Monday, 9 November 2015

Working Woman

Cloud Nine has got a job – again. Yes – two years and several adventures on from the PhD, I have actually found something resembling one of those nine-to-fives that I’ve been hankering after. Something that’s (hopefully, please, please please) quite a bit less horrible than the Grotty Job.

The only trouble is: I can’t sleep. Ever since I laid down my little head on Sunday night, ready to drift off for a good night’s sleep before the First Day On The Job, I have tossed and turned and I can’t sleep. On that night before my first day, I woke up at four. Today I woke up at 2. (That’s a lot of lying awake.) There was nothing for it but to do what any normal person would do, and get up and write on my little blog.  (Maybe, if I just tire myself out a little bit, I’ll get a bit of a nap – between 6 and 7?...)

I must confess that I thought this was finished, you know. The sleepless nights of the crazy last-months-of-PhD, or that awful night before the viva. The brain that won’t shut down. The tossing and turning, the knot in the stomach. (Ironic, really, since the main thing I didn’t like about the Grotty Job was that awful knot-in-the-stomach feeling every time I had to go in. And now I have found myself a Nice Job, and it’s like my body hasn’t understood yet that it is nice. My body has a mind of its own, and it’s preparing the fight-or-flight response. Or is my brain telling me that it considers this job to be grotty, too?...)

This and other wonderful secrets of the working world I am able to consider while siting in my living room in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning.

And now back to bed.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Something Isn't Working

Was inspired, today, when I came across this guy's blog article, called 'Seven Things I Did to Reboot My Life'.

He writes

'I had this epiphany at the beginning of September: This thing that I’m doing? This series of choices I make every day? It isn’t working. I don’t like the way I feel, I don’t like the way I look, I don’t like the things I’m doing. Things need to change.'

To be honest, I've been feeling a little bit that way. Pretty much since the PhD. Something isn't working, and something needs to change.

I'm off to plan my own personal life reboot.

Monday, 3 August 2015


Recently, I came across an article by absolute genius and inspiration Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘Mad Men’, in which he gives some very unusual advice about the nature of success.

I say ‘unusual’ because it isn’t often that a highly commercially-successful artist opens up about what a failure he felt he was, for a long time, all the way up until that first ‘success’. About just how long it is possible to be a ‘failure’ before you finally ‘make it.’

He is talking about ‘artists’, but he is also talking about writers – and that’s what we PhD students are. (And anyway, as you will know from a previous post, I would definitely file ‘writer of a PhD thesis’ under ‘Artist/ Bard’. And anyway, I think this advice applies to literally ANYONE.)

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done.

Matthew Weiner is highlighting the gap between the initial idea and the finished product – and suggests that, because that gap is never visible in the finished thing, we tend to look at the works of people we admire and think ‘He/she just did that easily and all in one go. I’m trying to do something similar and it’s not working. Why is mine not working?...’

(It’s interesting, because I bet if anyone met me today, they would perhaps think ‘What a successful young person, what a nice life, and what a wonderful, creative job she has!’… Maybe they would think 'She has it easy.' And I think, if only you knew…)

And so I love it when Weiner says

An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

'Hiding the brushstrokes' is something I think we academics do because it doesn't seem the 'done thing' to admit how awful you feel about yourself when you're trying (and failing) to write some PhD. (Can you imagine going to a job interview and cheerfully admitting to all the procrastinating you do every day?... Can you imagine the silence that would follow - broken only by the dropping of jaws and the flutter of raised eyebrows?...) (I can.)

So it is not necessarily that we hide our brushstrokes because we have pretensions to greatness and don't wish to be seen as anything less than 'gods'. We sometimes hide our brushstrokes because we assume that to even have those is somehow wrong; because we can't see anyone else's, and therefore think that our own imperfections are correspondingly huge. And because, in this competitive world, we want someone to hire us one day.

Furthermore, we've been taught to think that success will come if we just keep at it and give it enough time. But how much is enough time? And what to do when you just keep hitting dead ends? How much is enough?

This bit of Weiner’s article sounds familiar:

Upon graduation, I set up meetings everywhere in the hopes of getting a job. In three months I got nothing. I couldn’t even get a meeting with an agent.

I got very bitter, seeing people I didn’t think deserved it succeed. It was a dark time. Show business looked so impenetrable that I eventually stopped writing. I began watching TV all day and lying about it. My mother would call me to drive my brother-in-law to the airport. That’s the kind of crap I was doing instead of being a writer. I felt like the most useless, worthless person in the world.

You know that thing where you’re an academic, you’ve been earning rubbish money for years, and you’re approaching thirty/ you’re already over that hill, and you haven’t really started earning ‘proper money’ yet?... Of his first writing job, Weiner says,

It was my first paying job in show business and I was 30.

He describes how he went on to write Mad Men and how it was a long, hard slog to get his own script accepted by a production company.

Mad Men had been bouncing around town for about four years and nobody wants something that has been rejected by everybody.
But then along came AMC. They were trying to make a splash and wanted to do something new. They were also interested in making a show they wanted to watch, which is really the secret of success in everything artistic. They basically said, "We love this thing and want to do it."

And I love the next bit of the article, which is so true, and so useful to remember:

The greatest regret I have is that, early in my career, I showed myself such cruelty for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write, but was paralyzed by how behind I felt. Many years later I realized that if I had written only a couple of pages a day, I would’ve written 500 pages at the end of a year (and that’s not even working weekends). Any contribution you make on a daily basis is fantastic. I still happen to write almost everything at once, but I now cut myself slack on all of the thinking and procrastination time I use. I know that it’s all part of my creative process.

He doesn’t know that his advice is being read by struggling PhD students (and the odd struggling writer/artist…). Nor does he know that reading his article felt like pieces of a puzzle were falling into place in my head. Success doesn’t necessarily arrive gift-wrapped and handed to you in the first year after your graduation. Every single thing you touch does not immediately turn to gold. It’s OK to do a first draft of any project very, very badly, and it’s OK feel a bit crap if you haven’t yet achieved the thing you want to get finished – but don’t wallow in the crap feeling for too long. Be nice to yourself, and tell yourself nice things. And then get back to work.

In the words of my second supervisor,

Keep at it.

And another thing: don’t hide the brushstrokes. Don’t feel like you are failing because the struggle is real and it is visible. Talk about it. Write about it. By talking about it, you set other people free to feel OK about their own wobbly path to ‘success’.

Monday, 13 July 2015

'It doesn't need to be perfect - it just needs to be done'

recently, i accomplished a small life dream: I sent an article to a website, and they published it.

I had sent them several things, including two articles that I had spent a lot of time on, one which had been in my head for about two years and which was therefore nicely developed, and a topical article which i dashed off quickly, in the middle of the night, and sent to them as an afterthought - and without editing it much. 

the one they chose to publish was that last one. the unedited one. the one written in a hurry. the one that wasn't lovingly polished and caressed and shaped and loved. 


Of course, now that the article is out there, i am torn between two things: I want to tell the world it is out there, and I want to email the editor and tell her to put in a thousand changes and corrections. because, as luck would have it, i have NOW thought of a thousand ways to improve it. 'Oooh, I could have put this… Ooooh, I could have added that… But I completely forgot to include my hilarious joke about Hitler and the nuclear bunker!'

There are two lessons to be gotten out of this, and the first one is: 

1) Always leave a week between writing something and hitting 'Publish'/ sending it to your supervisor, if you care about it reflecting your best work - because ideas will come to you, and you WILL be able to make it better. (if you don't care about it reflecting your best work, but you have something to say and want to get it out there immediately, then just hit 'Publish).

Which brings me to the next bit of advice and that is:

2) The fact that they chose the one that was the least polished/ edited/ loved, and yet they thought it was perfectly fine anyway, reinforces what we all know to be the First Law of PhD:

'It doesn't have to be perfect - it just has to be done'


Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Job hunting

I’ve been doing some job hunting, and have recently applied for two nice jobs: one very well-paid one, which would have involved being creative and using all my experience and skills (they actually WANTED a PhD!), and another one, which would have involved doing lots of basic admin, but which would have let me work with postgraduate students. Lots of opportunities to grow and teach and learn.

I say ‘the job would have involved’, because I have heard back from both applications, and have not got an interview (hence the ‘this-job-is-not-for-me’ past conditional structure is appropriate). (Cf the British Council website, which explains: ‘We use ‘would have’ in past conditionals to talk about something that did not happen’.)

I don’t know, sometimes I think I should just… give up. Maybe I should stop applying for nice admin jobs, when it is becoming clear that no-one particularly wants an ex-PhD student for one of those, and that they all have plenty of their own (qualified, experienced) admin people to choose from.

Maybe (horror of horrors) I should actually focus not on the ‘getting a job’ bit, but on doing the things I actually want to do once I have one (writing my own projects, publishing a book, working towards my own creative goals. That is why, ladies and gentlemen, I want a nice job in the first place. So that I can breathe more easily about the financial side of things, and in my spare time can focus on the things I actually want to get done in this world. Maybe this jobhunting thing is all just a way of delaying what I really want to do with my life. ‘Yes, I will write a book. But first I need a nice job so I can support myself…’)

Maybe I should stop applying for jobs which are clearly destined for other people, and instead write out my own perfect job description, and just hire myself?...

Job Advert: Motivational Writer Extraordinaire
Closing date: tomorrow
Salary: competitive

“We are looking for an exceptional writer and blogger, with excellent communication, writing, blogging, and daydreaming skills. Must have experience of writing content for blogs and websites; additional experience of comedy writing desirable. Must have experience of successfully completing a PhD, and writing about it in a motivational way; must also have up-to-date knowledge of key works of self-help literature. A very silly sense of humour and a keen eye for elements of the ridiculous in everyday problems are essential. Cartoon-drawing skills desirable. The ability to make an exceptionally fine cheesecake (with a view to one day writing a cookbook of amazing recipes) would also be a bonus.”

I think I’ll apply.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015


A conversation between an Ex-PhD student (now a Doctor) and her Lover.

Lover: Hey you. How are you doing?
Me: Great, actually. I was just going to show you something: look, here’s a job I might apply for. What do you think?...
Lover: [looks at job advert] Hmmm… Mmm. I don’t know. Aren’t you a bit over-qualified for it?...
Me: [looking at Lover] Darling - - I am over-qualified, for EVERY SINGLE JOB THERE IS.
[comedy laughter]

This and other hilarious jokes are brought to you by I Hate My PhD!

Has Cloud Nine educated herself right out of mainstream society?... Join us next week!...

Monday, 18 May 2015

'Your thesis isn't meant to be interesting'

I was sitting with my supervisor one day and going through a piece of my writing in which, alas, the (flowery, pretty) language, and in particular the (alliterative, beautiful) words I had chosen to end on were found wanting. The problem was, the pretty writing created ambiguity. 

'Do you really mean (X)?' my supervisor asked me. 'Or did you just choose those words because they sounded good?'

She had me. I marvelled at her powers of discernment.

'I guess I chose them because they... sounded good', I said.

My supervisor understood.

'You know', she said, 'your thesis isn't necessarily meant to be interesting.'

…I wilted. 

My thesis isn't meant to be interesting. I like nice writing, and that's basically of no use here. My thesis is meant to be boring. (Of course, the other problem was that I was not yet a fully-fledged writer of theses, and as such I actually had no idea as to what 'meaning' I was trying to get across; therefore, making the writing nicely obscure and 'flowery' suited me fine. I didn't yet have a clear point that I wanted to make. I wanted to write 5000 words of something and be left alone.I wanted to hide behind 'interesting' writing so I wouldn't have to commit to any concrete ideas yet.)

'Mate, that's rubbish!… I want your thesis to be interesting!… What if I want to read it one day? … Ignore this advice!' - was the general consensus amongst loved ones when i told them this news.

But my supervisor had a point. Your thesis is being written for a grand total of maybe two people: your examiners. It needs to be as clear as possible for them to understand. You need to take them by the hand and walk them through your ideas, and if there are any words in there which are just there to sound pretty, but actually don't clarify what you mean - or worse, create confusion, or suggest that you are going to lead them down avenues that you are not - then they need to go. It took me a long time to get my head around that one: how to write nicely, but in such a way that nothing detracts from what you really mean, and nothing creates ambiguity.

Of course, now that I'm trying to turn my PhD into a book, I am having to do a bit of a volte-face. Because a book, which is aimed not at two examiners but at a paying market and (hopefully) an international readership, HAS to be interesting. It can't just be full of sentences that just say things like 'In this chapter I will demonstrate' and 'I have thereby shown' and '(X theory) cannot be sustained'. It has to lead the reader into each chapter 'nicely', maybe with a much broader point, or an anecdote. The other day, I came across an article by a book-marketing guru (which inspired me a lot and which I have been trying, and failing, to find again and put on here), who makes the distinction between writing a 'good' book, and writing an 'interesting' one. He says, it's not enough for your book to be good; it has to, has to be interesting.

To all of you thesis-writers out there: your thesis doesn't need to be interesting. Don't get too paralysed by the writing. Just write; try to make your point as clear as possible; if you're not sure yet what your point is, it will come out in the successive drafts. 

But do save the interesting stuff somewhere, in a file or at the back of your mind, for later. You never know when you might get to use it.