They tell you not to expect a parade when you get examined on your PhD. But, guys, you can have a GIF PARADE.
So I keep belatedly trying to write a blogpost about finishing my thesis, because I sort of feel I should. And, um, there’s one getting there. Not sure it’ll contain much advice about how to do one of the damn things, to be honest – erm, don’t do quite a lot of the things I did? – but meanwhile, I have been rereading the Watch books, and I reckon you could do a lot worse in a lot of areas of human endeavour than follow the example of Mister Vimes.
(Discworld spoilers ahead, which is why it is under a cut from the AtB homepage. I mean, you should prolly go read these books if you haven’t already. Thank me later.)
(this may be the geekiest thing I’ve done since attending the Doctor Who Prom)
(which was ace)
I am currently doing that thing where I stare at my half-written thesis introduction and flip out a bit at the fact that I have to make an introduction exist.
So I drew this to make myself feel more positive about the whole thing.
You can have frontispieces to theses, right?
This autumn’s big release: me, from servitude to my thesis. I AM GOING TO RUN FREE LIKE ELSA THE FREAKING LION CUB.
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.
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.
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?
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?
More to come in the next post, in which I bite the hand that fed me for three years. Repeatedly. But out of love.
– 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.↩
Happy New Year! Avoiding the Bears is BACK. Well, I have done a cartoon, at any rate.
It has been far too long. This is what I have mostly been doing with myself.
Seriously, the colours on this scanner are WACK. I am going to get a new one just as soon as I scrape together the cold hard cash and trundle my way through innumerable Amazon reviews.
Should also point out, in case of, er, general anger from the un-PhDers – this is not intended as a moan about my (lucky, fortunate, etc) lot or how boo hoo I have to read books. It’s about how I seem to be getting more and more incompetent at doing these things. Seriously, what do books mean? I dunno. Reading is lame. I’m going to make some tea.