Doctor What

It’s not quite the anniversary of my arrival here in Sheffield, but it’s close enough – and as the next three years of my life will take their triplet tempo from the semester cycle, the start of the academic year makes a suitable kick-drum-cymbal-crash. Yes, yours truly is now a registered PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, working from a rather chaotic and quickly-built proposal under the strap-line “Making Infrastructure Legible”.

No, I didn’t expect to end up here either. But I’m pretty chuffed I have.

My funding comes off the back of an EPSRC Doctoral Training Grant earmarked for research to bridge the engineering and social science faculties in the infrastructural sectors. For an assortment of reasons, this means that I’ve ostensibly part of the engineering faculty (still with the Pennine Water Group, in fact, who just happen to be the largest urban water research group in the UK), but most of my learning and research will be from the social science side of things, which means I’ll be spending a fair amount of time in the department for town and regional planning. This also means no one is sure what I’m currently timetabled for, nor what I should be timetabled for, and – to go by the two empty lecture-rooms I sat in yesterday – not on the mailing list for amendments to timetable. However, I am assured this is completely normal. Given the university has just inhaled another year’s worth of undergrad intake, one has to expect its lungs to be a bit strained. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t got plenty of work to be getting on with. I have an advantage over many new postgrads, in that I’ve got two years of research under my belt already; in theory, I already have a good idea of where I want to go with my doctorate. But there’s a whole lotta methodologies to be learned along the way, and I’m told that theses have a tendency to mutate wildly in their first year of life; looking back at the last year from this brief moment of calm and reflection, that looks eminently plausible.

It has, after all, been a year in which the going got weird, and the weird accidentally turned pro. Having had a while to chew over the stuff I’d been working on for the All-in-One project, I’d been kicking around the vague concept of “infrastructure fiction” with assorted colleagues from the unevenly-distributed contraPanglossian futurist caucus, which ended up more as a sort of methodological manifesto for doing design fiction at the infrastructural scale. I made it into a rather rambling essay, and Team Superflux generously agreed to post it on their blog.

Cue far more interest than I’d expected the idea to merit. Chairman Bruce himself described it as being “as full of good, crooked, crunchy stuff as a cracked walnut,” which will probably be my business-card strap-line blurb for life.

Not long after that, Honor Harger of Lighthouse Arts in Brighton invited me to speak at this year’s Improving Reality conference, which just so happened to be themed around the (re-)revealing of otherwise invisible underpinnings of our tech-saturated world. I accepted with pleasure, and with no small degree of Imposter Syndrome.

By this point I was getting pretty close to the end of my RA contract, so in addition to finishing things up on the contract project, I was also desperately applying for jobs at a rate of one per weekday; I won’t belabour the point, but thirty applications yielded not a single invitation to interview. While this is a general problem in all job markets, and especially in the research sector, it was compounded by me being underqualified. I was very, very lucky to get my RA post; it’s hard enough landing one with a doctorate, let alone without one.

But I didn’t want to drop out of the research game; I like this work, in a way I’ve never actively liked any work I’ve ever done before, and I hazard I’m doing it pretty well so far. If I wanted to keep doing research work, the only likely way to secure anything more secure and long-term than six-month part-time contracts here and there was to take a doctorate. This, if all goes according to plan, would have the added bonus of leaving me better qualified to fight for work in the research sector going forward, not to mention better qualified in general.

This decided, I still had to hustle hard to land the studentship – though I should acknowledge and thank the support and assistance of my supervisors, because I’d not have managed it without their help. So a few hectic weeks of drafting proposals and filling out applications – punctuated by an brutal interview, which I honestly thought I’d blown spectacularly – were added to the normal work and the job applications and everything else and, long story short, I damn near went and made myself ill again like I did back in the spring, and indeed I’m not sure I ever completely recovered from that particular crash. It’s been a mad, mad year, and I’ve never worked so hard in my damned life.

And I landed the studentship, in spite of the dreadful interview.

I heard that news not long before Improving Reality, which happened to coincide pretty closely with my contract end date, meaning I got to spend a few days doing nothing in Brighton before the conference. I’ve always adored Brighton, and even lived there (precariously, using a friend’s tiny lounge as a bedsit) for six months, and it was lovely to get the time to really just wander round the place. I got to catch up with Tim Maughan, Natalie Kane, Justin Pickard, George Voss, Jeff Noon (oh, did I just name-drop?); the weather was gorgeous, and we had a meal at a Lebanese place where the portions were so generous that half of us couldn’t finish our mains.

In the run-up to IR, I had a piece at ARC on the protohistory of infrastructure and a piece at The Graun about the artist as engineer. All the IR talks were video’d for the purpose of internets, so I’m planning to publish my slides and script when I can put the video up at the same time; I’ll probably do so at Futurismic.

Since then I’ve been doing what I was advised to do, though more through force majeur than choice; my supervisors suggested I rest, and I laughed, and decided to use the time before my course began to catch up on the countless other little commitments and scribblings I’d promised to people. And I tried to do exactly that, but – with the assistance of colder and darker evenings and mornings, I seem to have spent a great deal of it sleeping, or staring blankly into the middle distance. So apologies if you’re one of the people waiting on one of those things; I did manage to finish a ~4k assault on the immortalist canon of The Transhuman Reader for ARC, and do a thing for Frank Swain on Medium where I tell some hypothetical seventeen year old what I wish someone had told me at that age.

And there’s more wild times and weirdness to come, I’m sure – but this evening I’m caught in the space between two beats, and it feels good to breathe, to feel the anticipation, to prepare to play my next part. Lectures proper start next week. Game on, wot?

One thought on “Doctor What”

  1. Pleased to hear you’re doing so well for yourself, Paul.

    I didn’t realise you (or Justin, in fact) would be in Brighton. Would’ve been great to meet up for a pint and catch up, as we’ve taken such divergent paths over the past three or four years!

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