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Well, hasn’t it been a crazy fortnight.

It’s surprising how much stress builds up in your body subconsciously when you wake up at 6am each day, force down a quick breakfast, power-walk to the office, spend the entire day typing, chasing up things you have to rely on other people to do for you, and teaching undergrads, power-walk home at 6pm, force down a quick dinner, and then proofread the day’s work before hitting the pillow at midnight. When I was doing that for the last 2 weeks I never once felt sick. I didn’t even feel particularly tired or cranky. It was just go, go, go.

But now it’s finished, and I’ve stopped, stopped, stopped.

And the migraine has begun.

I was up at 6am again this morning out of habit, but I felt really strange. I finished writing my thesis yesterday. I mean actually fully, totally, finished. Including proofing, cross-checking the references, and formatting. The weirdness started yesterday afternoon when I finished formatting the lists of tables and figures (the last thing I was working on in the thesis). I converted the file to pdf, made multiple backups, and went and delivered a copy to my supervisor. This morning I went to the binder to order the four copies with glue binding. Three for the examiners and the viva chair, one for me.

And today, I’ve just been feeling blank. My head hurts, especially my frontal lobes (which have no doubt been overworked for the last few years and are now in a strange blank state, having nothing left to do). I’ve been chasing up a few last things for submission. I’ve printed my declaration form, and my accompanying materials. Things are almost ready to go for next Wednesday.

I just feel so strange. This has to be the strangest feeling I’ve ever felt. Headache-y, happy, sad, sick, joyful, focused, and insane, all at the same time. And sleepy. Dude, I could do with some sleep right now to get rid of this migraine.

Three years ago I would never have believed I would one day be here, where I am right now. Actually, I didn’t even believe that last week. It didn’t really sink in until the work-till-you-drop routine I’d been on ended yesterday, and I realised there was nothing else left to do. I just sat there at my desk, dazed and stupefied.

I guess that’s what I’m doing now. I just…feel so blank.

But this blankness is different from the blankness I felt when I couldn’t write before. I think it’s a content kind of blankness, a blankness that has seen more than eighty thousand words written, unwritten, and rewritten, and the many thousands more that have come to pass as old, discarded drafts – a blankness that sits back and thinks, well, it’s done. There’s nothing more left to do.

And after I submit next week, I guess I’ll progress to the next stage of the PhD – worrying about my viva.

I wonder if this will ever end.

I’ve been writing, writing, writing away for days on end. A few weeks ago I was dreading this, thinking I’d never survive through such a massive writing task. Yet here I am, writing away, and I feel great.

At the moment, I have another chapter coming along steadily.

It’s actually progressing.

It feels surreal that the work I’ve been working on all these years is finally culminating into a tangible, touchable thesis. And that, in total contradiction to everything I had imagined might happen (dropping out, failure, ending up homeless and penniless on the streets, going mad), I am actually succeeding. Well, maybe the ‘going mad’ one did come true…

Onwards and upwards, as they say.

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.

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…

Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

Today I am at a point where I have completed all trivial ‘bits and pieces’ of work that have plagued me over the summer: Things like writing and submitting conference abstracts (which take a hell of a long time to get right, despite being only 250 words), registering for conferences (these also take a long time because of bureaucratic funding applications, forms, committees, and authorising people being on leave), preparing lecture slides (the set I did for a 2-hour talk took 2 whole weeks to perfect, twice as long as I had thought originally), setting up and completing side projects (these drag on for weeks when your heart isn’t in them), rewriting papers (that were rejected by particular epistemologically biased journals), and PROCRASTINATING (no explanation required). So, for the last 8 weeks I’ve been madly rushing to get these ‘bits and pieces’ done, as much as is possible between cyberdistractions and periods of inspirationlessness, often beating myself up for not going fast enough.

Now the bulk of it is over, done, complete; for better or worse. Now I have a little time left to make the decision I’ve been expertly avoiding, evading, and escaping from for 2 years: Where is my research going? What am I going to do next?

And then this is the part where I run from my office, screaming and flailing my arms, unable to endure the incredulity of not knowing what to do for a second longer, and finally losing all tangible hope that I could ever come up with a theoretically meaningful concluding study for my thesis. I wander around, dazed and muttering to myself, for several days, before I am escorted by a pair of men in white coats to some pristine relaxation resort in the countryside, where I spend the rest of my days swinging from deep, inconsolable despair to insane, nonsensical mania at my miserably failed PhD.

It is almost a pity the reality is so much tamer!

In reality there are no mad outbursts, no fits of rage, no (happy?) endings in psychiatric wards. In reality there is just calm little me, calmly working myself into a sweat at how I can calmly finish my thesis while staying calm, all the while staying calm, calm, calm. No drama. Just need to make calm decisions, even though there is so little time.

I remember some of the things I said before about hope, and hard work. Those were probably some of the best reflections I’ve made about my experiences in this thing. Hope and hard work are the two things that have always carried me through the crises, the binges, the periods of sadness, and the moments of madness. I’ve afforded myself the opportunities to take to my bed, indulge in self-pity and wallow in laziness, but after that I’ve willed myself to get up, tidy up, and get back to work. Since it hasn’t killed me I guess it will make me stronger. And it will make you stronger, too!

In finally coming to a point where I can’t procrastinate any longer, I suppose only hope and hard work can save me now.

This feels like a tight corner, where there is no room to move – a corner whose walls have been edging inwards bit by bit ever since I started, and which have finally wedged me right in. I can’t move anywhere until I decide, and I can’t decide until I think about it, and I can’t think about it until I stop procrastinating! This is why I love procrastinating so much. Because it lets us do fun little things while the big important stuff gets put on the waiting list.

Today is one day when hope and hard work must come to the rescue and push me to finally name my next move.

Today I’m going to choose to have hope, and I’m going to choose to work hard. And I’m going to choose to be happy because those two things are going to carry me through to the end of this great journey.

Yes, I’m guilty of trying to write my thesis before it’s ready. But I have no choice, because I’ve altered my data collection schedule, and I have nothing else to do right now than either write or procrastinate. And given I want to submit next May, I’m going with the writing.

I’ve never realised it’s so boring.

But bring it on.

Friend of WikiLeaks

August 2017
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The Final Countdown

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