Well as I’m at the end of the PhD now, I thought I’d share some of my most embarrassing moments. Why?
1) They are funny.
2) Each was caused by a lack of professional maturity (and so each can be learnt from).
3) So that other people either beginning their PhD or part way through it, who might also have found themselves in these sorts of situation, can enjoy a wee moment of recognition.
Doing academic work puts you in a whole host of scenarios that no part of your previous life prepares you for. For instance, doing my PhD put me in Philadelphia. Being in Philadelphia was not a likely thing to have happened to me. Nor does it particularly suit me. Nevertheless there I went and was.
On with the cathartic exercise.
Straight out of the gate, I went to a big conference. I wasn’t presenting any work, but there were some people who I knew I should really talk to. After the panel that they were all in (during which I had asked an eager-beaver question that really should have been answered by the pop of a silenced pistol) I went over to them. There they were having a perfectly nice time. A little chat. There was no room at the inn. But I’m important right? I’m a first year PhD student a few weeks into my project. So I say something sycophantic to one of them, who is now wrenched out of the conversation that they were enjoying and forced to talk to me. After explaining a little about my project and talking about their presentation, it soon transpires that there isn’t much more I can say. Then came “well, when you’ve done a bit more work we can talk about it”. I FELT SO SMALL! In retrospect, I was feeling the distance between my imagined size and my actual size. I said my thank you’s and made a bee line for my hotel room, where I had a little cry. There’s one for you Thomas Dixon, more tears for your coffers.
Lesson: Relax! There are years of the PhD. You will meet people in lots of different places. Sometimes they might even come and try and find you. If you want to talk to someone, don’t make ‘talking to them’ the aim of the conversation. You’re there to work and have fun, not gush over people you admire. You dumb shit.
This one is a bit worse. I was at a book launch at the end of which the decision was taken to make a presentation to ‘BIG PROF’ who had recently won an award of some kind. An impromptu speech was given, the presentation was made, a quick ‘thank you’ speech was given in return, and then everyone got back to enjoying the wine and nibbles. At this point my brain said ‘go congratulate BIG PROF by giving them a glass of wine’. Fucking brain. The number of times it’s done stuff like this to me…euch, anyway, I go get a glass, walk over with a small respectful smile and find – surprise surprise – BIG PROF already has a glass of their own. But my arm was going forwards. My balance had shifted and everything. The glass was going forwards now and there was no way to stop it. There were two options a) turn the movement into a threatening one and throw the wine over their face, b) force them to take the glass. Which is what I did, and then walked away.
Lesson: Don’t do it. Don’t. It’s not a good idea. Save it for friends. Hell, save it for people who know your first name.
Another conference, but this time I was presenting. I made the effort to memorise the paper because I’m always impressed by people who can do that, or who can give the appearance of doing it but are really making it up as they go. A fortnight’s solid effort and I had the thing memorised. On the day of the presentation, I get two lines in and go blank. I had to go back to the podium and read from my script (only at certain points did my memory kick in, but I’d lost confidence by then and felt pretty dejected about the whole sorry thing, which was reflected in my performance). I got through it, got asked some very generous questions, but it took everything in my power not to immediately lock up the room and burn it down with everyone inside so that nobody would ever know what had gone on in there. “Why did this happen?” the relatives of those who perished would ask. “Because someone who spent a couple of weeks learning a twenty minute paper by heart, fluffed it pretty much straight away, and wished to kill everyone.” That evening, rather than grow up a bit, I was very insular at dinner, to the point of being rude to the kind people who had made the effort to take our panel out for some food. I’d like to go back and slap that guy.
Lesson: Play to your strengths. I now write my scripts in a conversational tone, and don’t worry about reading them aloud. I just make my presentations interesting and engaging for my audience in different ways. If everyone went around giving dazzling unscripted performances all the time, academia would be a terrible place to work. A terrible terrible peacocky place.
Well that’s all. No doubt more embarrassing things will happen to me, but by then I’ll be so well established in the field that people will just write them off as eccentricities.
That’s enough of me enjoying myself, back to work now. Bye.