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Coming home to a future

November 6, 2014

I have thought very seriously about staying in science. I loved getting the opportunity to a PhD in my forties. I loved the research itself – all of it: the fieldwork, the analysis, the writing. Most of all, the opportunity to learn so much about birdsong. It was joyous, exciting, stimulating. I learned so much about myself, as well as about the birds. It was a massive opportunity and at a personal level, a reward, and I know I made the most of it.

Since then, the bubble has burst and things have come to earth with a bang. The paper that went out over the summer, the one that was based on the methodogy chapter of my PhD, came back a few weeks ago, rejected. This paper was intended to address the dispute over methodology that I’ve referred to in previous posts ( Well, the responses were a little peculiar. The first reviewer was prepared to accept with revisions. The second reviewer roundly rejected, and pointed us in the direction of a recently published conference proceedings which contradicts our findings. And lo and behold this person (I have a strong suspicion of who this particular reviewer is) is a co-author on that paper. So obviously, they’re not going to be happy with my paper).

So there had to be a third reviewer. Again, that reviewer was prepared to accept our paper, with revisions, some of them quite major, but what the hell. I’ve been through that process before. But the next bit felt a bit strange and a little unfair. The editor went off and got a fourth reviewer, who has not accepted the paper. Then the editor used a casting vote and rejected the paper. It feels a little as if s/he didn’t want it in the first place and just made sure to get the result they wanted.

I am disappointed, obviously. And there’s no doubt that the paper could be published elsewhere. But in some senses, I was using this paper as a litmus test. Staying in science would mean working on the papers, possibly for years, if my previous experience is anything to go by. Also, there are no opportunities for me to work at the local university at the minute, so I would have to go away. Great Britain. Europe. North America. Who knows. I thought I was up for that. I thought I could work at birdsong in the future. But when it comes to the crunch, I find that I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go away. If I did a postdoc, I’d be competing with people 20+ years younger than myself. I could do it. The question is, do I want to do it? So much of my life has been spent doing what was expected of me, or what I was good at out of a sense of duty, or moral obligation, or because I’d be letting somebody down (who? where are they?). But as somebody said to me recently, just because you’re brilliant at something doesn’t mean you have to do it. I don’t know if I’m brilliant at science. I know I’m good, but I don’t know if I’m brilliant. I do know I did a very good PhD, and I’m proud of it. But my personal life took a back seat while I was doing this PhD. I’m just settling into a new life in Belfast. I’ve begun work on my long-neglected novel again. I’ve made contact with my poetry editor, attended a reading he gave recently in Belfast . There are parts of myself, really important parts of my life, that I had to neglect to get the PhD done.

But I got it done. I have proved that I can be a scientist. The question is, do I want to be a scientist, the whole shebang, the kip and kiboodle, the short-term contracts, the peripatetic lifestyle, the workaholism, the competitiveness, the single-mindedness it takes to merely coast never mind get on? I was in a little bubble while I did the PhD. I had my own little world over which, it felt at the time, I had charge. But as Barbara Ehrenreich somewhat put it, as a junior scientist your work belongs to your boss. Which is fine if you’re under 30 and have time to get yourself on your feet. But while there was much that was redeemed for me by my PhD, it doesn’t get me back my youth. It doesn’t get me back that time. I want a different direction.

For now, this is what I want: time to rest, think, write. I want to write. I wrote a 50,000+ word thesis, so I know I have the persistence to finish my novel. I want to regain the confidence, the dreaminess, what Elizabeth Bishop called the ‘perfectly useless form of concentration’ to write poetry again. In fact, I am writing semi-poetry again. And, later, I can write science. I can write about my PhD.

I cheered inwardly when Helen Macdonald won the Samuel Johnson Prize ( She combines writing about nature with memoir, history. I have aspirations myself in that direction. It’s not that I don’t know that the path I’m choosing will be equally difficult, maybe more so, to that of becoming an academic. I also know from hard experience that getting a poem published is just as hard in its own way as getting a scientific paper published.

The PhD was a blast. I had two brilliant years of fieldwork. I spoke at several conferences including two international ones, attended others. I got to immerse myself in a subject that I love. But there are other things that I love too, things that meet in me, that I want to bring together. It’s a bit scarey. There’s no career, as such. But I know my general direction. I will find a way. Once again, I’m back for the poet.


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  1. I had you in my bookmarks – shows how long it is since I visited them. I am going to head over to your new site, but wanted to say how meaningful this post is first. I also met the problem that some people just wont/cant see the value of subjectively assessed knowledge (Sandra Harding, a feminist writer calls it “strong objectivity” and it comes out of situated knowledge discussions.) I
    was 42 when I got my PhD, three children and a part-time teaching job, divorce 5 years later. I call it all my girl career. Go for yours as you seem well able to. I have read this blog from time to time and learned to love the birdsong I hear. I am off to see your new site.

  2. Thanks so much for what you’ve written elspeth. I will have to check out Sandra Harding. I agree totally with you about the subjectively assessed knowledge. I would be the first to concede that much of my methodological assessment was subjective. It had to be. The alternative was no assessment at all. However, that subjectivity, as I’ve previously written, was based on hard-won experience and expertise and was verified as far as possible. The only way to verify it absolutely would be to repeat the experiment under controlled laboratory conditions and put headphones on the birds so that the noise treatment wouldn’t be on the spectrogram at all. Which would then be criticised for not being under natural conditions!

    I haven’t given up on getting my PhD published but it may not be conventionally. But I’m enjoying my chosen pathway. I like the idea of a ‘girl career’!

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