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Setting priorities

January 7, 2013

I made it back to Belfast for the 3rd, not without struggle. I didn’t appear in the office till the afternoon, where a very few others had also gathered, returned from the south, the States, London. There was almost an hour of chat, of catching up, which is fairly unusual. All of us early-returners are third years or more, with tight schedules and theses to produce in the very near future. None of us are up for whiling away the  hours.

I have plunged into my song thrush analyses. Over the Christmas I had, in fact, decided to not do precisely this. I needed a break from measuring measuring measuring. My eyes ached from staring at the monitor. Distance was blurring in an alarming fashion. It was bad enough for me to get my eyes checked over the holidays, and I’ve a new pair of glasses ordered (I got the original pair just over two years ago, and only because I had starting ringing training – bird ringing, that is, or banding as its known to my swathes of North American readers – and the numbers on those shiny metal bands were just too tiny, and carved into a too-reflective surface, for my middle-aged vision to cope). But I didn’t really need glasses, you understand. Certainly not for reading. Well, it’s different now. The optician confirmed that my declining sight is that of the obligatory age-related type, combined with the strain of staring at a monitor for 8-10 hours a day. Reassurance came with an interesting fact: too much computer work strains the eyes because we blink up to two-thirds less when staring at pixels. Our eyes become fixated in a way that they don’t when staring at natural images, real things. I now have eye drops to manage the dehydration that accompanies staring into glare.

Anyway, as I say, I’d planned to give myself a break from measuring measuring measuring, and amuse myself with some stats, but, lo and behold, the licence for the SPSS stats package has expired on my computer, and the computer tech is still on leave, so that settles that. Back to birdsong in the raw. Then a chance encounter with a postdoc alerted me to the fact that R classes are starting on the 5th February. Oh dear. R is a programming language that can be used to do stats. It’s all the rage, and all the bright young things are really into it. It invokes in its followers Messianic complexes, an urge to convert the masses to its truth on a vast scale. Not without some merit. It’s free over the internet for one thing, so there’s no inconvenient licence agreements to maintain. So it’s eminently portable for students and academics on short-term contracts moving from institution to institution. For those who have the time and inclination to learn it, it’s apparently marvellously powerful and flexible. That is, for those who learn it. At my supervisor’s behest, I did a five-day course in it, the first summer of my PhD. So, I should have learned it. I didn’t learn it. I found the course stressful, the language tedious, the execution of commands convoluted and trap-setting, inviting me into endless mistakes and frustration. I wasted a week of my life. As a (very) late returner to science, my statistical prowess is not brilliant at the best of times, and between the famous Paper, nine months of fieldwork (including all the prep), and the debate about the technical and methodological issues (, that prowess really hasn’t had the chance to develop much. Indeed, I have so much analysis and writing to completes, that even with ferocious self-discipline, it’s going to be difficult to finish for October.

Self-discipline for me doesn’t involve a lack of work-ethic. I have work-ethic coming out of my ears. I use work as remedy for outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows, and, more to the point, I enjoy work. I like being busy and stimulated. Where I need to exercise self-discipline is in not overcommitting. I’m inclined to unrealistic expectations of myself. I drive myself too hard, often ending in a weeping heap of  insomniac exhaustion. Where I need to learn self-discipline is in how to cut back. I can’t do a PhD, write poetry (not to speak of my back-burner novel), get a ringing licence, keep the wheels of various personal stuff turning, maintain relationships, supervise an honours student, explore what to do post-PhD, all at the same time. Ain’t possible. Astonishingly, for a large part of me, this is still news. I have to keep breaking it to myself.

Over Christmas, I did manage to bring myself to make a few decisions in this regard. I am not pursuing getting a ringing licence. It takes three years, one has to handle hundreds of wild birds. Completely unfeasible. Weekends are far too short as it is. Yes, if I stay in research, in ornithology, it would be wonderful to have licence. I know all the arguments. Individual identification. Population studies. Blood samples. Genetics. But, coming to terms with limits again, I have to prioritise. And getting a ringing licence, is like another layer of symbolic redemption on top of doing this PhD, where I find myself with the opportunity to re-do my youth. But second chances can be dangerous. They give the illusion that it really is all possible, eternal return and renewal. The chance to do this PhD has wonderful, has restored, repaired, so much for me. But it doesn’t wipe out decades of my life. I’m not 25 or less, just starting out. I turned 48 over the holidays, and while becoming a professional scientist or ornithologist may not yet be out of the question, such a move will nevertheless be shaped by my history.

Back to R. I feel guilty because I’m suppose to have learned it. And I haven’t had time to learn it, I didn’t enjoy the course, and realistically, mastering SPSS is probably enough for me at present. Doing the first course wasn’t my idea, and I don’t have to berate myself for not having the wit to say no. My supervisor’s motives were good, but I’m his first PhD student, and I’m obviously not typical. My strength is in writing. I have to get my analysis completed, I have to provide myself the time to write. I don’t want to use that time to learn a programming language which can be learned another time, if it turns out that that would be the wise thing to do. But, another perennial difficulty for me, I’m finding it a difficult decision to make. However, at least I have a few weeks to come to terms with it.

The other decision I made over the holidays was to turn down the creative writing work I’d been offered in a local school. It wasn’t a firm offer, but I had felt obliged to accept out of some sense of social responsibility, and to ‘keep my hand in’. But my stomach was turning over, at the thought of open-ended public ‘performance’, given my relative lack of practice in such activities over the last few years, added to my perennial control-freakery and inability to wing it. I withdrew, and I’m glad I did. I congratulate myself for the time saved, not only in the delivering of the sessions but also in the preparation. I made a good call.

I’m trying to give myself credit for making these decisions, even if they are a struggle to make. I still want to do everything! But I need to focus, hone, pare down to the main priorities, if I’m to have any hope of finishing for October, Christmas at the latest. That’s a year or less. I can do this for a year or less.


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