Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What DO I do?

A Mystery

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!

12 comments:

Heh Heh said...

You warm up a seemingly pointless researchy morning. I am often asked that question, "So what ARE you doing your PhD in?"
"Finance"
"I KNOW its finance. What in finance?"
Thats when i get stumped and mutter something about "liquidity/short sales constraints.. blah blah".. which results in
"Um, what is liquidity?".
When i try to explain, i get something completely pointless like, "What is a bond?"

That is when i feel like killing the person. You dumbass, you have no clue what constitutes the field, so why do you care what bit of finance i do my disseration in?

The other day I told a curious uncle that my dissertation was going to be on the psychohistorical basis of investor behavior and its linkage with abnormal financial singularities in the real business cycle.

I was feeling good about myself for being a smartass. Then my bubble was burst by the sheer inanity of what he said.

"Very interesting. But why don't you look at infrastructure? India needs lots of finance in infrastructure"

Even better is the story of a friend who's doing her PhD in Math.
"What's your phd in?"
"Math"
"I know its math. WHAT in math?"
"Differential Topology"
I was there when this last happened.
When the guy asked, "Topology? Doesnt that have something to do with maps?", she nearly bit his head off.

Heh Heh said...

Oh, and for those of you who thought that topology has something to do with maps:
http://mathworld.wolfram.com/DifferentialTopology.html

Falstaff said...

HWSNBF: You think you have problems? At least people understand what Finance is (vaguely) - try explaining to someone what strategy is. Hell, academics themselves don't agree on a definition (do you realise that your average PhD level strategy seminar starts with a three hour discussion of what is strategy - and I'm supposed to explain this to someone with no business background in a crowded party!)

My stock conversation:

"I'm doing my PhD in Strategy"
*Glazed look* "Oh, ah, so what are you looking at"
"My interests are in Mergers and Acquisitions" (this is a gross approximation of the truth, of course)
*brightening up* "Ah! Mergers! Yes, yes, my nephew is also in the same line. He's with some bank, though. You must be making a lot of money, no?"
SOB!

Neela said...

You pathetic Finance & Strat people think YOU have problems?

At least people back off in your cases when you tell them your probable topic and try to promptly lose you in the crowd. When I say "marketing", people brighten up and start confessing their personal problems (I can't decide which credit card to get, is that a marketing problem?) and I am expected to provide answers to those questions. Or else you have the smart-alec i-banker who says "I'm sure this would be a great research topic" and proceeds to expound on something vaguely related to marketing that has already been done 1187 times since 1963 and which I am too tired to tell him about. My lack of receptivity is mistaken for interest and he ends enthusiastically with "I wish I could go back to school" and then delivers the parting blow "but why don't you do your Phd in Finance or Strategy". Sigh.

The only good thing with a marketing phd is the ability to trot out reams of experiments which keep everyone suitably enthralled and leads the Physics PhD to wistfully say "At least you can explain what you do at parties".

Now for that Thesis Topic..

n!

Itineranting said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Itineranting said...

You smartass thesis types! Try telling anyone you work in a bank.
The first question that follows is "which branch?"..which really annoys me because for some reason people stereotype 'working in a bank' with bank tellers only. But I patiently explain that I work in the corporate sector.
Then they talk about their credit card & bank statement problems. Which I try explaining, is the retail part of it. By the time I get around to explaining my true role, they have usually lost interest, & I am left alone with a glass of white! Arent I the lucky one..
Oh, did I forget to tell you that I borrowed from Calvin & told someone that my job profile consists of feeding cash into ATM machines?

Falstaff said...

Rant: I empathise. Brings back many memories from my consulting days. Like the apocryphal story of the guy who went and told his grandmother that he'd joined McKinsey and she asked him where their factory was.

I personally have had people come tell me that I should think carefully about joining the Firm, because the IT boom is not going to last (I'm NOT writing code, people)

Also, try explaining to people that you don't have a fixed location but work wherever your projects take you. Half of my relatives were convinced I didn't get a salary and had to survive on commissions from these 'projects'. The other half thought I was setting up plants / heavy machinery in obscure rural areas.

Somehow nobody ever seemed to believe that telling other people what to do could be a full time job in itself. Which is ironic, because half of these were nosy aunty-jis who pretty much did nothing else.

Neela said...

The two hilarious stories about McK:

1. Friend: Is it an advertising firm?

2. TOI reporting on the Kinsey Report: The McKinsey report on sexuality concludes..

I spent a very pleasant Saturday thinking of earnest young McK consultants leading an Awfully Important Engagement on Human Sexuality..

n!

Falstaff said...

Neela: Wow! Now that's a study I'd kill to do. Talk about commitment to client satisfaction!

DoZ said...

I once had to explain what McKinsey does to a 10 year old cousin. The conversation begain with, "There are companies - you know what a company is, right? Well, sometimes, they fall sick... or think they'd like to get better anyway..." & that is all I recall of the rather traumatic experience.

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