Grad School

Well, I am currently in Russian class, which is today being exceptionally and exclusively delivered in Dutch.  Needless to say, I have no idea what’s going on—so after a rather protracted break, voici—a blog post!

I handed in my final piece of work for my Masters course nearly a month ago now.  Already.  I don’t even know how that happened.  It seems max four months ago that I was sitting in my course convenor’s office, giggling uncontrollably because I was so excited to start!!  (Yup, I’m that student.)  The last six months in particular were spectacular—in terms of my subjects, in terms of writing my papers, and in terms of writing my dissertation as an experience.  Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to have some truly awesome professors at the school.

Grad school is very different in Europe to in Australia, I think.  I don’t know that many people who have done it in Australia, for a start.  It’s not really necessary.  But here, everyone gets their Masters—there’s no question about it; it’s a market necessity.  In countries such as Germany you can do it for free, and here in Belgium it’s 800 euro a year (if you’re not at a British university, which I am).  This leads to a couple of peculiarities.  For one, a huge number of people seem to do their Masters without any actual interest in the subject area whatsoever.  It’s not about ‘mastering’ something, it’s about getting a piece of paper in order to start life.  To me this seems problematic for several reasons—firstly, people are expending a lot of time and capital in getting a qualification which they are not interested in, while simultaneously ‘education inflation’ means that a Masters degree will lead only to a couple of years of free internships before being considered for a paid job.  It becomes an entry-level qualification, or even a sub-entry qualification.  Secondly (thirdly?), there’s this idea of ‘paying for a piece of paper’.  Even though my school is way more expensive than the others in the region (again, British university :/), this is something which has been said to me a few times.  I have one guy in mind, who during his first semester bragged about not doing a single reading, didn’t participate in class (when he showed up at all), and just wants to ‘scrape through’ like he ‘did in his undergrad’, because at the end of the day the bit of paper is all that matters.  What kind of heresy is that?!  And yet these are the people with whom I am competing in the jobs market—and in fact they, in many if not all cases, have an advantage, because while they may not have actually learned anything, they are EU citizens and usually at least bilingual.  But they just don’t care !!!  Aaaagh!!!

Frustrations aside however, my course has been absolutely fantastic.  In writing my last round of papers, I couldn’t help but think what an incredible privilege it is—to do nothing but study for a protracted period of time, and to conduct investigations and write papers on topics in which we’re interested.  I mean, how much further from subsistence living can you get?  Education is such a magical and rewarding thing, and I’m so glad (/amazed/in awe) that it’s something I’ve had access to.  As a woman particularly, there are so many times in human history in which this would not have been open to me—relatively recent times.  And even now, in countries all over the world, it’s not a possibility.  So yeah.  I feel lucky.  Really, really lucky.

As to what’s next, well—the eternal question!  I’m still flip-flopping between going straight on to do a PhD, and returning to work.  I think I’m tilting slightly towards the latter, but we’ll see.  And, after all, I have time to think about it: in the morning, I’m flying out of Bxl, and I’ll be spending the next few weeks walking 500km along the Spanish coast.  I’ll then be spending some time in Madrid with Nastya (who has now moved from Wales to Spain with her family), before coming back to start whatever it is I’m doing next.  Ah, how glad I am that ‘direction’ is over-rated…

Doctorado: the First Semester

With the holiday break coming up, and an extremely early flight to Copenhagen booked in the morning, I figured I can just about call this the last day of the first term of my PhD.  Because that’s what I’m doing now.  Because I am a masochist.

I’m going to keep this brief, because there are at least in theory slightly more important things I should be writing.  So, here we have it in numbers:Since mid-September, I have done 437 hours of productive work.  I’m in the habit of timing everything thanks to doing freelance work, and have applied that to my research; thus, if I stop working for even a minute, or if I get up to do something else, I stop the timer.  Of that 437 hours, 259:55:18 have been PhD-related, and the rest have been client and volunteer work.

My five main tasks at the current time are teaching, training, researching, planning, and admin.  Here’s what the breakdown looks like (‘breakdown’ being an entirely appropriate word choice):

You should not have been expecting a consistent colour scheme.

Teaching takes a big chunk due to attending lectures, meeting with students, and moreover, making sure I’ve done all the readings…!  This past semester I’ve TA’d for IR Theory and for Negotiation and Mediation, as well as done a few other one-off things.

‘Admin’ is also quite a big category, though that includes a weekly ‘research table’ with faculty and the other PhD students, supervisor meetings, abstract preparation etc.  I was also attending 3.5 hours of Spanish classes a week for the first ~6 weeks, not included in the above, before dropping it due to aggravated boredom.  I’m instead off to Madrid for two weeks in January to do some intensive classes.

Other than that, ‘research’ so far has been entirely passive, with topic development coming under ‘planning’.  Given I’m about to start pulling my literature review together, using actual words, this will soon shift from constantly reading, one slow paragraph at a time, to writing, aka staring at the screen and thinking about my choices in this life.

More generally, the challenge so far has been personal: I’m a pretty social creature, and sitting down all day inside my head is like a slow death.  As such, I’ve been making an effort to counteract it by going out every single night, as far as I possibly can, and thus have had quite a few interesting experiences thus far.  There has been a quick Sunday night trip to Antwerp to go to a punk gig, pulling an all-nighter to go to a house party in Bruges (after being invited by a girl I met one time, over one glass of wine, 18 months ago…!), listening to jazz records in a pitch-black theatre while sitting atop speakers, mild windmill trespass, and attending impro comedy theatre.  Between those and the upcoming trips and concerts I have booked, hopefully my sanity will remain (?) more-or-less (?) intact*.


* Every word here is obviously up for dispute.