What is your thesis totem?

This post is by Jodie Trembath. A PhD student in the school of Culture, History and Languages at the ANU.

I’ve decided that the owl is my PhD totem.

I recently mentioned this to my supervisor (who, as it happens, is our very own Thesis Whisperer) and she noted that there could be a blog post in that (I do that a lot – it’s very annoying. Ed). This got me thinking about all of the physical objects that have taken on agency in my research career to date. They’re more plentiful than I’d previously realised, and I outline them for you here so that you might also think about the symbols that are guiding or have guided you on your PhD journeys.

First and most recently, for me: owls.

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 4.25.48 pmMy choice of the owl is a banal one; owls are wise, right? Further to this, I have noticed that owls, both real and in print form, keep popping up in these first months of my PhD. Rational Jodie says that this is because owl imagery is ‘in’ this season (pineapples, stags and foxes, you are SO 2014…).

However, Starchild Jodie insists on the existence of a J.K. Rowling world, where the owl’s ubiquitous presence is evidence that it has chosen me. Chosen me as a worthy subject to guide through the hero’s journey1 they call a PhD. Thus, I have begun to surround myself with owl paraphernalia – folders, sticky notes, jewellery – and somewhat to my own surprise, it’s helping me to feel like I’m a real PhD student now.

I should point out, particularly as my PhD is in Anthropology, that I am not talking about spirit animals or totems from an anthropological point of view here, and am certainly not undermining the power that totems hold in other cultures and religions. That said, I’m also not making light of my own interpretation of the animal spirit guide, despite my glibness of tone.

I need that owl.

My mixed and motley heritage means I don’t have a long cultural tradition to draw on to help me through this, nor a religion that guides me. So, like many of my contemporaries, I’m doing that post-modern thing (post-post-modern thing? It’s hard to keep track) where, like the bower bird, you scratch around till you find a collection of things that work for you, cobble them together and use them to your best advantage.

For me, one of those things is adopting the owl as my PhD spirit guide.

Thinking about my owl totem caused me to reflect on the many and varied symbolic coping mechanisms that academics, myself included, use to navigate their research careers. One of the best pieces of advice a professor ever gave me was to fill my research environment with symbols of ‘researcher-ness’, as a shortcut into research mode each morning.

For her, it was to turn on soft jazz in the background, brew her favourite coffee so that her office would be fragrant with the wafts of productivity, and put on a beret, because for her, this was what the ideal writing studio would entail.

In addition to this sounding like a delightful work environment, she had found that this had a heuristic effect; as soon as the ritual was complete and that beret went on her head, her brain seemed to realise it was time to work, and she could slip easily and comfortably into writing.

The symbols not only reflected her ideals, but prompted them.

This perhaps sounds a little extreme – if we all wore berets at work the academic stereotype would just go wild! – but I’ve mentioned this idea to a number of other PhD students, and quite a few of them found that they were in fact doing something similar without realising it.

One told me she always wears dresses to uni, and never wears them on weekends, because dresses are what she wears when she is in academic mode. Another plays the sound of rain in the background or on his earphones – partially because it seems to help with his tinnitus, but also because the white noise helps him relax into a mode of thinking that is harder for him to achieve when surrounded by the sounds of the real world.

There is some debate in my field of research over whether objects or ideas can have agency. To me, it seems logical that they do, that they must, and that it is in our best interest to surrender to their power when it aids us in our quest.

Do you have symbols or routines that aid you on your research journey? I’m only in my first year, so if you have tips on other ways of entering the academic headspace that you’ve found useful, please tell us about them in the comments!

1See Joseph Campbell’s discussion of the hero’s journey (1968) and tell me what we’re doing isn’t similar. I want my Golden Fleece!

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31 thoughts on “What is your thesis totem?

  1. Reading this I just figured out I have a totem as well. I put it on all of my posters, in all of my powerpoints, everywhere. It’s a star with a brain inside, something I created to show that a star-like virus is affecting the brain, in contrary to the common belief that it’s only in another organ. And just like you said – I need that star 🙂 very cool post!

  2. I’ve recently appropriated Beyoncé as a totem, and more specifically, the image of her giving the middle finger in her Formation video. I had a bad experience earlier in the year of people throwing a major spanner in the PhD works & trying to illegitimately deny me access to my fieldwork site. I visualised the Beyoncé Middle Finger as I forged ahead, and now do this whenever obstacles crop up to throw me off track.

    • Lol, of all the things that Beyonce dreamed of in her life, I bet she never imagined she would be turned into a PhD totem! So good!

  3. Hey Jodie an owl is a great totem. There is a Facebook support group called PhD OWLS (where we get a lot of owl imagery shared). The group is for older students taking on PhDs – the OWL stands for Older, Wiser, Learners.

    • Thanks for writing about the PhD OWLS group. I’m hoping to be allowed to join!
      My totem is the peregrine falcon because raptors are my favorite birds and because “peregrine” means “a wanderer” or “pilgrim.” The great distances peregrine falcons travel symbolizes, to me, the PhD as a wide-ranging journey.

    • What a fabulous idea – thanks, I’ll check that out! I think I fit the older and the learner part, so as long as you’re not picky, haha 🙂

  4. Great post! I used a group of dolls and bears as my writing colleagues throughout my PhD and still do. When I enter my office at home, we all get to work straight away.

    They converse with me. OK, in my head, but it is real enough to do the trick. Ramona makes me read everything out loud to get the rhythm and grammar right. Tuppence is really rational and won’t let any slack logic slip by. Old Isaac is holding a watch, gently mentioning from time to time that there are deadlines. He loves deadlines. Tamika is a chirpy doll getting us all to lighten up a bit, while little Sashenka is very focussed. She keeps me on track. Over the years, my Community has grown to number about 70 and has developed into the finest research team I could hope to work with.

    But I never confessed to my supervisor!

    • That’s so interesting! I think a lot of people use their various technological devices to create manifestations of different aspects of their identity – I love that you do it with your dolls, and that you’ve turned them into your research team. What a great way to be simultaneously autonomous and have a brilliant and supportive research community!

    • Likewise. Even though people have argued on me dressing like I am coming to”work” while they are dressed in three-fourths and Tees and look like they’ve just woken up, I just can not get started until I’m dressed in my formals. It’s like my morning fuel.

  5. Mine mainly work in the winter – as soon as I’ve got coffee, classical music and my big shawl I feel ready to work. Not sure what to do though when it gets too warm for the shawl…

  6. My totem (if you want to call it that) is a stone. It’s from Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. I was there doing research (I’m from Germany) and I found that specific stone one day while climbing through the hills. As history major I was fascinated by the fact, that this stone had to be there for a very long time and that it’s a kind of contemporary witness for the era I’m working on. And since I’m a perfectionist it also reminds me that there was life before me and that there will be life after me. My thesis is such a small and irrelevant part of the earth’s history that I have no reason to worry about it. It will not be the end of days if it doesn’t turn out as good as I hoped. It’s silly but for me it really works and I find it quite reassuring. 😉

  7. I don’t know what my symbols are yet, I’m amazed this blog came my way when I was reading and thinking about their power in pedagogy. I haven’t studied semiotics or anthropology but think our brains have evolved to use symbols and images as our medium for sense making; and modern (not post) education teaches us to override and discount this creative metaphoric engagement with our world so we can fit in all the Rs (left brain stuff) . I dreamt of a red and a silver fox running together. Maybe they will help me out with my thesis.

    • Wow, your dream gave me goosebumps. I hope the foxes help you out. I totally agree that we are taught to ignore anything that doesn’t align with enlightenment values of rationality. I often wonder what would have happened if the enlightenment hadn’t panned out, if the ideas of the enlightenment hadn’t ‘stuck’ – I’m sure we still would have moved past the dark ages, but possibly in a completely different direction…

  8. Love this! Mine is a flamingo. It became representative of my journey, goals and achievements when I found out it was native in the country of my first international conference. Flamingo print also just so happened to appear in shop windows as I began preparing for said conference. Sadly, never got to see one while I was over there. Perhaps that can be my reward when the thesis is submitted?!

    • Yes! Wouldn’t that be the ultimate symbolic reward!? I’ve started collecting tiny owl figurines whenever I go to conferences now – by the time I submit, I want a whole wall of owls surrounding me :).

  9. Great post! I didn’t actually have any kind of constructive totem or ritual, but I relate to the hero narrative analogy. My partner and I used to say that my PhD was the One Ring (from Lord of the Rings), and that he was Sam Gamgee and would see me to the end, whatever it took. So I guess maybe my partner was my totem?

  10. My totem is a Sumatran tiger. Strong and fierce, independent and decisive. I’m so lucky that we have the most divine chalk picture by Lee Carter that hangs on our office wall at home. Every day the tiger greets me as I enter the office and walks with me to remind me that I am strong, I am capable, I have overcome so much adversity just to have the privilege to sit here and be able to work and attempt this PhD again and raise a family. I was also born under the Chinese Tiger Zodiac so maybe that contributes too.

  11. Since I’m writing a thesis about material agency, I really appreciate this post! I can also relate to the totem idea. For me, it is the duck. Half way through my candidature, I went through a tough relationship separation and I found myself wanting to take flight from the PhD. I was watching the university ducks (which seem to be a feature of all campuses) one day, attempting some mindfulness by watching their quacky antics. It occurred to me that ducks are such resourceful animals, they could fly away but the choose to stay, and they let the rain run off their backs and get on with life! I ended up getting sitting ducks tattooed on my shoulders. Although it is simply ink on skin, I feel their physical ‘weight’ holding me in place. I feel like I will have quit many times if it wasn’t for their steady presence. The little totems on my shoulders have got me through.

    • That’s so interesting that you mention the tattoo Belinda! I’ve been thinking about the same thing – I’m now on fieldwork in Vietnam, and the temptation to have the owl ON me – and thus with me permanently – grows stronger every time I am in need of guidance… which is of course ALL THE TIME. You may have just inspired me!

  12. I’m heading for Confirmation, and am, like you, looking for a way through the jungle. I have a dandelion seed, set in glass that somehow makes me feel at peace when I sit to write?
    I like your owl totem – I like the mystery that surrounds them (don’t watch “Twin Peaks”!!).
    It makes perfect sense to me, that affairs of the mind are stimulated by the environment in which it operates.
    Happy writing, toowit toowoo!

  13. I have never thought about whether I have a totem but can totally relate to the ritual behind getting down to work. Mine is to start with a steaming hot cup of green tea or similar, put on movie/tv soundtrack music or classical music and start off with making a plan or list of tasks for the day. I usually have too many items on the list but at least it gets me started.

  14. Pingback: Best Industry Transition Articles Of The Week For PhDs (June 19th, 2016) | Cheeky Scientist® | Industry Training For Intelligent People

  15. I love your notion of a totem!

    I’m mobilising Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical concept of rhizomatic thinking in my doctoral research, and as an a-centred multiplicity, the ginger root is my ‘go-to’ illustration/structural metaphor/totem of the lines of flight that run through and across my (consciously and specifically non-linear) dissertation.

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