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It started snowing lightly in London early this morning as I was walking in to the office. It had stopped by the time I popped out mid-morning to go to the bank, but nevertheless there is a cold snap right now – at least by my mild Melbournian standards – in other words, perfect hibernation weather. I wish I could stay home in bed all day and sleep without the worry of having a thesis to finish in record time.

I’m just glad that, in a couple more weeks’ time, I really will be going into confinement at home to write over Christmas, and I may only venture out to the library’s silent study rooms in the New Year for a change of scene.

It’s going to be a dreary winter. And a dreary, rainy, losing-my-will-to-live home run on finishing this PhD.

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That’s what I’m doing today.

When you’re doing a PhD, after a while you’ll notice that not all work days are equal. And if they are, then some are more equal than others. Some days, you’ll only manage to do a tiny bit of work and feel overwhelmed by it; on other days, you’ll accomplish more than you ever thought you could and then you’ll sit there, eyes wide open, thinking “Well, what’s next?”

Today is one of the latter.

Today I arrived at my desk at half past seven, booted up, and got down to finishing off the work on my last dataset that I’d left incomplete on Friday. There was a considerable amount of coding still to do, which is annoying, because it often involves manual coding in Excel before I can export the code to SPSS (though I won’t go into that as it’s already confusing enough for me). I did the coding, then looked at the clock, and was surprised it was only just past 9am. So I did my dummy coding (which, again, I’d be mad to go into) and computed my subscale and scale scores and did my exports. Then it was lunchtime. Now, it’s just coming to 2pm and I’m writing this, and I’ll still have a couple hours after that to run the preliminary analysis.

I can’t believe I did all that work this morning, it’s madness. Any other time, it would have taken me at least a week to do the coding alone, and here I am done in 2 days. The rest just flew past this morning, I don’t know how I got to this stage.

But I’m done with the hard part. Now I just have the analysis to go. Then I can compute my charts, and assemble my slides for the conference next month.

I realise this all sounds really geeky. But I love it!

Now I’m going to go do my analysis.

Having grown up in suburban Melbourne, I was never socialised into the North American Thanksgiving culture, although I learned a lot about it subconsciously from watching countless feel-good Hollywood movies in which families would feast on roast turkey and pumpkin pie and the snow would be falling outside.

As much as Thanksgiving has become a commercialised holiday for many people – just like Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and all the others – I think the spirit of the celebration is a worthwhile principle and that we should all take time to acknowledge the good things we are blessed with.

When I was little I was very shy at school and refused to speak to people when they said hello. The process of just making polite conversation petrified me and filled me with dread. Over the years, and especially since I started university, I’ve become a lot more talkative because I am often in situations where I have to talk to people in order to do my job – like conferences, seminars, lectures, meetings and lab tours.

I get to my office each morning earlier than anyone else. If I can make it, I’m usually at my desk by 8am – often earlier. There are no academics around in the early morning, no postdocs, no teaching staff. The early morning is a time when the university is populated by ‘invisible’ people. People like cleaners, security staff, maintenance personnel. People who don’t really exist because none of the ‘real’ inhabitants of the university see them during regular working hours.

When I walk onto the campus in the morning I say good morning to the security guard at reception. I say good morning to the cleaner guy in the baseball cap who mops the entrance. I say good morning to the fire marshall who walks around testing the fire alarms, and to the cleaner women who push wheelie bins through my building, and to the guy who changes the bin liners in my office. I say good morning to all the invisible people I see.

This morning I said good morning to the security guard at reception. Usually, he says good morning back and asks me how I am. Then he opens the automatic gate for me to walk through, to save me having to fish out my swipecard. This morning he did these things too. But he said something else. He said he appreciated that I took time to say good morning each day and acknowledge him and that it was a nice change from the staff who trudge past without even looking. Then he walked away.

I just stood there for a minute, speechless.

It’s amazing what experiences you can have at odd times, when you’re least expecting it, at times when it’s quiet and other people are not there and the people who are there feel more at ease to tell you what’s on their minds. Invisible people, who are never seen by so many of us.

I have been amazed at this encounter all morning and it has caused me to think a lot. I am amazed that the simple gesture of saying good morning to this man each day has caused him to make such an interesting, thought-provoking comment to me.

I am thankful that I have been able to be nice to staff at my university who are never seen by the majority.

I am thankful that I have had a great opportunity to access education to the highest levels and to have been supported by the kindness and generosity of my family.

I am thankful for my friends in Melbourne and elsewhere across the world for their good humour and companionship.

I am thankful that I am in good health and that I am on track to finishing my PhD.

I am thankful to people who read my blog for hearing what I have to say and I hope some of it might strike them as useful, interesting, or maybe even funny.

…What are you thankful for?

I’ve just spent the morning reading a whole pile of writing. Writing in papers, writing in journals, writing in my drafts and writing in other people’s drafts. There’s so much writing, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I can’t believe I have to produce 80,000 words of writing in my thesis. And that they actually have to make sense. And, preferably, a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

In my own limited experience of writing in academia – spanning not more than 5 or 6 years (yes, that’s a relatively short time in the academic bubble…I don’t know whether that makes me feel old or young) – I have always spent shocking amounts of time struggling uncomfortably through less than perfect drafts of papers only to find that I could not tolerate the imperfection any more, leading me to review my writing, figure out what was so imperfect about it, and then scrap the whole thing to start from scratch. It has, most usually, been this completely rewritten draft that I save for editing and submitting rather than any of the pages upon pages of imperfect material I wrote in the first place.

The trouble with this is that when I set out to write something perfectly the first time, it is impossible. The imperfections I suffer from most are waffling on about things that don’t matter, not coming to the point, and being unable to articulate my point in a way that conveys my intended meaning satisfactorily. I also tend to write long-winded sentences to convey what are essentially simple points, such that when I reread them I cannot even grasp my own meaning. This frustrates me enough to toss it all away and start afresh. At this point I realise it has happened again – I have written a whole imperfect draft only to trash it and write a new, more perfect one. Sure, the more perfect one is acceptable and can be moulded into something vaguely worth submitting, but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to get there, even though the time and effort spent on the end product itself is often only a fraction of the total time and effort I spend trying to get to that point.

So, what is my point?

I suppose my point is that I’ve come to a point where there is not much left to do in my PhD other than write my thesis. And that I am utterly terrified of doing this because the sheer magnitude of the task seems to make it impossible to accomplish, especially to the level of perfection I stubbornly insist on. I am petrified that I will fail to be discursive rather than descriptive, and that I will forget to include literature that is essential – or, even worse, that I will fail to even know of the existence of some important citation or other. It makes me shudder to think that 6 whole chapters of writing – paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph – are waiting for me to draft, read, denounce, redraft, edit, tweak, trash and draft again. I’m scared that I will not be able to finish on time, that May will come and I still won’t have anything to show my supervisors – not even a working draft. I will be disowned by my supervisors and evicted from my office, and left cold and penniless on the streets, never to see the holy light of academia ever again, and will die a recluse under some university cafeteria table, muttering statistical formulae and critical theory gibberish to myself.

If you’re newly starting a PhD, be warned: Yes, the process is rewarding (occasionally, eventually), but there are also many times – long periods, in fact – when the road ahead of you looks never-ending, and it can be difficult to keep going because you will often be unsure how to do so.

It’s fine…I’m going to get out of this ditch – I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.

Friend of WikiLeaks

August 2018
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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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