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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.

Years ago, I think some time in the mid-1990s, there used to be a TV commercial in Australia for Pantene shampoo. Mandatorily for a shampoo commercial, it contained a woman (in this case Rachel Hunter) with long, squeeky-clean hair, smiling and twirling about and flicking her hair over her shoulder, which soared gracefully in slow motion through the air, catching the light and shining its dazzling shine before settling softly on her back. Then the voiceover would say, “Pantene. For hair so healthy, it shines.” Then the camera would cut back to Rachel, who, gently caressing her hair, would say: It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

If you don’t remember it or haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the link below. It’s hilarious. And it has obviously had a large enough impact to be available on Youtube today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EweM_ILVt4

Anyway, after finding out the external examiner I wanted for my viva wouldn’t be coming, I got to thinking about this commercial’s tagline and to what extent, if any, it might apply to PhD students’ motivation. If you haven’t started thinking about your thesis examiners yet, trust me, it’s nerve-wracking. Usually it all goes well at the end, but until you come to a point in your viva where the examiners have both agreed to examine you, you’ve waited out the 6 to 8 weeks that you have to wait out for them to read the thesis, they’ve made it to the viva without catching on fire, being kidnapped, or succumbing to bubonic plague, and the ice has been broken between them and yourself, it is nerve-wracking. In the months leading up to the viva, which I’m in the middle of waiting out right now, it feels like the frustration caused by knock-backs and hiccups in the planning will go on forever and I will never make any progress, and all the rejections from countless examiners will eventually lead to me going mad and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, never to see the light of day again.

Sometimes it really feels like it’s never going to happen. ‘It’ being whatever short- or long-term goal I’m trying to achieve at any given time, particularly ones for which I must rely partly or wholly on other people. I hate commitment because ‘other people’ often includes people who are unreliable, unknowledgeable, careless, and disinterested, however well-meaning they might be. There are so many things out of my control that could go wrong. My examiners – even if we eventually find them and get them to actually agree to examine me – might catch on fire, be kidnapped, or succumb to bubonic plague on exactly the day of my viva. Worse than this, I might catch on fire, be kidnapped, or succumb to bubonic plague on exactly the day of my viva.

Then the whole thing would be postponed until goodness knows when – if I struggle for 3 weeks to get just two of my supervisors to a meeting at the same time on the same day, I guess it could take months to co-ordinate two completely unacquainted professors, one of whom is based elsewhere in Europe.

Suddenly a hologram of Rachel Hunter pops up in my head. It won’t happen overnight, she says, but it will happen.

I burst into laughter.

Whatever happens folks, we’re getting there. We’re taking steps forward and getting it wrong, then changing direction, realising we’ve walked around in a circle, then moving forward again. We’re going to get there in the end.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

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.

I don’t really know where I’m going today. Multiple insane myriads of issues require my attention and I’m finding it hard to repond to each one positively and constructively. I used to think assignments were difficult to juggle as an undergrad; Now it’s my job. And although it’s rewarding at times, most of my days are spent in a kind of half-delirium, wandering from one piece of work to another trying to be productive and still taking four times as long as I think I should.

“So what’s your thesis about?” people keep asking. I don’t know. In an ideal world we would know what we want to do before we started, we’d have a blueprint that never changes, and justifications for everything that can’t be rebutted. But it just doesn’t work like that. You start with a vague idea and then you end up learning so much on the way. In the space of three years, you change direction multiple times, reconsider your aims, rethink your purpose, and alter your conclusions. It’s almost a relief to know that things won’t stay the same forever, that one day, even after a long time, I will close this chapter of my life and move forward. “But how can I move forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?” asks Lennon!

My thesis is definitely different now from what it was a year ago or six months ago or last week. Or, more precisely, the way I think about it is different, and it keeps changing every minute. I can only hope by the time I get to my viva my thinking will be at its best.

Sometimes working on a PhD is overwhelming and you lose your way. I am probably at the lower end of losing-your-way proneness and often feel as though I am lost on an ongoing basis! Yet I am making progress. I have published my first paper from the research and am submitting my second one this week. And I have two more papers yet to come this summer. How they will fare in the world of peer-review remains to be seen. Yet I have hope for them. I have hope for many things.

Despite all the crap that’s going on in my life, I enjoy the possibility of things turning out alright in the end. This is more about the way we tend to think about events retrospectively – in a positive light – than the way they actually turn out. Nevertheless, I have hope that my thesis, my PhD, my family and friends, will be fine in the end.

And then we will work out, somehow, how to go forward.

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The Final Countdown

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