Friday, 22 March 2013

Words of Wisdom

Had a coffee with a colleague and friend, one who not only has a PhD and lots of publications under his belt, but also a permanent job, and, you know, is much much further along in his Career. The advice he gave me on these final months of PhD was this:

- start shutting the whole thing down now. you will find it helpful to think in terms of 'shutting down'. you will want to keep following up new avenues of research every time you stumble across something interesting that you haven't explored. you will want to look up everything that's been written about it and change your entire chapter 4 to accommodate this new thing. there isn't time. you don't have time to do that. start SHUTTING DOWN the phd, and making it smaller instead of bigger. focus on making sure that what you are saying is clear and concise. you know what you mean; try and help the examiners know what you mean. think about transitions between chapters, think about making your line of argument as clear as possible. use your supervisors.

- you may find it useful to find out very soon about the final stages of handing the thing in. which office do you take it to? which binders will you use, and how much time will they need? what colour does the binding have to be? how many copies do you need? find out how many days this will all take, and put them in your diary near the final deadline. bear in mind that just printing it out takes an entire day.

- if your examiners find more than X amount of mistakes (say, 100), then they will be obliged to spend your viva going through each and every one of those mistakes with you, which isn't very nice. (if you can magage to avoid this, then you will have a very nice viva.) check footnotes and quotations. allow yourself time, after the thing is written, to read through carefully and check things thoroughly. at this stage, every time you write something, reference it properly. start thinking in terms of 'this bit is now tidy and i have checked it through, and i can move on.'

- your examiners will think your phd is fine. it's fine as it is right now. your examiners haven't read the material you are working on. (my friend, who is a specialist on my area, said: I am working on this, and I haven't had time to read the thing you are working on.) your examiners won't know that you have all these files on your computer, with all this extra information that you never had time to incorporate into your phd, and which you think is crucial and is missing. no-one knows that but you. it doesn't matter.

- (I was worrying that I have probably missed out loads of secondary, critical material, which i didn't realise even exists/ or came across it and then forgot all about it.) it will happen - in your viva, someone will say 'have you read X book on this?' and you will say 'No'. it doesn't matter. they will tell you about it, it will be helpful, and that will be it. if necessary, they will tell you what corrections to make.

- your thesis only has to be good enough. it's already good as it is right now. print out stuff you write as you go along, and put it in order in a ring binder. this way a) you get to see how much work you have done, and b) if it is printed out, you are less likely to think (as you would when you see it on the computer screen) 'oh my God, I have to restructure everything/ rewrite the whole thing/ copy and paste all these things and put them in a different order...'. Use a red pen (or a green pen) to correct, annotate, put a few arrows here and there to indicate where things can go. correct the physical draft on the page before you. this is easier to do than correcting a draft which is sliding past your eyes on a screen on a word processor. (i agreed with him that screens are evil.)

- think of this draft as though it were something that has been written by someone else. this is not your phd; this is a friend's PhD, and you are helping your friend reread it and correct it. what would you say to your friend? you would not say 'oh my God, every single word of this is rubbish and needs rewriting.' you would say, 'well done for writing all this stuff', and then you would say 'well, i'd suggest changing three-four things, and then basically it's OK.' you are allowed to say to yourself, as you might about a friend's work, 'gosh, [X] has made a right mess of this. she should definitely change this bit and move this bit' - you are allowed to criticize, but remember, this is someone else's work at this point and you are helping. you do not have responsibility over it. it does not define who you are. it does not say anything, reveal anything, about you. it does not define your worth as an academic or a person. it isn't even a finished thing; you can turn it into a book, or turn it into articles, and that will mean you get to make it completely different. it isn't the last thing you will ever write. and, to be honest, no-one (apart from maybe two people) will ever read it.

- (and then he said) : remember Good Enough; think Shutting Down. and Good Luck!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

why I (still) hate my PhD

ok. i hate my phd because: say you just want to correct a bit of a chapter so it's all nice for your supervisor. you want to hand it in TODAY. and say you just want to check a footnote, check that the commas are in the right place and stuff. you look up the footnote and you realise that, just a bit further on in the original text you're citing, there is a thing which is relevant to something else in your argument. so of course you have to stop and write it down. so then of course you end up thinking about it (because you have to think about it, because it's really, really relevant to what you say later on), and you end up looking it up to see if anyone else has written about it. then the next thing you know, you are ordering books from the bl and thinking about emailing an eminent critic to see if she has an article about it... so as a result, what feels like several hours later, you have not finished correcting the footnote, nor have you got very far in the document you were supposed to be editing. and yet you have not stopped working. and yet, as usual, somehow, you have nothing to hand in, and you are way behind where you had hoped to be. this is my life, you know. I sometimes think i shall NEVER FINISH THIS PHD. i am on footnote 14, page 5, of the thing i was trying to write/ edit, and i wanted to send it (to send something that's at least a bit finished) to my supervisor today. 

(what i just wrote is completely against the Rules set out in my procrastination book. what i should have written is: i love how the intellectual curiosity of... bla bla bla.)

(don't tell the procrastination book i said this.)

right. I shall go and do some centering exercises, or something.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Another one of my friends/ acquaintances has finished her PhD thesis. There is a small celebration taking place on facebook, with all her friends congratulating her and telling her how much they look forward to showering her with gifts and  champagne and celebrating with her over home-cooked dinners. (I ‘liked’ her status and told her ‘Amazing! Well done!’ Incidentally, I also liked how her message announcing the impending handing-in of her thesis was fairly discreet; it was an exclamation of joy, but ambiguously worded so that only the initiated, only those working towards the same deadlines, could know what it was about, and smile.)

I am happy for her. I actually don’t feel jealous. Part of me also thinks – you know, watching all these people slowly complete their thesis and pass their viva – it makes me think, there’s hope for me yet. If they can do it, I can do it. If they can do this crazy thing, then maybe there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to, somehow, by whatever means are available.

Then there is a part of me that wonders if I am going to end up like Hagrid the gamekeeper in 'Harry Potter', watching all his friends become wizards while he doesn’t get to graduate, or wear the wizarding gown, and instead has to stump about in the Hogwarts grounds, carrying a haversack.

But we shan't bother engaging with that part. I am up and about (having woken up at six; paranoiac habit of the final-year PhD student), I have The Procrastination Bible in front of me (which kept me company during the weekend) and I am doing centering exercises: breathe, relax, let go of the past, let go of the future; notice how ‘it really doesn’t take much energy to just be in the present.’

‘Let go of trying to be in any particular time, and let go of striving to be any particular way. Just allow yourself to notice the sensations of being where you are now. Choose to be in this situation, allowing the wisdom of your body and inner mind to give you just the right level of energy and relaxation to be here, doing whatever you choose to do in this moment. Inhale, hold your breath, and exhale completely, floating down into the present moment.’

Thou shalt not defeat me, my little PhD thesis.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

**STOP PRESS.** Do You Procrastinate? There’s a Book For That!

I am reading a book on procrastination and having a small epiphany. It is telling me what I am doing wrong, and how to stop doing it quite so wrong, and do it better instead. To those of you who complain about all the inner resistance to the PhD, and the inability to get started: READ IT. If you can’t buy it, borrow it from the library.

It is called

by Neil Fiore

Here is one thing it tells you to change, which I think, if you can do it, might just help: it says, change the things you typically tell yourself about your work (eg ‘I have to work’, ‘I should work’, ‘I can’t play’), which do nothing to motivate you to actually do it (seeing as they sound so crap and pointless) to nicer things which sound more fun (eg. ‘I choose to have a go at this, or else I choose not to do it, and I shall get over it and deal with the consequences.’)

Here goes. Stick this on your fridge. Every time you find yourself saying X, replace X ---------with Y.

i have to ------> I CHOOSE TO

i must finish---------> when can i start? [when is the next time i can start?]

this project is so big and important ----------------> I CAN TAKE ONE SMALL STEP

I must be perfect -----------------> I CAN BE PERFECTLY HUMAN (acceptance of your human limits. try to be imperfect; intentionally do the first bit of project sloppily. don't show to boss yet. do it fast and inadequately. Then, watch your motivation and natural desire for improvement take over.)

i don't have time to play --------------> I MUST MAKE TIME TO PLAY.

And so you go from telling yourself ‘I have to finish this big, important task, and it must be perfect, so I mustn’t waste my time doing anything else, nothing fun, absolutely ever’



Of course (as one of the reviews of this book on Amazon says), the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s all very well to read this stuff, it’s not always easy to actually do it. But I am reading it and I am feeling better. Of course, I may just forget all about it by tomorrow and go right back to my pathetic little ways. But, who knows?... already I’m feeling less guilty and more HAPPY about all the (birthday) playtime I’m going to have this weekend…

ps 'reading a book on procrastination'; I'm sure there's a good joke in there somewhere. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


Just had a thought. Have you ever had the feeling where you enjoy reading over your own writing?... Have you ever reread something you wrote, maybe even over and over again, and marveled at the beauty of the words?... I have. I have written things at times which make me very happy, and which I want to reread. I have written things and then spent hours painstakingly correcting one page, not bothered by the colossal amount of time that was slipping by. I have had that feeling where you've written something and you read it and feel pride at rereading your own work. I have written the odd thing on this blog which has made me happy. 

Not so much with the PhD, mind. It works for the creative writing, but not for this. Like now, for example: I have just opened a file which contains a draft of my Chapter 1. I started to read it. And I wanted to close it down immediately. The chapter title, the sub-headings, none of it is inspiring; all of it sounds crap. There must be a way, though. I wish I could transfer that feeling, that 'Oh my God this is so good, I could just spend all day making this perfect' - feeling, on to the PhD. There must be a way.

Trouble is, something tells me that this is the way to go about it if you want to write a PhD thesis you can be proud of: to write something that makes you fall in love with it a little, and makes you want to reread it. I'm not quite there yet.

"Three Hours a Day"

"Do three hours' work a day. It's much better to work on your PhD for three hours every day, than to do nothing one day and nine hours' work the next."

This is the word of God.*

[All: Praise be to God.]

*[The God = an important figure at the Graduate School, whose talks on motivation have helped me peel myself off the floor, and find a new reason to live. On this blog there are several 'Gurus', but only one God.]

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Get a Goat

There is a short Jewish folk tale, which my Mum used to tell. She likes to tell it to me especially in times of meltdown, crisis, exam stress... It is a story which I haven't heard in years, and which comes back to me now that I am trying to finish a PhD. Let me tell you this story now.

"There was once a poor man who had many children, and lived in a very tiny, very shabby cottage. The children screamed and fought and made noise and mess all day long. The man could get no rest there, neither night or day. In despair, he went to see the Rabbi. He said, 'Rabbi, please help. I can't stand my life anymore. I cannot live like this a day longer. Please advise me before I do something desperate.'

And the Rabbi said: 'I shall tell you exactly what you must do.' And his advice was this: 'Go to the market. Get a goat. Bring this goat into your home. And then you shall see. Now go, and do as I have told you.'

So the poor man followed this advice, and he bought a goat and took the goat home. At night, the goat had to sleep in the house, because there was nowhere else for it to go. During the day, the goat caused havoc anywhere it went. The house became smelly and the noise of the children and the goat was unbearable. The children played with it, teased it, fought over it, and, between them and the goat, they wrought mayhem on the poor man's already crowded space.

So the poor man went to the Rabbi again. 'Rabbi', he said, 'what was this advice you gave me? It hasn't helped me at all. In fact, things are even worse than before. The goat just shits everywhere, the house stinks, the children are rowdier than ever. It is absolute hell!'

And the Rabbi said calmly, 'Take away the goat.'

So the poor man went home and got rid of the goat. All of a sudden, he could not believe how nice his life was. The house no longer stank. The children were calmer - no calmer than they had been before, but much calmer than they had been while the goat was there. The man was amazed at how much space he had, and how relaxed he felt. All of a sudden, his problems did not seem so overwhelming anymore."

There. So, to all you PhD-writers: hate your PhD?... Get yourself a goat. See how much worse your life could be. Then take the goat away. And then go write some PhD.

[potential goat equivalents - anything that is a drain on your time: helping a friend move house; helping parents clear out garage; agreeing to do some work on the side; fixing Grandma's car; a bit of volunteering for the homeless; anything. I once tried my hand at a business competition for students. I thought, that will be a nice useful extra thing to do on the side. Drowning in figures and business plans, I found myself thinking - how I miss JUST having a PhD to write...]

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Life According to Artur

Sibling and Life Partner called me up excitedly one day. ‘Hello. Would you like a job?’ they asked. ‘Well, yes please’, I replied. (the answer to that question was definitely ‘yes’.) the job, it turned out, was a waitressing job somewhere in an Italian restaurant miles away, in a not-very-nice area of the city, that they knew of thanks to one of Life Partner’s work clients; there was a possibility of later turning the job into a management role.  They both urged me to call the guy immediately. I had a mini-meltdown after I hung up the phone; wrestled ineffectually with the dilemma of continued uninterrupted PhD-writing versus a few waitressing shifts (long, exhausting…) here and there, a useful thing, but yet another distraction and a drain on my time. In the end, I rang the guy. I thought, beggars can’t be choosers; you do not sniff at any job offer, in this current climate, even if the job sounds nothing like what you want to do.
I met the guy (whom we shall call Artur) for an ‘interview’. It was an interview like no other I had ever had. He took one look at me, listened to me describing what I do, and told me, ‘Don’t work in a bloody restaurant. Just keep doing what you are doing. You have a great career path ahead of you. You want to work in a restaurant? You want to work from 10 am to 11 pm as a restaurant manager? Don’t do it. Don’t work in the bloody restaurant. Don't waste your time. Follow your dreams.’
And then, when I finished my tea he bought me a sherry and he bought himself some beer, and he carried on talking. And when I came home, I wrote down what he said, because I liked it. Here it is: here is the Life Philosophy of Artur.

- Don't hang around with negative people. if you are hanging on to something good by a thread, positive people will help you climb up and reach it. negative people will make you let go.

- Don't tell yourself negative things ('but it probably won't happen; there might not be any jobs; i'm not sure i can'). there's no point. just do what you want to do and you will succeed. there are so many opportunities out there.

- Live in a nice area.

- It's good to be in love with someone that you were friends with first. it's good to be in love with someone who is as intelligent as you. if you have that, then you are very lucky. love is more important than the rest of the stuff there is in life.

- 'I can't taste this here tea and describe to you what it tastes like; you have to taste it too, or you won't understand.' (this means: go out and taste life. don't just wonder what it MIGHT be like in the job or the life you want; taste it, try it.)

- Life is too short; it goes by quickly. do something good with it. don't waste it doing something you don't like.

- Be a yes person; not a no person (actually, i added this bit for myself, for clarity; this was partly the gist). don't talk yourself down. don't say things that will make people look down on you. talk yourself up.

- Hang around with people who are more successful and intelligent than you. don't spend all your time with people who are less succesful than you; something rubs off on you...

- You have many opportunities ahead of you. Don’t waste your time looking into sidelines, little jobs you are not really interested in. go for what you really want.

From ‘The Life Philosophy of Artur’ (noted down in a TextEdit file, under the influence of sherry, January 2013).

Monday, 4 March 2013

Still here

Still at it. Still haven't quit. Still not writing anything. Still sitting here, waiting for a miracle to happen, writing little notes to myself every day, trying to keep going. 

What is going on with me? …  The PhD is dead. I can’t seem to write a thing. I have made the decision not to quit and to keep going, even though in my brain there is a little voice that says move on…. Move on! It doesn’t have to be called ‘quitting’. It could be called ‘moving on…’ I have decided not to quit, least of all because I don’t want to have to explain to siblings, grannies, and the Lover, that, after all this time, I have given up. But at the same time, I am not writing anything useful.

Let’s look at some of the problems:

-       I am bored. I think  it may have been Picasso who once said that, if you know exactly what you are going to do, then why would you bother doing it? That’s exactly how I feel about planning: once you have planned the chapter and you roughly know where to put what, there is no interest in writing it all down. I know I can do it; I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm to do it. It doesn’t help that my RSI has flared up, and my hand hurts. (it’s my fault, really; all those years spent showing off how good I am at opening jars and vodka bottles are now coming back to haunt me.)
-       I DON’T WANT TO. I keep sitting down to work. Then I remember: I don’t like my work. And then I stare into space for a while.
-       My mind keeps wandering off to other things. I have agreed to teach a course, for money, on a thing I know very little about. (this is not entirely my fault, by the way. I did initially refuse, but they kept pestering me, telling me how much they need me, how much they would appreciate it if I did this; they kept sweet-talking me, and in the end I caved in, if only for the money and for the dubious prestige of having ‘something on my CV’ other than ‘wrote a PhD, for about fifty years’.
-       I’m scared. What is there to look forward to, once I finish this PhD?... by then, surely I will need money so badly that I will be grateful for any job that comes along. Therefore, I am writing this PhD, for what exactly? So that, after this horrible job, I can (if I am lucky), walk straight into…. Another horrible job?... I am scared of several things, therefore: that I will never do a good PhD anyway, because I am not clever, so why bother; that there is no point in finishing it, because … it won’t give me anything; and that I should somehow be using this time to get some sort of work experience, so that I have a hope in hell of getting a job afterwards that I might actually like.
-       There is a pile of stuff in front of me which needs doing. The examination entry form to be sent to the exams office (aaargh). The pile of receipts from conferences that I never claimed for, and which now I am frankly ashamed to send in, because they are so out of date; the train tickets that I must get a refund for, because they overcharged me; the savings account that needs updating. The invoice for the last job I did. The handbook for that bloody course I agreed to teach. There is a million things, real-world type things, that I need to get around to doing. Every time I start to do them, I think, no, I have to concentrate on this bit of PhD. But as I can’t actually put them out of my mind, neither one nor the other really gets done.
-       My birthday. Birthday month is upon me. This means only one thing: birthday. I would quite like to enjoy the last few weeks of my twenties. I would quite like to spend some time with a few nice people, without either me or them feeling like this is a massive imposition on my time. I would like to spend this month enjoying myself, enjoying being me, doing things that make me ‘me’, and not crying because I have an impossible thing to do. (the fact that it’s my birthday month is not a problem as such, mind. It’s just another thing which I know will cut into my time, and there is nothing I can do about it, except enjoy it. but how, how can you enjoy birthday when there is all this…)
-       Somewhere in my inbox there is an email from my supervisor, short and succinct and elegantly phrased, and it goes something like this: I hope you are surging ahead with your thesis. We should set up a meeting. Help…
Plan for this afternoon, therefore:
-       after I have peeled myself off this floor, will attempt to write 200 words of this chapter (something which I have been trying, and failing, to do all morning.
-       Whether I have achieved this or not: I will go into town and buy printer ink, run a couple of Important Errands, and therefore be ready for phase 2, which will be:
-       Print off the claims form for those bloody receipts on my desk. Put them in an envelope, ready to send off tomorrow. (likewise: get exams form ready; anything that needs sending off, put it in a nice envelope and write the address on it.
-       Email the people from the course and set the ball rolling: ask questions,, sort things out.

So, in short: I feel like I am drowning in stuff. I wish the real world could just… go away. I wish I could run off and go live in a hotel for a week, living off croissants stolen at breakfast, seeing no-one, doing nothing. Thinking about nothing but my thesis. I can’t juggle this life/thesis thing any more.