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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!

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.

Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

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.

 These titles are, if you need explanation, derived from the home countries of the external examiners my supervisors and I are considering.

Yesterday I met with my supervisor to talk about externals again. Since our first choice declined because of other commitments at the time my viva is scheduled, we talked about two other possibilities that are on the cards. The first, a colleague of the Danish gentleman who had been our first choice, seemed to fit my thesis better, while the second, a professor based in Portugal, was decidedly a last resort (though not necessarily because Quero Formar** sounds more like the Latin motto of some well-to-do white middle class college in West London).

We agreed that my supervisor would approach the Dane the next day. But sitting around in my overheated office, frustrated at the headache that had been pounding away in my head all day, I suddenly wondered if we weren’t perhaps looking for my external in the wrong places. When you’re doing a PhD in psychology you reasonably expect that your external will also be a psychologist of some sort. But what if someone else’s expertise fits better with your thesis than any psychologist you’ve been able to find? That’s when I thought of…well, the woman I’m thinking of now.

She isn’t a psychologist.

Actually, she isn’t technically even a scientist, though the boundaries between scientific disciplines, and between science and art, are usually more blurred than we’d like to think.

The thing is, sometimes PhD theses are at the intersection of so many different obscure lines of enquiry across art and science that it is almost impossible to locate an external who is as well-versed in your uber-obscure area of expertise as you are. I mean, if I could have the ideal external for my thesis, it would be myself. Failing that, though, if there’s someone out there who is interested in, and published widely on, the topic I’m focusing on, though from a perspective other than psychology, I’ve begun to wonder whether that person is better qualified to examine me than a psychologist who, although vaguely knowledgeable about my area by virtue of the fact that they are a psychologist, would probably have to go to considerable lengths to do background reading before they could confidently question me at my viva.

This is all so confusing. I’m not sure I even have an academic identity any more. What am I? A psychologist? By virtue of the fact that my first degree is in psychology, or because I do research in a psychology department, or because I am supervised by psychologists? Does it matter that my research includes as much sociology, philosophy, economics and political science as it does psychological theory? Are non-psychologists, and indeed non-scientists, if there are such things, qualified to grant, or recommend the granting of, psychology PhDs?

I just don’t understand.

And in further news, I’ve just found out my other supervisor, whom we really need to consult on all matters relating to external examiners, is overseas tending to some urgent family issue and may not be back for a week. I’m glad I asked my supervisors to begin the examiner search 8 months in advance, but I’m beginning to think with all the unavoidable, unforeseen delays we might end up being only just in time.

I just really, really want to graduate. And though I know I’ll do everything I can to meet my responsibilities, the uncertainty surrounding factors out of my control often worries me and gets me down.

I want to graduate! And I will irrationally translate this into any language known to man until I do!

*Dutch for “I want to graduate” …at least according to Google Translate.

**And the Portugese.

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.

Now that he’s spoken, I’m reminded that I am, actually, trying to finish my PhD, and that I should probably get on with it.

So what’s happened in the fortnight since I returned to the office?

I had resolved to begin drafting out chapters and collecting my last bit of data immediately, but for a few different reasons, I haven’t been moving as quickly as I’d hoped. Firstly, I confess there’s been some procrastination. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by all the different things that need my attention that I can’t decide which one I should start with and how I should go about finishing. So all of them stay unattended to, and I wallow in the misery of feeling inefficient and incapable.

Secondly, I’ve realised it’s meaningless to start collecting data immediately, because since university students comprise my target population, I’d be wasting my time in searching for them when the semester has only just started. Undergraduates are milling around everywhere at the moment, like headless chickens, trying to find lecture theatres, working out timetabling abbreviations (“What does ‘TBA’ mean? What does ‘TBA’ mean??” one was screeching yesterday) and getting frustrated upon finding out they actually need to reach into their pocket, extract their student card, and swipe it on the card reader before the automatic door will open for them. What a drag. So I’m waiting till next week before I start my hopefully-not-much-longer-than-6-weeks surveying.

Another reason I can’t seem to move faster with my work is this feeling of not being ready. Chatting with a resident postdoc yesterday, I suddenly realised how unaccustomed I am to talking about my ‘thesis’, my ‘examiners’, my ‘viva’, and my ‘career’. These are things that happen towards the tail end of PhDs. I’ve become so used to being at the beginning and in the middle of my PhD, I can’t get my head around the end of it. What’s it like to actually have a fully written, edited, proofed and bound thesis? What’s it like to come face to face with your examiners? And have a viva? And, God forbid, what about my career? I’ve been a full time student since the age of four – I don’t know a thing about careers! I guess this is what causes many a PhD student nearing completion to dilly-dally and drag their feet, feeling comfortable with the way things are and needing a little more time to consider what they want to do next.

But we just don’t live in a world like that any more. We don’t have time to dilly-dally. While we’re dilly-dallying, other PhD go-getters, who aren’t necessarily smarter than us, but just more ambitious, are already out there, throwing themselves into competitive jobs, publishing, presenting, networking, globetrotting and getting promoted.

What a drag.

And then there’s this talk of postdocs. I always thought I’d take up a lectureship at the end of my PhD, and live happily ever after. Now I’m not so sure. I like research, and there are continuations of my PhD research that I’d like to do after I finish. And with all respect to lecturers, at least the ones I’ve seen, they work long hours for average pay and spend so much time managing ‘unskilled’ research methods courses they hardly have a moment to do research or even teach on specialist courses. I’m not sure I want that – I don’t want to have done all this research I’m really interested in, only to spend the next 3 to 6 years of my life teaching undergrads what a variable is. I respect that someone’s got to do it. I just don’t want it to be me.

Oh, woe to us on the brink of thesis submission. There is just so much confusion.

Yesterday I did absolutely no work on my PhD.

At all.

I mean, usually I’ll at least make the effort to open one of my draft documents and stare at it for a while, willing myself to write something, even if it’s just a sentence or two, or I’ll read some papers from my literature folder and will myself to come up with some amazing new research idea. But yesterday I did nothing at all. I spent the morning bumming around on the internet, wandering aimlessly from one site to another, just looking at different things out of curiosity. Then I had lunch. After lunch I was exhausted from doing so much nothing all morning, so I napped for about 4 hours. Then I spent a couple hours reading a humorous self-help book (I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me!, by Stuart Smalley, but really by Al Franken – a brilliant collection of pick-me-up diary entries). Then I had dinner. After dinner, I watched Ellen, Jay Leno, and Conan. Then I went to bed.

And all through the day I couldn’t believe how exhausted I felt by having done nothing. It’s like I’ve been without inspiration for my PhD for so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have that get-up-and-go attitude towards my work. Right now I’m in a place that’s eerily quiet, except for my own inner voice telling me that hope seems to be fading, and misty that I cannot even see what’s around me.

And the one thing that’s constantly in my mind, day and night, is that I want to, have to, submit in May; that there is so much work still to be done; and that I have absolutely no idea how to do it.

Yes, this is me, the one who used to work 85-hour weeks on my PhD, enthusiastically planning studies, writing up papers, and dreaming about the next conference in my diary. Well, OK, I still work 85-hour weeks, but most of those hours are spent worrying about my PhD rather than actually doing anything productive.

Where O where did that energetic young lass go!? I feel like I’m a decade older than I am. I guess PhDs age you, like wine. I’m just not sure the result is as sought-after. Hmm…

Yes. Today I blog from the quiet, misty depths of complete, unadultered inspirationlessness.

I have an ideal ‘me’ in my mind I’d like to be. In those inspirational Hollywood films where a protagonist struggles and struggles, and then finally finds a way to succeed. In those time-lapse montages they have, of the protagonist working away, diligently, with intense concentration, we get lost in the soundtrack of slow, yet fast-forwarded progress. In Misery, the trapped Paul Sheldon sits at his typewriter, tapping away tirelessly at the keys, churning out page after page of work, stretching, grimacing, straining his neck, churning out more pages. Eventually, he finishes the book.

Mine is still hopelessly at its beginning.

I guess I’m blogging about this because I feel better blogging than not doing anything at all. At least this gives me half a chance to reflect on how I feel and what I think, and maybe, how I could find a way to get out of this annoying ditch.

I really just want to get out!

Here are some of the strategies I’ve tried:

  • Constructing those tables that list every section and subsection of a given thesis chapter, their main argument, the lesser points within that argument, and the evidence to be cited there in;
  • Just free writing without any planning;
  • Writing in a casual style as if I were explaining the material to an interested lay person;
  • Typing on the computer;
  • Writing with pen and paper, old school;
  • Writing at my desk;
  • Writing on the balcony with a sea view;
  • Writing in my journal randomly, alternating at will between my PhD, life, and my PhD again.

Annoyingly, none of the above has worked lastingly, and I just don’t feel I have produced as much work to as high a standard as I could or should have. I feel I’ve been mucking around, without a clear goal in mind, except that I want to finish my PhD, and that I haven’t really been doing much to achieve that.

Just like the grass always looks greener on the neighbour’s side of the fence, I guess everyone else’s PhD looks better from here compared to mine. And as much as I know it’s a misconception, it really does seem like everyone else has better ideas, is doing better research, has published more papers, is writing more words, paragraphs, and chapters, and is just generally more worthwhile than I am as a researcher.

So there.

Now, I know that’s not true. I know, and believe, that we – all PhD students – are about as good as each other. That’s why there are generally fewer classification systems for doctorates than there are for, say, undergraduate or Masters degrees: Because it’s generally accepted that whoever is smart enough to start a PhD in the first place, be fired with enthusiasm for it, keep working on it diligently even after that enthusiasm fades, endure the late nights, early mornings, all-nighters, cracked knuckles, sprained spines, throbbing eyeballs, splitting migraines, and aching wrists that come with the job, take the criticism, defy the marking-undergraduate-papers-induced insanity, write the thesis, and somehow make it to the viva alive, will get their PhD, and there isn’t really much point in classifying different levels of PhDs.

So where am I going with all of this?

Well, I have no idea. That’s what I love about blogging – it’s perfectly acceptable to have no idea what you’re trying to say. Unlike writing your thesis. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

From the quiet misty depths of inspirationlessness, signing off now.

Peace.

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!