Archive for the 'Academia Nuts' Category

Speculating to Accumulate

There’s a blot on the horizon of this suburban life the shape of Millie and Phil.  Their arrival is imminent, and they’re here for a week despite being invited for three days.  I’ve been walking around for the last fortnight in a state of advanced dread, with the Darth Vader Theme from Star Wars as my ear-worm.   My defenses are prepped and primed: they include a large bottle of lemon vodka and a plan to simply hide for half an hour if the going gets too rough.

In the meantime, I have overcome a major hurdle.

I hit the Send button on my first ever speculative email asking for a job.   I only have half a job at the moment and even that might very well evaporate altogether in two months.  I would like a job in a narrow field of research and there aren’t many about.

Through the grapevine I heard about a possible opportunity, with a person I briefly met a couple of months ago, and who the Chief Brain knows quite well.  Drop my name, she said, and just write to him.  She was encouraging, pointing out that I have experience and knowledge that should stand me in good stead.

But first I needed to overcome the rising bile I feel at the kind of boastful narcissistic me me me that I believe is implied in such speculative communication.  The first stage was to update my CV, which by now I’m accustomed to doing.

For the next two weeks I sweated.  In my head I drafted and redrafted the email, trying to arrive at a form of words which would stave off the inevitable recipient’s reaction that I was not worthy of polluting their inbox, and which would result in their conclusion that I am an arrogant crackpot weirdo who emails even when there has not been a job advertised.

In the contest for the spot of Worst Case Scenario, it’s a toss-up between being secretly black-balled or openly jeered.  I would simply crumple if I got a snarky response.  I would probably start applying for jobs stacking shelves, and possibly as a prelude sit in the corner of a darkened room for a week rocking gently too and fro.

By the time two weeks had passed, I was hyperventillating at the mere thought of trying to write the email.  K-man raised his voice at me and asked me what I had to lose.

My dignity, my reputation, my chances of being seriously considered for any job ever again?  Apparently, he didn’t see the problem.

I consulted a friend who works in the area, who disclosed that she gets speculative emails all the time and doesn’t think badly of the person for sending them unless they clearly have no relevant experience.  Frankly, she said, I’d think it was weirder if you didn’t send one, given the situation.  For all you know, she pointed out, the Chief Brain has already mentioned it to the recipient and he is expecting an email from you.  He may even be becoming quietly offended that you’re not bothering.

Gah.  Somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, I located my courage.  So I did it.

Within 24 hours the big cheese had answered saying sadly there was no job at the end of his rainbow, but he would like to discuss my interesting PhD proposal.  He called it interesting.  We’re meeting in late August or early September.  To discuss the proposal I haven’t written yet.   This does mean I have proceeded to PhD Panic Status Amber.

My first ever speculative email might just, with a bit of luck, have resulted in my finding a supervisor.

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Soporific Aides: Footnoting

Today I have not been watching mindless Bravo TV featuring Jewel’s hosting skillz, using only my capacity to close down my intellect and a probably-illegal internet site.

Instead, I have spent all of today and most of yesterday going back over the literature review I recently thought I’d completed.  Oh, I knew it would probably rear up and strike again at some point and I have been steeling myself against what surely must be the sharpest and most piercing pain a person involved in academic work must endure.

Comprehensive footnoting.

You know the kind I mean: the statement that screams not only clearly this wasn’t my idea but must be expressed in tedious academic longhand involving directions to find precisely what someone else said first and where they said it.  Author, year, journal, volume, page reference, and then precise page reference involving the assertion made.  The Chief Brain has superimposed her own requirement that I provide her with “verbatim quotes” so she can quickly check I can actually prove my assertions.  So I am copy-typing chunks of text once I find something that backs me up.

I’d included vague references (author and year) in the first draft, knowing it wouldn’t be enough but needing to complete the draft in time to jump out of the way of the deadline juggernaut.  Now I need to find the exact page number and quotation which gave rise to the hand-scribbled barely-legible note I took of something I thought I might need later.

Weeks later.  After I’ve read all sorts of other interesting things, worked a bunch of days at a boring paid job, had a fountain of conversations involving in depth analysis of running a fair procedure in particularly difficult circumstances, and dispensed emergency advice all over the place.

I might once, five weeks ago, have been able to find the precise quotation by quickly sifting through a stack of paper a foot high.  Now it is like wading through chest-high treacle while wearing boots made of cast iron.

I feel like I’m back at university panicking before an essay deadline, only in a different order of magnitude.  The academic papers I need to refer to are long and dense, and there are about 30 of them.  The literature review is 5,500 words at the moment and I could perhaps be accused of over-referencing but still, there are many to find.  I am referencing now, knowing that I will still need to re-draft the whole thing to look at the issue from a slightly different angle.  More references will probably be needed, a prospect that brings on a thumping headache.

In search of an easier way, I have decided that in future I will

1) make little page number records in the margins of my own notes every so often and especially where I think I might need to use something later.

2) attempt to embrace the power of electronics to aid this tedious debacle of a task – I am doing things with printed paper and handwritten notes.  There has to be an electronic way of doing this, and I just don’t know what it is yet.  I need to find out.

Because otherwise it is enough to drive a person crazy.  If I do a PhD I will need to read a paper a day, and may (when writing up) need to find a quotation I read three years previously.

Remember when library records came on little cards, and quantitative and qualitative social science coding involved cutting up paper and gluing them to code-cards?  Me either.  But at the moment me and my pile of paper feel perilously close to the dark ages, and modern technology needs to attend.

Define: Undignified

I’ve been sweating blood over a piece of research, and a couple of weeks ago finally arrived at the firm deadline where deep thoughts had to be thrown into some kind of arena.  The Chief Brain’s strategy for getting the team to actually finish, rather than academically procrastinate in ever-increasing circles, was to set up an event where luminaries would come to hear us talk about our research.

Which meant we had to have something to say.  Something which wouldn’t cause heads to nod slowly forward in slumber.  The dreaded PowerPoint would be required.

To my great surprise I managed to get through my share of the public-facing activity without turning puce.  And although there were multiple last-minute logistical panics, if you’d been in the audience you wouldn’t have noticed them.

As an added bonus, it was in the small European city of Strasbourg, which is home to one of the most delicate lumps of a building I’ve ever seen.

The morning after the day before, I woke up with a gleeful feeling.  I’d done it!  There’d been more than enough wine and canapes to satisfy even the hungriest bureaucrat, nobody was refused security clearance into the venue, and nobody became narcoleptic while I was talking to them.  I sashayed happily into the hotel bathroom for my morning ablutions cradling the feeling of a job well done.

I was paying only moderately committed attention to what I was doing as I climbed into the bath, which is why it came as something of a shock to find myself, nanoseconds later, having involuntarily adopted the curiously painful position of a fish out of water.

My left leg was in agony.  What could have happened?  Whatever it was, it was enough to almost (almost, for I am tough) make me cry.  Only two weeks ago I stubbed my little toe on a piece of misplaced garden stone hard enough for it to turn purple and double in size (it still hurts, a bit).  Surely, the court of life could not hand down two injuries in as many weeks?  I am spatially unaware, ridiculously uncoordinated, and I often walk into walls, but oh come on, I thought as my vision returned.

My best guess is that my right foot slipped sort of backwards and to the right in the hyper-clean bath just as I was transferring my weight across.  Whatever – as I completed a tendon-busting set of the splits, the tender inside of my left leg felt my gravitationally-assisted bulk weigh down on it as it scraped down the outer tiled corner of the tub on my way to the fish-flailing position.

Aye, it hurt.

This is after ten days of liberal application of arnica cream.  The skin has grown back, and the outer edge of the bruise is turning healing-green-and-yellow.  It’s a good thing I’m not a skirt-wearer.  I really must try to be more careful.


Twit-2U

  • @SewSoDef Oh no! I am so sorry. That’s really hard. I hope you’re OK. 2 days ago
  • RT @AdamWagner1: On this day in 1959 the European Court of Human Rights was established. It gets some (usually unjustifiably) bad press in… 2 months ago
  • RT @NHSMillion: If everyone who has ever been grateful for a non-British clinician followed and retweeted we'd reach a million by the morni… 3 months ago

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