Monthly Archives: July 2008

(In)Decisive moment

Back in April, I had a plan. I would be Toronto from late April to late August, and then go back to Brazil, hopefully for good. (The going-back-to-Brazil-hopefully-for-good part has actually been the plan for a bit longer than that, check for instance the April before last.) August is now practically here, and the question is: am I going home now? And if so, is it for good?

The answer is: I do not know. I know I should know, but I don’t. The thing was, in my ignorant arrogance (incidentally, it’s interesting how ignorance and arrogance often go together), I actually thought I could finish my thesis by the end of this summer. This was back in February. By June, I thought I’d be happy if I could have a full draft done by the end of August. And now it becomes quite obvious I might not have even that.

And it is not that I haven’t been working hard: I have been diligent, and even productive (the two don’t always go together, but they have been lately). It’s just that I keep underestimating how much work a PhD requires (or overestimating my capacity, which comes to the same thing at the end of the day — or the end of the summer as it turns out).

So I find I have three options:
1) To go home at the end of the summer, finish my thesis there and come back later to defend it;

2) To go home at the end of the summer, give up on completing the degree and never come back;

3) Not to go home until the degree gets finished, end of story.

I must say number 2 is the most tempting of the three. I’ve written before that I was never that attached to the thought of completing the PhD: I was doing it just for the fun of it. If it stopped being fun, why do it?

But then I thought: it’s sooo close! It is close, isn’t it? Is it actually close? Problem is, it’s been looking as if it’s close for a while. For quite a while. A very long while. And yet the end seems to keep eluding me. And as you might have noticed if you’ve read any of my recent writing (e.g. this entry), I’m homesick. Silly, I know. But I am.

The thought then comes: why not go home like I did last August, spend the year there like I did last year, and come back again next April like I did this April? I could try to finish the writing there, and come here when it’s done, when the weather is nice (I couldn’t handle another winter). I could take up same summer job again, which conveniently comes with room and board, which is quite handy given that I no longer have a place of my own in Toronto.

This sounded like an excellent idea. I got excited for ten minutes. And then the lists of cons quickly got ten times longer than the lists of pros.

1) The trip Brasilia-Toronto is becoming increasingly more difficult. I can’t even start tracking all the posts I complained about:

a) the logistics of travelling (e. g. all entries for October and November 2007). Add to it the fact that I heard rumours Brazilian airports were going on strike again this week. This does not seem to have actually materialized, but I have been there before when this happened, and it’s just not fun.

b) rising fuel costs means rising plane prices. I’ve always been able to get home for about Cdn $1,000, give or take $200, depending on time of year. This is less than rent in Toronto for two months — which makes a trip worth it if you’re planning on staying more than a couple of months. So far the prices seem to be stable. But you never know what it will be like a year from now.

c) rising emotional costs. Getting myself ready to leave Brazil for another trip to Toronto has become increasingly more difficult at an emotional level. Before I used to get all excited. Couldn’t wait. Counting days and all. But now I’m so excited about being there, all the projects that I have going on there, that I find it hard to leave my life there to come here. Last time it took me about a month to reconcile myself to the fact that here I was, once again.  Now that I’ve settled in, I’m actually happy to be here. It’s just that the getting-ready-for and the settling-in nowadays take a lot more time and energy than they used to ten years ago.

2) You’d think that giving myself a year before coming back to Toronto would balance out most of the costs I’ve just mentioned. But then there are other costs:

a) time: my visa expires January 2009. It was a lot of hassle getting it  renewed last November (see here and here). And this was so even though I had proof of funding that outlasts my passport expiration date. But my funding expires April 2009: that its, less than four months after my current passport and visa expire. Even if I could make a case for why my visa should be renewed for more than four months, there is another problem:

b) tuition costs:  funding ends April 2009. Which means that a year from now this degree will be costing me 15,000 dollars a year. I know I have often complained about how little money I make. But owing a lot of money strikes me as being exponentially worse. Besides, here comes blessing in disguise again: I’m not eligible for loans in Canada because I’m on a visa; I’m not eligible for loans in Brazil because I haven’t lived there in ten years. So waiting until next summer is simply not an option.

So turns out I’ve only got two options, and not three. The decison really comes down to committing to staying here until this thing is finished, or just go home now and forget about it.  

One could call this a very decisive moment in my life. Except that I feel completely indecisive…


Unemployed in Canada, millionaires in Brazil

Current headlines reads:

Where to move to get rich

This country is churning out the world’s wealthiest people at an unprecedented rate.» Where?

I didn’t have to think half a second to guess, correctly: home! And home it is. 

After writing about the gloomy prospects for PhD’s in Canada, this really makes me think: gosh, it is sooo the right time to go back to Brazil…

For full yahoo story, check:

Making the most of what you’ve got

Lately, I’ve been getting all sorts of signs about the importance of carpe diem. Today’s sign is a particularly powerful one: the news of the death of Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old professor in Pittsburgh.

Now, I had never heard of Professor Pausch before today, the last day of his life. And as a matter of fact, his life only started impacting me after it was over. But it has made quite an impact already. I wish I could be more articulate — maybe I’ll return to this topic later this week. At the moment, I’m experiencing that type of unspeakable awe that one feels when something absolutely unfathomable has happened. So I leave you with the words of someone much more qualified to speak about this than I could ever be:

Concentrated knowledge

I read an article today  saying that of the 20,000 people who obtained a doctoral degree in Canada between 2001 and 2006, 25% were came from another country. Add to this the fact that the skilled workers’ immigration system rewards those applicants with a PhD, and one can say that Canada is on the receiving end of a brain drainer (and not the one being drained).

Maybe it’s a reflection on the level of social accomplishment of a country that it can boast of having so many so highly educated people. But even that high level of social accomplishment has its down sides. The number of people I know who have a PhD and find themselves unemployable is distressingly high. The country has a surplus of PhD holders, and a shortage of construction workers (often labelled “unskilled” workers, though they seem to be much more skilled than I when it comes to making houses. And hell, to attain that level of usefulness to society after I get my PhD is my highest ambition).

Maybe it’s a good thing for me that I was never quite eligible to apply for permanent resident status in Canada (those are easier to get here than in other countries, but still not that easy). That forces me to return home to Brazil, where hopefully I’ll be more useful (and employable). 

Granted, there was a time that my ineligility made me resentful. And to be fair, I must say that in the last year or two the process has changed enough to mean that if I wanted, maybe now I’d have a much better chance. But when I see so many so highly qualified people — including those who did get their permanent residency, or those who were Canadian nationals in the first place — in a state of total anxiety as they job hunt for one, two, three or more years after finishing the PhD (and all the temp positions they get, which is a catch-22 in itself, making it impossible for them to publish enough to get a tenure-track job) — gosh, I almost feel that not being eligible to stay (or at least without having to go through a major bureaucratic ordeal) is a blessing in disguise.

Now, you say maybe my unemployed PhD friends are just too picky. Well, maybe they are. But it doesn’t help that the system is setup in such a funnel that universities (and maybe colleges, but only as a worst-case scenario type of deal) are often considered the only places dignified enough for a PhD holder.

When I tell people that after my PhD I would like to teach at high school level, they frown. “But you’re too good for that!” Well, if I am so good, then there was probably some goodness in me back when I was a high school student, no? And I vividly remember how angry it made me that teachers, and administrators, and the system in general, treated us high school kids as if we were good for nothing, as if we would only start developing the first glimpses of intelligence when and if we got into university.

So there. Some high schoolers do have enough intelligence to notice that they’re not being well-provided for. And their memories have been well trained enough for them to remember this fact when they grow up. And when they do, they are told that to care about high school now that they’re proved to be so intelligent is beneath them. Does this make any sense?

According to the principle of entropy, concentrated things naturally tend to difuse into uniform disarray. A related notion is the idea that nature abhors vacuum. And yet, it is interesting how some things such as recognized knowledge tend to become so highly concentrated to the point of actually resisting dispersion, be it at the global or at the local level.  (Of course non-recognized knowledge is everywhere. It’s just not acknowledged. Interesting, no?)

Now, I remember learning about this entropy business back in my high school physics class, back in Brazil. Isn’t that some evidence that you do not have to be a PhD holder in a wealthy country to generate interesting knowledge?

Why do it?

I have little patience for whiners. Especially when I am the one doing the whining. Now, one might classify parts of my post of July 10 as containing elements that are vaguely whine-like. And if, 7 years ago, I were to read a post like that, I’d probably just say: “why can’t you just work harder to finish your PhD, or drop it all together? What’s the point of doing this if it makes you this miserable?”

The thought of dropping the PhD has visited me many many times. Some times it would stay for months at end, like this past March-April-May. I’ve read several books on how to survive graduate school. I don’t miss a single issue of the “ABD Survival Guide” (not because I’m that terrible anxious or anything, but because I always enjoyed reading instructions, manuals, recipes and user’s guides. One of those things.)

Moreover, everyone who asks me how my work goes inevitably gets horrified when I mention thoughts of quitting, and proceeds to give me the speech that I just have to hang in there. I have heard enough variations on this theme to have a cynical response ready at hand to all those that one make into the AmFG list (for “Advice most Frequently Given). (People seem always surprised when I say I have a cynical vein. That’s because I’m very good at hiding it. It’s just too strong to leave exposed).

Here’s a subset of the AmFG list, followed by my ready-made response:

But you can do this! You’re definitely good enough for this!
I know, I know. I hate to sound immodest, but that’s not the point. The point is: is it good enough for me? My thoughts on this vary.

But think of what made you want to start a doctorate in the first place!
Well, I spent high school daydreaming about visiting other countries and learning new languages. But I never liked being a tourist. You never get an “authentic experience” as a tourist. You never have a good excuse to talk to people (other than other tourists and/or service providers).  I wanted to expand my vocabulary to beyond being able to ask for directions and exchanging itineraries. 

Besides, it’s expensive to travel as a tourist for an extended period of time. I would have had to work for years to afford something like that. And even if I could find a job that would pay me enough to spend a couple of years away, it’d probably would not allow me to be away for so long. 

So there. That was what made me start a doctorate in the first place. The thought of getting paid to stay for more than a few months in a place where I could have a good excuse to talk to people and practice my English — that did it for me.

But now I want to go home. My English has managed to get pretty good. I have learned interesting things. I’ve met interesting people. I’ve had an authentic experience.  The PhD program gave me all that I’d expected it to. Getting a diploma per se was never much of an issue. So why finish?

But think of all the money and time you have invested in it already!
Errr… Technically, I didn’t invest any money in it: I was fortunate to always have funding. Now, conceivably, if I had gone back home and got a proper job, maybe by now I would have accummulated a bit of capital, whereas my whole adult life I’ve lived from paycheque to paycheque, struggling to make ends meet.

I’m also fully aware that there are many people who are paying or would be willing to pay a lot of money to have this opportunity, if they could only have the money or the opportunity. (I do my taxes myself. I used to have to pay taxes on all of my scholarship. It was a lot of tax money — especially for an international student. I’m glad it’s not taxable any more. But it was an effective way to keep me aware how much it cost to do what I was doing.)

I do not take any of this for granted at all. It is just that I feel the time and money invested was for the learning more than for the degree — and I did do quite a bit of learning. So nothing was wasted (and even it had been wasted, it is not as if one could get it back — I’d rather think that the best one could do would be to count one’s losses and stop wasting it some more).

And at this point in time, I’m more than eager to stop being a cost to society and start giving something back (not to mention accummulate some capital of my own). And I know there is a lot I can do right now that does not require having a PhD. So why finish?

But think of all the  people that would like to be in the position you are in and cannot, for whatever reason!
I do. All the time. This is actually the argument that has more weight for me. I’ve always felt a bit scornful of academics (but please don’t tell anyone). I’ve never felt like I was one of them. I was just role-playing. I’ve never felt as driven or as concerned. I just liked the idea of getting paid to read stuff I like and telling people what I thought about it.

But I know how much a luxury this is — and it makes me awfully uncomfortable. I know fully well that there are people who would give anything to have a chance to do what I do. I don’t feel I deserve to be here any more than they do. On the contrary, I don’t feel I’ve earned this at all. And my thought is: why should I continue to occupy the spot of someone who could doing so much more with this experience than I am? 

Unless, of course, I could use this experience in their favour. Someone else being here in my spot would not make all the other deserving people be here too. Besides, I’m here already, nothing to be done about that. Quitting at this point wouldn’t do anyone any harm. But it also wouldn’t do anyone any good.

Furthermore, while the credentials I get from finishing mean little to me as compared to how much I’ve already learned, it does open some doors. Doors to let other people in. So that’s maybe a reason to keep going.

I just have to move now from the “Why do it?” to “Just do it!”

Now, just as the thought of quitting has visited me many a time, the thought of working harder has also visited regularly. So work harder I do. And yet, there’s always room for harder. I just hope I can manage to bring this to an end before it brings me to an end. But there’s no way to know who’ll win the fight until we fight the fight. And so we fight on…

Just do it, Ester. Just do it.

Summer Weekend Epic

Enthused by the prospect of the great outdoors
And encouraged by an encouraging forecast
A magic bus and a man-powered vehicle
Set out headed west
A four-wheeled chariot joined their fleet

But Zeus, god of thunder, put his own twist
On the forecast they received from the oracle
And as they approached the edge of the cliff
He sent down heavy bolts of lightening
Summer showers were the only showers they had.

Settlers tried in vain to settle in Catan
Taboo ruled in those times of darkness
Energy, once abundant,
By this time needed renewal

With toil and by chance, fire was finally discovered
Making way for an abundant feast
Of lasagna and cake

Then darkness came over the earth once again
And those to whom fate had assigned
An early departure in the four-wheeled chariot
Departed into the darkness

Those who stayed sang and drank
Around the fire, to their hearts’ content
And when misty sleep was poured over their eyes
They retired to their rows
Of bunk beds and mattresses

But some of them kept watch all night
(out of necessity, not debauchery)
And when rosy-fingered dawn appeared
In the horizon, they put on their equipment,
And ventured into the woods

Alas, rosy-fingered dawn proved to be not so rosy
Rain and cloud chased our watch back
From escarpment to encampment

And then slowly and gradually,
Helped by false alarms
The fleet got on their feet
And there was French toast with heavenly syrup
And there was coffee

By then the time to embark
The magic bus was nigh
And with the grace and dilligence of busy bees
They broke camp

And then, only then
As they sat in wait for the magic bus
Congratulating each other
On the fantastic time they’d had
The sun came out. Fun had been had.
Their mission had been accomplished.
They were going home.

Sevens and fourteens

In the last ten days, the number of groups of Brazilians I’ve run into — at Queen’s Park, Bloor Street, Younge Street, restaurants, libraries, coffee shops, various places on campus — must have surpassed 20. I say groups, because if I were to count individuals, the number would probably be close to a hundred.  Some are families with kids, some are young people college age, and some look like they can’t be older than 15, and go around in groups of 10-15, with name tags hanging from their necks.

Reason? It’s July. That’s when Brazilians get their winter break from school. Brazilian economy is doing well — as mentioned by the New York Times on Monday, and on Yahoo! main page on Tuesday. And earlier today Yahoo! Brazil presented a little note on why “studying abroad rules.”

Now, when I first when saw these 15-year-old Brazilian boys and girls walking around St. Michael’s College last week, I thought to myself — “ah, July. School break. But gosh, these kids look awfully young to be here all by themselves!” But I then immediately censured myself: “Ester, what are you talking about? You really have turned into a regular grown-up, with all this but-they’re-too-young-for-that talk. When you first left Brazil, you were 14 years old yourself, you were completely alone, and you did not think it was a big deal at all.”

That was in July 1994. I left Brazil on the very same day they introduced the current currency, “Real”, and a period of unprecedented financial stability started. I had been studying English for about a year, and 30 days in England did wonders to it. The family I stayed with was absolutely fantastic, and we’re still friends to this day. If that experience hadn’t been so positive, maybe I would have never made the decision to go abroad for university — and stay abroad for as long as I have.

An awful lot of things happened in those thirty days, and I can still remember the sequence of events, as if it had been last year. My learning curve back them was simply unbelievable. And this thought then gave rise to the following realization:

In July 1994, I was 14 years old. This was 14 years ago. I am now 28. So that trip marks the current mid-point of my life. Now, if we further break this span of 28 years into 4 times 7 years, we find the following:

  • 0-7 years old: tons of things happened in my life. I arrived in the world. Learned to walk, to talk, to read, and many other fantastic things. The world went from the 1970’s into the 1980’s. Esterical learning curve: extremely steep.
  • 7-14 years old: tons of things happened again. The whole passage from childhood to puberty to adolescence. First boyfriends. Starting to learn a foreign language. Going abroad for the first time. Starting to learn how to play the guitar. The 1990’s. Learning curve still quite steep.
  • 14-21: again, tons of things. At 14 I hadn’t even started high school; seven years later I had already graduated from undergrad. Travelled some more. Learned some more languages. Moved to a different country. Started graduate school. Into the new millenium. Learning curve: still steep.
  • 21-28: not much has happened. No new decade, no new millenium. I was in a PhD program at 21; I am still in a PhD program at 28, albeit not the same one. Living in North America then, still living in North America now. Sure, I’ve moved around a bit. Sure I’ve changed programs. But what baffles me is that for the past seven years — that is, most of my adult life and 25% of my entire life –I have been introducing myself as an international doctoral student. That’s a long time. Time to stop either being international or being a student, maybe both. Learning curve: seems to have gone completely flat.

The coincidences do not end here.  July is the 7th month of the year. I was born on the 14th day of the month. It took me 3.5 years to do my undergraduate: half of the time I’ve already spent in graduate school. I think I really need to graduate before I turn 29 and disturb this lovely pattern. But will I be able to? I wish I could tell…

What baffles me that in the same period of seven years people who did even think of existing have managed not only to make their ways into existence, but also to walk and to read. And some others have gone from childhood through puberty through adolescence, and have started to learn a foreign language, and play the guitar and travel abroad; they have had their first kiss or their first child (or second, or third); they have got married and divorced; they have started and finished high school; they have started and finished university. As a matter of fact, someone I met in my first year as a graduate student at Massey College has gone from being a high school student to being a fellow graduate student at Massey College. And I’m still here! Esterical learning curve: completely stagnant. 

So maybe I am growing old after all, displaying all that kind of begrudging envy that adults often display towards the younger generation. I have crossed the line from trying to act older than my age, to trying to act younger than my age. I wonder how old I’ll have to become to learn to be wise and patient? Obviously, I still have a long way to go before reaching that age yet. And part of me says “yeay!” to that, while the other part goes “bummer!.” Interesting creatures human beings are.