Once More Unto The Breach
-Sarah Jane O'Connor
This is my final column; the next document I finish will be over 150 pages and make for far less thrilling reading. Even my mum will only skim read it. As I enter my final two months as a Ph.D. student, here are my final thoughts.
People will often say (myself included) to treat a thesis like a job. Most of the time, this is fine. But there will come a time when that's not enough. A month out from submitting you can't be knocking off at 5pm, unless you're totally awesome (and PS I still hate you). At some point, in order to finish, it has to eat you alive. Then it'll be like in The Princess Bride when Westley jumps into the lightning sand. It'll go silent and everyone will think you're dead, then you come clawing your way back, out of the darkness, thesis in hand. Like a Boss.
I wrote a while back about future self, and the deliberate ways we screw ourselves over – but you can also be aware of this, and instead opt to set yourself up in the best way. Make the path of least resistance the one you need to take. Cook meals and freeze them, leave everything in your office so you can't do anything without heading in. Set due dates and tell everyone about them. Then just write the fucking thing. As terrible as if feels at the time (and it feels terrible), it's just a blip on the radar. So get it done and move on with your life.
Thesis brain is real. It will mean forgetting the name of someone you've spoken to weekly for the last year. It'll mean not knowing what day it is (whatever it is, I know it ends in a "y"). It'll mean losing your train of thought halfway through a sentence and sounding suspiciously like a stroke victim. As I found out this morning, it will mean sitting for several minutes waiting for your computer to start before realising you haven't even turned it on yet. Make the most of getting to blame all your acts of stupidity on thesis brain.
Your friends will worry about you, because you'll always seem slightly off-kilter. No one will quite know how to talk to you; they want to be supportive, but they won't quite know whether to ask questions about progress, or just talk to you about distracting rubbish. If you're anything like me, your fuse will be incredibly short and the stupidest things will send you into a fury. Try not to alienate your friends.
But then one day it will be done. You'll spend a few more days proof-reading, cross-checking references, agonising over small details. Then it will be printed, and bound, and you will go to the pub and spill beer on your personal copy. And it will be amazing. Aim for that.
Happy thesising, friends. See you on the other side.
-Sarah Jane O'Connor
Amidst the chaos of the infamous earthquakes, there was a ripple of discontent within postgrads. Emails from the university, justifiably, focused on undergrads. In September, there were exams to organise. In February, there were lectures in tents. Postgrads twiddled their thumbs and waited to get some attention. Then came June: no exams, no lectures, but once again we got thrown off campus and left to drift aimlessly wondering how we were supposed to carry on with our work. "What about us?" postgrads asked.
It felt symptomatic of a wider attitude towards postgraduates. The university is set up for undergraduates. No one begrudges this – we were all undergrads once too – but it gets tiresome. It turns out if you do a little digging there isn't even a formal definition of "postgraduate". This might not seem like a big thing, until you start questioning postgraduate-related earthquake response and can't even get a straight answer on who is responsible for whom.
The reason for the ambiguity is that postgraduate degrees are run primarily by departments, with less centralisation than undergraduate courses. To a certain extent this makes sense. Each thesis is special and different, and requires specialist knowledge to undertake. That's what we trained for through undergrad. So the best people to look after postgrads will be, most often, the "grown-ups" in the same department.
But when really big things happen, like your city falling down around your ears, specialisation goes out the window. We found last year that everyone had the same problems. We all lost access to work space, be it laboratories, performance space or offices. We all lost momentum. We all lost our mojo. And there was no university-wide "postgraduate response" to answer masses of questions. It wasn't all about extensions; it was also about emotional support, security, access to our research. Was UC still a good place to be a postgrad? (Was it ever?)
Just to add to the difficulty, historically there has been no centralised body of postgraduates. We are, by nature, isolated; sitting in our labs and offices muddling away on our own. Herding cats is a piece of cake compared to wrangling postgrads. The PGSA has taken several incarnations over the years, and the current representation is the strongest I've ever seen it, but they still battle with complacency and isolation.
So the needs of postgrads have too long slid under the radar. We lack representation on the UCSA executive, we lack a cohesive community, and as seen after the earthquakes, we've lacked recognition and care from the university. Postgraduates feel like the invisible part of the university community. We carry a huge load of undergraduate teaching; we bring in research funding, government EFTS-based funding, multiple years of fees and student levys. But sometimes postgrads may as well be a colony of lepers.
Things are improving, in part due to the belly-aching last year. Second year Master's (i.e. thesis) students are now covered by the Postgraduate Office; during term time there are weekly seminars on thesis skills, many of which are "emotional" rather than "technical"; practical skills workshops, including improving employability post-postgrad, are becoming regular occurrences. Postgrads are more visible than they've ever been in my tenure at UC; it's almost good to be a postgrad for a change.
The Invisible Man series: " Postgrad Polygamy"- by Sara-Jane O'Connor, May 16th 2012
" Postgrad Polygamy"
Back in undergrad, when life was simple, there was a clear relationship between student and supervisor. They teach, you memorise and regurgitate at term's end. If you graduate and foolishly commit to a postgraduate degree, the relationship changes. That person, who used to be your lecturer, is now supervising your thesis. They're still there to teach you, but more as an apprentice than a student.
It's the most important professional relationship for a postgrad, and if it doesn't work things can get dire. I've been around for a few years now, and the only stories I've heard of thesis students not completing have been characterised by a fracture in the student-supervisor relationship.
There's a real vulnerability to sitting down with your supervisor and admitting you don't understand something, don't know what you're doing, or feel like you're not good enough to pull a thesis off. If you only have a 15-minute meeting scheduled, it's tempting to answer any questions as positively as possible. Sure, everything's going great. Yeah, I'm totally making progress. Are you kidding? Everything's totes cool.
Never mind that my house is earthquake damaged, the cat needs hundreds of dollars of dental care, or my relationship is in tatters. I'm SO going to get that research proposal in on time.
It's not really lying, it's more about wanting to put your best foot forward. But the nature of thesis work, with its lack of structure and absence of milestones, lends itself to students falling astray. So you do yourself no favours by holding back on how things are really going. In the same vein, if the relationship isn't working you need to be the one to say something. Academics aren't hired on their personality, so their ability to perceive that you're struggling may be limited.
Through all the discussions I've had about supervision, the one word that always comes up is expectations. They exist on both sides. Your supervisor will expect you to put in hours, create and be responsible for a research project, and build up to working independently. You will expect your supervisor to make time in their schedule for you, maintain some enthusiasm for your project, and comment on work in a reasonable timeframe.
Acknowledge these expectations, and come back to these if things start to go awry. What is actually happening? How can you ask, tactfully, for what you need?
Finally, foster good relationships with other postgrads in your department, especially those with the same supervisor. Yes, it's good to vent frustrations, but within the group you may also be able to see what does work and help each other out. A well-timed coffee or beer with someone who understand is priceless.
"Back the arts"
I've tried in these columns to be a little bit philosophical, the point being to navel-gaze on my own postgraduate experiences at UC and try to translate that into something useful for other postgrads (current or future). But at the end of the day, I'm still just a scientist; my synapses fire in different ways to an engineer, or a lawyer, or even an arts student. And that's why it's short-sighted and daft of the University to continually threaten the Arts department with cuts.
A few nights ago I was Facebook chatting with a friend, and I tried to explain to him how I'd been feeling about my thesis. He deciphered my mangled science talk, disappeared for a minute and came back with a link to an Edgar Allan Poe essay ('The Imp of the Perverse', if you're playing along at home). It's typical of the rapidly narrowing nature of study; the further you get along, the more you know about less. We need each other to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and between us we make something bigger than the sum of its parts. Just like Voltron. I wouldn't want to be in a university that only offered law, science and engineering. It means undervaluing diversity, and in my own field of study, without diversity there can be no evolution.
I guess it's symptomatic of university life that present events bring out that ugly underbelly of vitriol between departments. There's a difference between friendly ribbing and trolling. You're so brave to go on Facebook and tell people their degrees are worth nothing, but be warned your department might be next. First they came for the Arts students, and I said nothing because I wasn't an Arts student...
Secretly, I think there's one upside to the ongoing threat towards Arts students. Those unfortunate enough to have been around for both rounds of change proposal have learnt hard truths about disposability. And they've learned to fight back. Should my department be next on the cutting block, I'd definitely want those hardened Arts students to advise me. So I've got their back. Talk about specialising all you like, but we all know this is the first step in the university recouping lost financial input. Way to thank students for sticking around after a shitty couple of years in Christchurch.