Monday, September 19, 2016

The Last Dance

I started this blog over six years ago with two goals: first, to stop hounding my family with long emails about what I thought about such and such political development; and two, to describe what the process of doing a Master’s degree was like.  As I started a PhD it seemed like a natural extension to cover what that process was like, so I kept going. 

          I’ve covered a lot of ground since then, both personally and on this blog.  I’ve done 480 posts, 312 excluding the music stuff.  It’s been a useful way for me to clarify my own thinking, and I think I’ve answered a few questions usefully.  I even got into a minor tiff with an ersatz politician.  And now, finally, I got to use the word ‘ersatz’. 

          But I’ve decided to make this post my last.  As I finish my formal education and figure out what’s next, it seems appropriate to end this blog.  I could keep doing it, without it being a great hardship to me, but I’m just ready to move on.

          I hope it’s been interesting.  Thanks for reading.      

Friday, September 16, 2016

Song of the Week: "School's Out For Summer" - Alice Cooper

Now it may seem cruel to post this as song of the week when, for most students, school is most decidedly not out for summer.  But it is out for me.  I spent as long in university as I did in grade school, which means I've been registered as a student at one place or another since 1991.  

And despite always having been a good student, I never once enjoyed going back to school come fall, never once looked forward to it.  You can be good at something without always enjoying it.  So this one's all for me.  School is indeed out forever.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Should I do a PhD?

As an epilogue to my five year series on what it’s like to do a PhD, a few final reflections in the hope of providing clarity to some poor soul asking themselves this very question.

          For context (if you’re new), I recently completed a PhD in political science from a major Canadian university.  I did it in just under five years and with a major funding package, as well as a supportive spouse.  All of that had an impact on my particular path.

Reasons why you should do a PhD:

          1. You’re getting funding.  Seriously, this is gigantic.  It’s a very common story to hear of grad students who live below the poverty line.  I know a few, and I know that funding packages can differ significantly from university to university and program to program.  But I return to a piece of advice I got from my MA advisor when I was considering doing a PhD:

Friday, September 9, 2016

Song of the Week: "Love at the End of the World" - Sam Roberts Band

I knew when I was waiting for my PhD defense to start I'd go right for Rage Against the Machine.  But after the defense, I needed the opposite: something to calm me down and let me catch my breath after a two hour grilling.  It says something about Love at the End of the World, both the song and the album, that it was my first choice without even thinking about it. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Song of the Week: "Bulls on Parade" - Rage Against the Machine

As I mentioned earlier this week, during my PhD defense, they sent me out at the beginning for about 15 minutes and after for about 20 minutes.  Both times I had my Ipod.

At the beginning, I was essentially entirely composed of adrenaline.  I knew I'd need music to hype me up, and my go to was "Bulls on Parade."  As I've said before, I was a big Rage Against the Machine fan at about 18.  Which is exactly the right age for that.  So while Zach de la Rocha's angry "fuck the system" lyrics looks different to me now, I still like RATM's music a lot.  It's perfect hype music.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Post-Hole Digging XXV: Post-Hole Dug

          I successfully defense my dissertation last week, just a few days shy of five years after starting the PhD program (ahem). 

          Many people told me to relax, and assured me it would go fine.  I knew that, but as I said last time, it’s easier to think that once you’re on the other side of the defense.  In all honesty, the day of the defense itself was probably the most stressful day of my life.  Not the defense itself, but the lead up to it.

          The process itself it is fairly structured.  There are five examiners: your advisor and committee members, along with two externals, one of whom is from another university.  There’s also a chair (in my case the university uses the same guy for most PhD defenses, and he’s done over 1100 of them).  It’s open to other faculty from your department and, technically, the public.  When the chair asked me if I was expecting any colleagues to come, I told him “I sure hope not.” 

          Everyone has read your dissertation at this point.  The external examiner has written a report and sent it to the dean of graduate studies, who has to personally ok the defense going forward.  This is a particularity of my university, I think, but at the beginning of the defense they sent me out for about 15 minutes while they read the external examiner’s report and talked about whether the defense should move forward.  You wait uncomfortably in the hall (I had my Ipod), they call you back in, and then the fun starts.

          There are two rounds of questions.  In the first, each examiner gets a turn of about 15-20 minutes one-on-one with the candidate.  The external gets to take a bit more time than the others if they want.  The external’s position in the process is privileged, which is done to ensure that universities aren’t just running a hollow process internally.

          The second round is a bit less structured: the external again gets first choice, but it can turn into a broader discussion, and other examiners can jump in when they want.  This takes less time.  Then, after about two hours, you get sent out and the examiners talk about whether you pass or not.

          My advisor told me it would probably be a big blur and he wasn’t wrong.  The external was definitely the pointiest.  She wasn’t being unfair, but her purpose in the process is well-defined: she was there to put me through my paces.  There were no questions I completely didn’t expect.  A lot of the questions were speculative, asking whether my model could explain other related scenarios, why certain things weren’t included, whether x literature was relevant.  There were a very few questions about methodology, but no “on page x you say…” type questions, and no questions about my case studies.

          It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure I’d exactly describe it as hard.  It was a defense, so I defended.  You don’t have to pretend that your work is unassailable.  I acknowledged certain weaknesses, and didn’t make claims I couldn’t support.  But I also stood by my material and didn’t back down on things I didn’t consider to be weaknesses.  I felt good about my performance, and on top of the fact that I passed (the most obvious validation), I was also told that I did well.   

          You have to pass both the written and oral component.  So you could theoretically write a dissertation worthy of passing but fail to defend it properly (you’d have to re-defend in that case). 

          There are a few categories of pass.  There’s pass without revisions (or with only very, very minor things like typos), which is pretty rare.  Then there’s pass with minor revisions, which is the most common (and what I got).  This is a situation where the committee wants to see a few changes (explain a bit more here, mention this author’s work here, etc.) but generally believes the work should pass.  Minor revisions are to be done and supervised by the candidate’s advisor. 

          There’s also pass with major revisions, and this is where parts of the work are not defensible and have to be significantly changed.  This work has to be reviewed by the candidate’s committee (three people). It’s not a great result, and it’s pretty rare.  In principle you don’t get to enter the defense room unless you’re ready.  And as my advisor told me, when someone finishes with major revisions, examiners can usually see it coming from a ways away. 

          There’s also, in theory, a fail.  But that would be very rare.  And it’s not so much an absolute fail as it is a non-pass with very major revisions.

          And now it’s essentially done.  And an incredible load off.      

Friday, August 26, 2016

Song of the Week: "Nautical Disaster" - J.P. Cormier

CBC Music has spent the summer going bananas on The Tragically Hip (honestly, it's been about three posts a day).  Recently, they posted their 10 favourite Hip covers.  Some are worth checking out (I like Hey Rosetta's cover of "Ahead by a Century").  But the clear stand out is J.P. Cormier's cover of "Nautical Disaster," a profoundly creepy song that retells the story of the sinking of the Bismarck during World War 2.  Also a song that became a major hit for The Hip, which says a lot about the band and their context.

I don't know that I can pin down what makes a good cover.  I'd think it's about doing just more than a faithful reproduction, but then again playing a recognizable version is likely part of a good cover.  There are probably many ways to make a great cover.

What J.P. Cormier does is transform the song.  His guitar work is incredible, but what his version does is uncover the root of it: hearing this version makes me realize that "Nautical Disaster" was a folk song all along.  I don't know that I'll be able to hear it again the same way.  It's sort of the same phenomenon as when I realized that The Guess Who's "Undun" is actually a jazz song.