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Sunflower girl, I’m not going to tell you about this post, but I hope you stumble upon it all the same.

The sentiments I hold resemble yours uncannily. In my own way, I’ve been waiting 6 years to be free. Now that time seems so close, and I’m desperate not to let the chance slip out of my hands.

Graduating from primary school, when I had to write what I’d be doing in 10 years’ time for our class of ’01 yearbook, I wrote “Travelling around the world.” It’s going on 12 years since that time and I haven’t travelled nearly as much as I would have liked to. I still feel held back. For 6 years now there’s been the constant pressure of university. First essays, reports, and exams. Then thesis, thesis, thesis. These years have been a blur and sometimes I can hardly distinguish one year from another. And all along there has been the constant feeling that I was still a little girl, still not ready to go out into the world and grow up.

Now, I feel the time to grow up has drawn closer than ever. To grow up and be free.

You’re still in my thoughts and prayers, and I want you to know I have faith in you as a valid human being.

Soon, you, too, will be free.

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I think it’s psychosomatic.

Yesterday I felt elated at it being the first day of the new year, the year of 2013.

The year in which I will turn 23.

The year in which I will submit my thesis, have my viva, and gain my PhD.

The year in which I will start jobhunting in earnest, and hopefully land in a decent first post.

The year in which, after nearly 20 years in full time education, I will cease to be a student, at least officially.

Yesterday the rain that had been drizzling miserably over a cold and overcast London finally stopped. The sky was clear and the air clean and crisp.

Yesterday I felt hopeful that good things will happen this year.

Perhaps that feeling is yet to return.

But for the time being, today, I feel sick. I’ve spent the last 10 days or so, since Christmas, pushing myself to the limits of my sanity trying to rewrite Chapter 1 of my thesis. Surprisingly, the process proved less difficult than I had anticipated, and although I am only about 85% finished today (I had hoped it would be fully written by now), I have come into the campus to type up and send to my supervisors what I have written.

I am not at my desk in the office.

For some reason I feel estranged from it, and from the people I know will be there today. And if not today, then tomorrow, or Friday, or next week. They will have to come in eventually.

They’re not bad people. They just make me feel sick.

I’ve come to feel sensitive at the mention of names, places, things. Some of them remind me of the past, and some of them remind me of things inside my head. Things that may or may not exist, but that stay with me and make me feel sick anyway.

It feels like a kind of knot in my stomach that makes it impossible to eat, like my appetite has dwindled slowly to nothing. Throwing up doesn’t seem to be out of the question. I’m sitting in relative darkness in a deserted corner of a computer lab. I’m feeling sick, and also the constant, numbing pressure to stop procrastinating and type.

I’m probably going to be here until 4 or 5 this afternoon.

I can’t afford to procrastinate.

Other things have happened, too. A paper I had under review for the last 3 months came back with the request to revise and resubmit. Apparently the two reviewers were in almost direct disagreement; one was positive, the other suggested rejection. The comments were fair, I’m not taking it personally, but nevertheless the prospect of revisiting the same material to make revisions, and then going through another round of the holding-my-breath-for-the-decision process after resubmission, is daunting. It’s making me feel sick.

My viva is in July. Before, it felt like July 2013 was light years away. Now the calendar doesn’t say “2011” or “2012” any more. The neat little 2013 in my diary pages that I will work my way through as I write – I flick through them like one of those flipbook animations. The time is going to pass so quickly, I’m going to be confused, baffled, bamboozled. I’m not going to know where the days have gone.

I feel sick in my stomach, and half asleep in this dreary darkness of a deserted computer lab. The tap-tap-tapping of my fingers on the keyboard is the only sound I hear.

I’m going to start typing now.

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.

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.

My lab colleagues, though I am sure they have problems of their own, wander into the office at half past ten to find, though I am sure they take it for granted, that the kitchen is clean and freshly disinfected, the printer cartridge has been replaced, the heating adjusted, and the door propped open so newcomers don’t have to punch the keycode in. All these things are done by a certain lab fairy, who gets in 3 hours earlier than them because she has to submit her thesis in May. Sometimes, she feels a little bitter towards them.

labfairy

“And I shall cast a spell on thee, and thy experiments shall fail!”

And however much I’ve lived and breathed psychology for the best part of a decade, there are days when my humanness gets the better of me, and I fall prey to feeling lonely and sorry for myself because nobody understands me, everything is failing, and it’s such a cruel, unfair world. These are my vices, my biases, the things that get me down. These are the things that make me worried, withdrawn, and grumpy on the inside of my stoic scientist exterior.

Despite the fact that I will, I hope, finish my PhD in relatively record time, it feels like I have been working in these labs forever. My exclusive love relationship with my research has become more of a love-hate relationship of late, and, today, this seems to have morphed into a hate-only affair.

It’s normal, though a little unhealthy, but I’m going to confess: Today I hate my thesis. I hate every aspect of it – its topic, its style, its content, its ideas. Not only do they make me feel nauseous, I find them inherently repulsive. Strangely, this maddening repulsion manifests in my behaviour as a bittersweet kind of screw-it attitude, which makes me laugh disturbingly when things go wrong, sometimes do things wrong on purpose, and, most of all, my colleagues look at me as if I’m a rabid flesh-eating alien.

crazy-student

“I swear, dude, I’m like, totally fine!”

In my (probably biased and naive) mind, this research will never amount to anything, and, in comparison to the research of many of my colleagues and postdocs in this place, is inferior, boring, and useless. It’s also profoundly bizarre – located at the crossroads of psychology and a mismatched spectrum of other social sciences, it sits awkwardly in the middle of the road, no doubt liable to be squashed to bits by oncoming traffic. Other people’s research seems so simple, so elegant, so…neat. Mine, on the other hand, struggles to fit into any box. It’s difficult even for me to describe it in a way that makes sense, let alone explain how it might be useful for anything. I think it might have something to do with the fact that my work is wholly non-experimental, which is unusual in my department, which houses a string of high-tech labs up and down the hall just outside, where most of my colleagues spend the days running bamboozling, wires-coming-out-of-their-ears experiments and having experimental meetings to talk about experimental stuff. Because of my epistemological stance and patched-together interdisciplinary locatedness, I am a bit of an outsider! I guess I can’t blame them for being indifferent towards me.

Life is inherently unfair. I don’t believe it has to be that way, and I believe that if we – all of us together – resolved to eradicate injustice and inequality, we could do it. But, at this point at least, this is only likely to happen in an ideal world. PhDs are no exception to unfairness. Other people will have sexier research, geekier equipment, more celebrated publications than you. Their achievements will outshine yours and will be trumpeted louder and farther afield. There won’t necessarily be a justifiable reason for any of this – it will just be. You will try your best to soldier on in the academic jungle, but there will be times when you just think, screw it.
You will run away and hide in a cave – or, more likely, under your bed or at a bar – and sulk for a while. It will seem like the end of the world and a return to academia will feel like an absolute no-go.

Then, I think, you will resolve to come out again, and find a way to go on.

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.

 

It’s been silent in this place today. There are a couple postdocs down the hall, in another office. But in this one there’s just me. No one else has turned up today.

I don’t feel lonely when I’m working at my desk at home because I only have one desk – there isn’t supposed to be anyone else working there. But here, I’m in an office of about 100 square metres floorspace, amidst rows of work stations and 11 PCs besides my own (apologies to the Apple lovers – I’m allergic to Macs). It’s not a massive place, but the expanse of empty space feels so much bigger when you’re alone in it. All you can hear is the quiet tap-tap-tapping of your fingers on the keyboard.

I wish I could work in a lab where everyone was around more, where there was more cohesion and less indifference between people. When you work in the silence a lot, it gets so profound that you sometimes give up believing that you will ever achieve your goals. You tend to let your hope slide.

You start to remember the past.

I know, that my playing isn’t the perfect one, like this mad world is. But I know, that if I’ll try to do all my best to improve it, I’ll gain the result, which I want. So, I want to wish you to save your good spirits and optimistic view at life, and to continue to improve this imperfect world and do it better. Because, when we have any goal and when we believe in this goal and know, that this goal is good and worthy, we will achieve it one day anyway.

This post is for a dearly beloved friend of mine. She knows who she is, but sometimes she doesn’t know that she is beautiful.

Not sexy or glamorous or attractive. I mean beautiful. In her soul.

I first met this young woman in science class at high school. I had come fresh out of Catholic primary school, where I had become accustomed to being different from other children, and I had prepared myself for several more years of the same. But this young woman made me laugh. She cracked jokes, she talked to me, she liked me for who I was.

She shared her chips with me at lunchtime.

She watched the magpies with me.

We were in special maths class together.

Even when I moved away to the other side of the world, and we gradually grew up, I still felt like this young woman was a beautiful person in my life. At times in my adolescence when I childishly hated everyone and everything around me I could never hate her, because all she radiated was friendliness and warmth. Her messages to me made, and still make, me feel like a valid human being, because she writes with honesty and with a passion for what she believes in.

This young woman’s life has by no means been perfect. Like us all, and perhaps more than her fair share, she has carried the burdens of sadness and sorrow on her back for many years. There have been people whom she has loved more than they deserved, people who have hurt her, people who have angered her with their complacency about the injustice in the world. There are certain demons that plague her, and she fights hard to overcome them. Through all this, although it is painful, she soldiers on.

I have never told her this, but this young woman has always reminded me of sunflowers. Sunflowers are big, and bright yellow, like the sun, their outsides are happy and joyous and they cannot help but spread a smile across the face of those that see them. Their insides, though, are darker, they conceal sadness and thoughtfulness about the world, but they are also deep. There is much inside them that we cannot see. Sunflowers, like this young woman’s life, remind me of hope, of hope at times and in places where you would not expect it.

I just want to say I love you, whoever you are. And I want you to know that I still read your messages, when you post them, and your honesty and passion for the world make me feel content that I know you, and that I have a friend whose soul is so beautiful.

Dearly beloved friend, whatever happens, never stop shining your light…

I wish more people in the world were like you.

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!

Answer me this: How do you go forward if you don’t know which way you’re facing?

Hm?

Lennon? Chekhov? Fellow PhD enthusiasts in the blogosphere?

Because right now I have no idea where I am in this vast, sprawling, hopelessly chaotic, admittedly fascinating but oh so exhausting PhD.

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

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