PhD survivor

How to survive a PhD? Just follow these 15 simple steps:

  1. Choose the university that gives you the biggest scholarship for the longest possible time. Preferably, unlimited funding without deadline.
  2. Choose the supervisor not based on your common research interests or expertise, but based on the time it takes him/her to answer your emails. Track and measure it during Year 1.
  3. Do not make any attempt to find PhD alumni and ask about their post-PhD career paths. In fact, do not ask anyone at the department about that. The less you know, the better you sleep.
  4. Choose to live in the dorm close to fraternity houses. There will be many loud parties, and this will remind you to study harder to be able to finish sooner and finally have a life.
  5. Build your survival food system. In year 3-5, you will especially need emergency food. Fill your pantry or kitchen cabinets with instant noodles, canned food, crackers, nuts, peanut butter (lots of it!), and protein bars (brain food, you know).
  6. Start cutting all close relationships with people before Year 2. Your thesis will become your best friend, your partner … and sometimes your enemy too. The faster you cut contact with human beings, the sooner you will develop relationships with papers, articles, and books. This all will speed up the defence and graduation.
  7. Prepare to develop distaste for reading. In fact, stop reading anything a year before PhD. In this case, you can trick your brain into developing an interest for a new activity – boring reading.
  8. Do not spend money on anything. Save up and spend all your money on the best printer on the market and the most expensive chair. Office chair would especially be nice as it will give you an illusion that you are working in corporate business and making a difference in the world.
  9. Buy glasses and eye lenses in advance. Consult with your doctor on the possible trajectory of eyesight getting worse from year 2 to year 6 or 7.
  10. Apply for various grants and go to as many conferences as possible. Free travel, free food, free pens and note-pads.
  11. Visit the Buddhist monastery before starting a PhD and learn the secret of patience. You will need that a lot while waiting for the committee feedback on chapter 1,2,3 and so on.
  12. Buy a set of clothes 2-3 sizes bigger than your normal size. You will start noticing changes in Year 3.
  13. Buy subscription for all stupid comedy TV shows. It will be the only way to relax your mind and get distracted. Best mind therapy.
  14. Sign up for boxing classes. Stick the first page of your thesis on the punching ball and beat the shit out of it. It will help with anger management tremendously.
  15. And last, always remind yourself you will have a cool title “Doctor” at the end, even though you cannot really save or help anyone. It will still feed your ego and make you forget all the troubles you went through.

You can do it. I did it, so can you. I am a PhD: Proudly half Dead 🙂

Buzzing bee and mind problems

Do you know the ways to slow down your mind? Recently, it has been hard for me to keep my brain from thinking and constantly working. It is like a buzzing bee that does not fly away or stop humming around your ear. Or like a swarm of ants where every single one of them strives to survive – every single thought competes to be the dominant. And I live in this constant jungle of wild thoughts. Or insects. Or weird metaphors 🙂

I’ve noticed in life you either have quiet moments when everything is in slow motion OR things happen All at once, Simultaneously, Synchronously, Parallel-y (help me with another synonym to intensify the effect!). Right now I feel my life is like a time lapse video. Everything that was supposed to take years and months is happening all at once in the span of a few weeks. Things are happening and I do not even have time to process them. New job, graduation, new house, renovation, packing, moving, driving lessons, writing, researching, blogging. My mind goes off the rails. I have the strangest dreams of passing a driving test while reciting my thesis to the driving instructor. I dream of my new co-workers renovating my house. I dream of my boyfriend being my new manager and commanding me to blog more often at work! All kinds of crazy, hilarious scenarios in my dreams!

Life is very unbalanced sometimes. Everything can be uncertain like someone literally presses a “pause” button on a cassette recorder (yes, cassette! for those who were born in the 80s and earlier!). It is sometimes passive and vague: like three dots at the end of the sentence . . . But then, without any warning, there is big bang moment! And things start unravelling. And you cannot stop them. You cannot pause or rewind or slow down. The fast-forward button is stuck! All you can do is just let it happen. Let your thoughts fill your mind. Let your dreams go crazy. And let that bee keep buzzing, and buzzing, and buzzing.

What makes you smile?

On this sunny day, I want to write about little things that make a huge difference in our life. If instead of projecting a bigger picture of life, we start focusing on a smaller frame of things – would it make any changes in us? What if instead of looking at the world through a telescope and seeing the far-away stars we want to reach, we have a microscope and try to pay more attention to the things under our nose, things that often remain unnoticeable? What would change?

What little things can I remember about the last week? The two breathtaking parallel rainbows after a heavy rain in the city. An incredibly friendly post office assistant helping me with the parcel delivery. The feeling of absolute satisfaction after a good interview. The look on my boyfriend’s face when eating my first-time made chocolate lava cake. The deeply emotional journey I’ve been experiencing while reading Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less. The taste of bitter, crisp coffee on a Friday morning and sweet, fruity ice wine on a Friday evening. The sound of a long-forgotten song that touches all the corners of your soul. The cutest photo of a barbet or labradoodle puppy on Instagram. The voice of your best friend on the phone. A caring message from your mom. The smell of summer in the air. The green coat of the trees. A blinding sunlight. A cloudless, crispy clean sky. A white page. A paragraph. A half sentence. And a satisfying full stop.

If you start remembering things that have put even a small smile on your face during a week, you will be surprised how much happens on a small scale. Combined together, the precious moments make our days, weeks, and years. They make a difference. They make us smile.

Always on the move

How many times have you moved in your life? Is it usually a cool new experience or a daunting task for you?

I have moved many times in my life even though I come from the culture, in which families traditionally settle down and stay in the same apartment most of their life. From the age of 12, I knew I wanted to explore the world and to move away from Russia. Till the present day, I have had at least 10 major “resettlements” in my life.

We move for different reasons: happy, sad, voluntary, or necessary. In my experience, I moved because of…

  • my desire to explore the United States
  • my decision to pursue education in Taiwan
  • my future career prospects in Canada
  • very noisy neighbours who made me lose sleep
  • ants crawling in the bathroom and kitchen despite all my attempts to keep the apartment spotless clean
  • increase in salary and the chance to rent a place in downtown
  • me finding the love of my life and moving in together

Very often our moving trajectory reflects the pivotal moments of our personal and professional life. It is like the geography of our own adventure. And the best thing is that we get to choose how to plan our journey, where to put a red dot on the map, and what new lands to explore next. Never settle down for a long time. Keep moving, continue travelling, find new ways to understand the world better. Because when you understand the world, you understand yourself. In a much more profound way.

Are you happy?

What is happiness for you?

It is a loaded question. It can take a person into uncharted corners of the consciousness, from where it might be hard to find the way back. You can get lost while asking yourself this question. You can start questioning the meaning of everything in your life. Am I happy? What truly makes it different? When, where, and with whom am I the happiest?

Sometimes I feel I am obsessed with this search for happiness. When I look at strangers in the street, I always mentally imagine their life and ask the same question: Is this person truly happy? When driving and passing houses, I peek in their windows for a second and wonder: is this family happy? Have they found the key to a happy life?

My mom says happiness is fleeting. It finds you in the spontaneous moments of life. She describes it as a short feeling of total harmony and satisfaction, when at this moment there is nothing else needed. The feeling comes and goes, but it never disappears forever. It always reminds us of its existence. That is why those moments are so precious. After all, we always want what we do not have at the moment.

Unlike my mom, some people think that happiness should be a permanent state of mind. It should always be within you. Despite problems and obstacles, this inner resilience to negativity and unhappiness will help you overcome anything. Almost like a superpower.

Whatever happiness is, it is a mysterious thing for me. I am still looking for answers. At this very moment, I am happy because I am writing this blog. I am happy when words appear on the screen effortlessly, without my thinking too much. It almost feels like they come from the heart, not the mind.

Because I love writing, I have just received one of the best birthday presents in my life: the original German typewriter from the 1960s. And it is functional! Below I am attaching my first attempt at typing at it. It is very embarrassing how many mistakes I made while typing. I have realized that one has to be so completely focused when using old school typewriters. Focus, focus, focus. Each letter, every word, every single line. There are no second chances. There are no options to erase, delete, come back, or create a new sentence. One click. One chance. This is the real moment of writing. The “now” moment. And you live in this moment. You are completely happy…

My first experience with a typewriter. Many mistakes (including grammar!), typos, and formatting issues, but so much fun!

what’s your passion?

I think that most people have something they are really passionate about in life. For me, passion lies in books. I love shopping for books, googling new releases, talking about the recently read texts, smelling new books, holding them in my hands, and simply having books in my life. I am genuinely happy when I come across a unique book. It becomes part of me. Sometimes I feel that I consist of bits and pieces of the books, which have influenced my worldview and my identity. And the beauty is that it is a never-ending process: every new book brings something new to my character. But today I do not want to talk about my passion. Rather it is more interesting to discuss the passion I see in people around me.

My boyfriend is really passionate about food. He is a natural foodie and a believer in enjoying life through food. I’ve noticed how his eyes light up and a smile plays on his lips in the following situations:

  1. When in the restaurant, he notices the dish he has ordered is coming out the kitchen and the server is approaching our table to deliver the order;
  2. When in butchery, he sees a beautiful piece of raw marble meat and imagines how this medium-rare steak will taste in his mouth;
  3. When at home, he reads a food blog or watches a YouTube food vlog and finds a new way to cook traditional dishes;
  4. When he pours himself a glass of Malbec and starts improvising in the kitchen while I sit at the bar table and watch this creative process of food transformation;
  5. When he plans the trip to Europe and makes a list of restaurants (instead of a list of museums) we should absolutely visit there;
  6. When we drive around the city and randomly stumble upon a small family restaurant, authentic and original in its method of cooking.

In all these scenarios (and many more), his pupils dilate wider than normal. Food truly makes him excited and happy. Happy the way a child is when getting a new toy from the parents. I see this happiness in him and it radiates so much that I get affected by that. I start looking at food from a different perspective as well: not only as means to satisfy hunger, but as another reason to be alive.

What is your reason to be alive? What is your passion?

Not Wanted

Russian passport is probably one of the most difficult passports to live with. By “difficult,” I mean “unwanted,” “unwelcome,” “suspicious,” or even simply “uncomfortable.” Once you cross the border of the Russian Federation, your main identity document becomes more like a problem or nuisance, rather than your safety bag or a golden key that opens any door. In fact, most of the doors (or airport gates) remain closed and reluctant to let a Russian citizen enter a new world.

I was refused entry visas two times in my life. The first time happened when I was 14 years old. I got invited by my mom’s American friend and colleague to go to the USA and to study English at some summer school. I was excited beyond words! First time in the English-speaking country, first time flying across the ocean, first time seeing the world I mostly saw on TV before. And my FIRST reality check in life: the world does not want me as much as I want it. I was 14, and the American Embassy in Moscow looked and felt like a prison: multiple metal detectors, several checkpoints, hundreds of security officers, almost religious silence in the hallways, and orderly formed columns of people, trembling before an interview. I am not sure about now, but at that time people were not allowed to bring anything except for required documents: no cell phones, no food or drinks, no tissues, nothing at all. And the whole process of going from one checkpoint to the next one took literary HOURS. I was exhausted by the time it was my turn to proceed to an open window and meet an officer. Hours and hours of waiting and 10 seconds of presenting your case and receiving a harsh “NO” from the visa officer. The verdict: “Not enough proof of ties in your home country.” When the stern-looking officer gave me the document with a stamp of denial, I did not understand what had just happened. I came out of the embassy, blubbered something to my mom (who was waiting for me for hours outside!), and remained silent for the rest of the day. It was like a mild shell shock for me. Only later it hit me: I was not wanted in the USA. I felt guilty, but did not understand of what.

The second time it happened with the Japanese visa. I was living in Taiwan and pursuing my Master’s degree at NTU. My friend suggested going to Japan for a couple of weeks, and I got immediately excited to visit the Asian food mecca. It was 2011, and I was confident that visa process would be a breeze. I did not have to come for an interview, and I thought it was a good sign. Even easier. Imagine my shock when I opened the envelope with my documents and, for the SECOND time in my life, saw the stamp: denied. It turned out that Japan did not really welcome many Russian tourists at that time. They were more willing to give visas for business purposes or in those cases when private invitations were issued. I was not prepared for the second refusal. I realized that I could never get too comfortable or relaxed, being a Russian and holding a Russian passport.

With years, the visa application process has become a “regular” roller coaster of repeated emotions: stress, anxiety, feeling of being unwanted, the need to always “prove” you are not a criminal, spy, or illegal. Every time I want to travel, I need to undergo this nightmare. I cannot just pack my things spontaneously and romantically fly over to Paris with my boyfriend. Nope, there is nothing romantic in having a Russian passport.

I am now in the process of applying for a Schengen visa. I cannot really predict the outcome. It is a new experience every time. At the end of the day, I will either have a visa stamp in my passport or another visa story to tell to my friends. Either one will be fun 🙂

Fiction or Not?

Do you think reading fiction is obsolete?

With such an abundance of audio and visual material nowadays, reading itself is struggling to keep its niche. We watch everything. We listen to everybody. It is a visual turn in culture – it is a digital age. During the day, we do some reading: scrolling down news, checking emails, and peeking at social media posts. With so much information intake every day, our brain refuses to keep working at night. We often opt for watching another episode of this new TV show or for aimlessly streaming YouTube videos about cars, fashion, food, or design. It is relaxing and easy. It is what everyone else is doing after a hard day of work, we think.

Reading practice is slowly becoming an endangered species. And reading fiction, particularly, feels almost extinct. Why read fiction? Many people told me that fiction was useless. It does not give you direct practical advice on life. It does not teach you about present realities. It is imaginative and, hence, unrealistic. It is boring. If it is good, it will probably be adapted to screen, so why bother reading it when in a few months, there will be a movie? Recently my boyfriend was genuinely surprised when he heard me laughing my head off while reading a fiction book. It was strange for him to see me peacefully reading a book, having my solo experience, and then all of a sudden cracking up with laughter and breaking the solemn silence of the room. Yes, I told him, fiction can make you laugh. In fact, it can be as funny, if not more, as a TV comedy.

It is sad that fiction does not have the same status as it used to be. Out of my 85 students this semester, only 10 said they were reading fiction occasionally. What about the rest? Very often people do not like fiction books because they had a bad experience before. They might have hated their English teacher, or maybe they were forced to read the books they did not want at school. They might have just picked the wrong book at the store and developed a dislike for literature in general. Or they failed at finding their genre and style of writing. They got disappointed. They did not give it another try.

Fiction literature deserves a chance. Once you find the right book, the right author, and the right moment in life, you will understand the power of fiction. It can give an experience no other medium can. Fiction is only fictional until you read it and make it real for yourself.

Game of Thrones


Are you excited to watch the final season of Game of Thrones, coming out this Sunday? The whole world is waiting. The city billboards are screaming with the images of the beloved characters. The newspapers and magazines are reminding us to organize a GOT movie night on Sunday. Friends, colleagues, family members are all making their best predictions on the plot development. Who is going to survive? Who is going to be murdered? Tortured?

For years, I was wondering: what is this whole fuss about? I was very skeptical about this show at first. Medieval ages, fantasy, dragons, violence, politics, zombies. It looked very dark from the trailer. It seemed too far from reality. It did not appeal to my aesthetics. I decided it was not for me right away. It was also sort of a protest from my side initially. Everyone is so obsessed about it. Why should I be? I have better movies and TV shows on the list to watch.

I refused to give it a try for years. For eight years. Until last month. I decided to commit to Game of Thrones and understand for myself whether it was THAT good as everybody was saying. It did not take me one or two episodes to get attached to the show. It took me the whole season to realize that I was constantly thinking about the show. It was always on my mind. I was listening to my students in class and thinking whether they watched GOT and what side they were on. I was relieving the moments of the craziest or most touching scenes in my head. I was asking myself: what would I do if I were Arya? Or Sansa? Or Khaleesi? How would I feel if I were tortured like Theon? Would I appreciate my life more if I were resurrected like Jon Snow?

Game of Thrones is not just a fantasy. It is not a medieval romance with love stories and poetic fights. It is not even about politics alone. This show is a profound exploration of the human psychology. It is a reflection on the human inner desires, deepest fears, drives and ambitions, vulnerabilities and anxieties. It tests our imagination: what if our craziest fantasies are realized? It tests our belief in humanity. It questions our understanding of morality. It invites us to believe in the impossible. It opens our eyes on the monstrosity in the world.

Game of Thrones is not about Khaleesi or Cersei or Arya or Jon Snow. This show is about us. It is about you and me. It is about our friends and enemies. Our fears and desires. We can see ourselves in these characters. They are us. And we are them.

Michelle Obama: speaking from the heart

Yesterday I had a chance to attend the event I had been waiting for the whole month. I went to see and hear Michelle Obama. Live and real. It was not a concert or performance. It was not even an inspirational lecture or a well-prepared presentation. It was Michelle Obama sitting in a chair and casually sharing stories about her life. A rather intimate conversation with the former First Lady of the United States.

Michelle was very genuine. You could see that she was a bit nervous at the very beginning of her conversation, but once she heard the tremendous support from the Edmonton crowd, she relaxed and let her heart speak to us. There was never a moment of disbelief or mistrust. She was not lying about a single thing. She spoke from her heart, her soul. It resonated with all of us. When she talked about hard moments in life, we could see tears rolling in her eyes. When she told a joke or a funny story, she would smile generously revealing her perfect teeth to the crowd. She was not trying to impress us or to be someone else. She was Michelle. Not even Michelle Obama. Just Michelle, sitting across us and being our genuine friend.

Michelle was hilarious. She cracked jokes and then switched to a serious tone. Her jokes were fresh, not staged. Spontaneous and unexpected. She would joke about the most intimate things in life, things we are too embarrassed to share even with our closest friends: experience with family therapy, marriage problems, kids issues. She made fun of her failures and mistakes. Half of the talk I was laughing out loud, and half of it I could barely hold myself from crying. It was an emotional roller coaster for the audience.

Finally, Michelle was encouraging. She did not know us, but she already believed in each of us. She motivated us to become who we dreamed of becoming. She made it clear: if she could do it, we can do it too.

My last post was about the search of a career mentor. I am still in the process of finding one, but for now I draw inspiration from passionate, strong-minded, and unique people like Michelle Obama.