The unexpected

I know about the long pause in my writings. There are a couple of reasons. One is job seeking. The other is family extension. So the lots of free time I used to have is spent on other things now, including writing applications that are not always answered and in another somewhat more rewarding vein, taking care of a five-month-old toddler.

I guess a lot of my thoughts are still with making a dissertation and how that changes things or not. At the same time a compilation of lists of “what making a thesis taught you” are doubtless very common and I know already went through this thing in this blog a couple of months ago. However, maybe there is a reason for an update, now that the wishes I had of certainly getting an extension have not been fulfilled.

I am going to divide this report to two different postings. The first is the unexpected and I would say some of it disdainful: what I did not expect that thesis making would be? The second part is about the good things and is written as a conference diary. With all the things going on, I think emphasizing how good conferences can be serves some very important purposes.

First things first. What surprises a thesis maker when the thesis is finished and thinking about it in the aftermath?

I should have known but did not expect the amount and extent of the competition. Namely I sort of knew the funding is competitive as are academic positions, but not that it is only the starting point. To joke but not too much, almost anything that can be turned into a competition is also going to be turned into competition. These are just a few examples based on experiences: you compete about funding but after getting the funding you also compete about getting into projects and collaborations. A project meeting could not be so much a meeting at all but a competition about whose ideas are listened to. When desks and chairs are distributed there are official rules but these too are only the starting point. In the end what seems to matter is who can make themselves to be a member of the community. Those who are not willing to compete will get a desk that no-one else wants to have, even when they are entitled to one. It is very petty as someone remarked well (in a conference of course, it is not likely anyone would admit this much in a work place). If then you are the kind of person that feels very confident and self-aware – and can express yourself like that too – then you are going to have an advantage. And why should this be the case? I believe it is because the resources are always scarcer than the actors. People have to compete whether they like it or not and some are better and less worried about those things. I am also strongly starting to believe that many a research project could be practiced in fairly loose international networks, but good luck with that idea and getting a job.

I did not expect how many people I lost touch with over the years. Back as a student with “good ideas” I used to go to long lunches and coffee with some 3-4 people almost all the time for years. We talked and improved the world as one says, knowing especially well what sociology should be like in the best possible world. I was somehow  very much expecting to continue in these same “networks” and maybe even collaborate in them. That just did not happen. The contacts were almost just lost immediately after I started to make a PhD, the phone calls ceased, people went on with their own things. What happened instead was that one builds new networks. It works well too and I continue to be amazed by it (see next post), but it is strange to know so little about people near you.

Related to that I did not expect how lonely the work would be. Again this is something you sort of know about and joke about: about the researcher in the chambers. But working non-stop for 14 hours a day without talking to anyone for months is the reality that maybe has to be experienced to be really be appreciated. There is some good in this kind of working practice: you get to concentrate a lot to a single thing. But there is more bad than good I think. Vonnegut whose “Last Interview” book I read over the holidays said nicely that literature should be about something else than just literature: it is experiences with other things like science and technology (as his own example shows) that fuels literary works. Ditto for sociology: it should be about something else than just about sociology, a sociologist should know about something else substantial than just the sociological canon. I would indeed strongly suggest it is the real lived experiences with other people and professionals that give you new ideas academically. With no input like that, who knows where your ideas will end up to.

I did not really expect to start to feel old eventually. As an outsider, it seems like people inside the academia hardly age at all, staying in touch with the kinds of ideas that animated them at 23. But within the place, one’s age still does matter and that is made rather apparent in many ways. Indeed this could also be accentuated by today’s competitive environments. In some fields, a 35-year-old like me should have enough publications to almost be a professor. If you make a PhD before 30 then that is going to help a lot. To be clear there are ways around these limitations but it gets more difficult as you age. I feel one has to rely on luck and opportunity more than resources. All in all, however, the aging part still worries me quite a little and seems to do less the more years pass. Maybe one reason is that I seem to notice that at around 35, many people I know have started considering a new career. I do not fortunately really have that worry at least in my thoughts (employment is another matter). If possibilities existed, I would be very glad to continue my research when I am 55 or something. And true you notice that new PhD students are continuously younger than you are: compared to a PhD at 35, a candidate at 25 is rather close to being almost a student. But on the other hand, conferences are a nice way of experiencing your age differently maybe because conferences are centered around a theme and not a work place or a community that needs to define who can be included.

I did not expect what complete academic freedom coupled with a lot of time would do to you or for you. For the last year I have had the benefit of not working for anyone but myself. For the last six years I have at times had my supervisors and bosses but they have generally given quite a little oversight to my work, comparatively speaking. My working hours have never been fixed nor have there been many proper deadlines. This is kind of nice but also creates unforeseen behavior maybe simply because you cannot always force yourself to work. I notice for many years I started doing a lot of things I had not been doing as a student because back then I was so focused to have a degree fast enough. But as a PhD candidate, I started sports and exercising even for hours at a time, going to a shopping mall, biking around, buying and playing games, going to movies, visiting flea markets, and libraries plus book shops. Perhaps I was not quite as efficient and fast as before. Anyway a PhD is a long project and maybe all of this was necessary to relieve stress or something. In the aftermath, maybe that time could have been spent better to improve my career, but the fact remains: when no-one practically tells you exactly what to do, you are also not told what not to do.

Finally, I did not expect that your relations with other people do not necessarily deepen over time. Contrary to the advice that it takes time and effort to get to know people, I feel that you meet people once and then in the first or the second meeting you know what it’s going to be like for the rest of your knowing each other. If you get along great together, then a coincidence of sharing a breakfast table in a conference might make you a contact that you think about all the time, more than about your close friends in many ways. If you have a bad start with someone in a seminar – if they look down upon you, for example – then expect this will endure for the rest of your career. That might be a trait of academic networking. But are the academic networks “real” relations with other people? Considering that I have received Christmas wishes and a birthday card, or considering that I have spoken with people I met at conferences non-stop for hours and kept having something to say, I think they are as real as relations as one has with relatives and friends. The only thing is that they are so focused – or not – that they seem to be almost fixed to their place from the start.

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