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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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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.

Here I am with you and yet not for a single moment do I forget that there’s an unfinished novel waiting for me. -Chekhov

Even when I take a moment to blog this, he reminds me that I have a thesis to write, dammit!

We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds. -Chekhov

September 21st is annually observed as International Day of Peace, also known as World Peace Day. Many national and international peace organisations hold campaigns across the world to promote peace among people of all colours, creeds, and classes. Although these campaigns are held throughout the year, special attention is given today, as a way of highlighting peaceful resolution of political and other conflicts over and above war and resolutions made by force or coercion.

Whoever we are, we all have an opportunity to contribute to peace, whether it be personal peace with those around us, or social peace in our communities, nations, and internationally. More than ever, peace is an idea whose time has come.  

Some interesting resources about World Peace Day:

http://peaceoneday.org/

http://www.un.org/en/events/peaceday/

You are right in demand­ing that an artist should take an intel­li­gent atti­tude to his work, but you con­fuse two things: solv­ing a prob­lem and stat­ing a prob­lem cor­rectly. It is only the sec­ond that is oblig­a­tory for the artist. -Chekhov

If only we could say the same for scientists!

Even if depicting a problem as it really is is sufficient to accomplish literary art, in science we must go beyond this, and actually solve a problem. And while we may be less eloquent in the literary sense, there is all the more expectation of an answer, a discovery, and a revelatory conclusion.

If only you could see our modern world of science and academia, dear Chekhov. A world of intense funding competition, stringent outcome-focused research, and esteem derived from citations and impact factors. I wonder what you’d have said.

You are not just an artist, remember, you are a physician too. You are a scientist.

We have a problem problem in science. Not only do we have to state the problem correctly, we also have to solve it. Or, in the case of science PhDs, at least do some pilot studies or literature searching that might lay out the foundations of developing a strategy to consider how we may devise a way of thinking about contemplating the prospect of speculating how we could potentially solve it (pending further research, obviously).

This problem problem could go two ways. Sure, scientists try to solve problems, and through solving problems, try to change the world. Sometimes they change the world for better, and sometimes for worse. I suppose it depends on whether the problem is stated correctly in the first place – I mean, not aligned with logic alone, but also with common human values. But equally, there is far too much superficial esteem in science – esteem taken from the ‘ability to attract research funding’ [viz. save the university money and generate revenue], ‘produce high impact research outputs’ [viz. make our academics look smart], and ‘contribute to enhancing research excellence in the institution’ [viz. push us upwards in the league tables]. What’s the trade-off between genuine solution-oriented research and research aimed at a cycle of perpetual funding? Is there one?

What is this science we’re in, anyway? Is there just one science? Is it a self-serving, funding-perpetuating science, or a science in the human interest? Or are there two sciences, multiple sciences?

The problem problem isn’t the only problem in science, however many sciences there might be. More than that, we have a problem of integrity in science – especially those of us who have ‘made it’. By ‘made it’, I mean those of us who have a decent income, relative material comfort, and reasonable job security. Those of us, in many cases, can’t seem to draw the line and say, “I’ve got my living out of science, now let me do science in the human interest”. We go on in our careers, winning more and more funding, publishing more and more papers, always adding each new accomplishment to our CV, eventually becoming a celebrity in academia. We don’t shut up when we retire either – we employ an army of naive postdocs to keep our publication record going. Somewhere along the line, when we ‘make it’, we’ve got to dismount from the manic ever-more-funding-ever-more-prestige academic bandwagon and start practicing science in the human interest – direct action instead of publication, public involvement instead of academic dissemination.

Another problem is knowing when to dismount the bandwagon.

Answer me this: How do you go forward if you don’t know which way you’re facing?

Hm?

Lennon? Chekhov? Fellow PhD enthusiasts in the blogosphere?

Because right now I have no idea where I am in this vast, sprawling, hopelessly chaotic, admittedly fascinating but oh so exhausting PhD.

Couldn’t resist posting another bit of wisdom from him, just as I have been afraid to start work because of the risk of writing something stupid:

Only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish things. -Chekhov

I’m beginning to think he really does have the answer to everything.

Ok.

I’m going to shut up now.

One usually dislikes a play while writing it, but afterward it grows on one. Let others judge and make decisions.

One can only wonder what might have been, if he had done a PhD!

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

“You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind.” – Chekhov

The reality we live in is merely a stream of consciousness that we create together. When we are no longer together – when we are alone – we cannot continue to create that reality. Because creating reality with others is what we do every day, alone we cannot understand why we are. Thus, things become nonsense – they can no longer be woven into a reality we construct with those around us – and we cease to have a purpose.

One of the major obstacles in the journey of bereavement is finding a purpose again. Where once living made sense because we shared it with someone, now it seems as if the tasks of each day are something I complete mechanically, without thinking, all the while wondering what my greater purpose in life might be. I thought it was to make you happy!

The Cherry Orchard is growing, blossoming, ripening, and you are not there to see it.

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The Final Countdown

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