helen-louise (baratron) wrote,
helen-louise
baratron

some context for people who met me after 2002

The Thing I was wittering about in my last post is an MPhil thesis. MPhil is the degree you can get if you haven't done enough original, high-level work for a PhD but have still done some. Essentially, it's the "I failed a PhD" qualification.

The reason it's an MPhil and not a PhD is because I was completely insane for vast amounts of the time from December 1997 until early 2003. I made one stupid decision which spiralled entirely out of control. Basically, I couldn't get a PhD place in the Chemistry department at Imperial because both of my potential supervisors were short of funding, so I had been going to do an MSc or MRes and then apply for a PhD the next year. But because my application went into a central pool, I got phoned up by a supervisor from the Space and Atmospheric Physics group who offered me "a chemistry project, really" to do with the modelling of soot aerosol pollution in aircraft contrails. My supervisors spoke to the guy and thought it was a good opportunity, and I thought "well, it's the same university I'm already at - what can go wrong?" and took it. Worst Mistake Of My Life.

Firstly, I was expected to teach myself all the relevant parts of a 4 year undergraduate physics degree in 2 months, with no help because the lectures wouldn't be until the spring term. Then I was expected to take a Met Office model with 50,000 lines of code and write new parts to add what we were trying to model (I am seriously not a programmer). I didn't fit into the research group socially, because everyone else went out for drinks most evenings to watch the football, and although I explained over and over again that I could not come to the bar because my asthma means I cannot breathe in a smoky environment, I was shunned. It was seen that if I had no interest in watching football with them, then I obviously did not want to be friends with them - when I'd have been happy to go to Starbucks with anyone, and even regularly brought back coffees for other people! No one wanted to talk about interesting things like books, music or science in free time, only bloody football and rugby and cricket. So none of the older postgrads or postdocs were willing to help with my problems.

I went to a conference in January 1998 and went down with glandular fever because I was stressed beyond belief. At the time I had no concept of spoon management (I don't think it had even been invented yet), and did not listen to the cues from my body. For some reason, I decided that it would look terrible on my CV if I dropped out after 3 months and went crawling back to Chemistry for a new project. I was already starting to spiral into depression and didn't even realise. Eventually, I got to the end of the first year and failed my Transfer Report (the thing needed to upgrade from an MPhil into a PhD). The head of department was horrified by the level I was working at, and I already felt like the most stupid person on the planet. Never mind that a person must be bloody clever to get 12 As at GCSE and 4 As at A-level and a 2:1 degree from Imperial College, I was convinced that I was a total fake, that I'd got onto the course under false pretenses. Of course, mental health provision at Imperial was nonexistant. (I'd already seen several doctors at the health centre during my undergraduate time, where I'd been told that if Prozac didn't help, I wasn't biochemically depressed, so it wasn't their problem. I went back because I was randomly falling asleep all over the place and putting on tons of weight, and instead of doing tests for illnesses that cause chronic fatigue they bitched at me about what I was eating - when I had no access to a kitchen to cook for myself!).

So yes, I was absolutely off my head with depression. I got dragged through the Transfer Report by doing everything my supervisor said even when I didn't understand it, and the rest of my time continued this badly. Also, I was suffering very badly from the expectation that I should be at college by 10am at the absolute latest (and didn't know about Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome at the time), which also caused me to randomly pass out with exhaustion on a regular basis. Between the depression and the lack of sleep I was finding it impossible to read books or papers about difficult physics stuff, because I'd keep falling asleep or losing concentration, so I'd read the same word over and over again and never get the whole sentence into my head at once. The more stressed I got, the worse my health got, and the worse my work got.

I should have taken a medical leave of absence, but I was certain by this point that I was permanently brain-damaged and would never regain my original level of intelligence. "Knowing" that my brain wasn't ever going to improve, I didn't see the point of taking time off because my brain would be as flabby and useless whenever I went back. The idea of talking to the college disabilities officer (who kicked major butt) did not occur to me until December 2002 when it was already almost too late.

By the time I left in 2001 at the end of the maximum four years, I had about two years worth of work and was supposed to be writing a thesis. I had no idea where to even start. Finally, I decided to try going to the doctor again, but this time went to one near my house instead of the college. I was extremely fortunate to get my current GP, but unmedicated depression for so many years meant it has taken a great deal of treatment from 2001 until now for my brain to be back to my original level of functioning.

I did not submit a PhD thesis because I couldn't. My supervisor came up with a "cunning" plan whereby I submitted my published papers in a bound format so that I'd fail on purpose and would get 12 months to write up and resubmit. This b0rked because he didn't adequately explain to the examiners what was "supposed" to be happening, and they were extremely offended by being asked to mark such incomplete & nonexistent work. So they failed me outright, I came out of the viva and tried to throw myself in front of buses. There were various options, but I decided to take whatever I could get.

Anyway. I finally went to the disabilities office and got sorted out, and was able to submit an MPhil thesis on 1st July 2003. I then waited an entire year before hearing anything back from the University of London, and the useless letter they sent said that I needed to submit a fully-bound copy of the thesis before they'd tell me the result from the examiners. I phoned up to ask if that meant I'd passed, and they said they couldn't tell me. So I have been procrastinating getting it done ever since, because I'm too afraid that I might have failed.

Completely fucked up, yes? Mmm.
Tags: life history, mental health, thesis part 2
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