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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Finished doctoral thesis: what it meant?

The one key content of this blog and its markings is changing soon. Namely I finished my doctoral thesis after almost exactly six years of working on it. I am happy to say the defence was an excellent day including the after-party. But how does it feel now, what did this all mean? I have thought about this certainly enough, including in this blog, that an answer is in place. Were any of my considerations, meticulously drafted here as notes, right about what it means to make a doctoral thesis?

Overall, I have to say I have had a number of misconceptions. Not that this is a bad thing. It feels much better in unpredictable ways to make a thesis than I previously thought. Even though my future is open and uncertain, it feels much better a choice to make a thesis rather than not make it. But the reasons for this were rarely the same as I envisioned. Put things yet more differently many times I seemed just to be putting the cart before the horse.

Going through my old markings it is useful to see what exactly I did consider, after a few years, that a doctoral thesis would achieve.

One, during the phase of making a thesis I should be able to connect my independent PhD project and other intellectual endeavors to some larger social whole and should try to do this continuously. Two, in so doing, I would also learn to be something of an outside ethnographic observer of the academic community and make in addition to my thesis some kind of a science studies work about what it was like to “be” an academic. Three, I would actually rather take some topic I was interested in when I was studying and the doctoral thesis topic would have to be changed to address that “original interest”. Four, in actuality I would start doing technology again more than doing social science. Five, I would concentrate to have a rich free time (e.g. sports and hobbies) if I felt difficult at times to do the thesis. Six, the thesis would be theoretical even though its materials are empirical: that way I would not be too fixed to my empirical topic. Seven, I should do more networking before I can be finished. Eight, I would actually have to seek a “secure” job (little did we see what the current crises would do to those) and finish the thesis in the evenings and weekends, so that there would be something to do and something of a community after the defence. Nine, the technicalities of research – like learning to use new gadgets, notebooks, recording devices, data analysis – would be crucial to learn on my own. Ten, the thesis making would be an ideal period to grow as a person and learn more about oneself. Eleven, actually all the time I was just waiting to be rediscovered as an engineer. Twelve, I should really teach, work in projects, supervise etc. to become integrated into the academic community. Thirteen, actually other people were doing pretty interesting projects and I should get involved with them, maybe that would be more social than making a thesis.

These are in a random order and they are maybe random thoughts, but it is important to stress, I think, that the social fabric of making a thesis somehow produced these considerations. They are maybe a matter of having too much time coupled with resources and no clear deadlines. To me it seems definitely a matter of listening too little to reasonable feedback (having it was never necessarily a problem). In the aftermath of holding a thesis in your hand as a book and having gone through a public defence, I would say above I got something right and a lot of it plain wrong.

What is clearly right is the importance of building your networks and getting to know what kind of circumstances (e.g. teaching, lecturing, conference networking) you are comfortable with and those that you are not. What seems to be more misguided to me is that now, a thesis seems like the starting point, not the end point, of your scientific career. It would be reasonable – as many people told me and I did not believe it enough – to think about it as a phase of demonstrating that you can do original research. Then, after that, you can teach, supervise, write books, find projects, run projects etc. Hopefully, although time will show what happens now, it will be easier to do those as you are considered a fuller member of the scientific community. Interestingly, it seems to me now, it is the membership of the community that allows you to be more independent.

The ideas about changing your topic to match some “original interest” or a “theoretical interest” seem particularly dubious now. Though you could be fixed to your topic, especially in the public and the media, there is also life after a thesis. Certainly you can find new projects, or even just make audience comments in conferences, based on any interest you may have. A finished thesis does not have to preclude that, but if it has any effect, it should make it easier.

The things about personal growth and becoming a member of the academic community are the ones that seem to be putting the cart before the horse. To repeat, it now seems to me that a thesis is a starting point, not the end point of these kinds of aims. To illustrate, I could just give a list of some of the things I am doing now after the thesis is finished.

  • In a few years I would like to offer a book, to a quality international publisher, based on my research.
  • I have 3-4 interesting article ideas in my mind, many of them based on the feedback from my thesis opponent.
  • The aforementioned person has also already invited me to visit his university.
  • The world is full of post-doctoral applications to visit abroad for 5-10 months. If one looks beyond Finland where I am based, many of them are also directly concerned with what I am interested in.
  • Talks about new projects with new people are ongoing, with new emails concerning these arriving at least once per week.
  • I am in the middle of editing a few special number for journals.
  • I am also in the middle of informally reading two doctoral theses and one book sent to me and the persons who sent them really seem to expect to hear what I think about them.
  • My colleagues also now send me open job applications that would have been often impossible to apply or commit to as a doctoral candidate but that are viable to a doctor. A promising international place arrives to my mail box roughly once a week. (These numbers do not apply to Finland, though; here the rate seem to be one possible job once per month and seldom having enough qualifications to apply for them. The government saving in research has led to at least one major research institution having a recruitment prohibition. It seems to me that when you read texts like Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network and its instructions for job applying, they are concerned a job market different from a small academic field in a small country.)
  • Perhaps most importantly, with the achievement of having symbolically defended a thesis, I feel one is finally allowed to say “no” to people. As a doctoral candidate, the situation was the opposite: I felt I always need to take every offer I can because I had no position, no power nor influence on anything. So I needed to show I am “someone” who can do things by being open to all invitations. It seems to me that this tendency to “prove who you are” is quite wide-spread among candidates and I have to say from experience that it can have a number of unintended, negative consequences to yourself and to others. With the fortune of enjoying many collaborations that also work and are comfortable, they do not seem to contain an element of forcing your presence. They happen by their own accord, because people like you and you are somehow useful to them, and as result you feel like a fish in the water rather than out of it. Saying “no” to the countless possibilities there are is hopefully a precondition of finding many more collaborations like that.

Just to be clear not everything is fine and settled for my coming years. For one thing, I have no definite funding beyond early to mid next year although I am continuously applying; there are likely very few jobs for me in Finland; and for another thing, in addition to its defence that was well attended, it seems my thesis has not gathered much attention though to be frank I am happy with that situation. To me the audience of the thesis is international and mostly other academics and experts; I wrote the book for them and much of it is probably too specialized to garner public attention.

And yet things seem clear, settled, and consistent more than they have felt in a long while. That has to be the effect of writing a thesis and I look forward to many similar experiences in the future.