Year in Review: Lows #2

Being so utterly disappointed in Facebook’s interpretation of my 2016, I decided to think seriously about how my year actually has gone. As far as things go, it’s been a pretty big one. Over the next 10 days, I’ll be reviewing my year by alternating between the worst and best bits of the year. I hope that the introspection and discussion can set us up for a better year next year.

We’re getting into the sincerely worst parts of my life since last Christmas, so buckle up.

Panic at the deadline.

I talked in my last post about failure, but here I have to expand on exactly how I failed. Studentships in the physical sciences are usually funded for 3 years, subsidizing your living expenses and paying for your “tuition”, i.e. insurance costs to the University. I started my PhD in July 2013, so July 2016 was supposed to be my deadline. There’s an expectation of every PhD student that they submit their thesis by the end of the third year, and [spoiler alert] I wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t really even close.

Now, here’s where things get messy. Technically all that was going to happen at the end of my 3 years was that I was going to lose my funding. Technically, I could still submit before July 2017 and everything would be fine. Frankly, if I’d known that, none of this would have happened.

However, Universities are big on; bureaucracy, paperwork, and guidelines, most of which are really badly worded. I had been trying to work out what I actually had to do to stay on the course and finish. The regulations were so poorly worded that they didn’t help. In fact, the way the regulations were laid out led me – on a perfectly reasonable reading, I might add – to believe that there was some serious life-or-death paperwork involved for which I’d missed the deadline. You see, the regulations don’t mention what happens regarding funding at all, and only discuss “extensions” with the intent of laying out what the maximum possible time it can take anyone to do a PhD. But the crucial context is inadequately explained, and so someone without an advisor and without practical knowledge of how regulations are applied – like yours truly – can easily and dramatically misunderstand their intent.

To me, they were saying that I wouldn’t have a chance to stay on the course. I was devastated. My three years had been wasted. I’d gone through sleep deprivation and misery and anger for nothing. All was ash.

Now, I am sitting here writing this blog as Dr. S Chick. Clearly I was mistaken. You see, it transpired at great length (and inadequate notice) that the garbled nonsense of the regulations didn’t apply to me until 2017, and instead “all” I had to do was get an extension to my funding, which is significantly less arduous. So: a misunderstanding that made me feel bad. Surely not “worst bit of my life” material?

Well, it depends on how you look at it. For me, the icing on the cake is that the panic was needless. The mean time to completion for a PhD student is much closer to 4 years than it is 3. I’ve seen the data. This sort of thing happens all the time and yet nobody ever tells the students this.

Worst part of my life? No: it makes second because it wasn’t real. But it makes it this far precisely because it was so futile and needless. Precisely because it was preventable, and because I am probably not the first or last person in my office to go through it. And because despite my advocacy, the University is still doing nothing about it.


About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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