Becoming an expert

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Sometimes I wish my PhD course was a little more flexible. Just a minor thing. Like the option to weasel out of doing a literature review. I’d do terrible things to get out of it. Bad things. Not that sort of bad, you perv. Like I’ll take out the rubbish when the bag has split and then clean up the trail of garbage juice. I’ll go to the dentist. I’ll babysit the shrieking hellspawn kids next door. I’ll watch that James Franco movie about North Korea. Just don’t make me review the literature. Don’t make me talk about situating my research. Don’t make me present myself as someone with the authority to make a critical assessment of the relevant literature in my field. Do you know how crazy that is? I’ve only just found my field and cleared away some of the rocks so I can set up camp! I can’t review it yet, I’ve only just started looking around!

I’ve read more this year than I have in my entire life accumulatively. Far from feeling enriched and learn-ed (said with two syllables, while swirling a glass of cognac), I feel a looming sense of panic about everything I don’t know. Every reference suggests ten more that I probably should have read already. They say you should stop reading when you stop learning something new. What if that doesn’t happen? What if, at my completion seminar, I stand up and tell them I can’t present my data because I’m still reading? It’s a real possibility, or it seems like it at this point.

As a kind-of-external student, my isolation is a blessing and a curse. I can smash out 1000 words before breakfast but by lunchtime I may be still in my pyjamas and telling my cat that she’ll get a doctorate before I will. The cathartic, self-deprecating exchanges with fellow students over coffee are something I really miss about the studying experience. Sure, at the library I’ll share a mildly hysterical look with someone else who has a stack of books and an aura of drowning, but it’s just not the same. For now I’ll have to settle for online rants and the biannual trip home.

My last trip back did reassure me somewhat. I know this won’t last forever. I’m the post-grad equivalent of an undergrad who is fresh out of high school. The panic will pass and I’ll find my feet. By the end of my PhD, I’ll be completely self-assured, an expert in my field. Grad students and UN reps will ask me if I’ve read this insightful new book that has pretty much come up with a flawless new development paradigm. I’ll sigh indulgently, “Oh darling, I wrote the book”, and point a meticulously-filed finger at my byline on the cover. Because future me has a book and a manicure.  I suppose she doesn’t chew the sides of her fingernails so they aren’t torn and ragged and I bet she doesn’t worry about getting hepatitis from taking her open wounds to a nail salon. I bet she can write concluding sentences for paragraphs too. Sigh.

For now though, this novice will make a coffee and shamefully get the packet of cooking chocolate out of the fridge. Times are tough when you turn to cooking chocolate. I’ll make a coffee and go back to the last sentence of that paragraph. Ok, the last sentences of those three paragraphs.

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