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So much for writing-up being dramatic. It’s the most underwhelming experience ever.

I’ve been in confinement for a week now, venturing outside my home only twice to pop to the supermarket in search of food. Other than that, I’ve been holed up in four walls, trying hard to write my thesis. I have, actually, done some writing – Chapter 1 needed redrafting and that’s about half-finished at the moment, but I seem to spend much more time doing things other than writing – like sighing, pacing the room, drinking tea, and staring at the ceiling. I mean, I’ve probably spent at least 6 hours in total, just on the sighing.

It’s been a wet Christmas in London. Wet, grey, and slushy. Actually, that’s lucky. Other parts of the UK have been completely flooded. Here in London, it’s just been drizzling miserably, in a long, relentless kind of trickle. It’s a bit underwhelming.

Sometimes I miss the sudden, extreme, all-heavens-breaking-open downpours we used to have at the end of 45-degree summer days in Melbourne.

“There’s a cool change on the way,” they’d say on the radio, and after a while the branches on the plum trees in the garden would start swaying in the wind and the thunder would clap under gathering clouds. Then the rain would start. It would rain like it had never rained before and like it would never rain again, water pouring over us, drenching everything in sight.

Then it would stop. I’d go outside again sometimes to look at the snails on the driveway and to smell that fresh, grassy, straight-after-rain smell.

I used to look forward to being able to smell that smell. It’s an exciting smell, a smell of freshness and newness and of young things coming alive. I would sit around in the house, reading a book, or listening to Neil Mitchell on drivetime, and wait for the rain.

It’s a bittersweet kind of nostalgia I have, this time waiting not for the rain to start, or to stop, or to do anything really, but for my thesis to hurry up and get written. I’m waiting for all heavens to open and put the inspiration into my brain that I need to push out the words, sentences, and paragraphs that will comprise my thesis.

There is no more Neil Mitchell. Instead, I listen to LBC talk-back, or Radio 4. I miss the rolling repetition of ninety-six, ninety-six, twelve seventy-eight in my ears.

Sigh. Pace. Sip. Stare.

The pen touches the paper.

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…

Wow!

Here’s another rant about food in the world of PhD students.

Actually, it’s more about the apparent lack of food.

Having worked 8 to 10 hours a day in a shared PhD office for the last 2.5 years, I’ve increasingly noticed the strange feeding habits of some of the colleagues I work alongside, and in all honesty, if I followed their example, I’m sure I’d die. In the space of the 6 to 8 hours some people spend in this place, they seem to survive on just a couple small snacks, and sometimes on nothing at all.

We have one colleague, for example, who shows up at about 10am and is in the office all day, until about 5 or 6pm, and habitually eats nothing throughout the whole time.

Seriously.

Then there are the ‘grazers’. Grazers are people who seem to float around the lab working in an unstructured fashion and just eat little bits and pieces at odd times. We’ve had so many of these in the last couple of years – one who used to show up at around 11am, immediately have a coffee, and then eat a sandwich at around 4pm (a bizarrely-timed meal I call lunner), another who would show up any time between 9 and 10am and immediately have a huge sub for breakfast, followed by sips of coke for the rest of the day, and yet another who would spend the entire day testing in the lab, walking back and forth to meet participants, and having long chats to postdocs in the hallways, surviving the whole time on coffee. Then of course, there are the ones who eat nothing except small pre-packaged salads for lunch, even if they are at work for the whole day.

I just don’t understand how you can do research when you haven’t eaten anything all day.

I’m sure most people around this place would be less grumpy and more productive if they actually had a proper lunch break in the middle of the day, and actually ate something nutritious and filling during it. In fact, I hypothesise this would exponentially enable more research to be done, and more PhDs to be successfully completed sooner.

In the meantime, I’ll just try to smooth my incredulity at grad students on Victoria’s Secret angel diets and have some lunch.

But it sure is for PhD students!

I didn’t start out my PhD being such a chocoholic. But lately, as I’ve gradually come to the point where it all seems to be coming to a close (maybe, potentially), I’ve started snacking on choc-chip cookies dunked in Nutella…washed down with hot chocolate…and occasionally some squares of good old dark bitter.

Yum.

Apart from being warmly, deliciously indulgent, these sorts of outrageous snacks remind me of a time I was backpacking through Switzerland and, on a short stopover in Zürich, indulged in a box of those wicked little Swiss chocolates that come in individual mini cupcake holders. Intelligently, they are just big enough to fill your mouth, allow the filling to melt, and tantalize your taste buds with velvety richness, yet just small enough to make you think “I’ll just have one more…”

Seriously. Yum.

At this rate, I’ll be submitting a very brown, very smudged, and very yummy-smelling thesis in a few months’ time. But what can I do? You’ve got to fuel the brain!

Anyway, it seems chronic chocolate dependence is relatively common in PhD students, especially those who are in the advanced stages of the disease research…

In a break from tradition, today I just want to post about food. Because it’s quarter to twelve in London and I’m hungry.

Not starving. Just hungry.

I can’t stand it when middle class and even relatively well-off working class people in developed Western countries dash panting into the office at 10 o’clock in the morning and lament “I’m starving.” You’re not starving. You’ve woken up at a leisurely hour, left yourself no time to have a decent breakfast at home, rushed out of the house and needlessly spent £2.65 on a questionably sourced caffeine fix from Starbucks, and arrived at work in a sweat only to need to rush back out, this time to the on-campus Starbucks to needlessly spend more money on an overpriced late breakfast.

Bulk up.

Children in Palestine desperately waiting for humanitarian aid to sustain themselves, millions in some of the most deprived and war-ravaged nations in Africa, the homeless even in the rich West who rely on spare change from passers by for their next meal – they’re the ones who are starving. People on self-imposed hunger strikes protesting political injustice and persecution and abuses of human rights. They’re starving.

So, I am hungry.

I came across an interesting blog today. I can’t link to it because they probably wouldn’t like what I’m going to say.

The blog is about a university student’s daily meals – where and what they eat and how much they pay for it. I happened to come across yesterday’s entry and, fascinated, went back to look at the previous day’s, and then the day’s before that. Every day seemed to be composed of a breakfast of a buttered breadroll and something to drink, a lunch of an energy drink, chips, and donuts, and a dinner of more energy drink and occasionally a packaged meal. Wow, I kept thinking, doesn’t this person ever make an effort to eat properly (and save money at the same time)?

Firstly, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s usually the first food you eat after having ‘fasted’ for 8-12 hours overnight and it restores your blood sugar levels and sustains you throughout the morning. The morning hours (8-11am) are the hours when attention and other cognitive processes have the greatest potential, meaning if you’ve had a good breakfast, you’ll be much more likely to work productively. Lunch doesn’t have to be a big effort. If more people kicked their own arses to cook a meal for dinner in the evenings, the leftovers would do just fine for the next day’s lunch. You can cook a meal easily in an hour or so, providing you pick up some simple groceries from the shop.

I always cook, whether I’m living alone or not. Because I like it. I like buying supplies and using them to create different meals and rising to the challenge of achieving it all cheaply and quickly, because I’m a student. I find it bizarre when I have people round to eat or when people ask me in the office and they seem to think it’s such a huge effort to actually go to the shop and buy groceries and come home and cook a meal. That seems like a lot of effort, why don’t you just buy it? they ask. I couldn’t imagine buying three meals a day, seven days a week. I’d be out of pocket but more than that I’d get sick. Really. Many people seem to think it’s healthy and acceptable to consume bottled fruit juices, packaged TV dinners, boxed sandwiches. I get sick if I eat these more than once in a while. I get purple circles under my eyes and I start to feel permanently tired and I get headaches. It’s bad for you, even though it looks healthy. Please don’t eat it.

And you know, much more than being out of pocket and sick, I won’t eat commercially made food because it makes me feel like a slave to irresponsible consumerism. Today we live in a world where many people can’t imagine how they would survive without the convenience of being able to buy a sandwich or a roast dinner from the supermarket. People who don’t have the slightest idea how to make soup, even the simplest kind. People who actually hate cooking meals for themselves, because they think it’s tedious or boring or a waste of time.

Bulk up!

I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t care if the research is coming out of my ears or if I’m up to my neck in teaching. I will spend an hour to cook for myself and I will enjoy it.

Now I will have lunch.

Friend of WikiLeaks

June 2017
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The Final Countdown

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