Conflicting advice: Just whose PhD is this anyway?

Dr Evelyn Tsitas used to be a journalist and works at the RMIT University Gallery. Last year she was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing in the Media and Communications at RMIT about Werewolves and Vampires (amongst other things).

In her first post for the Whisperer Evelyn told us the fun side of having a ‘hottie’ research topic. In this post, which she wrote while still studying, Evelyn considers the problem of dealing with advice from everyone – even her hair dresser – on what her thesis should include. I guess you would call this one of those ‘good problems’ – or would you?

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.17.51 PMThere is a flip side to having a hottie research topic that I hadn’t really considered until now. I have such a fascinating subject that everyone loves it and wants in.

I am investigating the scientifically created animal-human hybrid in science fiction and while that is a mouthful, it is necessary to state my parameters even in casual conversation. Because, believe me, everyone has an opinion on what I am doing, and how I should be doing it.

I should be pleased that those I meet are even remotely interested in a research area that has consumed me for nearly five years. But just as it is impossible to read every journal article and every book on a subject, it is also impossible to keep up with everyone’s suggestions.

And by everyone, I mean everyone. From the other school mum in the supermarket checkout, to my hairdresser, the guy who fixes my car, my kid’s friend’s parents – even my kid’s friends – they all want in.

I am not even taking into account the “casual academic” encounters, either. They are the “ordinary” conversations you have as you speak to other people in the university. These academics may not work directly with you, but they will also have an opinion on your research.

Now, if I was doing what many consider “serious” research – by that I mean something in engineering, science or computing that few have any understanding of let alone the vocabulary to speak about it – then it wouldn’t be an issue.

Even with a lot of academics.

However, I work in the humanities, and everyone feels free to wade in with an opinion. Especially as in SF and popular culture and you can’t swing a cat without coming into contact with images of the post human. All around us are films, computer games, television series and books that feature the augmented human, human hybrids, and enhanced humans. From the new version of Total Recall, to covert operatives chemically enhanced physically and mentally in The Bourne Legacy, depictions of humans changed by science are all around us.

I suppose over the years I have also become more confident in speaking about my research, and like a woman in love, I can’t stop dropping my beloved’s name every opportunity I get. My enthusiasm must be contagious, because it seems that everyone now feels an expert in my area. Some recent comments:

  • “Have you watched The Blob?”
  • “What about Beauty and the Beast?”
  • “Why Frankenstein? He wasn’t an animal hybrid, was he?”
  • “Why not mythological creatures?”
  • “What’s your opinion on The Centipede, anyway?”
  • “Aren’t you disgusted researching bestiality?”
  • “Is zoophilia about – zoos?”
  • “How as a feminist can you include a misogynistic movie like Splice in your exegesis?”
  • “Why haven’t you considered aliens in your research?”
  • “What about Cordwainer Smith’s works?”
  • “I’d steer clear of Lacan if I was you.”
  • “Have you considered another expert in narratology?”
  • “I would really be looking at Deleuze and Guattari at this point.”

Of course, I get more and more paranoid that I haven’t considered all the above, and why not? With only six months to go before I hand in my PhD, how could I have missed any vital areas in my research?

I am not sure what the answer is. Stop talking to people about what I do? Shut myself in a room for half a year? Learn to ignore everyone? Something I have also written about is how doing a doctorate is a lot like being pregnant. In fact, being overwhelmed by conflicting advice is what happened when I was pregnant with my first child.

Everyone had advice for me, from the hairdresser to the receptionist, to my mother’s friends and experts I interviewed as a journalist. If you have had a baby, you will know what I mean.

  • “Aren’t you doing natural childbirth?”
  • “Why didn’t you choose the maternity hospital I went to?”
  • “Aren’t you going to use organic nappies?”
  • “You are going to breastfeed, aren’t you?”
  • “You’re not planning on breastfeeding, are you?”
  • “How much maternity leave are you taking?”
  • “You aren’t going to put your baby into childcare, are you?”
  • “You are planning on calling the baby – what???”

The one sensible thing I did do when I was pregnant was to go to a talk on caesarean birth. Mine was a high-risk pregnancy, necessitating a lot of medical intervention.  Now, if I was to apply this same approach to my doctorate, I suspect I should listen just to my supervisor, and not every passing comment no matter how enthusiastic or well intentioned, or academically well considered.

The reason new mums-to-be read every pregnancy book and listen to what everyone says is that they are entering new territory. As capable career women, we are used to having control over our lives and suddenly, the rug is being pulled from under our feet. We grasp onto anything we can find to help us make sense of the tsunami of change about to be unleashed on our life by a baby.

And so it is with the doctorate. I have never done one before. I don’t know how I’ll cope with the birth/completion process. What if I get into trouble? What if the baby/doctorate gets into distress? Who is going to help me push out the 90,000 words and urge me on, with encouraging words and ice chips?

I have decided that the only thing to do is put blinkers on, and stick to my birth plan/proposal. Schedule increasingly regular checkups with my supervisor, and make sure I get enough time to pack for the hospital/completion date.

And when it all seems too much, I simply have to imagine, after all the pain, a photo of myself cradling my doctoral certificate in my arms, beaming as proudly as any new mother.

If you want to read more about Evelyn’s thesis have a look at her PhD blog “100 days to the Doctorate”

Other posts by Evelyn on the Whisperer

“I’ll have what she’s having”: hottie research envy

Too posh to promote?

Small world – the academic conference trek

Doctoral devotion – to complete or not complete?

12 thoughts on “Conflicting advice: Just whose PhD is this anyway?

  1. I enjoyed reading this! I hang out with many physicists, many of whom complain that when they tell people what they do they get at best a blank stare and at worst fled from in terror. I will send your piece to them so they can see how the other half lives.

  2. Thanks for a great post! Having listened to my midwife and sticking to that plan I safely delivered twins, one of them breech, with no intervention, despite pressure otherwise. I have had a horror Phd year, should be finished but starting all over, new topic and all, after a period of post disaster leave… Hell, if I can do the twins I can do a PhD with the right birth plan! (Won’t necessarily tell my male supervisor though, not sure he would get it quite the same way…)

  3. Ahh yes – I can totally relate. My thesis is about Facebook and teenage girls so everyone is an expert. My favourite conversations are the ones where people try to convince me that my findings MUST be wrong…

  4. This is brilliant- I have one of ‘those’ topics as well- relationship between income and healthy food purchasing habits- everyone LOVES to tell me their opinion on why ‘other people’ don’t know which foods they ‘should’ buy.

    If my thesis were a baby- I’m about 39 weeks pregnant. I was due to hand in around Christmas but it dragging on longer than planned (I’m telling myself this is very normal!). I had my first (real) child halfway through this PhD palaver, and (real) baby number two is now well on the way too.

    The baby analogy is so helpful- as a new mum the hardest thing was learning how to decide for myself how exactly I was going to parent eg: no one else could decide if a minute of crying was too long or too short before I picked baby up. Of course I found my feet when I started trusting myself, and that gives me more confidence in ploughing through these last painful stages of the PhD. Thanks!

  5. My topic was like this too: I wrote on the experience of doing a PhD in Australia. I have heard more horror stories on this subject than you can imagine. I coped by keeping a word file called ‘biomythographies’, in which I recorded the stories in a ficitional kind of way to get them out of my head. I’m hoping it will be of use when I’m writing stuff later.

  6. I just parted ways with my Baby and I’m pretty sure I have postpartum depression.

    Also-”You can’t swing a cat without coming into contact with images of the post human.” Absolutely brilliant.

  7. I completely relate to this also, the case study for my PhD was “Doctor Who” and everybody in the known world feels they have to share who their favourite Doctor was and why etc, fortunately I had completed my research and almost all the writing before the 50th celebration year was upon us :-)

  8. Great post, I loved the example of the first baby! “Stuck to my birth plan” and “listen to the supervisor” may cause at the end a strong feeling of isolation. But, some times, this feeling is also accompanied by a strong feeling of freedom. It is also another way, a pass to focus more and more on the study. It took me a long time deny and be affected by other peoples opinion but it seems that it works!

  9. HI! I have a question for you all! My talks with my supervisors seem always so abstract! If you see it from distance, it sounds like mambo, jumbo, most of the time. The conversation seems to me incoherent. He says something, I say something related, but not up to the point, he says something else related and so on. Is it that I don’t have the capacity to understand what he says?? Or is academic talk like this? It drives me crazy!

    • a lot of academic work is pretty abstract, so it’s a common frustration. I find a good question to ask is ‘tell me about a time that happened’ or ‘can you give me an example of that?’. When people are asked to make something concrete (use terms relating to see, hear, smell, touch and taste) it can help bring abstract things back down to earth. As tempting as it is, don’t fall into the trap of pretending you understand when you don’t. Make the supervisor work hard to explain – if you were smart enough to get into the program you should be smart enough to understand if someone makes the effort. Good luck!

      • Thank you! Sure you can understand if the effort is there, but you cannot do anything about it if it is not there :) Making the supervisor work hard seems impossible if he doesn’t want to!

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