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.
April 24th 2012
As much as I whinged last term that postgrads have it so tough without structure and deadlines, there is something of a timeline to a thesis. I've noticed though that postgrads are often not doing the right work at the right time.
Step one is writing a proposal. Along with deciding on a thesis topic and working out how you're going to gather data on that topic, you're also sweet-talking academics into supervising you, applying for scholarships and research funding, and generally panicking about what you've gotten yourself into. For a PhD you have six months to get your research proposal into the PG Office, which is far more time than you need. Too many people throw themselves into their proposal like it's an actual thesis, when they should actually just get it off their desk and get onto doing the actual work.
The next step is to start researching, whether it be running experiments or reading obscure texts. But postgrads are actually usually teaching undergraduates, still applying for research funding, daydreaming about that fantastic conference you're going to attend in Brazil, applying for funding to attend said conference, and so on. By all means this stuff is important too, but without data collected you haven't got a thesis – end of story. Usually this means catching up on work during the holidays while undergrads are away, and making the most of the short queues for coffee.
Then it's time to analyse, but what postgrads are actually doing is heading off to the conferences they daydreamed about. The sweet spot is to make them do double-time for you. You're most likely pulling data together in order to present at the conference, and should use that as a jumping point for getting more analysis done. Best keep all your conference presentations handy too – around now you could be publishing papers.
Then finally you need to write up your thesis. What you're actually doing? Well, you can write columns for Canta (errr...), but actually I reckon by this stage people are pretty good at knuckling down and focusing. The end is nigh and all that. I've heard it said that a thesis doesn't have to be perfect, and not to agonise over every detail. "Write it, finish it, and move on with your life", they say, but if anyone works out how to do this, please teach me!
"Confessions Of An Almost Dropout"
It was about 6,000 earthquakes in, right after June 13th 2011 when we had been yet again unceremoniously kicked off campus and I was left wandering without any work to do. I was nursing a pint with a bunch of postgrads when I said the one thing I'd been holding back: "I might just drop out".
It’s not something you talk about; once a postgrad, you’re meant to be a postgrad to the end. There’s a great cost in dropping out midway through a thesis. Unlike undergrad, you don’t have a bunch of credits under your belt that go with you when you leave. You can’t easily pick up and head to another uni. You’ve spent years and money on studies that only bear fruit in completion.
It seems perfectly normal for someone to start an undergraduate degree and realise a year or two in that they’re in the wrong major. It’s your first experience getting deep into that subject, so there’s a chance you’ll realise “Er, this isn’t for me.” But getting a few years into a PhD and wanting to bail?
It’s a constant surprise how much vehemence my life decisions can elicit from people, so I found myself having awkward pub conversations with people telling me off just for considering my options. But it was a process I needed to go through. To toy with the idea of throwing it all away, understand the repercussions, and come back round to it on my own accord. At this point, I was coming up on four years in my PhD, that’s not something you throw away lightly; but being ready to do just that was incredibly liberating. Here’s what I learnt:
Your thesis is not you (undergrads, feel free to substitute “thesis” with “degree”). If it’s not right, if it’s not working, that says nothing about you. You know that you’ve worked hard and done your best. Knowing your options and knowing what’s right for you is not giving up, that’s being smart and brave. People will tell you otherwise, but it’s your life and if they are so sure you’re doing the wrong thing, perhaps they are just projecting their own issues.
For me, there was something about letting the possibility of quitting sit and percolate that let me see things clearer. I had felt such pressure to finish, and feared being a failure if I didn’t, that it was hard to see the forest for the trees. It was hard to see that I actually did want to graduate.
Perhaps being prepared to let it all go is the only way to find out what you actually want, rather than being trapped through lack of options. Knowing your options is liberating, making a choice is powerful. Then you just gotta stick with it.
Marshmallows and Future You
Back in the swinging 60's, when it was kosher to experiment on children, a group at Stanford studied marshmallow self-discipline.
Kids were given a marshmallow and told if they didn't eat it immediately the researcher would give them a second marshmallow. The researcher then walked out of the room, leaving the kid with their single marshmallow and a video camera running. Cue hilarity.
Hit up Google if you want to see video of a recent reincarnation, it's damned cute. Some of the younger kids stuff the marshmallow in their mouth before the adult has even left the room. Others nibble at it, hoping they won't get caught. A few manage to hold themselves back until the grown-up returns and they get the second marshmallow.
Wondering why I care about it? Some might say the ability to suppress current desires for the benefit of long-term interests is a marker of lifetime success. So a kid who can resist the first marshmallow might be better at saving money, resisting procrastination and other such skills that require you to think of your "future self".
I hate washing dishes. I will do anything to avoid washing them. But what am I doing when I procrastinate? I don't have a maid or a sucker for a boyfriend, so no one else is going to wash the dishes except me. Basically I'm saying to my future self "you deal with it, I can't be assed". Logic fail.
Procrastination is kind of screwing over the future version of you. And it's a massive fail because the future you is still you, and tomorrow I'm still not going to want to wash dishes. Plus the job will be that much harder once all the two minute noodles have dried and caked to the bowl (yes Mum, I am looking after myself).
I've had occasions in my thesis where I've found myself cursing "past self". This job would've been easier if I had kept better notes at the time, I could have had more papers and chapters finished if I'd analysed data when it was collected (not two years later).
If you're a procrastinator in undergrad, you can still slip through. Ultimately, you can only put stuff off so long before an assignment is due tomorrow or exams start next week. With a thesis you can leave stuff for months (or years) before getting round to doing it. So my humble advice for this week is to be kind to your future self; take too many notes, get started on jobs early, and make (and meet) deadlines.
But don't think I'm being high and mighty, as I write this I have nine windows open on my laptop and I'm catching up on a TV show. Oh, and I still haven't washed the dishes. Sorry future self.
I've got a secret
Shhh, don't tell anyone I'm here. I've got a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone: I'm not supposed to be here. Yep, it's true. Somehow I managed to get through two degrees, snatch up a scholarship and research funding, convince a top academic to work with me, and be accepted into a Ph.D. programme all despite being pretty damn useless. But don't tell on me, I don't want to get kicked out when they realise I'm an imposter.
Sound familiar? Imposter syndrome is common amongst graduate students, the feeling that you're not actually up to scratch, everyone else is smarter and more successful than you, and it's just a matter of time until people work out you're not such hot shit.
Why we have such fragile self-esteem is worth a thesis in itself, but I think one issue relates back to last week's column on deadlines. It's hard to judge your own progress when there are so few goalposts, and it's easy to look at someone else and think they're doing better than you are. Oh for the days when you were graded throughout the semester and knew where you stood!
But here's the real secret: every postgrad has spent time wondering if they're good enough. Everyone will show or hide it differently, but it's always rough. Want to get over your imposter syndrome? First, stop comparing yourself to everyone else; your thesis is yours and yours alone. It will take a different path to your office mate's thesis, or that prat at the pub who thinks everyone should have three papers published in their first year (you know who you are). You'll have things you find especially hard, but ask around and you may find that something you breeze through induces panic attacks in someone else. Skill trading is totally okay so go ahead and ask for help from other postgrads; you need the help and they definitely need the ego boost.
Second, be accurate in your self- assessment. It's not "luck" when you get funding, publish articles or get accepted into conferences. It's luck when you drive to work in the morning and catch all green (or all red) traffic lights. But not when you've put the work in, proven your skills and seen the results. Even though they're more subtle than end of semester grades, the proof of your progress and success are still there. Don't brush over them; those rare goalposts are worth recognising and feeling proud of.
And finally, find strength in numbers. Seek out peers that you can talk to about your respective triumphs, goals and stumbles but stay away from that prat at the pub; no one needs help feeling bad about themselves, we're all already experts!
It's an odd sensation transitioning from undergrad to thesis work. Being an undergrad is built around structure: lectures, tutorials, labs, essay deadlines, test and exams. Come semester end you even get a damn holiday! Thesis work on the other hand could almost be defined by the lack of deadlines and structure, and students who struggle with time management and self-imposed deadlines can find it hard to make progress and get shit done.
A thesis involves a wide range of various tasks, some of which are easier to prioritise because they have clearer deadlines – grant and scholarship applications, conferences abstracts and progress reports all have absolute deadlines. Field work or other data collection may have timeframes for completion – for example before the weather turns autumnal or when lab rats are big enough for brain extraction (you kooky psychologists). Entering data, analysis, catching up on reading and writing chapters can all fall by the wayside while you focus on those tasks with clearer timeframes.
I've wound up at the end of my thesis with loads of progress reports, grant applications, conference presentations and data collection under my belt. But I also have only partially analysed data, just one published article and several unwritten chapters. What do I wish I'd done differently? I reckon if I'd put a bigger focus on publication I'd be in a happier position. There are a plethora of reasons to publish articles during your thesis, which I'll be visiting later, but for me it would have forced me to finish some of those jobs that are still sitting half cocked. With the beauty of hindsight, it's hard to justify why data I collected over two years ago is still only half analysed and half written.
What's more, the deadline headache comes on top of an unstructured work life. No lectures to be at, no boss checking you're at your desk, Facebook... Some people are really good at maintaining routine; up at 7, at work by 8, home by 6. Others of us struggle without boundaries and accountability. Where's the harm in sleeping for an extra hour or watching one more episode of Big Bang Theory? Oh right, I think the harm is when you're two years overdue on your Ph.D.!
Time management, goals, self-imposed deadlines and task lists should all help. As is treating the thesis like a job that you're expected to be at during "work" hours. But what do I think would really fix it? Having an editor for your thesis. There's nothing as motivating as the threat of knee-capping if you miss a deadline (right, Hannah?).
Ed note: This article was turned in way past its deadline.
Orientation for those too old for togas
Orientation is over for another year. Hopefully all you undergrads are settling in and generally feeling special for having had a week long party to welcome you back to campus.
For postgrads it's a little bittersweet. First, some of us are just too old to be cool enough to dress up in a sheet anymore (I remember the days...), but mostly because February doesn't necessarily signal the start of our academic year. Ph.D. students can enrol on the first of any month. Imagine arriving on campus in April or September (or basically any month other than Februrary) when there are no welcome parties or friendly people in brightly coloured shirts ready to help you find your way. Not to mention missing out on all the free loot from the good looking blonde girls in marquees. In lieu of a week of parties, here's what we do instead.
There's no putting off visiting the library until the week before exams. Postgrads head there straightaway to dig up things and get the job done (ideally). Can't find what you need? Interloan it from another university of institute. Check in with your department too, as there's a cost involved and they may cover it for you.
When not at the library, postgrads are often trudging to the Postgraduate Office. If you're a 2nd year Masters or a Ph.D. student, the PG Office will deal with enrolment, research proposals, progress reports, submission and getting your thesis marked. If you've got supervisory issues or need an extension, they're the go to. Be sure to check their thesis guide online (under Research and Teaching) for guidelines on thesis formats, example templates (check with your department too for specific formatting) and information on submitting, binding and other fun things that come at the end of the tortuous experience. It's never too early to start dreaming of being finished.
Speaking of which, writing a thesis is tough work. Putting it off doesn't help. The Learning Skills Centre has workshops and seminars aimed at postgrads. They'll also proof-read work for you (book ahead), tell you how useless you are at using semi colons (sigh... personal experience) and make suggestions on how to improve the readability of your writing.
If you're finding postgrad life hard, don't do it alone. Student Services can set postgrads up with a mentor; so if you are in need of a wise mentor or think you have spare wisdom to offer, get in touch with Jane Hall (email@example.com
). Check out the Postgrad Students' Association too. You can join up with other stressed out postgrads to share tales of despair and hope or just have a relaxing Friday night drink.
If you're not a postgrad, next time you bump into one (they're probably your tutors and lab demonstrators) feel free to ask what they're researching. Avoid asking when they're going to be finished though, it's just depressing. And of course, keep reading Canta. Next week: deadlines (or the lack thereof).