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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: Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A friend of mine, a PhD student, commented recently on his frustration that his parents still ask him when he intends to get a real job. I know exactly how he feels. I have spent the last three years trying to convince my parents that, surely, starting writing at 9.00 and finishing writing at 5.00 or thereabouts is what they mean by "real work." I know from my gap year in this supposedly more concrete reality of paid work that office life often involves chatting, discussion, making phone calls and filling in paperwork mindlessly; and at the end of the day, office life ends the moment you kick back your desk chair, to begin your leisure time, usually using the money you have earned to pay for it. Surely it is the world of normal work that is the more unreal, requiring you to inhabit a split personality, acting and existing differently depending on whether you are before your family or your boss. I suspect that what parents everywhere mean by the "real" world is that within which there is some sort of oversight, chains of responsibility tying you to times and tasks that you must do, lest you get the sack.

But what could be stranger, less real, than this artificial system in which work and life are kept apart from each other by the glass of 9.00 and 5.00, and in which you may be responsible to managers who (apparently) do less useful work than yourself? By contrast, PhD life becomes your total reality: the mind you occupy whilst doing your PhD is, to a large extent, the only one you have. PhD life is solipsistic and demands total concentration; there are few opportunities to do mindless things like paperwork or phone calls, because by definition a PhD is the use of the mind and the application of the pen or keyboard, not casual chat or filling in time sheets. You eat, sleep and breathe your thesis. The PhD is with you when you shower. It creeps into your consciousness just when you are drifting off to sleep. And it waits at the end of the bed to welcome you with the crack of dawn. So the call to all parents everywhere has to be: "get real." Doing a PhD is probably the hardest work anyone can do, because it is so self-driven and so intimate to the cells of brain and body whilst doing it.

But there comes a stage towards the end of their PhD when most researchers find that the PhD finds a way to press itself even into those precious cracks of time still, wistfully, called "time off." Most significantly, of course, is the need to complete by a certain deadline. But there is also the fact that after three years, funding will dry up (if you have been lucky enough to have some in the first place), and researchers will need to start looking for temporary jobs and long-term futures, those entities that allegedly belong to the parental "real" world.

Now at this stage in may career, I realise how naive I was ever to believe that a PhD was "hard" work. For at this point I find myself holding down six different jobs or positions, some of them paid and some of them voluntary. In addition to trying to polish off the last few footnotes and dropped apostrophes of my thesis, I have been allocated to teach across five different modules. I asked for this amount of teaching back in the glorious days at the start of summer, when I naively imagined I would have finished researching by September. Now, though, I am essentially trying to do all the reading and lectures for an undergraduate degree, whilst adding the PhD on top of that. In addition, I've got a larger than normal pastoral tutor group in my college, have started a job in the library three evenings a week, and am working as publicity officer for my department. In an unpaid capacity, I'm editor of a journal, volunteering for our local literature festival, and moonlighting for Graduate Junction.

These days, I seem to jump from one thing to the next, like an errant fly alighting on one subject only for a moment, before something else calls. I am living and working minute by minute, squeezing in research in the odd half hour between ending library shifts and the bus back home, reading the poems I will teach the next day on that same vibrating vehicle, or doing teaching admin and photocopying first thing in the morning, before my email inbox comes alive. I am stressed and tired. But in an unexpected way, I also feel peculiarly satisfied with my work to a degree that I have not been over the previous three years of doing pure research. Now, for the first time since my year out in the "real world" of an office job, I start to tick things off on a daily basis. Tasks get done, and the list of things still to do gets smaller (at least until another head of the email hydra glowers from my refreshed inbox). With a PhD being as it is, you never feel quite finished, and at the end of the day, no matter how superficially productive, you never feel quite as if you have worked enough or to a sufficient standard. Now, though, I find myself to be a doer, a finisher. People task me with jobs, I work through them, and move on to something else. So it is this sort of experience that outsiders or parents probably mean by the "real," the mentality of the production line and the in-tray out-tray with which they are familiar. So what, I wonder, could be better or more real, more productive and more satisfying, than finally completing my bloody PhD?

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Posted by Alistair at 8:48 am


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