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.