The toxic thesis

Hey! You know how I said I was enjoying my PhD?

Well, now I have to finish really flipping soon, my thesis looks like I’ve taken a hedge strimmer to it, and literally all I feel competent to do is drink whisky and watch Horrible Histories until my eyes fall out the back of my head.

Making the academic world a more cheerful place, since never

In the middle of last term I went to north London, as I used to do twice a week for work. It was a sunny day. I bought an espresso from the man at the kiosk outside Highgate station, who is a contender for the nicest man in London, and carried the little pot up the steep path to the Muswell Hill Road and into the woods on the other side. I sat on a bench and drank it, cooling, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. The traffic on the road behind me hummed in my ears and in front of me the trees were, as usual, startlingly beautiful.

Sometimes I meet friendly dogs there and everything is nicer

This is of course a picture of Muswell Hill in winter, but LOOK AT IT. LOOK AT THE PRETTY TREES.

I’m dwelling on it because I did dwell on it. I have been spending too long staring into computer screens lately, and although one can find much beauty in computers I would not put my thesis among the beautiful pixels of the world. I would currently put my thesis, quite merrily, into a shredder, or entomb it in concrete or set it afloat in a flaming rowing boat like a dead Viking. That’s an exaggeration, obviously. What I’d really like to do is to finish it so it isn’t my problem any more. I sat on a bench in Highgate Woods in the approximate position of someone waiting in a doctor’s waiting room, or a police station, and wondered to myself in a whining childish fashion why staring at nature, stinkingly homesick for a bit of the world with fewer buildings in it, is something I do for the occasional five minutes, whereas the yawning maw of the thesis sits there, on my screen and in my brain, stubborn and unshiftable. I felt stupid, and privileged and selfish, for wondering it, and I feel stupid and privileged and selfish for writing it down.

So, yes. I’m feeling mildly rubbish about work, and I’m being all emo about it. I have painted my room black, and stencilled quotations from The Anatomy of Melancholy in a fetching border. I imagine that this is just how it goes if you’re not one of those smart folk who do their PhDs sensibly and quickly. You get to fourth year, you have serious chats with your supervisors, you get into comfort eating in a big way, and you embrace being fucking miserable every now and then until the damn thing’s finished. It’s not a big deal, it has a time span, and worse things happen at sea.

It’s a first world problem, right enough, and I’ve said ‘I know, I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity’ so many times I’m considering getting a forehead tattoo. On some levels it’s helpful to remember that, because perspective is important. I’m not saving the world. I’m probably making it slightly worse, through my consumption of paper and electricity.

On another level, though, this consciousness, and the self-censorship I find myself doing, in my thoughts and in what I say to people – thinking, I can’t think that, I can’t say that, I can’t be ungrateful – becomes another stick to beat myself with. Lord knows, I believe in self-censorship. I find myself wanting to explain, though: I’m grateful, and I’m fortunate, and I had one thing I had to do, and when I stare at my chapter at three in the morning I worry that I’m screwing that one thing up. I took money from the government! I took funding someone else could have had! I’m everything that’s wrong with academia!

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This is literally the opposite of what the government actually does to higher education.

I shouldn’t let my work make me feel like this because, really, what is it? A hundred thousand words. The flipside of that’s the thing that kicks you, though. A hundred thousand words is all I have to do, so why can’t I do it, and why is it making me feel like this? The fact that no-one will even actually read it is just the icing on the paradoxical turd cake, frankly. And yes, I just wrote ‘paradoxical turd cake’, and I am actually fine with that.

What we have here, I think, is a toxic thesis.

Academia’s a good petri-dish for toxicity because the model, once you’ve finished master’s study, is in large part self-rewarding. By which I mean, you write some stuff, and if you’re pleased enough with yourself you maybe have a coffee break. Supervisors focus on the things you need to change and improve, because that’s their job, and they ain’t there to hand out gold stars for effort. Also you’re an adult and a scholar, and at least five years too old to reasonably expect to get rewarded for good work with a smiley face sticker and ten points for Gryffindor.

The thing is, though – surely that is only sustainable if you’re a certain type of person? By which I mean, confident in your own abilities, able to judge your own work, secure both that your project is worth it and that you’re the person for the job. Basically, the James Bond of academia. If I’ve just described you, hi there, I’m hideously envious. I’m down the other end of the bar getting ratted on martinis made any way the bartender likes.

I’m exaggerating. No-one like that exists. But it is so easy to lose confidence in what you do and what you know. At the very start of my PhD I remember someone saying ‘By the end of your thesis, you’ll be the expert on your topic!’. It’s an old saw, I think, and I’ve heard it many times since. I would like to find the person who first said it and explain in precise anatomical detail exactly where they can shove that statement. I feel like I know nothing. Like I’ve taken out significant parts of my brain and just replaced them with polystyrene.

The problem is that academic research involves an awful lot of trying to get to grips with loads of people’s lives’ work and primary texts and data and whathaveyou in short spaces of time, and what this tends to make you realise is the depth and breadth of what you don’t know. Most of the time I feel like I’m floundering, and like I don’t know anything about this stuff I have the audacity to be writing a thesis on. The very thought of the viva is enough to make me email the French Foreign Legion to ask if they accept shortsighted people.

There's a postgrad waiting in the sky, she's got to write her thesis but it only makes her cry

A toxic thesis is like a toxic workplace. Being in a toxic workplace erodes your confidence both within that space and outside it. You lose confidence in your work, your ability to express yourself, your relationships. A toxic thesis destroys your confidence in intellectual endeavour, and – for me at least – in creativity, too. I was always fairly confident in my writing ability; at times I trusted a bit too much in its capacity to carry me through areas I knew sod-all about. Now I feel like I’m lining up my words like alphabet blocks. I can’t even spell any more, thanks to too much early modern transcription. I hadn’t valued my good spelling since about 1996 but it still stings a bit to realise I’ve actually lost a skill.

Meanwhile, the aforesaid floundering can contribute to a general sense of floundering in other things too. Or, indeed, to actual floundering. Keeping up with the stuff you need to keep up with seems to fall by the wayside when a thesis turns toxic. Emails, texts, tidying one’s room like a reasonable human being… The ordinary game of Responsibility Whack-A-Mole that most adults are engaged in playing, where every time you hit down a chore or an achievement three others pop up, is a pain at the best of times but thesis toxicity does not help. I have absolutely no idea how people do this and real real life stuff, like raising a family, or buying a house, or having another job… you guys are bona fide bloody heroes. I can’t even iron my clothes.

Feeling like you’re underachieving in one area of your life is a pretty neat way to get you thinking about how you’re underachieving in the other ones too. Before you know it you’ve replaced self-esteem with ‘My hair looks shit and this is a major life failing. I’m 28! I was supposed to have good hair all figured out by now’. And it’s all very well at the start of a PhD when people are all ‘Er, you’re not in a relationship? Would you like me to set you up with someone?’ or ‘Doesn’t it bother you that you’ll always be poor?’ (actually said to me on a date, incidentally. There was not a second date) and you reply with ‘Look, I’m living the life of the mind, OK?’, but it all looks very different from the other end when all the real-life stuff has, if anything, gone backwards, there are no flipping jobs, and your thesis is beginning to resemble Daisy’s performance art in Spaced. A toxic thesis, in other words, makes arguing that it was all worth it much, much harder. At worst, it feels like ‘I wasted four years, I royally pissed off a number of people I like by being a bit rubbish, and all I want to do with this damn thesis is make a piñata out of it so I can hit it with sticks’ (an idea I saw on Twitter, and I can’t remember who said it, and I’m sorry not to cite properly because it’s brilliant).

There's either a massive amount of sweets in there, or a bunch of Greek soldiers.

It’s probably a good thing they took away the free printing at university

Alright. I’m putting a stop to the self-pity (well, writing about the self-pity, at least). So what in the hell can one do about this?

Short answer: I don’t know. I would not be writing this blog post if I knew.

Long answer: I used to run competitively. I was not fabulous at it, but I wasn’t embarrassing either. I was the kid who made up the team, for the most part: third leg in the 4x100m, bottom of the cross-country roster. Occasionally I would pull a better-than-normal performance out of the hat. Usually this would result in me coming fourth in a race. The gentleman’s third, I feel.

Anyway, there’s a point in every race when everything feels like absolute shite. I guess it’s what marathon runners call ‘the wall’, perhaps – but believe me it shows its horrible face at all distances. Everything feels like shite, and you think you can’t possibly finish the race, and all the light is sucked out of the universe, et cetera. At which point you have two choices.

  1. You can stop.
  2. You can speed up.

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ANYWAY IN CASE YOU ARE NOW SUPER DEPRESSED HERE IS A PICTURE OF SIR THOMAS LEE CHATTIN’ YOU UP

Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like Lee