Friday, 30 November 2012

Et tu, Brute...

It's pretty sad when you're trying to finish your PhD, kicking yourself for having to take a writing-up year, for not being finished, for having Failed in your own estimation, for having let your funding run out, for having to live off savings (and lovers...) All this is pretty sad. Well, it gets even sadder when you already have all this, and then your own family start using precisely these things to take the piss out of you.

My own family. My own flesh and blood.

Some of them get it, some of them don't. Some of them I can ring up and we can laugh, in a sort of sad-ironic way, about the stupid things I do every day (ie. PhDs, in general). You can make people smile with the stories of your inadequacies, which is always worth something. But there are others in my family who remain bemused as to why anyone would do a PhD, when a) it doesn't pay much ('but how are you going to get a mortgage?') and b) it doesn't automatically lead to a great career. Those are the ones who externalize all the worst things I think about myself. While I'll still have them over for Sunday roast, just recently I have been wondering if perhaps I should steer clear for a while.

It happened so innocently. Usually there's the odd bit of good-humoured teasing ('have you even STARTED writing this 'PhD'? - they will ask, and I will pull my 'stoopid' face and be like 'er, no! hahaha!'; or they will say 'another hard day at the office, eh? what time did you get out of bed?' - and I will play along with the whole 'lazy Humanities student' thing: 'oh haha! can't you tell? i'm still in my pyjamas!'). Going along with the teasing, I always thought I was doing my bit as a good-natured human being, a normal member of society, you know, not taking myself too seriously, aiming jokes at my own person for the benefit and joy of others, and so on. Anyway, no-one wants you to be too perfect. You don't bond easily with people whose lives are perfect and who love, LOVE their jobs. Clearly, though, I should have given the 'bonding' thing a miss and instead bored them all stupid every day with serious talk about all the Important Work that I Do and all the Stress that I am Under. Maybe then they would know. They would be impressed. They wouldn't be saying things like...

It happened so innocently, my PhD-addled brain didn't even really know if it was a mean comment or if it was a very funny joke. It was the Sibling who pulled at the wrong thread. I was at Sibling's home, enjoying a break from work, trying to gauge when would be a polite time to leave so I could get on with my work, but without appearing to rush and being rude, when Sibling (hand in hand with Life Partner) said this:

'Cee*, we're both thinking of doing a PhD. What do you think - could we get away with just signing up for one, then taking the funding for three years, and not actually doing anything, just not writing anything, but just taking the money, and then later telling them something like - 'Oh, I'm just not going to do it... I just don't believe in it anymore.' What do you think? ... Could we do that?... That sounds like a great idea, doesn't it?...'

Recently, a part of me was thinking: I don't have to do this, you know. I could quit this week and have a holiday in December and then get on with job-hunting in January (instead of my current schedule, which goes: chapter X and chapter Y to be finished in December; write chapter Z in January-February; introduction and conclusion in...) Part of me was thinking that I don't have to be here, doing this thankless task. I could be out there with the rest of them earning the hard cash and going out on a Friday night, like a normal person, six months earlier than expected. That wouldn't upset anyone. That would make everyone happy.

Up until now, I thought the teasing was all fun and humorous. I didn't realise that the worst things I think about myself are actually what the Sibling also thinks of me, and isn't afraid to say. Oh, dear. Dear, dear. Et tu, Brute...

Now I can't quit the bloody PhD, because then what the Sibling said about me would become THE TRUTH. Now I have another reason (horror of horrors, as if I need another one) - another reason to try and finish this thing, try and pin it down, make it be over, get the doctorate, go to the graduation, walk the walk in the ermine-trimmed gown. Up until now, certain that the PhD wasn't the cleverest thing I have ever done and that it probably won't lead to my career of choice, I have been entertaining half-arsed thoughts of quitting. Now I can't. I have to make Sibling spend the sodding one-pound-fifty, or whatever it is, on the 'congratulations' card. I have to make Sibling watch me saunter up that aisle. Sibling must be made to attend the congratulatory dinner. Sibling must contribute to the round of beers. Sibling must be punished.

My life has purpose again.

*Cee: this is not my real name. However, seeing as my fake name in here is 'Cloud Nine', and the Sibling is hardly likely to address me as 'Cloud', I figure that, maybe, he/she might feasibly address me as 'Cee'... You know, like of you're called Georgia, people might call you Gee, or if you're called Delia, people might call you Dee... You get the point. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Sleeping with the Enemy

This is just to say that I haven't, yet.

I will no doubt be sleeping with the enemy (my PhD) soon. Not just yet, though. Not today. Today I am fobbing him off with just enough attention so that he doesn't get too suspicious. Just enough smiles, and fake love, and care.

(see previous posts if this one doesn't make sense.)

Friday, 16 November 2012


16:26. Where has the day gone?...

Sartre once said that he thought the worst time of the day is 3 o'clock. If you haven't got stuff done by this stage in the day, it's probably too late to start. (I kind of wish I had never read that; ever since then, I watch for the approach of 3 o'clock with horror and trepidation.)

This is my world: it's always 3pm, yet never the end of the day. Always winter, but never Christmas. Always Friday afternoon (libraries shutting early, normal, functional human beings going home) but never the Friday feeling.

I'm going to stop feeling sorry for myself now and go do some work.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Body and Soul

We were sitting in a nice restaurant enjoying a candle-lit vegetarian meal, when my companion (who, by the way, is a honestly employed person, with a busy job which makes him very tired and takes up all his time) said something Profound.

‘You know, when you have a job’, he told me (we had just been talking about my PhD, and I was getting a bit gloomy over my ever-delayed completion date. The completion date doesn’t seem to be inching any closer. If anything, it seems to be slipping further and further into the distance…), ‘when you have a job, the job wants your soul. The job wants you to drop everything else, drop your life, and just give all your time and all your life to it. And the PhD, too, wants your soul. And I get the feeling that you are not quite prepared to give it your soul.’

I had once heard a friend (who has successfully completed her PhD) describing the final painful months thus: ‘It felt like I was locked in a room with a guy, and I was going to have to sleep with him, but I really, really didn’t want to sleep with him. I was going to have to have sex with that guy, and I didn’t want to, but until I did, I wasn’t going to be leaving that room. And I DIDN’T WANT TO do it. But then … you end up doing it, and you survive, and you even end up falling a little bit in love with the guy.’

For all its connotations of hell and damnation, I’m going to stick with the ‘soul’ analogy; it’s nicer.

He’s right, I thought, sitting there over the candlelit dinner, pushing the vegetarian lasagne around my plate. The PhD wants my soul. I am not going to finish the fucker until I stop doing what I am doing now, which is writing when I feel like, trying to make my life as pleasant as possible, feeling gloomy when I want to, taking fifty trips a day to the coffee machine, and interrupting myself whenever I have finally got going, because I have agreed to go have coffee with someone, or because I have booked a weekend away to see my family; or because I want to pretend that I am a normal person and that I should be allowed to do things like spend my evenings sitting around strumming the guitar and having a nice time. No. The PhD wants my soul.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

"Learned Optimism"

I have been reading a new book, called something like ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’ by a Martin E. Seligman. It was on the reading list on the back page of a handout from one of those motivational seminars run by Gurus at my university. After a particularly useful talk, my motivation temporarily boosted and PhD depression at bay, I turned to the Guru in question and asked him, if we were to buy just one book off the recommended reading list, which one would he recommend?... Without hesitation, he told me to read this one. I put a big circle around it on my list, and as I did so, I noticed the flurry around me as other graduate students, also keen for a longer-lasting motivational hit, whipped out their pencils and also circled it on their reading lists, to a general chorus of ‘Which one? Which one? That one?’ and ‘Thank you!’

About a year and a half later, I unearthed that handout and saw that faint pencil circle around that title. I typed it into Amazon and clicked ‘Buy’. It was delivered to my Kindle in seconds. Ah, the wonder of the Kindle. So, after a year and a half, I finally read the motivational book. (I do this more and more these days, read motivational literature. I can also recommend ‘Stop Worrying, Start Living’, which is by Dale Carnagie, and which you can access here: ).

It’s an interesting read, the Seligman book. I can see why the Guru recommended it to struggling PhD students. It tells you a few things about your ‘explanatory style’. Seligman argues that everyone has a particular way of explaining bad events, and while some of us explain them in ways which are only temporary and basically positive – ‘I had a bad day today, but that was just because of XYZ; it’s no big deal; I’ll have another go at this chapter tomorrow’, others explain bad events with arguments which are permanent, pervasive and personal: ‘I just had a terrible day. I’m no good at this PhD. I’m really rubbish at everything I do. Will I ever do anything right?... Waaaaaaah…’.

This, the book argues, is the key to why some people get depressed easily while others bounce back from misfortunes; the problem lies in how we explain bad events, and if you are in the habit of explaining your misfortunes in ways which make it sound like you are to blame and the damage will last forever, then you are more likely to be in trouble. The book goes on to say that the way to change this is to practise recognizing these negative explanations which come into your head, and then dispute them: is it really so? is it really that I am rubbish at everything? Is my life reeeally ruined?... (my answer might be: I am not ‘rubbish’ at the PhD; I just didn’t work hard enough today.) And if indeed the evidence is there that the situation is dire, you must ask yourself: what is the usefulness of what I am doing – ie, what is the use of ruminating over this bad thing and blaming myself? Am I doing myself any good? ... No. What action, then, am I going to take instead?... In short, the book tells you to stop pessimistic thoughts in their tracks and focus on changing the way you think about things.

If you have a tendency towards self-pity and gloom, then doing a PhD will definitely unleash those things in you. A PhD basically gives you the perfect excuse to tell yourself things like ‘I can’t do this’ and things like ‘I will never get it finished’ (because, indeed, if you view the whole thing without thinking about how it breaks down into manageable chunks, of course it’s true to say that you ‘can’t do it’; you can only do it gradually, bit by bit, one day at a time). To all of you out there who are thinking of starting a PhD: if you have any tendency at all towards gloom and depression, you must go root those things out immediately before you even start thinking about doing a successful PhD.

Just for fun, I took Seligman’s ‘depression test’, which gets you to reflect on events from the past week and tells you on this basis how depressed you are. I gave it a go, with maybe one question which I may have answered slightly wrong (because when it asked me ‘did you feel annoyed at small, insignificant things this week, which normally don’t upset you?’ I answered ‘yes’; and on reflection a more accurate answer would have been ‘no’, because small pointless things usually do upset me, all the time.) My score came to 33 - which, I thought with relief, doesn't sound very high. However, according to Seligman, anything over 24 means that you are probably ‘severely depressed’, and, he adds, if you are also experiencing ‘suicidal thoughts’, you are urged to book yourself an appointment with a mental health professional immediately.

I thought, d’oh, Cloud Nine. Severely depressed, like whatever. More likely, you can’t add up properly. I totted up the numbers again, which, as I was very distracted, took several goes. Well, the good news is, my maths is just fine.

So does that mean I should book myself that appointment, or no?... If I do, then maybe, in a small way, this PhD will have turned out to have been a good thing?... For the first time in my life, there is something big enough and depressing enough hanging over me that I am forced to look at myself and my ‘depression’ seriously.

This raises a more serious question. All this time, I was convinced the PhD is the problem. Maybe – horror of horrors – the problem is in fact ME?

"Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea"

quote of the day:

"Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea"

(Iris Murdoch)

[Love this quote. It's good to know that writers, not just PhD writers but also amazing novelists, think that their final product is so far from perfect.

A PhD really is a perfect graveyard of once-brilliant ideas. Don't you think?...]