What is your thesis totem?


owlI’ve decided that the owl is my PhD totem.

I recently mentioned this to my supervisor (who, as it happens, is our very own Thesis Whisperer) and she noted that there could be a blog post in that (I do that a lot – it’s very annoying. Ed). This got me thinking about all of the physical objects that have taken on agency in my research career to date. They’re more plentiful than I’d previously realised, and I outline them for you here so that you might also think about the symbols that are guiding or have guided you on your PhD journeys.

First and most recently, for me: owls.

My choice of the owl is a banal one; owls are wise, right? Further to this, I have noticed that owls, both real and in print form, keep popping up in these first months of my PhD. Rational Jodie says that this is because owl imagery is ‘in’ this season (pineapples, stags and foxes, you are SO 2014…).

However, Starchild Jodie insists on the existence of a J.K. Rowling world, where the owl’s ubiquitous presence is evidence that it has chosen me. Chosen me as a worthy subject to guide through the hero’s journey1 they call a PhD. Thus, I have begun to surround myself with owl paraphernalia – folders, sticky notes, jewellery – and somewhat to my own surprise, it’s helping me to feel like I’m a real PhD student now.

I should point out, particularly as my PhD is in Anthropology, that I am not talking about spirit animals or totems from an anthropological point of view here, and am certainly not undermining the power that totems hold in other cultures and religions. That said, I’m also not making light of my own interpretation of the animal spirit guide, despite my glibness of tone.

I need that owl.

My mixed and motley heritage means I don’t have a long cultural tradition to draw on to help me through this, nor a religion that guides me. So, like many of my contemporaries, I’m doing that post-modern thing (post-post-modern thing? It’s hard to keep track) where, like the bower bird, you scratch around till you find a collection of things that work for you, cobble them together and use them to your best advantage.

For me, one of those things is adopting the owl as my PhD spirit guide.

Thinking about my owl totem caused me to reflect on the many and varied symbolic coping mechanisms that academics, myself included, use to navigate their research careers. One of the best pieces of advice a professor ever gave me was to fill my research environment with symbols of ‘researcher-ness’, as a shortcut into research mode each morning.

For her, it was to turn on soft jazz in the background, brew her favourite coffee so that her office would be fragrant with the wafts of productivity, and put on a beret, because for her, this was what the ideal writing studio would entail.

In addition to this sounding like a delightful work environment, she had found that this had a heuristic effect; as soon as the ritual was complete and that beret went on her head, her brain seemed to realise it was time to work, and she could slip easily and comfortably into writing.

The symbols not only reflected her ideals, but prompted them.

This perhaps sounds a little extreme – if we all wore berets at work the academic stereotype would just go wild! – but I’ve mentioned this idea to a number of other PhD students, and quite a few of them found that they were in fact doing something similar without realising it.

One told me she always wears dresses to uni, and never wears them on weekends, because dresses are what she wears when she is in academic mode. Another plays the sound of rain in the background or on his earphones – partially because it seems to help with his tinnitus, but also because the white noise helps him relax into a mode of thinking that is harder for him to achieve when surrounded by the sounds of the real world.

There is some debate in my field of research over whether objects or ideas can have agency. To me, it seems logical that they do, that they must, and that it is in our best interest to surrender to their power when it aids us in our quest.

Do you have symbols or routines that aid you on your research journey? I’m only in my first year, so if you have tips on other ways of entering the academic headspace that you’ve found useful, please tell us about them in the comments!

1See Joseph Campbell’s discussion of the hero’s journey (1968) and tell me what we’re doing isn’t similar. I want my Golden Fleece!

Author Bio: Jodie Trembath is a  PhD student in the school of Culture, History and Languages at the Australian National University