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This one’s for all you gorgeous female scientists out there…

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So much for writing-up being dramatic. It’s the most underwhelming experience ever.

I’ve been in confinement for a week now, venturing outside my home only twice to pop to the supermarket in search of food. Other than that, I’ve been holed up in four walls, trying hard to write my thesis. I have, actually, done some writing – Chapter 1 needed redrafting and that’s about half-finished at the moment, but I seem to spend much more time doing things other than writing – like sighing, pacing the room, drinking tea, and staring at the ceiling. I mean, I’ve probably spent at least 6 hours in total, just on the sighing.

It’s been a wet Christmas in London. Wet, grey, and slushy. Actually, that’s lucky. Other parts of the UK have been completely flooded. Here in London, it’s just been drizzling miserably, in a long, relentless kind of trickle. It’s a bit underwhelming.

Sometimes I miss the sudden, extreme, all-heavens-breaking-open downpours we used to have at the end of 45-degree summer days in Melbourne.

“There’s a cool change on the way,” they’d say on the radio, and after a while the branches on the plum trees in the garden would start swaying in the wind and the thunder would clap under gathering clouds. Then the rain would start. It would rain like it had never rained before and like it would never rain again, water pouring over us, drenching everything in sight.

Then it would stop. I’d go outside again sometimes to look at the snails on the driveway and to smell that fresh, grassy, straight-after-rain smell.

I used to look forward to being able to smell that smell. It’s an exciting smell, a smell of freshness and newness and of young things coming alive. I would sit around in the house, reading a book, or listening to Neil Mitchell on drivetime, and wait for the rain.

It’s a bittersweet kind of nostalgia I have, this time waiting not for the rain to start, or to stop, or to do anything really, but for my thesis to hurry up and get written. I’m waiting for all heavens to open and put the inspiration into my brain that I need to push out the words, sentences, and paragraphs that will comprise my thesis.

There is no more Neil Mitchell. Instead, I listen to LBC talk-back, or Radio 4. I miss the rolling repetition of ninety-six, ninety-six, twelve seventy-eight in my ears.

Sigh. Pace. Sip. Stare.

The pen touches the paper.

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.

But it sure is for PhD students!

I didn’t start out my PhD being such a chocoholic. But lately, as I’ve gradually come to the point where it all seems to be coming to a close (maybe, potentially), I’ve started snacking on choc-chip cookies dunked in Nutella…washed down with hot chocolate…and occasionally some squares of good old dark bitter.

Yum.

Apart from being warmly, deliciously indulgent, these sorts of outrageous snacks remind me of a time I was backpacking through Switzerland and, on a short stopover in Zürich, indulged in a box of those wicked little Swiss chocolates that come in individual mini cupcake holders. Intelligently, they are just big enough to fill your mouth, allow the filling to melt, and tantalize your taste buds with velvety richness, yet just small enough to make you think “I’ll just have one more…”

Seriously. Yum.

At this rate, I’ll be submitting a very brown, very smudged, and very yummy-smelling thesis in a few months’ time. But what can I do? You’ve got to fuel the brain!

Anyway, it seems chronic chocolate dependence is relatively common in PhD students, especially those who are in the advanced stages of the disease research…

It’s not just a figure of speech. Today my brain has, actually, been replaced by a huge concrete block which is causing me a splitting migraine and I cannot churn out anything that I feel is good enough. The migraine’s center is just behind my eyes and in my temples, covering the lower frontal and frontal temporal lobes. Occasionally there is a sharp pain from somewhere in my limbic system – undoubtedly my hippocampus processing damning memories of my decision to start this futile thing in the first place. I have a vague idea of the things I want to say and how they piece together, but the words to say them escape me.

I hate this block and wish there were some way to tear it out of my head and get my brain back that normally has such a brilliant reputation.

I haven’t had use of that brain for so long.  

Friend of WikiLeaks

August 2018
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The Final Countdown

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