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I saw a post on Reddit from someone who had just withdrawn from their dissertation after 8 years of postgrad work, and they claimed that they were ‘overtaken by grief and shame’ – and I totally get that.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.


Rare Coptic Textile in UQ’s Antiquities collection

I’ve been attending a conference at the University of Queensland for the last couple of days run by the Australian Early Medieval Association themed on “Land and Sea in the Early Middle Ages”.  The program has been quite diverse and an unexpected session of the conference was a personal tour through the small antiquities collection that was accumulated by UQ’s Emeritus Professor Bob Milne over the last 40 years.  It’s a very small collection but contains some surprisingly important pieces.  Not the least of which is this unusual coptic textile (my apologies for the quality of the phone images – had I known I was going to see this I might have taken a real camera!)

7th century 12th century woven embroidery According to the staff there, the textile fragments are from a funerary garment and have been unable to be adequately dated, with best estimates somewhere between the 7th century to 12th century.  C-14 dating is slated to be completed this year some time which they hope will yield a more accurate age of the piece.  Apparently there are only two other similar coptic funerary stoles in existence, one located in a museum in Alexandria, Egypt and the other in Dresden, Germany.  The piece is an exquisite woven work with embroidered detail, and some inserted roundels. It is not currently on display for the public so I’m told we are the only group of people likely to see it for a few years until they have a proper display housing for it.  I took a number of pictures, but given I only had my phone with me they’re not great. 7th century 12th century embroidery woven piece  Detail:

7th century to 12th century woven embroidery

Bird and fish figures in woven band with lighter (white) detail embroidered over the woven ground:

7th to 12th century embroidery woven stole

Detail of roundels, probably located at ‘shoulder’ of garment –

7th to 12th century textile funerary garment

Closer up –

7th to 12th century funerary garment

Hopefully the testing on the item that is planned to be carried out this year will yield more info on this amazing piece. It will be interesting what information will be ascertained about the age of the textile, the origins of the work and even the dyes that have been used.  I can’t believe I got to see this yesterday, it was a most unexpected pleasure and such a wonderful experience to see it without glass in the way!

Winnie the Pooh? Winnie Ille Pu? Sigh…

“Oh Bugger,” said Pooh, “I’ve gone and done it again!”  :S

I was sitting at the dining room table this evening, staring at nothing in particular and my glance landed on the shelf on my book case which is full of jewellery books…  and found myself wondering, ‘Do I already have a copy of that Secular Goldsmith’s Work in Medieval Europe that I was eyeing off on the Book Depository?’ and then ‘No, I don’t see a hideously garish orange hardcover jewellery book on the shelf, so I guess I never actually got a copy.’  which was swiftly followed by “OH SHIT!  I think I put an order in for books, like yesterday or even this morning, but I’m not sure!’

So it was with a deep sense of apprehension that I checked my email and noticed that I did indeed place an order with the Book Depository this morning and how fucking awesome was it that I have no recollection of having done so!!  :S   Yay, for drug fucked morning hang over shopping.  It’s like a Lucky Dip, you never know what you’re going to get.  I must have been on total crack this morning though, because not only did I buy the Secular Goldsmith’s Work in Medieval Europe that promises to be a very interesting read, but I also ordered a copy of Winnie Ille Pu – A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh story translated into Latin by Alexander Lenard, which portends to be a less interesting and potentially disturbing read!

Winnie ille Pu

What was I thinking?  :S   I must not forget the rules… I must not forget the rules:

Rule No. 1 –  Do not speak to govt officials, uni professors, family relatives, tradesmen or the general public before one’s nightly drug cocktail has worn off.
Rule No. 2 – Do not engage in internet shopping whilst under the influence!
Rule No. 3 – Refer to Rule No. 1 and Rule No, 2.  🙁

Though on closer inspection, perhaps Winnie Ille Pu will have a certain absurd charm about it…

Winnie Ille Pu Page


Learning Latin, watching out what will happen.

OMG. Am suddenly feeling a great affinity with the Small Child who is still rote learning his times tables as I try to rote learn Latin verb conjugations, noun declensions and wrack my brains to remember what case, voice, tense, mood, gender and number various Latin words are.  Having my life rapidly and even insidiously invaded by long forgotten elements of grammar, and many more elements of grammar that simply don’t have any place in English is proving far more challenging than I was anticipating.

My brain is overflowing with 1st declension, feminine, accusative, present, active, indicative nouns… or 2nd declension masculine, nominative, past tense, passive subjunctive nouns… or 3rd person plural, active pluperfect verbs!  And after three weeks of this – it is entirely possible that NONE of what I just wrote makes any sense at all!  I am trying to stuff tables of information into my head and hope it sticks for I have a progress exam next week… oh joy of joys.

amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant is about the only thing I can reliable regurgitate and that I have to admit is entirely due to having watched Eddie Izzard’s Unrepeatable way too many times and nothing to do with it being the simplest and first verb they try to smash into a poor little first year’s head!

PS – Eddie Izzard was right… Latin is a dead language for a reason – it’s fucked! :S