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The offices where I work on campus are being reorganised. New staff arriving, old staff being called to meetings to talk about the new staff and the reorganisation. New staff getting settled in by the old staff. Old staff being asked to update upstairs staff about new staff. New staff not knowing how things work and asking old staff. Old staff getting frustrated.

I’m glad I’m finishing this thesis. Maybe I’m wrong to feel this way, but I am disillusioned. I think every project has its course and this project has run that course fine and well. If this were to be dragged out any longer, I would go mad. I am glad I am close to finishing, and glad I will be leaving soon. I am politically progressive in every sense of the word but having seen new staff come, old staff go for more than 2 years and being miserably stuck here all along, I’m starting to feel like it’s high time I left. Finished and left. I don’t want to watch new staff come and go and still be stuck here. I don’t want more change in the place I work. I want to change myself.

These last couple of months are probably the hardest. There’s this sense of dread eating away inside me, constantly hurrying me along, telling me there’s no time, no time at all, stop procrastinating and keep writing, writing, writing. But worse than that, I’m starting to feel even more irritated at the people who work around me, especially, and perhaps undeservedly, at the new people, who arrive fresh and bright-eyed and oozing with enthusiasm. I was the same as them when I started; their outlook is natural for their position; I have no place being cynical about them. Yet they have started annoying me to no end.

Sometimes it feels like I am so much part of the furniture that people see right through me; they are indifferent. After all, furniture just sits there silently. Yet inside it’s as if I’m screaming to get out of this place, kicking the doors in, smashing down the windows.

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.

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.

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’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.

Well, isn’t this some nice deja vu. Another month has flown by and, although I have made some progress towards getting my PhD, the pessimist in me says it’s small compared to the huge amounts of time I feel I have spent procrastinating. How true that is, I don’t know, but I certainly feel I haven’t accomplished as much as I could or should have.

This is me, the one my supervisors say is ‘brilliant’ and should have gotten her PhD two years ago.

The other day I signed up to PhinisheD.org, an international forum for postgrads who are in the writing-up stages of their research. Taking a cyber-stroll through the various threads and posts, it’s surprising how much other thesis writers’ struggles resemble my own – everything from inspirationlessness to blankness to states of complete chaos. Moreover, I’ve come to appreciate there are many with much bigger problems than me – mad supervisors, evil examiners, and complete cluelessness in the field of self-organisation…no, wait, I have that too.

When I think about everything that’s happened in my PhD in the last 2-and-a-bit years, it blows my mind. There have been times when I’ve felt like I’ve hit rock bottom. But believe me, there really always are people who are worse off. To borrow a quote from Jennifer Aniston, there’s rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then me.

Today is Monday. It’s past 10am and it’s still unusually quiet. There’s a couple interns at their desks and a postdoc down the hall. And me. Typing away incessantly and producing these words that I’m not even sure make sense to anyone. If I have helped anyone, even the slightest bit, with anything I have ever posted about, then that’s an accomplishment for me.

I just wonder if I have helped myself, at all! Because I still feel as confused as ever before.

I just keep reminding myself the end is near and I’m getting there. We are all getting there. And one day, not so far down the line, we will find ourselves saying, “Well, here I am. It’s done.”

Today I’m back in the office.

And in a state of utter confusion.

Well, not confusion. It’s more that ubiquitous sense of blankness that’s been haunting me on and off for the last 6 months. I just feel drained of the excitement I had for my PhD when I first started it and am more inclined to just push myself to get through each day to the end now. I’m getting there, but progress seems slower than ever. I’ve got my analysis to finalise. I’ve got draft chapters to edit, and possibly even rewrite from scratch. I’ve got a postdoc proposal to develop and applications to prepare. I’ve got a viva in July for which I need to prepare myself mentally, and I am terrified of this because I am a diehard perfectionist and I am petrified of failing. And I’m supposed to be submitting in May. May, dammit!

I have no idea how other people do this, or whether I’m doing it right, or whether I’m on the track to complete and utter failure, or indeed whether my research, argument, or even entire thesis are of any intellectual value whatsoever.

I just don’t know.

When I ask other people (my supervisors, lab colleagues, people I meet at conferences and seminars), they have a habit of saying “You’ll be fine,” as if everything is going to be fine, no matter what. When people tell me I’ll be fine, it frustrates me because I’ll only be fine from other people’s perspectives – after all, they just go about their lives and observe me being fine. I, on the other hand, am the one actually doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine, and that feels kind of different from looking at me as an observer because, well, I’m the one doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine.

It’s the work, you see, that is they key to fineness. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t be fine.

When people say “You’ll be fine,” maybe they mean that they’re sure I’ll be fine because they’re sure I’ll do the work to a high enough standard that ensures I will be fine. I don’t see how they can be sure of that. What if I suddenly catch on fire? What if I’m kidnapped? Sectioned under the Mental Health Act? Succumb to bubonic plague?

What if I just lose motivation and quit?

 What happens then? Am I still fine?

Right now, I’m less than three weeks away from entering a 3+ month period of self-imposed solitary confinement for the sole purpose of writing my thesis. Its skeleton is there, there’s some drabby flesh on it, but it needs rebuilding and perfecting. Crucial parts of it don’t even exist yet. When I think about how on earth I am going to get this together, I feel woozy and dazed and confused. But most of all blank.

I feel blanker than the blank Word document in front of me, blanker than the pure white sheets of notebook paper on my desk, blanker than the blankest blankity blankness, ever.

To think that by the beginning of May, this blankness is expected (by my supervisors, my examiners, my family, and just about everyone else holding their breath for me to graduate) to have been populated with ideas, arguments, words, sentences, charts, tables and diagrams, to be whirling with answers, critiques, suggestions, contradictions, definitions and discussions, and to be completely, totally, and utterly ready for the viva.

I’m not quite sure whether I’ll be fine, or even whether I’m fine right now. I feel more blank than fine. I’ve been sitting in this office 50 hours a week for 2 years. I’ve become part of the furniture. People hardly notice whether I’m there or not. I want to finish my thesis, have my viva, and leave. I don’t ever want to come back.

Today I’m back in the office.

I’m not confused, I’m just blank.

Whilst we cannot be certain of Alfred Nobel’s reasons for prohibiting Nobel Prize nominees from being publicly identified until 50 years after their nomination, the rule seems to have come in handy to the Norwegian award committee this year, who are responsible for selecting the winner of the Peace Prize category. The winner this year, of course, was announced last Friday, and was the European Union.

For a pan-governmental authority currently bowing to the political persecution of individuals like Julian Assange, directly contributing to widespread unhappiness and political unrest in the Greek population through severe austerity, and, for one particular member, following the Bush administration into unethical and expensive wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I must say I am surprised by the committee’s choice.

Naturally, because the nominees considered alongside the Union cannot be revealed until 2062, we have no reliable way of evaluating whether the committee’s choice might reflect general public opinion. I have a feeling it might not.

It seems senseless to award the European Union a Nobel Peace Prize when the European Union is constituted only by a range of member states, each of which have engaged in acts that both promote peace and damn it at the same time. Moreover, I would personally favour everyday individuals or non-governmental organisations for the Peace Prize over and above governmental authorities, whether over a single state or a whole continent. Mostly because I believe grassroots movements have generally achieved more in the way of progressive social change than any government.

So, if and when we come to the day when the European Union’s fellow nominees for Peace are announced, I shall look forward to shaking my head and pitying Nobel award committees’ seeming fascination with an outdated reverence to state and pan-state authority.

Well, I’ve finally got round to putting up my WikiLeaks support page. If you support freedom of information and freedom of the press and want to see more transparency and accountability in your government, please get informed and involved!

https://happyseptember.wordpress.com/wikileaks/

Well, I don’t know how much the ideal of using PhDs as a force for peaceful change in the world can be translated into reality. Some of the challenges facing academic researchers today are pretty tough:

  • Cuts in state research funding stemming from wider austerity measures
  • Cuts in state teaching funding, ditto above
  • Hence even more increased competitiveness in research council, private sector, and non-profit organisation research funding
  • Hence marginalisation of ‘blue skies’ research and increased focus on hypothesis-driven, certain-outcome investigations
  • And an (in my view) unhealthy obsession with the concept of research ‘impact’, which is materialistically, instrumentally, and unpragmatically defined.

In fact, research impact is probably a whole separate post in itself, which I might address another time.

In a way, I don’t think we can totally blame many of today’s academics for being so fiercely competitive in activities like grant applications, networking, and self-promotion (‘selling yourself’, as it’s sometimes put). It’s a culture that has evolved out of necessity for researchers – for us – to keep up with the ever-changing ways the wider political and economic climate affects academic life. If public spending and inflation had never gotten out of hand (in an ideal world, obviously), there would never have been a need for austerity (except perhaps under hardcore right-wing administrations, but then again they wouldn’t exist in an ideal world). If so-called ‘free market’ ideologies hadn’t been applied so rigorously to higher education (by, I might add, a certain hardcore right-wing administration in the 1980s UK), there would be no league tables, university rankings, research assessment exercises or ‘excellence frameworks’, and no student consumerism. In other words, we could perhaps have an academia in which we collaborate rather than compete, do research for peace rather than for prestige, and aim for pragmatic, real-world impact rather than impact based on paper citations or journal rank.

When I was first starting out I imagined academic researchers to be progressive, politically rebellious intellectuals who questioned everything, especially the state and self-serving politics, and who actually believed in something, some values or principles or things they hold inalienable. Well, as people further along in their careers probably know already, it’s disappointing to see that’s not the case! Even in my own limited experience, I’d say probably 95% of the academics I’ve come across have come across as intellectually exhausted with keeping up with today’s research life and struggling to produce research that has direct usefulness for some form of social progress (as opposed to just constituting another publication for their CV with a vague statement about how the work might one day aid in the understanding of such-and-such a pressing world problem, pending, of course, much future research).

So where are we going with this?

I’m just saying I guess I realise it’s easy to say we should use PhDs to bring about sustainable world peace, but how to change today’s evolved research culture to bring that about is a harder, and as yet unanswerable, question (but you never know what might come out of future research!). I think right now though, before the whole of degenerating academia can be changed, each PhD student has a choice to do research directly and expressly for world peace, if they want. It’s a tough choice because to be ‘successful’ in today’s academia, the research community expects us to have ‘high impact’ publications in ‘high impact’ journals, an eyeball-popping funding record, and a glamorous employment history at ‘high rank’ institutions.

But then…

What if I publish open access journals because I believe all researchers, and anyone else, should be able to read and use my work without having to pay subscription fees to print journals, which essentially take papers from researchers for free, publish them, and then sell them back to researchers for a fee for cutting our forests down?

What if I assess the impact of my research, and others’ research, based on what real-life, observable outcomes it has brought about for real people, rather than how many times it is cited, how many times its journal of publication has been cited or how highly it is ranked, or what its rejection rate is?

What if I evaluate researchers’ employability from what they have done with their funding, rather than from how much of it they have been awarded?

What if I believe all higher education and research institutions should be cleansed of segregational, class-creating ranking systems and of all activities relating to self-promotion, advertising, and corporate marketing, and instead be formed into an equal, international intellectual network in which funding is distributed according to the ability of projects to directly solve world problems, and as equally as possible, and in which there is as little professional hierarchy as possible?

What if I think today’s researchers must believe in something and be willing to not conform to established academic culture in many ways in order to stand up for those things they believe in, rather than stay silent in the safe little position they have found in such trying times of austerity?

What if?

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

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