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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.

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.”

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.

Data collection for the winter has started.

I keep telling myself this is my last study.

That doesn’t seem to help.

I was reading a critique paper from my field last night and it just dawned on me what a vast area of intellectual space our knowledge already covers, even in a relatively new topic like mine. Research and theory in my area has virtually exploded in the last 15 years, and the more you read about it, the more sure you are that you couldn’t possibly come up with something new, and useful, to add to it.

So it’s daunting to think about my PhD, and everyone’s PhDs, being “an original contribution to knowledge.”

I’m collecting data for my last study and I’m supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge with it. It seems simple on the face of it, but when you sit on it for a while you realise each chapter of your thesis is essentially a paper in itself, and each paper should be of publishable quality. And by the time you work those brain cells to read all the literature to critique it to come up with the idea to design the project to do the research to write it up to edit it to realise it’s completely wrong to go back and start from scratch to do it all over again to write it up again to edit and delete and rewrite it to get it all bound and sent off to your examiners on time- someone else has already done it all! Ping! Sorry! Your contribution is no longer original!

There have already been several close shaves which I have survived, in which I have read some seminal paper or other that I had not come across previously, and have been shocked to find the sheer similarity between some of the authors’ arguments and the arguments I have been trying to substantiate through my own writing. For a moment, I enter a hysterical state of terror that everything in my thesis has already been done, and hence its contribution will be completely unoriginal, and even worse than that, I have no knowledge that all this original work already exists, and I will go into my viva thinking my thesis is great only to be interrogated by my examiners and found to be utterly ignorant about anything to do with my subject matter, whereupon they will eat me alive like savage rabid thesis-gobbling monsters.

Then I calm down.

The work you produce in your thesis is unlikely to have been done before, at least in the precise way you have done it. If you hunt around and dig deep, you will, in all likelihood, find something that is original, and that’s your original contribution to knowledge. Reiterate that thing through the whole thesis, highlight it here and there, blow a trumpet about it and put it in the closing remarks. That’s what your examiners are interested to see.

Somehow – and I’m not quite sure how, yet – I’ll find a way of articulating my thesis. I’ll find a way of explaining just what I mean to say, and of showing the world my examiners that it is new and useful and exciting.

 

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July 2020
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The Final Countdown

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