Blog | May 2009

Losing Track of Time and Other Side Effects of Pursuing a Doctorate

by Monika Palmberger


The title “research blog” may raise high expectations of juicy stories full of adventures in exciting places. Apologies, therefore, for reminding you once again (see the January and April blogs) that research (even of the kind conducted by anthropologists!) involves pretty unexciting phases. After three years in the field (Bosnia and Herzegovina) this phase has finally caught up with me. The challenge: Tuning down exiting stories to academically acceptable text while describing lengthy observations in a way worth reading. However, some phenomena connected to writing-up are truly exciting. For this month’s blog, I want to look at one of them: the loss of a sense of time.

I have been fascinated by the peculiarities of time ever since high school. I therefore devoted my graduation project to this subject. For it I spent an entire week living in a remote cottage in Austria’s countryside without a watch, radio, TV or any other man-made means to tell time. It was quite an experience – but nothing compared to the situation I sometimes find myself in now.

Last September, I moved into one of the neat offices at our institute. Unlike Goran (see February blog) my window does not face the garden with its old trees and squirrels running around, but one of the noble villas of the “Ostviertel”, one of the fancier parts of town. At first I was worried this opposite building would restrict my view (especially since you never know how much your environment influences your mind). The kindergarten right next to it also was a bit of an issue since the little go-carts and their riders certainly were louder than the squirrels on the other side would have been. It did not take long, however, to realise the advantages of the office’s location as it provided me with something almost beyond price: a glimpse of real life, of a world outside the ivory tower.

Sitting at my desk, from the corner of my eyes I can see the neighbour’s toddler’s room and twice a day I notice an almost ritual-like opening and closing of the curtains. The fact that the child goes to bed twice during office hours is not as surprising as the fact that I sometime find myself working on a paragraph when the child goes to bed and still poring over it when it wakes up again!

How different the experience of time can be also becomes obvious with friends pursuing careers outside academia. Only a year of my doctoral studies had passed when they started asking me when I would finally finish. From the second year onwards they expected to hear the good news each time we met (while I was secretly celebrating every sub-chapter I had finished).

Sometimes the loss of a sense of time can lead to quite awkward situations. I remember, once when a colleague asked me whether we should schedule a certain event we were preparing in “October”. I thought hard – not about the actual question but about what month it was. In order to keep up with the time passing, I am especially grateful to staff who decorate our institute according to the season (Christmas trees, Easter eggs etc.). Besides, it is great to have colleagues around (and a reliable colleague who never forgets to knock at the door reminding me of lunch break – thanks Sören!), as I have found that engaging with other humans is extremely helpful in locating oneself in place and time.

A professor of mine once told me and the other new doctorate students in his class about how he suffered from delusions during the writing-up phase of his thesis. He said, he was telling us in order to “prepare” us for what may lie ahead for us. This in mind I have no reason to complain, I guess. Perhaps I am spared such extreme experiences because of my twin sons, born at the beginning of my current studies, who have kept me from going adrift too far. I also owe it to them that so many spots and corners of the four cities we have lived together so far – Oxford, Mostar, Sarajevo and Göttingen – are full of pleasant memories providing important additional meaning to the past years. Celebrating their fourth birthday last week, however, made me realise that it is time to get on with writing-up and move on to the next project.


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