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Everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear . . . but we must work. -Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

Yes, dear Chekhov, work we must!

In what seems like an impossible task (and there are many such tasks, along the road to PhDs), we must not fail to see the opportunities, the positivities, and the little things that make us smile. While we are labouring over drafts of hundreds of thousands of words, correcting, editing, rewriting altogether, while our experiments are failing and our software malfunctioning, while, because we live in the quiet, timeless bubble of academia, life seems to pass us by- there is hope.

We will work hard, and we will keep up hope, and one day, not so far away, we will accomplish what we set out to achieve.

 

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I’ve recently been made aware of an organisation called GetSET, affiliated with the UKRC, which advocates girls and women in science and encourages female participation and leadership in traditionally male-dominated professions.

Check out their website: http://www.theukrc.org/get-involved/networks/getset-women

Isn’t this a nice change from news stories highlighting the still-present deplorable inferiority of females in just about any field of science/engineering known to humankind. I wish I’d known about it earlier!

Apparently, over 3000 women in science and engineering are currently registered on the network. It’s a small number, but with more publicity, I hope we’ll see many more join.

 

Today I’m back in the office.

And in a state of utter confusion.

Well, not confusion. It’s more that ubiquitous sense of blankness that’s been haunting me on and off for the last 6 months. I just feel drained of the excitement I had for my PhD when I first started it and am more inclined to just push myself to get through each day to the end now. I’m getting there, but progress seems slower than ever. I’ve got my analysis to finalise. I’ve got draft chapters to edit, and possibly even rewrite from scratch. I’ve got a postdoc proposal to develop and applications to prepare. I’ve got a viva in July for which I need to prepare myself mentally, and I am terrified of this because I am a diehard perfectionist and I am petrified of failing. And I’m supposed to be submitting in May. May, dammit!

I have no idea how other people do this, or whether I’m doing it right, or whether I’m on the track to complete and utter failure, or indeed whether my research, argument, or even entire thesis are of any intellectual value whatsoever.

I just don’t know.

When I ask other people (my supervisors, lab colleagues, people I meet at conferences and seminars), they have a habit of saying “You’ll be fine,” as if everything is going to be fine, no matter what. When people tell me I’ll be fine, it frustrates me because I’ll only be fine from other people’s perspectives – after all, they just go about their lives and observe me being fine. I, on the other hand, am the one actually doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine, and that feels kind of different from looking at me as an observer because, well, I’m the one doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine.

It’s the work, you see, that is they key to fineness. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t be fine.

When people say “You’ll be fine,” maybe they mean that they’re sure I’ll be fine because they’re sure I’ll do the work to a high enough standard that ensures I will be fine. I don’t see how they can be sure of that. What if I suddenly catch on fire? What if I’m kidnapped? Sectioned under the Mental Health Act? Succumb to bubonic plague?

What if I just lose motivation and quit?

 What happens then? Am I still fine?

Right now, I’m less than three weeks away from entering a 3+ month period of self-imposed solitary confinement for the sole purpose of writing my thesis. Its skeleton is there, there’s some drabby flesh on it, but it needs rebuilding and perfecting. Crucial parts of it don’t even exist yet. When I think about how on earth I am going to get this together, I feel woozy and dazed and confused. But most of all blank.

I feel blanker than the blank Word document in front of me, blanker than the pure white sheets of notebook paper on my desk, blanker than the blankest blankity blankness, ever.

To think that by the beginning of May, this blankness is expected (by my supervisors, my examiners, my family, and just about everyone else holding their breath for me to graduate) to have been populated with ideas, arguments, words, sentences, charts, tables and diagrams, to be whirling with answers, critiques, suggestions, contradictions, definitions and discussions, and to be completely, totally, and utterly ready for the viva.

I’m not quite sure whether I’ll be fine, or even whether I’m fine right now. I feel more blank than fine. I’ve been sitting in this office 50 hours a week for 2 years. I’ve become part of the furniture. People hardly notice whether I’m there or not. I want to finish my thesis, have my viva, and leave. I don’t ever want to come back.

Today I’m back in the office.

I’m not confused, I’m just blank.

Well, not really. I’m going to central London today – something I don’t, to my regret, do very often – to attend an event at one of those posh old stone-building universities.

And now it’s time for another whine at the frustrating state of women in science!

Scanning the ‘women in science’ news this morning hoping to come across an uplifting story, I instead found this article reporting a study done at the University of California-Davis on women’s participation at scientific conferences.

According to the study, which involved reviewing the conference programmes of a series of annual conferences in physical anthropology and primatology, fewer women spoke or presented than men, even though these sciences are traditionally female-dominated. Also:

  • Women were only half as likely to present in a symposium organised by a man than at one organised by a woman;
  • Participating women dominated the poster sessions while men were far more likely to give oral presentations or symposia.

If this level of inequality exists in a female-dominated field like primatology, goodness knows what’s happening at male-dominated science conferences…but hang on, we already know that!

Sometimes, whatever way you look at it, you lose.

Of course, it’s only more demoralising to hear about our own kind toting the line for ‘traditional’ gender roles, like Carla Bruni did the other day. I’m squirming in my incredulity at one of the highest-paid catwalk models with chauffeurs and cleaning staff telling us we don’t need to be feminist. Sure, Carla, if I were 6 feet tall and had maids to make my breakfast and clean my mansion, I’d sit around at home and give interviews to Vogue magazine too.

But then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Because even if we are provided for, does that legitimise girls growing up to stay at home? To look after the children, cook and clean, and do the ironing? To never feel curiosity to learn, to study, to be challenged? We live in the 21st century – when there is maternity leave at workplaces, more options for childcare, and maybe even a few decent men who don’t mind helping with housework. It’s more than possible – it’s necessary – for women to work, and not to work at some low-paid unrewarding post, but in some academic or industrial sector that fosters their curiosity and pushes them to aim higher.

We need more women in science, more women speaking at science conferences, more women in trade and in industry, doing jobs men are doing now, and doing it better than them.

That’s what I’m doing today.

When you’re doing a PhD, after a while you’ll notice that not all work days are equal. And if they are, then some are more equal than others. Some days, you’ll only manage to do a tiny bit of work and feel overwhelmed by it; on other days, you’ll accomplish more than you ever thought you could and then you’ll sit there, eyes wide open, thinking “Well, what’s next?”

Today is one of the latter.

Today I arrived at my desk at half past seven, booted up, and got down to finishing off the work on my last dataset that I’d left incomplete on Friday. There was a considerable amount of coding still to do, which is annoying, because it often involves manual coding in Excel before I can export the code to SPSS (though I won’t go into that as it’s already confusing enough for me). I did the coding, then looked at the clock, and was surprised it was only just past 9am. So I did my dummy coding (which, again, I’d be mad to go into) and computed my subscale and scale scores and did my exports. Then it was lunchtime. Now, it’s just coming to 2pm and I’m writing this, and I’ll still have a couple hours after that to run the preliminary analysis.

I can’t believe I did all that work this morning, it’s madness. Any other time, it would have taken me at least a week to do the coding alone, and here I am done in 2 days. The rest just flew past this morning, I don’t know how I got to this stage.

But I’m done with the hard part. Now I just have the analysis to go. Then I can compute my charts, and assemble my slides for the conference next month.

I realise this all sounds really geeky. But I love it!

Now I’m going to go do my analysis.

Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle

Thanks to WikiLeaks, US citizens are better informed about wars prosecuted in their name. We owe Manning honour, not jail time

By Desmond Tutu, Mairead Corrigan-Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel
The Guardian November 16, 2012
Last week, PFC Bradley Manning offered to accept responsibility for releasing classified documents as an act of conscience – not as charged by the US military. As people who have worked for decades against the increased militarization of societies and for international cooperation to end war, we have been deeply dismayed by his treatment. The military under the Obama administration has displayed a desire to over-prosecute whistleblowing with life-in-prison charges including espionage and “aiding the enemy”, a disturbing decision which is no doubt intended to set an example.
We have dedicated our lives to working for peace because we have seen many faces of armed conflict and violence, and we understand that no matter the…

View original post 625 more words

Having grown up in suburban Melbourne, I was never socialised into the North American Thanksgiving culture, although I learned a lot about it subconsciously from watching countless feel-good Hollywood movies in which families would feast on roast turkey and pumpkin pie and the snow would be falling outside.

As much as Thanksgiving has become a commercialised holiday for many people – just like Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and all the others – I think the spirit of the celebration is a worthwhile principle and that we should all take time to acknowledge the good things we are blessed with.

When I was little I was very shy at school and refused to speak to people when they said hello. The process of just making polite conversation petrified me and filled me with dread. Over the years, and especially since I started university, I’ve become a lot more talkative because I am often in situations where I have to talk to people in order to do my job – like conferences, seminars, lectures, meetings and lab tours.

I get to my office each morning earlier than anyone else. If I can make it, I’m usually at my desk by 8am – often earlier. There are no academics around in the early morning, no postdocs, no teaching staff. The early morning is a time when the university is populated by ‘invisible’ people. People like cleaners, security staff, maintenance personnel. People who don’t really exist because none of the ‘real’ inhabitants of the university see them during regular working hours.

When I walk onto the campus in the morning I say good morning to the security guard at reception. I say good morning to the cleaner guy in the baseball cap who mops the entrance. I say good morning to the fire marshall who walks around testing the fire alarms, and to the cleaner women who push wheelie bins through my building, and to the guy who changes the bin liners in my office. I say good morning to all the invisible people I see.

This morning I said good morning to the security guard at reception. Usually, he says good morning back and asks me how I am. Then he opens the automatic gate for me to walk through, to save me having to fish out my swipecard. This morning he did these things too. But he said something else. He said he appreciated that I took time to say good morning each day and acknowledge him and that it was a nice change from the staff who trudge past without even looking. Then he walked away.

I just stood there for a minute, speechless.

It’s amazing what experiences you can have at odd times, when you’re least expecting it, at times when it’s quiet and other people are not there and the people who are there feel more at ease to tell you what’s on their minds. Invisible people, who are never seen by so many of us.

I have been amazed at this encounter all morning and it has caused me to think a lot. I am amazed that the simple gesture of saying good morning to this man each day has caused him to make such an interesting, thought-provoking comment to me.

I am thankful that I have been able to be nice to staff at my university who are never seen by the majority.

I am thankful that I have had a great opportunity to access education to the highest levels and to have been supported by the kindness and generosity of my family.

I am thankful for my friends in Melbourne and elsewhere across the world for their good humour and companionship.

I am thankful that I am in good health and that I am on track to finishing my PhD.

I am thankful to people who read my blog for hearing what I have to say and I hope some of it might strike them as useful, interesting, or maybe even funny.

…What are you thankful for?

I came across a strangely delightful quote from Scott Fitzgerald today:

To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.
Poor, tragic Scott. I wonder if writing novels is as mentally exhausting as writing a thesis?
There are interesting parallels between the literary process and thesis-writing. The most obvious (to me) is that both cause irreversible madness. But more than that, when you think about how long it takes to write, and the lengths you have to go to just to get to a stage where you can write, you see the process is the same.
 
Sure, I will write the (almost) final draft of my thesis in three months, but to get to the stage where I can do that, I spent six months trying to work out what a PhD is all about, three months collecting and analysing data for my first study, nine months writing up my first study and running my second study, and another six months running my third study and coming back to trying to work out what a PhD is all about. I spent the best part of 2 years swimming in a mental sea of data – words, numbers, statistics, software packages, charts, tables and diagrams. I just swam around, trying to interpret it, and trying to make my interpretations actually make sense, and maybe even an original contribution to knowledge. Then there’s the fact that I conceived of the original idea for this whole project in the space of about 20 minutes.
 
If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
 
No matter what sort of writers we are – artistic, academic, or a bizarre blend of both – there is a lot that goes into our work besides just writing the words. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of data collection, and a lot of interpretation and reinterpretation and a lot of madness.
 
Struggling thesis writers, novelists, madmen and women – unite! We shall conquer these great seas of chaos and emerge brighter, stronger, more learned, at the helm of this mighty ship.
 

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!