The PhD that will never be.

I’m not a quitter.  I have never really quit anything.  I’ve failed at stuff, plenty of stuff… biggest life failures include:  multiple failed IVF cycles, five horrid miscarriages, being made redundant etc., etc.  But I’ve rarely quit anything I put my mind to.  However, at the moment I am currently staring down the barrel of quitting my PhD… thanks to a whole shitfight of supervisory issues, and the rarity of specialists in my field at universities down the eastern seaboard (please… friends, don’t offer me well meaning and helpful, but ultimately useless, advice at this point – I have followed up a crap load of options, up to and including, international supervision, but to no avail).  It’s been very difficult to acknowledge that I’ve reached the end of the road and that a large part of what has brought me here, has been beyond my control.

I saw a post on Reddit from someone who had just withdrawn from their dissertation after 8 years of postgrad work, and they claimed that they were ‘overtaken by grief and shame’ – and I totally get that.  One user RedBugs offers solace and sound advice… and as it happens, it’s also right on target for anyone facing major setbacks.

“I have friends who’ve quit their PhDs at various points and, dude, they’re doing well in life, truly enjoying paths they’d never even thought of before leaving.

Academia can be a bit of a cult. All your advisors, department heads, etc. got there because they’re passionate about their subject and couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else, and so threw enormous amounts of energy (and no small amount of luck) into getting where they are today. That’s great if it’s making them happy, but the downside is that as a student, everyone you look up to thinks that academia is the ultimate goal that everyone should strive for, and can’t think of leaving as anything other than failure. This manifests in obvious ways (e.g. in scientific fields, moving into industry is “selling out” or “joining he dark side”), but also in more subtle shifts in attitude when talking about other options.

Coupled with this is the fact that, as a grad student, you’ve always been really good at school. Being smart and good at your subject, and being able to say “I’m a [subject]ist!” is probably a major part of your identity, and a big source of self-respect. With so much of your identity tied up in your status as a grad student, it’s easy to think “I’m doing badly at school so I’m a worthless person”. This is NOT true. Sure, being a grad student has sucked up a lot of your attention, but it’s not the sum total of who you are. Your friends and family don’t love your ability to bash out an essay after three hours’ sleep, they love and respect you for who you are, and still will tomorrow.

There’s also a very real chance that this is the first big thing you’ve ever “failed” at, which makes it seem catastrophic and life-destroying. This is not true either. People miss life goals, have major setbacks, and experience soul-crushing failures all the time. But we pick ourselves up, dust off, and slowly a new path and a new goal appear. It’s possible that you don’t have the practice at that, at least not with stuff that feels this big. Don’t get me wrong, this would suck for anyone, and feeling bad is totally understandable. My point is that slowly, and with plenty of missteps along the way, you’re going to surprise yourself with your resilience.

All of which is to say: If you choose to leave academia, that’s OK. A PhD is a means to an end, not a way of life or the core of your identity. Grief is a totally rational reaction to closing the doors on whatever career you’d imagined, and shame is a totally understandable response to leaving the cult of academia and putting a dent in your self-image. But those will heal. Hopefully you’ve met some great people and learned some great stuff. If it’s not for you, then that’s something you’ve learned too. Life is not over, just because you’ve quit a course.

Right now: Talk to someone you can rely on (family, close friends). You’re probably expecting them to be disappointed in you but, I promise you, their only concern will be that you’re OK. Get your support network in place, then book whatever time you can to just crash and get your head in order, including human contact (even if it’s just phone calls) so you don’t just spiral into deeper misery.

Finally, for now, get the contact info for your school’s mental health services and make an appointment. I guarantee that this sort of thing is completely normal to them, and they’ll have some great resources to help with all of this. Even if your changing status at the uni means that they can’t treat you, they’re the best people to recommend an external service for you to contact.

After all this: It really sounds like you can’t (couldn’t?) write due to stress, depression or whatever. Talk to the schoo’s mental health people about this, too. This is really common, and if you want then you might be able to change your “I quit” to a temporary withdrawal, spend some quality time with a shrink, and come back to attack your thesis with some shiny new coping mechanisms. Mental health issues amongst grad students are alarmingly common: your school knows this, and will have procedures in place to help you deal.  It’s totally OK to just walk away and try a new path, if that’s what you want. It’s probably still possible to get help, take a break and then re-attack your thesis, if that‘s what you want. Either way: what you’re feeling now sucks, is totally valid, and will fade with time.”

Some of this applies to me and some of it, not so much.  Either way though, it’s definitely time to look for a new path.


You’re never too cool (or too old) for school!

I got an unexpected message yesterday from an old friend that read:

“Hey, just realised I hadn’t let you know that you are part of my inspiration for deciding to study my bachelors and by extension a couple of other people who I’ve since encouraged to go back to “school”, just thought you might like to know :)”

Well, what do you know?  I never thought of myself as being an inspiration to anyone to do anything!  But of course as we progress though our lives, certain people effect us, and whether knowingly or unconsciously, they effect our decisions and life choices too.  And we in turn impact on others I guess.  It’s rare that someone takes the time to let you know though.  That you’ve had a positive impact on them.  Generally speaking, people are exceedingly quick to let you know if you are impacting on them detrimentally, but we have a tendency to often let the good stuff go unacknowledged.  I am glad I have inspired this friend to return to study and find some new challenges, and through him other people too by the sounds of it.

formal education return to study mature students

Personally, I feel that education is a life long process, and shouldn’t be considered done and dusted as soon as you finish whatever high school, trade or university certificate is required for your temporally specific job ambitions.  It doesn’t matter if you’re engaged in a formal tertiary education program, or whether you’re a voracious consumer of newspapers, or you enjoy a regular course of ‘steady’ reading ;), or maybe you’re someone who just gets caught up in grasshoppering through Wikipedia on a semi-regular basis – jumping from link to link to link gaining weird and wonderful tidbits along the way!  I think it’s important not to stagnate and to keep learning new things about the world around us and our history, which in turn has a strange tendency to teach us new things about ourselves.

My own educational background has been somewhat hit and miss to get to this point.  Out of high school I was accepted into teaching (senior Biology and English), not having applied for the Bachelor of Psychology I really wanted to do, as it was only available at James Cook Universtity at the time.  After being accepted to study secondary teaching, I promptly deferred – keenly aware that teaching high school, where I had only so recently and happily escaped, didn’t actually sound that appealing.  So I went to work for the govt as a clerk and finance officer for several years.  Which didn’t suit me at all!  Because, I am so crap with numbers!  I remember once, while in that job, I actually lost $300,000 due to transposing a 9 and a 6, which took me three frantic sleepless days to find on a monster of a departmental budget report!  Yuk!

I returned to Uni as a mature aged student – at the grand old age of 24!  😀  I enrolled in, and completed my Bachelor of Visual Arts with a major in Creative Advertising Photography.  I never worked a great deal in the photography industry even with this qualification under my belt, as I altered course soon after completing to start a family instead.  Lots of IVF, one gorgeous son, part-time book keeping jobs, a short stint in IT customer service support, an even shorter stint as an Account Manager and another car accident later… and I found myself returning to study again.  This time as a real mature age student perhaps.  🙂

My situation is both fortunate and unfortunate.  I have chronic neuropathic pain which makes me a rather physically useless creature, and a dreadfully unreliable employee!  Something which sits very uncomfortably with my obsessive and ergomanic personality. So, at Mr K’s excellent suggestion, I returned to study to keep my brain busy and engaged – otherwise I think I would be sitting around the house going ‘Woe is me, I’m in pain… still!’, day in and day out.  I enrolled part time in a Bachelor of Arts to do some history and literature courses that interested me, just for something to do.  After about 60 credit points of that, one of my literature professors advised me to apply for the MPhil program (Masters in Philosophy)… she had been the RHD (Research Higher Degree) convenor at the Uni for over a decade and she told me I was wasting my time and talents doing undergrad classes for shits and giggles.  I didn’t mind, I was learning stuff and getting plenty out of it.

The whole thing proved a bit much for the RHD admin office to get their heads around, so in the interim I enrolled in the Honours program as a back up. In the end my MPhil application was unexpectedly and unorthodoxly accepted, even though I hadn’t finished the BArts degree.  Thus, with a week before classes were to start I had to decide if I wanted to do the Honours or the MPhil, and I chose – for the first time in my entire life – to follow the traditional course and do the Honours year first.  I graduated my Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History and then based on my grades and academic references, found myself applying for a PhD… mostly, because I could.  I was accepted at Griffith and at the University of Queensland for their PhD programs, and chose to go to UQ… because that’s where the Medieval people are!  (Griffith has a piss weak Medieval program all round).

All of this I relate to one end… you never know where these things can take you.  I started out doing a course on ‘The Foundations of Western Culture’ and ‘World History’ with no particular direction in mind, and now I’m doing my PhD in Medieval political philosophy!

I guess the point is… it’s never too late to jump into the deep end!

TIL… lots of cool stuff.

Today I learned that that even though we think we are living in an enlightened age of reason, science and technology, there are so many element intrinsic to Western thinking that might as well be purely Medieval.  For example, attitudes towards rape and rape victims really havent changed that much over the last 500 years.  In Renaissance Italy, the bulk of rape incidents happen by a known perpetrator and often in the victims own home, and usually went unreported as the shame and stain on a woman’s character was detrimental to her future.  Women were still frequently considered to have ‘asked for it’, if she has allowed her person to be alone, unguarded, unprotected (fryndlesse) or dressed provocatively.  Many rapists felt they have done nothing wrong and are therefore not repentent about their crimes, this was particularly evident in the case in group or gang rapes where the male agressor/s gain acceptance and reinforcement of their overt masculinities from their cohorts.  Women of lower/servant classes or disenfranchised minorities were often at very high risk of sexual assault due to the protection afforded to their ‘betters’ or more monied counterparts… any of this sounding familiar?  Yep, many of these aspects of rape mentality haven’t gone very far at all, particularly in some of our modern global cultures.

I also learned that eating disorders and anorexia tended to affect the same demographic of young woman in Puritan England that it does now… young women from well to do backgrounds, often with very religious backgrounds whose primarily emotional disturbance is doubt – primarily self doubt.  In Puritan England it was their burgeoning sexuality and the subsequent conflict with their piety that caused that self doubt and following self loathing.  Prescriptions for such melancholias included fasting… but many young women took the fasting treatment as seriously as they took their religion and then endured long term battles with willing periods of not nourishing their ‘traitorous bodies’ that were full of lust and potential for sin.  Modern day women (in the US at any rate, stats for Australia not available due to overzealousness of political correctness) are from the same demographics – tend to be from middle to upper class families with heavy religious backgrounds and similar expectations.  Confusion arises in young teens when puberty, adolescent angst and sexual experimentation leads to self and body perception issues.  Similar results ensue for many sufferers… years of fighting with a very serious condition that results from emotional dissatisfaction and disconnection from one’s own body.

Today I learned that post-partum depression, while much more widely acknowledge and recognizable in modern society, was just as present in Medieval life as it is today.  Perhaps even more so as women had so many children.  Margery Kempe was literally driven mad after the birth of her first child and in the absence of medical or psychological treatment turned to friends, family and townspeople for support. Eventually she turned to Christ for salvation and claimed it was only His divine intervention and her continued desire to please Christ that kept her from relapsing through the birth of her next 13 children.  But she ended up mad as pants in the end anyway according to her neighbours – which is by way of saying, she became one of those ‘uppity’ women of the Middle Ages who refused to be controlled by the social constraints of the time.  And after 14 kids, I think she deserves to be as free and uncontrolled as she wants to be!

I also learned that witches had consensual and emotionally fulfilling, sometimes long term, sexual relations with devils and demons that visited them in the night to ‘suckle at their genitalia’!  That presumed witches don’t float for a reason (but that’s a much longer story for another time) and that witch-hunting was a systematised and very lucrative business.  🙂

This conferences has been so full of amazing papers, wonderful people and interesting facts that I can’t wait for the next one – which is at the University of Queensland in 2015.

riding broom demons night sleeping devils

The Uses of Violence…

  • Rape and Ritual in Renaussance Italy: The Normalization of Violence?
  • “What shee hath often seene”: Family Violence in Pre-Modern Ireland

Witchcraft in Translation… 

  • The Witch-Finder General: The Matthew Hopkins Pamphlett.
  • Sleeping With Devils: The Sexual Witch in the Seventeenth Century England.
  • Glanvill in Germany: Translating an English Debate on Witchcraft and Spirits.

Medieval and Early Modern Echoes in Healthcare… 

  • Margery Kempe and Postnatal Psychosis: Going ‘owt of hir minde’.
  • Vesalius Writing on the Body of Medicine: from translation to Direct Observation.
  • Puberty and Eating Disorders in Puritan England.

Qualities of Kings: The Representation of Medieval English Monarchs…

  • The Portrait of Henry the Young King in the History of William Marshall.
  • How to Construct a King: The Correspondence of Edward I and Llwelyn ap Gruffydd
  • ‘Sodenly he was changed into a new man’: The Self-fashioned Masculinity of Henry V

If I’m ever in trouble, I want this guy to defend me.

The ANZAMEMS conference has been awesome. I have attended some fantastic papers on lots of interesting topics.  It turns out that we are not going to be getting access to the conference papers at the end and they’re not being published anywhere… which is a bit disappointing given it’s impossible to get to all the sessions.  I imagine the big conferences like Leeds would be even worse for trying to picking and choosing which panels to attend.  Oh well, thems the breaks. I went to panels on –

Thinking Through Animals

  • Robert Henryson’s fabulous ‘Maner of translatioun”: ‘perfite studie” getting “science”.
  • Anthropomorphism: Animal versus Human Nature in William Baldwin’s ‘Beware the Cat’ and William Caxton’s ‘The History of Reynard the Fox’
  • Prosecuting Animals as Criminals in Late Medieval Europe*

Heresy, Witchcraft and Deviance

  • The Cultural Work of Witchcraft – Salem 1692
  • The Cultural Translation of Demonic Possession from England to Bermuda: “A True Narrative of the Grevious Afflicition of Roger Sterrop in Somer Islands”
  • “Arnalda de la Motta: The Ministry of a Female Perfect

Gendered Practices

  • Til Death Do Us Part – Practice of Divorce during the Merovingian period.
  • English Cistercian Nuns and their Interactions with Cistercian Commissioners and the Cistercian General Chapter in the 15th-16th Centuries.
  • Grandmothers and Granddaughters: Four Generations of Medici Women at the Grand Ducal Court

I learned lots of cool stuff yesterday including but not limited to the fact that the Christian Church during the Merovingian period would absolutely not tolerate bigamous relations in amy form amongst royal families at the time, however incestuous ones, so long as they were formed before the Church knew anything about them were pretty much in the clear.

The Eleanora of Aragon was a lot tougher and smarter chicky then I knew her to be and she really doesn’t get enough credit for running the entire kingdom while her husband was off gallivanting about at war.  Same of the Medici broads, generations of them effected royal houses for centuries and they ranged from being the most forebearing and hard done by, to being powerfully manipulative and sympathy worthy political pawns!

*The most interesting talk I heard though was on ‘Prosecuting Animals as Criminals in Late Medieval Europe.  In 1522, in Autun France, the local townspeople sued the town’s rats for having eaten and created great damage to the town’s granaries.  The rats were duly given a lawyer, one Bartolome Chaussime (who would later become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Cout in Provence) and the trial was conducted exactly like any other.  The day of trail arrives and unfortunately the Defendants failed to appear in court.  Chaussime, clever lawyer that he is, claimed his clients refused to attend court due to the prejudicial language in the summons which called them ‘dirty, grey, scoundrelous thieves’.  The judge was forced to agree and held the trial date over saying the Claimants  would have to moderate the language in the summons in order to reflect the not yet proven guilty status of the Defendants… and a new trial date was set.

On the next trial date, there was once again, a notable absence of Defendants in the courtroom.  At this point the townspeople were outraged, but the lawyer for the Defence calmly stated that his clients were confused, that the writ of summons was too vague that among themselves, they did not know which of them needed to appear in court, that they thought others of their community would be in attendance and that the net result is that none attended!  The judge agreed and instructed the Claimants to be more specific in identifying their wrong-doers so that a proper summons might be drafted and a new court date set.

The next court date duly arrived (you can really tell the court appointed lawyer is being paid by the hour!) and still there was no Defendants.  On this occasion Chaussime argued that his clients being largely illiterate had not been able to read if the summons applied to them as individual rats of the town of Autun and therefore had not been able to understand if they were required.  The judge, in his wisdom, agreed that this of course was a conundrum and decreed that the summons should be read from every pulpit in every church throughout the town for two weeks before the next court date could be set.  Thus the trial was further delayed.

Finally, yet another court date occurred, and by now it was turning into quite the public spectacle.  And yet, on this occasion, again the Defendants failed to appear!  Their clever lawyer however said that his Clients, the rats, could not appear in court due to fear for their lives from the cats belonging to the good townspeople of Autun, and it was fear of capture and/or persecution that kept the rats from attending the court.  At which time also, the clever Chaussime applied to the court for a guaranteed right of safe passage and a protection order to enable the rats to attend court – this would involve the townspeople restraining, binding or otherwise keeping in their cats for the duration.

Well, this the townspeople thought was ridiculous!  (LOL) And they flatly refused to bind their cats in order that the rats might be able to attend court and rightly be brought to justice for their heinous crimes committed in the granary and against the townspeople of Autun… therefore the judge was forced to dismiss the case!

The whole thing is so exquisitely absurd that you couldn’t make it up if you tried.  There were also lots of other examples of animal trials in the Medieval period, including a tragic and slightly alarming story about a sow.  But there have been awesome little gems of information in every presentation like this… so I am having a ball!   If I can find the time I am considering doing some research into animal trials myself and may perhaps do a research collegium at Festival if people are interested.  🙂

medieval animals on trial crime punishment


Roman d’Alexandre, Tournai, 1338-1344. (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 94v)

Couldn’t find a manuscript image of rats in the granary on short notice, so I’ve given you monkeys into the wine instead!  🙂