Thesis Boot Camp: The view from ‘the other side’

This past week I had the privilege to help facilitate the first ‘solo’ Thesis Boot Camp (TBC) event on campus. For those of you who don’t know, it’s essentially 2 ½ days of no-holds-barred, intensive writing event intended for final-stage PhD students to get as many words down on paper as possible. Last year we had the brilliant Dr Peta Freestone, award winning writer and creator of TBC, lead the very first event.  From that experience we decided to try our hand to run it again this year.

tbc-bricksFrom a ‘former-PhD-student-now-facilitator’ perspective it was fascinating to observe this group of students rise to the challenge of writing their thesis. As I spoke to the participants I found I could really empathise with their struggles. The anxiety and self-doubt seem to grow during the final-stages of the PhD and I remember, quite vividly, the effort it took to ‘just write’. These memories made me all the more determined to find ways to keep the group positive and motivated.

Everyone needs cheerleaders, and during this event it’s a fine balance between what I call ‘pat and push’. Yes, it’s also known as ‘carrot and stick’ but I prefer my version. Less ‘you’re a horse being lead’ kind of visual and more sports orientated (?). Anyhow, knowing when to be reassuring and knowing when to issue an challenge wasn’t easy, especially towards final few hours when we’re all losing steam. Being ‘on the other side’gave me some insight into the process they were currently undergoing. This made it a little easier to know when to lend a hand and when to lend a listening ear!

It’s sometimes hard to know what to say, and I wondered if my words sounded ’empty’ because they seem so cliché (e.g. You can do it! Keep going! etc.). Then I remembered being on the receiving end of this kind of encouragement, and feeling quite relieved to hear these sorts of messages. So I hoped, in some way, what I said was useful to this group!

We’ve got another TBC coming up later this year so, fingers crossed, it’ll be just as productive as this one!

Image my own, taken before boot camp (duh)!

Booklist 2017 “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks

I read a lot but given the latest news developments around the world, I find that I spend several hours a day reading just the news. While it’s important to keep up to date with the news I have a feeling of being swept away in this sea of information.  At the moment, nothing really feels that solid and I yearned to find a way to slow down. So for 2017 one of my resolutions is to simply read more non-academic books.

The first book I’ve read considered Oliver Sack’s most famous work. This is one of those books that was on my “I’ll-get-around-to-it” reading list. My overall thoughts: I really liked it. It’s not a comfortable read but it is fascinating nonetheless because he presents a sympathetic, and often times, poignant reflection of his experiences working with several of his patients afflicted with different neurological problems. The case studies are intriguing accounts of people that are, frankly, quite extraordinary. Their accounts certainly opened my eyes to what the human brain is capable of, both in a positive and negative sense.

The case of “William Thompson” (Chapter 12) really stayed with me. He is described as patient who is constantly, desperately, trying to make his identity because he isn’t able to ‘retain’ an identity. “The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing – and he must seek meaning, make meaning, in a desperate way, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yawns continually beneath him” (p. 118).

Sacks identifies this as an extreme case of Korsakov syndrome, in which the patient is “continually creating a world and self to replace what was continually forgotten and lost…the patient must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment” (p.116). Not being able to ‘have’ an identity for oneself is very unsettling, and as I continued reading, the devastation of this loss began to dawn on me. It’s not only that he’s lost his identity, but that he is constantly, at every waking moment, was trying to make a new one. On one hand, there is knowing that you’ve lost your identity because then you can remember who you are in moments of lucidity. This case was altogether different because the patient was unable to recall himself and was, instead, constantly re-creating himself. Sacks describes his meetings with this patient as “…one never feels, or rarely feels, that there is a person remaining” (p. 122).

I find this description quite jarring because I don’t think I’ve ever thought it was possible to actually lose your identity permanently. Those with Alzheimers or extreme cases of amnesia there’s at least a sense of having lost part of you which can be redeemed, even for a while. It’s entirely a different deal to lose your whole self. It’s a very weird thought and this book certainly made me appreciate what my brain is capable of in a whole new way. As a narrative researcher this case has made me reconsider what stories make me, me. That I am aware of and make known to other than I exist through the stories I tell to and of myself.

It’s a bit dizzying to take in one reading, but I really enjoyed this book and it’ll be one I’ll probably return to later.

Image my own photo.

Post-PhD blogging hiatus is over (for now)!

Yes, it has been quite a few months since my last post. It’s been a strange time and getting used to this post-PhD life has been quite the challenge, simply because life is complicated in the most interesting ways.

I’m just over one year into my post as a Researcher Developer and it is only now that I feel like I’m actually getting to grips with what I’m doing. The switch from focusing on one research project (e.g. my thesis) to juggling several projects simultaneously hasn’t been an easy transition and I can’t say that I’m entirely comfortable handling different projects on the go. I prefer to have one main focus but at the moment, that’s more a luxury than reality.

More on this, and on other musing on my post-PhD life will be coming up!