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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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Something many of us fail to remember during our PhDs, while we are busy collecting data, reading papers, and whinging about how stressful, chaotic, and daunting the whole process is, is how rewarding and enjoyable being a researcher has the potential to be.

There are so many people who wake up each morning and feel grumpy because they have to get up and go to work at a job they dislike, and they do everything they can to procrastinate, avoid tedious errands, and get out of work early in order to find time for things that make them happier. Conversely, most of us ended up in research because we have (or at least had!) an interest in our subject area and wanted to work on our own project to advance understanding in that area. How many people work a job in which they are able to read literature and collect data on a topic they love? (This is, of course, with the exception of the nausea that follows reading/data overload…).

What’s intriguing to me about this is that, when you’re a researcher, work and play often become enmeshed, entangled, and intertwined. The same aspects of our work both frustrate and inspire us. We are fascinated by whatever branch of science or art we study, yet at times we come to despise it. We get cranky, and incredulous, and we slink around the lab looking gloomy and sighing a lot.

I for one, sigh a lot.

There’s a thin line between work and play in research. Often it disappears altogether. There are all sorts of perks and downsides. Today a colleague who’s supposed to be at home writing up walked into the office and handed me a box of Belgian chocolates. Now, I am faced with the dilemma of eating the whole box in celebration of all I’ve achieved this semester, or rationing them out over the next few months in reward of each new milestone I reach with my own writing. Decisions, decisions!

Looking back over the last few years, I see I delved into something I essentially enjoy, but I’ve come to have a love-hate relationship with my work. I love Belgian chocolates and the rush of creating new and exciting projects. I hate coming to the end of the box and feeling a sense of stagnation as I near the end of my work, and transition to write-up.

Ideally, I’d like to have a love-hate-love relationship with my thesis.

I want to end this thing on a high.

 

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!

I came across a strangely delightful quote from Scott Fitzgerald today:

To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.
Poor, tragic Scott. I wonder if writing novels is as mentally exhausting as writing a thesis?
There are interesting parallels between the literary process and thesis-writing. The most obvious (to me) is that both cause irreversible madness. But more than that, when you think about how long it takes to write, and the lengths you have to go to just to get to a stage where you can write, you see the process is the same.
 
Sure, I will write the (almost) final draft of my thesis in three months, but to get to the stage where I can do that, I spent six months trying to work out what a PhD is all about, three months collecting and analysing data for my first study, nine months writing up my first study and running my second study, and another six months running my third study and coming back to trying to work out what a PhD is all about. I spent the best part of 2 years swimming in a mental sea of data – words, numbers, statistics, software packages, charts, tables and diagrams. I just swam around, trying to interpret it, and trying to make my interpretations actually make sense, and maybe even an original contribution to knowledge. Then there’s the fact that I conceived of the original idea for this whole project in the space of about 20 minutes.
 
If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
 
No matter what sort of writers we are – artistic, academic, or a bizarre blend of both – there is a lot that goes into our work besides just writing the words. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of data collection, and a lot of interpretation and reinterpretation and a lot of madness.
 
Struggling thesis writers, novelists, madmen and women – unite! We shall conquer these great seas of chaos and emerge brighter, stronger, more learned, at the helm of this mighty ship.
 

Here I am with you and yet not for a single moment do I forget that there’s an unfinished novel waiting for me. -Chekhov

Even when I take a moment to blog this, he reminds me that I have a thesis to write, dammit!

Data collection for the winter has started.

I keep telling myself this is my last study.

That doesn’t seem to help.

I was reading a critique paper from my field last night and it just dawned on me what a vast area of intellectual space our knowledge already covers, even in a relatively new topic like mine. Research and theory in my area has virtually exploded in the last 15 years, and the more you read about it, the more sure you are that you couldn’t possibly come up with something new, and useful, to add to it.

So it’s daunting to think about my PhD, and everyone’s PhDs, being “an original contribution to knowledge.”

I’m collecting data for my last study and I’m supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge with it. It seems simple on the face of it, but when you sit on it for a while you realise each chapter of your thesis is essentially a paper in itself, and each paper should be of publishable quality. And by the time you work those brain cells to read all the literature to critique it to come up with the idea to design the project to do the research to write it up to edit it to realise it’s completely wrong to go back and start from scratch to do it all over again to write it up again to edit and delete and rewrite it to get it all bound and sent off to your examiners on time- someone else has already done it all! Ping! Sorry! Your contribution is no longer original!

There have already been several close shaves which I have survived, in which I have read some seminal paper or other that I had not come across previously, and have been shocked to find the sheer similarity between some of the authors’ arguments and the arguments I have been trying to substantiate through my own writing. For a moment, I enter a hysterical state of terror that everything in my thesis has already been done, and hence its contribution will be completely unoriginal, and even worse than that, I have no knowledge that all this original work already exists, and I will go into my viva thinking my thesis is great only to be interrogated by my examiners and found to be utterly ignorant about anything to do with my subject matter, whereupon they will eat me alive like savage rabid thesis-gobbling monsters.

Then I calm down.

The work you produce in your thesis is unlikely to have been done before, at least in the precise way you have done it. If you hunt around and dig deep, you will, in all likelihood, find something that is original, and that’s your original contribution to knowledge. Reiterate that thing through the whole thesis, highlight it here and there, blow a trumpet about it and put it in the closing remarks. That’s what your examiners are interested to see.

Somehow – and I’m not quite sure how, yet – I’ll find a way of articulating my thesis. I’ll find a way of explaining just what I mean to say, and of showing the world my examiners that it is new and useful and exciting.

 

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!