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The meeting I had with my supervisor yesterday was the best we have ever had.

Like ever.

I told her everything I had resolved to tell her – that I was completely lost, blank, confused, and didn’t have a clue what I should do about it. I had expected her to purse her lips and fidget uncomfortably, disappointed that I wasn’t my usual brilliant, always-knows-what-to-do self. But she didn’t. She just told me she was surprised this hadn’t happened to me sooner and that it’s completely normal to lose the will to live at some point in a PhD.

Then she asked me to summarise the biggest thing I was confused about.

I explained that my biggest fear about the months ahead is the prospect of (mis)understanding. I am afraid of misunderstanding my work – the rationale and aims of my research, the meaning of my studies, and the integration of my project into the spectrum of existing literature. I am afraid of misunderstanding other people’s work, and of writing my thesis ‘wrong’ because I’ve misunderstood how to write a thesis ‘correctly’. I am terrified of misunderstanding every premise my argument is based on and of not making it through my viva alive because my examiners will reveal how badly I’ve misunderstood everything.

Then she said we’d just talk through the misunderstanding until we understood.

I showed her the chapter outlines I’ve been working on – the ones that I’ve divided into sections, lists of topics, and brief notes about citations and key points – and she actually spread them out across her desk and listened as I talked her through them. I was amazed at how much easier it was to make sense of my confusing thoughts as I explained them to her, going through each outline, one chapter at a time. I showed her my analysis and pointed out the confusing results. She just looked at them and said, have you considered blah blah blah? And I just sat there, speechless, unable to understand why I hadn’t thought of that before.

In the space of two hours I went from a mad, chaotic mass of brain cells to a calm, motivated, valid human being. More importantly, many of my formerly confusing ideas are now starting to gain some clarity. And with the ones we didn’t find an answer to, I have clear actions to take to follow up. In short, now I understand, and I know what to do.

Wow.

Today is like a revelation. After long months of soldiering stubbornly through work and blankness I didn’t understand, now I see.

I think I’m going to make it after all.

Today I’m back in the office.

And in a state of utter confusion.

Well, not confusion. It’s more that ubiquitous sense of blankness that’s been haunting me on and off for the last 6 months. I just feel drained of the excitement I had for my PhD when I first started it and am more inclined to just push myself to get through each day to the end now. I’m getting there, but progress seems slower than ever. I’ve got my analysis to finalise. I’ve got draft chapters to edit, and possibly even rewrite from scratch. I’ve got a postdoc proposal to develop and applications to prepare. I’ve got a viva in July for which I need to prepare myself mentally, and I am terrified of this because I am a diehard perfectionist and I am petrified of failing. And I’m supposed to be submitting in May. May, dammit!

I have no idea how other people do this, or whether I’m doing it right, or whether I’m on the track to complete and utter failure, or indeed whether my research, argument, or even entire thesis are of any intellectual value whatsoever.

I just don’t know.

When I ask other people (my supervisors, lab colleagues, people I meet at conferences and seminars), they have a habit of saying “You’ll be fine,” as if everything is going to be fine, no matter what. When people tell me I’ll be fine, it frustrates me because I’ll only be fine from other people’s perspectives – after all, they just go about their lives and observe me being fine. I, on the other hand, am the one actually doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine, and that feels kind of different from looking at me as an observer because, well, I’m the one doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine.

It’s the work, you see, that is they key to fineness. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t be fine.

When people say “You’ll be fine,” maybe they mean that they’re sure I’ll be fine because they’re sure I’ll do the work to a high enough standard that ensures I will be fine. I don’t see how they can be sure of that. What if I suddenly catch on fire? What if I’m kidnapped? Sectioned under the Mental Health Act? Succumb to bubonic plague?

What if I just lose motivation and quit?

 What happens then? Am I still fine?

Right now, I’m less than three weeks away from entering a 3+ month period of self-imposed solitary confinement for the sole purpose of writing my thesis. Its skeleton is there, there’s some drabby flesh on it, but it needs rebuilding and perfecting. Crucial parts of it don’t even exist yet. When I think about how on earth I am going to get this together, I feel woozy and dazed and confused. But most of all blank.

I feel blanker than the blank Word document in front of me, blanker than the pure white sheets of notebook paper on my desk, blanker than the blankest blankity blankness, ever.

To think that by the beginning of May, this blankness is expected (by my supervisors, my examiners, my family, and just about everyone else holding their breath for me to graduate) to have been populated with ideas, arguments, words, sentences, charts, tables and diagrams, to be whirling with answers, critiques, suggestions, contradictions, definitions and discussions, and to be completely, totally, and utterly ready for the viva.

I’m not quite sure whether I’ll be fine, or even whether I’m fine right now. I feel more blank than fine. I’ve been sitting in this office 50 hours a week for 2 years. I’ve become part of the furniture. People hardly notice whether I’m there or not. I want to finish my thesis, have my viva, and leave. I don’t ever want to come back.

Today I’m back in the office.

I’m not confused, I’m just blank.

Answer me this: How do you go forward if you don’t know which way you’re facing?

Hm?

Lennon? Chekhov? Fellow PhD enthusiasts in the blogosphere?

Because right now I have no idea where I am in this vast, sprawling, hopelessly chaotic, admittedly fascinating but oh so exhausting PhD.

It’s amazing how many PhD-related injuries I’m suffering from at the moment.

I’ve had a bad back for at least 6 months now. I used to think it was because something was wrong with the way I sleep or the bed I sleep on, but it has persisted steadily through attempts to change sleeping positions, sleep on an extra layer of doona, and sleep more hours or fewer hours. Now I think it happens because I have to sit in a swivel chair in the office all day, then go home and sit in another swivel chair all evening, then sleep on a potentially dodgy bed, then wake up and do the whole thing again. Sure, I take breaks during the day – I get up and take a walk, chat with people in the hall, make tea – but the bulk of my time is spent sitting rigidly in a swivel chair, typing, emailing, worrying and procrastinating.

Then there’s the dry eyes. This undoubtedly occurs because of the long hours spent in staring contests with the screen or paper in front of me. I don’t wear glasses and have always had pretty good vision, and I don’t hunch my back or try to stare too closely when I’m reading, yet still after a few hours I find my eyes have started hurting or stinging and they will not be relieved until I close them. Sometimes I have to call it a day and go to sleep, as the dryness can’t seem to be blinked away immediately.

Alongside these there are also migraines. I have never suffered particularly badly from them, but lately I’ve found I go home with a throbbing headache almost every evening. The aches usually begin in my frontal lobes, then my temporal lobes start throbbing, and then every so often there are these stab-like pains from deep inside my limbic system, right in the middle of my brain below the surface. Because I don’t take pharmaceuticals if I can help it, I usually have to sleep it off, meaning it usually takes the whole night to get rid of the migraine. Then I wake up and get back to work, until the next migraine comes along again.

Hmm. What else?

I have a broken toe at the moment. The way it came about is, surprisingly for me, not directly related to my PhD, though it is perhaps indirectly so. This occurred during a sudden urge to stretch my back after a long sitting session in a swivel chair, when I got up abruptly and stepped out from behind the desk, only to hit my toe against the protruding leg of a dressing mirror. Fortunately most of the pain, swelling and bruising has now gone, through the splint bandage and cotton wool looks set to stay on a couple weeks more.

Oh, and my sprained wrist. My left wrist has been playing up for quite a few months now, despite not being subjected to any more wear and tear than my right wrist. I’m right-handed though, so perhaps my right wrist has developed more strongly than the left. I do a lot of typing, not to mention other activities when I’m taking time off (like cooking or cycling), and though the pressure on each of my wrists seems pretty equal to me, for some reason the left one gets these dull aches, especially when I flex it backwards. Anyway, my wrist is now bandaged to keep it straighter and more stable, though I am still, obviously, typing this with it!

And finally: My thesis gut. With so much time spent sitting around, my brain cells are usually the only part of my body to get a strenuous workout (although I do 30-minute brisk walks during the academic year to get from home to the office and back). For some reason, though, I often get vigorously hungry and can demolish a large plateful in 10 minutes or so. This has led to a feeling of bloatedness or bulging in my stomach, which is strange for me as I tend to have a very fast metabolism and seem to burn food quickly. It is the strangest thing in the world to feel completely stuffed and still have pathetic stick-insect-like proportions.

I think these sorts of complaints are pretty common among PhD students of the world, and I am sure many of them suffer more than I do. But equally, I think about the people who are homeless and destitute, and the children lying in hospital beds, and I feel fortunate.

If you’re still reading this, good luck with whatever challenges you are taking on in your research today. I feel the beginning of a headache coming on, so I think I’ll sign off here and get back to my data collection and soul-searching.

I have been procrastinating for a year and a half in finding out the answer to a question no one else cares about: Where is my research going next? What is the final leg of its journey? That’s what I have to find out.

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!