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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.

It’s incomplete in places and riddled with errors, but I have it! A full thesis draft! I can’t believe it!

…and now, to the massive, tedious task of editing.

I’ve dragged myself to my office today to type up what I have of another chapter. Normally I don’t type until I’ve written the whole thing on paper, but today I just felt like I had to get out of the house. I go mad when I’m cooped up in four walls for days on end.

One thing I’ve noticed about my write-up over the last few weeks is that I feel less uncomfortable about it than I ever did about countless drafts I’ve tried to write in years gone by. I would spend evenings pushing myself to write up draft chapters, outlines, papers for my thesis. But they would all make me frustrated. I would feel as if what I was writing wasn’t good enough, like I was trying too hard to make it perfect yet the writing itself was painful to read. It read like it was ‘constipated’ – like it was trying to get a message across smoothly and concisely but nothing worthwhile was coming out. Like beating around the bush and not being able to say what you mean, try as you might. But now, these drafts I’m writing – I feel more at ease about them than I ever have. The things I write don’t stick in my mind and keep me awake at night, or make me wonder if I couldn’t have found a better way to write them. I feel like my writing really reflects what I want to say, and I don’t have the annoying feeling that my work is crap.

Maybe I’m kidding myself.

Or not.  I just don’t know. I have no idea if what I’m writing is any good, if my argument is persuasive enough, if I know my subject area in enough detail, or if my research is substantial enough or even tells an interesting enough story. Enough for what, I don’t know. Maybe enough to persuade my examiners that I’m good enough. But good enough for what? Surely all this isn’t just to be good enough to be awarded a PhD. Surely there  must be something more I’m working towards. But what?

I have no idea what’s going on.

I think I’ll go and keep writing now.

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.

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’ve just spent the morning reading a whole pile of writing. Writing in papers, writing in journals, writing in my drafts and writing in other people’s drafts. There’s so much writing, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I can’t believe I have to produce 80,000 words of writing in my thesis. And that they actually have to make sense. And, preferably, a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

In my own limited experience of writing in academia – spanning not more than 5 or 6 years (yes, that’s a relatively short time in the academic bubble…I don’t know whether that makes me feel old or young) – I have always spent shocking amounts of time struggling uncomfortably through less than perfect drafts of papers only to find that I could not tolerate the imperfection any more, leading me to review my writing, figure out what was so imperfect about it, and then scrap the whole thing to start from scratch. It has, most usually, been this completely rewritten draft that I save for editing and submitting rather than any of the pages upon pages of imperfect material I wrote in the first place.

The trouble with this is that when I set out to write something perfectly the first time, it is impossible. The imperfections I suffer from most are waffling on about things that don’t matter, not coming to the point, and being unable to articulate my point in a way that conveys my intended meaning satisfactorily. I also tend to write long-winded sentences to convey what are essentially simple points, such that when I reread them I cannot even grasp my own meaning. This frustrates me enough to toss it all away and start afresh. At this point I realise it has happened again – I have written a whole imperfect draft only to trash it and write a new, more perfect one. Sure, the more perfect one is acceptable and can be moulded into something vaguely worth submitting, but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to get there, even though the time and effort spent on the end product itself is often only a fraction of the total time and effort I spend trying to get to that point.

So, what is my point?

I suppose my point is that I’ve come to a point where there is not much left to do in my PhD other than write my thesis. And that I am utterly terrified of doing this because the sheer magnitude of the task seems to make it impossible to accomplish, especially to the level of perfection I stubbornly insist on. I am petrified that I will fail to be discursive rather than descriptive, and that I will forget to include literature that is essential – or, even worse, that I will fail to even know of the existence of some important citation or other. It makes me shudder to think that 6 whole chapters of writing – paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph – are waiting for me to draft, read, denounce, redraft, edit, tweak, trash and draft again. I’m scared that I will not be able to finish on time, that May will come and I still won’t have anything to show my supervisors – not even a working draft. I will be disowned by my supervisors and evicted from my office, and left cold and penniless on the streets, never to see the holy light of academia ever again, and will die a recluse under some university cafeteria table, muttering statistical formulae and critical theory gibberish to myself.

If you’re newly starting a PhD, be warned: Yes, the process is rewarding (occasionally, eventually), but there are also many times – long periods, in fact – when the road ahead of you looks never-ending, and it can be difficult to keep going because you will often be unsure how to do so.

It’s fine…I’m going to get out of this ditch – I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.

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.

Friend of WikiLeaks

June 2017
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The Final Countdown

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