People say, 'What are you doing these days? What are you working on?'
I think for a moment or two.
The question interests me. What am I doing these days?
How odd that I haven't a clue.
Right now, of course, I'm working on this poem,
With just a few more lines to go.
But tomorrow someone will ask me, 'What are you up to these days? What are you working on?'
And still I won't know.
- Wendy Cope
One of the chief pitfalls of being a doctoral student is that everyone and their aunt feel they have the right to question you about your thesis. Complete strangers (most of whom think a dissertation is a french word for the pastry cart) have no hesitation asking you what the topic of your thesis is and how it's going.
What is it with these people? To begin with, asking someone about progress with their thesis is roughly like asking someone how things are with their spouse in bed. It's not just that it's as intensely personal, it's also that the chances of touching off a sore nerve are equally high. And I mean, look, I'm going to spend YEARS of my life writing the damn thing. Do you really think I want to spend my social life talking about it as well? James Bond doesn't have to deal with this sort of stuff. People don't come up to him in parties and say, "007, old chap, how's the new assignment going? M giving you a hard time? What's it about, anyway?" and expect him to explain this to them.
Of course, the fact that I don't actually have a thesis topic yet makes this even more difficult. (This is entirely NORMAL, btw, so you lot can just wipe that pitying look off your face). Every time I try to explain this to people they will always manage to produce some relative / friend / neighbour's hairdresser who is also doing his / her PhD and does have a thesis topic - has apparently always had it, was undoubtably born with a research question in his / her mouth. At this point you either launch into a long-ish explanation of how the academic system works in the US (which no one's going to believe anyway), or you break off the conversation and head for the bathroom.
Academics themselves, are, of course, the most vicious of the lot. How else do you explain the fact that the polite "how do you do?" line has been replaced, in academic circles, by the far more direct "what are your research interests?". The trouble is that everyone else seems to have a pat answer for this. Most people, asked this question, will say something like "I'm studying paradigmatic changes in value chain economies among tertiary service providers from a metaphysical perspective" in a clear, ringing voice. I, on the other hand, will answer it in my choicest mumble - muttering vapid generalities while desperately trying to find a way to change the subject. Admitting that you haven't actually defined a research area for yourself yet is roughly like confessing your virginity in the locker room of a pro-football game.
But lack of overall direction in life can still be lived with (by arguing that you're open to experiences, and you're just going to take things as they come, for instance). What really ruins me is the question "What did you do today?". I have fantasies where I actually have something interesting to say to this question - like I robbed a bank, or I finished my 30,000 line epic poem in iambic pentameter (called Ajax Agonistes), or I collected money for Arctic wildlife preservation, or I made mad passionate love to Charlize Theron. None of this ever happens, though (in case you were wondering). Instead I always end up saying something like "oh, nothing really." Is it possible for all these nothings to add up to a meaningful life, I wonder, like the weightlessness of raindrops adding together to make a deluge?
Enough said. Must get back to work. Whatever that is.
P.S. Reading Cope. What an amazingly light-hearted treat!