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I had a great meeting with my second supervisor yesterday. I think retired life agrees with her – she was in a better mood than I’d ever seen her in before.

We talked about my analysis together, talked stats, went through the calculations I’d made. It turns out my stats are right, but it’s difficult to justify why the effects I’ve found should be of theoretical interest. My supervisor asked if I’d looked at some of my other variables instead – ones I had originally been interested in, but didn’t bother exploring very much because the nature of the data didn’t fit the tests I could do and, more importantly, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a way to change the nature of the data. Of course, it turns out there is, and now, thanks to her, I know how to do it.

I love talking about statistics. The philosophy of statistics is bizarre, ironic, and contradictory. Statistics can be mind-blowing – just when you think you have the answer, it escapes you. There are strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons to everything. There are assumptions and conditions in which you can violate assumptions. There are multiple ways of doing the same thing, and multiple ways of deciding which way to do it. I still have the undergraduate reflex of flinching when I see a significant p value, but I have matured enough to put my excitement to one side and check other indicators of significance, and dilute my enthusiasm with caution for sample sizes, skewed distributions, and Type I errors.

For all her coldness, I have a great second supervisor. She knows her stuff, and she likes it when you share her passion for stats. We had some great ideas, and she showed me how to do things I hadn’t even thought about before. My final study was going to go in some bizarre, barely-justfiable direction I wasn’t even sure I was interested in, simply because that was the only area in which I could find results worth reporting. Now I see results worth reporting aren’t merely the significant ones – they’re the ones that spark theoretical interest. I’m not going to do what I thought I had to do – I’m going to go back to what I was originally interested in, and reanalyse that data. I didn’t find much of interest in it the first time round, but, thanks to my supervisor, and the beauty of stats, I find there are things in my data worth talking about.

Wow.

This is a great feeling.

I’m in the game again! Maybe I’ll even get my head around this thing!

My supervisor is going to be here in just over 4 hours. Perhaps I should clarify – my second supervisor, with whom I am meeting this afternoon, is a retired emeritus professor and lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere, a good three hours’ commute away from London. Fortunately, after several distasteful altercations with our head of department, she got permission to claim for travel expenses to come to London once in a while and discuss stats with me. She wouldn’t hear of me being given a replacement supervisor. “I will supervise you no matter what,” she said. God bless.

Except that now that she lives three hours away (on a good day), however much she has much more time to spend on our own research, I feel guilty about calling her in to see me because of all the time and stress it involves. And now that I have called her in for our meeting today, the pressure is on to show her that it was worth it!

My second supervisor is a little different from my first, although ironically, the two have known each other for donkey’s years and are the best of friends. My second supervisor is very focused, likes to get down to business immediately, and hates it when you make a fuss about anything. Until recently, she seemed to be irritated even by simple social conventions like saying “How are you?”, at the start of a meeting. I always felt silly asking her this, even though I would ask out of genuine interest rather than just paying lip service to British politeness, because she would give me a cold reply like “OK.” and not even return the enquiry. Fortunately though, perhaps because we have had some very in-depth debates about stats and psychometric theory in which she really seemed to enjoy herself, she has warmed up a bit and now actually asks me how I am back.

Now that’s progress.

Anyway, the fact that she has warmed to me isn’t the point here. The point is that she has a very focused way of working in which she likes to examine things in detail in advance, have a think about it, and only then hold a meeting. I’ve known this for some time and have, since then, always emailed her my datafiles and notes in advance. Whilst this helps her understand my questions better, and allows her to come prepared, I’ve found I feel very stressed between emailing her my stuff and meeting her, simply because of my anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I imagine she’ll find in my work. I keep thinking, “I’m a psychologist. Psychologists have rigorous academic training in statistics and research methods from year 1 right up to PhD level. I’m supposed to be on the ball with everything stats related. And here I am still having to look up ANOVAs in a textbook! I’m hopeless! My supervisor is going to eat me alive! I’ll never amount to anything! My thesis is going to suck! I’m going to fail my viva! And end up homeless and penniless on the streets!”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

These irrational thoughts are still stuck in my head even now, as I write this. It’s maddening. I know I have put in a good effort to try my hand at the analysis, so as not to make my supervisor feel like I am dumping my work at her feet and saying “Here. Just tell me the answer.” She hates that. She hates dumb, needy students coming to her and begging her to just tell them the answer, or, worse, to actually do their work for them. But still, I feel like I’m not going to be able to live up to her standards, like I have not done enough work to impress her, and like I am going to be left feeling like an idiot – not just for not being smart enough, but for wasting her time.

I have 4 hours to get my head straightened. I have to review my analysis, make sure all my datafiles are saved on my flashdrive, reread my notes, pick up the keys to the meeting room, and get everything set up early. I concede these things will not actually do much to get my head straightened, but they will, hopefully, distract me from the madness that’s brewing inside.

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!

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.

That’s what I’m doing today.

When you’re doing a PhD, after a while you’ll notice that not all work days are equal. And if they are, then some are more equal than others. Some days, you’ll only manage to do a tiny bit of work and feel overwhelmed by it; on other days, you’ll accomplish more than you ever thought you could and then you’ll sit there, eyes wide open, thinking “Well, what’s next?”

Today is one of the latter.

Today I arrived at my desk at half past seven, booted up, and got down to finishing off the work on my last dataset that I’d left incomplete on Friday. There was a considerable amount of coding still to do, which is annoying, because it often involves manual coding in Excel before I can export the code to SPSS (though I won’t go into that as it’s already confusing enough for me). I did the coding, then looked at the clock, and was surprised it was only just past 9am. So I did my dummy coding (which, again, I’d be mad to go into) and computed my subscale and scale scores and did my exports. Then it was lunchtime. Now, it’s just coming to 2pm and I’m writing this, and I’ll still have a couple hours after that to run the preliminary analysis.

I can’t believe I did all that work this morning, it’s madness. Any other time, it would have taken me at least a week to do the coding alone, and here I am done in 2 days. The rest just flew past this morning, I don’t know how I got to this stage.

But I’m done with the hard part. Now I just have the analysis to go. Then I can compute my charts, and assemble my slides for the conference next month.

I realise this all sounds really geeky. But I love it!

Now I’m going to go do my analysis.

I came across a strangely delightful quote from Scott Fitzgerald today:

To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.
Poor, tragic Scott. I wonder if writing novels is as mentally exhausting as writing a thesis?
There are interesting parallels between the literary process and thesis-writing. The most obvious (to me) is that both cause irreversible madness. But more than that, when you think about how long it takes to write, and the lengths you have to go to just to get to a stage where you can write, you see the process is the same.
 
Sure, I will write the (almost) final draft of my thesis in three months, but to get to the stage where I can do that, I spent six months trying to work out what a PhD is all about, three months collecting and analysing data for my first study, nine months writing up my first study and running my second study, and another six months running my third study and coming back to trying to work out what a PhD is all about. I spent the best part of 2 years swimming in a mental sea of data – words, numbers, statistics, software packages, charts, tables and diagrams. I just swam around, trying to interpret it, and trying to make my interpretations actually make sense, and maybe even an original contribution to knowledge. Then there’s the fact that I conceived of the original idea for this whole project in the space of about 20 minutes.
 
If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
 
No matter what sort of writers we are – artistic, academic, or a bizarre blend of both – there is a lot that goes into our work besides just writing the words. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of data collection, and a lot of interpretation and reinterpretation and a lot of madness.
 
Struggling thesis writers, novelists, madmen and women – unite! We shall conquer these great seas of chaos and emerge brighter, stronger, more learned, at the helm of this mighty ship.
 

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.

Don’t you just love Monday mornings? I’ve been in the office for over an hour and a half already and have only just finished wading through a swamp of weekend emails. Now I have to blog some of the chaos in my head before moving on to some light data collection.

I’ve been worrying about writing my thesis. Although about half of it’s drafted, I still worry about it because it’s, well, a draft. There are so many imperfections in the drafts that I’ve forgotten about, and I know that when I some across them in the editing stage they’re just going to make me flip. I’ve been battling this perfectionism for years and still it seems stronger than ever. Then there’s the half that’s still, gasp, undrafted. Unwritten. Thin air. Non-existent. Where on earth is that going to come from? How am I ever going to write all that? When the hell am I going to graduate?

Thinking back over the last couple of weeks, the main thing that’s changed drastically is my perspective on my thesis. Two weeks ago my thesis seemed like something an obscure suit-clad academic would read and interrogate me about over the tops of his wire-rimmed spectacles. Now, he is gone and instead I have two jolly old sweet-tempered professors (hopefully) coming to examine me. I have a concrete idea of who is going to read my thesis. The pressure is officially on to impress them!

Suddenly my ability to graduate at the time scheduled in my work plan seems to be almost completely dependent on me submitting my absolutely perfect hurriedly written and edited thesis on time, my examiners reading it in a timely fashion, and all of us meeting up in July to have the viva without having caught on fire, been taken hostage, or accidentally fallen down a bottomless hole whilst following a plump white rabbit. Why do there have to be so many things that could go wrong?!

I’m going to go and collect some data now.

*Danish for “I want to graduate”…at least according to Google Translate.

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The Final Countdown

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