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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.

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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.

Mid-week already and still so much to do and so little time. On today’s menu: Meeting with my supervisors to discuss my thesis examiners.

This has led me to a sort of retrospective on my life so far and how, in a ubiquitously contradictory way, the events leading up to my PhD have been both incredibly typical and incredibly unpredictable. So today I’m taking a walk down memory lane to remember all the crazy things that I never thought would happen (now imagine the harp tinkling in the background to take us back…)

From the age of 4 to the age of 11, I went to a Catholic primary school where we would pray every morning and every afternoon for Jesus to guide us and fill our lives with His love. Our home-time prayer in first grade, verbatim, was:

School is over for today

We’ve done our work and we’ve had our play

But before I go I’d like to say

Thank you heavenly Father.

When I was little, at my ultra-Catholic primary school, we would sometimes be asked about our aspirations for the future. I remember one occasion when I was about 9 years old, when, on a rainy afternoon, our class teacher Mrs O’Sullivan asked us to draw pictures of ourselves in our occupations 10 years in the future. I recall sitting next to a popular, teacher’s pet girl at the time – let’s call her Carolyn – who, for some reason unfathomable to me even at that young age, was hellbent on growing up to be a supermarket cashier…stacking shelves at Coles. Sure, I had respect for supermarket cashiers, they’re just people trying to get by, but surely girls our age should be aspiring to achieve a little more? Annoyed at this, I remember furiously sketching myself as an architect, a crudely drawn dark-haired figure bending over a drawing board covered in notes and building plans. I got a nice tick from Mrs O’Sullivan.

If you had told me then, as a 9-year-old, that one day I would grow up to be an academic, sitting in an office, doing research in the social sciences, I would have looked at you as if you were some kind of alien life form.

Then when I was 10, my parents let me be truant from Catholic school for 6 months (shock horror! 6 months without going to mass!) to go backpacking with them around the world. Not really around the world – around Europe, but at that age and never having been outside Melbourne my whole life, Europe felt like a whole world in itself. Those times were when I saw first hand that there is so much variety in the world, so many people living in so many different ways, and that Catholic school is most definitely not the only way to be. Travelling on a shoestring also made me forego any attachment to luxury on the road, and I enjoyed ‘rednecking it’ – living cheaply in backpacker hostels, driving from city to city in a 6th-hand ’91 Transit, and surviving on some of the most interesting street food I’ve ever had.

So then, I forgot about being an architect and instead wanted to be one of those people who work for Lonely Planet, getting paid to travel every conceivable nook and cranny of the world, discover the ups and downs of everything, and then write about it in a sexy little book. And if you had told me then that I would grow up to be an academic, sitting in an office, doing research in the social sciences, I would have scoffed at you and said “Why sit in an office when you can zig-zag across the remotest corners of the world?”

When I turned 11, everyone in my class wanted to be a marine biologist. I have no idea why. But I remember that to say you were going to be a marine biologist when you grew up, at that time, was an extremely cool thing to say and made you look very intelligent. Not wanting to be a sheep, and not knowing what a marine biologist was anyway, I made up my mind to become a zoologist instead. That way, I succeeded both in being unique and in looking intelligent. It was also very cool at that time to be ‘into’ animals (it being the golden age of Free Willy and WWF), so I was pleased that I could become some sort of animal-scientist and look cool at the same time.

If you had told me then that I would grow up to be an academic, sitting in an office, doing research in the social sciences, I would have cried my eyes out at not having an occupation related to saving cute animals and looking intelligent.

After I left Catholic primary school, I parted ways with most of my Catholic classmates, who went to Catholic high school to continue going to mass and wanting to be marine biologists, and instead went to public high school, where I was amazed to find that no one sang Advance Australia Fair at Monday morning assembly, or even had Monday morning assembly at all, no one prayed for Jesus to fill their lives with His love, and many of my classmates’ parents were, to my childish horror, divorced (!). And although I was ambivalent about public school, away from my Catholic ‘friends’, I’m glad now that I went to a state-run school with overcrowded pre-fabricated classrooms, leaking ceilings, and 15-year-olds smoking fags behind the bike shed. Because it opened my eyes to the real world.

Having found a small group of friends at public high school who, for a change from Catholic school, actually accepted that I was different and liked me for who I was (an eccentric, very un-Catholic bookworm of a child from a working class family), I was confronted with a much heavier workload than I had been accustomed to in primary school, and I was glad about that because it challenged me. I was a nerd in high school and aced every subject I took. Of course, that doesn’t mean I enjoyed every subject: In fact, my favourite subjects at that time were in the humanities – history, English, French, and art. I wanted to become an archaeologist and a writer, and travel the world not for Lonely Planet, but for some obscure philanthropist’s enterprise which would fund my trips to Egypt to conduct excavations on the Giza plateau, Howard Carter style, and then I would write up my excavations for classics journals and become a world-famous expert on ancient Egyptian dynasties.

And there was no way at that time that I would ever consider giving up this exciting dream of becoming a real life Indiana Jones to become some boring academic in an office doing social science research crap.

Life went on and in time I moved permanently to the Northern hemisphere and finished high school in a completely different cultural environment (and even a different language). That’s a whole different can of worms that can stay closed for now.

After a few years, when I was about 16, I wanted to become an architect again. But researching the job opportunities in what is still, unfortunately, a male-dominated occupation, I became disillusioned with the idea. I wanted to study something that fitted my personality – something that would feed my relentless, maddening curiosity and set me free from the constraints of Catholic school, unrealistic expectations to become Indiana Jones, and the monotony, for me, of being an architect.

Though I can’t believe it now, I considered studying fine art, choreography, or literature. I remember sitting at the kitchen table at home, staring down at the mallard ducks printed on the vinyl tablecloth, and thinking what on earth should I do in my life?

Suddenly (and to this day I can’t remember how exactly), I decided to go to England to study psychology.

I am months away from completing a PhD thesis in psychology and I have no idea why I decided to study it.

As a first year undergraduate I was struck by the prestige (at least to me!) of being a university student. Wow, I would think to myself, I’m actually a university student. I would go around in disbelief that I was so intelligent (I wasn’t, of course, but what do you expect from a 17-year-old). Then when I was in my second year, it dawned on me that first year undergraduates are actually quite naive, and that the really intelligent people are second year undergraduates. Then as a final year student, I felt on top of the world because I was, in my still naive mind, at the ‘top’.

At that point I still had no idea that I would grow up to become an academic sitting in an office doing research in social science.

So, what next? Six months before I started my PhD, I was still in two minds about whether to apply for a Master’s degree or a PhD. I went for the PhD. To this day I have no idea why.

In my first year as a PhD student I felt very busy, very sleep-deprived, and very unaccustomed to having so much freedom (as my supervisors have always allowed me) to direct my own research project. Which I loved. I also felt (similar to when I was an undergraduate) on top of the world because I was sure, this time, that you must be pretty intelligent to be able to be a first year PhD student (Note to self: Not necessarily). I was so busy becoming accustomed to being a PhD student in my first year that I had little idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up and very little time to think about it.

Towards the middle of my PhD – in my second year slump – that’s when I knew enough about academia to want to be an academic.

Now I’m nearly at the end of my PhD.

When I grow up I want to be an academic, and sit in an office, and do research in social science. That’s exactly what I’m doing right now. I’m an academic in training.

I believe it now, but when I remember my life in retrospect, I can’t believe I wanted to be an architect, a zoologist, an archaeologist, a choreographer. I can’t believe I thought I would dig up another treasure trove in Egypt and become famous like Howard Carter. I can’t believe my dreams have been so wild and so diverse, and how they have ended up focusing on something quite so tame, quite so modest, and quite so content.

But I am happy.

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The Final Countdown

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