Monday, June 6, 2011

61. Unstructured time.

At least since the Industrial Revolution, most every institution of human life has been organized according to a schedule, because there is a general understanding that productivity and efficiency are hard to maintain without one. Most of us tend to be more disciplined when we must meet the expectations of others (such as a boss) than when we are left to our own devices. While graduate school certainly has its share of scheduled obligations, the life of a graduate student is not typically regimented by the forty-hour workweek, the eight-hour workday, or the half-hour lunch. But relative freedom from the clock creates the problem of unstructured time.

In graduate school, you have to manage your scheduled obligations (courses that you are taking, courses that you are teaching, grading, etc.) on top of the immensely time-consuming tasks of reading, researching, and writing for which there are no set schedules. This is why graduate school requires an unusual degree of self-discipline that most people do not possess (see Reason 47). The organization of modern civilization (with all of its faults) tells us something about human nature. You shouldn’t despair if you are not an expert at managing unstructured time. You are human. But graduate school is a solitary business. It can easily devour ten years of your life. Ask yourself if you would do better in a collaborative setting with clear schedules and expectations.



45 comments:

  1. Combine this reason with #59: You Pay for Nothing and you have the reason why it takes so many folks so long to finish (and please, no smart-alecky retorts from the STEM folks about how easy it is to finish in a timely manner and how interesting your inherited data set is and how great your funding package is, okay?). Last term I paid my own way and took no classes and got a single meeting out my advisor, who was distracted much of the time. $3500 out of pocket for advice which s/he no longer remembers giving and has already reversed position on, and I'm floating around on my own trying to figure out which direction the wind will blow next time.

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    1. There's your lesson: record every interaction you have with faculty and other students.

      I wish I'd done that. Would have saved my ass.

      BTW - if Youtube had been around 13 years ago, I know of some profs. that would no longer be employed - the university could not have stood the embarrassment of having people teaching advanced engineering subjects who were not capable of communicating simple sentences in the language of instruction, much less anything more complicated.

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  2. Ahhhh...this isn't a problem and this isn't a reason not to do a PhD. How do you manage the fact that your time is unstructured? It's called managing your supervisor, your doctoral committee and your time. Oh, this comment comes from a non-STEM person. Yes, managing and structuring your time is important..and crucial to finishing a PhD especially if you're in a non-STEM discipline. Check out my blog for my first blog of five blog posts where I discuss mananagement skills in grad school.

    http://www.senseworlds.com/bewilderness/2011/06/05/management-skills-1-of-5/

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    1. It is a reason if you do not like unstructured time, or are not good at managing your own time as well as that of your supervisor's and your doctoral committee.

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    2. This is definitely a problem.... Once you stop feeling like you're living a productive life, things just get sad...

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  3. Unstructured time is one of the hardest things for me to deal with as a grad student. Some people are very good about structuring their own time, or they have obligations that structure their time for them. For me, having a whole summer, or a whole year, or several years of unstructured time can be overwhelming. Too much flexibility can mean that you end up prioritizing fun things and pushing aside your work, or vice versa, you end up working all the time because you have this huge thing called a dissertation hanging over your head all the time. Unlike a 9 to 5 job, your work never stops, you can never fully relax. And most of the time, your progress is not even visible or measurable.

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  4. The work never really stopping is a downside of academia and also some types of business etc. But you have to learn how to break down the big picture into manageable goals and manage your time. This is part of what you are supposed to be learning. It isn't for everyone for sure.

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  5. Get the book "Eat That Frog" - classic book on time management

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    1. But... I don't have time to read it!

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  6. Step 1: allow your unscheduled time to run wild like a mustang
    Step 2: suffer from an incredibly acute and debilitating panic attack
    Step 3: regain composure long enough to get some stuff done
    Step 4: REPEAT

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  7. Yep, the post above describes my grad school experience.

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  8. Unstructured time is one of those things that sounds nice in theory. If you are thinking about grad school, you have to be honest with yourself. If you didn't have to be at work at 8 AM, would you be there every morning? If you weren't getting paid for it, would you still work eight hours a day? To get through grad school you have to *make yourself* do un-fun things for long stretches of time, on a consistent basis, and without getting paid for most of what you do. Are you up for that?

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  9. YES!!! This is so, so accurate:

    "Step 1: allow your unscheduled time to run wild like a mustang
    Step 2: suffer from an incredibly acute and debilitating panic attack
    Step 3: regain composure long enough to get some stuff done
    Step 4: REPEAT"

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  10. "Some people...have obligations that structure their time for them."

    This is why the "well, all you have to do is just do X, this certainly isn't a reason not to go to grad school" type of responses come off as both prissy and naive (I'm being generous here). If you are a young, single person with no one relying on you, and have perfect discipline in your work habits and clarity about your direction, I'm sure you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and nothing will stop you. Nothing will resonate as a good reason not to go to grad school, because the answer to everything is "just do it" or "I don't care what anyone else thinks."

    Unless you are a serial killer (or a particularly obnoxious academic), you will find yourself entangled in relationships as you age. Not just romantic relationships, but friendships with people outside academia (non-docs! but only if you are lucky), maybe kids, maybe aging parents to care for if you're not callous enough to fob that off on a sister--ahem!--I mean sibling. Even the alumni who were screaming "polyamory" from the rooftops when they were in my doctoral program have now settled into tight little romantic dyads by now.

    The point is that if you have relationships with other humans, they frequently perceive your "unstructured time" as free time. Your friends call in the middle of the day, assuming that your work can be interrupted because no "boss" is hovering over you. Your aging parent doesn't confine her/his emergencies to your designated work hours. Nor does your child.

    Again, this is a good reason, precisely because it's something that someone considering grad school probably doesn't really think about--not deeply, not thoroughly.

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  11. This is the reason that is finally getting me to post here. I have been in grad school forever. For the first 3 years, I took classes and was a TA. I had places to be at certain times and felt busy and productive. I loved grad school. In my 4th year I passed my exams and started writing. All I 'had' to go to campus for was teaching a class on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I was so excited to have all that free time to write and research. How awesome was this going to be!

    My first semester of writing, I did nothing. I think I wrote a one page 'proposal' of some kind and printed out an article or something. Within weeks I started developing bad anxiety and I had my first ever panic attack. The second semester of writing started out a little better, and I kept a set schedule for a few weeks and I loved it. But then I started finding every excuse not to do the work, and soon I was back to doing nothing other than TA work and having panic attacks. I felt like such a loser. I actually stopped wanting to go outside at all, for anything, because it would "take time away from my writing." I did this for two years.

    In year 6 of my degree I ran out of TA funding and got a 40 hr/week office job. I finally admitted to myself that I'm not the kind of person who can set my own schedule for long periods, and that I need places to be at certain times, and I need to know that if I don't go to work there will be immediate consequences. So now I get to write around my 40 hours at work, and it's actually not that bad. I'll graduate later than I wanted to, but I will graduate. My anxiety has decreased since I started this job, and I am balancing work life, home life, and academic life a lot better than I did when I was setting my own hours. My PhD friends are already abandoning their writing goals for the summer in favour of doing something else, or nothing else, and I remember how that felt. Good luck to those who are still facing the challenge.

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  12. The long stretches of unstructured time made me feel like I wasn't accomplishing anything, even when I actually was. It was depressing.

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  13. Combine this (the difficulty, for many of us, of being productive with unstructured time) with Reason 45: Nice advisers can be worse (than the tyrannical meanies). This is me--in a largely unstructured program w/ Dr. Nice Guy/Gal. I'm a complete slug. Boo.

    And thanks to Anon 3:24 for sharing your experience. Really helpful. Best of luck finishing the degree!
    :)

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  14. I'll also second this. I had such a structured and hectic undergrad life, with many classes, obligations, a job, and high expectations. I thought that the free time to "just study" would be so fun, but it's been hell on my motivation. Some of my friends are self-disciplined and don't need people to look over them, but I have discovered that I am not one of those people. I like schedules, I love order, and I need my life to be compartmentalized with set times for set activities. Too much free time and I go from being the praise of my professors to just being lazy and, like the above, unable to leave my house.

    This is something to really think about, not just to go to grad school, but to also ask if the program or job you're venturing towards is a good fit. Also, ask if you can truly trust yourself to study and read unfun stuff with no consequences. I could read Augustine, Graham Greene, or the Inklings for hours on end, but my advisor wants me to read guys I am comfortable only reading once to say I did. To say the least, guys like Foucault are not someone I want to study in depth and thus it becomes a chore. Just things to think about.

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  15. Here's something related:

    It's not just your own time you have to manage.
    You have to out-think the knuckleheads.

    If your advisor or other committee members sit on your work without giving you a reasonable turnaround on comments, or blow their own deadlines, or just plain don't give a crap, you're really screwed. It won't really matter how you manage your own unstructured time, because you're at the whim of people with power and no negative consequences to themselves if they fuck you over. Just about everyone I know has fallen prey to Advisor Dropout Syndrome, where you get no comments or email reply for months at a time, just the sound of tumbleweeds blowing past while you endlessly check your inbox. Did I say something inappropriate to anger Professor X? Is my work really that bad that they don't know how to respond. Oh, no--it's actually because they just forgot.

    Maybe it's because my program sucks...?

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    1. Nope. I have two advisors who were supposed to give me feedback on my dissertation proposal a few weeks ago and I just got it from both of them. One of them just completely forgot and didn't read anything. And my program is actually pretty great and I love my advisors. They just...forget. Because no one is hovering over them, either.

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  16. Yup, I know several people who had to leave grad school early because their advisors were too distant. One person was lucky enough to find a more compatible advisor (cost her an extra year in the program). The others couldn't do that. This could probably be another item on the list, but you don't always get your first (or second, or third...) choice for an advisor - many times, the advisor you want isn't taking new students.

    Then there were other weird things going on, like one student who begged to meet with her advisor more than 30 minutes a week, and every time he said no, he was "too busy" - then she later found out that he was meeting with his other student three times a week for at least 1 hour each meeting. She got fed up with it and left the program.

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  17. This reason + what M. Jordan said x100.

    I have no problem structuring my time around things I enjoy reading/writing about. The real discipline comes from not letting politics, trendiness, and advisor interest sway you. WTo do so, of course, is career suicide for most people.

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  18. "Then there were other weird things going on, like one student who begged to meet with her advisor more than 30 minutes a week, and every time he said no, he was 'too busy' - then she later found out that he was meeting with his other student three times a week for at least 1 hour each meeting. She got fed up with it and left the program."

    More than 30 minutes a week?? Who gets 30 minutes A WEEK?!?
    (I'm not saying it's unreasonable, just that even that is very, very fortunate.)

    I'm lucky to get 1 meeting a quarter! And my advisor may spend half of that telling yarns, fiddling with email, whoops! I'm double booked! When we get down to business, previous advice is so distant that it's meaningless--welcome to your brand new direction. One you should pursue until I forget about it and tell you to do something different next quarter.

    That's actually pretty common in my program, and others have it worse (one meeting a quarter and advisor talks about self the WHOLE time, or calls up drunk late at night to bitch about her/his other advisees).

    And admin acts like it's a big surprise I'm behind normative time...

    Tenure is absolutely necessary for the production of ideas. It's lousy for everything else. Profs know they won't get fired for any kind of bad, irresponsible behavior short of slaying a family of four, so they're free to play favorites and act like jerks.

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  19. I wanted to echo the above comment that, because you never HAVE to be anywhere/do anything, you constantly FEEL like you SHOULD be "getting something done." When you're never ON the clock, you're never OFF the clock, which pretty much ruins weekends, evenings, and vacations. And, as others have said, I'm infinitely more productive now that I have kids and teach 2 classes than I ever was as a freewheelin' grad student. But my advisers have thought I was INSANE for having kids and teaching more than the minimum required because it might "detract from progress."

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  20. Your advisors probably just thought you were INSANE for having kids at all. All the True Believers I know, the highly productive types of profs and grad students, have neither children nor partners nor pets to slow them down. God forbid they should give instead of just taking. Good for you for carving out a real life for yourself, LW.

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  21. You all know what they say: If you want something done, give it to a busy person. They'll know how to fit it in. I'm a schedule-and-order person myself. For me, taking off the outside pressure is like taking the lid off a boiling pot—all the steam escapes and you're left with no force at all. The days when my kids were young and demanding were hectic and exhausting beyond belief, but I have the strong impression that I was a lot more efficient then than I am now, when they no longer live at home. (Or maybe I'm just getting old.) By all means, everyone, get a life outside your work. It'll add a little structure, if nothing else.

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  22. Unstructured time is both a curse and a blessing. For reasons already stated, learning to prioritize and be organized is not for everyone. Conversely, not having anyone consistently around to bust your balls all day, every day, is not too shabby either.

    In my program, faculty were constantly crawling up my @$$ to see what I was doing. Fellow grad students were no better; very much a keeping up with the Jones' mentality. Strangely, many more were equally insulted that I didn't--ever--ask for their help. I'm sure every program and everyone's experience differs for a variety of reasons, but I've always been the kind of guy that met deadlines and exceeded expectations provided that no one was trying to micromanage me.

    The real trick in figuring out the dissertation and grad school, while already explicated in some parts and various comments throughout this blog, is not so much about managing your time but having a feasible research agenda that you can realistically complete within a specified time-frame. Yea, I know, easier said than done.

    Still, when I entered my program, I already knew what I wanted to do. Everything was paid for. The only challenge was enduring 4 years of bullshit. But that's nothing a vice or 20 can't fix to help you cope when need be. In the end, being organized helps, but being masochistically stubborn and unconditionally committed to the task at hand matters more.

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  23. I think a big part is whether you feel like you love what your dissertation is about, and maybe even more importantly, that you think it is important and will make some sort of advancement in the field.
    If you have that, then the unstructured time is less of a problem - you WANT to be working on your dissertation, because humans like to do things they feel matter and make a difference, especially in a field they love. You can't wait to crack on and unpack the elements that you're looking at to add your contribution to human knowledge.

    If you don't have that, and would rather be doing a thousand other things rather than your diss, then unstructured time is going to be hell because you'll fill it with more stimulating things.

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  24. "I think a big part is whether you feel like you love what your dissertation is about, and maybe even more importantly, that you THINK it is important and will make some sort of advancement in the field" (emphasis mine).

    Very little of the work a grad student does is consequential in any way beyond the establishment of her/his own reputation, regardless of whether said research sees the light of day in a reputable journal. The publishing thing is about marketing yourself as a regular, reliable producer of X-type of widgets (papers on Y in Z caliber journals with an impact factor of >Q). Because most of what we churn out is useless in terms of real world impact or even intellectual influence, THINKING how important and influential your work is an act of self-delusion that keeps you from slipping into despair. The happiest grad students I know (besides one True Believer dawn-to-after-midnight workaholic), are those who have an inflated/unrealistic view of their own importance. Narcissists seems to flourish in academia.

    Here's an example. I was stuck marking time with a couple of sociology grad students, both more than a decade younger than I am. They were whoopin' it up--congratulating each other on what brilliant thinkers they are. How funky and awful the older generation of feminists are. Temporarily horrified, one turned to the other and essentially said, "You don't think our generation will ever get entrenched in stupid, old-fashioned ideas, do you?" Oh no, of course not, never mind that sociologists are supposed to understand that ideas are produced and supplanted in a sociopolitical context. Never mind that one of those old feminists is sitting right here. Don't worry, cocky young jackasses, you're so brilliant that you'll never go outta style.

    On another note, one of my profs led us through this big talk about publications. His/her IMPORTANT, groundbreaking pub that got him/her the job at venerable UWY (University of Wasted Years). This IMPORTANT paper was published in the 1980s. I looked it up--since then only 6 citations--half of which are the professor's.

    So pump yourself up if that's what it takes to graduate. But don't delude yourself for life.

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  25. To above anonymous - I think you missed the point of my post you quoted, though I do totally understand what you're saying...

    I was just saying that doing research you personally love and think is important (it IS important if YOU love it and it's important to you) is a big key to finishing the diss.

    You don't need the rest of the world's opinion on whether something is important or not if it's something you're truly interested in and excited about, because it'll be of great importance to you personally.
    Of course if you want to play games of who is the bigger shot in the department, etc. then yeah, you'll be deluded if you're doing something that is not groundbreaking but you think it is.

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  26. To above anonymous:

    Thanks for the clarification, but I didn't miss the point. We're just making different parts of the same argument. You're making the subjective point (if you really like your work, you're more likely to focus on it and finish); I'm making the objective point (whether or not you really like your work, it's probably not "important" in the way that academics typically pretend their work is. Unless you are remarkably brilliant, well-connected, and lucky, your academic work likely won't change much except your bank account--in either direction, depending upon your relationship to the job market and prevailing research fads. It's like being a painter, you produce work because it's pleasing to you. Then you hope it's gonna sell.)

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  27. Difference in thesis writing efficiency:
    happy day: i wake up thinking i am creating knowledge. Two pages written.
    depressed day: i wake up thinking my existence is pathetic. Some reading and zero page written.

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  28. At least on the depressed day you get some reading done! You're more disciplined than I am. For me, depressed day = much housework, some online games, a little crying, zero reading. haven't looked at that piece o' crap thesis in weeks.

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  29. A) From all the comments here: so this is not a reason not to go to grad school. However it's a good reason to skip grad school if you are not admitted in a school in the top-tier.

    B)a blog entry beginning by a statement that since the Industrial Revolution all activities have some sort of schedule?

    Ah! Now you show your real face blogger! You are a STEM student (it's my first time on this blog FYI)!

    Cause, obviously, 1) no humanities student would ever quote that as a satisfying reason not to go to grad school... 2) Classics never lie: Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault! Time managing is THE WAY OF SLAVERY! RESIST! GO TO GRAD SCHOOL!

    ;)

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  30. To Anonymous 7:01pm above:

    This sounds so familiar! Another scenario: wake up feeling energized, work all day, and then realize that all you have to show for it is two measly sentences.

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  31. I thoroughly enjoyed my master's degree programs. Homework and exam deadlines would occasionally creep up on me and cause stress, and the weird personalities most profs had was sometimes grating. But overall, the experience was very positive.

    So I decided to continue and I enrolled in a Ph.D. program. It's so much different, and it's not fun in the least. It's completely unstructured, unguided, and fraught with hazards. I can deal with all that. But I really don't like the way it drags on and on, and consumes my personal time. The author of this piece nailed it exactly.

    If you have the interest and the ambition, and if it makes good financial sense, and if you have read all the previous reasons and know what you're getting into, then by all means, get yourself a master's degree.

    But DO NOT enroll in a Ph.D. program expecting more of the same. It's much different, and it could seriously hurt you.

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  32. Jerry 5:45:
    TITCR

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  33. This is the one that really did me in. I remember lying in bed on a cold winter morning thinking "wow, I REALLY don't want to get up and go to the university." Then I thought, "why should I? There's no one waiting for me to be there. I can make my own schedule." So I didn't go and... absolutely nothing happened. After I realized that it didn't really matter whether I went or not, I started staying home more and more, until I eventually just stopped going all together.

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    1. Actually unstructured time is the one good thing about grad school. Because you can concentrate on something - on anything. Have you seen people with day jobs? Wake up at 7, go out at 8, come back at 5, cook & eat until 7, and then 2-3 hours of facebook & tv. No time to ever do anything serious. Because serious things require you to concentrate for 10+ hours per day for weeks and weeks. Depending on your school & department, you might be able to stop showing up to school (except to do your teaching or w/e) for 2-3 weeks without anybody noticing... And you have summer break. Of course, if you play your cards wrong, you end up in the lab 24/7. Then you're truly fucked.

      Writing a dissertation is not a serious activity in practice, though it feels like one. The test is simple. Is anybody gonna read your dissertation? Including your advisor and your mom? For most people the answer is no. Then how could it be important?
      The lucky few who produce anything worthwhile are the rock stars of academia. Yah, academia is kind of like Hollywood - a few make it big, the rest get to be whores (temp professors). Though to be fair grading papers & alcoholism is probably better than getting fucked & alcoholism.

      But anyway, use your unstructured time wisely, because that's the one good thing you'll get out of grad school. Probably a good idea to read Ben Franklin's autobiography. Notice how Franklin didn't go to grad school. And then read some more.

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  34. i would suggest an inherent problem with our society is the notable lack of free/unstructured time. we live in a society which encourages us to micromanage just about every second of our waking lives, when in reality, unstructured creative/free time is equally as important as structured routines. if Americans had a better balance between structured/unstructured time, maybe our suicide rate wouldn't be double the national homicide rate. while i am in no way undermining the importance of self-discipline and time management, many of the greatest men in history spent a large amount of their time simply sitting in contemplation, taking long walks, and in general just remaining childishly curious about the world around them (tesla's autobiography has some great quotes about "work"). the modern american lifestyle and education system deters people from engaging in this free/unstructured time which is essential to our happiness, intelligence, health, and creativity.

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    1. Isaac Newton as a young man apparently spent about two years living in the country, which he did to avoid the plague. He spent much of this time in self-study, writing, and contemplation. It has been suggested that this is the period of time in which he came to many of the insights which he presented in later life in physics and mathematics.

      It would be difficult for anyone to be more successful academically or professionally.

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  35. "You're given a free hand down the mines, a complete free hand to do anything you like. Provided you get hold of two tons of coal a day." - 'The Miner Who Would Rather Have Been A Judge,' Beyond the Fringe (1961).

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  36. Who would have guessed working to be an expert in something would require some self-discipline and ambition?!

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