My final conference

Warning: this post starts with me feeling sorry for myself but don’t worry. It has a happy ending.

I’m not doing this PhD for me. I’m doing it for my supervisor. For my mother. For the boys I interviewed while doing it. I’m not doing it for me.

I’m only finishing it so that I don’t have to spend the rest of my life having to explain the fact that I’m the guy who quit a PhD at the end of his fourth year.

It adds nothing to my life. It adds nothing to the world. It is a soul-destroying, ghoulish, cesspit of fear, self-flagellation, self-doubt, guilt and misery. I’ve heard so many people in their final year of their PhD or in the first year after getting it saying that if a friend of theirs asked whether or not to do a PhD, they would recommend against it. And I’m at that stage too.

I think starting a PhD was the single worst decision I ever made for my mental health. And I’ve made plenty of bad decisions.

But I ended up on anti-depressants during my Leaving Cert. I ended up in a mental hospital during the final year exams of my Bachelors. My Masters (easily my most successful formal educational experience) still ended up with a mini-crisis that partly led to me losing my job. I even used to have panic attacks in the run-up to my entrance exam for secondary school when I was twelve. To say that I do not cope well with academic pressure is an understatement. Surely, given this catalogue of disaster, I should have known that a PhD wasn’t for me?

But I’m doing it. And I’m doing so much better than I’ve ever done before. And I’ve written tens of thousands of words this year. I’ve got to the stage where we’re discussing potential examiners’ names. But it doesn’t stop the panic. Or the fear. There’s a lot to do. There’s very little time. And I constantly feel as if I’m about to vomit. And I constantly doubt. And I’m constantly afraid.

On Friday, I was feeling sick and afraid and full of PhD-worries. But I was going to a conference, so I couldn’t do much about it. And this was a conference where I was actually speaking, and I was co-presenting with a friend, so I couldn’t just skip it like I did with the Milton Keynes conference earlier in the week.

I met my friend, let’s call her Baklava, at the train station in Dublin. She had booked the train tickets. I took the ticket from her and we walked to the train. I looked down at my ticket. She had booked the ticket under the name “Coco Starlight”. I was delighted. We boarded the train and for the first time ever, I sat with the name Coco Starlight above me in lights. So exciting.

Baklava and I sat and chatted about my PhD and our presentation on the train. When we got to Limerick, we went to find our hotel, which Baklava had booked. It’s the tallest hotel in Ireland and the second tallest building in the country, so you would think that it shouldn’t be too hard to see. Baklava is from Chicago, where you can apparently see the Sears Tower from everywhere, unless you’re surrounded by other skyscrapers. We were not surrounded by skyscrapers, but we didn’t see our hotel until we were about 2 minutes away from it.

The hotel was nice. The man at the reception desk was old-school hotel, high camp with an air of ruthless efficiency, a mix of Daniel O’Donnell, Graham Norton and a member of the Gestapo. I imagine he has opinions about everything. Strong ones. But he has an armour of priestly professionalism so you wouldn’t know it because he treats every guest precisely the same way. I also imagine old ladies ADORE him.

After we had dinner, Baklava and I went to the hotel’s leisure centre for a jacuzzi. I’ve never been in a hot tub before. Let me tell you this: I recommend it. Highly. It’s basically a large shared bath. But while you sit in it, jets of water shoot at you. They do this in a very pleasing fashion. Streams of bubbles shoot up your bottom. Also in a very pleasing fashion. It’s wonderful!

Baklava and I shared the hot tub with two of the local boyos who’d come in for a Friday night soak. One of these was an older man, who seemed quite charmed by Baklava. The other was a young man, about my age, who was clearly smitten with her. The two men swapped places, apparently to facilitate conversation between him and Baklava.

As Baklava and I chatted she wanted to show me a mark on the back of her leg that was sore. All of a sudden her leg rose out of the water. Any pretence of conversation between the two local men ended there and then as they gazed open-mouthed at her leg.

After a while the older man left and the younger man really started turning on the charm. He was a really beautiful man, with the most perfect arms and shoulders, a manly Tipperary accent and a cheeky smile. He dropped hints that he was open to going out for a drink and when Baklava (who has a boyfriend) didn’t seem to pick up on the hint, he said that he was trying to ask her out. Silence and giggles ensued. He said that this was all very awkward and asked me if I wanted to change the subject and I genuinely couldn’t think of a thing to say. Eventually, Baklava asked him about his job and we all pretended to be interested in tractor seat distribution while the awkwardness died down. Eventually, after another half-hearted attempt to give Baklava his number, the young man climbed out of the hot tub, leaving us to gossip excitedly about him.

We left the hot tub and went to the hotel bar and ordered an Irish coffee each and we went up to our room to finish working on our presentation for the next day.

I can think of few things I enjoy more than making a good PowerPoint. And Baklava taught me a new trick with animations that extended our preparations into the small hours. I laughed a lot and realised that, between the hot tub and the PowerPoint, I hadn’t stressed about my PhD in hours.

I got up early the next morning and went back to the leisure centre for another go in the hot tub, as well as a spell in the sauna and steam room. It was a glorious way to start the day. I love hotels.

We had our hotel breakfast and walked to our conference. I was delighted with our presentation. The crowd were clearly very, very taken with it. Conference presentations have been one of the only areas of academic life that I’ve excelled at, and I’m glad that that was my last one of my PhD. It’s nice to go out on a high.

We got a taxi back to the train station but it was over an hour until our train so we went for lunch in the hotel opposite the station.

You would think that a hotel opposite a train station would be a place with a variety of people of all nationalities, sizes, shapes and looks. Not this one. As we walked in, it felt like we were cowboys who’d wandered into the wrong saloon. Everyone was clearly a local. And given that it was 2:00 pm, “local” was code for alcoholic. They were all men, of a variety of ages. A few were drunk. Some just looked at us suspiciously, but some called out greetings.

The giggly chat in the hot tub the previous night may be a pleasant side to being an attractive woman. The weird Deliverance-style Railway Hotel was the bad side. I was genuinely worried for my friend’s safety. We got lunch, a carvery, served off a windowsill, and ate quickly. I paid with a card, which caused a bit of a fuss and a trip to reception, because the hotel only had one card machine. In the end, only one creepy old man actually approached Baklava, but that was more than enough.

We got onto the train, having had a very varied experience of Limerick. Baklava fell asleep on the way up. She slept until I fell asleep, my snoring waking her, at which stage she woke me too.

I’m very tired after my trips to Luton and to Limerick, but the distractions I got from the grind of the PhD were very welcome. Now, I just have to finish the bloody thing.

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