Q&A: 2 or 3 Things I Know About PhD Life

By Dr Zahra Tavassoli Zea

  1. Choose a song that best represents your PhD years.

It depends on the year, really. So here’s a list:

2012–2013: Man O To by the Iranian electro artist Nu

2013–2014: Who by Fire by Leonard Cohen

2014–2015: Chandelier by Sia

2015–2016: Mandy by Barry Manilow

2016–2017: The Final Countdown by Europe

Lots of Whitney Houston and Beethoven too.

2. How did you choose your PhD topic?

We can’t actually “choose” a topic, since a doctoral thesis is supposed to contribute to a research field through an original investigation. Instead, we progressively “construct” a topic, generally during the first couple of years through extensive research and meetings with our supervisors. In other words, when we apply for a PhD and give a “pitch” to potential supervisors, we are essentially “bluffing”, because the topic is meant to substantially evolve and take its “definitive” shape halfway through (I used brackets because a thesis, even after submission and corrections can always be improved…That’s the essence and the tragedy of research).

 Quite often, PhD theses are the continuation of research undertaken during an MA degree (through a 15 000-word dissertation). This was not my case. My MA thesis was on Spanish cinema under Franco’s dictatorship, and more specifically on the way National Catholicism heavily influenced the cinematic portrayals of Spanish children from the 1950s to the 1970s. From the moment I started studying cinema at a postgrad level, I became passionate about the way some filmmakers actively participated in the reconstruction of Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The fact that Italian Neorealism, as a cinematic movement, emerged out of pure “necessity” to document such an awful historical turning point, is something that moved me deeply. Had I spoken Italian more fluently, I would have probably oriented my MA thesis or even PhD towards Italian cinema (I dream of living in a Tuscany Villa one day… So if anyone can help me with that, please call me!). But, in the context of research, I realised that I could make the most of my assets: to be able to speak and write in Spanish and French. Language skills can really amplify the scope of investigations; being able to draw from local literature and archival material definitely added more depth to my dissertation. As for my PhD, I did something quite simple… I mixed two of my favourite ingredients together: 19th-century literature and Nouvelle Vague cinema.

The idea was to keep on researching the concept of “realism”, which I first discovered in high school when reading Boule de Suif, Madame Bovary or L’Assomoir, and when contemplating Manet’s Olympia at Musée d’Orsay. The taste for Nouvelle Vague cinema came to me much later, during an MA module dedicated to Jean-Luc Godard. Many people thought his cinema was unwatchable, pretentious, etc. I felt the contrary: there is something truthful about Godard; he is a scientist in the same way Balzac and Flaubert were. When discovering the works of Rivette, Truffaut and Rohmer, I noticed that their films, despite their different aesthetics and politics, are made of a common material: a romantic longing for a unitary worldview. These impressions and parallels I was able to draw between nineteenth-century realism and the Nouvelle Vague laid the foundations of the 90 000 piece jigsaw puzzle, aka the PhD thesis.

3. Which difficulties did you encounter as a foreign PhD student in a British university?

Writing an entire PhD thesis in English was definitely a challenge. I only started writing English essays during my MA back in 2011. I remember feeling quite demoralised when getting a 52 on a film history essay about Manhattan Melodrama (dir. Van Dyke & George Cukor, 1934). But, as far as I am concerned, the fear of failure acts as a motor, and it led me to graduate with distinction. The same happened during my baccalauréat (equivalent to A-levels): the grades I got during the first exam year were pretty terrible… So I turned on the booster during the final year and passed with “mention bien”. I guess it’s a good thing to be determined, but it’s also a characteristic of people with high levels of anxiety.

      Another difficulty I found, especially during my MA, was to become friends with British people. I would generally hang out with international students from Thailand, China, Japan, Romania, Turkey, Italy, Germany, Spain, Belgium or the US. You need to be living in the UK for more than a year to “break the ice” with the British, since the first encounters are always a bit superficial. However, once you finally feel that there is something more than “small talk”, and develop a sense of complicity with a British, then you’re in for something truly special. I think that my French sarcasm helped a lot… It’s true: France and the UK share a sharp sense of humour, and that’s one of the reasons I love my British friends so much.

4. How were your first meetings with your main supervisor?

It’s always a bit stressful to present yourself to your primary supervisor with the latest “findings” of your research. But I was lucky to have an inspiring and supportive supervisor. I remember he was very generous of his time; we would spend a couple of hours talking about Eugène Delacroix, Honoré de Balzac, Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Edward Said, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (I was completely clueless about the latter). Unfortunately, he had to leave the university just before I entered my continuation year (i.e. the final year before submission)… He wanted to continue supervising me remotely, but those in charge at the time refused to pay him for that. So I had to find someone else. Fortunately, the person who replaced him was also brilliant. I think my writing really improved thanks to him; he taught me everything about concision, structure and clarity, while being extremely encouraging. Contrary to my “first” primary supervisor, his meetings were rather short but super instructive. He was the embodiment of efficiency.

5. How does a typical day of research look like?

8:00: 2 slices of bread with peanut butter and jelly, black coffee (no sugar) and a glass of grapefruit juice

9:00: 30 minute walk toward the university campus

10:00: Getting books out of my locker or trip to the library to pick up some reserved volumes

10:40: Pouring myself a cup of green tea while skilfully avoiding human contact

11:00: If I am not already fully absorbed by the article I am reading, the paragraph I am writing, or the email I am answering, it probably means I’m checking my Instagram

12:00: Proper work begins (procrastination is a big component of PhD life)

13:00: Still working (I try to ignore people opening bags of crisps)

14:00: Still working (my tea is cold, need to pee).

14:12: After going to the loo, I finally enter the campus grocery store to see what disgusting sandwich is left

14:24: Checking out with a cold Evian bottle, a Spinach & Ricotta Bake and a banana, which I eat by myself on a bench

14:55: While taking the stairs, I bump into agitated drama students doing odd things out loud and barefoot. Eye rolling

15:00: Work continues

18:00: Those who arrived to the study room earlier than me start packing and say goodbye

18:45: The last person in the office leaves. I am finally alone. I stand up, stretch my arms and legs while checking the books and DVDs some people carelessly left on a desk

19:15: Odd noises in the building. Probably another drama student

19:30: My best friend texts me. She wrote 1500 words and needs a drink. She will be waiting outside in 15. It gives me enough time to put my books back inside the locker, go to the empty bathroom, put some eye concealer and a bit of lipstick on my cheeks and lips not to look like a ghost

20:00: It’s cold and dark outside.We’re taking the bus. TGIF. We go straight to the Dolphin (the pub next to my house)

21:30: I already had two pints of Stella. Considering going to the Foundry (dancing bar)

22:30: Seriously considering going on Tinder while dramatically talking about my love of Rohmer (and how no one comes close to him)

23:00: Dancing to the sound of What do you mean? by Justin Bieber and Rockabye by Clean Bandit

24:00: Chicken cottage is still open. I order two pieces of fried chicken while a drunken old man is yelling outside shirtless. I’m ready to go home. 

6. What was the biggest challenge during your PhD?

Not being able to take a break from the thesis, ever. It haunts you, everywhere you go. I was restless and felt like I was missing out on something… because I didn’t do a break between my MA and my PhD. So I was torn between the desire to carry on with my research and the need for life experiences, which people normally have in their twenties: traveling, socialising, partying, attending cultural events, earning decent amounts of money… So I guess I was my own challenge. Not the PhD itself.

7. Choose a film that best represents your PhD years.

Histoire(s) du cinema by Jean-Luc Godard (1988-98). Why? Because I felt those 4 hours 26 minutes mirrored my own state of confusion: an accumulation of thoughts; weird image associations; a hubbub of intense conversations; le brouillon et le brouillard… (endless drafts and fog).

8. What is your best memory, teaching wise?

There are many great memories. I loved organising a screening and seminar on Jonah Who Will Be 25 in The Year 2000 (dir. Alain Tanner, 1976), because it’s a films that’s been rarely taught. I was also proud of introducing my students to Caroline Chérie (dir. Richard Pottier, 1951) and the post-war literary movement of the Hussards. But I guess what impacted me the most was the intelligence and drive of many of my students… Teaching is something I thoroughly enjoyed doing, and I think that such a genuine desire to communicate with my students contributed to creating a stimulating and friendly environment.

9. What is your worst memory, teaching wise?

I don’t have any particularly bad memory. But I will say that marking piles and piles of essays without earning a single penny is something that still makes me angry. And the thing is that this exploitative system is detrimental to students too, because they witness the stress and burnout their seminar leaders are subjected to. The lack of support from the permanent members of staff was also shocking and really hard to forget.

10. Did you manage to maintain a healthy lifestyle?

I could have developed healthier habits, that’s for sure. I had a rather sedentary life, except for the morning and evening walks to/from the campus. As a result, I lived with chronic backaches. I even reached a stage where, one day, I had to bend my back when walking because the pain was excruciating. My eyesight also got worse. I had migraines, which were partly due to the unhealthy amount of hours spent in front of books and screens, and partly due to tension and stress. To top it all off, I suffered from hearing loss in both ears (this is due to a genetic condition, not to the PhD!). It took me a while to realise and accept that I was becoming partially deaf. So it’s only in the last year of teaching that I took the necessary steps (getting hearing aids) to live more normally. It was particularly difficult when giving lectures and seminars, because I had to use double the energy to understand what my students were saying.

11. What was the most memorable conference you attended?

It was a conference organised by the Association of Adaptation Studies in St Augustine, Florida! It felt so liberating to travel by myself to the USA, present a paper on Rohmer, meet many interesting people from around the world and just be a tourist for a few days. Plus, the School of Arts paid for the flight (as part of the PhD programme’s allocation) so that made it all sweeter. I wish I could do it all over again!

12. How did your Viva Voce exam go?

Contrary to many other PhD candidates, I really enjoyed the experience… Probably because the external and internal examiners told me from the get-go that I had passed with minor corrections. It was such a huge relief! And it really motivated me to give a great impression (just in case they would want to reconsider their decision… we never know!). I also had read my thesis way too many times and taken three weeks to prepare myself for all the questions they would ask. So to say that I was prepared is an understatement.

13. Choose a book that best represents your PhD years.

The Quest of the Absolute by Honoré de Balzac.

14.  Is there a filmmaker you particularly dislike?

Two automatically come to mind: Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. Weirdly, they are both American and share the same initials. Regarding the latter, I would say that his animation films are his saving grace.

15. What was the most rewarding part of your PhD?

The wisdom you acquire along the way.

16.  What were the most memorable lessons you learnt from your peers?

Thanks to my peers I became more politicised. I also learnt a lot about vegetarianism and veganism.

17. Name a lecturer or professor who had a great impact on you.  

I’ll name two: Dr. Marco Grosoli and Prof. Mattias Frey.

18.  After spending nearly a decade in the UK, what did you learn about the British people?

They are very much into waste recycling and respecting the queue order; they find it odd when people talk with lots of hand gestures; they’re not really into discussing feelings, more into actions; their gastronomy is sadly misunderstood, it is actually quite varied according to regions… Have you ever heard of a chip butty? They’re also the loveliest people I know.

19. Choose a TV show that best represents your PhD years.

Probably Made in Chelsea, because that’s what I watched the most when eating dinner… I was living the life I wish I had through Louise Thompson and Mark-Francis Vandelli!

20. Any regrets?

Non, rien de rien.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait,

Ni le mal

Tout ça m’est bien égal!

(It’s a song by Edith Piaf!)

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