Wednesday, 25 June 2014

It's been a long time coming...

This is what a newly minted PhD looks like:
So thrilled!
I passed my viva with no corrections, a brilliant result that puts me in the company of my friends Jace and Tracey, and about 6% of the University of Leeds' PhD candidates.
The viva exam itself was a crazy experience--even after practicing questions, attending a workshop and having a mock viva, there were still some surprises. Nick Cull found a few glaring gaps in my admin section, and brought them up first, before he'd said anything positive about my work. When I'd met him in the past (two conferences), he'd been smiley and given me a hug, so I naively thought he'd be equally smiley this time. That expectation completely ignored the fact that he's a brilliant scholar, though, and would want to do his job as external examiner properly--no hugs this time, and he kept a poker-face until the viva was over. I really didn't know what result to expect. The viva only lasted 1 hour, and when they sent me out for their deliberations, it was the longest few minutes of my life. I was pretty confident that I'd passed (Nick suggested it would be fairly easy to make it into a book, so it must be good enough for a PhD, right?), but I was still kicking myself over the gaps he'd highlighted in the admin section. I also wasn't sure how well I'd come across with some of Kate's more general, philosophical questions. I'd been in historical writing mode for so long, looking for evidence to prove various points that I really hadn't sat back and thought about my own opinions. Do I believe in internationalism? I don't's a nice idea, but we haven't been able to abolish war with internationalist thinking so far. I ended up answering her question with something vaguely coherent about my shift from being an internationalist to being more critical/cynical, but that I'm definitely not a hardcore realist. Honestly, I don't want to label myself with any -isms. They're all flawed. This is why I don't do theory! Also, how much of an informed worldview am I expected to have at the age of 28?

At any rate, they called me back in and congratulated me, and welcomed me into the club. My supervisors and friends, lecturers and fellow PhD students all came in and celebrated with champagne. It's such a surreal experience--one minute, you're on the edge of your seat, unsure of whether the past 3 1/2 years of work have achieved anything, and the next, you're drinking and hugging everybody in sight.

The viva (and following celebration) was held in Phil Taylor's old office. The last time I'd been in there, I'd been looking over his books and crying, a few months after his death when we were told we could take any books we wanted. The penultimate time, I was sitting on the couch with Phil talking about the psychological side of my study--in his words, "figuring out why some people get on" with each other and why others don't. It's a much larger question than any PhD could sort out, but it's the kind of big picture question that you should be discussing in your first weeks as a research student. Phil loved these questions, too--they're made for earnest conversations down the pub.

The morning after the viva, I read congratulatory messages on Facebook, wrote e-mails to Gary and Robin to thank them for their help and to share the viva story, and started making a list of all of my post-PhD to-dos, both leisure things I've been putting off (like tackling a reading list of Hemingway's recommendations) and all of the things I can do now to finally start my career (job search, publications). The past couple of days, I've been at the MeCCSA conference at ICS (not presenting, just having a good time watching presentations and networking). For the first time in my life, literally, I asked questions during the Q&A. The PhD has boosted my confidence, apparently. It's just a bit sad that it took getting a PhD to get me to ask a question at a postgrad conference...

I've also learned in the week since the viva that there are 2 kinds of people in this world: those who say "Congratulations!" and those who say "What's next?". Now, for high school, the "what's next" makes a lot of sense--18 year old kids do need to have a plan, and generally, they do have one in place by June. But for a PhD, that question is a reminder that the academic job market is fiercely competitive and a newly-minted PhD doesn't have the publications or experience that it takes to get an interview, much less land an actual job. So far, it's only been a handful of people who've asked that question, and I think they were just making small talk (apart from one person, who is actually just really mean...). The rest all know better, and have just said "Congrats, Dr. Molly!"

So, on that note, what's next? First things first, I'm well-aware that getting publications out there is not only key to getting an academic job, but it's also going to take awhile. There's a lot of down-time when you're waiting to get comments from editors/reviewers, so my plan is to get cracking on them straight away. I can use the down-time to carry out my job search and/or work part-time. I've got a list of journal articles that I want to do, using leftover archive material that didn't make it into the thesis and taking some new approaches. I have 6 months of library access, so I'm going to take full advantage of it and work on some articles, a book chapter for an edited volume with Gary Rawnsley, and my book. Nick Cull has been amazingly helpful on the book front, and I'm hoping to get the thesis published in time for the Fulbright Program's 70th anniverary in 2016. In the meantime, I've scheduled in time for the job search, trawling and other websites. I'm going to work on a new, stronger post-doc proposal, too, so I can apply for the same type of 3-year post-docs that I went for (unsuccessfully, obviously) last autumn. Plenty to do, but on the bright side, now I'm finally free to do it!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Forms of Diplomacy Conference

I've just returned from the Forms of Diplomacy conference at University of Toulouse II--Le Mirail. It had such an interesting assortment of perspectives, from 17th century Anglo-French peacemaking in Scandinavia to America's jazz cultural diplomacy in 1960's Kabul. Several people came up and introduced themselves to me after having read my abstract--I don't think that had happened to me at previous conferences, and it felt great! Talking to people at the conference gave me a chance to summarise my research for non-specialist academic audiences, too. Perfect prep for the viva!

As a post-conference/pre-viva exam treat, I stayed over the weekend in Toulouse. The food is incredible, the architecture is beautiful (la ville rose!) and the museums are excellent (and mostly free!). It was too hot for me, though--32C/90F, which is far beyond my preferred summertime temps of 20C/70F (i.e. Leeds and Seattle).

Tomorrow is my viva exam! Thanks to my lovely weekend away, I'm feeling refreshed and confident. Someone at the conference told me that she'd gone for a spa visit & massage before her viva--well, for me, a trip to France is just as effective! My mock viva went well. None of the questions were necessarily surprising, so that's a good sign. I'm confident and genuinely excited about it. How often in your career do you get to talk about your favourite research area with senior academics who've read your work? 

I've been reflecting on the whole crazy journey again, and how much my project's changed (and how much I've changed) in the past 3 1/2 years. I think facing my supervision challenges (Phil's death, Robin leaving ICS, non-specialist supervision) and juggling various commitments with my research (working part-time, organising and presenting at conferences, getting married and renovating our flat) have actually, in the end, made my project stronger. At times I've been sick of my subject, but I noticed during my mock viva that I still really do love my research. I'm still happy to talk about it. I still have further questions--whether it is effective, and why, and how, and under which circumstances...

Wish me luck for tomorrow, and I hope to have good news to announce soon!

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Anti-Climax of Submission for Examination

(image from CakeWrecks)
I'm currently in the awkward stage of "PhD submitted, awaiting viva." Obviously I'm thrilled to finally be done writing up, but it's also too early to actually celebrate--I still have to pass the viva, make any further corrections and submit the final, hardbound copies. It's frustrating to be this close to being finished, but not quite there, like being at mile 25 of the marathon. It's a huge accomplishment, of course, but you're not done yet!

As Tom Petty says, the waiting is the hardest part. I'm keeping myself busy over the next few weeks. Next Friday I've got the symposium in Canterbury, I'm doing exam invigilation 19 May-6 June, then I have the conference in Toulouse 12-13 June, and the viva is 18 June.

I went to a "Preparing for your Viva" workshop this week and it definitely boosted my confidence. We did mock vivas in groups and I actually just enjoyed talking about my work. Even though I have my off days when I don't feel good enough, for the most part I'm enthusiastic about my research and confident about fielding questions. It also felt good to be in the company of other people who are finishing up, and a few who are in the "submitted, awaiting" no-man's-land with me. We talked about the job search, how filling out applications can feel like a full-time job and how disheartening the whole process is. The job search might be why I'm feeling this sense of anti-climax--it's frustrating to see friends who completed a year or more ago still struggling to find work.

On a somewhat unrelated note--I had another reminder today why I can't wait to get out of here. A friend complimented me on my dress and said that I looked like I had lost weight. I thanked her for the compliment, and said that I'm working on it. She kindly said I didn't need to lose any weight, and I explained that technically, BMI-wise, I do--I'm on the border between overweight and obese. She was surprised to hear this, but a colleague sitting nearby chose this moment to chime in and agree, to talk about the health risks associated with a high BMI and tell me about every extreme diet that her nutritionist friends in her home country supposedly recommend. I hate this place. I'm seething inside, but I'm always outwardly polite and just smile and nod. I always give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe in her culture it's acceptable to call each other fat. Maybe she means well. At any rate, I didn't ask for this conversation to take place, I know I'm overweight, I always have been overweight, and I'm trying to quietly do something about it. I don't need to hear from the ill-informed peanut gallery. More importantly, who cares about my weight--I just submitted my PhD! Let's celebrate that, instead of critiquing my appearance. <End rant>

Friday, 11 April 2014

It's Not So Bad...Really!

When I first talked about doing a PhD, I was warned that it was "a lonely process". Throughout the PhD, I've seen news articles like this one about how we suffer, and this one about how doing a PhD is probably a waste of time.

Articles like these make me wonder whether I've been doing this wrong or something, because I really haven't suffered in the ways they describe, and I (naively?) don't think it's been a waste of time.

Yes, it's been challenging--as it should be. If it were easy, they wouldn't give you a title when you finish.

But it hasn't caused feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, etc. I've had a few times when I was a bit down, a bit anti-social, but on the whole, it's been fine. It's been easier than high school, when I was desperate to get into the Ivy League and wore myself out with five AP classes, choir, extra foreign language classes, Future Business Leaders of America, National Honor Society, Science Team, and all of the other personal stresses that a seventeen year old faces (helping my mother care for her parents, crushes and heartaches, etc.). Maybe suffering back then has given me a different perspective on it now.

And I certainly don't think it's been a waste of time. I don't think education is ever a waste of time, but putting that aside, I just don't buy into this doom & gloom about the future of academia. The field will change, just like every other field does, but that doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing a career in academia. I hate being told that my dreams aren't worth pursuing because the field is too competitive, they're overproducing PhDs, etc. Professional athletes, musicians and artists don't give up on their dreams just because they're in competitive fields.

Academics are extremely privileged. They are paid to think and to express their ideas--it's incredible. If you were to talk to laborers in the developing world about "PhD Stress: Don't Suffer in Silence", they would shake their heads in disbelief (and possibly punch you in the face). It is an extremely cushy job (if you can even call it a job) and I'm tired of hearing how terrible it is.

Unless I've been doing it wrong all along, and it really should have been much more difficult...I guess we'll find out at my viva!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Networking and Job Hunting

This article from Cancer Research UK triggered a lot of thoughts about Phil for me. It's the first time I've ever ready anyone acknowledge that just because someone makes unhealthy lifestyle choices, it doesn't mean they deserve to die from cancer. It makes sense, of course, but I'd never heard anyone reject the stigma of unhealthy lifestyle choices before. It was kind of comforting, in a strange way.

I'm still a bit touchy & defensive about Phil, particularly with the way the department has changed (the new name is a go, by the way--the School of Media and Communication, or SMaC, which is appropriate, as the change felt like a smack in the face). Next month, there's a Propaganda symposium down in Kent that I'll try to attend, organised by Mark Connelly and Jo Fox in honour of David Welch--all names I recognise from the Phil conference. I may go whether or not I get funding, as it's a great opportunity to see them again. They're great for networking, of course, but also, I just like them. I instantly felt comfortable with them and enjoyed their company. Phil had good taste in friends and colleagues.

I'm so looking forward to my next job and meeting new friends and colleagues. The job hunt is daunting, but I'm irrationally optimistic. I've been hearing horror stories about 140 applicants for 1 post, and other frightening statistics, but for whatever reason I have faith that the right job will come up at the right time. I've been rejected for 3 post-docs and a research assistantship, I'm waiting to hear back about a lectureship, and I'm working on another research assistantship application now. I went to a career centre workshop on applying for academic jobs, and it boosted my confidence a bit. There weren't any surprises and I felt more prepared and switched on than a lot of the people in the room. And after all, you don't have to be perfect you just have to be better than the other 139 applicants.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

ICS Research Seminar: 'On Being First,' Devon Powers, Drexel University

Yesterday's research seminar was very interesting but completely different from what I'd expected from the abstract. It was titled "On Being First" (also titled in the abstract 'On Firstness'), and the abstract talked about competitiveness, historicity, and the author's efforts to "develop a cultural theory of firstness". For the first time in a few months, I was looking forward to the seminar (I hadn't been attending them lately) and felt it was something that might relate to my work (merit-based competitive scholarships, historical perspectives, etc.). It wasn't really about those things, or any of the other things I thought it might be about, so I'll just reflect on my own thoughts of "firstness" here.

First, though, the seminar was actually about phenomenons like "FIRST!" comments on internet articles, being the first music review blog site to post an unknown artist, the contestation of 'first's (an example she used was that Tyra Banks was the first black woman on the swimsuit edition cover of Sports Illustrated, and Beyonce was the first black non-model woman to make the cover a few years later--her point was that there are too many 'firsts' being measured). 

On that last point, she didn't bring up sports statistics or political ones, but they offer so many examples! Seattle was so excited about the Seahawks winning their first Superbowl game this year, but in 2006, Seattle was equally thrilled to be competing in their first Superbowl game. When they made it to the Superbowl this time, they didn't say, "it's our second Superbowl game!" They focused on the current line-up, on their chances against the Broncos, etc. The term "second" wasn't used, because only "first" makes a good headline. 

In terms of political examples of celebrating 'firstness', there are tons of examples, best illustrated in this cartoon: 

My favourite part about this comic is that they don't even mention the fact that Obama was the first African-American President--no, he's the first Democrat to win without Missouri, and the first Democratic incumbent to beat a taller challenger. (Also, Reagan was really the first lefty?!)

Another interesting political first that I'd thought about was Margaret Thatcher. Growing up in the States, I only ever knew her as the first female Prime Minister of the UK. I never heard anything about the mining industry, the IRA, the privatisation agenda--I didn't even know which party she was in (the blue dresses weren't a clue, either, as US Democrats use blue). Of course, it didn't take long for me to learn about the Thatcher legacy once I lived in the North of England--the 'Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher' story is my favourite example of her evil deeds. I remember getting free milk in Head Start--it's a step too far, even for the uber-capitalistic US! At any rate, when Thatcher died, all my family remembered was that she was the first female Prime Minister of the UK. They didn't understand the criticism and downright hatred being expressed in the media, and I found it hard to explain the whole context (they did agree that the milk snatching was terrible, though). It's an example of how "firstness" can be a trivia game summary version of a much more complex, multifaceted story.

Devon Powers also brought up the concept of firstness as a form of promotion, i.e. best of lists and 'top ten' lists. That one made me think of further examples, like the way that Google search results appear in order of (paid advertising and then) popularity.

As she mentioned in the Q&A, this project really could go in many different directions. Even though it didn't go in the directions I thought it would, it was definitely interesting and it was nice to be back at the research seminars again. Next week's involves the world of 'homemade' handicrafts on sites like Etsy. As a fan of "Regretsy", a now-defunct blog by the brilliant April Winchell that mocked the 'fails' (why can't they just use 'failures'?) of Etsy, I'm looking forward to that one, too!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Language of (Public) Diplomacy

The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria is trying to pick up Pidgin English, and although the NPR article doesn't mention the term "public diplomacy", that's exactly what he's doing--reaching out to the public of Nigeria with accessible language.

"...though it may not be the language of diplomacy, it reaches people at the grassroots level."

 One thing that struck me about the article was that they call it "broken English", but it's clearly not "broken"--it just follows rules of its own. Broken, to me, implies that they're struggling with it. Their speech is stilted, full of pauses and "how do you say...???"Any English-speaker can speak "broken English" by making a few mistakes with subject-verb agreement, pluralisation and gender (think Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat-speak). This article was the first time I'd seen Nigerian Pidgin English in print, and it's definitely not like Borat. It's much more deliberate, nuanced--the idea that "to like" something would be "sweet their belle"--that's not the kind of mistake that speakers of broken English would make. (As an aside, when I lived in the dorms, I had a Nigerian housemate who spoke British English with me and Pidgin English with her friends--both languages fluently, not 'broken').

I think the stigma of learning and speaking 'broken English' is the only explanation for why ambassadors haven't been doing this before now. It makes sense. As the article points out, Pidgin English is a common second language for millions of West Africans. Ambassadors (and public diplomacy officials) don't have the resources to learn and use the hundreds of local languages--learning Pidgin English would be an efficient move!

I haven't been using this blog to talk about PD, really, but now that I'm finishing up and looking ahead, I'll try to start commenting on PD in the news.