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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Research questions

So this week I’ve been grappling with research questions. Not my usual ones of ‘What am I doing with my life’ and ‘Have I made a terrible mistake’, the questions underpinning and guiding my PhD research.

When I submitted a research proposal, I knew it was a fluid document. By that I mean the subject matter has similar properties to a liquid: messy and difficult to grasp. Changing and refining your topic is a massive part of doing a PhD, I just had no idea I would struggle this much with it.

The warning signs were there. Whenever people ask me what my topic is, I have a rehearsed pitch that I recite. It’s in writing somewhere too. I had to write something because when I improvised, I ended up using the words “development” and “community” four or five times in one sentence. I am powerfully reminded of the newsroom interns I once terrorised: “If you can’t tell me what your story is in one sentence, you either don’t know enough about it or it’s not a story.” Dammit past-me, show a little compassion, I’m working on it!

I did have a vague research question in mind and casually inserted it into my class group’s Google Doc for feedback. Feedback is good. Feedback is helpful. Even if I don’t get any hugely helpful research question feedback, at least I’ll be connecting with my fellow researchers who are no doubt struggling with the same things I am! Bless your cotton socks, past-me, you are a heartless tyrant who is as naïve as a new-born babe. When I checked the doc a day or so later, it was full of my peers’ submissions: multiple research questions, all carefully thought-out and meticulously worded. I was in trouble.

The spreadsheet looked like this:

feedback

You can guess which was mine.

The problem is not that I’m a lost 7 year-old (though that would explain a lot), it’s more that everything is just too damn interesting. Especially for those with as short an attention span as mine. Each research question I’ve come up with so far has the shelf life of milk in the sun. Either Google Scholar slaps them down, they don’t stand up to the standard research questions tests or I find something that interests me more.

I had yet another lightning bolt of inspiration last night (my third or fourth of the week) and swore that this was it! This is the question! This is the one! But. In the cold light of day, things look different. Who have I woken up with? The honeymoon period is over and I don’t know anything about this question. Initial research is promising but we’ve got to cover the big issues: is it robust enough? Does it share my view on qualitative research? What are its theoretical constructs? Will it still love me when I’m old and grey and wrinkled, which is how I’ll look at the end of this PhD?

We’ve got some things to work through, research question #12 and I.

“You’ll understand when you’re older.”

If I have a spirit animal, it’s this dog:

Somehow, I was under the impression that legally being an adult meant you suddenly were in possession of a wealth of knowledge and experience. Yet here I am, verging on my quarter-century birthday, thinking of this dog on daily basis. “What did you do next, science dog?” I ponder. “And how did you get your protective goggles on?”

Like many an amateur psychologist, I’ll blame my upbringing. There seems to be an evil underground culture of parents lying to their children about life.

“Hey kids! On December 25th a fat, bearded man from the North Pole will break into our house and bring your presents!”

A timely, classic tale of betrayal. A global conspiracy between parents and shopping malls. But do you know what the biggest lie is? It’s not the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. It’s far more sinister. It’s the endlessly repeated catch-cry of:

“You’ll understand when you’re older!”

When? I’m older, much older. When exactly will this understanding be taking place? A precise time and date if you could.

Nothing yet. Just older, no wiser.

One could argue, if absolutely necessary, that perhaps I put myself in situations like the one science dog has found herself in. A challenging career, moving overseas, enrolling for a PhD.

Oh, that’s what this post was about. I’ve been accepted to study for a PhD.

It’s just you and me, science dog. For the next four years.

Dear thesis

Dear thesis,

It’s time for us to say goodbye. Not forever, just for now. It’s time for you to go out into the world, strike a path of your own, leave the nest and learn to fly. *Sniff*

You’ve grown up so much over the course of a year. You started as a vague little idea, a direct product of my musings and research. You grew into something polished and considered. Something grown-up, in my opinion anyway. And now it’s time for you to go out into the big wide world. I’ve done everything I can to prepare you for the big, mean world and the scary examination panel that dwells within it. But your paragraphs are clear, your literature review is comprehensive, and your references are immaculate. You’re ready. I’m not sure I am though.

We’ve had our rough periods, especially during those rough teenage months. I didn’t know what you’d become, you thought I was old-fashioned and stuck in my old ideals. It got so bad I couldn’t look at you, and you crashed. A result of a binge, an overdose: too many tabs open, too many pending actions. But we got through it with a little help from some friends. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It definitely takes at least a suburb to make an honours thesis.

Now it’s time, armed with your lodgement forms and statements of originality, you’ll travel back to Australia to learn your fate. Our fate.

I won’t be congratulating myself or celebrating just yet though. You’re the academic equivalent of getting a puppy to see if you’re ready to have a baby. The practice run. But we made it and that sure as hell counts for something.

So good luck, little thesis puppy! May your arguments be strong and your word count be overlooked.

Love,

Bridget