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Everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear . . . but we must work. -Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

Yes, dear Chekhov, work we must!

In what seems like an impossible task (and there are many such tasks, along the road to PhDs), we must not fail to see the opportunities, the positivities, and the little things that make us smile. While we are labouring over drafts of hundreds of thousands of words, correcting, editing, rewriting altogether, while our experiments are failing and our software malfunctioning, while, because we live in the quiet, timeless bubble of academia, life seems to pass us by- there is hope.

We will work hard, and we will keep up hope, and one day, not so far away, we will accomplish what we set out to achieve.

 

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In retrospect, I was wrong about last Monday. It’s actually today that’s manic. Today I have to:

  • Type up a letter for the landlord’s solicitor
  • Photocopy a stack of receipts
  • Set up my last study and start data collection
  • Type up a case file on my external examiner for my supervisor
  • Type of an abstract to append to my next paper and submit it to its journal
  • Catch up with my supervisor
  • Book train tickets for a conference in December
  • Draft out the next section of my thesis

But you know what? I got into the office at 7:30am today and got straight to work. And so far everything’s been panning out fine.

It’s times like these I remember this is the reason I love doing my PhD. Because I like it when I make it work.

I’m meandering a bit but I’m on my way out of the maze.

I’m flying  to London tomorrow.

I hate short-haul flights. It’s bizarre, but I tend to feel sicker, and get more bored and restless, on flights under 5 hours than I do on 24-hour, half-way-across-the-planet globe-trotting adventures with layovers on three continents. On short-haul flights, there are no in-flight movies (not even Mary Poppins, which I once watched 3 times on re-run on one particularly mind-blowing flight from Frankfurt to Melbourne…great times!), no meals, no blankets, and (particularly in the case of Europe in September) no interesting views from the window, because it’s mostly overcast. I’m just lucky I have a daytime flight this time because the only thing I find more sickening than a short-haul flight across Europe is a short-haul flight across Europe in the middle of the night, which disrupt my pathetically sensitive digestive system and make me sick, usually at some really awkward moment, like just before landing.

I hate short-haul flights.

Although I’m not looking forward to the flight, I am looking forward to being back in my office, sitting next to other people madly pursuing their PhDs, being occasionally overwhelmed by the sheer number of errands demanding my attention, feeling guilty that I’m neglecting my research when I do attend to said errands, and proactively searching for any opportunity to procrastinate with my fellow lab inhabitants (this has, on occasion, included some pretty pathetic procrastinatory activities, like cleaning the fridge…and taking out the recycling).

It’s going to be a crazy year.

Despite almost constantly feeling inadequate as a researcher (“Stinkin’ Thinkin’!”, as Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley would say) and being convinced I’ll never make sense of my project, write it up, and submit it on time, I think I do still have hope that I’ll make it somehow, and determination to work hard.

With hope and hard work, I’m pretty sure you can do anything.

As soon as I touch down, I have to get started on the following insane list of tasks:

  • Catch up with my long-suffering supervisors
  • Set up and start running my last set of PhD studies
  • Set up and start running the second part of an over-ambitious side project I naively agreed to do last year
  • Write my thesis chapters from the manuscript drafts I have lying around
  • Attend various conferences to present papers I have sort of forgotten about because there are so many months between submitting an abstract and presenting it
  • Write and submit a few papers
  • Do some teaching, but mercifully less than I have done in previous years
  • Send out various applications to join things, like learned societies, which I’ve been putting off for 2 years
  • Write my postdoc proposal and send postdoc applications
  • Convince myself that I will get through my viva without having blanked out, fainted, or died

I will keep up hope, and I will work hard. Even though the simplest things often take so long to get right, even when I will myself not to be a perfectionist.

I tend to slap myself on the forehead and shriek, “Stop it! Cut the perfectionism!” amidst worried looks from my lab colleagues. Bless them. Although my eccentricity has been long established, people still get concerned about my self-deprecating outbursts.

I will keep up hope and work hard. That’s my thesis!

Today I wrote the first 775 words of my thesis. And it was hard work.

Now, only 6 chapters and 79225 words to go.

I’m getting there!

Today I am at a point where I have completed all trivial ‘bits and pieces’ of work that have plagued me over the summer: Things like writing and submitting conference abstracts (which take a hell of a long time to get right, despite being only 250 words), registering for conferences (these also take a long time because of bureaucratic funding applications, forms, committees, and authorising people being on leave), preparing lecture slides (the set I did for a 2-hour talk took 2 whole weeks to perfect, twice as long as I had thought originally), setting up and completing side projects (these drag on for weeks when your heart isn’t in them), rewriting papers (that were rejected by particular epistemologically biased journals), and PROCRASTINATING (no explanation required). So, for the last 8 weeks I’ve been madly rushing to get these ‘bits and pieces’ done, as much as is possible between cyberdistractions and periods of inspirationlessness, often beating myself up for not going fast enough.

Now the bulk of it is over, done, complete; for better or worse. Now I have a little time left to make the decision I’ve been expertly avoiding, evading, and escaping from for 2 years: Where is my research going? What am I going to do next?

And then this is the part where I run from my office, screaming and flailing my arms, unable to endure the incredulity of not knowing what to do for a second longer, and finally losing all tangible hope that I could ever come up with a theoretically meaningful concluding study for my thesis. I wander around, dazed and muttering to myself, for several days, before I am escorted by a pair of men in white coats to some pristine relaxation resort in the countryside, where I spend the rest of my days swinging from deep, inconsolable despair to insane, nonsensical mania at my miserably failed PhD.

It is almost a pity the reality is so much tamer!

In reality there are no mad outbursts, no fits of rage, no (happy?) endings in psychiatric wards. In reality there is just calm little me, calmly working myself into a sweat at how I can calmly finish my thesis while staying calm, all the while staying calm, calm, calm. No drama. Just need to make calm decisions, even though there is so little time.

I remember some of the things I said before about hope, and hard work. Those were probably some of the best reflections I’ve made about my experiences in this thing. Hope and hard work are the two things that have always carried me through the crises, the binges, the periods of sadness, and the moments of madness. I’ve afforded myself the opportunities to take to my bed, indulge in self-pity and wallow in laziness, but after that I’ve willed myself to get up, tidy up, and get back to work. Since it hasn’t killed me I guess it will make me stronger. And it will make you stronger, too!

In finally coming to a point where I can’t procrastinate any longer, I suppose only hope and hard work can save me now.

This feels like a tight corner, where there is no room to move – a corner whose walls have been edging inwards bit by bit ever since I started, and which have finally wedged me right in. I can’t move anywhere until I decide, and I can’t decide until I think about it, and I can’t think about it until I stop procrastinating! This is why I love procrastinating so much. Because it lets us do fun little things while the big important stuff gets put on the waiting list.

Today is one day when hope and hard work must come to the rescue and push me to finally name my next move.

Today I’m going to choose to have hope, and I’m going to choose to work hard. And I’m going to choose to be happy because those two things are going to carry me through to the end of this great journey.

Well, after over a fortnight of air-headedness in relation to my entire PhD enterprise, I think I’m finally getting back into the habit of working hard.

Yesterday I resolved to create a meticulous plan of work covering the next 8 months to submission. I’ve found this immensely motivating in the past, when I used to exist in a bizarre kind of high tide/ low tide work arrangement (periods of not much going on, then high-stress periods of a thousand things to be done at once, then not much going on again). The plan of work essentially involves mapping out every single thing, however big or small, that needs to be done over the time period being covered, over a week-by-week and month-by-month timeline. Mine end up looking a bit like those timelines on Facebook Walls, except they go horizontally. In fact, they are exactly like a Gantt chart, although their visual arrangement is different, as for some reason I find Gantt charts irritating to look at (might be something to do with all those coloured blocks).

Sitting down to reflect on the plan in my journal (I have a notebook-type journal to reflect on my PhD as well as this blog…talk about procrastination), I noticed that the time ahead, despite still appearing nerve-wracking and chaotic from where I’m standing now, is actually clearer now in terms of what I have to do in order to achieve what I want to achieve. In other words, whereas before my idea of what I’ll be doing over the next 8 months was vague and blurry, now it’s so much more definite, detailed and mapped out (even if only provisionally) through the timeline. In still other words, I now know where I’m going!

For me, having a clear plan in my mind, and on paper in front of me, of everything I need to do, is reassuring about my capacity to work hard and achieve good things. I’ve got something to do each day, and that motivates me to get it done – not just to be able to tick the boxes, but to have a sense of progress that I’m gradually moving towards more and more significant milestones. In other words, knowing where I’m going motivates me to work hard to get there. Or in still other words, I’m getting there!

And sitting here now reflecting on this whole thing (there’s a lot of this reflection stuff in social sciences), I can’t believe I didn’t realise earlier how work plans and motivation to work are so closely linked for me. I suspect this is because I was going through that inspirationlessness phase for a fortnight and therefore didn’t have any motivation to reflect, although seeing as I work in the social sciences then I’d expect I should reflect on that sort of thing regardless, seeing as I was able to reflect on my own inspirationlessness. Put shortly, even on reflection, I don’t really understand why I wasn’t able to reflect on why I was feeling the way I was, and find a solution to it faster. In fact, I have experienced this sort of confusion over what does and doesn’t motivate me to work and what triggers my inspirationlessness and what works to fix it quite a lot, even as an undergraduate, and I still don’t understand what sense I should make of it.

And you know what? I probably never will.

Because however much doing a PhD is a journey designed to help us becomes doctors (from the Latin doctoris, ‘teacher’), or learned individuals of our discipline, it just as much leaves us still bewildered at our own inner workings of thought and emotion, even after so many years of work.

A thesis is a thesis, it doesn’t change. What changes is just the way I happen to think about it.

The way I think about my ability to write my thesis is dichotomous, similar to the way I think about the significance of my research. On good days, I’m upbeat and and hopeful that examiners will be interested in my research and agree that it could, one day, be useful in the real world. On bad days I lose hope and find it hard to conceive of the smallest chance that anyone would take my work seriously. In the same way, there are days when I feel like I can take on the hugest writing task without a struggle, and other days when composing a single sentence is the most impossible thing in the universe.

So how do I feel today?

Today I feel thankful that other people like me take notice of these posts and take time to like them or even leave a comment. I haven’t acknowledged that before but I’d like to today, because today I also feel hopeful. Because maybe, if I can figure out how, I can, actually, write my thesis and submit in May.

This God forsaken thesis!

Yes, we’ve come to the point where the thesis itself has become a God forsaken entity in my mind. I’m trying my very best to hold the thought that it was all worth it:

Image

What I’m still worried about today is the fact that hope alone isn’t enough to write a thesis. Along with hope, there’s also another essential factor – hard work. I’m generally a hard worker (no, really) and get a lot done when I know what I want to do, but when I’m confused about how to go about doing something, I spend a lot of time walking around doing less important tasks, procrastinating, and publishing angst-ridden blog posts. Ahem.

A lot of the hope I have today I’ve derived from remembering the good things I’ve achieved so far in my PhD journey. For example, I have:

  • Been to several European and International conferences and presented my papers
  • Published two peer-reviewed papers, one of which is derived from my own PhD
  • A third manuscript under review
  • Served as a board member on three university committees
  • Lectured and tutored widely on psychology modules
  • Received various bursaries, grants, and scholarships
  • Devoured a list of professional training activities

Having said that, there are undoubtedly others like me who have accomplished far better during their own PhD journeys, and I think that’s something we should all applaud. I guess when finishing the journey seems impossible, it helps to look back and acknowledge the good things we’ve achieved, and remember that having achieved them we can continue our journey and achieve even better things.

So where does the hard work come from?

Well, despite having worked hard until now, I really don’t know. I guess we’re motivated to work hard when we believe in ourselves and in what we’re doing and when we feel confident that it’s in our hands, and our hands alone, to produce a great piece of work. We work hard when we anticipate that huge sense of contentment when the work is finished and receiving well-deserved praise from whatever commentators are examining it.

Today I have hope for my thesis but I’m still unsure of what to do. I was hoping writing this post might help, and maybe it has. But I’m still unsure how.

If you’re reading this post and feel any sense of similarity, have hope! We’ll get through this together. Some day, years down the line we’ll look back on these days and think, “You know all that research? It was actually not that bad.” 

Potentially.

Theoretically.

Pending further research.

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The Final Countdown

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