Appearance, University life

How hot are you? The harsh truth about gendered ageism in academia

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No one knows what you look like on radio. You can be fat, beyond middle aged, balding, but as long as your voice resonates on the airwaves and your mind and tongue are sharp, you are up for the job – especially if you are a man. Not so for those who flaunt their wares on the screen, however. In a visual medium, ageism will out.

It is a harsh truth of double standards in Hollywood that those in power – men – get to determine who will stay the distance, and who will fade out when they become unf-able – as hilariously revealed in a biting sketch by comedian Amy Schumer and starring Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette.

In ‘Last F-kable Day’ that aired in the season premiere of Inside Amy Schumer last week in the United States – and quickly went viral with more than one million views on YouTube – the ageism and sexism in Hollywood was exposed, revealing how women like Fey, Dreyfus and Arquette can look forward to being cast as elderly character actresses while their geriatric male cohorts are pared romantically on screen with women 30 years younger or more.

Women in the entertainment industry rely on their looks just as athletes and dancers rely on their bodies. However, their use by date is about their ‘f-ability’ not ‘ability’ and that, according to the men in power, goes off faster than yoghurt left on a sunny shelf.

But does this also apply to the hallowed halls of academia? In an environment increasingly trading on visual and brand appeal and – of course – pitching as it does to a young (undergraduate) audience, even an industry that supposedly trades on the cerebral isn’t immune to gendered ageism and ‘lookism’.

In fact, be warned – you are on show, not just your glorious brain. In the hotly competitive world of the emerging academic – to get anywhere, you have to be hot – oozing with looks, confidence, and ready for your close up as you are interviewed on your field of expertise.

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As Daisy Dunn writes in her piece for The Telegraph: “To get anywhere, gender regardless, the academic has to think about how others will perceive him. The focus is on communicating academic ideas through a range of media, academic papers, books, conferences and public appearances. If you can’t speak it, you ain’t got it.”

In the age of MOOCS, when a virtual presence and amount of twitter followers counts as ‘media savvy’ and a cue therefore for ‘young’ and ‘modern’, does the Hollywood double standard of ageism and sexism come with the turf?

I have lost count of how many women over 60 who have told me that rising young (male) stars in the university system are ‘uncomfortable around mature women’. And that while older men can sink into the ‘gravitas’ of greying hair, paunch, and ill advised wardrobes, women have a harder and more demanding aesthetic to work.

The minute you start calling out ‘brand identity’ rather than ‘academic references’ you are entering the murky turf of the visual. In fact, there is indeed much academic research that supports the theory that women in academia are also hit by ageism and ‘lookism’.

A 2006 study that set out to explore employees’ experience and understandings of gender and age in higher education to identify if women in higher education experienced the double jeopardy of gendered ageism revealed that physical attractiveness and appearance are seen as relevant to the workplace in higher education.

In the first study to show female academics experience the triple jeopardy of gendered ageism and how they look i.e.“lookism”, authors Jacqueline Granleese (Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK) and Gemma Sayer (Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK) found that women, both academics and non‐academics, experience the double jeopardy of being discriminated against on the grounds of their age and gender in a way that men do not experience.

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It is a sad truth that women are judged by their appearance and while men can be as lined, bald, and geriatric and grey as they like in academia without anyone complaining, women must rage against the dying of the light. By – first of all – dyeing their grey hair.

For women in academia as in Hollywood, appearances count, and do not be fooled into thinking you can get away with wearing outdated clothes, short no fuss ‘wash and wear’ hair, and using your money to jaunt about on overseas holidays (or research trips) when you should be injecting your face with botox and filling the lines of time with derma filler. Teeth whitening, radical weight loss, Spanx, a new wardrobe are mandatory – but hey, you are now TED Talk ready!

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According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, research shows that students give better teaching evaluations to professors they think are attractive. “Sites like RateMyProfessors allow undergraduates to broadcast their feelings, sometimes in the crassest terms,” writes Robin Wilson.

So – if women are to be judged, what must they do? Play the game, rather than buck the system? That’s what the late, great Nora Ephron suggested, “There’s a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye.”

Probably all that anyone needs to know about looking fabulous and stylish over a certain age on campus can be found in Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age. In her book ‘Style Forever’ Walsh writes that “I strongly believe you don’t have to have youth to have style”. And optimistically writes that “old is the new young”. Well, maybe not if you are hustling it in Hollywood.

Alas, it appears that under the Rules of Men, women are basically a time bomb waiting to go off – first with their biological clock and then with their ‘f-ability time code’ clicking for every day past the end of their biological clock (presumably both clocks don’t go off at once, or that could get messier than a terrorist attack).

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Academic conferences, Brand Identity, CliFi, conferences, Early Career Reseacher, networking, Tweeting research, Uncategorized, University life

Tweet that: reporting at academic conferences

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I have recently returned from an academic conference in Canberra with a new appreciation of how Tweeting at conferences can expand your participation in the event – both with other participants (both those who Tweet and those who don’t) and in your own understanding and appreciation of other papers. Tweeting focuses and distills your understanding – and yes, it can also distract and fragment your energy and concentration.

So – why do it, and if you do, how to get the best out of your conference Tweeting?

My involvement in The Affective Habitus Conference in Canberra from 19-21 June, 2014, included pre conference media and in conference live Tweeting. This was my first conference where I was both presenting and Tweeting, both as myself and also as postgraduate committee member for Aslec-Anz (the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment & Culture, Australia and New Zealand.

The Affective Habitus (New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions) conference tackled issues of climate change from a humanities and science perspective. The papers were thought provoking, challenging, and asked us to consider among other things; plant subjectivity, depression as a shared creative endeavour, our connection with the ocean and the concept that the ice core remembers us from a time long before we humans even had a concept Antarctica existed.

Not surprisingly, the beautifully constructed papers and provocative topics lent themselves to Tweeting – broadcasting information live in neat soundbites of information.

Tweeting at conferences is a great way to get these ideas out. I was Tweeting under my own Twitter handle and also that of the conference organiser Aslec-ANZ – as was a colleague and several other conference participants. We all managed to Tweet slightly different versions of the same information, so that a talk became a multi facted version of itself, as if you are standing at a mutli panelled mirror and each version of the reflected imaged slightly changed.

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While there are some obvious measures to take when Tweeting at a conference – everyone sticking to the same conference hashtag for a start (such as The Affective Habitus hastag #ecohab14), I was interested to see that Brian Croxall at the Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting that conference participants also provide their Twitter handle up front when they begin their presentation, so others can Tweet their talk effectively. That’s a great idea, as it makes attribution easier. Not everyone can be easy to find on Twitter!

Two conference participants in particular at Affective Habitus – the dynamic Eileen Joy – (@EileenAJoy) and equally media savvy Siobhan O’Sullivan – have a large social media following and well known, easily found Twitter handles. For the others I tried searching them out and when I couldn’t find them, I simply added their full names for attribution.

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Croxall suggests that two rules to keep in mind both as the Tweeter and the Tweeted; for those presenting, expect to be tweeted and assume (or hope) you will be, and for the person Tweeting – do so professionally, respecting people wishes not to be photographed or their words broadcast if they make that clear. However, most people are delighted to have their ideas disseminated via social media. I personally always ask permission before I take someone’s photograph for Twitter  – except in  the case of a remote keynote when it is a case of dissemination of knowledge via electronic media (skype/video) anyway.

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Then there is the vexed problem of tweeting at a conference social gathering, such as the conference dinner or drinks. Does one Tweet images and conversation? My feeling is that when it comes to photos, perhaps approach the keynotes with key people (especially if they are a little glam and dressed up) but do it early before you and they have had a drink to unwind, and respect the edict “no – not at this social event’. And as for Tweeting social talk – just don’t. My motto is be interesting, but not invasive. And besides, at the social gatherings, you are there to relax and network and get to know those in your field better, not to broadcast the gossip! It goes without saying, never Tweet and drink.

That gets us to an interesting point – if there are so many restrictions, and Tweeting can be so invasive for everyone, why tweet at all? There is a school of thought that says “Don’t Tweet. Pay attention to the conference presentations, or you are wasting your time.” A valid point, except when you are in charge of promoting the conference – and helping promote the message of the conference, as I was.

But I also discovered that Tweeting at conferences boosts the visibility of your own paper, and your own profile in your chosen subject area.

My paper was on Cli-Fi – or climate change inspired science fiction. Using the pace and narrative technique of science fiction – an ideas based genre – my goal is to entertain and inform taking the readers into deep ecological ideas and animal rights issues through a fast paced story line. I Tweeted something about this and discovered a rich vein of like minded followers under the #clifi tag.

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Don’t lose sight of the fact that conferences are about communicating ideas, and in these days of the Internet, we need to think beyond the walls of the conference venue and communicate globally – a hasthtag (such as #ecohab14) can take your message and research across countries, continents, hemispheres. I may have been sitting in the Humanities Research Centre at ANU, stealthily acquiring a cold of epic proportions along with plenty of ideas for my next paper and next book, but my Tweets broadcast the conference well beyond the graceful streets, brilliant but cold blue skies of a Canberra morning out to the world. From somewhere so remote, in effect, as the pinprick on a continent in the southern hemisphere, we connect. One Tweet is a ripple in the pond of information, forever spreading. 

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But – that said – there is a downside to Tweeting at the conference – for the Tweeter – as you do not get to give the papers your undivided attention, because you are constantly on the look out for ‘sound bites’. Now, some presenters are adept in the art of the sound bite, encapsulating their key message in a pithy quote early on. Others speak in realms of poetic sound bites, their pens deftly carrying verbal hooks that have lulled audiences for years into sailing with them on their thoughts. Then – there are those for whom the every act of public speaking is a painful event, and the act of writing for the public is lost in the assumed worth of their words. This is perhaps when it is time to abandon the notion of Tweeting that paper at all, unless it is of vital importance and you can curate their research in 140 characters for them.

Like writing notes, Tweeting allows you synthesise important points of someone’s paper, and also become a short hand for your own notes looking back at conference proceedings. I use my Tweeting and Retweeting as a way of curating information for myself – my rule is if I want to read it again and find it valuable, then I’ll Tweet it. It is an archive of curated media in a seam of information that I constantly refer back to.

Dr Katie Mack – @AstroKatie – is a researcher at the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics who spreads her science message via social media (she has a huge following! Check her out). In an article in the June 2014 university magazine “Unlocking the secret of tweet success” AstroKatie says “The number one question people ask me about using Twitter as a scientist is, “How much time does it take?” – her response – Twitter is an ongoing conversation you dip in and out of when you have a spare moment.

I agree. By live Tweeting, I am capturing my note taking and refining it to succinct points, and also pushing that into the Twittersphere with other interpretations of that event – I imagine this as a Hydra, with entangled threads of information weaving their way into cyberspace, but all connected to a single entity – the conference, the speaker. It’s an ongoing conversation where some points may be taken up by others, and some may not. It’s my interpretation, my voice in the conversation, about what is going on.

I certainly didn’t spend all my time Tweeting at the conference – but I did spend a lot of time listening for soundbites. Fond memories of my days as a journalist. However, those days have been taken over my my life in academia, and that’s a world where one goes deeper into the topic. One thing I do know is that Tweeting, like any communication, is done for an audience. Those I had in mind at the Affective Habitus conference were those who were interested in the conversation about the environment, ecocriticism, and science and the humanities.

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I also found it fascinating to connect with others while live tweeting – who out there was also interested in what the conference topic was? In short, conference Tweeting is about networking on a global scale and being part of a bigger conversation.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, University life

Your doctoral cohort: network with your peers

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I’ve been reading Linked In posts about ‘what I’d tell my 22 year old self’ and one caught my eye in particular – and that was ‘network with your peers’ Specifically, writes Nicholas Thompson of the newyorker.com; “many of the good things that have come in my career have come because of the people I got to know in my early twenties.”

I think of my own career and realise how true this is. It’s the people I worked with on newspapers and magazines in my twenties that I still turn to over the years as our careers have morphed in the evolving media landscape.

I wrote and published a book with Dr Caroline van de Pol, who I met on a suburban newspaper, and then worked with on a daily newspaper, and now have shared interests in academia as we have both received our doctorates in creative writing.

But Thompson’s advice doesn’t just hold true for twentysomethings just starting out. As we move through careers, which develop and change in this age of reinvention, academia plays a key role in retraining for the future. Swap “people I met in my twenties’ for “people I met doing my doctorate” and you can see where I am heading – it is your cohort at university that is vital, no matter how old you are when you take on post graduate study.

Thompson says with the hindsight of age that it “wasn’t meeting people who were influential; it was becoming friends, and developing working relationships, with people who would become influential” that was important.

Take this advice to heart, doctoral candidates, and embrace your cohort. What I have learned is the older you get, the more retired and senile your mentors become. Sad, but true. It’s your cohort that will grow and ultimately, help you as you will help them.

Not everyone who does a doctorate does so as a fresh faced 25 year old on the roller coaster from one degree to the next. Certainly, with the creative writing doctorate, I find that most of my cohort are in fact mid career writers who have realised that they need to “Dr Up” if they are to even get a casual teaching gig anymore. And why would they want that? Because it’s always been hard to make a reliable living from just writing creatively. You need to hustle your skills where the money is – be it copywriting, communications and in the old days before the Internet, journalism. Now to make a living doing sessional teaching as well requires you have the edge by having a doctorate. Call it educational inflation, if you like, but it’s reality.

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It’s easy with the pressure to complete your doctorate in a ‘timely fashion” to concentrate on that and nothing else. But that’s only one part of the story. Your doctorate is a journey and the people you met on the way will become characters in the story of your life and career.  I am going to give you advice I never got doing my doctorate and this it – it is not what you know, it is who you know when it comes to getting an academic job at the end of your doctorate. Meritocracy is for fairy tales, alas. The cold hard truth is that the jobs advertised are so often done for show – candidates are already chosen long before the key selection criteria is sketched out by some HR consultant. Those who want a certain candidate make sure the key selection criteria fits the person they have chosen so they can get away with this sort of thing.

So, how do you get around this? Networking. And that means – making your self known, useful, by joining up, taking part, putting yourself out there and helping others up, too. Getting to know people. All very well, isn’t it, when you are struggling to finish. But there is an organic way of doing this, and that’s to be part of an academic community that meshes with your interests.

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I went to many conferences before I found ‘my people’. And I am sure these are not the only people who are playing in the same sandpit as me, either. I could find more, and should. But so far I have met a wide circle of engaged emerging academics across disciplines who have helped me as I have helped them, in some small way, to get some recognition.

“Thank you for thinking of me” I have been told many times when I have put someone’s name forth for a panel, presentation, reading, whatever – as they have put forth mine.

Thompson writes: “I’m continually working with the same people I worked with in my early twenties. I assign them stories, or I ask them for advice. They call me. We’ve built up trust.”

Don’t underestimate this ‘trust’. I was reminded of this when researching Bruce Springsteen fandom, of all things, for a paper I am toying with that looks at the power of sharing personal stories to connect with readers. I have good friends who are ‘bronze’ Springsteen fans, travelling the world to see him play. As we watched numerous Springsteen concert videos together and I took notes, one of the words that came up frequently was ‘trust’; the trust Springsteen’s fans placed in him for his authenticity, the powerful personal connection with his lyrics, and the admiration fans have in Springsteen’s trust in his own E Street Band, his primary backing band that he has surrounded himself with since 1972, and grown up with – and grown successful with – over the decades. As we say in Australia, he’s a bloke who doesn’t ditch his mates.

What is true in life and for Bruce Springsteen is also true in academia –  we need to reach out to others, and hold on to those we connect with. Yet no one tells you this when you start your doctoral journey. It’s all about impressing the professors, getting articles into high ranking journals. Completing on time.

I can hear what you are saying: “my doctoral study is so isolated I don’t meet anyone”, and “any event I go to on campus hardly anyone turns up anyway”. So true. So true. So, this is where part two of my advice comes in – network with your cohort AND find that cohort at conferences. That’s where you’ll meet your real cohort – the ones engaged in your research areas, or like-minded interdisciplinary ones.

Alas, while universities like to pride themselves on supporting doctoral students and travel to conferences, that’s not always the case, as Pat Thompson explains. In fact, the talk is cheap and the funding cheaper. Let alone support from supervisors anxious you’ll quickly overtake them.

I presented at three Inter-Disciplinary.Net  conferences in Oxford during my doctorate and through those, I made many global connections that have been important in my life and work.

 

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Maybe you are reading this in some country that seems very remote from the action – certainly in Melbourne, I feel very remote from Europe. But the Internet connects us all. I co-edited an academic book Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous with a French doctoral student from the Sorbonne Sarah Montin, whom I met at one of those conferences in Oxford.

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We finally caught up again for a stroll around Paris and the Sorbonne when I visited last year – it was wonderful to meet and chat after spending so many hours corresponding via email about the project as we edited it over many months. And Sarah gave me behind the scenes tour of that glorious Parisian university.

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Closer to home, I am a postgraduate committee member for ASLEC-ANZ – The Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture — Australia and New Zealand , along with my counterpart, Emma Nicoletti. ASLEC-ANZ membership comprises writers, artists, cinematographers, and musicians as well as academics working in and across several areas of the Ecological Humanities, including ecocritical literary and cultural studies, environmental history and the history of science, anthropology and ecophilosophy. The 2014 biennial conference “Affective Habitus” takes places in June in Canberra and together with Emma and others, we are currently planning an informal post grad event of arts practitioner readings – and who are we turning to? Our cohort. From one toss of the pebble, the circles of influence and connection grow. But first you have to pick up that pebble…

It’s vital to go to conferences because you network and by socialising with your cohort you start making connections and organic links with people who share common research interests. And go to an academic’s book launch and support them! (That’s me in the crowd when Dr Peter Singer launched Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan’s book ‘Animals, Equality and Democracy’ . I got to know Siobhan at a conference in Brisbane at the start of my doctorate, and was invited to her animal studies reading group; the connections I made there carried me to an animal studies conference in Utrecht and into ASLEC-ANZ, and onto the Affective Habitus conference where Siobhan is presenting a keynote address. Connections.

Despite being told over the four years of my doctorate that the only thing that matters is writing the exegesis and submitting and everything else is a distraction, this is the stuff of fear and nonsense. It was the conferences I went to and presented at over those four years that were vital because of the people I met – people who became important in my life in so many ways.

It’s not the people at the top you go to conferences to impress and meet – remember, they may well be dead, retired or wandering in a fog of dementia in 15 years time. No, it’s the newbies like you and me who are the ones to network with – because we are at the beginning of our academic journey and whatever our age, we are enthusiastic, tackling the latest ideas, open to possibilities and (however slowly) climbing the academic ladder. You will do well to keep liaising with them over the years, and like me will find that it is this cohort who hold the key to the exciting opportunities.

So – get out there, chat to that other overwhelmed student you meet and really listen to what they have to say and follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, get their email address, search them out on Linked In – follow their blog. When they get a book published – go to the launch and buy two copies and get them signed, keep one, and gift one and spread the love. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch but keep the momentum building.

 

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, Frankenstein, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, University life, Writing strategies

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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I had replayed the scene in my head many times – actually walking into the shop and getting my exegesis and novel printed up as per the regulation temporary binding – three copies in total for the examiners – and then delivering them to my supervisor. But in truth rather than joy or elation, I felt sick with exhaustion. Still, it wasn’t me who burst into tears on seeing all the copies snug in the plastic bag, ready for delivery right slap bang on the due date – it was a colleague!

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You should be happy I am finally handing in.”

“But for as long as I have known you, you’ve been doing this doctorate,” she said. “It’s all I ever hear about – it’s like it is part of you.”

I was given the most lovely pot of pink flowers from a student (thanks Yvette!) to congratulate me on handing in. But it still didn’t feel real until I received the longed for text from my supervisor, who hand delivered the bundles of joy (more like writhing mutants) to the Graduate Research Office, after the Dean’s sign-off: “All fine. Well done! Time to relax”. 

When I came home tonight, late after teaching, my teenage son said “well, what now, mum? You can’t tell me you’re going to do another one?”

“No way,” I said. “If you do it right, one PhD is all you need. And I don’t have the energy for two!”

“Well – what are you going to do?”

Well, tonight – sleep! No one staggers to the end of the finish line of a doctorate without being totally shattered, no matter how much support they have. I am humbled by how everyone has come through behind Team Evelyn – from practical support with proof reading, copy editing, helpful academic advice, simply endlessly listening and the friends and family who have helped out by organising diversions and play dates for my kids so I could work in peace, it has all been enormously helpful. And never underestimate the importance of a cheer squad in boosting morale. There’s a reason the home team has an advantage. That boost is the wind beneath one’s wings. Maybe this blog post should be titled “It takes a village to do a doctorate”.

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I started 100 days to the doctorate as a way of doing what I do best –  writing for an audience. Trained as a journalist, where I worked in the cut and thrust of the newsroom of Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper for a decade,  it is second nature for me to put my words on the line. To share the experience, the words, the journey.

By blogging about the manic end of the doctorate, I aimed to articulate [to myself!] what was going on. The last 100 days is the culmination of four years of finding one’s way. Of nudging into the academy, learning names and faces, getting it wrong, stumbling, learning the language, getting it right and then, taking one’s place at the table – well, at the very end…down at the bottom of the table.

Over the past four years, I have blogged extensively about my work, and those ideas have ended up in conference papers that in turn morphed into the exegesis and into journal articles. I have done the ‘working out’ in public, and that has been a very useful step in owning the work, and in seeing myself as part of the academy.

Ah, writers. We sell ourselves short in the academy, I think. Yet here is the thing – a lot of those in the humanities would like to be writers, in fact. And one of the most important things I learned from feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work was her love for words, narrative and SF. But the Creative Writing doctorate is a strange and demanding beast, as much a mutant I think as the mutants I have been researching. We have to create a compelling work of fiction, and an exegesis that ticks all the boxes for academic research. There is much to write about this process, and indeed, I do so in a chapter of my exegesis, so it is still too raw and fresh to write about it here.

So – for now – there is a hiatus, of sorts, as the doctoral submission goes to the examiners – and I wait.

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As Mary Shelley wrote of her hopes for her novel Frankenstein: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. ”

I also hope my hideous progeny, my exegesis and novel about hybrids, mutants and monsters, passes the test. 

Not that my youngest son will have any of that. He threw himself into my arms tonight and declared “it’s Dr Mummy!” which is very sweet. I told him, “no, not just yet – a few more hoops to get through first, one way or another.”

“But – it’s in, right? You got it in on time?” he asked.

“Yes, darling – mummy got it in on time.”

“Great!” He gave me a big hug. “Can my friend come over for a sleepover on the weekend now I don’t have to be really quiet the whole time so you can study?”

Maya, the hard, driven CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, had no idea what to do with herself after her quest ended.

I know exactly what I am going to do with my time. It’s like that when you are a mum – I have a couple of Scout badges to sew onto my son’s shirt, a whole backlog of domestic tasks to tackle, a journal paper to submit in a day and a book I am co-editing due in three weeks. Then – there is the bigger ‘tomorrow’ to embrace.

But at least I will sleep tonight knowing I reached that most prized of a doctoral student’s many milestones (except for actual graduation) and that is the timely completion.

The time-bomb intensity of the race to the end that is 100 Days To The Doctorate comes to an end – but I will keep blogging weekly with updates to share the story of what is next on the academic journey – and what I learned in the past four years – and also, what I wish I had discovered earlier. Yes, it is easy to be wise after the event. 

So, what am I thinking of now?  Just like President Bartlet at the conclusion of my favourite TV show The West Wing.   I am thinking of – tomorrow.

 

Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, University life, Writing strategies

Somewhat distracted: when your doctorate is more real than life

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It looks as if someone has had a wedding in my house. By that I do not mean it is festooned with flowers, or in a state of elegant expectation. By that I mean there is a thin layer of rice on the floorboards, and I have no idea where it came from.

One day, I arrived home from work to find this mystery greeting. The children denied all knowledge. Of all the things they could consume from the pantry, uncooked rice, they assured me, was not one of them. Still, I insisted the rice be cleaned up, and this request – not surprisingly – has fallen on deaf ears. Some rudimentary attempts were made, I believe, and since them – perhaps a few weeks ago now (I have lost count) I have been kicking the rice under the couch as I walk past. Well, I figure, it will keep.

The quantity seems to be dissipating, and I am now wondering whether it is Marty’s handiwork (I have named my resident rat after Heidegger – read on).

Today, as it is furiously windy, and the weekend, the doors are open. The kids and me are at our respective computers, and doors are slamming shut – left, right and centre. I tell the kids to down put the door stop, the really pretty one I got at the expensive interior decorating shop. The one that cost as much as a nice meal somewhere. The one filled with…rice.

Oh, dear.

We have a new puppy, and I recalled the puppy enjoyed playing with this door stop. And now that I think about it, the door stop was last seen at the same time the layer of rice appeared on the floor.

Have we found the culprit?

My 14 year old shrugs. “He’s probably buried it.” Indeed. So the doors continue to slam. The rice remains on the floor. The rat that the cat brought in to teach the puppy how to kill is now eating the rice from the door stop the puppy killed.

But that is not the worst of it. Oh no.

With three and a bit weeks to go until handing in, strange things have happened. Well – to me. The clearer my research becomes, the less real life appears. In fact, just as Heidegger makes sense, I forget people’s names. I forget their faces.  And my mind hears everything in a far off scramble.

For instance: one of my youngest son’s friends had a birthday party, and his mum texted me the details. Which I read as “Tazer tag party.”

Well, it took a moment to sink in. Tazer tag – a bit adventurous for 12 year old? Hm. Maybe a little – dangerous? Or am I out of touch? So I texted my concern back. She quickly responded with “LOL! tazer tag! It’s lazer tag!!!!” This has now become somewhat legendary in the playground.

Standing at the supermarket with four items in the fast checkout, I present the basket then numbly wonder if in fact $90 is a little excessive for some bananas, milk and bread. Or has milk gone up recently? Should I query – or not? The woman behind the checkout seems to be in a hazy fog as I say “Uh – $90???”

She bursts out laughing “Wow! That’s excessive – it’s actually $9…” And then, when I apologise, she is very sweet. She says, “it’s still early in the morning – it’s before 9 am – maybe you need a coffee?”

The kids joke about finding me caffeine patches and other alternative methods of caffeine release in the body. Maybe not.  I already consume vast amounts of coffee and Diet Coke. Anyway, it’s not that I am tired – it’s that I am so absorbed in my research that I really can’t focus on the world. I spend lunchtimes either in the library or reading philosophy or editing my exegesis, or writing a journal article. Luckily, as I work in a university, this sort of behavior is not only normal, it’s expected and supported. Oh yes, when it comes to being focused on your research to the point of being a little detached from reality, a university – and the other academics in it – are enablers.

Very late one night, I am desperate to discuss philosophers Heidegger and Agamben with someone, to talk about an idea I have had about the hybrid and Dasein. You know how these things just can’t wait? So I send an email to an academic I know, who has been engaging in these discussions with me for several years. Ping! Early the following morning they send back a thoughtful reply, and no explanation is needed – there is the unspoken acceptance of this crazed time.

I bump into a doctoral FB friend on the steps of the university gallery where I work and we engage in a burst of conversation about terminology in our respective doctorates, which is a topic more compelling to us than her recent wedding. Yes, she’s just married and in love, but she is also in love with her research (when she doesn’t want to kill it).

“Hybrid or chimera”? I ask. She counters – “I know – resistance or rebellion?! It’s doing my head in!” We are in our own worlds, oblivious to the bemused expressions on those around us. In our little universe, the choice of word is crucial as it aligns one with a school of thought, a theorist, and gurus; it’s all a code to other readers (and examiners). Every word means something. And something else. In the art world, for instance, one does not select or edit, one curates. This says something about the critical eye and the curatorial rationale behind the choice of works in an exhibition.

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Author Imelda Evans, who came to speak to the postgrads in my entrepreneurship for writers class, turned to me during her talk and said “by the way, I really think you should go back to hybrid – chimera has mythological connotations I just don’t think are right.” Her 14 year old looked up from her book at the back room, and agreed. A discussion ensures. What can I say? At some point, in these crazy last 100 days to the doctorate, your work (if you blog about it as I do) becomes open for public discussion – as it should. Just as we need to be open about our research as academics, we should also be open about the process of discovery, the curves, false starts, and the changes in direction. Indeed, the process of becoming an academic, of owning our research.

As I mull over the hybrid concept, I have been walking head down in thought when away from the keyboard. From the distance, it seems, I eventually hear my name being said, over and over again.

“Evelyn! Evelyn..? Evelyn…???”

And I slowly look up. I am sorry to say that it takes me a little while to place who that person is – and sometimes their name (even if I know them well!) escapes me.

The response from those around the university is the same: “Don’t worry about it! I’ve been there! I know what’s like!” and then they quickly turn away; “I’ll call you – in a few months, okay?”

Indeed, this is what happened when I literally ran into a professor and knocked her spinning as I was deep in thought.

“Evelyn! Watch out!”

“Huh? – Oh, sorry…”

“You look absorbed.”

“I’ve have been thinking about this scene I’m writing, where my protagonist wakes up to discover she has someone’s undigested hand in her mouth…”

“Oh my God – that’s utterly revolting!” said the professor. Then she smiled. “Keep up the good work!”