Some years back, I found myself talking to Mac, Mac my friend and PhD supervisor, not Mac my computer, lamenting my inability to be able to talk about my PhD to my work colleagues. This was not due, as you may think, to their lack of knowledge in my area of expertise, neither was it down to what I suspected at the time may have been my colleagues’ general disinterest in anything other than Oracle or SAP. No, I had grown increasingly uneasy about a need to keep my research endeavours to myself. ‘I understand’, Mac said ‘your PhD is a bit like a secret lover’.
I don’t think any other definition of a PhD I came across before or after this one (such as, my PhD is a member of my family or my PhD is a part of me or my PhD defines who I am) is any way near as telling or indeed as relevant to my own life and my own PhD. If you’re doing a PhD and you work in a related field at the same time, you will not need to be secretive about one or the other, but try and get yourself a corporate job in, say, information technology while doing a PhD on Anne Rice with a bit of Jacques Lacan and a lot of Spider-man and that’s where the problems begin.
They only begin there because it does get worse, in unimaginable ways. It was necessary to conceal my PhD as I would have concealed a secret, very exciting and very gorgeous, Christian Bale-sque lover, because running on the corporate wheel while attempting to keep some sort of interests outside of the spinning is frowned upon in corpo la-la-land, where people are not explicitly required, but silently expected, to give up their entire life, not just eight daily hours, when they sign on the dotted line.
Tell them that you're doing a PhD, that you'd rather horse ride than playing golf, that you like to read trashy horror rather than subscribe to Oracle Profit and you're not committed enough, you're not to be trusted, you're not capable to play the game. You may as well confess to a penchant for coke, the powder, not the liquid, variety, to set chins wagging just as fast. And I am not being paranoid either; just try it if you don't believe it and you'll see what happens.
And so Mr PhD stayed locked in my mind as working days turned into weeks and weeks into years. Since I left my job, I am a bona fide writing-up PhD student, which means I am about to submit it. And, boy, do I wish I had kept it as secret as I used to in the last few months leading to this post. I am saying this because, as a general rule, one cannot expect others to grasp what a postgraduate degree entails. I mean, why would anyone but someone who is engaged in a PhD know what it is like to write one? How could this anyone know anything more than PhD = Dr, in the grand scheme of academic things? So unless all of your friends are also PhD students, do not expect understanding, empathy, sympathy, interest or any combination thereof. You’re on your own.
Now that’s the great part of it; maybe I told you this before but I am my own favourite company and I cannot think of a more exciting way to enlarge one’s own intellectual boundaries than by undertaking 4+ years worth of isolated research. Yeah, that’s great. But then why, oh why did I so grossly miscalculated when, clearly affected by a bout of verbal diarrhoea, I started talking about it, not just to friends but to acquaintances?
There’s now one of these blasted acquaintances that will not leave me off the hook. I happen to come across him every couple of weeks or so, as I idly run some errands, and he systematically asks how the PhD is, as if he were asking after my lame horse or my poorly dog over the summer. In the beginning, this did not strike me as unusual; I thought he was interested and if not interested, he was at least smart enough to realise that my PhD was now all my life and that demonstrating a form of vague, polite curiosity in it, may make me feel better, somewhat even important.
Well, no my friends, it doesn’t. It doesn’t because this guy has started looking at me as if I were, somehow, dragging my heels, or procrastinating or talking about finishing a PhD I haven’t even started, the Phantom PhD That Doesn’t Even Exist. I can see him looking at me with narrowed eyes, with awkward silences between us interspersed with the thought bubbles above his head going: ‘Yeah, yeah, didn’t you say that two weeks ago?’.
No, I didn’t, fuck it, writing a PhD is not like writing this, or any other, blog. Let me make a relevant example. The piece of my PhD that is becoming a film criticism book is the length of a bona fide MA. And I knocked it out in a few weeks. But does anyone recognise or even know that? Does any Joe Blogg realise that ‘a little book’, as I refer to it, is in fact of MA length and MA depth and breadth? Does he heck.
And so I am fending off Truly Weird Questions that are impossible to answer because even the last twenty pages of a PhD can provide surprises to its author, surprises of re-writing scale, surprises that some person who has never read past The Daily Mail back page cannot fathom. But next time he sees you, he will ask about that PhD and he will say that he thought you were writing about Batman two months ago, did something go wrong? Thing is, you just don’t knock 900 words of a PhD in ten minutes. Do you know how much that is? This post is 900 words long and it took me fifteen minutes to write. But this is nothing of academic standard. If I, or anyone, could write 900 words at PhD level every fifteen minutes for only five days a week, only three hours a day, we would all have PhDs. Multiple PhDs even.
Bloody hell, damn my intellectual vanity, damn my verbal diarrhoea, my enthusiasm and myself. It was much easier when Mr PhD was my lover. Now we’re together full time,the magic’s just gone and everyone and his dog has got advice to dispense, advice which, as per usual, is unwanted, uncalled for and, quite frankly, has to be ignored.