I heart my thesis

Published in frankie 25 (September/October 2008)

Jason Wilson: early video games

Last year Griffith University graduate Jason Wilson added 'Dr' to his name when he submitted his 90,000-word PhD - a critical history of video games from 1972 to 1985. Aside from academics, it was also a chance to pay homage to some old favourites, like Pong and Atari. "You've got to have a personal connection with the thing you're studying," he says. "For me it had a lot to do with my memories of being a child in the '80s."

The PhD was five years in the making, which Jason reckons is "about the average". Handing it in was a quiet victory, celebrated with a few beers and a new tattoo. Some corrections had to be made to his original submission, and then there were months of waiting for it to be marked. "It's such a drawn-out process that it's hard to pin down a climactic moment when it's 'finished'," he says. "It's just relief more than anything."

Doing the PhD meant Jason had to sacrifice "money, lost earnings, relationships, spare time and a few years of my life that I'll never get back. I've met so many people who had major relationships break down while they were doing their PhDs. It can take quite a toll on your personal life. And it's a long time to be on the poverty line."

So did he ever consider throwing in the towel? "Every day, at one point," he admits. "You haven't really started until you've thought about tossing it in." Towards the end, Jason was putting in 16-hour days to try and get it over the line. "I stopped going out, stopped drinking and that sort of stuff because I just had to get it done. I didn't want to go out into the world with this unfinished thing hanging around my neck."

Happily, Jason's work paid off in the end. "It's the most difficult thing I've ever done. It's a hard and long road, but it makes you feel strong and powerful. At the end you're like, wow, if I can do that, I can do anything."

There has been one casualty from the experience, though - Jason's gaming habit. "I had to step away from video games for a while," he laughs. "I don't own a console at the moment. I had one when I lived in the UK, but I haven't replaced it since I got back, and I used to be a real gamer."

Samia Hossain: Australian sex doctors

In the 1920s, an Australian sexologist by the name of Norman Haire travelled to Europe to find his fortune. He carved out his place in history by sterilising famous folks like Sigmund Freud and Irish poet William Yeats. Like so many empty promises caught in present-day spam filters, the ageing intellectuals believed that getting their bits cut would 'enhance' their sexual performance and improve creative output.

The notion tickles University of Sydney PhD student Samia Hossain. Stories like this one pepper her research into the history of Australian sex doctors in the early 20th century. Some of her other findings are more sinister: at the same time back in Australia, Haire's technique was being used to attempt genocide by sterilising Aboriginal women.

Samia's research is informed by her political activism and work with community organisations. Having a social justice angle to her thesis also helps her get out of some sticky conversations. "It would be very strange to talk to my grandparents in Bangladesh and try to explain what I'm doing," she says. "Even when my parents ask I say it in a different way - it's the history of race relations rather than sexuality."

Being able to talk to ordinary people about her work is important to Samia. She wants to tell a good story, not just tick the academic boxes. "It's incredibly important that anything I write is really accessible and enjoyable," she says. "Good theoretical stuff should be beautiful to read."

But the biggest challenge, she says, is staying focused on her topic. Last year the self-described "schizophrenic writer" wrote a long passage about trains, and is worried that she might have derailed her PhD in the process.

"I just thought, crap, what is my thesis actually about? When people ask me what the thesis is about I go into meltdown these days."

Her wandering mind is also prone to finding interesting job opportunities and dreaming of moving to Istanbul. But she is determined to finish what she has started. "I'm aware that the next two years are going to be this hard slog of focusing on one thing, and I'm dreading that."

So what is Samia looking forward to when it's all over? "I'm looking forward to my posture straightening up! My neck's gotten kind of weird and bent from sitting in front of a desk all day, every day. It's going to be nice when that goes away.

Ian Rogers: rock music ideologies

Ian Rogers, half-way through a PhD on rock music ideologies at the University of Queensland, has one very humble ambition for celebrating his thesis when it is finished. "I'm going to buy a washing machine," he says, looking forward to finally getting a job and moving off the poverty line. "The freezer stopped and the washing machine broke, and I'm really looking forward to getting them fixed. I want to freeze things!"

Three and a half years ago the property analyst slash economist slash musician decided he'd had enough of office life, so he put away his business degree and set about retraining. His scholarship of $20,000 a year is a fraction of his former salary, but the career change was worth it, he says. "I've been living off $350 a week since 2005. Everything in the house is broken and needs to be replaced. But I disliked full-time office work so much that the benefits of having quality of life definitely outweighed the loss of income."

When he's not working on the thesis, Ian plays guitar with his band, No Anchor; his other outfit, Iron On, is currently on hiatus. And his double life as a muso definitely colours his research into why people join bands. Rather than focus on popular or 'successful' artists, Ian is studying musicians who do it for love. He has interviewed 20 indie music-makers so far, and says that while some still lust after fame and fortune, most people's reasons are far more complex.

Ian is confident that his research will eventually snare him an academic job - a goal that's replaced any rock star fantasies he may once have had. But although he describes himself as ambitious, he has a relaxed attitude about his post-PhD career. "I'm maybe not as attentive to the future as I should be," he admits. "That could be a hangover from being a full-time musician. You live a bit more week-to-week. You feel a little bit more comfortable with risk, with letting things happen as they need to."

Ian does admit, though, that life as a specialist comes at a cost. "Sometimes you do feel like you know a lot of stuff about a tiny little thing that no one else really cares about. I may be able to lecture people on the end of '70s punk, but I have trouble refilling the windscreen wiper fluid in the car!"