...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Friday, June 06, 2014

What's up, doc?



Here I am reporting from the other side of the PhD-tunnel. I’m back from some months’ worth of well-deserved freedom with only job-seeking activities to constrain me. Hah!

For the past few months, I’ve been living through a strange combination of being free and yet being somehow very busy. Being free from work is definitely underrated! People should try it more often if they can. In the first month of joblessness I felt the immense freedom of nobody telling me what to do with my day. No more waking up thinking of the day’s work tasks! – at least for an undetermined amount of time. I especially appreciate having been jobless when mom, dad and my sister were here. We formed great memories of adventure and sightseeing, but we also got used to everyday life together.

However, I haven’t been totally free. I am free from most deadlines but there are other things that need to be fixed, like the paperwork at the unemployment office and unpaid projects at the university. It turns out that a lot of work inside the academe is monetarily unpaid. This becomes more obvious when you’re no longer on the university payroll. Book- and article projects that are “good for your CV” and contact-building are things that academicians may do “on the side” of paid work, “for merit”. So, besides the official work-seeking activities I do through the unemployment office, it’s also in my interest as an academician to continue work-related activity inside university. I do this by continuing my involvement in network projects, unpaid. Obviously this has been a source of frustration for me. At the same time, the unemployment office is keeping me busy with a stream of “competence-building” activities, as conditions to get my full unemployment compensation. All is well as long as I can maximize these activities for my own interests. But everything takes time and it sometimes feels like working a part-time job, besides doing the real job applications. To top that all off, when I finally did get paid by the university for working one day a week, the unemployment office said that I could only continue this work for 75 days. After this period, they ask me make a choice between being completely unemployed (as a condition to get full unemployment benefits) or live on this one-day-a-week salary. This system is sometimes hard to understand. And yes, that’s an understatement!

Enough of that. There’s more to life as a PhD than the mysteries of unemployment benefit rules. But sometimes I really do think that either the unemployment office or the world of the academe just really isn’t in tune with “life going on out there”. And for the most part, I still am free and have relatively much time on my hands.

Is life as a PhD different from life as a PhD candidate? Yes, in some ways. When I visit my old department, my former colleagues update me on their work, their conflicts with their supervisors and worries for the future. It feels strange to suddenly have a perspective that these challenges are things I’ve already undergone and thankfully never need to go back to. From this new perspective, I feel much more senior since I can understand their situation without being there myself. Colleagues used to ask me if I had “landed” in the feeling of being a PhD and I guess this is part of what it ought to feel like. Another difference is the kind of jobs I’m qualified to look for. When I look at university openings, I look through “Postdoc and lecturer positions”, skipping “PhD positions” altogether, realizing that I’m past that stage now. I’ve also grown more comfortable with being a PhD now. In my supervisor's speech at my party, she said that a PhD degree gave a person a social and cultural capital that nobody can take away in a world with sometimes fleeting standards. For me it feels like I know myself better having passed through the other side, and nobody can convince me that I’m any less than the person I am.

Which takes me back to another unemployment office story. They’re experts at looking down on people there, it seems. Job seekers come through the door with hopes of being able to show who they are and what they can do. But they meet a government worker who is often stressed because they think they’ve heard all the job seekers’ problems and counterarguments a thousand times before. The typical government worker there seems to want defend herself from personal attacks by acting as a custodian for the rules (Heard at an obligatory seminar: “Well if you’re not happy with these rules, you can get out the system! Varsågod!”). In short, for working with people in vulnerable situations, I don’t think the workers there always act in a professional way. They meet job seekers willing to show the what they’ve got, yet they act if these people have nothing to prove. Talk about a great way to start people out on their career! Not.

Anyway, I was out there one day because I got a standard letter asking me for a proof of “my grades” (!). I come to the desk and politely explain what I’ve come for.

Government worker: Oh, OK. Show me your papers.
Me: (Opening my bag) Well, I have the originals at home, but I did take copies.
Government worker: A-huh! Copies you say. Where are they then?
Me: You see, I thought the originals were much too valuable to take to a place like this. (PANG whiffing a copy of “FILOSOFIE DOKTORSEXAMEN” at her desk).

Man, you should have seen how she wasn’t as cocky anymore after that. 
Sad but true story.



Friday, March 28, 2014

Hoooorah! Yehey! Whee! Whoohoo!



I want to write about something before many of the small memories and mental pictures fade from my brain, before I go on vacation and get loads of other impressions from this spring. I’d likely not forget the factual details about this event. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The memory of it – and its implications in my life – will be a part of me forever. But certainly, sooner or later, some of the feelings and memories connected to that moment might feel less concrete after a while. So I write in a way that travelers write about their travels: because I want to be able to look back and remember how it felt, and share my memories with others.

The thing I want to write about is that I’ve crossed to the other side. I’ve written four articles over the past 5 years, printed a book last month and passed my thesis defense last Friday. This series in my life had sometimes felt long and drawn-out. At other times, it felt hectic and and intense. I’ve been through periods of both triumph and insecurity, but also satisfaction of getting good things done, and a feeling of competence. In particular, the last half year had been a very intense period that was both an intellectual challenge (and a feat, when I look back at it!) but also an emotional one. I began to understand more and more how the PhD studies are formative years in more ways than just getting a title. Now, I write this, I’m now a PhD. After a week passed, I also feel that I am getting more satisfied and “at home” with the idea, as I begin used to the thought that my PhD studies are, indeed, all over. I made it!!!

---

The defense itself – all two and a half hours of it! – went pretty well. The opponent summarized my thesis for the public and presented some of its key points. This was followed by a part where we she asked me questions about the thesis and we discussed different dimensions of it. It seemed to me that the opponent didn’t raise very serious critiques. On the contrary I think we had an agreeable discussion and she enjoyed reading the thesis. She did raise thought-provoking points during our discussion though, which forced me to think on my feet. Yet the more we talked, the more I enjoyed our discussion and the more I enjoyed the whole impromptu aspect of the defense. I remembered that I actually like public speaking. Anyway, I enjoyed the feeling of being able to find the right words to say, and that my answers came out as clear and eloquent as I had imagined them. I must admit that that my hands were pretty cold the whole time though, probably from concentrating and from still not getting over the apprehension of going to my own thesis defense. But I did feel that I was in control of the situation, self-confident and “owning” my thesis defense in the best way. My colleague Annika warned me that she used to wake up in the middle of the night after her own thesis defense, thinking of alternative answers to questions posed at her. As for me, I feel that wouldn’t have changed anything about my defense, which is a sign of true satisfaction. Some pictures from when I was waiting for "the verdict" to arrive:

 In anticipation for  my grade to be announced (some seconds before),
the department was already pouring out the bubbly!


Ida, a colleague, made a flower wreath for me and placed it on my head...


... Soon, it fell down on my neck, but it was pretty nonetheless!

During the party celebrating my defense, my supervisor told me over dinner that I was right in the middle of a rite of passage. With the defense over and my PhD reached, she said, I was now a “senior” in the academe and have a proof of an achievement – a social capital – that no one could take away from me in a world full of change. Like all rites of passage, this one also seemed overwhelming and very personal though. Feelings of relief, happiness, pride, humility, gratitude and disbelief were all brewing up inside me during the dinner party. The thought that everyone in the party celebrated this success with me and were happy for me and my achievements made me feel really appreciated. All the work invested into thesis and all the worries about it suddenly seemed like a thing of the past. It was wonderful – but also a strange new feeling – to have so many cheer for my achievements, and hear so many heart-warming words addressed to me. When I said on this to one of my friends, he said that I seemed to be able to take all the attention well. Actually, I did feel a little self-conscious at times with all the attention focused on mostly me. But I enjoyed the atmosphere of the party really much, and was both touched, entertained and honored. In that room were all my best friends and those that mean very much to me. And I've also done something quite extraordinary, and worth yes gloating over. Besides, the shower of gifts to me was unbelievable. It felt like Christmas opening the packages the next day. Now why don’t people do PhD theses more often? :-)


But the feeling of pride and the realization of what I had gone through didn’t actually come until a couple of days later, the Sunday after the party.  Mom, dad, Lea and I walked my old friends Per and Paulina to the station. I tend to see P&P in Norrköping when big occasions happen in my life. Since their move to Gothenburg, that had been a wedding, a funeral and a PhD in the span of less than four years. It suddenly struck me how they travelled to witness a chapter in my life close and a new one begin. And that this was all about me and my own special occasion that they came for this time. As the train moved away, I shed tears as P&P were waving goodbye through the window. I walked back to the end of the platform to mom, dad and Lea. Even if I knew that they had been standing there all along, I was more thankful than ever that they were there.

The four of us opened a bottle of champagne when we got home. My fat hot tears and happy laughter combined. I felt happy, proud and satisfied. I had achieved something huge and had done an enormous work by myself. The thesis was also with little doubt after the defense a job well done. I have great reason to be damn proud of myself. And there are people who love me for whatever happens, and even at times when I’m not trying to be smart. Wonderful both ways. What are friends and family for? :-)

“There’s a doctor in the house!”

Sunday, March 02, 2014

What pensioners do in the city graveyard at night

a.k.a. Photo session turned into mom and dad's first snowball fight!

 Mom and dad arrived yesterday afternoon in time for my thesis defense, which will be later this month. In both their earlier visits (which had been in spring and autumn), they had hoped to see snow but missed it. They even stayed until early November on their latest visit, hoping that autumn would turn into winter. Of course each season have its charm — they saw budding flowers and tasted pine tree sprouts; and they experienced mushroom picking and loved looking at flocks of Canada geese — but winter is special especially if you come from a country without natural ice.

Unfortunately for them, it took a whole month after they left the last time before snow started to fall that year. They seem to always just miss the white-wintry years. On the way home from the airport yesterday, they asked if winter was always this way: brown and gray, mud and clouds, and just a shimmer of fog. Nah, this year hasn't really seen a good winter. A Swedish winter without snow is no "real winter" at all!

Today, on their second evening, they rang my doorbell at dinner time telling me that snow had began to fall. "It's so white!", dad said. Mom said it was a sign of being suitably dressed that she didn't feel cold. See, they're on the right track already!


After dinner, some of the new snow already melted into slush so we went into where the snow was still thickest, which was the nearby cemetery (Yep!). Good thing that none of them turned suddenly superstitious.

Above: pensioners' version of "baby's footsteps in plaster of Paris casts".

I remember the first time dad and mom saw natural ice during their first visit in Sweden (spring). The previous day's puddles froze into thin films of ice that cracked, resembling something like clear broken plastic. It was great to see their exalted faces, somewhat with a mixture of disbelief, that there was actually ice on the ground. Another memory from that spring is when it hailed on mom, Margareta and me during a walk that year. Sounds of our laughter and excitement were interrupted by exclamations of pain when the hail hit our heads, as we ran for cover.

Somehow I thought mom and dad would be wanting to run and roll on the snow this time, but I was surprised how reserved they were in the beginning. They didn't even seem to want to get out first, and they didn't think it was a good idea to go out in the slush. Admittedly, soft melting snow makes freezer frost seem more "icy" for real. Mom was worried she would get her shoes wet by walking on the snowy grass, but dad didn't seem to want to go back to their apartment just yet...

... so I said, why not play with the snow? Make a snowball?, while I demonstrated. Wet snow is great for that.

That did the trick!





Sunday, January 05, 2014

From fish to nilaga with lots of things in between




Pretty huh? I got this from Liz and Rob for Christmas. For such a pretty thing, it’s actually a ceramic hot pad for putting warm pots on. I love the movement of the school of fish across it, the different colors, the bubbliness of the water, and that the fish seem to be happily swimming along.

I saw it at the Christmas market at Schwezingen, where it stuck out among mode impersonal geometric designs. It turns out that the seller himself had actually made this piece, and we talked to him as he ate his goulash dinner from a thermos. Hard job, this, to be in a stall all day. He said that the different colors were actually different thicknesses of glaze. There was no story behind him choosing a fish pattern. Maybe that just goes to show that not all pretty things have to have an underlying thought. So, these fish have a mass-produced kind of nature, but also – in having met its maker – also had the character of a handicraft.

When we ended the conversation, we biked out of the market with Liz 12 Euros poorer and with the fish wrapped in newspaper, inside a plastic bag on my bike handle.


- - -

Lea asked me yesterday what my projects were for 2014. Since 2012, I have tended to see my new years as an opportunity to make to-do-projects for myself, to pursue my own personal goals. Rather than making resolutions (which anyway shouldn’t just be done in January every year), I make a list of a number of things that I would like to experience or accomplish during the year. It could be something that I want to improve on, or a dream of a travel destination. It could be a training- or work goal, or an ambition to learn something new. During the course of the year, these projects also have a way of leading into new goals.

2012 was a year of indifference to fear, and at the same time a search for some kind of juice in life. I took my Swedish license and bought my own car. I started strength training again and hiked a lot to prepare for hiking in the Swedish mountains. I also challenged my own discomfort with water to new heights, and I learned to paddle a kayak and to swim crawl. I even hopped from a diving platform for the first time in my life. Behind this I guess I also wanted to test the limits of mental toughness. I enrolled in a survival course and a military weekend that autumn (And actually, they were quite alright, too!).

When I home on New Year’s Eve after celebrating Christmas in the Philippines, I felt a sense of hope. 2013 for me has been a year of optimism and a belief in the future. Many of my goals also had to do with improvement, and many of them also became good shared memories with friends. I improved my balance on skates (with a slippery start in Valla’s ice oval!), learned to ski better (also in powdery snow!), and even tried downhill skiing for the first time. I discovered during downhill skiing that I’m not as indifferent to fear as last year, even though my past successes give me hope that I can learn. I also ran my first marathon and climbed Sweden’s highest mountain in good time before turning 30 - Hoorah! (Yes, that reminds me: I have to blog about that climb one day. Haha!). These experiences have contributed to a lot of joy in my life this year. Anything is possible!
 

Some scenes from this year's New Year's walk in the city. 

- - - 

It’s 2014 now. Time to think ahead again. This year’s big thing is the dissertation. In some ways this is even bigger than my previous projects, just because I get a title from it :-) Ending the thesis also seems a good way to start the first quarter of the year: I see a clear goal, and I can almost taste it now. Funnily the next half of the year is a big unknown terrain yet where work is concerned. Hopefully there will be full- or part time research- or teaching positions open in my university (and in my field) by spring. Otherwise, it’s up to me to apply for post-doc funding to place here or elsewhere (depending on the conditions attached to the post-doc). The prospect of moving isn’t very tempting though.

So the first on my 2014 project-list is: 

(1) Finish my dissertation. Make it as good as you can do it. Graduate and get a job within the university.

I’ve also thought of other projects, but they kind of pale in comparison to graduating. But here they are anyway:

(2) Set up radio, do DX-ing. I already contacted my landlord about the possibility of setting up an antenna.

(3) Load my film camera with film (two whole years after Lea delivered it here!). Start taking pictures with the film camera, learn the basics. As a motivation, maybe post some of the best results online.

(4) Cook more. Not just lunchbox food, but good ole’ home-cooked Sunday meals like I used to have time for. Started today by defrosting a whole chicken. Half of it became nilaga (Sunday chicken soup), and the other half became some thai dish (future lunchbox item). I love cooking and I should invest more time into it.

(5) I also have a fifth project at the back of my head but seems impossible in this rainy winter. I got money from M&M to enroll in a skiing course, since I want to improve. If this waits till next season is something that’s up to the weather. On the other hand, since I’m all busy finishing my dissertation right now, I don’t actually mind a dry and unexciting winter weather outside.

That’s it for now. Let’s see what the next half of the year brings job-wise so maybe I can start planning other things too.

 Not the fish, but chicken in the nilaga. Just posting it because I'm to eat it now :-)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

This year's last chance to blog


Help! I’m stuck inside a Christmas decoration!

Ah, it’s the last day of 2013, and my last chance to write that promised blog entry about something not thesis related! It seems like time has been in fast-forward since November. Many things have been happening, but I just haven’t had the time to sit down and write for myself. I’m taking myself by the collar now though. Just two short reports in the meantime, before I get ready for the New year's celebrations.

Hammy birthday to me

In November and in time for my 30th birthday, I passed the exam for my amateur radio license. I didn’t even have the time to blog that I was in a ham radio course in the first place. In hindsight those three weekends went by so fast – together with the intensive thesis writing – that they were over before I knew it! The amateur radio course was anyway a nice break for my brain from all the thesis writing. As it’s been a while since I studied any math or physics or memorized so much information, it actually felt that I was activating another part of my brain.

The course takes you through the basics of what one ought to know as an amateur radio operator. There’s a little bit about electrical fundamentals, a little bit about radio components, and a little bit on wave propagation and radio modes. Another part of the course dealt with proper conduct over radio, the phonetic alphabet, radio- and country codes. The theoretical parts took a little longer for me to study, and it took a while for me to grasp how AM and FM actually work. Any comprehensive knowledge would probably require me to enroll in a Physics class. But the memorizing bit was easier. In the light of the recent news hype on Swedish gradeschool kids scoring way lower than their Chinese counterparts, I do think that my schooling in the Philippines has drilled me to memorize more than any other people in the room. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that I can retain this memory for very long. Ask me what Brazil’s or Switzerland’s country codes are in a few months and I’ll try to jog my memory. But what isn’t used has a tendency to be forgotten.

This brings me to another point: a project for 2014 to set up a radio here at home and try to do DX-ing (long-distance radio communication). My impression from previous JOTAs is that that DX-ing could be an exciting hobby. What is good about radio is that you don’t even have to sit for long hours or always be on the air. “Modern” communication over Internet and mobile makes us take for granted that you can contact anyone, anywhere, anytime. The radio has its own old-fashioned and timeless charm in that contacts are often unpredictable. You have to use some fantasy to imagine what the other person’s radio shack might look like. The people on the other side could be a tent in a forest, an island or a lighthouse (at least in theory) anywhere where your signal is recieved.

Frohe Weihnachten!

I also recently got back from spending Christmas with Liz and family in Germany. It’s been a while since I was there. The last time was almost two years ago for Fasching (Mardi Gras). It’s nice to keep in touch, and to remind my nephews that I exist in real life and not only as a tiny picture in Skype! I think they used to believe that Lea and I were the same sister, heheh. I better put things right!

It was an activity- and food-filled week as it always seems to be around Christmastime. One day, we went swimming in a large swim center; the next day, I went skating with the kids. It was my first time in hockey skates and I was a bit worried at first if I could make it. Well, I faked it till I made it. Hockey skates not that different from tour skates, it seems, except that I can do smaller circles with them. Also, my older nephew who is 7 years can skate backwards with them and I can’t. Ah, well! I guess I can learn that in the future.

Alright, more blogging in 2014! I’m off to the future now. Many warm wishes and hugs!

Sunday, December 01, 2013

I'm baaaack!

Hey you guys out there in cyberspace!

Yes, yet another whole month has gone by, now it's the first of Advent. I have been thinking for weeks that I should write about how wonderful it is to be momentarily) free from the stress of writing my thesis introduction. Is is liberating it is to re-discover projects like cooking and exercise after my month of hermitage, yet it is also strange it is to just sit and wait for comments to come. (They will come, in a seminar this Thursday). I guess I was too busy enjoying myself though — or alternatively, recovering from the college equivalent of "hell month" — to blog earlier. At the back of my mind, I also know I deserve to make the most of this breather before the next intensive ride. During the slow days when I wasn't working too much, I realized that I actually missed that feeling of not being pressed to produce and achieve, and have the right to just be. With all due respect to wanting to keep a productive work ethic, there was really no reason to feel guilty about going home at 3pm when I had nothing more to do. Everybody knows there will be enough work to fill the days of the short months to come. I'll soon be doing the final intensive revisions before the thesis goes to press, and will publicly defend five year's worth of work in March.

A colleague and I were discussing how PhD candidates and junior academicians are generally bad at giving themselves credit. We're used to constantly working on draft after draft, with two articles or so in parallel. After burning the candles at both ends to a piece of text, we send the manuscript in. We think to ourselves: "Hmm, it's not bad, but not perfect. Surely the reviewers / supervisors have a lot of things to say about those weak points. Still lots to improve". In a time-pressured publication line, we move on to the new manuscript project until the old draft comes back from review. In the face of the new challenge, there is seldom time to bask in the achievement of your finished draft. It's not something until it's published. When working on a thesis, one published article doesn't even count until you've got four. Those four don't count to a full thesis until you've written your introduction, and all that doesn't count until your thesis defense day. So the achievement of a "mere" draft — of all those agonizing / exciting hours where most of the work goes in burning candles at both ends — seems always overshadowed by the next big thing. The finish line keeps on moving further all the time. But goodness knows we have the right to feel proud and happy and gloat about something being done! Sometimes I see myself from an outsider's perspective and think myself, "Geez, it's not bad what you've achieved given the circumstances," and I feel so proud of myself that I could cry.

So, I write this partly as a future message to myself in the (ahem, excuse the pun) advent of these intensive months ahead. I know my introduction draft isn't perfect. I also know I will get all sorts of comments on Thursday's final seminar. I expect to be working like crazy until February. But that's not the point. That shouldn't give me any reason to devalue the independent work that I've already done, and that shouldn't prevent me now from enjoying the fruit of my work. Or yes, bum around while I may ;-) I needed these three weeks' distance from my thesis manuscript. Life isn't all about work.

In these weeks of not writing actively on my thesis, I almost booked a trip to New York to my old high school friend and celebrate the month when I turned 30. I decided to stay at home though, and just relax and enjoy the November quiet. But yes, in the middle of all this, I also turned 30. It sounds special. It also kind of puts things into perspective. There had been times these past years that I had felt quite old and worn. But turning 30 made me see another sense of beginning. While the end of my dissertation is near and I look to another 10 years to 40 (!), the future is also just opening up, for work and for whatever comes along in life.

P.S. Glad to still see blog comments from folks I don't know, who drop in and think it's fun to read the PhD-related stuff and the other miscellaneous things around here. I will try to write about something not thesis-related the next time, and write more about Sweden again. Keep tuned!

Friday, October 25, 2013

BRB!

October is soon over and I haven’t written a sentence here. All sentences written this month has been going to the dissertation introduction, right now at 35 pages and about 93% of my goal text output. The thinking work behind the text (which is tiring physical work more than it’s given credit for, I’m telling you!) is probably twice to thrice as much as the text reveals.

You name it: inspiration, frustration, feelings of competence and doubt – October has it. Basically, if someone told me at the start of this PhD that I would not only be in for an intellectual challenge but also a physically and psychologically strenuous period, I would probably have noted this, but would never have understood how these last months of production could really feel like a test of fire. All for the license of being an academic! Haha! You have to keep distance to this job to the humor in it sometimes. 

Seriously though, I do have ambitions of making this thesis as good as it can be, make it enjoyable to read but factually solid, and most of all, make it mine. So, it’s personal that way. Hard to imagine otherwise if you have spent five years on an intellectual product.

So, October has been strenuous, but when I see my text now I can feel a tranquilizing feeling of relief and pride. Granted, there’s still a bit of the finish line to go. I have yet a Discussion to write. But now I finally feel that something is coming out from all this work; like something being squeezed and coming through to the other side. Hey, didn’t Socrates say that thinking was like giving birth? This project that I’ve been working on for five whole years is now taking shape into something independent of me – a book that will bear my name. It's very hard not to feel the weight of anticipation, and see this product in a personal way, like setting a child free into the world with motherly hopes and fears projected in it … And yet, at the bottom, it’s really just an academic degree. Life goes on. Proportions, dear. Proportions.

BRB

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