Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management

PhD on Board: the agony of the final trimester

IMG_3490I can’t sleep. I dream about the chapter I have just written.

People have started asking for advice – on starting their doctorate. To them I seem like a –sort of – old hand now. They want to do one, but where?

Wait – where have I had these experiences before? Oh yes, when I was pregnant. As a mother of two teenage boys, it has been awhile, but it is coming back to me. The anxiety of the final few weeks before birth. Getting advice from everyone, women desperately wanting to be pregnant asking me for advice on when to have a baby and what’s it really like?

The end of a doctorate is just like the end of a pregnancy – the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the all-consuming nature of it. Then there is the sinking realization that you alone are going to have to birth this baby. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger the less time you have.

My supervisor sends me an email. “You’ve put on too much weight!” (Actually, what she said was – “it’s too long!” But you get the picture)

When you are pregnant, it’s a sad fact that people rarely give up their seat on the train for you, but everyone has advice on what you should or should not eat or drink, and especially what to call the baby.

So it is with the doctorate. “What are you doing reading the paper – why aren’t you studying?” or “you can’t have a glass of wine! What are you thinking – you have to hand in soon.” Or “You are calling your exegesis – what?!”

I am taking two week’s leave from my day job at the gallery before my due date. I know the drill. At the last stage, there is no sleep, just swollen ankles, exhaustion and pure fear. Luckily, just as mother nature takes over in pregnancy and washes your brain with hormones that render you somewhat numb to the impending total eradication of your former life, it’s the same with the doctorate.

But this time, what floods your body is adrenalin. It washes through your blood with copious amounts of coffee – like a runner’s high. It’s the result of those endless sessions at the desk, those late nights, those editing sprints and rewrites that give you study high. Or at least that inspired, slightly crazed state that searches for the 4 am miracle. Usually, at 4 am.

A writer I know with a doctorate that’s at least 10 year’s old, almost finished primary school, really, nodded sagely as I related this state of anxiety to her the other day.

“Yes, I remember,” she said, gently. In the same way I’d tell a heavily pregnant woman I remember what it was like. You never forget.

Then she added, “you know once you hand in, it just goes away – all the pain, it just goes…”

Yes – that’s just what they say about labor.

Ah – the actual birth. For women who have been there, a collective shudder. And for those about to hand in their doctorate – nothing is birthed without pain, be it a doctorate or a child or a work of art. At the end, it’s all intense focus and draining, hard yakka.

But just as there is a support team for birth, there is one for the birth of a doctorate. I am so grateful for how people have pitched in to help and offer emotional and practical support. It’s like a collective group around me urging me to – push!

IMG_3711

Here are five reasons why birthing a doctorate is like birthing a baby:

1. Women about to give birth say and do some really, really stupid things. This is a true story.

Just before the birth of my first child, I rang the labor ward and asked a nurse what sort of reading material did she think I should pack? Did she think that I should start off with say Margaret Atwood, then progress to genre crime and onto chick lit and finally, a range of magazines from Vanity Fair to the trashy women’s mags? Her reply:

Nurse: Ooh…so you think you’re going to be reading? (gales of laughter)

And it’s the same with the doctorate. You are too distracted to do anything else. Forget multi tasking. The cat and dog brought in a rat the other day. It has taken up residence under the couch. It comes out to saunter around when I am proof reading. We look at each other. It goes back under the couch. My kids scream and ask me what I am going to do about it. I said “think of a name for it”. What’s the worst that can happen? Plague?

2 There are many forms to fill in. There are forms that were filled in at the beginning of the PhD but have to be filled in again, or are they different forms? Wait, some forms were missed at the beginning, or did they change at the middle? Forms must be sent to the right place at the right time. The website says “It is your responsibility to ensure all forms are completed and correct and done at the right time.” Hospitals are like this. You can’t even get an epidural without filling in a form and by the time you need one you’d sign your firstborn away to aliens. No wonder people freebirth. What’s my course code again?

3. Women are very competitive about birth. Pregnancy is a whole competition in itself. It’s worse after the birth. Men might compare cock size, women compare length of labor, scars, stitches, pain. Don’t even get me started on competitive breastfeeding. PhD students are the same. Who worked longest, latest, hardest, had the least sleep, the biggest bibliography, quoted the most journal articles, had the longest footnotes. 

IMG_4312

4. Conflicting advice Being overwhelmed by conflicting advice is what happened when I was pregnant with my first child. By my second pregnancy, no one bothered to give me advice. Why? I knew all the secrets.

I suspect those doing a second doctorate never get unsolicited advice, either. People just walk away and shake their head, muttering “don’t they know the world has too many doctoral submissions as it is? What about global warming and the environment and overcrowding in the academic job market?”

5. Nothing fits – you’ve grown too big. Everyone, even supermodels, look like they have swallowed a fridge in the weeks leading up to the birth. This is what it is like with the doctorate. Sure, in the early stages, it’s all small bump and looking cute in that outfit, right? Yeah, and your exegesis was small and manageable at the start as well, wasn’t it? The first year of the doctorate is like a babymoon. Then, once the reality sinks in, you wonder why you ever got up the duff with a doctorate in the first place.

In the last trimester, nothing fits – into the word length. You have too much information, too many footnotes, references, ideas and – stuff.

You know what women worry about before they give birth? How are they going to push out something that big. You know what PhD students worry about before they hand in? The same thing. 

Advertisements
Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, The Island Of Doctor Moreau

The Horror, the horror: When your research gives you nightmares

IMG_3386

I don’t want to analyze my nightmares as they can be so horrible. No surprise, really, considering the steady diet of horror fiction I am consuming. Then again, at least I can take comfort in the thought that the bleakness I envelop myself in isn’t real – yet.

That’s the thing about science fiction and horror. It’s as damn well close to real as the long shadows of the past lapping at our memories, or stark reminders of the suffering all around us.

I have just written a blog “The lust that dare not speak its name” for the website Online Opinion about the German parliament’s decision to criminalize “using an animal for personal sexual activities” and to punish offenders with fines up to $34,000. My research took me into Zoophilia’s surprisingly long history and cultural representation – especially in science fiction. This is quite confronting.

Studying the past, and its particularly horrific events, can give doctoral students nightmares. An author told me that spending years working on a doctoral dissertation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (described as “a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust” ) wasn’t the best thing he could have done for his mental health. It made him depressed. In fact, if he had his time again, he’d choose something else. Maybe comedy.

No one who has studied Austerlitz comes away unchanged.  It tells the story of a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939. In war, so much is lost, erased, forgotten, displaced. Of course, it’s not a happy book.

Examining the near future can be equally as bleak, at least if you take my extensive SF DVD and fiction collection as a starting point. It’s dystopia all the way. Even Danny Boyle’s SF movie Sunshine, while offering a ray of hope for the planet’s future, comes at the price of sacrifice. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A case in point is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. Here there is no such thing as a free life. The clones – humans born and raised to be live organ donors – accept their fate. They must die so that others may live. They have no agency, and as the story unfolds, the reader sees their entire lives are based on the lies they have been fed to keep them pliable and acquiescent.

The clones are human “monsters” created by science (despite the fact that it is society that is the collective monster in breeding clones for this unspeakable fate). The clones are a reverse version if you like of Frankenstein’s creature; a constructed living body that will be carved up until death. The creature was brought to life from the scraps of flesh from charnel houses; it’s to the mortuary the clones will go when they “complete”. This is Ishiguro’s chilling euphemism for giving everything to the greater power.

The one very liberating thing about studying the human-animal hybrid’s lifecycle is that this monster really does like to take its revenge. There is no clone acceptance of destiny for the snake woman of Jennifer Lynch’s incredible 2009 horror film Hisss 

Ditto the biotech monster Dren’s act of defiance in killing her father and raping her mother after she changes gender at the end of the 2009 movie Splice

Even Edward Prendick had to escape from HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, “for fear of the Beast Monsters”.

In some ways, it’s hard not to cheer the hybrid on, because they are treated so badly. Ever since Frankenstein’s creature was run out of town by the peasants unable to accept his abject monstrosity the hybrid in science fiction has been reviled and hunted.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the agony of the monster’s journey. And that’s what makes the research difficult. I discovered there’s a good reason I feel this way, and why my supervisor felt so depressed at the end of his marathon run. It’s also why people have been blogging about how depressed they feel after watching the movie Les Misérables.

There is actually a good reason for this misery – with Les Mis and the monsters I have been studying. In “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis”, published in the 2011 journal Psychological Science, authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo,, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, found that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Too bad if that world is one horrible, dystopian cesspit.

Narratives help us learn life lessons we couldn’t possibly acquire from experience. Hence the importance of story-telling in cultures. Yet while there is hope and humor in Dr Who and Star Trek, the same can’t be said for the books and films I am studying. Nothing, except the oblivion of death, awaits the hybrid.  For these scientifically created human monsters, it’s a short, brutal time filled with alienation, pain and misery. A bit like sitting through nearly three hours of Les Mis.

Sometimes, carrying around a fictional character’s pain and isolation is too much. That’s why I am becoming a bit concerned about my teenage son’s interest in my DVD collection

As part of my doctoral research, I have acquired a vast research library that he finds fascinating – as do his mates. He’s very popular when friends come for a sleep over. A tentative knock on my study door as I am writing away on a Saturday night will reveal a group of boys and the question, “Mum, can we borrow some of your research material?”

For, as well as the usual amount of books, photocopied parts of books, downloaded journal papers and print outs from every draft of my research, I have a vast selection of truly horrible, compelling, horror and science fiction films.

Research can be lonely, so it’s nice to get feedback from my avid teen audience. “That Japanese version of The Eye –  where the woman gets the transplanted eyes of a murder victim – it’s just – OMG! Revolting. I mean, really revolting.”

Or “My mate says that The Fly is the most disgusting film he’s seen, especially where the scientist totally likes turns into a fly and his jaw drops off and he like puts all the bits of himself that are still human into jars into the bathroom cabinet…”

I have yet to receive angry calls from parents about corrupting their children with Gothic horror, but I am waiting (I don’t allow them to watch my R rated horror). I can at least say I have fostered the idea that academia is really cool. Whether university will live up to expectations is another matter.

I guess that depends on whether they can come up with some hottie research topic of their own.