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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: A PhD Survival Guide

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My nemesis Patrick Tomlin (or he who writes in the column I would really like to occupy) over at Guardian Education, has come up with a "survival guide" for new PhD students. Not to be outdone (and from the superior position of my third year to his second), I have produced my own version of distilled wisdom:

1. Tomlin's number five on the list is my number one: try to treat a PhD as a job. Sure, no one will be looking over your shoulder or conducting a daily word count; yes, if you want to take an afternoon off to go shopping no one will stop you; certainly, that two week holiday in Brittany can be taken without any need to beg for time off.

However, it is precisely because of this that if you act as if you have all the freedom in the world, then you will find it difficult to do anything at all; a kind of intelletual agoraphobia sets in, whereby there seems so many limitless possibilities that it is safest just to do nothing. Instead, do something, rigorously. Turn on the computer at 9.00. Turn off the computer at 6.00 (if you happen to be nocturnal these times can refer to pm as well as am). Repeat for the equivalent of five days a week (take that afternoon off but go to a seminar at the weekend), for forty-five weeks of the year, for three years, and - regardless of how difficult the work seems, or how many bad days you have (see Number Five on this list) - you will get the job done, if not within three years then somewhere close.

2. A crucial ingredient in this recipe for success will be how you differentiate yourself from undergraduates. Sure, there will be many of the distractions of undergraduate life around you: a ready-made social scene, sports clubs, societies, and a flagrant disregard for deadlines. By all means go to the pub, play sports - indeed, make a point of doing these things (again, see Number Five). But remember that the classmates with whom you graduated could not be further from undergraduate life, since as you study they are probably being lashed under the slave-drivers who run graduate recruitment programmes for big corporations. Presumably, you did a PhD partly because you wanted to do something other than make money for other people. But that does not mean that you should feel free to stay in the student rut whilst others (taxpayers) are running out of breath around of you.

3. If all this sounds a bit like a lesson in dullness, however, realise that social life and work need not be mutually exclusive things. In my first year, I was a solipstic scholar reading books and emerging only to see my supervisor once a month. Having attended the UK Grad summer programme and all the team exercises on it, I realised that actually I really like working with other people, communicating with faces rather than staring at wordy pages. I now regularly go to three discussion groups and buzz round conferences, and work on collaborative projects. If to some extent you can combine socialising with an academic twist, then you really can have the best of both worlds, strike that work-life balance.

4. And it gets better (though possibly only for PhD students in the Arts and Humanities)! Rule number four is be omnivorous in order to become omniscient. If a PhD is in part preparation for the academic job market, you must discover and engage in all the activities – the seminars, the research institutes, the journal publications – that develop and produce the research that supports the meniscus of undergraduate teaching. You must become absorbed in your subject: devour the weekend book supplements in the newspapers or read the reviews sections of journals; go to discussion groups and attend seminar series; discover that a few notches down from Radio 1 is Radio 4, with all its first-class intellectual broadcasting.

And write on anything, whether a review of a book in a few paragraphs on a scrap of paper, or a full essay to be handed in, or indeed discover the benefits of blogging. One of the worst aspects of PhD research is that it can sometimes take months between the germination of an idea, the reading around it (which often leads down dead-ends anyway), and its manifestation in a solid, completed chapter. Weeks go by, and you feel that you have done or produced nothing. Writing regularly and engaging in the full range of research activities provides a vent for this frustration. Further, the more broadly you read and write, the more chance that you will hit upon an innovative idea, and take the unusual angles of approach that will distinguish your research from its predecessors, making it - that crucial requirement of a thesis - original.


5. They say that only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Most PhD students being young, the former probably seems quite a long way off, whilst as students taxes are mystical demons we have heard of but never encountered in their scariest guise. But, lest we lack a grindstone that keeps us keen, a third thing is guaranteed for the PhD student: that there will be times when you will simply feel unable to work, and the guilt sets in.

Writing seems to be going badly, you cannot seem to get your head around a chapter, the tab bar on your web browser becomes cluttered with football stories and Facebook because you simply cannot concentrate on the task in hand. Everyone else seems to be getting on with productive study, and if you happen to live with people in gainful employment, then it seems all the worse that you have swivelled on your chair all day whilst they have been chained industriously to a desk between nine and five and come home relieved at the end of the day whilst you are only plunged deeper into self-pity.

Accept these times as inevitable, and learn to let them go. When they loom, walk in the countryside. Spend the afternoon taking photographs. Or go camping for three days. Or, if you do not share my tastes, choose your own favourite escape. And if you still feel down at the end of the week, go to the pub regardless and treat yourself to a pint. Sure, it tastes best if you know it signals the start of a weekend, a break from hard and productive work in the five days before. But if you don't make any distinction between play time and work time no matter how little you seem to have spent on the latter, you will risk becoming a melancholy loner, the archetype of the sick genius tormented by the great idea that always seems elusive. But writing and serious researching is hard; if it wasn't, there would be no need to do PhDs. It is precisely because it is tough that there will be bad days (or weeks, or months); these are sometimes a signal not that you are weak and inadequate to the task, but that the work you are doing is worthwhile and the end all the more significant.

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Posted by Alistair at 1:36 pm


Anonymous cindy said...

to be a postgraduate is really not an easy thing, and to be an excellent postgraduate is even more difficult. may u feel down when people around u play games, take picnics ect, while u do feel terrific when u finish a paper which could later be ratified by ur supervisor.

11:31 am  

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