That Fourth-Year Feeling I: The World of Work

OR the final countdown, how people in Hampstead don’t buy nuts, and the tiniest Hobbit spoiler (for the film, that is) you ever did see. Also, an obvious gif.

Firstly, I apologise for the horrible quality of the pictures here. Still no scanning technology (I should probably go out and buy some) so they’re rubbish phone photos. Secondly, sorry there’s so few of them. I got bored, and fed up of stupid brown pictures.

I am in a seriously odd position at the moment. Possibly an unprecedented one, or at least one I wasn’t expecting. I am in my fourth year of a PhD, going into the second term. I still have a whole heap of stuff to do to it. I have plenty of teaching, too. I filled much of the previous term with conference organisation, marking, and illness.

But against all the odds (sorry. I have been watching David Attenborough documentaries this new year and that sort of phrase seems to crop up a lot), I appear to be enjoying my PhD. In this I am being crazy and out-of-character and possibly delusional. I’m sure I will crash down to earth with a bump at some point (probably the point at which someone actually reads my recently-completed, wildly idiosyncratic chapter draft, and just writes a note at the top saying ‘What in the hell?’). I am absolutely certain that I will read this back at some point and go ‘Ohhh, past Kirsty, your innocence is so galling’, and then hurl my computer out of the window of my garret and bury myself in chocolate digestives and sadness.

Don't mind what biscuits just BISCUITS

Don’t mind what biscuits just BISCUITS

Currently, however, I am skating along on the top of such worries, feeling pretty happy because I’ve managed to get Thomas Dekker into my final chapter. Dekker! Four years and I’ve finally managed to get a writer included on actual English Literature reading lists into my English Literature PhD. This is what we were working towards, people. (Actually, it’s a fairly snap decision based on the fact that I am now writing about plague for a bit because plague is interesting and it’s my damn thesis. I might work Donne into the previous chapter, and thus convince my examiners that I’ve only read the parts of the reading lists beginning with D).

Such chirpsiness was commented on during my recent trip to the sodden corner of southwest England from which I hail. As was the unavoidable fact that this whole PhD malarkey will soon be coming to the end (my university, rather sensibly, requires full-time PhDs to be completed in four years, maximum. I’m cool with this, at least, right now I’m cool with this) and that I would, apparently, then be entering the ‘world of work’. ‘World of work’ got repeated a number of times, so much so that I a) had a dream that I had to return to my old job at the same time as finishing my PhD, and couldn’t find my lovely boss even though I looked for him everywhere; and b) the phrase began to take on a similar meaning to ‘World of Warcraft’, i.e. a largely virtual place of no importance to my life, in which others seem to thrive but I don’t imagine I’d be a whole lot of use.

Not that I want to suggest that HR people are trolls, because come on, no. ...oh dear. That went wrong.

Not that I want to suggest that HR people are trolls. Oops. I don’t mean it, HR people, honest.

One of the curiosities of returning to study is that people seem to forget that you’ve done anything outside of it, and start to talk of your future as if you’re a confused window cleaner who’s entered Total Wipeout in the belief that it’s a reality show about your chosen profession. One day you’ll have to leave your ivory tower, hah! And maybe work in an office! With Post-Its and cubicles and ergonomic chairs that are designed for six-foot blokes and give you a bad back! And one day the photocopier will get a paper jam in two different places and then what are you going to do, Dr McSmartypants?

Not sure what the lowest grade I've ever given actually is, but it is not as low as this.

Not sure what the lowest grade I’ve ever given actually is, but it is not as low as this.

OK, I’m jesting, and I’m sorry. There are no easy jobs, except for that time I worked in a nut shop and we had no customers. People who blithely say ‘Oh, if I can’t get an academic job I’ll just go into publishing/banking/teaching’ rile me up from here to Sunday because you’ll ‘just’ do that? Seriously? Have you ever even spoken to a publisher, banker, or teacher? You are everything wrong with PhD students and please can you shut up. My point is not that the ‘world of work’ is easy, but that it’s not alien. Most people doing PhDs have had jobs outside academia in the past, and many have them at the same time as doing a PhD. I may not have had the directorship of a major company or a spot on the Dragons’ Den line up or an abortive pop career, but I have done things and had salaries. I didn’t mess them up, either – the only time I’ve been fired was from putting-away-the-books-after-reading-time duty in Year 3 (I read the books instead of putting them away, in a hugely surprising development. My friend Claire and I then got put on watering-the-plant duty, and the plant died. I have become more responsible since leaving primary school).

Furthermore (furthermore! I am ranting, it seems), a PhD is a professional qualification, and you need to be professional about it. You have to produce specific things for specific deadlines, and more often than not balance these requirements with other commitments (teaching, research jobs, organising events, crying softly into issues of Past & Present). One thing I’ve noticed about graduate study is how professional it is. The academics and graduate students I know don’t tend to conform to the usual belittling stereotypes – they’re not batty elbow-patched teaching-avoiders or drunken Young Ones-esque delinquents (well, aside from that point in 2011 when everyone seemed to be buying elbow-patched tweed jackets and claiming it was ironic). I mean yes, we read books, but everyone seems hurtlingly aware that we have to do things with them and then write our damn own. Most academics I know are not, necessarily, great at the whole work/life boundary thing – but this more often leads to work swamping life than life swamping work. I don’t want to get into a moral tangle here about the worth of the things we produce, or that we teach – because oh, blimey – just to assert that a PhD, or indeed any other academic position, is a job. I know we keep bleating that. It is A Job. Stop laughing.

Again, I do not want to claim that what I’ve said above about work/life balance is restricted to academia. I’d imagine that this goes for most jobs – any job that the person doing it cares about. It certainly goes for most of what I’ve done before (with the exception, if I’m honest, of the nut shop job. Also, probably, that time I worked in a greasy spoon. And probably the pudding factory job. Look, I’ve had some weird jobs). You step up, because you care about what you’re doing, and you want to get it done well – all the bits of it that you have to balance. That’s the most important element in doing any job (OK YES training is, as well. Particularly if you’re a surgeon or something. But go with me for a bit). A PhD is damn good training for this, because if you don’t care about what you’re doing, and if you can’t organise your time between different commitments, you just won’t ever do it. Look! Transferable skills!

So, having argued that academic training is the ‘world of work’, damnit, or at least pretty good training for it, I find myself in what might be a bit of a false position. Because actually, the important part of the whole misty-eyed ‘You’ll soon be entering the world of work!’ thing is not the implicit assumption that I’ve been sitting on my arse making balloon animals for nearly four years, but that – hey! – once I’ve graduated, it’s Job Time. A lovely university will sweep me up into its caring embrace and we will make undergraduate courses and monographs together for many happy years to come. This is what is known as a Charming Academic Fairy Story and it is about as likely as the other kind.

I’ll go more into this in my next post (this was all going to be one post, but then I remembered that this is a blog post and not a three-volume Victorian novel. I cut the scenes in the debtors’ prison and the blacking factory for the same reason). Suffice to say here that as anyone involved with academia knows, the job market ain’t no bed of roses, and happy fantasies of strolling into permanent positions are rarely fulfilled. I have tried my darndest to cushion this blow, to explain that financial security and stability is not necessarily on the horizon, but what cuts me up a little bit is that I’m not sure people actually believe me. I’m probably reading a bit too much into comforting expressions here, but it feels a bit like that moment at the end of Part 1 of The Hobbit (very slight spoiler here for a bit of the Hobbit film that doesn’t even happen in the book) when Bilbo says something along the lines of  ‘If I’m not mistaken, the worst is behind us’. Oh, Martin Freeman! You’re in two more films of this, and not just to eat seed-cake and plan your birthday party! So yes, extrapolate that to the academic job market as you see fit.



It’s the comforting assumption that everything will be alright in  the end. It’s a bit heartbreaking. I wouldn’t train all these years and then not actually get an academic job, would I?

Would I?

More to come in the next post, in which I bite the hand that fed me for three years. Repeatedly. But out of love.


I’m not sure, but I think I should be in the pub

A quick picture about what writing is like RIGHT NOW. Not inked because it is bad enough that I drew a picture instead of typing things. You might want to click on it to see it properly (or, on the other hand, you might not. I won’t judge).

Woe, woe is me, etc (bloody solipsistic graduate students, etc).

Sometimes I have real anxiety of influence – i.e., I don’t think I’m original enough – and sometimes I think I don’t have enough influences, that I haven’t read all there is to read so aargh. Mostly it’s some unhealthy stew of the two. I think this is pretty standard, graduate student-wise. Unless you’re like, really confident.

I have put a cup of tea in the picture, which I do not currently have. I’m going to make some tea.

[Posted at 11.25 on a Saturday night because I am really good at being in my 20s]

Get a new plan, Stan

Blackadder: Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words “I have a cunning plan” marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation? 
Baldrick: They certainly are. 

(Blackadder the Third, ‘Nob and Nobility’)

Nothing good in academia happens without a plan.

I am telling myself that, repeatedly, because the time has come to start writing a new chapter. I’m having the usual excitement/anxiety I get when I realise I’ve probably done enough research to get writing;  I start thinking ‘OK, this is it. This is the CENTRE of the whole THESIS and I have to NAIL IT’. (I think that every time. I imagine I’d have trouble writing if I was like ‘eh, this argument’s pretty incidental to the stuff before it, to be honest’).

Said performance anxiety is particularly high this time because:

  1. I’m going into my fourth year soon, I really should start treating this as the home stretch and, y’know, sprinting.
  2. Writing my last chapter felt like attempting several simultaneous acts of keyhole surgery, whilst playing baroque music on a harpsichord, in a blizzard.

I am aware that what I was actually doing was writing some stuff about history and books, and printing it out, and looking at it. Actually, I think a lot of the problem was that I couldn’t understand why it was knotting up my brain so much.1 I’m quite happy with the finished chapter, and a little perplexed by how deceptively simple it looks from this end of the telescope. But I’m going to try my damnedest to make things a little easier on myself this time.2

Hence the plan. I suspect a lot of confusion and soul-searching could have been avoided if I’d been a bit more strict with myself about planning. Because, as I say, nothing good in academia happens without a plan. No good lectures, no good seminars, no good papers, and certainly no good monster chapters. I’m going to leave seminars to one side right now because teaching is too important for me to treat it here as a sideshow to the business of writing, but suffice to say that I had the above realisation following a reading group in which I presented some letters to a bunch of nice folk I know very well and man, I should have made an actual plan for that.

I have precious little advice and few words of dubious wisdom this time. Instead, I’m going to blather about the many ways in which I am just a bit rubbish at making and sticking to plans for things I write. You can stop reading now if you want, I won’t judge you.

Anyway: teaching plans, no problem. I might deviate from a seminar plan or just outright ignore it if the class goes in another interesting direction, but it’ll be there and I’ll know it well and refer to it. I have a far more complicated relationship, though, with chapter outlines and so on.

I usually do at least attempt a plan of some description. I tend to fill them with jokes, weird shorthand, and vaguely aggressive notes to myself, just because that’s how I write when I’m thinking and planning. Which is more-or-less fine, except that quite often a supervisor or two will want to read what I’ve planned, and then I have to spend ages making it fit for consumption by a person who isn’t me. Even I’m a little too embarrassed to send a senior professional colleague a document that says ‘Even if I don’t do much this poem is angry doggerel gold’ and ‘Subtle this the hell up. And play nice’.3

Another, more serious, problem is that my plan-making process tends to go something like this.

  1. Start making plan.
  2. Enthusiastically plan first bit in some detail.
  3. Become increasingly vague as plan progresses.
  4. Spend rather too long coming up with snappy titles for the different sections.
  5. Get bored with planning.
  6. Decide to start writing because hey, let’s see how it goes.
  7. [Optional if planning in manuscript] At some point during or after points 1-6, lose piece of paper on which plan is written.

And the third and most serious problem is that as soon as I get into the writing of a piece – particularly if it’s a long piece, like a chapter – I find myself ignoring the plan. It just never quite works when I start writing stuff down. About a third of the way through I’ll begin to know what I’m doing and then I’ll be able to plan the rest, or at least sketch it out. But that opening third is not the most pleasant of experiences.

I suspect that struggling over and reworking and essentially writing through the difficulties (structure-wise, argument-wise, etc) of my chapters is a crucial part of the process for me. I think-write, always have done, whether I’ve written a detailed plan or not. The best things I’ve produced have often been the things I’ve been just about ready to tear my brain out over, repeatedly. At the same time, I’m not so wedded to some idea of the mystical ‘process’ by which I call down my chapter-writing muse that I’m not willing – eager, even – to keep on working at methods of making it a bit less psychologically draining.

The plan I have made for this coming chapter is better than most I manage. I have planned half of it, and have a basic idea of the argument of the second half. And, well, screw it, I’m going to give writing the first half a go, because I imagine that it will swing off in some unexpected directions pretty quickly so I should just get going and find out what those directions might be. I’m also hoping that maybe, maybe, the plan will help even if I don’t stick to it.

In fact, I’m wondering whether sticking to the plan actually isn’t the point at all.

Some of the best seminars I’ve taught have been ones that have headed entirely off-piste. You can’t go off-piste, though, unless there’s a piste. And a chairlift to get you up the mountain. And I have never been skiing in all my born days and should shut up about it now.

But what if the plan that nothing good in academia happens without is not actually a plan you stick to? Surely sticking to your initial plan for anything that takes a writing, researching, playacting-out, defending, hating, sobbing over, contradicting, negotiating process is like actually staying with the kid you march home from primary school one day and inform your mum you’re going to marry. It might work for a tiny minority of fortunate-but-presumably-not-fond-of-variety people, but for the majority of us some combination of fate, practicality, personality, and perhaps eventually sexuality manage to separate us from the people that were our One True Loves for a Week in Year 2, while the appeal of the awesome Lego skills/Ninja Turtles backpack/ability to do the best handstands in the class that first drew us to them fall by the wayside of our developing psyches. I mean, the ‘our’ thing is an ineffectual stab at comradeship here because I was over there reading something. But kids do this, right?

Anyway. That child with the Ninja Turtles backpack or whatever probably grew up perfectly nice, but you’re probably not with him or her. They’re doing their thing, you’re doing your thing. Plans got changed.

See, they weren’t bad plans, necessarily, but the process of living changes how you want to live. And thus it is, perhaps (she says, hauling it back to the topic) with academic stuff. You plan so you know where to start, where you might head after that, and (eventually) where you were going to go so that you can decide to head off in a different direction.

Writing, at least in my experience, will almost always sabotage itself. Writing helps you notice and think things about texts, events, and arguments that you don’t necessarily get by just reading and thinking about them. I usually disagree heartily with each plan by the time I’ve finished writing, so surely I should stop beating myself up about the fact that I never stick to plans. Some people progress intellectually by disagreeing with others; I apparently, progress by disagreeing with Past Kirsty. That idiot.

1. I suspect it was a case of Too Many Books. Lots of little pamphlets, dancing before my eyes…

2. My brain, immediately: ‘Hah. Good luck with that.’

3. Actual quotes from my current chapter plan. I’m not sure why I need the instruction to be nice.

Lies, damn lies, and annual review forms

In my most recent meeting with my supervisor, he made an observation that I think I’m going to come to regard as fateful.

‘There comes a time in a PhD’, he said, ‘when you have to stop lying’.

It wasn’t quite as devastating as that appears. My supervisor has a knack of couching criticism in the nicest and most enthusiastic of terms – so that quite often I come out of meetings feeling suspiciously buoyant about my work, only to be brought down to earth abruptly by the notes written on the hard copy (though said notes are very useful, and far nicer than the notes I write to myself, which are mostly swearing and occasional odd cultural references that I put in to make Future Kirsty smile, even as I heartlessly give her lots more work to do). But he did let that line hang for a moment, before explaining. Probably in response to whatever facial expression I was attempting. I’m not sure what the appropriate facial expression is in such a situation, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing it.

Anyway, what my supervisor meant, in essence, was this:

Before you start a PhD, you lie wildly.

You lie about everything. You would lie about the colour of the sky, the number of hours in the day, your own age and gender, and that holiday job you once had in in a pudding factory if you thought it might get you funding.1

Most importantly, you claim things along the lines of ‘In this thesis I will analyse everything ever written about the 1620s and 1630s, ever, in any language’.2

This is acceptable in a research proposal because research proposals are a tissue of half-truths and outright, shameless falsity, and everyone writing one and everyone reading one is aware of this fact. You have to state what you’re going to find out, for crying out loud. If you knew that you wouldn’t have to do the research. What a research proposal actually tells the reader is these three things:

  1. I can string a sentence together.
  2. I can conceive of a project with a shape to it. Which bodes well for whatever project I end up with in a couple of years’ time.
  3. I know which books I am going to start off reading.

By the time you finish your first year the lying has got, if anything, worse. This is because you now know a few things, and – as we’re all aware – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. By the end of your first year you will probably have read a lot of things you don’t agree with, and written angry screeds against various straw men.3 Your project has probably turned into something significantly different to that you started out with, but is unlikely to be much less ambitious.

During second year, things start to change. You begin to get less sure of your work (or, if you’re me, not sure of your work at all). You begin to see how little you’ve done and how much you still have to do, more clearly than before. There’s still a treacherous, unhelpful little voice of assurance in your head, though. I can do this. I can write about all the texts written in the whole of the 1620s and 1630s. OK, maybe I’ll be a bit sensible. I’ll cancel the Spanish classes and concentrate on texts in English. That oughta narrow things down sufficiently. In short, assurance, ambition, and the amount of knowledge you’ve gleaned thus far collide in your head in a way that is singularly unhelpful to anyone. You can vaguely see how much you still have to do, and are dumb enough to believe that you both can and actually have to do it. At this point you may make quite serious plans to run away and join a kibbutz.

I’m going to stop writing in the second person now because it’s annoying me. That’s something I’ve done in my third year, by the way. I mean, I wasn’t writing my earlier chapters in the second person – my annoyingness doesn’t quite stretch that far – but I realised that just because I started doing a thing, or said I would do a thing, doesn’t mean I actually have to do it if it’s unrealistic or if it isn’t working. I scrapped a whole chapter because a. I really wasn’t sufficiently interested in the texts to write it, and b. I could justify scrapping it. It felt a teensy bit wrong and also quite liberating.

I’m still a bit unrealistic (you should see my ‘plan’ for the chapter I’m researching now) but I’m trying to combine it with a certain amount of practicality. Reading around topics as much as possible, but accepting that each 20,000 word chapter has to concentrate on a constrained range of texts and issues. And then just writing down what I can write down, as simply as possible. How did it take me three years to get to this level of self-awareness? I’m not sure. Give me a week and I’ll have forgotten all these hard-earned lessons again.

This is what my supervisor meant. Or, as he put it, ‘You have to stop saying what you’re going to do, and say what you have done, and what you can do in the time and space left’. (I’m paraphrasing. My memory is not that good).

This exchange resurfaced on my mind this weekend because I had to do my Annual Review Form. I imagine all universities have these.  You have to fill out a lengthy questionnaire, describing what you have done, and what you’re going to do, and how your project intervenes in the DEAR GOD I AM LOSING THE WILL TO LIVE JUST TYPING THIS. The purpose of this exercise is, basically, to check that you haven’t buggered off to that kibbutz.4

So, my point – I tried not to lie. I did. Alright, mainly I tried not to be as snarky as I wanted to be. It’s not my fault, I carry the Dad Humour gene. I cannot react to sincerity with sincerity of my own, there’s something that short-circuits it out of me. Ask me a direct, serious, sincere question, and watch me squirm as fifteen different bad jokes, but not one real answer, occur to me simultaneously. Anyway, I suppose if you don’t think of oversimplification as lying, then my Annual Review Form this year was a model of truthfulness.  But the problem with finally getting to the point where you sort of know what’s practically possible with a thesis is that you also know how impossible it is to explain these things fully in a small space. Not that this wasn’t a problem before. It’s always a problem. I’m feeling it especially keenly this year as I bumble towards the end (please God) of the project, though. Most of my introduction will be about how my project intervenes in various critical contexts, and I know myself and my work too uncomfortably well now to think I’ll be able to do that with brevity. So instead of lies of commission, my Annual Review Form is packed to the gills this time with lies of omission.

That’s academia I guess, or indeed any job that’s vaguely complicated. Negotiating a thousand subtly different iterations of that moment when someone in the pub says ‘So, what do you actually do?’

1. Hello, Regional Mini Cheesecake Manager role!

2. Or actually, if you’re me, you claim you’re going to do something really quite wildly, embarrassingly different to what you actually end up doing. I call it ‘intellectual development’. Ahem.

3. You will want to keep a few complimentary terms like ‘excellent’, ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘ground-breaking’ up your sleeve for when you come to edit these bits.

4. Or to my bolthole of choice, the French Foreign Legion.

Should add, just in case: My CV has always been disappointingly free of lies, or indeed of any imagination whatsoever. It’s a pretty boring read. Most of my sad minimum-wage-or-below jobs aren’t even on it nowadays, due to their negligible relevance to the world of academia. This includes the pudding factory job, in which I got up at 5.30am every day to perform a role which could have been performed by a mechanical arm. Moral of the story: it’s cheaper to employ an undergraduate student than it is to maintain a machine. Also, mini cheesecakes are nasty.

How to take a compliment

– Or, how accepting praise graciously rather than turning it into a mangled psychodrama will make you a better scholar –

The other night a friend of mine – let’s call her Bob, because that is not her name – gave her second conference paper. She’s only in her first year of her PhD, so this is pretty impressive.  I’ve read and been a test audience for both papers, and both have been smart, fascinating, and well-argued. I didn’t make it to the seminar at which she was presenting because I was on the sofa eating soup and weird throat lozenges that come in little orange test tube thingys and look like Rennies, but it seems that this paper was, like the first, well-received. I only know this, though, because when I asked her how it went she smiled and said, ‘Y’know – people are nice’.

People are nice? People are NICE, Bob? I’m sure people are, but more importantly, how about ‘My paper was good and they liked it, as well they should’?

This sort of deflection – ‘it’s not that I did a good thing, it’s that people were nice to me about it’ – seems very common in the academic circles I move in. I know I’ve done it myself a good few times. It tends to look like false modesty, and perhaps it is, sometimes and for some people. I think for many, though, the modesty is real. A lot of us are terrible at taking compliments, and tend to deflect nice comments or questions onto someone or something else – the material we work on, a critic we’ve used, or indeed the questioner’s own good nature.1

Question is – when someone does this, are they just trying not to seem boastful (protesting too much, naturally), or do they genuinely believe that the reason for the praise they’re receiving for their paper (or indeed their thesis, seminar, article, etc – I’m focusing on conference papers here but much of my argument could be applied to other areas of endeavour) somehow lies outside of the work they’ve done? The first of these must surely be unnecessary – you’re not exactly skywriting ‘I’m Brilliant’ over the conference centre or naming your kids after your thesis chapters2 – and the second is, frankly, bullshit. Egregious bullshit, that insults your audiences and/or readers as much as it insults yourself.

People are nice, but also your paper is good, Bob, and these two things are not mutually exclusive. You are confusing niceness (the niceness that all reasonable academics and indeed human beings display, in which you listen carefully to the person presenting their research, and ask questions in a polite and interested way, and do not shoot down the first-year PhD student because that’s a horrible thing to do, and pour her a nice glass of wine afterwards) with condescension. Everyone has a right to expect this kind of niceness in an academic forum (though, admittedly, your question mileage may vary). Condescension, on the other hand, is a dick move practised by dicks and it is not what your audience were doing when they listened carefully and then asked questions and did not shoot you down. People are nice, and part of being nice is informing someone when they are on the wrong track, or have a hole in their argument that needs filling, or have grasped the wrong end of the stick. If your paper had any of these problems, someone would probably have raised it in the questions, or (more likely if you’re a PhD student) taken you aside afterwards and had a quiet word. No one did this? Everyone said it was good? Then you gave a good paper, suck it up.

‘Niceness’ has its dangers. Karen Kelsey (aka The Professor) has written several hugely helpful blogposts at The Professor is In (see here and here – seriously, go and read them) about the problems that can arise when advisors and other fellow academics are too ‘nice’ to spell out the truth to those who need to hear it. It’s also true that giving a paper as a graduate student (particularly if you’re in your first or second year) is unlikely to garner you really cutting, no-holds-barred criticism – because yes, people are too nice to spring that on a graduate student, at least unless they’re a. rather unpleasant, or b. certain that said graduate student can hold their own in this fight. On top of that you have the usual problems with presenting a paper – some of the audience might have been thinking about their dinner or the chapter they’re writing, or staring out of the window or at the woman in front’s shoes.

But they did choose to come to see you, and regardless of what they might have been doing you have to pay them the courtesy of assuming that they listened, and thought about what you said, and responded in ways they considered appropriate. No-holds-barred criticism is what a supervisor is for. The fact that you didn’t get it after your paper is not an indication that audience members were holding back out of niceness, but that criticism is phrased and presented differently in such a forum.

This is crucial. Attentive audience members will usually express criticism in a constructive way, but they will probably express it, and it is absolutely one of the best things they can do. It’s incredibly useful to be alerted to a hole in your argument, or a resource you should look at, or indeed informed that the whole of what you’ve just said is bunkum. It’s what you present papers for, CV points be damned. A lot of the time criticism doesn’t mean that you’ve done a bad paper in the slightest – it means that there are other areas into which you can expand and develop your research. And that it got people talking. Someone cared enough to disagree with you! That doesn’t happen when you’re on your own in the Rare Books Room.3

Back to my original point, though. It’s important to take criticism, but I’d argue that it’s important to take praise, too – and that you should consider both as constructive feedback. The praise of others in our disciplines is a perfectly reasonable end in itself – these are the people we’re supposed to be impressing and networking with – and can help you trace the success or otherwise of your work. Saying, in effect, that an audience or reader only claimed to like your paper because they’re ‘nice’ dismisses the judgement of the very people who you asked to judge your work. As an academic you need to trust both your own intellectual judgement and that of your peers; not implicitly, as at times you may need to choose between the two, but with the confidence both to choose your own path and to consider others’ comments carefully and critically. Dismissing praise treats neither your work nor the responses it elicits with the right levels of respect and thoughtfulness. Privately, it can adversely affect both your work and your attitude to it. If you dismiss praise publicly, people might just become less willing to praise you.

It’s also a mistake, I think, to ignore or downplay the emotional role that praise can play. I might not want to consider myself as basically a puppy, being trained to do stuff with praise and titbits of food, but the fact that I instituted ‘Sacred 3pm Cake Time’ during revision for my finals suggests otherwise. Being praised for your work makes you feel good about it, and you should not pass up any opportunity to feel good about your work, because there will be times – many times, horrible times – when you don’t feel good about it. PhDs go on for a reasonable length of time4 and most of that is spent on your own, reading or writing or staring at a computer screen making inarticulate mewling noises. Accepting praise from other people is like putting jam5 in your porridge. You may (wrongly. I mean, it’s fruit!) feel it detracts from the healthiness of the endeavour, but without the jam you are not going to want to eat all that oatmeal. You can tell I’m ill because I’m actually a bit proud of that tenuous analogy.

Praise also (um, unlike jam) helps you to orientate yourself in regard both to your field and to what’s expected of you as a graduate student. A frequent PhD-student complaint is of isolation – not just social isolation (though there’s a fair deal of that) but isolation from the structures that guided us earlier in our careers. We don’t get graded any more, and that’s a bit scary. Particularly given that the academic year above mine (to which Bob belongs, incidentally) trailblazed their way through primary and secondary education as (at that point) the most frequently examined students in British history. Most of us grew up being ceaselessly graded and evaluated throughout school and university, and it’s difficult – especially if your grades tended to be good – to let go of that as a means of evaluating our own achievement. How can we know we’re doing well if no-one’s giving us A’s for it? How can we know if our interventions in a field are up to the standard of other practitioners? The only way to gauge this is to present our work in some way to said practitioners, and to ask them to consider it on a professional level. And if we’re doing that, we have to be professional about how we respond to the feedback we receive. Even if it’s good and we’re embarrassed.

My point is, Bob: maybe6 there are ways in which your paper could be improved, and no-one told you about them at the seminar. But you can’t know about this, because no-one told you. And instead they said nice things, which might be related to you being a graduate student and them being nice, but they said them about the paper, which suggests – them being clever people and all – that they thought the paper was good. So – and I’m going to say this very clearly, and put it in bold:

Chalk this one up as a win.


1. I do wonder slightly if this is a British thing – passive-aggressive faux-modesty is part of the British stereotype, and I have been told by various Americans that British academics seem less willing than US ones to talk about their work in social situations – but this seems rather too pat and, well, stereotypical. I’d appreciate any thoughts from non-Brits on the matter! I suppose this is also stereotypically ‘female’ behaviour, and both Bob and I happen to be female – but I really haven’t noticed any difference between the genders here.

2. Or someone else’s kids, which is definitely going a bit far.

3. Where you just have to disagree with yourself. Or Pollard and Redgrave.

4. I wanted to write ‘a long time’ but I’m in my third year so I couldn’t bring myself to.

5. Substitute for flavouring of your choice. Even if you’re Scottish, and that flavouring is salt.

6. Probably. This is academia we’re talking about.