Wednesday, 29 May 2013

'PhD Student': New Issue Out Now!

I mentioned in a previous post how I made a silly 'newsletter' for a friend. She has retaliated and sent one right back. I LOVE HER. I love THIS. I am posting it on here because I love it, and it made me happy.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Only a PhD...

“[L]ove your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can't take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don't torment them with your doubts and don't frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn't be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn't necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust. [...] [B]elieve in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” (Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, letter 4)

Quote of the day:

‘You know, now is the time to stop adding stuff – focus on what you’ve got and make the most of it. It is after all only a PhD...’ 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Bad Brain Days

I confessed to my wise PhD friend once that I was a bit fed up with myself for having a 'bad brain day' (where it took me AGES to settle down to any work. have you ever seen an agitated cat, searching in vain for a warm, sunny bit of floor to settle down on? that was like me. could NOT settle down, kept getting up and roaming around in a foul mood. tail high in the air, spiky hair on the back, claws all out. will bite your hand off if you try and touch me.)

I was, of course, secretly hoping he might offer some clever advice. And he did. I think maybe he will forgive me for repeating his advice on here, verbatim. For the benefit of all of us struggling PhD students.

What I've learned about bad days is that they can often be rescued: I tell myself I'll give up until the tension lessens, then pop in an hour or two later in the day and it always goes much better. The reason, I think, is the lessening of tension combined with what I think Jerome K. Jerome called roving (this is a very distant memory): the sub-conscious brain works on problems far more efficiently than the punishing superego and it keeps going (roves) even when one has officially clocked off. Thus, when one returns to the problem, it gets resolved much more speedily. Rather than clock off completely, one can also turn to mechanical tasks: footnotes, formatting, bibliography, etc. and the roving still takes place, I find.

(And then later he said:)

Try and enjoy yourself also: you've achieved an awful lot already and should celebrate that as you go!

Monday, 20 May 2013

How to get a job you love

Saw this on the internet today and thought of all of us PhD-haters, who are stuck doing something we don't like - but who, all too soon, will be released back into the job-hunting pool and will have the opportunity to do it right this time (or else screw up all over again; but we shall try NOT to do that). Here is how one person went about deciding 'what to do with life':

It kind of inspired me. I no longer want to do pointless things with my life, or ones I don't enjoy.

In other news - I think my posts on here may have to become a bit less frequent, over the next few days and weeks. I need to crack on with this PhD. I'm getting the feeling that people are getting fed up with me. I'm using up too much money, exhausting the resources. I'm spending too long caressing this silly project when I just need to give it a good talking-to and then just send it out into the world to fend for itself.

Good luck, everyone! ...

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Flogging the Dead Horse

Feeling a bit sad this morning, as I realise, not for the first time: I don’t like research. I don’t like it, I am not excited about it, I… I just don’t like it. I have been to many seminars on ‘Managing your Motivation’, I have sought out many Gurus and Masters and tried following all sorts of advice. I’ve seen a therapist. I’ve read countless books about PhDs, motivation, meditation, concentration, WHAT HAVE YOU. I’ve done so much brainwashing to my poor old brain. Maybe I should just face facts: I don’t like research, and maybe I shouldn’t be doing it…

This depresses me slightly, because: if not research/ academia, then what?... I have been hankering after some kind of academic post. ‘You shouldn’t do that’, the Lover told me. ‘You don’t LIKE doing this.’ ‘But I like the teaching’, I proffered. ‘Yes, but that bit is for people who like doing THIS’, he said, indicating my laptop, my papers, and my PhD, hopelessly spread out on the bed, still stalled at revisions of Chapter 2. (my very realistic schedule said I should be on chapter 4 this week. But despite making a schedule, and despite making it so realistic that anyone should be able to stick to it, I just… haven’t.)

That conversation arose out of another conversation: I had confessed to him that I had spent the better part of my morning making a very silly, personalized gift for someone very dear to me. (the gift was a sort of silly ‘newsletter’, with lots of in-jokes, designed to make that person laugh. She knows I had the idea of making one for her and sending it to her, because I once threatened to do it and she laughed and laughed; I couldn’t bear to leave it ‘not done’, so one day I just stopped putting it off and did it.) I sat there, yesterday morning,  at my desk, with a concentration which afterwards astonished me, and I wrote funny things and I cut and pasted silly pictures, and I imagined this person receiving this silly gift and reading it and bursting out laughing; I could picture which bits she would find hilarious, I knew what would tickle her sense of humour and why. I knew she would love it. And afterwards – the whole thing took maybe from 8:30 to about 11:30 in the morning – I looked and looked at it, I put it in an envelope and went out to post it, and as I walked around a pretty bit of my local area to clear my head, I couldn’t help thinking about this thing I had just made, and all sorts of thoughts kept occurring to me, and I couldn’t help but think ‘damn it, I could have put THIS instead of THAT. That would have been brilliant. … Oooh, d’you know, what would ALSO have been good…’ Ideas just kept coming and coming to me. And when I got home, I just looked at my little work of art again and again. I basically couldn’t help but feel really bloody pleased with myself, for having created something which someone else will enjoy. It occurred to me: God, there MUST be some kind of way of transposing these kinds of positive feelings onto the PhD. When I get into a creative project of my own, I can literally sit there and work on it for HOURS. I could have sat there all day and made this silly little thing really terrific (the only reason I didn’t was because I do have a PhD to write, and essays to mark…). I thought, maybe I should tell the therapist about this.

So later, I told the lover what I’d been doing, and how happy it made me feel, and how I wish I could feel as excited and pleased with myself – and feel the same urge to stare at my own work and love it – when I’m doing my PhD…. And his response was along the lines of, I get the feeling that you need to be doing stuff like THIS (pointing to my silly project, which I had lovingly photocopied and taped to the wall above my desk) rather than THIS (pointing to PhD). He has seen me get excited about my own little projects, or slightly more serious arty projects which have been commissioned by other people. He has seen me stay up at night for hours and not mind, he’s seen me forget about everything and lose myself in the task and concentrate on it intensely, until I finally notice that my legs ache from being in the same position for ages, that there is a very cold piece of toast on a plate next to me which someone brought me hours ago and I forgot all about it, and that somehow four hours have gone by, during which I have not moved, and not looked up once from what I’m doing. And he has heard me say, several times already, I’m sure, I wish I could feel like this about my PhD!... There must be a way!...

There have been a few occasions when I have been excited about my PhD. Like when your brain makes a sudden connection and you have a great idea and it makes you sit up and go: Oh! oh! OH!... (I wonder what the neighbours upstairs were thinking.) There HAVE been a few times when I got really excited, wrote down a good idea, and felt really pleased with myself. But most of the time, it’s just me, at my desk, trying very hard to steel myself to do half an hour’s work on this thing, bribing myself with promises of treats and exercise and breaks, reminding myself that this is My Choice, telling myself that I Can Do This… Most of the time, I just feel like I’m trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. And I never sit there thinking to myself, oh, God, I reeeeeally need to go and get on with something else now… but go on then, I’ll just reread my ‘chapter 1’ just one more time, because it’s just so damn good!...’ yeah, right. I wish…

Maybe I should face facts: I don’t like writing a PhD, I don’t like research, I don’t like writing about books. I love making beautiful things which are all my own creative work and which will make people happy. I don’t like writing books about books, which will then be criticized and appraised by someone (‘it is not clear why the candidate has chosen to cite the work of XYZ…’ ‘The candidate should be aware…’ ‘More careful attention should have been paid to…’ ‘We would have liked to have seen more of…’ – oh God, I just don’t like it. I don’t care, and I don’t like it.)

This is a bit annoying, because: if I don’t like this, then I should get out. And that means starting at the very bottom of some other career ladder. That means I have spent three – no, wait: four – years of my life, getting a professional qualification which I now won’t use. It means starting all over again, and … asking myself the question, all over again: what to do with life?... (I’m a bit sick of starting again; I’m a bit sick, too, of asking that question. People pose it to me it often enough, and I NEVER HAVE THE FOGGIEST as to what to tell them.)

‘You’re such a great teacher’, I remember one student once telling me, somewhere around the third year of my PhD; ‘you have such a lovely way with people.’ That was the main reason why I carried on entertaining thoughts of working in academia. But the more ‘careers’ workshops and talks I go to, the more I see: number one on your CV is research, number two is teaching. These jobs, and the fun bits that come with them, are, then, perhaps not for me.

And the lover is right: I should go away and do something I actually care about, do something I really love (however terrifying I find this idea), and not mind starting at the bottom, and not think that it’s too late in my life to do this, because it isn’t.

Still have to somehow do this annoying PhD, mind. And I have just spent the better part of an hour debating with myself as to why I don’t want to.

Anyway - thank you, blank computer screen, for taking all this down. And thank you, fellow PhD-haters, for reading it. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

just a note to say...

... I am working surprisingly well on my PhD today. Not even in terms of getting loads done, but in terms of enthusiasm. and yes, i am getting SOMETHING done. and somehow, I am less sleepy and useless than I have recently been. maybe it's to do with the iron-and-vitamin-B supplement i went out and finally bought. maybe it's the bunch of wild flowers on my desk, which I have lovingly dropped into a vase, and which are intoxicating me with their gorgeous scent (May is the best month; it has the best flowers, they grow like weeds in country lanes and on building sites, all ready for the picking). maybe it's the poached egg and spinach combo I had for breakfast. maybe it's the coffee. whatever it is, I must do it again. maybe I should keep these conditions exactly the same for tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after (wear the same clothes; have the same flowers on the desk; have the same breakfast; nobody touch anything, nobody move anything...)

The spell might break at any moment, so I am going to go back and work now, and do my next half-hour...

A PhD Student's Guide to 'Writing Up the Thesis'

Went to a couple of courses this week, courtesy of my amazing Graduate School Research Training department, and learned all sorts of things about submitting your thesis, and doing your viva. Here are some things off the top of my head that I took away with me:

-       Your research can’t be perfect, but your formatting CAN. Find out exactly how you are supposed to format your document. (what size are the margins meant to be? Bear in mind that they probably need to be quite large, because the binding will eat into them.) find all this out, as soon as you can, from your Department’s website. If you are not sure, ask people where to look. (the course organizer gave us a link to ours… phew.) Set your computer settings to whatever it is meant to be, NOW. Go attend a course called ‘Working with Long Documents’. Apparently it helps. Remember: the point of perfect formatting is that you annoy your examiners as little as possible, and make the thesis as easy for them to read as can be.
-       Your examiners will probably be reading your thesis on the train, on their way to the viva. (maybe they’ll read it before; but they certainly don’t have the time to spend many happy evenings poring over your thesis.) Make it as easy to read as you possibly can. Check that you are making your points clearly. Remove red herrings – things you mention but which do not really add to your argument, things that might distract the examiner from the point you are making. (you can always put those in the Appendices.) No contradictions/ offshoots/ things hanging unexplained.
-       Your thesis is a piece of work that is being written FOR YOUR EXAMINERS ONLY. It is a piece of work that is basically being submitted for an examination. It has to satisfy them, and no-one else. Don’t feel sad that there’s no room for flowery writing, and don’t feel sad if your supervisor says ‘no, that bit is not useful. get rid of it.’ Areas where you express yourself in an artistic way can open things up to interpretation or discussion. YOU DON’T WANT THAT. You are writing for the examiners at this stage, not the wider academic community. A good thesis is one that gives the examiners what they are looking for. Examiners want to know ‘Are you a rigorous, independent academic? Do you get to have this professional qualification?...’
-       So what are they looking for?... Originality of topic or methodology (so you need something original to say about your topic, not just a topic that’s never been done before); ability to make use of published work and source materials; something that is worthy in part of publication; a distinct contribution to knowledge (amongst other things. Check out for what makes a good thesis in the UK). If you have already published something which you say in your phd, make that abundantly clear – eg. ‘The research from this chapter has been published in…’. This tells your examiners ‘you’re about to read something which might sound familiar, and this is why’. Also, this ticks the ‘worthy of publication’ box, and shows that you have an active relationship with the existing literature, responding and contributing to it.
-       Originality: sometimes, the originality of your project can become obscured. You need to SHOUT ABOUT THIS. Flag it up, make it really clear. You need to know – what is your original contribution to knowledge? – and make it REALLY obvious.
-       Read other people’s theses. Read the thesis of someone from your department who recently passed. See how they do stuff.
-       The best way to prepare for the viva is to read and reread your thesis. Know your thesis; know what’s in each chapter; know what’s in each bit of each chapter and how that links to the argument and why. That’s what the discussion in the viva will be about. If you cannot stomach rereading your thesis before the viva, don’t worry. People have gone into the viva without having been able to bring themselves to look at it again. You know the material much better than anyone else. Get some sticky notes and stick one on the first page of each chapter, to help you find things quickly when the examiners ask a question about a specific bit. Finally, pay for an extra bound copy for yourself, so that in the viva you have the same exact object in your hand as the examiners do. This is very important and will help you.
-       Most people pass. The very few people that do not pass tend to be the ones who submitted against their supervisor’s recommendations. Do not do this.
-       When you submit your thesis: take someone along who knows how monumental this moment is, who knows the significance of what you are doing. Arrange to meet someone afterwards who recognizes the importance of what you’ve done. CELEBRATE THE SUBMISSION!...

(This is just some of the stuff that I learned, and I have to stop writing now, because I must get back to work [ie get started on some bloody work]. But if anyone has any questions or comments, or things to add, please feel free!)


(nb. I wrote this post about a week ago. It's no longer 'current'; but I am posting it anyway. enjoy)

Some days are deadlier than others. The procrastination book tells me to pencil in fun things in my schedule, to make sure I keep up my commitment to having fun. I have been blocking out entire evenings with art classes and gym sessions. This seems to be doing me good; indeed, I haven’t cried in weeks and I don’t feel guilty about having free time anymore. Nor do I feel guilty about spending money on it (which, once upon a time, I would have felt very guilty about). I now know that the most important thing in the world isn’t my PhD, nor is it fretting about unwritten articles and non-existent jobs; no, the most important thing in the world is that I get to my drawing class tonight, and if I make it to the gym for a quick swim on the way, then that’s an added bonus.
The thing is: in the morning bit of my schedule, the bit which is blissfully free from activities and which has been set aside for work, I often just can’t seem to get much work done. (the procrastination bible sets the bar very low: it says that if you have managed a solid half-hour a day, then that’s something. I can usually manage to sit still for a paltry half-hour.  So I get to pencil that in to the schedule, once I have done it, and I get to feel good. It’s not much, though. There is a chapter sitting on my desk that I just can’t seem to stomach; it was meant to have been finished two weeks ago. It spilled over into the previous week. And this week. The thing is, there are other chapters whose turn it is this week for some alone-time with Mummy. I can’t let things just spill over indefinitely. But I can’t seem to finish it, and the hours – the blissful daytime hours, before the scheduled fun starts – slip away, every day.
Today I have a plan: do two half-hours on that chapter, then save it, print it and give it to someone to read. Stop doing it. Then do two half-hours on the next chapter. Save it, print it, stop it. Then see where we are.
You could really just go on faffing indefinitely with one bit of work, never quite get into it and never finish it.  The procrastination bible says that this kind of procrastination requires a good, hard look at the value of real, finished, imperfect work, which you can do in the time available to you, as opposed to perfect, unfinished, ideal work that doesn’t exist (yet which you COULD do if you had ore time, more resources, more… whatever.)
How I wish that I could listen to the procrastination book properly and just DO WHAT IT SAYS and start early every day and get shit done.
Oh God, it’s eleven. Right. Two half-hours. That is my aim.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Top Tips for Doing a PhD

If you absolutely must do a PhD, here are some tried-and-tested tips from The Experts...*

- Live somewhere nice if possible, preferably with someone who likes you and who thinks that you doing a PhD is a good idea.

- Get a gym membership. Join a dance class or football team. Commit a good chunk of your income to enjoying some quality exercise and leisure time. Commit another sizeable chunk of your income to buying good quality food. THIS ONE IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE; you must do this or you risk getting depressed. Commit yourself to forking out some money every month to work out/ dance/ play/ whatever it is that you love doing, and that gets the blood pumping.

- Go to your University's webpages and type in 'Student Counselling Services'. Find out their phone number and email address, and write it down in your phone. Read the bit of the webpage that tells you how to go about seeking help from them if you end up in any kind of trouble. You'll probably forget it all, but it doesn't hurt to have a look and quietly internalize this information. Keep the number handy, just in case.

- Buy and read 'The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play' by Neil Fiore. Do what it says. Reread again in six months' time. (I recommend having it on your Kindle and dipping into it now and again.)

- Read 'Stop Worrying, Start Living' by Dale Carnegie, which you can access here: . Do what it says. Bookmark it on your browser, read it when you find yourself with spare time in libraries and on trains.

- Buy and read 'Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day' by Joan Bolker. Do what it says. This book is handy when you are just starting out, but just as handy when you are near the finishing line.

- Be nice to yourself, and be nice to your PhD. Don't say things like 'this stupid PhD'. Respect it. Be grateful for the fact that you can do a PhD at all.

- Tell yourself that you are amazing and that you wouldn't have got this far if you didn't have some pretty special gifts.

- Start a blog where you recount all your latest PhD exploits. Tell no-one.

[*The Experts - just me, actually.]

Saturday, 4 May 2013

What it's like to hate your PhD...

Here is a ‘diary entry’, from maybe 2011, scribbled on a loose page from a notebook. (I used to do that sometimes; when I had something to get off my chest, rip a page out of a notebook and write on it. I can never throw away any old notebooks; who knows what secrets – memories of hot dates, etc – there might be in there.)

Anyway, I found this one a few weeks ago, and I am writing it here, because it is a perfect example of how it feels to REALLY hate your PhD:

Friday, 18th October

Met up with my friend A. today. I was waiting for her outside the restaurant; suddenly, there she was, this beautiful woman coming towards me, in red lipstick and red scarf. She liked my furry coat (new), she asked if she could try it on. She was so happy to see me. I told her that I’m really happy that she might be coming to the conference; that the earrings I was wearing were borrowed from my little sister; and that I’m glad to hear all about her encounters with messieurs X and Y… [some more on the encounters here, which I shan’t paraphrase.]

A. looked amazing: so beautiful, you could not be more so. I stared and stared at her. I thought: here, in front of me, is someone who could be a character in a novel. Not me, not this miserable, sad little person sitting opposite her, who already cried about three times today, who is trying to get her teeth into this PhD somehow and cannot; not this loser, but precisely this girl called A., so beautiful, so ‘together’; that’s an interesting person, not me.

I’m going to go work for 25 minutes now. <3

Ps (later: ) I’m sick of bursting into tears every time the smallest little thing pisses me off (lost keys, librarian telling me I have too many books on order, and so on…) I’m sick of my eyes being eternally tired from crying. I’m sick of worrying and panicking, and telling myself that I’m ‘too thick to be doing a PhD’. I’m sick of being friends with E. and A, while I’m doing a PhD at the same time; I want to be the sort of Friend who is good at something she does, and who is happy with her little ‘something’, and not this ‘saddest in the group’, the stupidest, always the most backward. I’m sick of thinking that I don’t know anything and I can’t do anything right (because I DO know stuff, and I can do many things, just none of them remotely helpful to this PhD.) I’m sick of going to meetings for the sole purpose of discussing how rubbish my ideas are. I’m sick of worrying that I’m stuck doing this PhD, because if I quit it, I’m hardly likely, in this current ‘economic situation’, to find myself anything much nicer to do.

I’m sick of all this stuff, but that’s precisely why I’m still here…