email: Thor May - thormay@yahoo.com


Thor May

Withdrawal from PhD Candidacies:

University of Melbourne 1996 & University of Newcastle 1988


Notes : this document is comprised of four letters which deal with reasons for withdrawal from or continuance with PhD candidature. Much later (2010) the writer did obtain a PhD from the University of Newcastle in an area quite different from the topics discussed below. In both the cases dealt with here, formal withdrawal came after much reflection, and a considerable time after actual work on the dissertations had lapsed. However, the institutions and doctoral supervisors made no input either way, or at any time, on the withdrawal decisions.


1. Letter 1 sets out my reasons for withdrawing from a PhD Candidacy in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne in 1996.

2. Letter 2 is the response of my supervisor & Head of Department, Assoc. Professor Nicholas Evans

3. Letter 3 is a an extract from correspondence in 1993, discussing why research is worthwhile.

4. Letter 4 is my formal withdrawal from a first PhD candidacy in Linguistics at the University of Newcastle, NSW in 1988. Hopefully it might give some insight into the kind of factors which can influence such very tough decisions.


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1. Withdrawal from PhD Candidature in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne in 1996:


Dr. Nicholas Evans, Department of Linguistics
University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3052

Dear Nick,

I am writing to notify you that I am withdrawing from my PhD candidacy in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. Although I had decided upon this some time ago, I have learned to be cautious about burning bridges. My leave of absence expires on 1 August 1996, so a choice must be made. Here are my reasons:

1. I cannot put a realistic completion date on the topic as it is designed.

2. It is not clear to me that whatever I undertake in this area will contribute anything significant to the sum of human understanding.

3. At almost 51, although very fit indeed, institutional careers are more or less closed to me, and a PhD, by the time I got it, would not amount to much of a vocational asset.

4. Over the last couple of years I have managed to make useful financial savings. As a 25 year old I could happily blow the money. As it is, I think I had better consolidate something before I go ga-ga.

For the brief present, I have some kind of a role in the TAFE system. TAFE teaching does give certain satisfactions. It is much more of a service role, less self-absorbed than university work, since the less gifted clients by and large must struggle far harder to achieve useful learning. Being clever does not necessarily make for good teaching in this environment, and sharp-witted colleagues are also thinner on the ground. On the other hand, there is a greater need to be wise about advice, since many TAFE students are easily led astray.

I am writing three books currently. One, English for Mechanics, has already earned $500 in royalties on an Indonesian technical English project which I established at Pulau Banka in April of this year. This sort of thing does offer an intellectual outlet, and scope for innovation. Indeed, being a free spirit, my own development may have been better off if I had taken an independent track twenty years ago.

Regards, Thor May

21 July 1996



2. Supervisor response to withdrawal letter, University of Melbourne 1996


From: Nick Evans
Date: Tue, 06 Aug 1996 09:55:47 +1000
Subject: your letter

To: thor may <thormay@melbourne.DIALix.oz.au>

Subject: Your letter



thanks for your recent letter, which reached me today. Although of course I'll miss your sharp and original spirit around the department, I can understand the reasons for your decision, and had suspected from how things were going that you might recentre your efforts around your TAFE teaching. Our loss will be the TAFE system's gain, and your work there sounds really interesting. Anyway, I hope you will always feel welcome to drop in at whatever seminars and other activities here might catch your interest.


Regards, Nick Evans



3. Rationales for PhD study: 1993 Letter to PhD Supervisor, Department of Linguistics, University of Melbourne


Department of Linguistics
University of Melbourne

TO: Nick Evans
FROM: Thor May
DATE: December 9, 1993


a) A little history -  What makes Thor May tick? Why do I do research at all ?


At 12 years of age my father thrashed his headmaster with a razor strop and quit any kind of formal education, (that's his story anyway). The shifting addresses of an itinerant carpenter, where I grew up, made few allowances for intellectual interests, and to this day the family thinks I'm warped. Even with hindsight it is difficult to escape the horizon of expectations which those closest to you impose. The thirty or so unskilled and semi-skilled jobs which bored me witless before 1975 have left me with a boundless sympathy for the millions who will always be trapped. They find their compensations outside work, if they are lucky. I jumped those rails, but also paid a price, in security, in monetary rewards, and as an outsider to my origins, in friendship. I didn't know my limitations (and still don't) but determined that I would continue to challenge them, continue to grow, refuse to be intimidated into becoming a cog for some anonymous machine.

Linguistics and social anthropology were the first things which those paid to judge suggested I was pretty good at. The linguistic canon also seemed flexible enough to accommodate my anarchic skepticism. Who knows, we might all have been better off if I had encountered a sympathetic lecturer in law or journalism or marketing first. Blessed are those who know their vocation; for me, linguistics was an accident that happened.

After a year of high school teaching in NZ (just marginally more stimulating than picking the chewing gum off pub floors), and another year (1977) with AMES in Melbourne, I wrote to Ray Cattell at Newcastle U. He offered to take me on as a postgraduate and, amazingly, asked me to lecture. The possibility had never crossed my mind. As it turned out, I was writing a PhD in generative grammar but teaching mostly sociolinguistics. In practice, I was learning on the job, spending most of my time reading enough to give decent lectures, with no useful spin-off into the dissertation at all. What I did learn about the topic gradually convinced me that a PhD topic on it, written in terms of the available generative models, would be a scholastic exercise, a rite of passage perhaps, but with little to contribute to enduring knowledge. Maybe most PhDs are like that, or maybe I was just misguided, but having walked out on cleaning pub toilets, I wanted to do something that would yield more lasting satisfaction.

Newcastle gave me a kind of career option by default. If that first PhD topic wasn't worth the candle in the end, then at least it seemed like common-sense to build on my lecturing experience. Somewhere along the way I became a damned good teacher. Hence the short-term appointments to Northern Rivers CAE (now Southern Cross University) and The University of Technology in PNG, and eventually the full lecturing position at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. Experience was what these jobs were all about. In a place like Fiji it certainly wasn't the money. For a gross of around $23,000 with a marginal tax rate of 48 cents in the dollar, I had the privilege of a staff/student ratio of 100-140:1, which included running all my own tutorials. I don't begrudge any of this experience, but I would have been a fool to stay locked onto that Suva treadmill. In fact, though I didn't realise it at the time, I would have been dead in another six months : as you know, in 1991 I had two near brushes with death in Melbourne where there are real hospitals; (nowadays I keep my diet below 10% fat and run 10km a day).


b) Current options as I see them : [ref. 1993]


i) continue to rely on casual and emergency work. This seems less and less viable in the present climate. Also, when the ET 'phone calls do come it is fatal to turn them down because you just won't be called next time. Planning is impossible. I lost $400 last September by leaving my telephone for 3 minutes to check the letter box. Often it is 20 hours or zero at a moment's notice.

ii) take up a TAFE contract if offered. This would be 20hrs contact, reasonably interesting, not difficult but quite time-consuming. The money on contract is respectable. The work is essentially unrelated to my thesis.

iii) fluke an Australian lecturing position in TESL: difficult, given my history and the competition, but possible. For example, USQ has advertised a place, and I knew the HOD, Francis Manghubhai, in Fiji. In a scene like that the PhD would have to go to hell for the first year, until my feet hit the ground. Again, the work would be unrelated to the thesis, but useful experience for the kind of job (if any!) I'm likely to be offered in future years.

iv) fluke a job lecturing linguistics in some outpost of the empire; (that's not going to happen in Australia without a PhD, if at all). Well, yes and no. It could be interesting, though I'm essentially an urban animal. It could also be the Suva scene all over, with no time or resources for thesis research. Decaying expatriates are a sad sight.

v) stop trying to do things by halves. Pack in the thesis for a couple of years and make enough tax-free money in Saudi Arabia to fund some full-time study. Dhahran is advertising now for January and September 1994 starts. If I took it on, it would make sense to learn Arabic into the bargain. The real entrée into this sort of job is an MA in Applied Linguistics, but I might still score. The attractions of this option are obvious. The drawbacks are also very stark. i) It is a serious proposition to break continuity of study, even if Melbourne University would buy the idea; ii) I'm already 48. This doesn't bother me, but it seems to make other people jumpy (including some in your faculty, I've noticed); iii) a heretic like me sandwiched between the mad mullahs and Saddam Hussein, without even the possibility of looking at a woman for two years, sounds like the script for a very bad movie.

vi) Pack in the idea of writing a thesis altogether. Nope. 1) I'm stubborn; 2) it's too damned interesting; 3) there's no way I'm going back to cleaning pub toilets; 4) short of a lobotomy, when you've got a complexity-seeking brain, you have to keep it amused;5) the caste-stricken academic classes won't talk to me without a PhD (the money-dazzled remainder have already given up on me); 6) against impressive evidence to the contrary, employers think that only PhDs can teach other people clever things; 7) why is intellectual enquiry a less useful way of using up a life than pushing a mop anyway?



4. Withdrawal from PhD Candidature in Linguistics at the University of Newcastle in 1988:


T.P. May
Lecturer I (Linguistics)
Dept. Literature & Language University of the South Pacific
P.O. Box 1168 Suva, Fiji
Tel. 313 900 ext.372; Fax 301 305

Date: October 22, 1988


  • H.O.D., Dept. of Linguistics,
  • Chairman of the Senate,
  • The Secretary, University of Newcastle NSW

Dear Sirs,

This is formal notice to the University of Newcastle of my withdrawal from candidature for the PhD thesis entitled GRAMMATICAL AGENCY. The work on this thesis topic has given rise to several professional papers, either published or soon to be submitted for publication. However I have concluded (and not hastily) that the present state of knowledge in linguistics and psychology does not leave scope for treating the subject with proper integrity in a doctoral dissertation. This conclusion is explained in greater detail below.

I thank my various supervisors of the past several years, and in particular Ray Cattell who gave me the chance to lecture, thus leading me into an academic career which was neither planned nor anticipated.

I will be enrolling shortly (but not at Newcastle) to commence another dissertation, this time in Discourse Analysis.

The thesis, GRAMMATICAL AGENCY was intended to analyse some of the thematic relations which exist amongst the constituents of sentences in natural languages. It has become clear to me that thematic relations are translation nodes between the grammar of natural languages and what might be called the grammar of mind. Most existing models of language grammars assert the autonomy of natural language from other centres of cognition. The internal systems of language are certainly sufficiently complex and systematic to absorb the attention of many generations of linguists. However my work on the margins of cognitive systems has persuaded me that attempts to create entirely autonomous linguistic models are misplaced.

There is no doubt that the existing knowledge of human cognitive systems (or what I have called "the grammar of mind") is desperately inadequate. One feels the sort of despair that medieval alchemists must have known before the emergence of coherent principles in chemistry and physics. We don't even know what questions to ask. The sense I have of much present work in linguistics is that we are trying to reverse-engineer a high level computer language without any notion that it is making constant function calls to a "machine language" in the central processing unit, and must be finally interpreted within the constraints of that "machine language" if it is to operate at all. If you like, the processes of perception, thought and memory are expressions of this "machine language", whose paradigms we barely comprehend or admit. We fail to acknowledge that the systems of natural language semantics are the precise processes interpreting our high level language syntax to this other cognitive machine language.

For the purposes of writing a thesis I have been effectively required to work with existing models of generative grammars. I feel that fragments of such grammars are definitely going to encapsulate useful principles and patterns in unexpected ways, but that the model-specific frameworks and formalisms are going to look as irrelevant as the Ptolemaic Universe in any satisfactory characterization of the relationships between high level natural languages and the structures of "machine languages" in other cognitive processes.

Research in the area of thematic relations is so handicapped by our present ignorance of cognitive processes, and the primitive state of linguistic science, that I have considered it wise to put the thesis topic GRAMMATICAL AGENCY aside for investigation at a later time, unconstrained by the exigencies of course enrolment deadlines.

Yours sincerely,

Thorold MAY

October 22, 1988

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