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Disclaimer: No particular logic was employed in entitling or composing this post. I take no responsibility for any confusion, incredulity, or insanity that may result from reading it.

Today is such a blah sort of day. For those of you who may still be at the start of your PhDs, trust me, towards the end, just about every day will be a blah sort of day. That means you will have a seemingly endless number of things to do, but, rather than worry and try to keep up with them as you did in the beginning, you will take on a relaxed, apathetic kind of attitude that will still ensure you get things done eventually, but will freak out everyone around you in the process. It being a blah day, however, you will not care much about this, and will continue blahing around until there is blah no more.

This being my first and, so far, only time doing a PhD, I am still uncertain of how this actually works, but I will make sure I continue blogging about it to inform future generations of PhD-goers.

I had a quick-catch-up-before-Christmas-and-the-foreseeable-future meeting with my third supervisor on Saturday (yes, we occasionally come in to the office on weekends…academia is such a passionate place) and in all honesty I came out with more questions than when I went in. So many different things to chase up, look up, finish up. I have a meeting with my second supervisor tomorrow. No doubt that’s going to be just as chaotic, stirring up another list of things to do and not doing much to resolve others. Why is it that after two and a half years of virtually non-stop work and countless attempts at early preparation and drafting, my last few months of being a PhD student seem more hectic than ever? Sometimes I get the feeling I have the completely wrong idea of when this is going to end – it doesn’t end when you enter write-up, not when you submit, not when you have your viva, not even when you do your corrections, but when you get your certificate in the post. When you’ve got your certificate in the post, that’s it, you’ve got your PhD. That’s when all the PhD-related chaos finally comes to an end.

Of course, that’s when the postdoc-related chaos begins. But I don’t fancy writing about that right now.

Today is a blah sort of day. I have more on my ever-rolling To-Do list than I did last week, even though I thought the opposite would be the case. For my supervisory meeting tomorrow, I have to re-run all my analyses ready to show my supervisor, and track down some admin forms for her. For my other supervisors, I have a list of things to run after from our meeting on the weekend – mainly papers and other literature, but I also have to do the reading and actually work some kind of interpretation into my analysis, because field research is only ever quasi-experimental. Oh, the joys of social science!

Apart from all that, I also have to do that little job that’s been pushed back continuously for several months now…what was it again? Ah yes, writing my thesis.

Too bad you can’t write blah blah blah in that.

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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!

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.

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?

Along with other obsessive quantification crazes I continuously encounter in the academic world (number of publications, number of citations, number of high impact factor journals, number of examiner appointments, number of PhD completions…you get the picture), I’ve recently begun to notice the more qualifications an academic has after their name, the sillier they seem to be.

Flicking though a promotional booklet on my department’s research activities last week, I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the sheer number of postnominals some professors (and even many pre-tenure staff) have accumulated and, remarkably,  how many of them I tend to find annoying. The more they have, the more intent they seem to be to obsess about details, promote themselves, and just generally be a pain to work with.

I appreciate this is only my opinion and that there are many academics with countless postnominals who are lovely.

Just not in my department. We seem to have all the incredulous manic-depressives here.

Take our Head, for example. He has the obligatory BSc-MSc-PhD combination, followed by at least 4 fellowships/charterships of various learned societies, which total up to a good two lines of abbreviations under his name. And, between you, me, and cyberspace, he is the most annoying man ever. He turns up to meetings late, is never in his office when you need to get a form signed, and obsesses about things that aren’t his responsibility. This isn’t just my opinion either – two of my supervisors and at least two professors in the department have all told me, independently and unsolicited, how much of a pain he is! But I don’t want to turn this into a rant.

One of my supervisors, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a Master’s degree, and she’s the loveliest person I’ve ever met in the university. She completely lacks any of the obsession with quantification that I’ve observed in other academics – she doesn’t fuss over self-promotion, doesn’t make me feel like I have to publish paper upon paper as if I’m manufacturing some sort of commodity. I’m not saying she gives me a free ride. She has expectations and she expects good quality work. But she’s really nice about it and I never feel like I’m being domineered.

This apparent pattern worries me sometimes. When I finish my PhD I’ll have four academic postnominals after my name, plus two learned society memberships. I don’t like to actually print them on documents if I can help it (I hesitate to even put ‘Ms’ as a title on forms – I prefer no title), though I know that in academia as it’s evolving today, research departments where I might work in the future will be hanging out waiting for me to get my next postnominals so they can print it in their research promotion booklets to show the world how intelligent stupid I am.

Because it’s true. The more qualified you become, the more stupid you realise you are. Or sometimes, you become stupid without really realising it. Even in the 6 years I’ve been at university, it has continuously struck me how stupid I was when I was younger, and as I become more experienced in research, academia, and life, I know that I must be getting even more stupid.

I am really stupid!

I suppose, in some ways, a PhD is really a consolation prize for making peace with the sheer insignificance of your own knowledge compared to the inconceivably large quantum multiverse we live in.

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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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