Bouncing back post doctorate: what’s it all about, Alfie?

17 Jun

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The post-doctoral slump is a reality fuelled by the inevitable intensity and narrow focus that are par for the course of the four years, and certainly the last six months – and indeed the last 100 days – of the endurance effort of higher education. The trick is overcoming the malaise.

A writer I know dubbed this “PhDitis”. Readers have debated my dust and dog hair anxiety on Twitter. Friends constantly ask whether I have “bounced back” yet. There has been some concern I might actually be depressed rather than simply post-doctoral.

I can see their point. Readjusting to life without the ever present doctorate hovering over me is taking some time, especially as it came on the back of two previous years of academic intensity with the Master of Arts in creative writing by research.

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While I am not actually depressed – far from it – there is that nagging question that keeps coming into focus. What’s it all about, anyway?

Why did I spend all this time doing the doctorate?

A friend wrote to me the other day, assuring me that not only are PhDs are all consuming, but “somehow we think they make a difference. The result for me  was the journey rather than the end product that counted.”

I am not sure this is what I wanted to hear, at this point! Surely my doctorate will make a difference? And yet, as I do a head count of those around me with a PhD, only a few are working as academics in the area that they actually studied.

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As for me, I am a writer, and I wrote before I enrolled in university, and I wrote through the course often on things unrelated to what I was studying. Even eight months before I handed in, I wrote 30,000 words of a new novel totally unrelated to hybrids in science fiction. It is set in Lisbon in 1930 and concerns Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s meeting with an intriguing Australian modernist painter.

So why do a doctorate? And now it’s over, what’s it all about, Alfie?

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1965 theme song to the movie “Alfie” (originally starring Michael Caine) might be about a feckless womanizer, but the lyrics are also rather apt for the post doctoral slump.

In this 2012 version, Stevie Wonder performs the theme song “Alfie” (including brilliant harmonica solo) in as a tribute to Hal David and Burt Bacharach as part of the “In Performance at the White House: Burt Bacharach & Hal David: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”.

what’s it all about Alfie 
is it just for the moment we live
what’s it all about when you sort it out Alfie
are we meant to take more than we give 

Indeed – what’s it all about? The journey? The discipline? The determination? The permission to remove yourself from the world and focus on one thing? I think it is going to take me more than a few weeks to figure out the answer. What I can tell you is that from my experience, and those who have been through the doctoral mill, is that it is a quest that changes you.

The trick is realizing not everyone around you is on the same parallel universe of doctoral intensity. They do not necessarily share your tunnel vision. For instance, when you say that maybe the late Margaret Thatcher was a cyborg in a way that relates to Donna Haraway’s ground breaking essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” that observation might only make sense to you. And your doctoral supervisor.

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In the past week, I caught up with my writing partner and friend Caroline, who handed in her doctorate in creative writing about three weeks after me. We met with a mutual friend at a preview of the new musical King Kong that debuted in our home town. I started to discuss the mighty ape in the context of my doctoral research, while Caroline, who had immersed herself in Roland Barthes work so thoroughly she admitted “it felt like I slept with him in the end”, was a similar basket case.  “Things have meanings,” she intoned, as we pondered the model of the Empire State Building in the foyer of Melbourne’s grand Regent Theatre, and sipped our Jungle Juice cocktails, joking about the glowing phallic tip of the tower where the blonde heroine would be marooned with the hulking beast at the climax of the musical. We looked at each other, realized we were over analyzing the celebratory evening out, me with my hybrids, her with semiotics – and shook our heads and laughed at ourselves.

We are both in a strange post submission-pre examination limbo, not sure how what identity to wear. A little like Bella in Twilight after she changes into a vampire and has to learn to act human again.

That’s the thing about doctoral study, you forget how to mentally slouch.

In the interests of this blog, I pressed Caroline for more details on how she felt after handing in. The news, dear readers, isn’t good. “I feel awful!” she said. “Just terrible anxiety about what I did or didn’t do and if it was good enough.”

I know that feeling.

We are expecting fireworks or at least a warm glow and all we get is nausea. And it doesn’t get easier. It takes time to adjust to the new reality of the post-doc world. Or at least, the odd limbo of the submitted but not yet examined state.

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A few days later, Caroline hopped onto a plane for Europe to present her doctoral research at a conference, which is what I will be doing in September. When she returns to Melbourne, she’s thinking of dancing and cooking lessons to get into a different head space.

Readers of my blog know my views on cooking. My miserable efforts in the kitchen only got worse with the stress of the doctoral deadline. At the lowest point, every single thing I made was so inedible that my children begged me not to bother. I recall tossing a particularly rubbery but oddly slimy omelete into the puppy’s bowl to be greeted by a look of canine disbelief. My eldest son sniggered. “The dog has some pride,” he said.

Not one to take anything lying down, much less a post doctoral slump, I wrote a list of all the things I could do to pull myself out of the hole (that didn’t involve chocolate). Like a Surrealist whose hand automatically moves apart from the rational brain, my fingers clenched a pencil and wrote “go back to the gym”.

Yes – physical exercise. The ancient Greeks of course, believed in a healthy mind and body and this one has sadly only been taking the puppy for daily walks.

In Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil, the drab heroine – as an act of revenge – undergoes a complete body transformation via plastic surgery in an effort to look like her partner’s new lover. Her plastic surgeon however, doesn’t know what to make of her:

 “You could learn a language,” he suggested, worrying for her.

“Why should I?”

“You may want to travel,” he said, surprised. “Afterwards. People often do. They like to show themselves off.”

“Let them learn my language,” she said.

“Well it would be something to do,” he repeated. She made him feel forlorn, as if he were the servant of her desires, and not their master. “There’s a lot of waiting around in this business. Besides, surely improvement of the mind is a good thing, for it’s own sake?”

“I am here to improve my body,” she replied. “There was never anything wrong with my mind.” (Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She Devil, p 215)

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It has been 18 months since I entered a gym and I made a commitment to myself to go back so I could get reacquainted with another part of myself – that part that doesn’t involve sitting down for hours and just writing. Or reading. Friends know I never undertake anything lightly – intensity being my middle name. My diary is now full of yoga, Zumba, Body Balance and Pump classes.

And – at my mother’s insistence – line dancing.

Talk about getting out of the comfort zone. Apparently two years ago I had assured my mother that as a show of gratitude for all her help with the children while I was studying, I’d go line dancing with her after I submitted.

Before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” that time has come.  I am more than a little apprehensive about my first class next week – not because of the music (they don’t dance to country anymore) or the clothes (ditto cowboy boots or hats) but because of the demanding level of endurance required. These classes go for three hours! If I am having problems getting up from my keyboard now after a one hour Zumba class, what will three hours of line dancing do to me?

Still, being physically exhausted is a good way of getting out of a mental slump. And as my mother (who takes classes every day and often twice a day) says, there could be a book in it. Mind you this is always what she says when she wants me to do something I don’t want to do.

And it’s got to be better than cooking classes.

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