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One rainy afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, our class teacher at my Catholic primary school – I’ll call him Mr K – was off sick and, as was common in those times, one of the mums from the parents’ association took over to fill in. Mrs O’Brien was the mother of a rather immature dirty blonde boy called Michael (not their real names). I had been wary of Michael for some time because, the previous year, it had somehow transpired that he had written “I love [my name]” on his ruler in maths class and everyone knew about it. Despite my mortification with her son, Mrs O’Brien was an awesome substitute teacher. She was a pillar of calm and reason amidst the screaming, maddening outbursts of the pupils and dealt with every end-of-the-world crisis without batting an eyelid. We spent a lovely afternoon conducting an art class in which we painted, cut, pasted, folded and decorated to our hearts’ content. At the end of the day, during the mad rush that was ‘packing up time’, I remember someone knocked over a pot of blue paint. It fell straight on the floor and spattered all over the carpet, splashes dirtying the table legs and spilling over onto the lino. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Michael, which was a felony offense at Catholic school (“Stop using the Lord’s name in vain!” was a warning frequently heard in and around our school grounds). Children were squirming everywhere, running around, laughing, kicking, jostling each other in hysterical yelps to avoid the blue liquid oozing over the terrain.

Mrs O’Brien just looked at her son and said, “It’s not God, it’s paint on the floor. Now let’s get this cleaned up.”

Thanks for teaching me to stay calm in a crisis, Mrs O’Brien. Right now I’m typing away madly trying to get this draft chapter finished and sent off to my supervisors. I have a headache, cracked lips, and a sore neck. I have the rest of my thesis to write before the spring comes. And I am doing my absolute best to hold on to my sanity, and see this through.

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The meeting I had with my supervisor yesterday was the best we have ever had.

Like ever.

I told her everything I had resolved to tell her – that I was completely lost, blank, confused, and didn’t have a clue what I should do about it. I had expected her to purse her lips and fidget uncomfortably, disappointed that I wasn’t my usual brilliant, always-knows-what-to-do self. But she didn’t. She just told me she was surprised this hadn’t happened to me sooner and that it’s completely normal to lose the will to live at some point in a PhD.

Then she asked me to summarise the biggest thing I was confused about.

I explained that my biggest fear about the months ahead is the prospect of (mis)understanding. I am afraid of misunderstanding my work – the rationale and aims of my research, the meaning of my studies, and the integration of my project into the spectrum of existing literature. I am afraid of misunderstanding other people’s work, and of writing my thesis ‘wrong’ because I’ve misunderstood how to write a thesis ‘correctly’. I am terrified of misunderstanding every premise my argument is based on and of not making it through my viva alive because my examiners will reveal how badly I’ve misunderstood everything.

Then she said we’d just talk through the misunderstanding until we understood.

I showed her the chapter outlines I’ve been working on – the ones that I’ve divided into sections, lists of topics, and brief notes about citations and key points – and she actually spread them out across her desk and listened as I talked her through them. I was amazed at how much easier it was to make sense of my confusing thoughts as I explained them to her, going through each outline, one chapter at a time. I showed her my analysis and pointed out the confusing results. She just looked at them and said, have you considered blah blah blah? And I just sat there, speechless, unable to understand why I hadn’t thought of that before.

In the space of two hours I went from a mad, chaotic mass of brain cells to a calm, motivated, valid human being. More importantly, many of my formerly confusing ideas are now starting to gain some clarity. And with the ones we didn’t find an answer to, I have clear actions to take to follow up. In short, now I understand, and I know what to do.

Wow.

Today is like a revelation. After long months of soldiering stubbornly through work and blankness I didn’t understand, now I see.

I think I’m going to make it after all.

I spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

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.

Data collection for the winter has started.

I keep telling myself this is my last study.

That doesn’t seem to help.

I was reading a critique paper from my field last night and it just dawned on me what a vast area of intellectual space our knowledge already covers, even in a relatively new topic like mine. Research and theory in my area has virtually exploded in the last 15 years, and the more you read about it, the more sure you are that you couldn’t possibly come up with something new, and useful, to add to it.

So it’s daunting to think about my PhD, and everyone’s PhDs, being “an original contribution to knowledge.”

I’m collecting data for my last study and I’m supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge with it. It seems simple on the face of it, but when you sit on it for a while you realise each chapter of your thesis is essentially a paper in itself, and each paper should be of publishable quality. And by the time you work those brain cells to read all the literature to critique it to come up with the idea to design the project to do the research to write it up to edit it to realise it’s completely wrong to go back and start from scratch to do it all over again to write it up again to edit and delete and rewrite it to get it all bound and sent off to your examiners on time- someone else has already done it all! Ping! Sorry! Your contribution is no longer original!

There have already been several close shaves which I have survived, in which I have read some seminal paper or other that I had not come across previously, and have been shocked to find the sheer similarity between some of the authors’ arguments and the arguments I have been trying to substantiate through my own writing. For a moment, I enter a hysterical state of terror that everything in my thesis has already been done, and hence its contribution will be completely unoriginal, and even worse than that, I have no knowledge that all this original work already exists, and I will go into my viva thinking my thesis is great only to be interrogated by my examiners and found to be utterly ignorant about anything to do with my subject matter, whereupon they will eat me alive like savage rabid thesis-gobbling monsters.

Then I calm down.

The work you produce in your thesis is unlikely to have been done before, at least in the precise way you have done it. If you hunt around and dig deep, you will, in all likelihood, find something that is original, and that’s your original contribution to knowledge. Reiterate that thing through the whole thesis, highlight it here and there, blow a trumpet about it and put it in the closing remarks. That’s what your examiners are interested to see.

Somehow – and I’m not quite sure how, yet – I’ll find a way of articulating my thesis. I’ll find a way of explaining just what I mean to say, and of showing the world my examiners that it is new and useful and exciting.

 

Today I am at a point where I have completed all trivial ‘bits and pieces’ of work that have plagued me over the summer: Things like writing and submitting conference abstracts (which take a hell of a long time to get right, despite being only 250 words), registering for conferences (these also take a long time because of bureaucratic funding applications, forms, committees, and authorising people being on leave), preparing lecture slides (the set I did for a 2-hour talk took 2 whole weeks to perfect, twice as long as I had thought originally), setting up and completing side projects (these drag on for weeks when your heart isn’t in them), rewriting papers (that were rejected by particular epistemologically biased journals), and PROCRASTINATING (no explanation required). So, for the last 8 weeks I’ve been madly rushing to get these ‘bits and pieces’ done, as much as is possible between cyberdistractions and periods of inspirationlessness, often beating myself up for not going fast enough.

Now the bulk of it is over, done, complete; for better or worse. Now I have a little time left to make the decision I’ve been expertly avoiding, evading, and escaping from for 2 years: Where is my research going? What am I going to do next?

And then this is the part where I run from my office, screaming and flailing my arms, unable to endure the incredulity of not knowing what to do for a second longer, and finally losing all tangible hope that I could ever come up with a theoretically meaningful concluding study for my thesis. I wander around, dazed and muttering to myself, for several days, before I am escorted by a pair of men in white coats to some pristine relaxation resort in the countryside, where I spend the rest of my days swinging from deep, inconsolable despair to insane, nonsensical mania at my miserably failed PhD.

It is almost a pity the reality is so much tamer!

In reality there are no mad outbursts, no fits of rage, no (happy?) endings in psychiatric wards. In reality there is just calm little me, calmly working myself into a sweat at how I can calmly finish my thesis while staying calm, all the while staying calm, calm, calm. No drama. Just need to make calm decisions, even though there is so little time.

I remember some of the things I said before about hope, and hard work. Those were probably some of the best reflections I’ve made about my experiences in this thing. Hope and hard work are the two things that have always carried me through the crises, the binges, the periods of sadness, and the moments of madness. I’ve afforded myself the opportunities to take to my bed, indulge in self-pity and wallow in laziness, but after that I’ve willed myself to get up, tidy up, and get back to work. Since it hasn’t killed me I guess it will make me stronger. And it will make you stronger, too!

In finally coming to a point where I can’t procrastinate any longer, I suppose only hope and hard work can save me now.

This feels like a tight corner, where there is no room to move – a corner whose walls have been edging inwards bit by bit ever since I started, and which have finally wedged me right in. I can’t move anywhere until I decide, and I can’t decide until I think about it, and I can’t think about it until I stop procrastinating! This is why I love procrastinating so much. Because it lets us do fun little things while the big important stuff gets put on the waiting list.

Today is one day when hope and hard work must come to the rescue and push me to finally name my next move.

Today I’m going to choose to have hope, and I’m going to choose to work hard. And I’m going to choose to be happy because those two things are going to carry me through to the end of this great journey.

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!