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Well, hasn’t it been a crazy fortnight.

It’s surprising how much stress builds up in your body subconsciously when you wake up at 6am each day, force down a quick breakfast, power-walk to the office, spend the entire day typing, chasing up things you have to rely on other people to do for you, and teaching undergrads, power-walk home at 6pm, force down a quick dinner, and then proofread the day’s work before hitting the pillow at midnight. When I was doing that for the last 2 weeks I never once felt sick. I didn’t even feel particularly tired or cranky. It was just go, go, go.

But now it’s finished, and I’ve stopped, stopped, stopped.

And the migraine has begun.

I was up at 6am again this morning out of habit, but I felt really strange. I finished writing my thesis yesterday. I mean actually fully, totally, finished. Including proofing, cross-checking the references, and formatting. The weirdness started yesterday afternoon when I finished formatting the lists of tables and figures (the last thing I was working on in the thesis). I converted the file to pdf, made multiple backups, and went and delivered a copy to my supervisor. This morning I went to the binder to order the four copies with glue binding. Three for the examiners and the viva chair, one for me.

And today, I’ve just been feeling blank. My head hurts, especially my frontal lobes (which have no doubt been overworked for the last few years and are now in a strange blank state, having nothing left to do). I’ve been chasing up a few last things for submission. I’ve printed my declaration form, and my accompanying materials. Things are almost ready to go for next Wednesday.

I just feel so strange. This has to be the strangest feeling I’ve ever felt. Headache-y, happy, sad, sick, joyful, focused, and insane, all at the same time. And sleepy. Dude, I could do with some sleep right now to get rid of this migraine.

Three years ago I would never have believed I would one day be here, where I am right now. Actually, I didn’t even believe that last week. It didn’t really sink in until the work-till-you-drop routine I’d been on ended yesterday, and I realised there was nothing else left to do. I just sat there at my desk, dazed and stupefied.

I guess that’s what I’m doing now. I just…feel so blank.

But this blankness is different from the blankness I felt when I couldn’t write before. I think it’s a content kind of blankness, a blankness that has seen more than eighty thousand words written, unwritten, and rewritten, and the many thousands more that have come to pass as old, discarded drafts – a blankness that sits back and thinks, well, it’s done. There’s nothing more left to do.

And after I submit next week, I guess I’ll progress to the next stage of the PhD – worrying about my viva.

I wonder if this will ever end.

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I spent 5 consecutive days at home last week and realised late last night that I was slowly going mad. So here I am, at my office, doing things more like a human being than a writing-crazed zombie, like checking emails and writing this post.

I am 2 chapters down at the moment and am halfway through a third. I have until March 4th, at the latest, to have a full working draft of my thesis done, and I’m feeling upbeat and hopeful about meeting my target.

That said though, it is HARD work. The paradox is that at the time when you need to be churning out words and sentences productively and producing logical, tangible volumes of writing, your mind goes blank. You spend hours just staring at the page, looking over your chapter plan, over the papers you have to cite. You know what you want to say but you can’t put it into words. Or if you can, it sounds cumbersome or illogical.

I’m supposed to be submitting in May and I still can’t write a sentence. Well, I can. I’ve written thousands of them already, and I will keep doing so until the job is done. But exactly how great my writing will convey my ideas, I have no clue.

On top of which I found out over the weekend my internal examiner has declined to examine me due to a clash in his schedule. So that’s great. I’ll be chasing after my supervisor today to see if we can have a chat about moving our viva date around a bit to make this work, because I really, really don’t fancy changing examiners at this late stage.

I just want them to stay alive and safe, not to have heart attacks or schedule clashes.

Everything’s all over the place again. This is supposed to be a peaceful time, I’m supposed to be sitting quietly at a desk in a peaceful room, turning all my research into a sensible narrative, all comfortably in time for my submission deadline. Instead, I am writing madly in the midst of examiner melodrama and trying fruitlessly to hold on to my sanity.

I went to a conference in Wales yesterday. Apart from learning some interesting things about the research area it concerned, it also dawned on me that I was the only person out of a hundred or so delegates to turn up to this respectable scholarly gathering, taking place in a posh hotel in the countryside, in hiking gear.

This was a necessity, since the posh hotel in the countryside that hosted the conference was located, literally, at the top of a steep, rugged hill, surrounded by soft Welsh mist floating eerily over the adjacent golf course. It was damn cold. There weren’t even any pavements or trails for pedestrians, since anyone posh enough to stay in the hotel would have to be posh enough to have a posh car in which to drive up the steep, winding roads twisting and turning in all directions to the entrance, and posh enough to need one of those guys in tophats and tailcoats to run out and collect the carkeys for parking.

So, this is what led to me turning up to this posh hotel and to my posh seminar on the second floor to present my paper in my very unposh waterproof hiking trousers, windbreaker, and trainers.

I feel very self-conscious, still, at being a bit of a spectacle amongst all my high-heeled, tailored-suited peers.

Today I feel…dazed. Conferences – even one-day events – seem to have a dazing effect on me and I sit at my desk in the office the next day staring blankly at my surroundings, at my colleagues who smile at me politely and try not to let on that they think I’m probably mad, and wonder whether this is all going to be worth it in the end.

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.

I’m due for a meeting with my supervisor this afternoon. I don’t know how it’s going to go, because I think this meeting is going to be a lot different from any other we’ve had over the last 3 years. Usually, we’re very focused, and can tick our way through a list of items on the agenda without getting too immersed in anything. We can do that because usually, my progress is brilliant and everything’s fine. We’re usually done in less than 2 hours and we get through everything we planned to talk about. There’s a lot of “Well done!” and “You’re doing fine!” and other compliments that give me a spring in my step for the day.

But today is different!

Today I’m going to walk into my supervisor’s office, sit down, and tell her I’m stuck. I’m going to tell her I’ve arrived at a point where I’ve just about finished my final analysis, have half my thesis written in draft, and am less than 6 months away from submitting, and yet my mind is completely blank and I am utterly confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m going to say that I’m good at running stats on the computer and reviewing the literature, but I cannot for the life of me make sense of the results or even understand what it is I’m looking for or want to find out.

I’m going to confess I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on, that I haven’t done anything even bordering on productive in the last 3 or 4 days, and that even last week and the week before all I did was some data clean-up and some analyses I don’t understand.

Basically, I’m going to declare I am a useless, hopeless failure and will never stand a chance of finishing my thesis, surviving my viva, or getting my PhD.

At this point my supervisor will probably butt in (as much as I love her to bits she does have this little irritating habit) and insist this is completely untrue and that I can, and in fact must, finish this project, because I have a long and fruitful career ahead of me during which I will become a professor by 30, publish 500 papers, attract billions of pounds of research funding, accumulate a lab full of postdocs the size of a small army, and generally be a critically acclaimed academic celebrity internationally recognised for my profound and unquestionable expertise in a tiny, obscure patch of research that nobody, not even the big cheeses in my topic area, has ever heard of, nor would have even the slightest inclination to be interested in finding out more about.

Blah blah blah.

This is all great.

The fact is that none of this is going to happen until and unless I write my thesis. Conceded, it isn’t going to happen anyway, but if I want to at least upgrade my chances from impossible to implausible, I’ve got to get myself back into a disciplined work routine that will put me on track to finishing. This prospect is extremely daunting when I think about the fact that the two main things I have left to do before I finish – interpreting and writing – are the ones that make me the most nervous in the research process. I find interpreting data terrifying. I have to interpret not just the meaning of my own results, but link that with the results other people have obtained, and I become acutely aware that I risk misinterpreting my results, or, worse, misinterpreting other people’s results, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of being criticised my them for failing to understand their work properly. Following interpretation, I get to writing it all up, which is tedious and frustrating. Just when you think you’ve written it all out clearly, you re-read it only to find your text unclear, long-winded, or unable to convey your key message concisely enough. Once you’ve fixed all that, then up come the typos, the grammar errors, the formatting imperfections, and hey presto, it’s the perfect wall for any perfectionist to bang their head against.

An immediate example of this occurring is the fact that my first thought upon finishing that last sentence was “you can’t finish a sentence with a preposition!”

I have no idea what’s going to happen at the meeting. Right now I feel blank – the same blankness I’ve been feeling, in immediate memory, for at least 2 weeks, and probably the same blankness that I’ve been describing as ‘confusion’ or ‘inspirationlessness’ in the last 6 months or so. It’s just a general loss of mental energy and enthusiasm for my work – something my other supervisor has told me she experienced towards the end of her PhD as well – a mental state in which you walk around, sit at your desk, eat, sleep, and breathe with a relentless “WTF??” spaciness in your head that seems to prevent any kind of intellectually productive or progressive thoughts from entering or being created.

It’s maddening.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so blank, confused, inspirationless, and mad in my life. I’ve come to a standstill in this PhD. I’m standing, thoughtless and speechless, months away from submission, and I have no idea what to do or think about anything related to anything.

It’s just…ok, I’m going to stop typing now.

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.

I spent the weekend rewriting some of my chapter outlines because I’d figured out that the chaotic scribbles, notes and corrections I’d added all over them in times of afterthought were preventing me from really seeing what the final product looked like. Now, I have new, revised chapter outlines for my first four chapters, and I’m about halfway through planning the fifth one. I’ll probably get to the sixth and final outline tomorrow. Maybe. Potentially. But I do pen-and-paper work at home. Right now, I am sitting at my desk in the office again, and my mind is completely blank. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

You see, that’s a problem with being nearly finished in a PhD programme. When you’re at the beginning, everything is new and exciting and you’re busy setting up your studies. When you’re in the middle, you’re busy running the studies, reading, and running to conferences. But when you get to the end, your studies are complete, you have no data to analyse, your supervisors never see you any more because you’re supposed to be writing, and you walk around like a ghost every day, quietly procrastinating on one pointless activity or another, all the while wondering what on earth it is you are meant to be doing. Life feels so…meaningless. As if you have no worthwhile purpose in it.

I know I’m going to submit in May. I know I’m going to do whatever it takes to have my thesis ready on time. I know I have to start now before it’s too late. I just don’t know how.

So I’ve taken to looking ahead at what my life is probably going to look like from now until I submit.

It’s probably going to go something like this:

From now until November 28th: Dragging myself into the lab to do data clean-up and preliminary analysis for my last study, and whipping up the results into a snazzy conference presentation for a conference in December.

November 29th to Christmas: Assessing the possibility probability of doing mop-up data collection to up my sample size, doing the full analysis, analysing another dataset I collected last summer, and writing up summary reports for both datasets.

Christmas/New Year: Notoriously avoiding all celebratory activities, people, shopping madness and social media to spend the winter break writing, and probably feeling paradoxically sorrowful that I’m all alone and nobody likes me.

January, February, and potentially March: Becoming a complete social recluse and writing, not even coming to the office any more for fear of running into my supervisors/reviewers/optimistic colleagues who always expect me to say I’m fine and would no doubt get uncomfortable if I burst into tears about not being able to write well, and editing, and daydreaming about how unreal my thesis is going to look when it’s printed and bound.

April and maybe the first half of May: Completely crashing and potentially going mad after spending three months in self-imposed solitary confinement while doing final editing and proofing and sending off the file for printing and binding.

Sometime in the rest of May: Submitting the thesis, breathing a huge sigh of relief that’s it over, and then starting to worry again when I remember my viva is in July.

Oh, to be an undergrad again!

I’ve all but completed my last round of data collection. Actually, I’d all but completed it yesterday, and today I have just been sitting at my desk, shuffling papers, checking emails, reading the news, pretending I’m working when really I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

Actually, that’s wrong. I know what I’m supposed to be doing, I just can’t resist the magnetism of procrastination and so I let my next important goal – writing my thesis – slide while I look busy but essentially bum around doing nothing.

Well, maybe that’s wrong too. I have done a few productive things today. For example:

  • I did a preliminary check of my data. My sample size isn’t as large as I’d hoped it would be – actually just over a quarter of the size I had on a similar project last year – but I’ll take what I can get. I also had a look at the institutional and geographical distribution of the data to get an idea of what the comparison groups are going to be like.
  • Then, I ran an errand for my supervisor. It was a minor errand, but someone had to do it!
  • I also dealt with a series of emails that urgently needed dealing with, mainly because they were from people making enquiries about my data collection, specifically, regarding circulating my study information, which I really need them to do or else I can’t get my data.

Despite doing all these things though, all in all it has been an unproductive day because I just haven’t got as much done as I usually do. It’s my own fault, but it bothers me profoundly and I feel bad for it. I can’t stand it.

This always happens to me when I’ve been working on a long, repetitive part of my project for weeks or months on end – when I finally complete it, I have a dazed period when I come to the office and spend the days wondering what I’m supposed to do next. My mind is blank, and paradoxically in a state of mad, whirling chaos. I can’t go forward because I don’t know which way I’m facing.

And it takes a little while to figure out where to go next – even if you already have a plan. Believe me, when you’re doing a PhD, if you’ve got the slightest bit of brains, you always have a plan. You have a plan for the day, a plan for the week, a plan for the quarter, and a plan for the entire project. You have a Plan B, and a Plan C. And when you’re doing a PhD, believe me, it’s true, your plans are always changing, altering, mutating, going in circles, and falling through altogether. External commitments, emergencies, absurdities come along and throw your plans in the trash. Everything is in a constant process of metamorphosis. So as soon as you get to the end of one confusing period of work, you have to stop a while and get your head together before the next one begins.

Take this for instance: I’ve just finished my prolonged campaign to collect data for my last study, and next, I know, I need to write the remaining chapters of my thesis, edit the existing ones, and get a working draft together for my supervisors. And yet, in an absurd contradiction, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

Really. Not the slightest.

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The Final Countdown

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