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Despite often feeling that I work among people who have lost their ideals, and being immersed deeply myself in the last few months of this PhD, there is still a burning sense of injustice that enrages me every day, and it frustrates me that people around me cannot feel it too.

Recently, Bradley Manning completed his 1000th day in custody as his trial continues to be delayed, postponed and rainchecked by a ‘justice’ system and a long-term political regime that is institutionally prejudiced against those who speak the inconvenient truth.

Assange still spends his days in the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge, just a half hour away on the tube from where I am sitting now, an ‘enemy of the state’ for showing the world – or, at least, those who are interested – that American governments are not all they appear to be.

Hardly anyone even speaks about Jeremy Hammond, nor of the hundreds of journalists and political activists who are still behind bars today for making their dissent against injustice known, or even for reporting on the existence of injustice.

In many parts of the world today, gays still cannot marry without judgement from the prejudiced, women cannot be priests or even be educated without backlash from patriarchal fundamentalists, Blacks cannot go about their lives without being stop-and-searched, and intellectuals cannot speak their minds without being censored. The young are patronised and the old victimised, the poor overlooked and the wealthy put on a pedestal.

We should be enraged about these, yet so many of us wake up each morning and go to bed each night with these thoughts never having crossed our minds.

We should take heed of Assange’s words:

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.

If we have brains or courage, then we are blessed and called on not to frit these qualities away, standing agape at the ideas of others, winning pissing contests, improving the efficiencies of the neocorporate state, or immersing ourselves in obscuranta, but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.
The whole universe or the structure that perceives it is a worthy opponent, but try as I may I can not escape the sound of suffering.

Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them.”

 

Yep.

I have already blogged about the similarities (according to a woman I once met at a conference) between PhDs and childbirth, though having munched my way through such a massive meal for no apparent reason, I see now the resemblance is uncanny. All these months, I’ve been eating fairly normally – lost a little weight, even – and now suddenly I seem to have an appetite that will not be satisfied. Graduation cravings, maybe?

More than that, though, as I was eating, I came to realise how much a PhD is a two-sided coin. I started this thing thinking it was all good – higher research makes you smarter, more analytical, more open-minded, and it helps you get a good paying job. A PhD, for those of us wanting to work in academia at least, is essentially a work visa to anywhere in the world.

These are all good things.

And yet, in bittersweet contradiction, PhDs make you stupid. I was reading the label on the back of a package of cookies yesterday, and at first misread the allergy warning as saying ‘Contains EEG [electroencephalography, a method of measuring electrical activity in the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp]’. “What?” I thought, and looked again. Then I realised it said ‘Contains EGG’. My immediate reaction? “That’s not how you write ‘EEG’!” It took a full minute or so before it dawned on me the damn word was egg.

My research isn’t even remotely related to EEG.

Then there’s the mad train of thought I had with my tacos. They put the mincemeat at the bottom of the shell, then add the lettuce, tomato, and cheese on top, putting each layer on top of the one under it, building upwards vertically. It looks better that way, yet when you take a bite out of the top, it contains only the salad fillings, because the meat is at the bottom. In order to get a quantity of all fillings in one mouthful, you then have to turn your head sideways and take a bite out of the side, which, as I found, leads to the nasty affliction known as taco rash on one side of the mouth, particularly after you bite in this way through five consecutive tacos. To solve this problem I set about creating a magnum opus (yes, this comes closer to being a magnum opus than my PhD thesis) – the ergonomically constructed taco. This involved setting the taco shell down sideways, spreading the mincemeat evenly across the whole bottom side, then layering each of the salad fillings evenly over it to create a homogeneously distributed filling mass.

Seriously, this is the kind of stuff I waste my (dubious) intelligence on.

Yesterday I had five tacos for dinner. Plus some cookies from the cookie packet warning me that they contain EEG brain waves. I am supposed to be a clever, sensible scientist with my wits about me. But that just isn’t the case. I have rarely come across a researcher or academic who did not, at some point, exhibit some noteworthy eccentricity or other. Because that is the nature of academia – it teaches sensibility, researches sensibility, yet it is seldom graced by sensible people.

Here’s to embracing the insanity…

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It’s been silent in this place today. There are a couple postdocs down the hall, in another office. But in this one there’s just me. No one else has turned up today.

I don’t feel lonely when I’m working at my desk at home because I only have one desk – there isn’t supposed to be anyone else working there. But here, I’m in an office of about 100 square metres floorspace, amidst rows of work stations and 11 PCs besides my own (apologies to the Apple lovers – I’m allergic to Macs). It’s not a massive place, but the expanse of empty space feels so much bigger when you’re alone in it. All you can hear is the quiet tap-tap-tapping of your fingers on the keyboard.

I wish I could work in a lab where everyone was around more, where there was more cohesion and less indifference between people. When you work in the silence a lot, it gets so profound that you sometimes give up believing that you will ever achieve your goals. You tend to let your hope slide.

You start to remember the past.

I know, that my playing isn’t the perfect one, like this mad world is. But I know, that if I’ll try to do all my best to improve it, I’ll gain the result, which I want. So, I want to wish you to save your good spirits and optimistic view at life, and to continue to improve this imperfect world and do it better. Because, when we have any goal and when we believe in this goal and know, that this goal is good and worthy, we will achieve it one day anyway.

If I had a magic wand with which I could change any three things about the present world, I would:

1. Create absolute world peace, forever. Probably, this would have to happen by removing the majority of men in power of various authorities, like governments and educational institutions, and replacing them with well-educated, liberal women.

2. Distribute free chocolate to all PhD students, worldwide. And…

3. Make all men disappear…at least for a little while.

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?

In my little world today, far from the eyes of supervisors, reviewers, my family and friends, and just about everyone else in the world, I’m in the midst of an equally frustrating and exciting storm in which I am once more searching for external examiners.

I feel a bit silly, because although this is something very important to me now, I know that in another few years I’ll look back on these times and think how pathetic I was! As much as I try to stop worrying about my viva, I can’t help it. I’m a worrier. I worry about everything, especially my viva, and the closer my viva comes in my diary, the more I am worrying about it. If I stop worrying for a while, I start to worry that I’m taking it too easy when there’s something important I should be worrying about. I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a good external. I’m worried that even if I do find a good external, that they’ll say no or they won’t be available at the time I need them. I’m worried that even if they say yes and they’re available, they’ll turn up to my viva and eat me alive like a savage rabid thesis-gobbling monster.

I guess today’s just going to be one of those worrying days.

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I still believe that one day we can use PhDs and higher learning to create worldwide peace among all people, irrespective of colour, creed, age, sex, or class. Let’s create a world in which there are no boundaries between schools, colleges or faculties, or between disciplines, no borders between countries or peoples, and no possessions. A world in which there is neither poverty nor greed, in which humanity transcends both wealth and politics.

Well, I’m through, and, as I knew, it wasn’t half as dreadful as I irrationally thought it was going to be. I know my reviewers are laid back, but somehow that doesn’t help shake the chills off.

I feel remarkably elated today, possibly even more so than I did yesterday, at passing, and it’s only towards this evening that I expect that elation to wear off, gradually being replaced by that deep-seated restlessness that I’ve got to get on with my thesis. I’ve got to submit in May next year and I’ve got to get on with it. Hurry up.

And I’ve got so much to do, I don’t know where to start. And if you’ve not experienced a PhD, just know that it feels like that permanently, no matter what you do!

This is the beginning of the end, in the sense that I’ve got 10 months on my schedule and not a minute to lose. I’m virtually throwing myself into my work and not coming out until there’s nothing left to do.

And yet, there’s a whole world around me, outside this bubble I live in, zooming through time at break-neck speed, growing, changing, and thundering along. I’m missing that world and the people in it.

I guess I’m just waiting for one side or the other to tip the scales and then I’ll know what’s important.

What’s important.

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June 2017
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The Final Countdown

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