Monday, 29 July 2013

Why I hate my PhD (again)

When people told me, back in March, that I should ‘start shutting down the PhD’, ‘stop adding things’ and ‘ignoring new avenues of research’, ‘making it smaller instead of bigger’ – I’m not sure I really took that advice on board, let alone understood it. That’s what the problem was, I think: I didn’t get that advice.

There is a difference between making something better, and getting it finished. At some point you have to stop trying to make it better, in the sense that you have to stop trying to come up with something better than what you’ve already got; instead you should spread all your chapters out on the floor, and start tarting up what you have – including cutting things out, binning incomplete references instead of following them up, taking out footnotes instead of beefing them up. Just get rid of it, says the official advice.

I think when I heard ‘shut it down’, I read ‘oh yes, precisely, that’s what I need to do. Shut it down. But of course I just have to look up this reference still, and check everything that’s been written on this, and…’

I have been thinking that i really want a draft of PhD finished by next week (mini family crisis demands my presence for a few days). My PhD friend suggests: treat this like a take-home exam. set the day it's due and treat it like an exam script (quite a long one). Imagine you've been given what you have already and the task is to make it as good as possible by a certain minute of a certain hour of a certain day. Take-home exam.

This afternoon, feeling reasonably pleased with myself, i took my laptop to my favourite quiet pub and tried to find the latest, most up-to-date version of chapter 2 to work on. i was even quite excited, thinking 'i might get it finished today' (i'm a bit deluded, i know.) Yet no recently updated version was forthcoming. i searched and searched my hard drive; all i could find was some old drafts with supervisors' comments (not incorporated) dating back to December, and a 2000-word document into which i had apparently begun pasting a corrected version. i can only conclude that i have started my revisions of chapter 2, stalled, been called away by the threat of the next impending deadline, and never got around to finishing that task. come to think of it, none of my other chapters are finished either.

just for once - never mind the therapy, the happiness books, the self-help literature; never mind all their good work, let's undo it all in one fell swoop - i allowed myself to feel as unhappy as i wanted to. and so now here i am, grumpy and tired, have had a bit of a cry, and have chapter 2 (the printed version from the spring, with my cryptic corrections written on it, arrows and hieroglyphics going off in all directions) before me, waiting for me to reacquaint myself with it. i promise myself that next time i am doing a huge and impossible task, and i want to quit, i shall not turn for advice to friends and lovers, all of whom say 'no don't quit! you can do it/ it's only for one more year!' - and then go off and spend their evenings playing games on their smartphones. in the meantime, i sit here, alone in this messy room, which is filled to the rafters with PAPER, wading through piles of mess, vacillating constantly between self-imposed Zen calm, and then occasional periods of wild and utter despair. 

...I guess i'll just get back to work then.


Thursday, 25 July 2013

Cutting and Sticking

I have rediscovered a surprisingly useful primary-school-level form of play: cutting and sticking.

This is for those times when you have handed in  draft of your Introduction, or whatever, and your supervisor says: OK, good, but you need to change XYZ, you need to put your research questions a LOT earlier, you need to rethink this bit... (so basically: you need to make lots of changes to the structure. Your heart sinks at the thought of injuring the already-written paragraphs; you know very well that, to make your research questions fit in earlier, you will have to change things around. You procrastinate and don't want to do it.)

Print your introduction, or chapter, or article, or whatever it is that you can no longer stand to look at (go to 'print', then 'layout', then select 'four pages per sheet', so it's really teeny and doesn't take up loads of space). Get some A4 paper from your endless supply of scrap paper (those 1001 old drafts under your desk) and stick two bits together. This will be your background. 

Get some tape (prefferably artists' masking tape - comes off easily, so you can re-arrange things) and some scissors - and start cutting and sticking paragraphs! 

This works for me beautifully because: it stops me getting fixated on the wording of some footnote or other; it gets me to look at paragraphs as finished entities and move them around, without getting obsessed with their phrasing, etc; and it's easy to flip through pages, stand back, spot things and realise where they could go, what goes with what, etc. This means that I have saved entire paragraphs from being endlessly rewritten (and thereby escaped the curse of eternal revisions...). It's also a lovely break from the computer. And then you just hop on the computer later and search for the relevant paragraphs in the document and arrange them in order - a nice mechanical task now that you have a poster-size version of your 'Introduction' on hand to follow! 

I have been dreading rereading and tweaking the chapters, because I knew I was liable to drown in details; I think this will help. 

It's also just fun to do some cutting and sticking for a change. Dust down those old-school skills and enjoy working with a different bit of the brain.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Summer days

Long, long days, long days with early starts, days filled with hours and minutes and light and warmth, hours all of which go by without anything ever being achieved. The long sessions at the computer, trying to force my eyes down and bring my mind back to an article full of long words and convoluted, BORING sentences, so I can write about it in my ‘Introduction’ (and the mind keeps wandering off hopelessly). The long intervals away from the computer, wandering around the apartment unable to remember the fact that the only reason you went to the living room was to fetch your computer keyboard to help you write; you were not there to wander round looking at things on the shelves, nor were you, under any circumstances, supposed to be watering plants or wiping away at the crusty surface of the table.

The slow suffering. I want to get on with it, but my mind screams with resistance.

The envious, sidelong glances at the sink half-full of dishes; oh, how enticing they look right now. God, I could wash dishes all day long. The temptation to scrub the kitchen floor. The almost irresistible attraction of the fridge that needs defrosting. I sweep up the crumbs off the floor half-heartedly, pretending I'm not really there.

The temptation to just sack it off, and go outside into the world and just spend the afternoon at a swimming pool. The steeling of the will and the deciding not to. The regret, afterwards: I haven’t been productive anyway, so might as well have gone out/ gone to relax in a pub garden/ sit by the pool/ gone for a walk/ gone to the shops/ ANYTHING…

Sometimes there is the odd bit of unprecedented joy, such as when the man from Sainsbury’s arrives, giving you the excuse to a) put on a shirt, b) talk nicely to a human being and be charming, and c) drop work and arrange tins of beans in the kitchen cupboard.

There are positive sides to my day, too, you know. The possibility of discarding clothes whenever it gets a bit hot. (how will I cope in an office one day, where presumably I won’t be allowed to just get my top off  every time it’s a bit hot outside?... finding seasonal work as a life model, or life guard, might have to be the solution.) The possibility of eating biscuits, or having naps, every time one is tired, or just fancies a break.

But I don’t want naps. I don’t want treats. I just want to FINISH THIS, and then get the hell out of here. I want a holiday. I bet I won’t get one at this rate, though. I bet I’ll be stuck here in front of this computer screen and working on this dismal PhD project until the cows come home. And when the cows do come home/ my final deadline passes, I will need a job. I can’t live off my savings, supplemented with a bit of teaching here and there, forever. I hate this. I hate these days of half-arsed concentration, of boredom, of never quite getting around to doing enough, of not really being productive and therefore not feeling like I should be allowed to stop. I WANT TO WORK FROM NINE TIL TWO and then get out of here and DO OTHER THINGS. Why do I seem to keep sabotaging this wonderful plan?... why?...

Too many posts today (three in one day, that’s too many), I think this means one thing: I CAN’T CONCENTRATE ANYMORE. 

"Prince Charming Isn't Coming"

I remember when Kate Middleton got engaged to Prince William. It was late autumn/ early winter, I was in the middle of my PhD, I was teaching a few courses at my University, and I was already feeling hopelessly stuck; not gone far enough to feel confident of what I was doing, too far gone to quit. Unable to see the wood for the trees; unable to find enough time, with the teaching and marking, to just chill out and read books and think; time was careering mercilessly towards Christmas, which to me only meant one thing – deadlines, progress review submissions, and more deadlines. Oh, and a frantic half-day shopping for presents at some point.

Everyone, in my friendship group, was buzzing about the royal engagement. ‘Did you hear about the royal wedding?...’ people would ask, their faces smiley. ‘What do you think?...’ And the inevitable question: ‘Yes, but would you like to be her?’… We all agreed that there must be perks; Kate can probably go off for facials as often as she wants, and can justify it by saying that it’s part of her job to de-stress and look good. I wondered aloud if she can also just hire a personal trainer, or go to as many hot yoga classes as she wishes (my own personal fad). If she's always secretly wanted to learn the violin, she could probably do that too; we couldn’t decide on this one, but we reckoned it might be a bit harder to justify to the taxpayer; bet she could just about get away with it, though. And, I chipped in, she probably won’t have to ever go through the soul-destroying process of filling in job applications ever again.

I had another one, which I think I kept more or less to myself: I thought, if Kate was doing a PhD, I bet she could now get away with not finishing it. I imagined Kate going in to talk to her PhD supervisor, and I guessed she would probably say something like this: ‘Look, (Professor So-and-So), I’m getting married to a Prince. OK?... I’m really sorry but I just don’t think I will manage to finish this PhD, and I just don’t think I want to carry on with it anymore…’ – and I’m pretty sure that her tutor would have said ‘Why, yes, that’s completely understandable, dear. Of course I understand. I wish you all the best! Good luck.’ And that would have been that.

I wasn’t jealous of Kate; I too had a man, a warm home, a lovely life, and I even had access to all the yoga and facials that a person might want.* Really, there wasn't much to envy.** But the thought did occur to me, briefly and bitterly: how wonderful must it be, if you were her, to have a terrific excuse like that to drop out of your PhD programme. How wonderful to just get ‘rescued’…

I once read an interview with Eva Ibbotson, the children’s author, who described how, when she was in her twenties, she started a PhD in the sciences. She recalled how horrible the labs were, how much she hated the whole thing, how very far away it was from what she wanted to be doing; she realised she had made a terrible mistake. And then, she said, her boyfriend asked her to marry him, and thereby ‘rescued’ her (this is the term she used) from the lab work and the rats and the PhD programme for which she had turned out to be so unsuitable. And she was very grateful to him for this. And then she became a children’s author.

This may seem a most ‘un-feminist’ post; but instead of being ashamed that I have written it, may I just clarify: I am not going to ask anyone to rescue me. I am going to do my rescuing myself. In other words: I am going to write this bloody PhD; I am going to get myself a job; and then, when these two things have been achieved, I’m booking myself a facial. It’s long overdue.

* about the facials: I have never had one. You can get very cheap facials at the London School of Beauty, in case anyone’s interested, but I never made it there once, because I was always trying too hard to write a bit of PhD instead. The reason I keep going on about them here is because… well, I’ve heard they’re nice. 

** well, maybe apart from some of her slinky dresses. 

Working from Home

At some point last summer, just before the Olympics, The Guardian published an article with tips on ‘working from home’. I clicked on the link eagerly, and was severely disappointed: the article offered advice like ‘have a designated work space’, ‘go outside sometimes’, 'tweet with care' and ‘snack sensibly’ (I paraphrase.) Nothing about anything that actually matters: nothing about the inner resistance, the woeful staring out of the window at the summer sunshine, the feeling that you are wasting your time, the difficulty in getting started and in focusing, the hundred-and-one completely irrelevant thoughts of seemingly urgent business that overwhelm you and distract you from your task as soon as you sit down to it. Nothing about the compulsive need to check Facebook, or read The Guardian every three minutes. I turned away, disgusted. This person meant well, but clearly just didn’t have a clue.

So I would like to turn your attention to an article written by someone with a much better understanding of the real perils of working from home. He knows about the staring out of the window, and the frustration of thinking that, if you were somehow better and quicker at your job, you would be able to go out on a bike ride round about now, and you’ve only got yourself to blame if it’s not working. I am also a fan of this guy’s ‘Pomodoro Technique’ (which goes like this: get one of those tomato-shaped timers, or any timer, and set it to 25 minutes. Do not stop working for those 25 minutes; when the timer goes off, have a 5-minute break. Try segmenting your work like this, with breaks, and every time you do four Pomodoros, have a longer break. You will notice that my Procrastination Bible does a similar thing, encouraging you to think about your work in half-hour chunks. Try it – it sort of works for me, although I know that some days just sitting through one single half-hour of PhD takes a heroic effort.)

Good luck!

Friday, 19 July 2013


When I started writing this blog, I had already tried my hand at the creation of several; but all had fizzled out. One was going to be a blog about ‘happiness’ (because in the first year of my PhD, awash with love and contentment and the excitement of living in London, I was actually pretty damn pleased with myself; and I actually managed to keep that blog going for a while – ie. more than two entries – before it fizzled out.) Another was going to be to do with the subject of my PhD – because I kept coming across good quotes which made me laugh, or just tickled my sense of humour in a particular way; I kept coming across scraps of wisdom which seemed to have a LOT to do with life, feeling happy, striving for a goal, writing a PhD. I was excited at the thought that, somewhere down the line, at some international conference, I might get someone to introduce me by saying ‘so and so is writing a PhD on XYZ and also has an XYZ BLOG!’ (vain, I know.) That blog fizzled out after just ONE sad little post. It’s a nice idea that you are going to write an academic and fun little blog alongside your PhD, but in reality there just isn’t the time.
Another blog was going to be about cool things to do in London. That one, too, was hard to keep updated. I guess if you are doing actual fun things, you don’t have time to sit there and write all about them; it’s an either-or sort of deal.

At some point in summer/autumn 2011, I must have typed the words ‘I hate my PhD’ into google. The words were there; people had written about this dilemma on forums and in threads. ‘OMG I hate my PhD!!!! What do I DO???...’ – was the general wording I encountered. Kind people had written in underneath, offering advice – these were former PhD students who had felt the pain briefly but had survived, or else the occasional Quitter, who had left a perfectly good PhD programme and who was now very very happy with that decision. What struck me as interesting, however, was that the odd blog I encountered on the subject of ‘hating your PhD’ (and there really weren’t many) tended to include, on average, one post about hating the PhD, and would then apparently… fizzle out. Clearly, the writer had had a crisis, had gone online to vent, had gotten a few comments from the nice people, and had either replied to those or not, as per his/her own fancy… and then had clearly picked him/herself up off the floor and gone on to, apparently, carry on with the PhD, their brief flirtation with the sad students’ blogosphere forgotten. Clearly, it seemed to me, these people were NOT experiencing the same sort of PhD blues as I was – not the pervasive, eternal, sickening, overwhelming, crushing sadness and guilt. They clearly had something I did not have. They were experiencing something I was experiencing, but they seemed to just get it out of the way and get over themselves quite quickly. How?... How?...

I had the idea for this blog sometime around September 2011. (or, rather: I typed up what would become the first post that September.) I was up late at night, staying in a beautiful flat full of nice paintings, somewhere in Europe, about to attend a lovely conference together with a friend of mine (this friend had managed to blag the use of the wonderful apartment for us both while we were there). It should have been a bit of a holiday, even though we both had the low-level stress of giving a paper; still, there was a conference dinner with good wine, there was a drinks reception, there were good lunches and nice people, sunshine, and a new city to visit. I had been forced to tear myself away from PhD composition to go on this trip; as usual, I was in the throes of writing some terrible chapter, full of crappy points and half-comprehended material. As usual, I had spent months worrying and working on it, and as usual, the trip was something which, though planned months in advance, seemed to take me by surprise (‘WHY am I not finished?... WHY am I having to interrupt my work as usual, and take it with me on my trip?... WHEN will I ever learn to finish things ON TIME??...’). The cool trip was just another stick to beat myself with. Staying in the lovely apartment, slightly stressed out both by the conference paper (unfinished, inadequate) and by the impending chapter deadline (unfinished, messy, no idea what I’m doing), I couldn’t sleep. By the third day of the conference, I had struggled to sleep for three nights and was feeling pretty horrible. I prayed to the gods of red wine and strong digestifs to send me off to sleep.

So one night I wrote this post. I wrote some other post, too, which I then did not publish. At some point, I made the blog and put the first post on there (the one which was written in the middle of the night, in someone else’s apartment, sitting in someone else’s study which was decorated with paintings and nice books). The blog ‘fizzled out’, for a while, but then I came back to it; things kept coming to me, I kept having ideas for stuff to put on the blog, which I kind of wanted to write. Some of them I never got around to writing down, but those ideas come back to me, now and again, in a filtered form. For months and months, though, I was hardly putting anything on this blog, and no-one was looking at it  (I hadn’t told any friends about it, and of course friends are always a budding blogger’s primary audience. As it was, I had no audience at all.)

Then one day, the God of the Graduate School gave a talk, in which he suggested that it’s good to ‘write stories, including the stories of your own failures’. Find words to describe the sense of your own intellectual vulnerability. All of a sudden keeping this blog made more sense, and I realised why I had wanted to write it in the first place.

Then there was a day when I logged on the blog to say something and I noticed that someone – a real person – had visited it: according to the stats, I had had a ‘page view’! The first one! I was ridiculously chuffed. Someone, out there, had typed the words ‘I hate my PhD’ into google, just like I had done, all those months ago. It gave me a bit of satisfaction to think of this blog as a kind of ‘Sesame’: only those who know the magic formula (‘Open, Sesame’/ 'I HATE MY PHD!') will ever gain admittance. My confident PhD friends, the ones who are on course to finish their PhD, will never find it, nor will my Sibling, nor will my non-PhD-writing friends and acquaintances. Only those who sit hunched over their computer, who have just come out of a meeting with their supervisors despairing and who are googling ‘hate my PhD – what to do?...’ – will ever find this treasure trove of thoughts. This might sound self-centered, but it gave me a little bit of joy to know that this little blog might perhaps play host to a hidden community of PhD students, ones who don’t particularly want to (or feel unable to) take their troubles out elsewhere, but who fancy a little bit of support from others who feel the same thing. And just knowing that someone is looking up the same words as me, and therefore knowing that I’m not alone in this, made me feel better.

Then one day, of course, an email pinged on my mobile phone, alerting me to the fact that someone had posted a comment on one of my blog posts; an amazing thing to have happened. I read the comment and my heart swelled with excitement. Someone out there had read my sad little blog and had liked it!... And in the middle of writing a terrible PhD, which made me feel like the stupidest of all the fools, to know that I was somehow capable of writing something interesting was an amazing feeling. Better still: someone had read my disgruntled PhD chunterings and was sharing my pain.

There were many other days; the day when someone wrote the words ‘love your blog!’ (a cold, hard day in early spring, marred by unfinished chapters and unmet deadlines, but this comment changed everything and made me smile; it was around that time that I found the procrastination book, and the blog posts started to veer towards the useful rather than just the disgruntled.) On another occasion, I opened the blog to see that the stats had gone through the roof; by recommending my blog on their blog, someone (you know who you are) had just snared me over 100 page views in one day. I was excited and wanted to tell someone. I wanted to tell my boyfriend, who was in the other room, that I had written something and people were actually READING it.  But I kept quiet and I told no-one. This was my secret blog and I liked keeping it a secret. This blog wasn't for showing.

Sometime after first starting the blog, I actually did show it to a friend; I had written something slightly tongue-in-cheek, I thought, sort of self-deprecating in a funny way. I was proud of this little post and I wanted to show it to her. My friend’s reaction was… not what I had expected. ‘Oh my gosh!.... mate!... I hadn’t realised that you were SO upset!...’ – was what she said. This was not the reaction I had wanted. She was supposed to laugh at the jokes and appreciate the gentle irony, not worry about my dodgy state of mind. From then on, I did not show the blog to anyone else (and the friend, I’m sure, has forgotten). I realised that my friends were not my primary market, because they have an emotional investment and therefore cannot see this blog for what it really is: a place where I write stuff, because some interesting words and ideas have come to my mind and I want to have a go at putting them down; those words do not necessarily say stuff about me, as much as they do about my fancy for composing, for arranging them down on a page to read back to myself; words which, just by being written, make me feel that little bit more amazing.

Anyway. It has been nice to have a place to vent, and also to record useful things (write down the titles of books, so I won’t forget them; jot down advice that people gave me, so that I know it’s here and I can run across it again). Most of all, it’s been really nice when people have commented and told me that, for them, it’s been helpful seeing someone else struggle with the same thing. For me, this has been gold. I wonder if this is the sort of thing the God had in mind when he said, [doing a PhD means that] you have an intellectual treasure that no-one else has, that no-one can take away from you. He said: learn to cultivate a rich interior life. This, to him, was the wonder of doing a PhD: the rich, interior life which becomes yours, the thoughts that come to you, the deepened understanding of other people and cultures, which are just some of the things you gain when you’re doing a PhD. He said: the PhD is a transformative process. Something happens to you, something changes in you for the better, when you do a PhD.

… Speaking of which, I should now get off this blog of joy and do some work. Aaargh. Aaargh. Useful comments from supervisors about my introduction and chapter yesterday. Must stop being lazy now, and actually do some work.