Every time I meet my supervisor, this is what I am afraid will happen
What he will say:
What I will say:
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.
Fear and (Self)-Loathing in Academia: Why I Dread the First Day of School
I could not sleep last night in anticipation of the first day of school. However, unlike in years past, when the thought of returning to school filled me with unbridled glee, now I think of the start of school with trepidation. Actually, scratch that: thinking about the start of the school year and all that it entails is enough to make me want to curl up in the fetal position, suck my thumb, and start wailing. I suppose the difference between regular students and those of us who labor in academia is that grad students and profs see the start of the school year as signifying the beginning of work, which means the onslaught of deadlines, teaching responsibilities, and administrative tasks, whereas students see the school year as being full of possibilities. Herewith are the following academic issues that I have to face in the months ahead:
1. Getting my PhD – In the next year, I need to finish my dissertation, revise my dissertation, and defend my dissertation. Although I love my dissertation and see it as either being a co-dependent baby who I love and who needs my full attention or an abusive parasite that I can’t get rid of, the time has come for me to say goodbye. With a few friends, I’ve started a dissertation accountability group, where our goal is to see us through the program. Hopefully, this will help all of us become doctors sooner rather than later. And hey, one of the great things about this group is that I actually get to socialize with smart people who understand what I am going through. Sometimes, after hours and hours and hours of writing, you forget what human contact feels like.
2. Bolstering my CV – Although I am happy with the publications and the grants that I’ve managed to get, the realities of academia necessitates figuring out what your next publications are and where your next research grants will come from. Since this is my first official year ‘on the market’ (as an aside: can we think of a less frightening and less capitalistic term for those who are job hunting in academia?), I have to start finessing my CV to make me competitive for the very few postdocs, lectureships and professorships that are out there. We all know that finding an academic job is harder than getting Paul Ryan to tell the truth, so thoughts of what the ‘future’ holds is stressing me out. And, yes, when I look at the abysmal number of postings out there, I sometimes have a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment and think where I would be had I opted to say yes to law school rather than going to London for my masters.
3. Book Launch – A book I co-edited with a group of people who I now consider good friends and colleagues has now been released through a solid university press. This means, thankfully, that I can eliminate the term ‘forthcoming’ on my CV and actually say that it is out. (This also means that I can harangue my friends to buy it off Amazon!) This also means, though, that the very first book I’ve edited will also be subjected to academic scrutiny. Getting the feedback of our anonymous reviewers was tough enough but having our books actually reviewed by people in our field is daunting. What if nobody likes it? What if all the other chapters except mine are well-received? Worse, what if no one pays the book any attention?
4. Teaching – I am doing an inordinate amount of teaching this term in order to avoid falling into the PhD Trap, which, as I’ve discussed, involve PhD students being unable to finish their dissertation because they need to take the time out to work to pay for tuition and living expenses. Compared to other jobs, teaching at least offers some flexibility and – at least for me – is relatively easy, if only because I am going to be handling courses that I’ve taught previously. That said, I hope that this is a good teaching year, where I get engaged students. At the very least, I really hope I don’t have overly difficult and needy students who don’t care about the material but only want As no matter what it takes, even if it means begging, bullying, or both.
If I get through the next few months without turning into (too much of) a misanthrope, I will consider the year a success. Wish me luck!
Babies? In theory. In reality? Oh hell no. At least not yet.
Up until 2 years ago, the vast majority of my Facebook feed featured pictures of many a friend engaged in debauched behavior. Such behavior inevitably involves men and women in various stages of undress gyrating at a club, making funky poses while dressed up as superheroes and pirates, and jumping up high – arms outstretched – at the Jaisalmer desert/at a beautiful beach front/into the waterfalls in the Dominican Republic/insert-exotic-locale-of-your-choice.
Now, though, whenever I log into Facebook, all I see are pictures of babies….babies in various stages of undress gyrating in their bouncy seats, babies making funky poses while dressed up as superheroes and pirates, and babies jumping up high - pudgy arms outstretched – into their adoring parents’ arms. It’s all so cute, and so sweet, and so domestic, that it is enough to melt the heart of even the most cynical shrew (i.e., me). I love my friends, which means that I love their babies, and though I confess to snorting with derision whenever I see people’s status updates and pictures (!) detailing their offspring’s pooping patterns, STFU Parents-style,* I don’t mind seeing the transition that my friends’ lives are going through. Put another way, I won’t be downloading “Unbaby Me” – a program that changes your friend’s Facebook baby pictures into pictures of cats or bacon - anytime soon.
What makes me reluctant to join the baby bandwagon is the realization that once you have children, your life changes. I’ve told other friends that I feel more maternal when seeing pictures and videos of baby panda bears, which I suppose is indicative of my current baby-aversion. Also, as an auntie to the world’s most adorable three year old, I know second-hand just how hard it is to be a parent. Gone are the days when you have heaps of disposable income; gone are the days of sleep and privacy; gone are the days when you can go on holiday whenever you feel like it.
Also, as an academic, I feel like my fledgling career is far too precarious at the moment to even contemplate babies. I’ve written in other posts how female academics on parental leave face disadvantages. I’m also aware of the dearth of childcare options available in Canada. If daycare costs in Toronto are, on average, $1 000, one can only imagine how much of a financial strain babies induce. True, MOTL and I will hopefully have two incomes but even then, this doesn’t make our situations easier for even households with dual incomes are at a loss when having two or more children; in these circumstances, it makes more sense for one partner to stay at home and MOTL and I are unwilling to relinquish our careers to be full-time carers. For political and personal reasons I’ve gone into in a different post, I also don’t think I can bring myself to partake in the Live-In Caregiver Program.
Thus, even if I did want to have children, I’m not entirely sure whether there are sufficient social support systems in place to help families. While I have colleagues in my department who are superheroes because they are doing research (with one awesome friend even bringing her child to all of her interviews!), dissertating, and acting as their children’s primary caregivers, I am happy to applaud them in their efforts and offer babysitting help when needed. Seeing that there probably won’t ever be a national childcare program in Canada in my lifetime, having to commit to the juggling act of paid work and care work is not something I am eager to partake in as yet. If you talk to me in 5 years, my answer will probably be different. Right now, though, children are in my no-go zone.
Still, sometimes I catch myself cooing over babies and thinking that maybe MOTL and I could have flourishing careers, well-behaved babies who don’t keep us up at all hours of the night, and full and complete autonomy to do whatever we want, when we want. Just the other day, MOTL and I were on the streetcar after a night of drunken debauchery. In front of us was an adorable family coming back from the CNE: there was the dad carrying balloons and stuffed animals, the mom with their 3 year old daughter on her lap, and the quiet 9 year old whose nose was buried in a book. “Hey,” I nudged MOTL, “look at that cute family.”
Right on cue, the 3 year old then started shrieking. “Love me,” she yelled at her parents. Then, using her little fingers to poke her sister, she screamed, “hate her. Love me! Hate HER! LOVE ME! HATE HER!” Inspired by a burst of sisterly rage, she then started kicking her older sister, who pointedly ignored her.
As both her parents tut-tutted their 3 year old’s outburst, MOTL and I exchanged a relieved glance. When we got off the stop, we laughed and decided to go for another beer just because we can.
*Seriously, parents, what is up with all the postings and pictures of excrement? It might be fascinating for gramps and grandma to see Junior fill out his diaper so impressively but the rest of your friends could do without these images. Of course, I happily accept poop pictures over placenta pictures. Are placenta pictures really necessary? Do you really need to post these on Facebook? Ugh.
I am afraid that my dissertation is morphing into baby Voldemort
In a previous post, I compared my dissertation to a baby whose life I needed to tend to before I can move on to the Next Chapter of My Life ™. As I frantically survey the chapters I’ve written for my dissertation, I am beginning to fear that my dissertation is not in a healthy state. No, I don’t mean that my dissertation is at risk of dying. Like a persistent parasite, my dissertation has consumed too much of my soul to perish. On the contrary, what I am actually afraid of is that my dissertation may end up being a bloated monstrosity that brings nothing good to the world. In the eyes of my supervisor and my committee members, my dissertation may very well be the thing that ‘shall not be named.’ In short, I suspect that in its current state, my dissertation is Baby Voldemort:
What gives me some comfort is the fact that I can still rescue my dissertation. Baby Voldemort, after all, was originally Tom Riddle. Though I don’t want to get into the intricacies of the nature versus nurture debate, I harbor hope that with enough love and attention, my dissertation won’t have to tread down the path of uselessness. Maybe, just maybe, I have enough fortitude to will my dissertation into morphing into Baby Harry Potter instead.
As Harry Potter fans know all too well, Harry Potter’s journey from being a sad orphan to the vanquisher of evil shows that love can overcome even the most debilitating circumstances. I suspect that if Tom Riddle received even a modicum of affection while growing up, he would have avoided cavorting with snakes, cutting off his nose, splitting his soul into a gazillion horcruxes, and embarking on a depraved affair with Mistress of Mean Bellatrix LeStrange.
Of course, now that I write this, I fear that turning my dissertation into Baby Harry Potter may mean that I, as my dissertation’s sole parent, may risk being killed in the act of protecting its interests. Eek. I just scared myself. I really shouldn’t think about death while dissertating at 3 am.
The Olympics and Dissertating: Reflections of a Former High School Nerd
One of the effects of the Olympics on my academic work is that it actually compels me to be more productive. In between bouts of watching American swimmer Missy Franklin win gold, Canadian synchronized swimmers Roseline Filion and Meaghan Benfeito win bronze, and Philippine light flyweight Mark Barriga reach the quarter-finals after pummeling his heftier and taller Italian opponent, I frantically dissertate. That each match doesn’t take that long means that I can easily justify to myself taking quick 5 to 10 minute breaks to get caught up in Olympics fever. I can even bypass the ads by catching all of the matches on CTV’s website, which also allows me to skip over the inane commentary offered by the sports anchors.
If I were to be brutally honest, though, what compels me to keep writing during the Olympics is fear. Fear, you say? Yes, fear. You see, readers, while watching these amazing athletes push themselves to excel in their sport is inspirational, it has also awoken the dormant, insecure 13-year old nerd inside me. Those of you who knew me growing up know that I have never been good in sports. Gym class for me was a constant source of stress. Transferring from a posh, Catholic all-girls school where gym consisted of dance (seriously) to a private, international school which prides itself on having an Olympics-sized pool and a well-regarded athletics program compounded my insecurity, for then I was suddenly thrust into gym classes where field hockey, lacrosse, and rugby were common sports. In a plot point that Amy Heckerling could have written, on my very first day of school as a new kid, I had gym class in the first period; what were we doing during gym class, you ask? Oh, you know, we had to be ‘tested’ for our agility, our flexibility, our speed, and our strength. This involved our gym teacher - who was rumored to have been in the American Olympics team as a shot putter in the 1980s – carrying a stop watch and supervising us as we did push ups, sit ups, and chin ups.
The kicker, though, was when we were timed as we ran hurdles. Imagine this scene: gawky, short me at 13 confronting hurdles that reached up to the top of my tummy; a former Olympian as a sports teacher; and, worst of all, an entire audience of new classmates in the stands watching. Can I just add that never before in my life have I ever done anything track and field related? What the hell were hurdles? When our teacher then gave me and the other person I was running hurdles with the go signal, I stared at him blankly. “GO!,” he yelled at me. “GOOOOOO!!!!” I saw my classmate breeze through the hurdles, jumping like – I don’t know – Billy Fucking Elliot over the hurdles. Afraid of my gym teacher and conscious of the curious stares of my classmates in the stands, I then started running and blindly jumped. (Oh, right, at that age, I had these thick glasses and could barely see. I still can’t).
Then I tripped. Yes, I tripped. I was, at that point, 5’2 on a good day. (I’ve grown two inches since, ha!) The hurdles, as I’ve mentioned, were half my height. So I lay there on the grass, mortified. At 30, this would have been embarrassing and bruising to the ego. At 13, this may as well have been the end of the world. It became even more traumatic because what did my gym teacher do when he saw me tripping and lying on the grass? Did he help me up and kindly tell me to forget about it? Nooooooo. He knelt down beside me and said, “I’m still time keeping. Get up! GET UP! GET UP!”
I tell this tale of woe not to garner any sympathy because this tale isn’t unique; all of us have gone through moments in high school that are so traumatic that it continues to scar us as adults. I am giving this anecdote to highlight how watching the Olympics today has again hammered down the point that I will never be agile, or fast, or flexible and that, really, all I’ve ever been ‘good’ at is school. So when I see US gymnast Gabby Douglas kicking ass in her floor routine, the reality that I can never ever be an athlete, much less a star athlete, is grilled into me. My mom’s words of consolation to me as a 13 year old ring in my ears once again: “don’t worry. You may not be good in sports but you get good grades.”
So this is why I am writing madly during the Olympics. I am driven by the same fears because hey, I may never win a gold medal in sports in anything, but at least I can finish a dissertation, right? Even though billions around the world are there to witness athletes win gold and only, like, five people will ever read my dissertation in its entirety, finishing my dissertation to me makes me the equivalent to Michael Phelps. For those naysayers out there who insist that in the battle of brawns versus brains, brawns always win, don’t say anything and let me have my delusions.
PhD Students on Welfare and Working Service Jobs: Thoughts on the PhD Trap
PhD students – particularly those in upper cohorts – know all too well the debilitating and humiliating experiences of finding themselves stuck in the PhD trap. What, you ask, is the PhD Trap? The PhD Trap happens when you have run out of funding and are no longer eligible to apply for guaranteed Teaching Assistantships. In order to, well, live, you then find a job. Because you are now working, though, you are unable to focus on your dissertation, leading to a longer completion time or – even worse - to never finishing your dissertation.
This, of course, assumes that PhD Students are single without children. You can imagine what happens then when you’re a PhD student with kids to support. If you are lucky, you will have a partner who is willing to pitch in, either by doing half of the reproductive work or by ensuring that the bills are paid. But what if you’re a single parent? Then it really becomes impossible to finish on time because the scholarships and the TAships that you get are insufficient to support a household with one or more children! Have you heard of PhD students on welfare (Employment Insurance in Canada)? Trust me, it happens. Some of those who’ve had to resort to this are people I know personally.
A survey MOTL and I conducted a year and a half ago within our department, which 100+ students responded to, was indicative of the dire financial straights PhD students find themselves in when trying to finish their degrees. While financial vulnerability is evident in all year-levels, students who have lapsed out of the funding cohort are most at-risk. A majority (50%+) have done the following to finance their degrees:
1. Taken out a line of credit
2. Borrowed money from parents, family members, friends
3. Worked 2+ jobs (beyond TAships and RAships)
The first two survey results initially flabbergasted me but it clearly makes sense if you think about it closely. If you are financially vulnerable, borrowing money really becomes one of the few options that you have. This is why some of my friends well into their PhDs have resorted to working in jobs in the service industry to meet their bills; being paid close to minimum wage, however, doesn’t actually pay all of the bills, so options 1 and 2 listed above becomes increasingly necessary.
The fact is, readers, no one really likes to admit the realities of financial precariousness because it is embarrassing. Some think that this is a sign of personal failure. “I should’ve finished faster,” WE, a friend in my program, once told me. “It’s my fault that I’m in this position.” What I should’ve told WE, rather than nodding in agreement, was that while personal accountability is important, there should also be institutional accountability.
In my department, not only have mandatory course requirements been increased, making it more difficult for students to finish their course work in their first few years, funding opportunities have also dried up. Factor in the reality that some supervisors have absurdly high standards when passing research proposals, which in my department is needed in order to achieve PhD Candidacy status. It is in fact common in my department to hear of students who’ve taken two years to get their proposals approved, which means that by the time they get “All But Dissertation” (ABD) status, they are already in fourth or fifth or sixth year. Then we get to the dissertation approval stage. Some professors I know are against meeting their students while they are writing their dissertations because they do not want to provide feedback on chapters. “Why should I?,” one professor said to me. “If people saw the David before Michelangelo started working on it, all they would see is a lump of clay. I want to see the finished product before I can give feedback.” The flaws behind this rationale are quite clear: if you wait for two years before even giving your supervisor your chapters, what happens when s/he sees the finished product and finds it unsatisfactory? Do you make another sculpture?
So, you ask, what can be done? Well, I think we should hold our departments accountable to our needs as PhD students, specifically as upper year PhD Candidates. Use your union and your graduate student representatives. They don’t wield a lot of power, but they hold some. If job postings aren’t advertised or assigned correctly, tell the union!
Also, we all need to hussle. Much like all job markets, there is a hidden job market in academia and in your department. Postings for sessionals and research-assistantships are technically supposed to be made public, but in reality, we all know that the people who ultimately get hired are the those who have connections with the professors doing the hiring. This is true for all job markets – those who network well and forge relationships with potential employers are the ones who avail of the opportunities of the hidden job market and who ultimately get hired. This is clearly the case in academia.
As for me, I am buckling down, working on my dissertation and my publications, and getting the hell out of here. I’ve achieved some moderate success in my work, which is giving me the momentum needed to write, write, and write. But I also recognize that I am luckier than most: I have a great supervisor and a supportive committee who doesn’t seek to derail me, and while I occasionally freak out about falling into the PhD Trap, I don’t think I will have to (*knocks on wood*). I am forever aware, though, that others aren’t as lucky. On the whole, I like research and I like my colleagues; I like teaching and derive inspiration from my students. But academia as an institution is so dysfunctional that it kills me.