All 93 entries tagged Inner Life

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November 27, 2013

Dance dance revelations

This post starts, as so many do, with a confession: I have recently become a dancer in the dark. No, this does not have any great metaphorical meaning, nor is it a reference to Lars von Trier’s millennial masterpiece. Of late, I have literally and physically been turning off the lights in my kitchen cum dining room cum living room, perching my headphones around my ears and careering around to the various tempos of my iPod. Sometimes I do it wearing socks, sliding up and down to the rhythms of new wave indie pop, and sometimes I go barefoot and pogo to the discordant beats of classic punk. More often than not, however, I just hit random and see where the mood takes me. This lasts anywhere from thirty seconds to a full hour, and seeing as my housemate has recently disappeared back to the mysterious climes of Gloucestershire, I anticipate doing it much more over the next few weeks.

Three facts about me are pertinent here. First, I am not a good dancer, no, not a good dancer in the slightest. I have little to zero sense of rhythm. Case in point: I went out in Leamington a few weekends back, determined to shake my stuff to the best of my ability. The whole debacle was slightly shattered when a stranger at the bar told me that I danced as if I was wearing high heels and I was worried I might fall over at any point. My sister once told me to dance as if no-one were watching, but I dance like the floor is slowly melting around me.

Secondly, I have form when it comes to dancing in the dark. In the summer of 2008, I used to cycle back from Cambridge late at night (to my eternal shame, without lights, the sound of my clunking unoiled chain my only company), and then, hyped up from who-knows-what, I would boogie in the backyard, behind my father’s studio. Sometimes the cats would come and watch me, and perhaps wonder why I was moving as if there were a wasp trapped beneath my clothes.

Third and finally, I am not averse to dancing with others. As already mentioned, I will go out and get down without any concern but my own inabilities, and I recently had a very moving episode where some friends taught me how to tango (after a few neat whiskies, I should add) at two in the morning. My sister and I have even devised a signature Bray-family move, and even if our parents refuse to participate in the genealogical choreography, we plan to perfect it step by faltering step.


If you've ever wondered like I look like when dancing, then wonder no more.

But why, you might wonder, am I telling you all this? What could my penchant for going footloose away from the lights have to do with PhD life? Why, the audience murmurs, is he dancing around the topic?

Aside from my newfound love for dancing in the half-light, I have also been pulling a few late nights recently. Not the extraordinary undergraduate ‘one-more-Red-Bull-™-and-I-pass-out’ kind of late, but certainly the kind where I am sat alone in the office, a single lamp illuminating my notes, only to glance at my watch and think ‘My, is that the time? I should cycle home while I can still balance on two wheels.’ These late-night sessions, on a campus which is politely humming with people coming and going outside my window, have been something of a revelation. There I am, just me and my research trying to produce something better than ourselves, the spotlight from the Ikea lamp (which I bought from my Mexican neighbours, so it always reminds me of drinking their very expensive coffee whilst playing darts) and the incoming Premier League results (I have taken to Fantasy Football like a duck to water, or like Alan Shearer to punditry) my only company.

I have talked in the past of how the PhD needs to be a social experience, how there must be a component of discussing ideas, mistakes, and revelations. I stand by this, and I always will: for me, there is nothing like presenting a paper at a conference and seeing people’s faces light up with excitement. But there are also moments, as I have recently discovered, where losing oneself in the strange and wonderful world of your own research, seeing all the pieces come together and watching an argument, really quite a good argument, emerging from your computer screen, is a deep and personal pleasure. You’ll sometimes slip, of course you will, and sometimes you’ll miss the beat and the break-down. You may doubt your ability to do this again, putting this flight of fancy down to luck, kismet, serendipity. But you will enjoy it in the here and now, this peculiar strain of brain-tango.

In the darkened office, your mind is dancing. There is no-one to watch you, no-one to applaud, but you don’t need anyone else to recognise what’s happening. You can’t wait to show off your moves. For the first time since I learnt to solve quadratic equations and perform a backhand winner on the tennis court (they did indeed happen on the same day, almost twelve years ago), I am making friends and sharing abstract pitchers with the technicolor ramblings of my fevered mind. It’s quite the sensation.

P.S. As a last minute aside, I want to share the most terrifying thing which ever happened to me whilst discussing the joys of academia. My mother did a PhD herself when I was in my mid-teens, so we’ll often trade experiences. Once, when I was ruminating on the pleasures of chasing an idea through to its conclusion, my mother chipped in with the immortal phrase, “Oh, Tom, it’s an amazing feeling, it’s almost like…(long pause)…almost like sex.” Thanks Mum, that was an easy image to get out of my head during late nights in the office.

September 09, 2013

28 Days Later; or, how to survive the summer as a postgraduate

Let’s imagine for moment (and I do mean ‘imagine’, don’t try this at home) that you were to wake up, á la Danny Boyle’s post-apocalytic fright-fest 28 Days Later, in the middle of campus, the fifth floor of the library, to be precise. You glance at your wrist, but your watch is missing. You have no recollection of your surroundings, no idea what the HVs and the JFs all mean. Searching around for an exist, you stumble down the stairs and out past the Help Desk, deftly hurtling the barriers sans library card.

Outside, the sun is casting long shadows across campus. Save for the magpies hopping around the rooftops, you are the only soul present. Deep, deep inside your mind there is the faint recollection that this ‘Library Road’ was once filled with people…but you shake it off. That was another you, in another time. Your hands retreating into your pockets, you tiptoe through the ‘Arts Centre’, marvelling at the unpeopled chairs and sofas, so colourful, so lonely. Then, finally, out onto the piazza. Here there is the detritus of humanity, crisp packets blowing in the wind, an empty can of non-branded cola. This is a landscape recently touched by people, but no longer. This amphitheatre once held lovers, friends, pigeons, but now…just you. You sit on the cold, damp concrete, and cover your face with your hands. Your weary sobs echo around the empty chambers of the Union, the aisles of Costcutters, the battered walls of the bus-stop.

Now, I am not saying that campus in the summer feels like the scene of a zombie apocalypse…and yet that is exactly what I am saying.


Can you imagine this as the setting of a zombie film?

At such a time, it can be hard to keep the motivation going. I am sure that I do not just talk for myself when I say that the hum and buzz of a campus in rude health can be helpful for the ticking brain. Take a walk around in late October, and people are doing things, social things, academic things, wandering around with lacrosse sticks and library books. The whirr of the machine oils wonderfully the cogs of the postgraduate brain. This is an environment where opinions and ideas, formulae and fun are all jostling for position, and you cannot help but get stuck in. Yes, you may have many, many more commitments, but it is all energising, it all carries you along in the pursuit of getting stuff done.

Only two months earlier, however, the deafening silence and utter emptiness of these corridors built for the masses make for an insurmountable mental block. You have time, you have space, to do all the things you couldn’t get around to during term-time. All the marking, the omnipresent patter of seminars and talks, the daily crush of the bus, these all conspired to stop you thinking, to stop you making that much-needed breakthrough. Now, though, alone in your office without anyone to come and knock and disturb, you are at peace to do your best work.

One problem, though: it ain’t happening.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so: after all, the adage goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. It is paradoxical that the emptiness of the summer holidays, which would seem to invite progress, are actually quite the struggle. Keeping the spirits up is half the battle, so here are some ideas which I have found useful in surviving the long summer of postgraduate life. I will freely admit, though, that I still find it difficult to keep focused, so any suggestions will be much appreciated.

First of all, the summer can be very useful to get the practical things out of the way. Your movements are less restricted than normal, so now is the ideal time for research trips. One of the most common complaints about such trips is that they often involve days, even weeks, spent in a strange, unfamiliar place, and necessitate long hours, usually waking early for travel. Relish, then, the extra hours of sunlight: raising at six in the morning is easier if it isn’t still depressingly dark outside. In addition, destinations tend to be a bit livelier in the summer: in my case, Chester proved to be much more fun in July than in November, with the result that my happy brain was content to continue apace its academic quests.

Secondly, keep the routines. It may sound trite, but keeping term-time hours will help you maintain term-time habits. This does not just mean your working habits, but also the social ones. If you and your colleagues like to head to the pub of a Thursday evening, there is no reason to drop the schedule just because it is the summer. All of this will also help you make the transition back to term-time behaviour in early October.

Thirdly, celebrate the little victories. If you set out to do something, and then manage it, this is no small achievement. One of the best rewards, in my experience, is to start pleasurable projects. If there is a book you have been dying to read for months, now is the time to start. If you and your friends fancy walking all day through the finest Warwickshire countryside, well, there is no finer time of year. The simple fact that you are keeping active, that you are keeping your mind sharp at a time when you could easily let it drift, is something to be gleefully acknowledged.  

Finally, give your brain a rest. No-one is able to go for three years without taking some time out, and sometimes you need some time away from your work to enable you to return refreshed and prepared to overcome some of the more difficult challenges. It can be difficult to find the time to step a step back during the intensity of term-time, so use at least some of the holidays to recharge your cognitive batteries. Although it may be tempting to sit and stare at a laptop screen or a journal or a test-tube all day, a good, productive rest (by which I mean absolutely NOT doing work, doing anything but work, for a decent amount of time) will be beneficial in the long run. Then, when you do decide to return to your research, you will be fresh and you will (hopefully) have fresh ideas.

All of this might go some way to helping you through the summer months. Of course, these are just some of the outcomes of my own experience, and although I have been a postgraduate for what feels like a very long time, I am still but a drop in the pool of wisdom compared to the might of the collective thoughts of the postgraduate community, so please, fire away with your suggestions.

Oh, and if anyone now feels like staging the first scenes from famous zombie movies every Friday, I sense this could well become a thing. Much improved would be the week which went: research, teaching, research, marking, supervision, fighting off the hoards of the almighty undead. It may just be my summer-addled brain talking, but I tend to think that the impending annihilation of humankind might help me to meet my deadlines.

Worth a try? Answers on a postcard, please.

August 19, 2013

Heart of Darkness; or, how I learnt to stop worrying and embrace third year

Edit: Since publishing this post, I have been informed by a few learned people (some real, some less so) that I in fact spent a week on a narrowboat, not a longboat. Before you write a new batch of disgruntlement-mail, please be aware that I have recognised this slip-up, but that I have decided to keep the references to 'longboats'. This is because Vikings used longboats (Vikings are cool), and because my cleverest joke in this article, detectable only by 0.427% of the population, revolves around the word. Thank you for your comments, and I apologise for any inconvience it may have caused to you or your PhD.

Please excuse me my long absence. I have just returned from two very confusing holidays, and it has taken me a while to recover. Even now my eyes are slightly glazed over, and I have a near-morbid fear of prime numbers. It’s a long story. If you stop me on the fifth floor of the library, I’ll tell you and then run away.

The first holiday was to Sri Lanka, and was all the various shades of interesting and eye-opening and oh-my-days-that’s-a-monkey-with-a-cricket-bat you can imagine. I will leave that one aside for my memoirs. My second holiday, and by now everyone I know has been well briefed on this one, took place on a longboat with four of my oldest, dearest friends. Before I went, I had visions of an easy, relaxing week, laying on top of the boat reading books and perhaps occasionally giving a thought to my PhD. In the evening, maybe we’d stop at a canal-side inn, where we would play cards and amuse the locals with our humour, charm, and dashing good looks.

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

this is a longboat

This, by the way, is a longboat. It is NOT, as several rather fussy locals reminded me, a barge. Don't say I never teach you anything.

In hindsight, the maths is simple. Five fellows in their mid-twenties + rather cramped longboat x an interesting amount of fun-inducing juices to the power of seven days = …well, I can’t do everything for you, use your imagination. Needless to say, my memory of the week is very clear in some places, and slightly hazier in others. My initial vision was not actually all that far off, except that I neglected to include the profanities, the partial nudity, the sheer, sheer debauchery. I am not ashamed to say that not once during the endless games of Risk, the constant jumping off boats and across water, and the omnipresent searing of meat and burning of toast, not once did I think “Ooohhh, I wonder what will happen next with my research?”

It might come as no surprise that by the end of the week, things were getting a little…tense. We happened to spend the final night in Leamington Spa, and since I once, in another chapter of my life, happened to live there, I thought I could keep a lid on things. I was wrong (seriously, why do I keep making predictions? This is why I’m an historian, because I am so useless with the future). In all honesty, proceedings were unfolding at a relatively civil level, until we walked into the final pub of the night (which shall remain nameless). My friend, who, incidentally, is about to get married, walked up to the bar, his face contorted with barely-contained glee, and announced:

“We shall have five pints of your worst ale, and all of your packets of crisps.”

All of our packets of crisps?” asked the slightly bemused bar-staff.

“ALL of your packets of crisps!” my friend thundered in response.

The night went downhill from there, culminating in a half-hearted punch, a bottle of half-finished Diet Coke being thrown into the Grand Union canal, and a voicemail message which may confuse future generations of the NSA.

When we were all safely off the boat the next morning, having returned it to a very relieved proprietor, I found myself sitting on the edge of the water, and taking check of my personal state. Body: pretty much decimated. Mind: none too sharp, dulled by excess. Soul: utterly destroyed, its last fragments jettisoned somewhere around Tamworth. Happiness: through the frickin’ roof.

And then it dawned on me. I didn’t need a week on a longboat with four old friends to achieve this particular state of affairs. Oh no, for the last two years I have willingly, perhaps even enthusiastically, been on a different kind of longboat, an academic longboat made up of pieces of paper, Internet searches, and cups of tea. If there is anything which batters me, mind, body, and soul, and yet keeps me coming back for more, it is my PhD. Little did I know, but all that time floating through the Midlands not thinking in any way whatsoever about my research was actually preparing me for a third year in which I am assured that my resolve will be put to the ultimate test. And now I am back on campus, back in the archives, back in the strange abstract world of what happened once and may never happen again.

And yet, every morning, cycling over fields with the sun rising over the blooming corn, dodging dogs and freewheeling down hills, my mind is on only thing: what will those dusty old journals tell me today? Sometimes, at the end of a long day with little to show for it, when the wind is strong and the path back home seems a bridge too far, they seem to say, ‘Mate, darn lucky that you made it through that longboat holiday’. They may have a point. Bring on third year, I say, I have already looked deep into the abyss…and darkness, thy name is barge.

P.S. Inspired by my friend’s crisp-related antics, I tried walking into the archives and announcing, ‘I would like to order ALL of your documents’. They didn’t take it to it so well.

May 24, 2013

REx Fest – A Festival of Exchanges

If you closed your eyes, it was like Elton John truly was in the room, belting out his classics. Open your eyes, though, and yep, you were definitely in the Terrace Bar, where Elton ain’t been seen in years, listening to an otherwise-diminutive PhD student from Economics belting out ‘Bennie and the Jets’. After he lifted his fingers from the final chord, there was a second before the applause, a second of silence as everyone looked at everyone else, and mouthed one word: Wow.

There’s nothing to bring postgraduate students together quite like one of their own getting up and doing what they non-academically do best. Watching someone who by day builds robots shooting off down the wing on a football pitch, or eating the freshly-baked cookies of people who spend their days elbow-deep in algae: these are pleasures which I and countless others have enjoyed. REx Fest was no different. For a few hours that night, it didn’t matter which department you were from, what you were researching, or whether you had a list of publications longer than the piano: what mattered was whether you could make the audience sing along. And sing along they did, a sea of arms all swaying in time to the closing euphorics of ‘Hey Jude’.

Step away from the front-line of the audience, where the tone has now changed from an indie cover of ‘Call Me Maybe’ to some strain of Portuguese folk-rock, and you would find postgraduates dotted all around the Terrace Bar, and indeed, a swarm on the balcony, sharing lighters and stories of days, weeks, years, spent in the archives or the lab. People who lived together in their first year got a chance to catch up after five years and two degrees apart: one guy whom I knew when he was eighteen had to leave early to see the girl he was dating back then, and whom he is now marrying.

Back inside, stood around a table now littered with empty pint glasses, is a postgraduate football team, discussing their latest nail-biting match, occasionally forgetting themselves and repeating the kicks and jumps which sealed the last-minute winner. In another corner, people are exchanging stories of their first years of teaching, lamenting poor excuses and late-night marking, laughing over spilt chemicals and seminar faux-pas. Meanwhile, at the bar, there is a tussle to buy new companions drinks, often culminating in a bizarre comedy of errors, with everyone insisting that it’s their round. I spent many an hour in a Terrace Bar as an undergraduate at Warwick, and never did I know it as lively, as fun, as pleasant as at REx Fest.

Back in the union building, meanwhile, I spotted several heated games of table football, with people compulsively depleting small piles of fifty pence pieces in the pursuit of victory. The same went for the pool tables, where the atmosphere was a little quieter but no less heated. Much like an excellent musical performance, there is nothing to bring postgraduates together quite like a shared ineptitude at a game. I learnt that night that doing a PhD in Physics is not necessarily an advantage when it comes to playing pool. I guess you might need a calculator.

rex this

Needless to say, the whole event worked a treat, and I must admit that despite my own initial scepticism at the whole thing, it was quite the night. I couldn’t believe that amongst the small circles of postgraduates there exists quite so much musical talent. At the end, I found myself giving a guy whom I had only met in the last three minutes a lift back to Kenilworth. In the car he talked candidly about his recent break-up. It really was that kind of evening.

One of the issues with the postgraduate lifestyle, certainly an issue which often gets mentioned on this blog, is how easy it is to find yourself isolated, cut off from the real world. It is essential for your sanity (and for your research) that you get the opportunity to put your studies to one side, even if just for an evening, and enjoy some music, some sport, some chatter. Sure, talk may well eventually turn back to your work, but that’s part and parcel of the whole shebang. If you imagine the world of research as a quiet one, full of plain green fields and the occasional hill, then REx Fest is like a dinosaur of fun and sociality, a tyrannosaurus REx, if you will.

Sorry. Sorry I wrote a whole blog post just to make one awful pun. You’ll thank me one day.

May 15, 2013

In the middle of the journey of life…

dark woods"In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death; but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there". So begins Dante's Inferno, and so begins the tale of where I have been for the past seven months, since I last wrote a blog entry.

My story left off at a difficult point in my PhD life: I had begun a postdoctoral fellowship without finishing the doctoral thesis. I was hugely disappointed by this, as I had always considered that three years would be ample time in which to complete a PhD. But I had reckoned without the vagaries of my ongoing cardiac symptoms, which had made me take some time off in the late Spring of last year. In October, I wrote that I was stressed. I could almost laugh now, given what has happened since...

A couple of weeks after my last blog, my dad suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. He had surgery, but never recovered and was in a coma for twenty days. Twenty days of driving to Sheffield. Twenty days of sitting, watching, waiting for signs I knew would never come. At the end of twenty days, he died. I was with him, which was a strange and beautiful thing - just him and me in a room, and the most peaceful thing he had ever done.

On December 1st, I returned to the fellowship research. My brain was full to exploding, but I felt my manager had given me too much time off in November to take any time to think about what had happened. In December of course, everyone in the world was ill. Except me. My children had the flu, my husband had the flu, then my children had the vomiting bug. Then it was Christmas, which of course was difficult.

Then in January, I was ill. My turn at last! But I had a report to write for my boss, and I carried on. The relief I felt when that report was done was immense. I remember saying to a friend of mine that I could now take a few days to sit and think about my dad and begin the grieving process. As if it would ever be possible to grieve neatly, in a compartment marked 'time to think'.

The very next day, I discovered a mass low in my abdomen. I thought it would be nothing, although my midwife hands were slightly surprised at the size of it - my GP and I laughed at the idea that it felt like a 20-week pregnancy. But the scan I had that same day agreed: a mass of some kind, 10cm big. 10cm? How had I not noticed that earlier?! There followed urgent appointments in gynaecology oncology (the NHS moves fast when it feels the need...), an MRI scan, and lots of serious faces, my friends (midwives) included.

So I had a hysterectomy at the end of February, and because of the uncertainty of the tumour's malignancy or non-malignancy, I also had my ovaries removed. Instant menopause! Then a long time sitting still - the longest I've ever spent sitting still, by some considerable margin. And now, a damaged ligament and more sitting still.

Meanwhile, my fellowship contract ended, and I now find myself technically unemployed, although still registered as a student - that was an easy extension to get permission for, thankfully! I'll be extending again next month, which will take me through to September. And then, I say determinedly, the thesis will be submitted.

So a dreadful time. The worst time of my life. But as ever, there are bright moments to be found: my husband, beside me and caring for me; my children, who seem to be enjoying the whole sitting down thing; and my friends, who have brought me such joy over the years, and who have shouldered such a lot of my burden over the past few months.

What a strange post this is. It's taken me a very long time to write. I hope to begin blogging normally again from now, as I return to the process of writing up the thesis. Because for all of these seven months, the PhD has been sitting in a tiny corner of my over-crowded mind, and now, finally, it's getting some attention. sun through trees

April 29, 2013

The parable of the talents

Everywhere I turn, I find talent. Singers, athletes, intellectuals: all reside at this university, and can, with time and a nose for excellence, be sniffed out. Lo and behold, some people even have more than one talent: meet the lucky sods who are blessed with easy charm, a forehand which cannot be returned by Roger Federer himself, and a world-class brain working on problems for the betterment of all humanity. Good for them.

Of course, when you are at a place like Warwick, each year brings another crop of new geniuses, and you inevitably start to wonder where the university finds them (although I guess it is more the case that they find the university). All this brilliance floating around you: it can provoke some strong feelings. Some appreciate the challenge, and strive to make their work even better. Others react with calm indifference, reasoning that they are doing as well as they can, and that you can hardly bemoan people for their abilities. There are a number, however, who cannot help but feel the pangs of that green-eyed monster, that deadly sin, jealousy, whenever they encounter those who are blessed across the board. All I can say is that I envy the people in the first two groups.

green eyed

  This is a pretty sweet example of a green-eyed monster

This was brought home for me a few weeks back, when I attended REXfest, an evening of music and chatter for postgraduates at the Terrace Bar, which was, I am compelled to add, wonderful. But standing in a bar, watching people who not only played the piano and sang with the soulful metre of Elton John, but whom were also casually doing a PhD in Economics on the side (if you were there, you will know exactly whom I mean), well, you cannot help but feel the creeping prickly heat and low-altitude sinking feeling so characteristic of jealousy.

Usually when I see someone performing music, or sport, or just living with serious aplomb, at levels of which I, a confused and disoriented young person, can only dream, I console myself with the knowledge that I am a PhD student, and that no matter how often I burn the pasta or fall over blades of grass, I am at least a postgraduate member of a fine seat of learning. But when I encounter people who not only have the ability to understand particle physics, but also know all the chords to ‘Call Me Maybe’, well, that changes things.

The same goes, of course, for sport. Last year, I flirted with the idea of playing football again. I spent many an hour manically running after a ball in my youth, and recapturing that heady enthusiasm was, I reasoned, a good idea. After dashing around for ten minutes, and subsequently coughing up that cigar I smoked when I was eighteen, I soon encountered a pretty serious problem: I was absolutely and undeniably awful, well below the standards of the others. I would make some glib comment about how I would have been more useful if I had just stood there and acted as a goal-post, but that would be unfair to goal-posts; at least they hit the ball back.

The final straw came when someone very kindly passed me the ball in front of an open goal, and I obliged by standing square on top of it, sending me, rather than the ball, into the top corner. In the process I somehow sprained my ankle, and when I was once again fit, it didn’t take me too long to decide that the next time I strode onto a football pitch, it would be to give some stranger with size nine feet my boots. Of course, I would normally take refuge in the fact that football is not my thing, that would be academia, but all those people who can run for more than ten minutes without losing a lung and who can kick a ball exactly where they are meant to are also revolutionising the fields of healthcare, engineering, and literature.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that some people are very good at what they choose to do in life, and have to take comfort in that, whilst others are exceptional at what they choose to do, and pretty darn brilliant at a few things on the side as well. Frustratingly, they are often also very pleasant, humble people: all the multi-talented geniuses I know are also bloody good company, absolute delights who make the whole PhD experience that bit livelier. Thankfully, these people will probably end up teaching the next generation of bright minds and leading the world of future, while I will be standing on street corners, where I am a threat to no-one, mouthing off about pigeons, who are a threat to everyone.

I guess if there is a lesson in all this, and I am reluctant to be so candid, it is that we must be grateful for what we do have, be it in our heads or in our hands. When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, I must admit that even if the PhD does implode in an explosion of missed opportunities, I will always be a deft hand at washing up tea-spoons…and no-one can take that away from me.

Oh, except dishwashers.

I would generally say that postgraduate students are an honest and open bunch of people, willing to share expertise and experiences. There are, however, some aspects of PG life which are perhaps not discussed with enough candidness, and one of those is the ease with which one can feel jealous of your colleagues. I wonder whether it is easy enough at this stage to sit down with friends, family, and supervisors, and say, “This whole postgraduate thing…well, I seem to find it that little bit more taxing than everyone else.”

Maybe if we were that bit more open about the emotional difficulties of research, we might find that we are not alone, or that our colleagues admire us for qualities to which we have become blind. It is a curiosity of postgraduate life that, while it is at times a deeply solitary and egotistical pursuit, it can also be fundamentally collective, with inspiration and encouragement coming from many quarters. Maybe the final step would be a little more honest admiration, the ability to say to someone, hey, I think you’re a great teacher, or, did you know, you’re an exceptional editor.

So, in this summer term, that’s what I’ll be doing: turning my envy into uplift, converting the doubt inside my head into smiles and handshakes. As a PhD student, I am surrounded by deeply multi-talented people, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling a little envious of me for it.

January 21, 2013

My first, my last, my everything

The British welfare state, one of the key topics in my PhD research, has come in for a bit of a bashing recently. Indeed, it is now a distinct possibility that it may become, like gladiators, pyramids and decent Adam Sandler films, a thing of the past. This is big news, and I am, for a change, able to produce some insightful comments.

But I am not gonna talk about that.

Instead, I am going to discuss the peculiarities of finding romance as a PhD student. Now, as an historian rather than an ornithologist or an apiarist, I am no great expert on the birds and the bees, but I can tell you with some certainty that the whole meet-nice-person-and-do-stuff thing has been going on, in various sexy and not-so-sexy ways, since our ancestors first looked at each other and realised there was nothing good on television. However, for various reasons, the road to heartfelt nothings is a little rockier if you are completing a PhD, as I was reminded recently when advising a dear friend on such affairs. Why is this?

There are many doctorates-in-waiting who find a significant other outside the world of academia, and this can work very well. You put up with them telling you how their boss is, just, like, a total idiot, and they put up with you telling them how your complex mixed-methods approach has been found epistemologically unsound. Although others have told me otherwise, I have never found that my PhD status is a particular winner with prospective partners. Only the other night, I was flirting over the onions in a popular supermarket, when they asked me what I did for a living. Now, leaving aside that I am definitely not doing my research for 'a living', I confessed that I was a PhD student at the fine institution of Warwick. She gave me a long look, and then blurted out, "But...but you're just a kid!", and then wandered off to buy some rocket, which I can only presume is what non-PhD-doing adults eat. However, leaving my slightly scarring experience in the produce section aside, it does indeed happen that people undertaking postgraduate research manage to keep the whole shebang quiet enough to make people fall head-over-heels for their intellectual jawlines (if that is even a thing).

Dating within the PhD pool, meanwhile, is a different beast (a shark, if we are labouring the metaphor). Although one might imagine that there would be stolen glances and brushes of the hand aplenty amongst these academic saplings, it just does not seem to happen. Now, I can only really speak with any authority about History (maybe there is some beautiful Liebe in the German Department, or some serious chemistry in...well, Chemistry), but I think it's true that PhD students are not finding the apple of their eye over the coffee in the staffroom. I have been quietly conducting my own research on why this might be (don't tell my supervisor!), and some themes have started to emerge. One is that the whole system just involves too much abstract competition for romance to blossom; another is that a PhD is too darn egocentric to allow taking on someone else's research highs and lows as well. I also suspect that the intimacy of being part of a research community is, paradoxically, anathema to paramours and skipped heartbeats. If you and the object of your desires smooch it up at a conference, word will get around soon enough, and then come accusations of plagiarism and favouritism in what can only be described as a deeply puzzling version of Jeremy Kyle ("You stole my lab partner!" "What! Leave it out! Mind your own beakers!" and cue much throwing of monographs)...

Having said this, I can think of many academics who have hitched up with fellow scholars, although rarely from the same department, so clearly it is not impossible. Maybe it is just a rarity that fellow researchers fall for each other. Of course, if two people meant for each other do indeed encounter one another, the fact that they are both engaged to PhDs shouldn't stop them exploring the possibility of romance. I do sense that that most famous of interweb rules, number 34, comes into play here (and if not, then I have just discovered a new career path...).

So, if you find yourself swooning for a doctoral heart-throb, I say go for it. There may be some unusual issues, but if you get beyond those you will discover that even PhD students need a bit of affection. As the Beatles once sang, All you need is love...and a publication before you graduate. But mostly love.

November 05, 2012

It's raining cats and monologues

Picture the scene: it is a drizzly Sunday afternoon, and I am walking back to my home village, along roads which I have trodden in sorrow and joy, the trees amongst which I played as a child now giving up the last of their leaves. My mother accompanies me; we are both taking in some dampened air whilst waiting for the roast to finish and the potatoes to turn crisp. Slowing her pace, my mother turns to me, and asks how the PhD is going. I give her some non-committal answer, something about working hard and going through the motions. Taking my arm, she says, ‘No Tom, it’s okay. You can tell me how it’s really going.” I thrust my hands deeper into the pockets of my winter coat, which is out for the first time this year, and begin.

“Hard to say, really, what with teaching and seminars and training and all that. I think I’m onto something, something important, I really think that it’s a project that’s worth doing. No, the project isn’t the problem…it’s me that’s the problem. I am throwing myself into the research, whole-heartedly, ten hour days spent in the archives, another two hours in the office planning and emailing and reading. That’s fine, though. The real problem is that I can’t switch off. Wherever I go, it’s with me. I’m burning my toast more often than I care to admit, simply because I’m thinking about words, all those words, thousands of words of notes and ideas and material. Is this what I’ll be like for the rest of my life? Can’t I just do something where I get to clock off for a while, watch some bad TV? I went to go and see Sam the other week, and he’s perfectly happy, living with his girlfriend, saving up for a house, and, y’know, beginning a career. I can barely save up for a bag of penny sweets, let alone a nice house in London! Am I even doing any good at this whole PhD thing? Am I anywhere nearer completion? Time’s ticking away, y’know, and I feel like I have to start taking it more seriously, but I’m already exhausted. If I had some indication that I was a good student, if I could score some postgraduate points or something, then I would be fine…but no, it’s just the same routine, read and think and write, read and think and write. Am I wasting my life away? Am I going to find myself in ten years’ time, no friends, no partner, but a nice doctorate, the chance to tick a fancy new box on application forms? Is that going to be me, the boring historian at the party, sipping squash and ranting on about the archives? Shouldn’t I be helping people? I mean, I’m teaching, of course, and that feels great, sometimes, but it also feels, sometimes, like I’m just wasting their time with my failure to understand, to understand them and what they need. Occasionally, just, like, once a month or something, I wake up in the middle of the night, and I am hit by the overwhelming realisation that I am forsaking a wonderful girl that I love, and good friends, friends for life, and you and Dad as well, of course, just so that I can wake up and spend my entire day, my entire year, working on something which I enjoy but at which I am hopelessly, irrevocably, laughably…well…useless…”

We were almost home, and my mother seemed deep in thought. I felt like I had plucked out every anxiety from the pit of my stomach and laid it bare for this woman who knows me better than anyone. She pushed open the gate, placed her hand on the door, but then paused, and turned, and looked me in the eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, then gave a tiny shake of her head, and then opened her mouth again, slowly, deliberately. My glasses were steaming up, and I was hungry, not just for food, but for reassurance, for a raft in these turbulent postgraduate waters.

“Well….,” she began, “well that’s, y'know, that’s nice, Tom. Keep it up. Sounds like you know what you’re doing.” And with that she walked inside, kicked off her wellies, and turned on the Antiques Roadshow. I was left outside in the rain, my glasses now opaque with moisture. “I can’t see my own front door.” I thought to myself. “There’s a metaphor here somewhere. Better yet, there’s a blog entry.” And so it was.

In other news, the potatoes were perfectly done. That, at least, counts as a win.


October 15, 2012

Life is a scream!

the screamYou know this picture, right? Well, that's the inside of my head at the moment. Last week, I wrote a blog for our sister site at the PG Hub, in which I spoke at length about time management. Even as I was writing, I was laughing away to myself at the absolute genius of its timing, because just at the moment I feel like I'm juggling about 15 grenades, and dropping any one of them would be fairly fatal!

Oh, listen to me, I sound so self-important. But you know what it's like - you commit to things, and then you just have to do them, even if you'd rather run down the street in the opposite direction with your fingers in your ears, singing 'I-can't-hear-you!!!' at the top of your voice.

This is a fairly rare occurrence, but today I've managed to give myself an actual headache just by thinking about all the things I've got to get done within the next month. And none of those things include writing a doctoral thesis, which is more than a little worrying.

I MISS MY PHD LIFE!!!!! Suddenly, I have the postdoctoral fellowship to get on with - and I've come in at the point where reports have to be written, so I'm having to do background reading, data analysis, and writing up all at the same time! I also have a job interview on Wednesday - for a job I'm not even sure I want, and which will add further complications if I'm successful. Then on Thursday, I've somehow got burdened with presenting to a roomful of ward managers on the subject of an all-graduate nursing profession. I have literally no idea how that happened, and it's been quite time consuming putting something together, as nursing really isn't my area!

Meanwhile, two of the children have birthdays withing four days of each other, so there has been present buying, cake making, party organising, the biggest sleepover in the universe...

Oh yes - and the 50 new students I'll be teaching. Of course, they all have queries and questions, and I think I may possibly have made myself a bit too accessible... My new phrase, which will be unleashed before long if they carry on like this: "Talk to the handbook!!!"

So can you tell, I'm feeling a little stressed. My poor thesis is sitting, waiting, aching for a tiny bit of attention. Luckily for me, it's not throwing a tantrum yet. But I feel it's only a matter of time before one of us does.

I'm off to Northumberland on Friday, for a week with my family and some lovely friends. I remember when we planned it, some months ago and before the health woes took over, I remarked that the thesis would by this point have been submitted and I would be a free woman... Oh, the dreams. Instead, I've got to endure the baleful glances from my husband and children as once again, a holiday week becomes a week of trying to find a bit of guilt-free time to catch up on the stuff that's hiding away at the back of my brain.

October 02, 2012

A magical metamorphosis?

Over the weekend, there was apparently a small miracle occurring: I was changing from PhD student to research fellow. Naturally, as ever, I gave insufficient thought to this process, and just spent the weekend trying really, really hard not to think about the thesis, which is ever-present and taking up considerable space in my brain. I found pink wine and the company of friends hugely helpful, and came to Warwick yesterday determined to enjoy my new identity for as long as it lasts.

How long it will last is highly debatable, but that's a different story and not one to be told today. So yesterday, I met with my new boss (not new at all - my first academic supervisor for the PhD) and the research fellow whose position I'm covering while she has a baby. The field of research I'm looking at is quite different (elderly care), but it's still NHS, and there are actually a lot of parallels with midwifery (risk and governance), so it's not so strange as it might have been.

Yesterday, I discovered there was an induction session for new WBS employees - I hadn't actually been invited, but I gatecrashed it anyway. On arriving at the WBS building, I discovered that my student ID card no longer let me in. But I don't have an employee ID card yet. I had a proper head-scratching moment, and then went to ask the lovely people in IT support what I should do. I turns out, I don't appear on any systems just now, so I'm in a sort of non-identitied place.

I'm not sure I like this: according to the Graduate School, I'm still a PhD student because I'm writing up. And the WBS doctoral office obviously agree, given that they haven't turfed me out of my office. But according to WBS, I'm now an employee. I have a new ID number and everything! Only they haven't quite managed to get all the necessary paperwork sorted in time for the October 1st start.

It's a strange place, this land of in-between-ness, but quite a familar one. After all, I've just spend three years being in between midwifery and academia, so I expect that's why I feel quite chilled about the whole thing.

So the lovely IT people have made my student card work again, and I'm just off now to pick up my staff card. Who shall I be today? I think I'll stick with student for now. I feel more comfortable there. And besides, I'm not brave enough to actually go into the staff lounge in the WBS building. It's full of grown ups.

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