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My lab colleagues, though I am sure they have problems of their own, wander into the office at half past ten to find, though I am sure they take it for granted, that the kitchen is clean and freshly disinfected, the printer cartridge has been replaced, the heating adjusted, and the door propped open so newcomers don’t have to punch the keycode in. All these things are done by a certain lab fairy, who gets in 3 hours earlier than them because she has to submit her thesis in May. Sometimes, she feels a little bitter towards them.

labfairy

“And I shall cast a spell on thee, and thy experiments shall fail!”

And however much I’ve lived and breathed psychology for the best part of a decade, there are days when my humanness gets the better of me, and I fall prey to feeling lonely and sorry for myself because nobody understands me, everything is failing, and it’s such a cruel, unfair world. These are my vices, my biases, the things that get me down. These are the things that make me worried, withdrawn, and grumpy on the inside of my stoic scientist exterior.

Despite the fact that I will, I hope, finish my PhD in relatively record time, it feels like I have been working in these labs forever. My exclusive love relationship with my research has become more of a love-hate relationship of late, and, today, this seems to have morphed into a hate-only affair.

It’s normal, though a little unhealthy, but I’m going to confess: Today I hate my thesis. I hate every aspect of it – its topic, its style, its content, its ideas. Not only do they make me feel nauseous, I find them inherently repulsive. Strangely, this maddening repulsion manifests in my behaviour as a bittersweet kind of screw-it attitude, which makes me laugh disturbingly when things go wrong, sometimes do things wrong on purpose, and, most of all, my colleagues look at me as if I’m a rabid flesh-eating alien.

crazy-student

“I swear, dude, I’m like, totally fine!”

In my (probably biased and naive) mind, this research will never amount to anything, and, in comparison to the research of many of my colleagues and postdocs in this place, is inferior, boring, and useless. It’s also profoundly bizarre – located at the crossroads of psychology and a mismatched spectrum of other social sciences, it sits awkwardly in the middle of the road, no doubt liable to be squashed to bits by oncoming traffic. Other people’s research seems so simple, so elegant, so…neat. Mine, on the other hand, struggles to fit into any box. It’s difficult even for me to describe it in a way that makes sense, let alone explain how it might be useful for anything. I think it might have something to do with the fact that my work is wholly non-experimental, which is unusual in my department, which houses a string of high-tech labs up and down the hall just outside, where most of my colleagues spend the days running bamboozling, wires-coming-out-of-their-ears experiments and having experimental meetings to talk about experimental stuff. Because of my epistemological stance and patched-together interdisciplinary locatedness, I am a bit of an outsider! I guess I can’t blame them for being indifferent towards me.

Life is inherently unfair. I don’t believe it has to be that way, and I believe that if we – all of us together – resolved to eradicate injustice and inequality, we could do it. But, at this point at least, this is only likely to happen in an ideal world. PhDs are no exception to unfairness. Other people will have sexier research, geekier equipment, more celebrated publications than you. Their achievements will outshine yours and will be trumpeted louder and farther afield. There won’t necessarily be a justifiable reason for any of this – it will just be. You will try your best to soldier on in the academic jungle, but there will be times when you just think, screw it.
You will run away and hide in a cave – or, more likely, under your bed or at a bar – and sulk for a while. It will seem like the end of the world and a return to academia will feel like an absolute no-go.

Then, I think, you will resolve to come out again, and find a way to go on.

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It is a small victory for the sisterhood that it is the words of a female poet – Emma Lazarus – that grace the pedestals of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s great harbour.

What a shame that those words have come to represent an ideal that, in practice, America may never reach. Because the fact is, however much we idealise  equality among all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and however much we believe that we must protect those at the very bottom of society, we are still shamefully unequal. And for all the rhetoric of “difficult times” and “making do” used by politicians, our inequality is unjustifiable, indefensible, immoral.

Not long ago, Jon Ronson from GQ Magazine drove across America to interview some of the richest and poorest people in the country. In this striking story, the comfortable, protected life of a Forbes billionaire is put in contrast with a migrant from Haiti who lives in a slum and washes dishes for a meager wage. Inequality in America is, actually, still as bad as, if not worse than, it was in 1774. And that’s got to be bad, considering slavery was still in operation back then.

Today, we still live in a world where inequality prevails, where the rich hold power, and where the poorest masses are silent in the face of injustice.

In a world where those who dare to show us the truth – like Assange or Manning – are held captive by authorities that have long exceeded the powers granted them by constitutional law.

In a world where the tired, the poor, the huddled masses find no ‘world-wide welcome’ in the countries that hold equality ideal.

In a world where they find themselves, instead, destitute, and this destitution is more appalling in America and in Western cradles of democracy than it is in countries poorer, because it is here in the West that so many others bask in needless wealth, and in the greed that justifies holding on to it.

And here in London, in Stratford where I live and work, at what was the heart of the pomp and the glory of the 2012 Olympics, the homeless men and women still sit silent on the benches in the mall, wrapped tight in tattered clothes, smelling of garbage, a few bags of belongings tucked under their legs. In a country where £11 billion was spent on the games, how can it be fair that these unwanted castaways are no closer to decency and dignity than they were before?

If the West is really a ‘Mother of Exiles’, why did it not build shelters, open kitchens, create jobs and education programmes for its homeless?

And in its blind celebration of needless expenditure why, why can it not see the homeless, the tempest-tost on whom it treads?

 

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

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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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