other commitments at the time my viva is scheduled, we talked about two other possibilities that are on the cards. The first, a colleague of the Danish gentleman who had been our first choice, seemed to fit my thesis better, while the second, a professor based in Portugal, was decidedly a last resort (though not necessarily because Quero Formar** sounds more like the Latin motto of some well-to-do white middle class college in West London).

We agreed that my supervisor would approach the Dane the next day. But sitting around in my overheated office, frustrated at the headache that had been pounding away in my head all day, I suddenly wondered if we weren’t perhaps looking for my external in the wrong places. When you’re doing a PhD in psychology you reasonably expect that your external will also be a psychologist of some sort. But what if someone else’s expertise fits better with your thesis than any psychologist you’ve been able to find? That’s when I thought of…well, the woman I’m thinking of now.

She isn’t a psychologist.

Actually, she isn’t technically even a scientist, though the boundaries between scientific disciplines, and between science and art, are usually more blurred than we’d like to think.

The thing is, sometimes PhD theses are at the intersection of so many different obscure lines of enquiry across art and science that it is almost impossible to locate an external who is as well-versed in your uber-obscure area of expertise as you are. I mean, if I could have the ideal external for my thesis, it would be myself. Failing that, though, if there’s someone out there who is interested in, and published widely on, the topic I’m focusing on, though from a perspective other than psychology, I’ve begun to wonder whether that person is better qualified to examine me than a psychologist who, although vaguely knowledgeable about my area by virtue of the fact that they are a psychologist, would probably have to go to considerable lengths to do background reading before they could confidently question me at my viva.

This is all so confusing. I’m not sure I even have an academic identity any more. What am I? A psychologist? By virtue of the fact that my first degree is in psychology, or because I do research in a psychology department, or because I am supervised by psychologists? Does it matter that my research includes as much sociology, philosophy, economics and political science as it does psychological theory? Are non-psychologists, and indeed non-scientists, if there are such things, qualified to grant, or recommend the granting of, psychology PhDs?

I just don’t understand.

And in further news, I’ve just found out my other supervisor, whom we really need to consult on all matters relating to external examiners, is overseas tending to some urgent family issue and may not be back for a week. I’m glad I asked my supervisors to begin the examiner search 8 months in advance, but I’m beginning to think with all the unavoidable, unforeseen delays we might end up being only just in time.

I just really, really want to graduate. And though I know I’ll do everything I can to meet my responsibilities, the uncertainty surrounding factors out of my control often worries me and gets me down.

I want to graduate! And I will irrationally translate this into any language known to man until I do!

*Dutch for “I want to graduate” …at least according to Google Translate.

**And the Portugese.

Along with other obsessive quantification crazes I continuously encounter in the academic world (number of publications, number of citations, number of high impact factor journals, number of examiner appointments, number of PhD completions…you get the picture), I’ve recently begun to notice the more qualifications an academic has after their name, the sillier they seem to be.

Flicking though a promotional booklet on my department’s research activities last week, I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the sheer number of postnominals some professors (and even many pre-tenure staff) have accumulated and, remarkably,  how many of them I tend to find annoying. The more they have, the more intent they seem to be to obsess about details, promote themselves, and just generally be a pain to work with.

I appreciate this is only my opinion and that there are many academics with countless postnominals who are lovely.

Just not in my department. We seem to have all the incredulous manic-depressives here.

Take our Head, for example. He has the obligatory BSc-MSc-PhD combination, followed by at least 4 fellowships/charterships of various learned societies, which total up to a good two lines of abbreviations under his name. And, between you, me, and cyberspace, he is the most annoying man ever. He turns up to meetings late, is never in his office when you need to get a form signed, and obsesses about things that aren’t his responsibility. This isn’t just my opinion either – two of my supervisors and at least two professors in the department have all told me, independently and unsolicited, how much of a pain he is! But I don’t want to turn this into a rant.

One of my supervisors, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a Master’s degree, and she’s the loveliest person I’ve ever met in the university. She completely lacks any of the obsession with quantification that I’ve observed in other academics – she doesn’t fuss over self-promotion, doesn’t make me feel like I have to publish paper upon paper as if I’m manufacturing some sort of commodity. I’m not saying she gives me a free ride. She has expectations and she expects good quality work. But she’s really nice about it and I never feel like I’m being domineered.

This apparent pattern worries me sometimes. When I finish my PhD I’ll have four academic postnominals after my name, plus two learned society memberships. I don’t like to actually print them on documents if I can help it (I hesitate to even put ‘Ms’ as a title on forms – I prefer no title), though I know that in academia as it’s evolving today, research departments where I might work in the future will be hanging out waiting for me to get my next postnominals so they can print it in their research promotion booklets to show the world how intelligent stupid I am.

Because it’s true. The more qualified you become, the more stupid you realise you are. Or sometimes, you become stupid without really realising it. Even in the 6 years I’ve been at university, it has continuously struck me how stupid I was when I was younger, and as I become more experienced in research, academia, and life, I know that I must be getting even more stupid.

I am really stupid!

I suppose, in some ways, a PhD is really a consolation prize for making peace with the sheer insignificance of your own knowledge compared to the inconceivably large quantum multiverse we live in.

In a break from tradition, today I just want to post about food. Because it’s quarter to twelve in London and I’m hungry.

Not starving. Just hungry.

I can’t stand it when middle class and even relatively well-off working class people in developed Western countries dash panting into the office at 10 o’clock in the morning and lament “I’m starving.” You’re not starving. You’ve woken up at a leisurely hour, left yourself no time to have a decent breakfast at home, rushed out of the house and needlessly spent £2.65 on a questionably sourced caffeine fix from Starbucks, and arrived at work in a sweat only to need to rush back out, this time to the on-campus Starbucks to needlessly spend more money on an overpriced late breakfast.

Bulk up.

Children in Palestine desperately waiting for humanitarian aid to sustain themselves, millions in some of the most deprived and war-ravaged nations in Africa, the homeless even in the rich West who rely on spare change from passers by for their next meal – they’re the ones who are starving. People on self-imposed hunger strikes protesting political injustice and persecution and abuses of human rights. They’re starving.

So, I am hungry.

I came across an interesting blog today. I can’t link to it because they probably wouldn’t like what I’m going to say.

The blog is about a university student’s daily meals – where and what they eat and how much they pay for it. I happened to come across yesterday’s entry and, fascinated, went back to look at the previous day’s, and then the day’s before that. Every day seemed to be composed of a breakfast of a buttered breadroll and something to drink, a lunch of an energy drink, chips, and donuts, and a dinner of more energy drink and occasionally a packaged meal. Wow, I kept thinking, doesn’t this person ever make an effort to eat properly (and save money at the same time)?

Firstly, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s usually the first food you eat after having ‘fasted’ for 8-12 hours overnight and it restores your blood sugar levels and sustains you throughout the morning. The morning hours (8-11am) are the hours when attention and other cognitive processes have the greatest potential, meaning if you’ve had a good breakfast, you’ll be much more likely to work productively. Lunch doesn’t have to be a big effort. If more people kicked their own arses to cook a meal for dinner in the evenings, the leftovers would do just fine for the next day’s lunch. You can cook a meal easily in an hour or so, providing you pick up some simple groceries from the shop.

I always cook, whether I’m living alone or not. Because I like it. I like buying supplies and using them to create different meals and rising to the challenge of achieving it all cheaply and quickly, because I’m a student. I find it bizarre when I have people round to eat or when people ask me in the office and they seem to think it’s such a huge effort to actually go to the shop and buy groceries and come home and cook a meal. That seems like a lot of effort, why don’t you just buy it? they ask. I couldn’t imagine buying three meals a day, seven days a week. I’d be out of pocket but more than that I’d get sick. Really. Many people seem to think it’s healthy and acceptable to consume bottled fruit juices, packaged TV dinners, boxed sandwiches. I get sick if I eat these more than once in a while. I get purple circles under my eyes and I start to feel permanently tired and I get headaches. It’s bad for you, even though it looks healthy. Please don’t eat it.

And you know, much more than being out of pocket and sick, I won’t eat commercially made food because it makes me feel like a slave to irresponsible consumerism. Today we live in a world where many people can’t imagine how they would survive without the convenience of being able to buy a sandwich or a roast dinner from the supermarket. People who don’t have the slightest idea how to make soup, even the simplest kind. People who actually hate cooking meals for themselves, because they think it’s tedious or boring or a waste of time.

Bulk up!

I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t care if the research is coming out of my ears or if I’m up to my neck in teaching. I will spend an hour to cook for myself and I will enjoy it.

Now I will have lunch.

In my little world today, far from the eyes of supervisors, reviewers, my family and friends, and just about everyone else in the world, I’m in the midst of an equally frustrating and exciting storm in which I am once more searching for external examiners.

I feel a bit silly, because although this is something very important to me now, I know that in another few years I’ll look back on these times and think how pathetic I was! As much as I try to stop worrying about my viva, I can’t help it. I’m a worrier. I worry about everything, especially my viva, and the closer my viva comes in my diary, the more I am worrying about it. If I stop worrying for a while, I start to worry that I’m taking it too easy when there’s something important I should be worrying about. I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a good external. I’m worried that even if I do find a good external, that they’ll say no or they won’t be available at the time I need them. I’m worried that even if they say yes and they’re available, they’ll turn up to my viva and eat me alive like a savage rabid thesis-gobbling monster.

I guess today’s just going to be one of those worrying days.

Everything is shaken up today. Like one of James Bond’s ubiquitous vodka martinis.

First up: My preferred internal has provisionally agreed to examine my thesis. This is great. Here’s the downside: He can’t make July. Or August. Instead, he has offered June, September, or October. June is cutting it a bit fine for me, and September and October seem so far down the line I’m afraid I could lose all motivation by then.

Is this news good or bad?

One of the primary reasons why Chekhov set himself apart from other 19th century Russian literary artists is the fact that his characters (especially the ones in his plays) are neither good nor bad. You watch the plays, read and reread the scripts, try to work out if Ivanov is a hero or a villain. The truth is he is neither. Chekhov set out to show his audiences that humans – and life itself – are neither all good nor all bad. They are, instead, impossibly complex, sometimes tending towards goodness and sometimes towards evil.

If life is, like Ivanov, impossibly complex, then try my examiners!

Next: If my supervisors and I agree to take on my preferred internal, we would need to decide whether we will take him on for the sooner viva, in June, or the later one, in September. What we decide will then have a knock-on effect on my thesis submission date, which, if we take the June option, would mean I might even have to submit in April. That’s really cutting it fine. But let’s say I do manage to submit early. Then, there’s the issues of finding and agreeing with a new external, whom we haven’t even decided on yet, and chance being that this person can make a June viva. What if they can’t? Then we’re stuck till September for my internal to be available again. And then what? What if my external (whoever that is) isn’t available in September? Then what?

Sometimes I look at all the postdocs and lecturers and tenured professors around the department and am struck with awe at how they ever managed to get two examiners together at the same time in the same place to conduct their vivas. It’s a one in a million chance and they managed it. People with PhDs all over Europe manage it every year.

Maybe I’m just not as smart as them?

Maybe I’m going to fail the whole thing?

Then what?

It’s quiet in the office today. There’s an intern typing calmly away on her Mac. Some postdocs are passing to and fro in the corridor outside, going about their business. There’s the muffled laughter of undergrads on their way to lectures outside. Life is idyllic, just like any other day. I, too, am calm. I am quiet and typing the last lines of this post at my desk. Yet inside I’m in turmoil. I’m trying to reconcile the impossible chaos of my immediate future in academia with the equally impossible chaos of…I don’t know. Lovelust maybe, or more likely wanderlust. Just the increasingly strong impulse to be…free.

Years ago, I think some time in the mid-1990s, there used to be a TV commercial in Australia for Pantene shampoo. Mandatorily for a shampoo commercial, it contained a woman (in this case Rachel Hunter) with long, squeeky-clean hair, smiling and twirling about and flicking her hair over her shoulder, which soared gracefully in slow motion through the air, catching the light and shining its dazzling shine before settling softly on her back. Then the voiceover would say, “Pantene. For hair so healthy, it shines.” Then the camera would cut back to Rachel, who, gently caressing her hair, would say: It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

If you don’t remember it or haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the link below. It’s hilarious. And it has obviously had a large enough impact to be available on Youtube today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EweM_ILVt4

Anyway, after finding out the external examiner I wanted for my viva wouldn’t be coming, I got to thinking about this commercial’s tagline and to what extent, if any, it might apply to PhD students’ motivation. If you haven’t started thinking about your thesis examiners yet, trust me, it’s nerve-wracking. Usually it all goes well at the end, but until you come to a point in your viva where the examiners have both agreed to examine you, you’ve waited out the 6 to 8 weeks that you have to wait out for them to read the thesis, they’ve made it to the viva without catching on fire, being kidnapped, or succumbing to bubonic plague, and the ice has been broken between them and yourself, it is nerve-wracking. In the months leading up to the viva, which I’m in the middle of waiting out right now, it feels like the frustration caused by knock-backs and hiccups in the planning will go on forever and I will never make any progress, and all the rejections from countless examiners will eventually lead to me going mad and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, never to see the light of day again.

Sometimes it really feels like it’s never going to happen. ‘It’ being whatever short- or long-term goal I’m trying to achieve at any given time, particularly ones for which I must rely partly or wholly on other people. I hate commitment because ‘other people’ often includes people who are unreliable, unknowledgeable, careless, and disinterested, however well-meaning they might be. There are so many things out of my control that could go wrong. My examiners – even if we eventually find them and get them to actually agree to examine me – might catch on fire, be kidnapped, or succumb to bubonic plague on exactly the day of my viva. Worse than this, I might catch on fire, be kidnapped, or succumb to bubonic plague on exactly the day of my viva.

Then the whole thing would be postponed until goodness knows when – if I struggle for 3 weeks to get just two of my supervisors to a meeting at the same time on the same day, I guess it could take months to co-ordinate two completely unacquainted professors, one of whom is based elsewhere in Europe.

Suddenly a hologram of Rachel Hunter pops up in my head. It won’t happen overnight, she says, but it will happen.

I burst into laughter.

Whatever happens folks, we’re getting there. We’re taking steps forward and getting it wrong, then changing direction, realising we’ve walked around in a circle, then moving forward again. We’re going to get there in the end.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

The external examiner I’d been hoping to engage for my viva has officially declined my supervisor’s invitation.

In other words he has refused to examine me.

He has rejected my thesis.

Won’t do the job.

Apparently because of other pressing commitments.

For a little while now, I’m going to feel teary and depressed about this seemingly apocalyptic, end-of-the-world development. I don’t know how long it’s going to last – maybe a week or so. Then, I hope, I’ll pick myself up and continue searching.

Where on earth am I going to find another external? All the alternatives I had been considering turned out to be nutcases!

And suddenly everything is plunged into chaos again.

One of the news articles featured in today’s edition of the Guardian Higher Education Network e-newsletter, (Mis)Judging Female Scientists, caught my eye this morning and infuriated me enough to post this (hopefully short) rant about it.

According to Dario Maestripieri, a very male neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, the women neuroscientists at a recent conference he attended just weren’t up to scratch in the looks department. After attending the conference he posted the following comments on his Facebook page:

“My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone..”

Wow.

So in order to avoid the scorn of decidedly macho male scientists, it isn’t enough to just do good research – we also have to get a makeover every time we head to a professional meeting to present a paper? Or is the research of the (obviously very rare) supermodel scientist going to be taken more seriously than that of the “average woman” scientist just because its author is sexier?

 
What’s next? Forget the Best Poster Prize – let’s give out Vivienne Westwood Style Awards for the bustiest, leggiest pieces of meat in the research community.

I mean like ever.

(This is the one where he talks about his reaction to the EU being selected for the Nobel Peace Prize).

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!