We’re bad people—but we’re not the worst kind of people…. Grad students are the worst kind of people.
—Liz Lemon & Jack Donaghy
On the other side of the room from where I sit and write, a human being is struggling with the final few paragraphs of a PhD thesis.
Doing what I’m doing here, by contrast, is easy: I sit down with one vague idea, tap away at the keys, and if I’m lucky it turns into something. A thousand words of drivel later, and as long as it more or less holds together, I’ve done my bit. This here is a cute exercise in sentence construction and casual manipulation, nothing more.
What’s going on across a few metres of carpet from me is altogether different—and I’ve done one of those things too, so I’m allowed to comment.
See, that was the vague idea that I sat down with and had in my head as I started to tap away at these keys: the question of who’s qualified to comment on the subject of doing a PhD.
When you’re doing one of these things, you are, to the rest of the world, an insufferable pain in the arse.
Well guess what, rest of the world.
There are various encounters you have when you’re doing a PhD. One of my favourites is guy-who-kind-of-implies-that-he “could have done one but….” This guy is ingratiating, so you at least don’t have to feel defensive (for once), but his assumed familiarity is icky.
The thing of it is that none of you who hasn’t done one knows anything at all—but at all—about anything to do with anything about them.
Here’s my advice for dealing with a person and their PhD: justshutthefuckup.
Now, don’t get me wrong. These things are stupid. Ridiculous. An unbelievable exercise, and for most people, all-up, a waste of the better part of a decade.
But, dear non-doctor reader, what have you done with the last ten years of your life that wasn’t effectively a stupid and ridiculous waste of time?
And tell me this. Aside from, you know, being able to talk a lot about which Wilco album is best, or your favourite film festival moments, or all the countries you’ve been bored and uncomfortable in, can you say that you’ve looked at a great pile of really tricky, complicated stuff (any small fragment of which most people can’t even begin understand), and you’ve looked at it so hard, and for so long, that you—and you alone—have been able to come up with a way of thinking and talking about it, and explaining it, that not only actually makes sense, but is also reducible—if, that is, you summon your powers of concentration, take a deep breath, and have already prepared yourself in rehearsal many times in advance—to a few very careful, blood-stained sentences?
Oh, and did I mention? That the actual proper explaining of those few sentences—where, you know, you neatly lay the thing out, one word at a time, painful, justified statement by painful, justified statement, all divided into paragraphs and sections and chapters, where nothing gets repeated, where everything relates to everything else, where it all works together to build up the conceptual understanding that you have developed in your loneliness—that that part takes up 80,000 words of your writing life: that’s 200-odd pages, one-and-a-half spaced.
And every sentence matters.
I feel sorry for people who’ve done Masters theses because I know that they like to feel that they know something about all this.
Well, I’ve played fifth grade cricket, so I guess I know something of what it’s like to be Jacques Kallis.
There are two reasons why it’s just not the same.
The first and obvious one is scale. A PhD is only twice as big, but that’s one huge difference. It’s like some exponential shit or something. Somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 words, the complexity of the interrelationships of ideas, the sheer size of the material, I don’t know, but it changes from something you can more or less carry around in a mental tote bag to something that you need a whole weird cryptography to manage, with notebooks and bits of paper all over your life, with scribblings and a specialised language only you understand, with endless diagrammatic representations and summaries written out on A2 sheets and pinned to walls, with the horrible anxious feeling of concentrating on one bit so hard that you lose the other bits and you have to then spend minutes—and I’m not joking here—trying to remember what chapter 3 was actually about again….
And the other, more important thing is the weight of responsibility.
Somehow, in the process of doing one of these things—well, it’s like a very late coming-of-age ceremony or something: you find yourself finally feeling like you’re actually engaged in the discipline. It’s possibly just a result of all the tutoring you’ve done, but suddenly you properly understand—you get—all that stuff that you’ve only been half-understanding so far. A veil is lifted, and you see the subject in all its total, intuitive glory; you get this gut feeling for all the built-in assumptions that are fundamental to the field and that never get written down.
And it’s crazy because previously you never even realised that you didn’t have that knowledge.
It feels good, don’t get me wrong.
But it also feels bad. It feels bad in a way that only academics can ever really understand. It’s the bad of feeling that you can never know enough; that you can never be good enough; that you actually know nothing; that you are a fraud; that your thesis is fundamentally flawed on several levels and that if your examiners decide to be even a little bit mean it will never pass and you will be humiliated—and worse, you’ll have to go back and do more work on the fucking thing in order to make it good enough to pass; and that that would, without question, be indescribably worse than having to go back and live through again, all at once, all the worst summer jobs that you’ve ever had, and all the worst unrequited love situations that you’ve ever been in, and all the most gut-wrenching, degrading, dignity-annihilating face-offs with authority that you’ve ever suffered through.
Because that’s the thing really. The academic world—when you’re standing at its open door, waiting for admittance, seeing clearly into a reception hall seething with baleful and dour, ill-humoured self-loathing—is a world of faceless, disembodied authority, where participants live in constant fear that their nakedness will be revealed, and they protect themselves against this omnipresent threat by piling on ever more layers and adornments—like emperors with a free pass at Save Mart—and in doing so they unconsciously perpetuate this thing, this machine of guilt, this engine running on the harvest and renewal of ravaged self-esteem. And as you stand at the door looking in, you cannot but believe that new-comers must be set-upon, and defeated, and devoured.
But in fact this thing is a society. And every society needs new members. So they do not destroy you. No. Classic institutional bullying prevails instead. They look you over, assess your fear and your craven preparedness to deny all that good sense and self-regard tell you, and as long as you are suitably despairing and sick, they put on their smiling faces and welcome you with sardonic good cheer into the hell that they have created.
It’s funny. In this PhD that’s happening in front of me there’s quite a lot of talk and analysis about the way a particular institution uses authority figures (both human and otherwise), and particular ways of talking (and the ability or not to talk in those ways), to maintain discipline and control and a ceaseless air among the people involved of fearfulness of being discovered, or found out, for not being good enough, for not being sound, for not doing it right, saying it right, presenting themselves right.
And meanwhile, the writer of this same PhD is struggling through a series of awful-to-watch self-recriminations and self-doubts because of her own fearfulness of being discovered, or found out, for not being good enough, for not being sound, for not doing it right, saying it right, presenting herself right.
I could go on about this particular subject for a while—but I won’t.
Cos I seem to have drifted somewhat off my topic.
But I think I can return to it now with the weight behind me of what I’ve been saying.
Yes. PhDs are tough. Tough like you wouldn’t believe.
They are intellectually hard. And they’re emotionally hard.
And they go on, and on, and on.
They involve horrific isolation, and fear, and feelings of inadequacy.
And just a lot of hard, hard work.
You know what it’s like when your brain gets so tired that it hurts, but you have to keep at it? Like, you know, filling in an immigration form or something?
Yeah, like that.
All the time.
If you haven’t done one, you just do not know.
Have I emphasised that enough yet?
You do not know.
So just be nice.