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Yep.

I have already blogged about the similarities (according to a woman I once met at a conference) between PhDs and childbirth, though having munched my way through such a massive meal for no apparent reason, I see now the resemblance is uncanny. All these months, I’ve been eating fairly normally – lost a little weight, even – and now suddenly I seem to have an appetite that will not be satisfied. Graduation cravings, maybe?

More than that, though, as I was eating, I came to realise how much a PhD is a two-sided coin. I started this thing thinking it was all good – higher research makes you smarter, more analytical, more open-minded, and it helps you get a good paying job. A PhD, for those of us wanting to work in academia at least, is essentially a work visa to anywhere in the world.

These are all good things.

And yet, in bittersweet contradiction, PhDs make you stupid. I was reading the label on the back of a package of cookies yesterday, and at first misread the allergy warning as saying ‘Contains EEG [electroencephalography, a method of measuring electrical activity in the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp]’. “What?” I thought, and looked again. Then I realised it said ‘Contains EGG’. My immediate reaction? “That’s not how you write ‘EEG’!” It took a full minute or so before it dawned on me the damn word was egg.

My research isn’t even remotely related to EEG.

Then there’s the mad train of thought I had with my tacos. They put the mincemeat at the bottom of the shell, then add the lettuce, tomato, and cheese on top, putting each layer on top of the one under it, building upwards vertically. It looks better that way, yet when you take a bite out of the top, it contains only the salad fillings, because the meat is at the bottom. In order to get a quantity of all fillings in one mouthful, you then have to turn your head sideways and take a bite out of the side, which, as I found, leads to the nasty affliction known as taco rash on one side of the mouth, particularly after you bite in this way through five consecutive tacos. To solve this problem I set about creating a magnum opus (yes, this comes closer to being a magnum opus than my PhD thesis) – the ergonomically constructed taco. This involved setting the taco shell down sideways, spreading the mincemeat evenly across the whole bottom side, then layering each of the salad fillings evenly over it to create a homogeneously distributed filling mass.

Seriously, this is the kind of stuff I waste my (dubious) intelligence on.

Yesterday I had five tacos for dinner. Plus some cookies from the cookie packet warning me that they contain EEG brain waves. I am supposed to be a clever, sensible scientist with my wits about me. But that just isn’t the case. I have rarely come across a researcher or academic who did not, at some point, exhibit some noteworthy eccentricity or other. Because that is the nature of academia – it teaches sensibility, researches sensibility, yet it is seldom graced by sensible people.

Here’s to embracing the insanity…

I went to a conference in Wales yesterday. Apart from learning some interesting things about the research area it concerned, it also dawned on me that I was the only person out of a hundred or so delegates to turn up to this respectable scholarly gathering, taking place in a posh hotel in the countryside, in hiking gear.

This was a necessity, since the posh hotel in the countryside that hosted the conference was located, literally, at the top of a steep, rugged hill, surrounded by soft Welsh mist floating eerily over the adjacent golf course. It was damn cold. There weren’t even any pavements or trails for pedestrians, since anyone posh enough to stay in the hotel would have to be posh enough to have a posh car in which to drive up the steep, winding roads twisting and turning in all directions to the entrance, and posh enough to need one of those guys in tophats and tailcoats to run out and collect the carkeys for parking.

So, this is what led to me turning up to this posh hotel and to my posh seminar on the second floor to present my paper in my very unposh waterproof hiking trousers, windbreaker, and trainers.

I feel very self-conscious, still, at being a bit of a spectacle amongst all my high-heeled, tailored-suited peers.

Today I feel…dazed. Conferences – even one-day events – seem to have a dazing effect on me and I sit at my desk in the office the next day staring blankly at my surroundings, at my colleagues who smile at me politely and try not to let on that they think I’m probably mad, and wonder whether this is all going to be worth it in the end.

As a psychologist who thinks she almost has her PhD, I’m conscious that I’m being a little conceited when I say I can redefine chaos theory. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.

I can redefine chaos theory.

Right now, less than 6 months away from the (scheduled) end of my PhD, I am up to my neck in data, analyses and literature that need reading, re-reading, interpreting and writing, up to my eyeballs in anxiety about how I’m actually going to put my thesis together and have a fighting chance of passing my viva in July, and just about buried under my incredulity at being asked to teach a workshop series for 11 weeks next semester to a group of rowdy undergraduates. On top of all that, I also increasingly need to think about my life after my PhD (assuming I actually finish my PhD at some point, which still seems impossible at times) and keep up with a host of irritating errands that seem to keep popping up…like eating and sleeping. And showering. I seem to need to keep showering. According to my mum, these bizarre errands form part of something known as ‘everyday life’.

Huh.

Anyway, what I’m trying to illustrate here is that apart from the chaos of all of the above, I very often feel at a loss with regards to my work because my mind is in a state of chaos as well. This is especially annoying when my supervisors, whom I otherwise adore, tell me with apparent admiration that I am such an organised person. Actually, I have been told I am organised by quite a few people since I started grad school – at least two of my lab colleagues, a professor in another department whose research methods seminars I took for a semester, two of my three supervisors, the Dean of my department, and that bloke from Queensland who processed my passport renewal application at the Aussie high commission in London a couple years ago.

I’m telling you, people, I may seem the picture of organisation on the outside, but my mind is like a minefield littered haphazardly with all manner of academic and non-academic junk such that the phenomenological Me wandering through it in a vain attempt to understand myself and the significance of my work (if it has any significance at all) has frequently to jump, hop, swerve and somersault through the mess in order to navigate it, and even so does not make much progress in comprehending it.

I mean, a mind that can even produce a sentence like the one just above has got to be in for trouble when it comes to writing a thesis – a long, complex document that desperately requires a clear, logical, flowing structure and narrative.

More chaos to be added to my week:

Tuesday: A day trip to Wales to present a paper at a conference. I SWEAR I’m not doing any more of these until I have submitted my thesis!!!

Wednesday: Spending all day running my final analyses and probably getting confused and frustrated.

Thursday: More work on analyses.

Friday: Writing up the analyses and sending off the data files, output, and notes to my supervisor in advance of our meeting next week.

The weekend: Resolving to work on my thesis, but more likely finding something otherwise educational to do by way of active procrastination and convincing myself I’m still being productive…like reading some more of The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels, as I did this weekend.

Well, bring on the chaos! Let’s finish this thing!

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.

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 spent the weekend rewriting some of my chapter outlines because I’d figured out that the chaotic scribbles, notes and corrections I’d added all over them in times of afterthought were preventing me from really seeing what the final product looked like. Now, I have new, revised chapter outlines for my first four chapters, and I’m about halfway through planning the fifth one. I’ll probably get to the sixth and final outline tomorrow. Maybe. Potentially. But I do pen-and-paper work at home. Right now, I am sitting at my desk in the office again, and my mind is completely blank. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

You see, that’s a problem with being nearly finished in a PhD programme. When you’re at the beginning, everything is new and exciting and you’re busy setting up your studies. When you’re in the middle, you’re busy running the studies, reading, and running to conferences. But when you get to the end, your studies are complete, you have no data to analyse, your supervisors never see you any more because you’re supposed to be writing, and you walk around like a ghost every day, quietly procrastinating on one pointless activity or another, all the while wondering what on earth it is you are meant to be doing. Life feels so…meaningless. As if you have no worthwhile purpose in it.

I know I’m going to submit in May. I know I’m going to do whatever it takes to have my thesis ready on time. I know I have to start now before it’s too late. I just don’t know how.

So I’ve taken to looking ahead at what my life is probably going to look like from now until I submit.

It’s probably going to go something like this:

From now until November 28th: Dragging myself into the lab to do data clean-up and preliminary analysis for my last study, and whipping up the results into a snazzy conference presentation for a conference in December.

November 29th to Christmas: Assessing the possibility probability of doing mop-up data collection to up my sample size, doing the full analysis, analysing another dataset I collected last summer, and writing up summary reports for both datasets.

Christmas/New Year: Notoriously avoiding all celebratory activities, people, shopping madness and social media to spend the winter break writing, and probably feeling paradoxically sorrowful that I’m all alone and nobody likes me.

January, February, and potentially March: Becoming a complete social recluse and writing, not even coming to the office any more for fear of running into my supervisors/reviewers/optimistic colleagues who always expect me to say I’m fine and would no doubt get uncomfortable if I burst into tears about not being able to write well, and editing, and daydreaming about how unreal my thesis is going to look when it’s printed and bound.

April and maybe the first half of May: Completely crashing and potentially going mad after spending three months in self-imposed solitary confinement while doing final editing and proofing and sending off the file for printing and binding.

Sometime in the rest of May: Submitting the thesis, breathing a huge sigh of relief that’s it over, and then starting to worry again when I remember my viva is in July.

Oh, to be an undergrad again!

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.

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’m going to a conference in Wales in December and just got my train tickets in the post. It’s only a one-day conference, so I thought I would receive two tickets: My return train ticket from London, and my PlusBus card, which is for using the local buses in the town I’m going to. Alas, train tickets seem to be a lot more complex than my naive mind assumes. Hence, my bemusement at opening the envelope to find not fewer than thirteen separate tickets, all printed on the same cream-and-orange ticket cards so as not to allow you to tell the difference between them, including separate tickets for the outbound and return journeys, a number of obscure coupons, seat reservation cards, my receipt, and blank card with my name on it. I’ve just spent half an hour putting mini yellow post-it notes on them to tell them apart.

And I thought PhDs were complex!

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The Final Countdown

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