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I have, at best, 6 weeks left before I submit. Just like I thought my last year would be more peaceful than previous years (but then found out it’s actually about twice as chaotic), I thought my last couple of months would be peaceful,  but it turns out they’re the epitome of chaos. Although my thesis is, for all intents and purposes, written, it still has some holes in it that need to be filled. It’s going to take some serious editing.

I haven’t been keen to jump straight into editing after finishing the writing because I thought taking some time off away from the content would help me come back to it with ‘fresh eyes’. That’s what I’m doing now. Of course, so as not to let the time go to waste, I’ve been collating my reference list instead, and wishing horribly that I’d done that as I wrote, rather than now, because it’s turning out to be a massive job. Working 8 hours a day, I’m taking about a day per chapter. If I could work on it longer, I might get it done in half that time, but then I’d go mad and risk burnout.

Well, isn’t this nice.

I’m aiming to have my references collated by Monday. Then, the rest of the time up until the end of this month will be spent finishing up the hole-filling. I’ve promised to send my supervisors an edited draft by the end of March, and I’m worried I won’t make it. This is really, really daunting and I worry about it a lot. I worry I’ll either miss my submission deadline and have to extend it, or somehow force myself to submit on time but take the risk that I’m handing in substandard work, or a thesis that somehow doesn’t meet the expectations of my examiners.

One of the things I find most worrying is the possibility that somehow I’ve fluked my way through grad school all this time and that I’m not really as good as I’m made out to be, and, even worse, that my stupidity and incompetence are going to be revealed in all their laughing-stock glory at my viva in July. I can imagine my examiners sighing disappointedly when, after a gruelling 3-hour interrogation during which I stutter, freeze, and faint, they call me back into the room to announce their decision and say that although I’ve worked hard, my research just isn’t at PhD level and I’m not fit to be awarded the degree.

Yes, I’m aware I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome. But for all my awareness, I can’t seem to shake it off. I feel incompetent compared to my ‘peers’ and like nothing I do in my research is really of any value. When people show interest in my work I get the impression they’re only asking me questions in order to be polite or to humour me.

Today’s Friday.

The labs have been deathly quiet this morning. I haven’t seen anyone about. The offices, apart from this one I’m sitting in, are dark and deserted. The silence and the stillness make the perceived loneliness worse.

Two colleagues have just walked in.

I’m submitting my application for examination arrangements this week. Looking back, it was a hell of a lot of worry negotiating with my now-examiners, plus considering and being knocked back by others, and I’m not even the one who was doing the negotiating!

The bottom line is, I now have both of my examiners confirmed, and all that’s left to do is have them approved by the research committee. Paperwork’s going in on Wednesday, and if all goes well, I should have the final approval by the end of March.

That feels like it’ll be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, but I’m wary of it coming and passing and me probably still not feeling like I’m out of the woods, because, well, I’m not.

I’m getting through yet another chapter at the moment…and, after I (hopefully) send it off this weekend, I’ll have just the conclusion and editing of my literature review chapter to go before I can proceed to full editing.

It’s crazy. Writing a thesis is crazy. It drives you mad. Lately I’ve been feeling like all I do is wake up, write, eat, write, shower, write, eat again, write, sleep, and then write some more. I know everything will no doubt make sense at the very end, but until then, I have resigned myself to the probability that I will feel this chaos until I finally finish.

Everything right now is centered on my viva. Getting examiner for my viva, doing paperwork for the viva, writing the thesis for the viva, making sure it’s ready in time for the viva, thinking about the viva, catastrophising about the viva. Wondering how all this madness that seems to be going on right now is all going to sort itself out with my, and only my intervention and converge tidily to arrive at my viva’s doorstep. Then, of course, what’s going to happen in my viva? Will the examiners think my thesis has even half a chance of being anywhere near anything that could even potentially be considered to be possibly approaching a standard even remotely near PhD standard?

This madness, this chaos. And through it all, write on I must.

I’ve been writing, writing, writing away for days on end. A few weeks ago I was dreading this, thinking I’d never survive through such a massive writing task. Yet here I am, writing away, and I feel great.

At the moment, I have another chapter coming along steadily.

It’s actually progressing.

It feels surreal that the work I’ve been working on all these years is finally culminating into a tangible, touchable thesis. And that, in total contradiction to everything I had imagined might happen (dropping out, failure, ending up homeless and penniless on the streets, going mad), I am actually succeeding. Well, maybe the ‘going mad’ one did come true…

Onwards and upwards, as they say.

One rainy afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, our class teacher at my Catholic primary school – I’ll call him Mr K – was off sick and, as was common in those times, one of the mums from the parents’ association took over to fill in. Mrs O’Brien was the mother of a rather immature dirty blonde boy called Michael (not their real names). I had been wary of Michael for some time because, the previous year, it had somehow transpired that he had written “I love [my name]” on his ruler in maths class and everyone knew about it. Despite my mortification with her son, Mrs O’Brien was an awesome substitute teacher. She was a pillar of calm and reason amidst the screaming, maddening outbursts of the pupils and dealt with every end-of-the-world crisis without batting an eyelid. We spent a lovely afternoon conducting an art class in which we painted, cut, pasted, folded and decorated to our hearts’ content. At the end of the day, during the mad rush that was ‘packing up time’, I remember someone knocked over a pot of blue paint. It fell straight on the floor and spattered all over the carpet, splashes dirtying the table legs and spilling over onto the lino. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Michael, which was a felony offense at Catholic school (“Stop using the Lord’s name in vain!” was a warning frequently heard in and around our school grounds). Children were squirming everywhere, running around, laughing, kicking, jostling each other in hysterical yelps to avoid the blue liquid oozing over the terrain.

Mrs O’Brien just looked at her son and said, “It’s not God, it’s paint on the floor. Now let’s get this cleaned up.”

Thanks for teaching me to stay calm in a crisis, Mrs O’Brien. Right now I’m typing away madly trying to get this draft chapter finished and sent off to my supervisors. I have a headache, cracked lips, and a sore neck. I have the rest of my thesis to write before the spring comes. And I am doing my absolute best to hold on to my sanity, and see this through.

Disclaimer: No particular logic was employed in entitling or composing this post. I take no responsibility for any confusion, incredulity, or insanity that may result from reading it.

Today is such a blah sort of day. For those of you who may still be at the start of your PhDs, trust me, towards the end, just about every day will be a blah sort of day. That means you will have a seemingly endless number of things to do, but, rather than worry and try to keep up with them as you did in the beginning, you will take on a relaxed, apathetic kind of attitude that will still ensure you get things done eventually, but will freak out everyone around you in the process. It being a blah day, however, you will not care much about this, and will continue blahing around until there is blah no more.

This being my first and, so far, only time doing a PhD, I am still uncertain of how this actually works, but I will make sure I continue blogging about it to inform future generations of PhD-goers.

I had a quick-catch-up-before-Christmas-and-the-foreseeable-future meeting with my third supervisor on Saturday (yes, we occasionally come in to the office on weekends…academia is such a passionate place) and in all honesty I came out with more questions than when I went in. So many different things to chase up, look up, finish up. I have a meeting with my second supervisor tomorrow. No doubt that’s going to be just as chaotic, stirring up another list of things to do and not doing much to resolve others. Why is it that after two and a half years of virtually non-stop work and countless attempts at early preparation and drafting, my last few months of being a PhD student seem more hectic than ever? Sometimes I get the feeling I have the completely wrong idea of when this is going to end – it doesn’t end when you enter write-up, not when you submit, not when you have your viva, not even when you do your corrections, but when you get your certificate in the post. When you’ve got your certificate in the post, that’s it, you’ve got your PhD. That’s when all the PhD-related chaos finally comes to an end.

Of course, that’s when the postdoc-related chaos begins. But I don’t fancy writing about that right now.

Today is a blah sort of day. I have more on my ever-rolling To-Do list than I did last week, even though I thought the opposite would be the case. For my supervisory meeting tomorrow, I have to re-run all my analyses ready to show my supervisor, and track down some admin forms for her. For my other supervisors, I have a list of things to run after from our meeting on the weekend – mainly papers and other literature, but I also have to do the reading and actually work some kind of interpretation into my analysis, because field research is only ever quasi-experimental. Oh, the joys of social science!

Apart from all that, I also have to do that little job that’s been pushed back continuously for several months now…what was it again? Ah yes, writing my thesis.

Too bad you can’t write blah blah blah in that.

Something many of us fail to remember during our PhDs, while we are busy collecting data, reading papers, and whinging about how stressful, chaotic, and daunting the whole process is, is how rewarding and enjoyable being a researcher has the potential to be.

There are so many people who wake up each morning and feel grumpy because they have to get up and go to work at a job they dislike, and they do everything they can to procrastinate, avoid tedious errands, and get out of work early in order to find time for things that make them happier. Conversely, most of us ended up in research because we have (or at least had!) an interest in our subject area and wanted to work on our own project to advance understanding in that area. How many people work a job in which they are able to read literature and collect data on a topic they love? (This is, of course, with the exception of the nausea that follows reading/data overload…).

What’s intriguing to me about this is that, when you’re a researcher, work and play often become enmeshed, entangled, and intertwined. The same aspects of our work both frustrate and inspire us. We are fascinated by whatever branch of science or art we study, yet at times we come to despise it. We get cranky, and incredulous, and we slink around the lab looking gloomy and sighing a lot.

I for one, sigh a lot.

There’s a thin line between work and play in research. Often it disappears altogether. There are all sorts of perks and downsides. Today a colleague who’s supposed to be at home writing up walked into the office and handed me a box of Belgian chocolates. Now, I am faced with the dilemma of eating the whole box in celebration of all I’ve achieved this semester, or rationing them out over the next few months in reward of each new milestone I reach with my own writing. Decisions, decisions!

Looking back over the last few years, I see I delved into something I essentially enjoy, but I’ve come to have a love-hate relationship with my work. I love Belgian chocolates and the rush of creating new and exciting projects. I hate coming to the end of the box and feeling a sense of stagnation as I near the end of my work, and transition to write-up.

Ideally, I’d like to have a love-hate-love relationship with my thesis.

I want to end this thing on a high.

 

As a psychologist who thinks she almost has her PhD, I’m conscious that I’m being a little conceited when I say I can redefine chaos theory. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.

I can redefine chaos theory.

Right now, less than 6 months away from the (scheduled) end of my PhD, I am up to my neck in data, analyses and literature that need reading, re-reading, interpreting and writing, up to my eyeballs in anxiety about how I’m actually going to put my thesis together and have a fighting chance of passing my viva in July, and just about buried under my incredulity at being asked to teach a workshop series for 11 weeks next semester to a group of rowdy undergraduates. On top of all that, I also increasingly need to think about my life after my PhD (assuming I actually finish my PhD at some point, which still seems impossible at times) and keep up with a host of irritating errands that seem to keep popping up…like eating and sleeping. And showering. I seem to need to keep showering. According to my mum, these bizarre errands form part of something known as ‘everyday life’.

Huh.

Anyway, what I’m trying to illustrate here is that apart from the chaos of all of the above, I very often feel at a loss with regards to my work because my mind is in a state of chaos as well. This is especially annoying when my supervisors, whom I otherwise adore, tell me with apparent admiration that I am such an organised person. Actually, I have been told I am organised by quite a few people since I started grad school – at least two of my lab colleagues, a professor in another department whose research methods seminars I took for a semester, two of my three supervisors, the Dean of my department, and that bloke from Queensland who processed my passport renewal application at the Aussie high commission in London a couple years ago.

I’m telling you, people, I may seem the picture of organisation on the outside, but my mind is like a minefield littered haphazardly with all manner of academic and non-academic junk such that the phenomenological Me wandering through it in a vain attempt to understand myself and the significance of my work (if it has any significance at all) has frequently to jump, hop, swerve and somersault through the mess in order to navigate it, and even so does not make much progress in comprehending it.

I mean, a mind that can even produce a sentence like the one just above has got to be in for trouble when it comes to writing a thesis – a long, complex document that desperately requires a clear, logical, flowing structure and narrative.

More chaos to be added to my week:

Tuesday: A day trip to Wales to present a paper at a conference. I SWEAR I’m not doing any more of these until I have submitted my thesis!!!

Wednesday: Spending all day running my final analyses and probably getting confused and frustrated.

Thursday: More work on analyses.

Friday: Writing up the analyses and sending off the data files, output, and notes to my supervisor in advance of our meeting next week.

The weekend: Resolving to work on my thesis, but more likely finding something otherwise educational to do by way of active procrastination and convincing myself I’m still being productive…like reading some more of The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels, as I did this weekend.

Well, bring on the chaos! Let’s finish this thing!

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.

Well, isn’t this some nice deja vu. Another month has flown by and, although I have made some progress towards getting my PhD, the pessimist in me says it’s small compared to the huge amounts of time I feel I have spent procrastinating. How true that is, I don’t know, but I certainly feel I haven’t accomplished as much as I could or should have.

This is me, the one my supervisors say is ‘brilliant’ and should have gotten her PhD two years ago.

The other day I signed up to PhinisheD.org, an international forum for postgrads who are in the writing-up stages of their research. Taking a cyber-stroll through the various threads and posts, it’s surprising how much other thesis writers’ struggles resemble my own – everything from inspirationlessness to blankness to states of complete chaos. Moreover, I’ve come to appreciate there are many with much bigger problems than me – mad supervisors, evil examiners, and complete cluelessness in the field of self-organisation…no, wait, I have that too.

When I think about everything that’s happened in my PhD in the last 2-and-a-bit years, it blows my mind. There have been times when I’ve felt like I’ve hit rock bottom. But believe me, there really always are people who are worse off. To borrow a quote from Jennifer Aniston, there’s rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then me.

Today is Monday. It’s past 10am and it’s still unusually quiet. There’s a couple interns at their desks and a postdoc down the hall. And me. Typing away incessantly and producing these words that I’m not even sure make sense to anyone. If I have helped anyone, even the slightest bit, with anything I have ever posted about, then that’s an accomplishment for me.

I just wonder if I have helped myself, at all! Because I still feel as confused as ever before.

I just keep reminding myself the end is near and I’m getting there. We are all getting there. And one day, not so far down the line, we will find ourselves saying, “Well, here I am. It’s done.”

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!

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The Final Countdown

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