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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.

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.

February 23, 2013

The mechanic inside me (and a little rearrangement), by Tom

The other day, I unlocked a strange new achievement in the great computer game of life: I changed a tyre on my car. It all happened after a misguided attempt to inflate a slightly flat tyre at a petrol station no less than a sixty second walk from my flat, when I somehow managed to rip out the valve, and turn a slightly flat tyre into a very flat one. Various Internet acronyms come to mind, namely, FML (feel my lemur) and WTF (why the face?).

Anyway, I soon realised that I had no choice but to whip out the emergency tyre from the boot, and make the change. Now, I am not the sort of person who was born to do this. To say that I lack technical skills is a kind understatement; a friend of mine once destroyed a bookcase I had constructed with a single blow from a hammer (and that image you have in your head right now, of a series of painstakingly constructed shelves collapsing into a neat heap on the floor, well, it was just like that). But it was nevertheless apparent that, short of selling the car to the next person who pulled up to get petrol (and it is very hard to sell cars to people who are at that moment driving cars), I didn’t really have much choice.

So, after much loosening of screws and cranking of jacks, I managed to both change a tyre and ruin my favourite jumper with grease (hand wash with detergent and washing-up liquid: works a treat). The next morning I awoke early, reinflated the original tyre with a bicycle pump (who knew?), and put it back, this time without any help from the instruction manual.

I was as surprised as my family, and my flatmate, and my engineering friends. I had never thought of myself as the kind of person who could change a tyre, but in a dark Kenilworth garage at nine in the evening, I proved myself wrong. When I first started at Warwick as a fresh-faced undergraduate (and my word, didn’t the ravages of time hit me hard), I never saw myself as the kind of person to go on an exchange, but then I did…twice…in a row. You can’t second-guess yourself.

As chance would have it, a very talented and enthusiastic friend of mine is currently considering whether to do a PhD. The big question she is consistently asking herself is this: am I that person? She is certainly not the only person to go through this. I was the same mid-MA, looking at my battered brain, and thinking, no, this is a bridge too far.

But then you start, and after six months you cannot deny the fact that, out of necessity and a string of long days doing menial but important tasks, you are a PhD-er, embroiled in a PhD life. You have become that person, and no matter how much you doubt yourself, that is not gonna change. The problem is then that you look back, and rather than realising that some admirable metamorphosis has taken place, you put it down to luck, or chance, or fate. If someone had asked me a month ago to help them change a tyre on their car, I would have politely but forcefully told them that they had the wrong guy. Likewise, if someone told me five years ago I would end up doing a PhD, I would have looked them square in the eyes, and then turned away and silently left the room.

I guess what I am trying to say is that you don’t know what you can do until you give it a try, and often you do not give it a try until you are forced to do so, until you dive right in. Maybe my friend will not end up doing a PhD, and will rather go off and do something equally admirable. But I am at pains to remind her that just because she cannot imagine herself as a PhD person does not mean that the ability, the sheer, sheer endurance that so many of us know so well, does not lie dormant inside her. As M People once sang, you gotta search for the hero inside yourself, only this time the hero is a humble graduate student. We don’t slay dragons, but we are pretty sweet around a PowerPoint presentation. Next slide please.

P.S. At the time of writing, I have just got off the phone with my mother, bless ‘er. I have recently been moving offices, at the same time as editing a chapter. I told my mother that I spent most of Thursday putting up shelves and carrying desks up stairs, to which she replied, ‘All you seem to do at Warwick is write on blogs and rearrange furniture’.

Someone once said that the average PhD is just the moving of dusty bones from one graveyard to another. That’s great, but since that phone call, I have realised it is much like moving furniture. You need other people’s help, lifts are nigh-on essential, and you will never be quite satisfied with the end result. But just as long as you can take a seat at the table without falling on your arse, you should be fine. Wise words, mother Bray, wise words.

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.

December 11, 2012

'Tis the season to be excessive

My mother sent me an advent calendar last week. She does this every year, without fail. No matter that I am old enough to enter places which sell advent calendars on my own, or that thanks to the generous funding of the Economic and Social Research Council, I can just about scrape together the cash to purchase my own collections of novelty chocolate: she has done it every year since I arrived at university. I ain’t complaining.

This year the advent calendar has a Power Rangers theme. I’m not too sure how many people remember the Power Rangers, but when I was younger I was obsessed, with a capital U for unhealthy. When green/white ranger Tommy arrived on the scene, I was so smitten that I decided that, like him, I had to have a ponytail. However, my hair was nowhere near long enough (it tends to grow out rather than down), so I was forced to settle for what the hair-dresser affectionately referred to as ‘a rat’s tail’ (I can vouch from experience that the chat-up line, “Y’know, I used to have a rat’s tail because of the Power Rangers” does not go down well, especially in conservative market towns). Anyway, my mother sent me a Power Rangers advent calendar, although not, I should stress, the old skool version, but rather the new and slightly crass samurai version. I was not happy.

As a sign of passive resistance, I decided to leave the calendar untouched through the early days of December. Through marking, secondary reading and late-night sessions on the Playstation, the calendar sat on a shelf, glaring at me, daring me to peel away the first few doors. But I remained steadfast…until last night. In what can only be described as a Dionysian orgy, I scoffed without remorse the first few chocolates (by which I mean the first ten [by which I mean the first twenty-four]). Ten days into December, and I had seen off a month’s worth of fun in about twelve minutes.

Coincidentally, I am just priming myself to write a very difficult chapter. I have done the research, made the notes; in short, I have gone out and bought the advent calendar. But for a few weeks now, through marking, secondary reading, and late-night sessions on the Playstation, the chapter itself has been metaphorically staring at me, teasing and taunting me. I know what I must do. I must begin, I must dare myself to open the first door, see if I like what’s behind it. I suspect that once I start, I will not be able to stop. It won’t be easy, I know, but if I can eat one chocolate of slightly suspect quality every thirty seconds for twelve minutes (don’t let anyone tell you that Arts students are innumerate!), then I can find the wherewithal, the energy, the sheer nerve, to bash out a draft over the holidays. It may be more Apollonian than Dionysian (hello all you classicists!), but it will be, in its own strange way, fun.

However, if the advent calendar experience is anything to go by, I will feel slightly nauseous afterwards. Is it possible to overdose on writing? Come the New Year, I shall be sated, my body wreaked by PhD abuse. The sofa shall creak under the weight of my frame, and I shall fall asleep in front of re-runs of lacklustre holiday television. But in my hand, or, more accurately, on my laptop, will be the spoils of a holiday spent gorging myself on interpretations baked with analysis, feasting on assertions smothered in references.

And then, at the end, lying under the academic Christmas tree, will be a chapter. And I will give it to my supervisor, and he will stroke his beard and rub his belly (neither of which he actually has), and chuckle, ‘Have you been a good student this year?’ ‘Cause on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a chapter in a PhD.

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 30, 2012

My relationship with the dead

I have been absent from the blog recently. I’m sorry. It’s…inexcusable. I won’t do it again, I promise.

Anyway, I have been thinking recently about a group of people who are nothing less than crucial for my research, but whom I very rarely consider – my research subjects. For the most part, this is a bunch of dead people, although I do very occasionally come across a reference to a person whom I’ve met (at which point I often have to fight the urge to ask them why they’re not dead yet). Despite their lack of breathing, moving, fighting life, they’re certainly adding some pretty crucial life-force to my research, bless ‘em. Sometimes I just feel like a conduit (woah, fancy word alert!) for some people who once led somewhat more exciting, more important lives than me, and sometimes I feel privileged to give them a voice, to pick their ideas and anecdotes out of the ether and present them to the world. However, it is admittedly true that I very rarely look at my work and think, “Hmm…I wonder what my research subjects would make of all this? Is this chapter really doing them justice?”

What has brought on this sudden cri de coeur (ooh lala, French words alert!), I hear you ask? Well, something odd happened to me last week. I was sat in the archive (seriously, some of the best days of my life have been in that small reading room), and I came across an article by a social worker talking about her difficulties in helping an abandoned child. She talks about feeling ‘paralysed’ in her work, about realising that there was nothing more to be done, and, perhaps most importantly, that it was somehow simultaneously nothing to do with her, and also all her fault. She was just one women trying, and occasionally failing, to do her job.

I slumped back in my seat, and started into empty space (there’s a lot of empty space in that reading room). I knew, I just knew, that I could never do justice to this social worker’s experience. Yes, I could contextualise it, I could argue about why and how it happened, I could add it to the qualitative and quantitative data I had already amassed about a vast number of people alive in twentieth-century Britain. But I could not reply to this specific woman, I could not tell her that her plea had been heard, that someone in another century was moved by her words. She was to my PhD just a faceless character in an on-going story, but to me she was, for just thirty seconds on a grey Thursday morning, a companion on a seemingly never-ending journey. I could only guess at what she might have been through just so I could copy her words down and deploy them in supervisions, conference papers, casual banter over a pint. As melodramatic as it sounds, I felt like she might deserve a better researcher than me. But I’m all she’s got to pass on the message that, once upon a time, she tried to change a life for the better, and later felt disgusted by her eventual failure.

Wow. This all started out rather humorous, and then got pretty deep. You can see why I have been away. This type of experience is obviously not uncommon in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We all have research subjects, and we all want to get at something nuanced, important, something worth telling to the world. Whether we can or not is a question we ask ourselves from time to time. As for the scientists, well, I don’t know. I wonder whether the researchers at CERN were spurred on by a desire to do justice to the Higgs boson, to allow it to tell its story of giving mass to generally ungrateful particles. Perhaps Newton just wanted to speak for falling apples everywhere and across time. Of course, all this goes a step deeper still, to the human stories behind the research.

I think I’ll stop here. Tuesdays should be for laughter, not self-reflexive soul-searching. Me, I’m heading back to the archive. There are some people I need to spend some time with. They don’t hear me, but I can’t stop listening to them.

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