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I think it’s psychosomatic.

Yesterday I felt elated at it being the first day of the new year, the year of 2013.

The year in which I will turn 23.

The year in which I will submit my thesis, have my viva, and gain my PhD.

The year in which I will start jobhunting in earnest, and hopefully land in a decent first post.

The year in which, after nearly 20 years in full time education, I will cease to be a student, at least officially.

Yesterday the rain that had been drizzling miserably over a cold and overcast London finally stopped. The sky was clear and the air clean and crisp.

Yesterday I felt hopeful that good things will happen this year.

Perhaps that feeling is yet to return.

But for the time being, today, I feel sick. I’ve spent the last 10 days or so, since Christmas, pushing myself to the limits of my sanity trying to rewrite Chapter 1 of my thesis. Surprisingly, the process proved less difficult than I had anticipated, and although I am only about 85% finished today (I had hoped it would be fully written by now), I have come into the campus to type up and send to my supervisors what I have written.

I am not at my desk in the office.

For some reason I feel estranged from it, and from the people I know will be there today. And if not today, then tomorrow, or Friday, or next week. They will have to come in eventually.

They’re not bad people. They just make me feel sick.

I’ve come to feel sensitive at the mention of names, places, things. Some of them remind me of the past, and some of them remind me of things inside my head. Things that may or may not exist, but that stay with me and make me feel sick anyway.

It feels like a kind of knot in my stomach that makes it impossible to eat, like my appetite has dwindled slowly to nothing. Throwing up doesn’t seem to be out of the question. I’m sitting in relative darkness in a deserted corner of a computer lab. I’m feeling sick, and also the constant, numbing pressure to stop procrastinating and type.

I’m probably going to be here until 4 or 5 this afternoon.

I can’t afford to procrastinate.

Other things have happened, too. A paper I had under review for the last 3 months came back with the request to revise and resubmit. Apparently the two reviewers were in almost direct disagreement; one was positive, the other suggested rejection. The comments were fair, I’m not taking it personally, but nevertheless the prospect of revisiting the same material to make revisions, and then going through another round of the holding-my-breath-for-the-decision process after resubmission, is daunting. It’s making me feel sick.

My viva is in July. Before, it felt like July 2013 was light years away. Now the calendar doesn’t say “2011” or “2012” any more. The neat little 2013 in my diary pages that I will work my way through as I write – I flick through them like one of those flipbook animations. The time is going to pass so quickly, I’m going to be confused, baffled, bamboozled. I’m not going to know where the days have gone.

I feel sick in my stomach, and half asleep in this dreary darkness of a deserted computer lab. The tap-tap-tapping of my fingers on the keyboard is the only sound I hear.

I’m going to start typing now.

I spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

The libertarian left (of which I have been an ardent supporter for several years) is either making the best of a bad situation (by merging into the two-party system that exists in many Western nations, most notably the US, the UK, and Australia, to have a say in things for a change) or is a complete political sell-out (by merging into the two-party system that exists in many Western nations, most notably the US, the UK, and Australia, to have a say in things for a change), and I can’t decide which.

These days, as the US presidential election campaigns reach the climatic period before November, I’ve been re-watching some speeches of my favourite libertarian-turned-republican, Ron Paul. He’s said some great things about WikiLeaks, like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qpc_HXx5bjE&feature=related

And this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soF2uIe8GPk&feature=related

Although these speeches were made some time ago, I think a lot of what he says stands even more strongly today. The US government’s pursuit of Assange is futile (just like Jesse Brown reiterated last week) and, moreover, its logic is faulty. There is no question of treason, nor of threats to national security. No one has been killed as a result of WikiLeaks’ revelations. There has been no question of fabrication of the published material. In other words, the US government implicitly accepts the truth of what has come to light: That it has acted with unethical ulterior motives, and that it continues to do so, now pursuing Assange and other whistleblowers as ‘traitors’ with the effect of distracting both the press and the general public from its unethical activities.

So kudos to Ron Paul for defending WikiLeaks, Assange, freedom of information, and all anonymous whistleblowers who supply classified information for release.

But, Dr Paul: Would you still be defending these fundamental freedoms if you were president of the United States today?

Because it’s hard to imagine that you would, given that you might be considered a political sell-out for turning to the Republicans when your stated beliefs are clearly libertarian. Why did you leave the libertarians? Because they have little real chance of having a say, in power or even in presidential debates, because of the overwhelming dominance of the two-party system. Practically since the establishment of American democracy, competition for political power has been a two-horse race between Democrats and Republicans, and smaller parties have had little weight, or voice, in influencing policy. Many libertarian politicians have felt compelled or coerced to leave genuinely liberal parties to join traditional ones simply because of the political leverage of such parties. Given the little leverage the US Libertarian Party has, it isn’t suprising you changed teams years ago, Dr Paul. For better or worse, you’re a political sell-out. You’re power-hungry, or at least hungry to have a say that people will actually hear. You’re sleeping with the enemy. Whatever you want to call it.

Of course, the type of sell-outness expressed by the small parties currently holding up the UK and Australian coalition governments is a whole different issue not to be discussed here; though I would argue their dilemmas are similar to yours, Dr Paul.

Moreover, at least in the UK, that small party isn’t doing enough to support these fundamental freedoms of people. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, infamously further left than Labour, might be expected to have their noses deep in the cause to campaign for an individual’s right to political asylum, and to be subject to a law that applies equally to all people. But they don’t, at least not enough. And why not? Because they, too, are formerly feasible leftist/liberal politicians, supporting civil rights and liberties, education and green living, press freedom, peaceful foreign policy, and social equality. And they, too, are now sell-outs, power-hungry, sleeping with the enemy.

Whatever you want to call it, really.

The bottom line is that I’m still skeptical of any support for WikiLeaks and other non-governmental movements fighting for freedom of information that comes from either governments (perhaps with the exception of Ecuador and Latin America) or politicians of major opposition parties, because the source of that support seems as likely to be politically convenient as it is to a reflection of a genuine concern for progressive change.

The thing is, as much as so many people – so many of us – have been applauding Dr Paul’s support of freedom of information, I remain skeptical of his motives, and I won’t be convinced of them until and unless he expresses the same support in presidential office, and acts in support of such freedom. For now, his support is still questionable; it is a convenient criticism against the Obama administration, and it suits his position as a member of the main opposition.

So what support can we count on?

The support we can count on for WikiLeaks, and for all whistleblowers, is support that comes from those who have nothing to gain. Support that comes from people who are risking their welfare or their lives to inform the public of what it does not yet know, and yet who have no direct personal reward – no income, no recognition, no guarantee of safety. People who are willing to lose – to be pursued by governments, to be arrested, to receive contempt from people who want everything to stay the same, stay the same – in order to get information out into the public domain. It’s the support of those people you can count on, because that support has no direct personal rewards; in fact, it can cost them their lives.

People like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gq5D2NepOpo

Let’s keep the pressure going on governments to stop this ridiculous persecution and step up to their neglected responsibility to be fully and permanently transparent.

Answer me this: How do you go forward if you don’t know which way you’re facing?

Hm?

Lennon? Chekhov? Fellow PhD enthusiasts in the blogosphere?

Because right now I have no idea where I am in this vast, sprawling, hopelessly chaotic, admittedly fascinating but oh so exhausting PhD.

It’s amazing how many PhD-related injuries I’m suffering from at the moment.

I’ve had a bad back for at least 6 months now. I used to think it was because something was wrong with the way I sleep or the bed I sleep on, but it has persisted steadily through attempts to change sleeping positions, sleep on an extra layer of doona, and sleep more hours or fewer hours. Now I think it happens because I have to sit in a swivel chair in the office all day, then go home and sit in another swivel chair all evening, then sleep on a potentially dodgy bed, then wake up and do the whole thing again. Sure, I take breaks during the day – I get up and take a walk, chat with people in the hall, make tea – but the bulk of my time is spent sitting rigidly in a swivel chair, typing, emailing, worrying and procrastinating.

Then there’s the dry eyes. This undoubtedly occurs because of the long hours spent in staring contests with the screen or paper in front of me. I don’t wear glasses and have always had pretty good vision, and I don’t hunch my back or try to stare too closely when I’m reading, yet still after a few hours I find my eyes have started hurting or stinging and they will not be relieved until I close them. Sometimes I have to call it a day and go to sleep, as the dryness can’t seem to be blinked away immediately.

Alongside these there are also migraines. I have never suffered particularly badly from them, but lately I’ve found I go home with a throbbing headache almost every evening. The aches usually begin in my frontal lobes, then my temporal lobes start throbbing, and then every so often there are these stab-like pains from deep inside my limbic system, right in the middle of my brain below the surface. Because I don’t take pharmaceuticals if I can help it, I usually have to sleep it off, meaning it usually takes the whole night to get rid of the migraine. Then I wake up and get back to work, until the next migraine comes along again.

Hmm. What else?

I have a broken toe at the moment. The way it came about is, surprisingly for me, not directly related to my PhD, though it is perhaps indirectly so. This occurred during a sudden urge to stretch my back after a long sitting session in a swivel chair, when I got up abruptly and stepped out from behind the desk, only to hit my toe against the protruding leg of a dressing mirror. Fortunately most of the pain, swelling and bruising has now gone, through the splint bandage and cotton wool looks set to stay on a couple weeks more.

Oh, and my sprained wrist. My left wrist has been playing up for quite a few months now, despite not being subjected to any more wear and tear than my right wrist. I’m right-handed though, so perhaps my right wrist has developed more strongly than the left. I do a lot of typing, not to mention other activities when I’m taking time off (like cooking or cycling), and though the pressure on each of my wrists seems pretty equal to me, for some reason the left one gets these dull aches, especially when I flex it backwards. Anyway, my wrist is now bandaged to keep it straighter and more stable, though I am still, obviously, typing this with it!

And finally: My thesis gut. With so much time spent sitting around, my brain cells are usually the only part of my body to get a strenuous workout (although I do 30-minute brisk walks during the academic year to get from home to the office and back). For some reason, though, I often get vigorously hungry and can demolish a large plateful in 10 minutes or so. This has led to a feeling of bloatedness or bulging in my stomach, which is strange for me as I tend to have a very fast metabolism and seem to burn food quickly. It is the strangest thing in the world to feel completely stuffed and still have pathetic stick-insect-like proportions.

I think these sorts of complaints are pretty common among PhD students of the world, and I am sure many of them suffer more than I do. But equally, I think about the people who are homeless and destitute, and the children lying in hospital beds, and I feel fortunate.

If you’re still reading this, good luck with whatever challenges you are taking on in your research today. I feel the beginning of a headache coming on, so I think I’ll sign off here and get back to my data collection and soul-searching.

I have been procrastinating for a year and a half in finding out the answer to a question no one else cares about: Where is my research going next? What is the final leg of its journey? That’s what I have to find out.

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!