My thoughts on the research process, as expressed through cute cat gifs
Academia is a race to the top.
There are academic superstars who have a clear research agenda and who are fortunate enough not to encounter major hurdles during the research process, thereby allowing them to reach the top with relative ease. (Note to readers, this very rarely happens. When you meet these people, you are allowed to secretly hate them.)
Then, there are those people, like me, who frequently feel as though we are going in circles with our research…
…or who feel that, even as we are incessantly working, we are oftentimes stuck in the same spot…
…who, on on occasion, have tough days…
Eventually, though, through a mixture of sheer perseverance, good luck, and, most importantly, the presence of a support network, we get out of tight corners and find solutions to our research problems.
Moral of the story? There are times during the research process when you stumble or are derailed. Don’t worry. You’ll find your way. Research is fraught with uncertainty. It is messy, complicated, and never easy. But you’ll be ok.
The Four Stages of the Writing Process
Stage One: After swigging coffee, I am prepared to conquer this paper. Let’s DO THIS.
Stage Two: I keep going, and, going, and going, and going…
Stage Three: Unbearable Ennui because what is the POINT of writing all of this?
Stage Four: The amazing feeling of being DONE.
18 Academic Papers About ’90s TV Shows
Some day, I’d like to write an article comparing the West Wing and House of Cards. Working Title: “The West Wing as a Symbol of our ‘Utopian’ Past, House of Cards as a Harbinger of our ‘Dystopic’ Future: The Hermeneutics of the Political ‘Self’ Through Popular Culture.” (Note: I just made up the most pretentious sounding title I could. It’s 4 am. Does it make sense?)
How to have a productive writer’s retreat
I am happy to report that my writer’s retreat was a success. During the time I spent away from civilization, I wrote a lot, perhaps not as much as I would have liked, but enough for me to say that my retreat was well worth it. I now feel like I can enjoy the holiday season without feeling too guilty about leaving aside my work.
That said, there are a few things I would have done differently. Since I’m one of those people who seems to pattern their actions after idealized pictures they have in their heads, I was probably over-ambitious in thinking that I can completely shift my personality during my stay in the retreat centre. As I noted in my previous entry, I had this image of myself as being serene, productive, and naturally at peace with isolated surroundings. In my head, I was no longer Sylvia Plath but one of the Bronte sisters, seeking writing inspiration by leading an ascetic lifestyle. Thus, behold a list of what you need to consider if you are ever to go on a caffeine, meat, alcohol, and Internet free writings retreat:
1. Bring enough food
I initially thought that if I were to go on a writing retreat, I’d go all out and also try to do some sort of a cleanse. In my head, I saw myself getting up at 8 am, meditating and doing yoga for an hour, and then writing, stopping only to eat canned vegetable soup and drink purifying tea. While those of you who know me are probably rolling my eyes right now because, really, when have I been known to get up at 8 am to meditate, I actually thought I’d be able to have a routine so balanced that I’d be featured on the cover page of a yoga/meditation/healthy living magazine because of my efforts.
What ended up happening? Well, unlike my friend KK, who gets up at 6 am to meditate and is probably the one person I know who I can genuinely say has achieved some semblance of inner peace borne out of healthy living, I apparently lack will power. I got up at 10 most days, tried to meditate but couldn’t because it was just too damn quiet, and tried to subsist only on the cans of vegetable soup I brought. After day 1, though, I finished all three cans of vegetable soup because they were so watery and bland that I was hungry almost as soon as I finished eating them. By day 3, I had to ask the retreat centre’s manager to bring me to the nearest grocery store to get extra food. I thought there would be a grocery store, but no, the nearest store was basically an establishment selling dried goods where there was only - you guessed it - canned soup. Although the manager was nice enough to also take me to a coffee shop nearby because he could tell I was going through caffeine withdrawal (plus he himself wanted the opportunity to drink a cup of coffee in secret!), this was not enough. Sure, I could have bought the sad, small, cold pieces of samosas this cafe had on sale, but I balked at the $5 price tag. Having lived in India, where big, bulky, oily samosas were 20 rupees each, spending $5 was absurd.
Thus, towards the end of my writing retreat, all I could think of was food: big hunks of rare juicy steak; steaming bowls of fatty pork belly ramen; crispy, crackling suckling pig. Moral of the story? Bring enough food - writing takes up a lot of mental energy! And don’t completely morph your personality into somebody that you’re not.
2. Be okay with being completely isolated (I.e., not having access to the outside world)
Let me tell you a secret. When I said that I was going on this writing retreat without access to the Internet, I was actually somewhat cheating. I had my smart phone with me. It is is slow and it takes about three minutes for a page to load, but it works. So I was always going to have access to the Internet. I just figured that if I didn’t have access to it via my computer, then I wouldn’t be trying to access news sites 24/7. And because I have an iPhone 3G, I couldn’t tether the phone to my computer! But I’d at least be able to browse the Internet when I needed to take a break.
Or so I thought. When I got there, I was horrified to realize that I really was going cold turkey. Bell Canada’s airwaves did not reach the writing centre. This meant that not only did I have no Internet, I also didn’t have access to text messaging. I was cut off from the outside world.
Feeling like Tom from Parks & Rec when Ron Swanson took him to the woods to give him social networking detox, I was immediately frantic. As an Internet junkie, having constant access to news sites, Facebook, Twitter, Jezebel, Gawker, and Lainey Gossip was a necessity. My lowest point during the retreat was traipsing around the edge of the retreat centre, right by the cliff overlooking the rocky beach, my phone raised to the high heavens, trying futilely to get a signal. What, pray tell, was going on with the Ontario teacher’s strike? With Egypt’s constitutional crisis? With Obama’s appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State? With Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez? (Kidding about the last part - or am I?)
Though I got over it and actually found it a relief not to be connected to the Internet, things did get a little bit too quiet. As a city girl who grew up in big urban centres, the isolation was a bit weird at first. Though I wanted to, I couldn’t write all the time, and because I thought I’d have a bit of respite by having slow Internet over the phone whenever I wanted breaks, I didn’t bring any other forms of entertainment. If I were to do it all over again, I’d have brought a book to read for fun or maybe knitting materials of some sort (ok, so I’ve never knitted but it sorta goes with the ascetic, austere lifestyle, no?)
3. Have a reward to look forward to at the end of the retreat
After doing nothing but writing, writing, and writing, since food and the Internet weren’t viable options, I was looking forward to the end of my retreat. MOTL picked me up and I was ready for the beginning of a fun weekend, the highlight of which was attending a good friend’s wedding (probably one of the most fun weddings I’ve ever been to), where we ate, drank, and were merry.
Bottom line: everyone should go on a writer’s retreat. Despite the ‘challenges’ I faced, it was well worth-while!
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures: The Lengths PhD Students Go Through to Finish their Dissertations
Over the past few years, I’ve come to accept the reality that academics are just a really odd bunch. Unlike people with ‘normal’ professions - aka, those with a regular salary and regular hours - academics have to meet very high expectations with little hope of being rewarded at the end of it.
This is especially true for PhD students. The realization that we have spent the prime years of our lives ‘doing research’ while the rest of our peers are out there doing something socially useful and getting on with their lives by forming functional relationships, getting married, and purchasing property has made a lot of us feel that the joke is on us. You know how everyone says that only smart people get into PhD programs? Well, how smart are we to commit a huge chunk of our lives - of our youth! - pursuing an academic pipe dream that doesn’t come with any guarantees of a job afterwards?
Not that I would do anything else. My colleagues would probably say the same thing. I love what I’m doing! What’s tough right now, though, and what’s causing a great deal of anxiety on our part is that the final stretch of the PhD, which involves actually writing and finishing the damn dissertation, is probably the hardest part of the journey. To use a trite analogy, the last leg of the ‘race’ is when people usually falter. Seeing the finish line so close and yet so far is what is causing a lot of panic and grief. The dissertation has now become an albatross that we must shrug off in order to move on.
Which is why it is a constant source of bemusement for me to see my friends and my colleagues resort to drastic measures to finish their PhDs. In no particular order, these are the following tactics resorted to by people that I know in order to finish their PhDs and proceed to the next stages of their lives:
1. Abstain from (cheese/alcohol/meat/watching boxed tv sets/Facebook/insert-vice-of-your-choice) while writing - I tried to institute a cheese ban but I ended up breaking it after two weeks.
2. Shunning civilization by going to an isolated area to write - a friend of mine today, in fact, just told me about his plans to dissertate in a monastery in Quebec, where talking is forbidden and where there is no Internet access.
3. Leaving encouraging/abusive notes all over their apartments and offices - This tactic varies depending on whether you are motivated by love or by fear. The idea is to put several sticky notes in random places all over your apartment or office so that you are perpetually reminded that no, you cannot sit down and watch just one episode of Parks & Rec, you actually do have to write because: a. you’re brilliant and can produce great work or b. because you’re a useless piece of shit who needs to get her act together. (Pick the option that allows you to be motivated)!
4. Kicking significant others out of their apartment - while it is common for partners of PhDs to be collateral damage during the dissertation process, sometimes, it isn’t enough to nicely ask your partner to give you ‘space’ as you write. For another friend of mine, the presence of her partner in the house was so distracting that she had to resort to drastic measures. She asked him to please vacate their home until she finished her dissertation. And - boom! - she did after he left. Now they’re living together again. All’s well that ends well?
5. Taking ‘study aids’ - running the gamut from eating a lot of fish eggs to drinking energy-based drinks to imbibing Adderal, there is no shortage of substances that people consume in order to get the external impetus needed to keep working. When I was studying for my comprehensive exams, I subsisted on endless cups of coffee, cheap sushi, and fear.
The elusive goal of having a consistent writing schedule
One skill I wish I have is to be consistent. More specifically, I wish I could have a more consistent writing schedule and thus be consistently productive.
Ideally, I wish I could be one of those people who wakes up promptly at 8 am and, after eating an energy-boosting, nutritious breakfast, promptly sits in front of her computer to write until 5, stopping only to eat and to take bathroom breaks. Also in this ideal world, my papers will be well-organized, my books alphabetized, and my writing space pristine.
In reality, what happens is that my days fluctuate wildly. There are days, like yesterday, when I accomplish a lot. I woke up at 8 am, was in school by 8:30, and spent all of my time writing. I finished an important section for this infernal chapter that I’ve been working on for the past year (!), writing 2,500 words in total and developing an important theoretical framework crucial to my work. In addition to doing all of these things, I also spent an hour at the gym, helped make an amazingly succulent pulled pork taco dinner, helped a colleague brainstorm on this new project that she is developing, and provided suggestions via email for this research project that I am pursuing with a group of other activists and academics. In other words, I was the boss, the queen bee academic, the poster-child for productivity.
Today was a struggle. I woke up at 10 am to the sounds of my building’s apartment manager rapping on my door for our semi-annual unit inspection. (They very quickly left after their inspection when they saw that I was still sleepy). Though I was initially annoyed, I was later relieved that they actually woke me up. After puttering around in my kitchen trying to figure out what to eat, and having an internal debate on whether I should go to bikram yoga or jump straight to writing, I ended up delaying these decisions by surfing on the Internet and being lured into an online discussion on whether Doug Ford will actually have the tenacity to run for mayor in the event brother Rob can’t. After this, I read celebrity gossip (my crack, to be honest), amused by the prospect of a newly pregnant Jessica Simpson possibly reneging on her Weight Watchers deal. And then, upon looking at the time, I decided that going to bikram yoga just wasn’t going to happen today. And here I am, at 2 pm. After marking a few papers, I opened the chapter I was working on yesterday and am now faced with the sinking realization that yesterday’s queen-bee academic is today’s pathetic jester. Every sentence I spit out seems insipid; all ideas seem trite.
This, readers, is how I write. My master’s thesis that got a distinction and that won awards? That was written at the very last minute, mere days before I had to leave for India to begin a new job (my first ever post-graduation). In fact, as I was typing the conclusion of my thesis, I had to beg the FedEx guy to please please please wait for me to finish because if he didn’t, then my thesis won’t arrive in England on time and I wouldn’t be able to get my master’s degree. In fact, the nice people in the mom and pop printing shop where I was working were so sympathetic, as was the FedEx guy, that they all collectively printed and collated each of my chapters while I was typing. With 5 minutes to spare before the FedEx guy had to go, my thesis was printed and sent to England. It was a tense moment, never to be done again.
Or so I thought. Every journal article, every chapter, every conference paper that I’ve ever produced was written when I had the spurt of adrenaline to keep me going and keep me writing. All-nighters are my friend. Fuelled by inspiration (desperation?), that’s when I write best. Though I always made my deadlines, the deflating feeling after, when all the energy has sapped out of me, is the worst.
And so I want to find the happy middle. I reblogged Tim Gunn’s exhortation to “just write” yesterday and I suppose that was what actually made me productive yesterday. My new goal, though, is to be consistently productive, which many tell me is the key to a solid academic/writing career.
Last months before handing the dissertation
This is me right now. I’m not even kidding.
The loss of innocence
Before entering grad school:
Getting into grad school:
Actually being in grad school:
Last year in grad school:
Funny Encounters While Stuffing Your Face and Dissertating
Setting: Neighbourhood coffee shop
Cast of Characters: Me, dissertating while eating my third pumpkin scone in a row, patting my tummy contentedly; Sally Senior, chatty, sweet lady sitting next to me.
SS (looks over at me): I know you’re in the early stages but I have to ask. When is she due?
Me (confused for a second, but then assumes she somehow knows I’m dissertating): Oh, you know how these things go. Soon, I hope.
SS (laughs): Has it been difficult?
Me: It’s been more than 6 years.
SS (laughs): It feels like it, eh?
Me (even more confused): No, it really has been. It’s been more than six years.
SS (smiles): You’ll get there.
Me: Thank you!
A few minutes later, SS stands up to leave. She goes to the counter and then stops by my table. She holds out a brownie.
SS: This is for you and the little one (she gestures towards my belly). Have a great day!
Me (thinking): Whaaaaattt?
Moral of the story: if you stuff your face with too many pumpkin scones, nice, well-meaning seniors are apt to think you’re pregnant. I should do this more often!