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Everything changes but you

Dear Green PhD,

Two months a ago, I wrote to you to break up you.

I’d been so busy worrying about and trying to finish my PhD (still am by the way) that I did not have time to think of you. I thought that my lack of continual lack of inspiration was a sign that our relationship had run its course.

I thought that you had been a fun distraction from the serious relationship with my PhD.

But I was wrong.

I’ve realised that you are as much an important part of my life as my PhD. Indeed, my PhD is the one whom I’ll be with for a short period of time – just nine months to go to now. But I can be with you for as long as I like.

In fact, you’re the one whose been creatively supporting me during my research and enabling me to play with ideas that won’t make it into the final cut. Just because I was having trouble communicating with you, it didn’t mean that we were finished. Perhaps I just needed a break, which I have had.

Once my PhD is finished, all I will have with you. To quote the ancient wisdom of Take That:

Everything changes but you,

We’re a thousand miles apart but you know I love you.

Everything changes but you.

You know, every single day I’ve been thinking about you.”

Please take me back.

Pravin

Change: the universal constant

Dear Green PhD,

I’m sorry. I’ve not really paid you much attention in the last six months and I’ve totally neglected you in the last two.

I’ve been so busy worrying about and trying to finish my PhD that I really didn’t know what to say to you. I thought better to ignore you than suffer the uncomfortable silences of two months of posts.

But I know what the problem is.

We came together a year after I started my PhD. Researching and writing my thesis has been hard work, though enjoyable, and you offered me moments of light distraction to reflect. However, the deeper my relationship with my PhD became, the longer the distance between our moments together.

It wasn’t you.

It wasn’t me either.

With my PhD now close to completion, it’s just that “you and me” has run its course.

Yes, I am breaking up with you.

It’s time for me to move on and make a fresh start.

All the best,

Pravin

After the viva…Can’t stop falling in love with you

“Wise men say, ‘only fools rush in’,

But I can’t help falling in love with you”

- UB40

In the first year of my PhD, my supervisor made an interesting comment about my theoretical reading. He said that I fall in love easily. He was referring to my tendency to want to jump from one theory to another whenever I came across a new one. When I submitted my registration document, three months after initial enrolment, I was proposing to use a theoretical framework that somehow brought together the work of Hegel, Luhmann and Sloterdijk. I soon realised that it was going to be way to unmanageable and I decided to stick with Hegel. After attending a conference, I almost dumped Hegel in favour of Foucault; fortunately my supervisor emphasised the importance of committing to a particular theory. I remember making the decision that I was going to stick with Hegel as the basis for my theoretical framework come what may.

Yet somehow I managed to come away from my PhD viva with the overarching comment that there were too many theories in my thesis  – and as a result they were superficially connected by the use of metaphor rather than exposition from the literature. The irony is that I thought I was being restrained. I started with Hegel and moved to readings of his work by Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalysis and Catherine Malabou. As far as I could see it was Hegelian. The problem is that having set a boundary, I inadvertently crossed it by looking at psychoanalysis and other work by Malabou. For some reason, I also felt inspired by my supervisor’s work and included that as well, not too mention the more minor interventions. I somehow justified it my head by saying that Hegelian dialectical philosophy allowed for it.  I ended up with a Hegel as my first wife and a philosophical harem.

So the last month or so, I have been trying to figure out which theoretical intervention are essential to my thesis, and which are just fluff. The examiners’ report has been very helpful in that regard. The problem with it is that the examiners themselves have made a number of alternative recommendations as to how I could proceed with my thesis. Perhaps too many recommendations, because I have been having trouble deciding which recommendation I should take.  So then I have to ask myself, what is the primary purpose of my research and what is the dominant idea I want to get across. I have been bouncing from one thing to the other this last month, unable to make a decision, worried that any decision will be the wrong decision. I am also seeing how much my thesis is like a ball of wall; if I try to pull on one particular strand, the whole ball comes apart. I think I am slowly figuring out my favourite theme. Oh where is my supervisor when I need him the most? More importantly, why did I decide that I wanted to have my viva the day before he goes on holiday for two months?

I said in a previous post that my PhD has been an opportunity to learn things about myself as well as my research topic. Well, I have learnt that this tendency to fall in love easily and difficulty with decision making has been an ongoing problem for me, to various degrees. I could write more on that, but I won’t out of respect for others affected. If past experience is anything to go by, I needed the shock of the viva to force me to make a decision (though I wish that the examiners had just made one or two recommendations). Once again,  as with the preparation for the viva, I think the most useful advice  comes from my dad, whom I paraphrase: “Right or wrong, the important thing is to make a decision; if it is the wrong decision, I have to work to make it right.” He said that in a different context. As i understand it though, it doesn’t matter how I decide to deal with the problem of having too many theories in my thesis; I have to be able to justify it with proper evidence.

I give the final words to UB40…

It’s been a long road…After the Viva

If you follow me on Twitter, you will probably know by now that I had my PhD viva on Tuesday 30 July. You will also probably know that it did not go exactly as I hoped. Instead of walking out with a doctorate, the examiners asked me to make amendments to my thesis, gave me up to 12 months and said that they expected the final version to be substantially different enough to require a second viva. I believe this is what is commonly known as major amendments, although the university regulations do not explicitly mention “minor” or “major”.

As I expected, the first question was “Tell us about your thesis”. My supervisor had previously advised me about drawing up a metaphorical roadmap in order to answer this question. Oddly, though, I found the most helpful tip came from my dad. As an incredibly practical, qualified engineer, who had always worked in industry rather than academia, he suggested using headings of aims, objectives, methodology, findings and conclusions. As my research is in a humanities subject, I was initially skeptical but I tried it out. With some amendments to make it appropriate to my thesis, I found it worked. As a result, it turned out to be my best question. It was downhill from there.

I can’t remember exactly the order in which each examiner spoke. I can’t even remember the specific questions asked. Indeed, I found that I only became aware that there was even a clock in the room towards the end, when the examiners had clearly stopped asking questions and started providing some feedback. (It was to my left, just out of vision.)  But what I do remember is that every question, whilst focusing on specific aspects, dealt with the same apparent problem: that I superficially connected concepts from different theories through the use of metaphor rather than a step-by-step exposition from the literature. The use of metaphor was appropriate in the context of my thesis, which was interested in the logical conclusion of the ongoing privatisation of regulation and general decentering. The problem was that I had not written that in my thesis and had not even realised that that was what I was doing until after the viva. Thus, I could not justify the metaphors. That probably sounds like I had not carried out proper research. Alarm bells started ringing in the viva itself when references were made to omissions of relevant critiques in the literature. For example, my theoretical framework is a large part on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right but I had not considered Marx’s critique. I also suspect now that I may have used one of the examiner’s own work out of context. Then, immediately after the viva, my supervisor and I were walking to a local cafe to conduct a post-mortem, and he mentioned his disappointment that the examiners did not realise what I had been trying to do. When he said that, a question came into my head: ‘What had I been trying to do?’ I suddenly realised that I did not know what I was trying to do – how, therefore could I expect the examiners to know? I did receive the blessing of my director of studies to submit, but I think that, under various pressures and due to poor time management, I may have induced labour before my thesis was ready. Liz Thackray and Jane Davis   perhaps put it best in responses on Twitter:

  • I delivered prematurely and the baby needed to stay in the neonatal unit before I could take it home;
  • The baby was fine but it needs cleaning and feeding before it can walk and talk; or
  • The baby needed major surgery.

I think that I might have had the wrong view of the viva to begin with. Beforehand, I was so keen on getting through without having to make any amendments. This was partly due to a focus on the end goal of a qualification, the doctorate, and the change in status from Mr to Dr. It was also partly due to the presence of “examiners”. I had likened the viva in my mind to a form of exam. So, when I did not walk out with a PhD, without having to make any amendments or only minor amendments, I was shocked and felt like a failure. But slowly, thanks to my supervisors, my PhD colleagues and the PhD community on Twitter,  I changed my perspective. Whilst the PhD is a qualification, it is also a piece of original research. It is perhaps misleading to refer to assessors or examiners; in reality, they are peer reviewers, in much the same way that I have peer-reviewed others’ work for publication. Given that the vast majority of PhD students are always asked to make amendments, with less than 5% getting through first time, I would perhaps argue that the viva is not an exam. Instead, the viva, the transfer/upgrade and registration are opportunities for your research to be independently reviewed by people who are not intimately involved in its development (that is, yourself or your supervisors). Of course, at the same time, the viva is also an exam, because of the possibility of failure. But, my supervisor gave the ok for me to submit my thesis and go through the viva because, despite its weaknesses, it was ready. It could have been readier but it was ready. So going through the viva and not failing or not being awarded an MPhil shows that I really am almost there.

At any rate, as my supervisor told me before the night before the viva, whatever happens, it is still an achievement to have made the journey from journalistic and policy-orientated writing to deep Hegelian philosophy.

So, I leave the final words to Russell Watson…

Reflections on my PhD

Almost a month has passed since I submitted my PhD thesis. I am this strange period of limbo: I am technically still a PhD student but I have nothing to study until just before the viva. There is a sense of plasticity; half of me is excited at having completed the text and being only one small step away from a doctorate and being called ‘Dr'; the other half resists as I restrain myself from becoming too excited until I pass the viva. Out of all my jobs and post-18 education, doing a PhD has been the longest project I have ever worked on; what’s more I came to an end of my own accord. There is also an element of sadness as I realise that the journey is almost at an end and I will have to move on. So I thought I’d write about some personal lessons from doing a PhD.

Firstly, there are some things I would do differently if I were doing my PhD again.

Get funding

I was fortunate in that my parents had said they would always pay for education, so when I found an idea I only had to find a supervisor and apply for a place. Certainly it meant I had no obligations to the university. However, I was continually aware that my parents were getting on years and the PhD is a big expense. Furthermore, I am aware that I do not have the experience of obtaining funding that my colleagues on studentships. Finally, if I had been on studentship, it would have probably been a lot easier to find teaching opportunities than it was through my own networking.

Set more deadlines

When people ask me how long it has taken me to do a PhD, I say three and a half years. Surprise, surprise, that is not completely true. It is not as if I have been working 5 days a week, 40 hours a day either researching or writing. In the last three and a half years, I have also organised events such as this, attended events and seminars, wrote articles and papers, invigilated exams and co-founded an academic journal and procrastinated. My productivity in relation to my PhD itself was like a sine wave, with peaks and troughs. What I discovered was that I was most productive whenever a deadline loomed. Without someone external implying a deadline, my brain thought I had all the time in the world. This is of course the big pitfall with the structure of the PhD. Now, one might argue that all that time gave me the opportunity to do all the other academic things. That may be true. However, I found that deadlines do not mean that everything else goes out the window, even when close to submission. Deadlines emphasise the need to manage one’s time and prioritise. Could I have completed my PhD in three years as I originally intended? On hindsight, probably yes. But I’ll deny it if asked.

Work from home or a library

I live in South London. My university is in Central London, (Oxford Circus to be precise), a one-hour commute. I somehow convinced myself that I would be more productive if I created the illusion of ‘going to the office’ every day. I stuck doggedly to this belief even though procrastination proved it to be wrong. Truth is, relatively speaking, very little of the time I spent in the office was actually spent on the PhD. Sometimes, as indicated above, there were other academic activities, but I think a good part was spent on simply web surfing. Perhaps, as well as setting myself more deadlines or targets, I should have taken a leaf from many of my colleagues’ books and also worked from home or from the library; really I only needed to go into uni to see my supervisor or if there were planned seminars and the like. I thought there would be more distractions at home but, in the office, there were just as many distractions. I did work from home in the closing months of writing up. I also found that my parents were possibly the most effective “motivator”.

 So that’s what I would do again. That”s not to say I haven’t gained enormously (and I don’t mean a doctorate – obviously I am anticipating passing my viva here). I have found that the doing a PhD is not just about undertaking objective research. It is also about doing subjective research, in the sense that it is a process of discovery about yourself. Yes, I have learned about environmental law, waste policy, Hegel, Catherine Malabou, psychoanalysis, posthumanism, feminism, etc. I have also learnt about myself. I have discovered I am a lot more conservative than I like to think. This is because I am a walking bundle of contradiction (or internal dialectic) as well as attached to people and things outside of myself (external dialectic).  In a sense, there is a dialectic between the research and the researcher. As I wrote in the ‘final word’ section of my conclusion, I projected myself onto Hegel and then Hegel projected himself (from beyond the grave, posthumously, through his text) onto me [Jeyaraj, 2013, 154-155]:

It is arguable that it is beneath the status of a philosopher like Hegel to apply his work to something as mundane and everyday as a household waste collection service. After all, he is the pivot around which the Left and the Right turn. However, if we are to stay true to his master/slave dialectic, then we must accept that, through a dialectical reversal, even a master like Hegel must humble himself and make himself a slave if there is to be a future for his mastery; otherwise, idealising him and putting him on a pedestal, away from the detritus, means that he quickly becomes irrelevant and is toppled. At any rate…Hegel’s whole philosophy was about turning humility and apparent defeat into victory. We are the masters now who depend on the labour of Hegel but, as we cannot see the body of his work, we must attach a prosthetic through our own plastic reading. In the beginning, we hover like a spirit over his text which appears to somewhat formless and empty. Through plastic psychoanalysis, we listen in to the dialectic, symbolising its operation with images stored in our own minds; as we read, we thus form the text, which then resists deformation. We say, ‘Let there be light’ and there is light. At the same time, Hegel, through his text and others’ reading of his text, projects himself onto us and reforms us in his image; we become Hegelian, with the ability to listen into the dialectic in his text but also see the dialectic outside his text. We therefore recognise Hegel and Hegel recognises us.”

Perhaps the most significant way that my PhD has changed me is that it has made my faith in Jesus Christ stronger. When I started my PhD, I had only been a Christian for 2 years, still very much a baby believer. Though I accepted them, I very much struggled with the various apparent paradoxes within the Christian faith. I was also frustrated by the way that other Christians were able to simply utter “it’s a divine mystery”. But as I learnt more about the dialectic – and no doubt through the work Jesus himself – I saw how it was possible for the co-existence of contradictions. What’s more, I saw a complexity and richness to Christianity and God that I wanted to dive into and bathe. And most recently I discovered that I did not have to choose between Jesus and my roots in Hindu culture. I am a dialectic between the two. So from a Christian from a Hindu family, I am now a Hindu believer in Christ.

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