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I had a great meeting with my second supervisor yesterday. I think retired life agrees with her – she was in a better mood than I’d ever seen her in before.

We talked about my analysis together, talked stats, went through the calculations I’d made. It turns out my stats are right, but it’s difficult to justify why the effects I’ve found should be of theoretical interest. My supervisor asked if I’d looked at some of my other variables instead – ones I had originally been interested in, but didn’t bother exploring very much because the nature of the data didn’t fit the tests I could do and, more importantly, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a way to change the nature of the data. Of course, it turns out there is, and now, thanks to her, I know how to do it.

I love talking about statistics. The philosophy of statistics is bizarre, ironic, and contradictory. Statistics can be mind-blowing – just when you think you have the answer, it escapes you. There are strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons to everything. There are assumptions and conditions in which you can violate assumptions. There are multiple ways of doing the same thing, and multiple ways of deciding which way to do it. I still have the undergraduate reflex of flinching when I see a significant p value, but I have matured enough to put my excitement to one side and check other indicators of significance, and dilute my enthusiasm with caution for sample sizes, skewed distributions, and Type I errors.

For all her coldness, I have a great second supervisor. She knows her stuff, and she likes it when you share her passion for stats. We had some great ideas, and she showed me how to do things I hadn’t even thought about before. My final study was going to go in some bizarre, barely-justfiable direction I wasn’t even sure I was interested in, simply because that was the only area in which I could find results worth reporting. Now I see results worth reporting aren’t merely the significant ones – they’re the ones that spark theoretical interest. I’m not going to do what I thought I had to do – I’m going to go back to what I was originally interested in, and reanalyse that data. I didn’t find much of interest in it the first time round, but, thanks to my supervisor, and the beauty of stats, I find there are things in my data worth talking about.

Wow.

This is a great feeling.

I’m in the game again! Maybe I’ll even get my head around this thing!

My supervisor is going to be here in just over 4 hours. Perhaps I should clarify – my second supervisor, with whom I am meeting this afternoon, is a retired emeritus professor and lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere, a good three hours’ commute away from London. Fortunately, after several distasteful altercations with our head of department, she got permission to claim for travel expenses to come to London once in a while and discuss stats with me. She wouldn’t hear of me being given a replacement supervisor. “I will supervise you no matter what,” she said. God bless.

Except that now that she lives three hours away (on a good day), however much she has much more time to spend on our own research, I feel guilty about calling her in to see me because of all the time and stress it involves. And now that I have called her in for our meeting today, the pressure is on to show her that it was worth it!

My second supervisor is a little different from my first, although ironically, the two have known each other for donkey’s years and are the best of friends. My second supervisor is very focused, likes to get down to business immediately, and hates it when you make a fuss about anything. Until recently, she seemed to be irritated even by simple social conventions like saying “How are you?”, at the start of a meeting. I always felt silly asking her this, even though I would ask out of genuine interest rather than just paying lip service to British politeness, because she would give me a cold reply like “OK.” and not even return the enquiry. Fortunately though, perhaps because we have had some very in-depth debates about stats and psychometric theory in which she really seemed to enjoy herself, she has warmed up a bit and now actually asks me how I am back.

Now that’s progress.

Anyway, the fact that she has warmed to me isn’t the point here. The point is that she has a very focused way of working in which she likes to examine things in detail in advance, have a think about it, and only then hold a meeting. I’ve known this for some time and have, since then, always emailed her my datafiles and notes in advance. Whilst this helps her understand my questions better, and allows her to come prepared, I’ve found I feel very stressed between emailing her my stuff and meeting her, simply because of my anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I imagine she’ll find in my work. I keep thinking, “I’m a psychologist. Psychologists have rigorous academic training in statistics and research methods from year 1 right up to PhD level. I’m supposed to be on the ball with everything stats related. And here I am still having to look up ANOVAs in a textbook! I’m hopeless! My supervisor is going to eat me alive! I’ll never amount to anything! My thesis is going to suck! I’m going to fail my viva! And end up homeless and penniless on the streets!”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

These irrational thoughts are still stuck in my head even now, as I write this. It’s maddening. I know I have put in a good effort to try my hand at the analysis, so as not to make my supervisor feel like I am dumping my work at her feet and saying “Here. Just tell me the answer.” She hates that. She hates dumb, needy students coming to her and begging her to just tell them the answer, or, worse, to actually do their work for them. But still, I feel like I’m not going to be able to live up to her standards, like I have not done enough work to impress her, and like I am going to be left feeling like an idiot – not just for not being smart enough, but for wasting her time.

I have 4 hours to get my head straightened. I have to review my analysis, make sure all my datafiles are saved on my flashdrive, reread my notes, pick up the keys to the meeting room, and get everything set up early. I concede these things will not actually do much to get my head straightened, but they will, hopefully, distract me from the madness that’s brewing inside.

I’m due for a meeting with my supervisor this afternoon. I don’t know how it’s going to go, because I think this meeting is going to be a lot different from any other we’ve had over the last 3 years. Usually, we’re very focused, and can tick our way through a list of items on the agenda without getting too immersed in anything. We can do that because usually, my progress is brilliant and everything’s fine. We’re usually done in less than 2 hours and we get through everything we planned to talk about. There’s a lot of “Well done!” and “You’re doing fine!” and other compliments that give me a spring in my step for the day.

But today is different!

Today I’m going to walk into my supervisor’s office, sit down, and tell her I’m stuck. I’m going to tell her I’ve arrived at a point where I’ve just about finished my final analysis, have half my thesis written in draft, and am less than 6 months away from submitting, and yet my mind is completely blank and I am utterly confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m going to say that I’m good at running stats on the computer and reviewing the literature, but I cannot for the life of me make sense of the results or even understand what it is I’m looking for or want to find out.

I’m going to confess I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on, that I haven’t done anything even bordering on productive in the last 3 or 4 days, and that even last week and the week before all I did was some data clean-up and some analyses I don’t understand.

Basically, I’m going to declare I am a useless, hopeless failure and will never stand a chance of finishing my thesis, surviving my viva, or getting my PhD.

At this point my supervisor will probably butt in (as much as I love her to bits she does have this little irritating habit) and insist this is completely untrue and that I can, and in fact must, finish this project, because I have a long and fruitful career ahead of me during which I will become a professor by 30, publish 500 papers, attract billions of pounds of research funding, accumulate a lab full of postdocs the size of a small army, and generally be a critically acclaimed academic celebrity internationally recognised for my profound and unquestionable expertise in a tiny, obscure patch of research that nobody, not even the big cheeses in my topic area, has ever heard of, nor would have even the slightest inclination to be interested in finding out more about.

Blah blah blah.

This is all great.

The fact is that none of this is going to happen until and unless I write my thesis. Conceded, it isn’t going to happen anyway, but if I want to at least upgrade my chances from impossible to implausible, I’ve got to get myself back into a disciplined work routine that will put me on track to finishing. This prospect is extremely daunting when I think about the fact that the two main things I have left to do before I finish – interpreting and writing – are the ones that make me the most nervous in the research process. I find interpreting data terrifying. I have to interpret not just the meaning of my own results, but link that with the results other people have obtained, and I become acutely aware that I risk misinterpreting my results, or, worse, misinterpreting other people’s results, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of being criticised my them for failing to understand their work properly. Following interpretation, I get to writing it all up, which is tedious and frustrating. Just when you think you’ve written it all out clearly, you re-read it only to find your text unclear, long-winded, or unable to convey your key message concisely enough. Once you’ve fixed all that, then up come the typos, the grammar errors, the formatting imperfections, and hey presto, it’s the perfect wall for any perfectionist to bang their head against.

An immediate example of this occurring is the fact that my first thought upon finishing that last sentence was “you can’t finish a sentence with a preposition!”

I have no idea what’s going to happen at the meeting. Right now I feel blank – the same blankness I’ve been feeling, in immediate memory, for at least 2 weeks, and probably the same blankness that I’ve been describing as ‘confusion’ or ‘inspirationlessness’ in the last 6 months or so. It’s just a general loss of mental energy and enthusiasm for my work – something my other supervisor has told me she experienced towards the end of her PhD as well – a mental state in which you walk around, sit at your desk, eat, sleep, and breathe with a relentless “WTF??” spaciness in your head that seems to prevent any kind of intellectually productive or progressive thoughts from entering or being created.

It’s maddening.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so blank, confused, inspirationless, and mad in my life. I’ve come to a standstill in this PhD. I’m standing, thoughtless and speechless, months away from submission, and I have no idea what to do or think about anything related to anything.

It’s just…ok, I’m going to stop typing now.

This post isn’t about the history of PhDs since mediaeval times. I would rather write an 80,000 word thesis than post about that – I’m that sick of them.

There’s a lot of talk these days – as there always has been – on women in science and the ‘fact’ that we are too stupid to ever succeed in it, because we’re women. Well, apart from being female, I am also blessed to be young, and, as we all know, young women are doubly stupid when it comes to science, because, well, we’re young.

I’m fortunate not to have to hear a lot of crap about the ‘inappropriateness’ of my gender for being a science researcher, mainly because my area is psychology rather than the life or physical sciences, which are notoriously male-dominated. In psychology – at least within the bubble of academia – departmental staff are pretty much split even, and among psychology students, there is actually a female majority, often even on modules that might be expected to appeal more to males, like evolutionary or cognitive psychology. I feel comfortably at home as a female psychologist.

And yet, I am still not free of stigmatization: Because of my age.

I began my PhD when I was 20 (“What? Really?” comes the response). The reason for this is that I had finished my degree early, because I had started it early, aged 17, and I had done that because I finished school early, because I started when I was 4. It’s all quite complicated and not worth explaining here, because it doesn’t really matter. As they say, what matters is that we’re here, we’re together, and every day brings us closer to a cure. Or whatever.

Anyway, I was 20 when I started. I had a first class degree and I’d been accepted onto a research programme, so there seemed little point in waiting around, doing a masters degree. Come to think of it, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t, because while researching for my masters dissertation I might have cottoned on to the fact that research is inherently boring, and never have come to grad school, and never have come this close to getting my PhD, and therefore never be able to get a job in academia.

Well. Actually. Maybe I went wrong after all.

Over the last few years I have always worked in an environment in which everyone is always older than me. Even people who have come fresh from degrees have an MSc and are at least 24 when they start. In my case, the youngest fellow PhD student I’ve met was 25 when she started, and she was deregistered in her first year for not being able to meet required standards. As for the rest of my colleagues – they’re well into their 30s, if not their 40s or even 50s, and many of them are married, have children, and even had whole other careers (like a PhD in theoretical physics) before they decided to study psychology.

They mean well, but many of the people I work with – including the many women – have, at some point or other, made insensitive comments about my age, such as about me being ‘too young’ to be doing PhD research, being a ‘little girl’, and telling me they don’t mean to patronise me BUT…[insert patronising comment of choice here].

I’ve come to accept that having assumptions made about me is unavoidable in everyday life outside of academia. For example, I once walked into an O2 shop to buy credit for my mobile phone. While taking the cash and printing out the vouchers, the assistants tend to make small talk with you to distract from the fact that you’re being kept waiting. This happened to be in June, when most schools and universities have exam weeks.

“So, studying for exams then?” Asked the guy behind the counter.

“Yes…kind of,” I said, trying to avoid the tediousness of explaining that annual monitoring reviews are technically a type of exam for PhD students.

“A levels?” Asked the guy.

“What?”

“A level exams…you know, when you’re 16?”

I was too startled to be angry. “No, I’m actually-”

“-GCSEs?” he butted in.

“What?”

“GCSEs…are you in sixth form?”

“I’m actually at university,” I said, starting to feel irritated.

“Oh, sorry,” he apologised, starting to look sheepish. “You must be revising hard.”

“I’m doing a PhD…you know, like research?”

At this point the guy went beetroot red – and must have been relieved to finally tear off the printed vouchers before he made any more embarrassing assumptions. Actually, he was probably glad to see me on my way before I might tell him I’m actually a child-genius-turned-professor-of-rocket-science-from-Yale, or some such thing.

I was just glad to have my vouchers.

This sort of thing I can bear in life – but the fact that others in the same boat as me, in academia, doing research, do the same thing, does make me mad. You may be a forty-something mother of two teenagers with a defunct career in architecture out there in the real world, but when we’re working in this lab together we are colleagues, peers, and equals, and the fact that I am 22 years old bears no relation to that. I am competent in my research and that it what is required of me. As long as I meet this requirement, my age is irrelevant.

Just as there ought not to be such a thing as ‘too old to do a PhD’, nor should there be such a thing as ‘too young’. I am not a ‘little girl’. I don’t appreciate being patronised by people who are my equals in academia just because they were born 25 years before I was.

It’s time to cut the crap on women and younger researchers having no place in academia, being too stupid to understand science, and showing no potential to succeed.

We need to focus on the brains, not the boobs, and definitely not the years.

Esperanto’s my last resort!

The external examiner saga continues. My supervisor finally arrived back from an emergency trip overseas, and, upon looking up the background information I’d sent her last week, declared the external I’d suggested to be “The One”.

Yes. The One.

She’s not a psychologist, not even a scientist, and yet, she’s The One.

It’s all getting a bit dramatic now.

Anyway, my other supervisor has now sent a formal invitation to the professor and we’re waiting for a response. She only sent it yesterday afternoon but I’ve found it’s constantly been popping in and out of my mind, wondering whether she’s read it yet, what she might think when she reads it, how she’s going to respond. It feels hard to concentrate on what I should actually be doing, which is finishing off yesterday’s lecture slides, going to a meeting with a colleague I’m supposed to be lecturing for, and getting a move on with my data collection.

I’m afraid it’s going to be a huge hit to my academic ego to get another examiner rejection, so I’m really hoping this professor will accept. The again, if she declines, I’ll be launched into another bout of rampant searching and mental chaos until my supervisors and I can decide on an alternative. And that’s even though we already have alternatives!

 

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.

Everything is shaken up today. Like one of James Bond’s ubiquitous vodka martinis.

First up: My preferred internal has provisionally agreed to examine my thesis. This is great. Here’s the downside: He can’t make July. Or August. Instead, he has offered June, September, or October. June is cutting it a bit fine for me, and September and October seem so far down the line I’m afraid I could lose all motivation by then.

Is this news good or bad?

One of the primary reasons why Chekhov set himself apart from other 19th century Russian literary artists is the fact that his characters (especially the ones in his plays) are neither good nor bad. You watch the plays, read and reread the scripts, try to work out if Ivanov is a hero or a villain. The truth is he is neither. Chekhov set out to show his audiences that humans – and life itself – are neither all good nor all bad. They are, instead, impossibly complex, sometimes tending towards goodness and sometimes towards evil.

If life is, like Ivanov, impossibly complex, then try my examiners!

Next: If my supervisors and I agree to take on my preferred internal, we would need to decide whether we will take him on for the sooner viva, in June, or the later one, in September. What we decide will then have a knock-on effect on my thesis submission date, which, if we take the June option, would mean I might even have to submit in April. That’s really cutting it fine. But let’s say I do manage to submit early. Then, there’s the issues of finding and agreeing with a new external, whom we haven’t even decided on yet, and chance being that this person can make a June viva. What if they can’t? Then we’re stuck till September for my internal to be available again. And then what? What if my external (whoever that is) isn’t available in September? Then what?

Sometimes I look at all the postdocs and lecturers and tenured professors around the department and am struck with awe at how they ever managed to get two examiners together at the same time in the same place to conduct their vivas. It’s a one in a million chance and they managed it. People with PhDs all over Europe manage it every year.

Maybe I’m just not as smart as them?

Maybe I’m going to fail the whole thing?

Then what?

It’s quiet in the office today. There’s an intern typing calmly away on her Mac. Some postdocs are passing to and fro in the corridor outside, going about their business. There’s the muffled laughter of undergrads on their way to lectures outside. Life is idyllic, just like any other day. I, too, am calm. I am quiet and typing the last lines of this post at my desk. Yet inside I’m in turmoil. I’m trying to reconcile the impossible chaos of my immediate future in academia with the equally impossible chaos of…I don’t know. Lovelust maybe, or more likely wanderlust. Just the increasingly strong impulse to be…free.

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The Final Countdown

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