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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.

Something many of us fail to remember during our PhDs, while we are busy collecting data, reading papers, and whinging about how stressful, chaotic, and daunting the whole process is, is how rewarding and enjoyable being a researcher has the potential to be.

There are so many people who wake up each morning and feel grumpy because they have to get up and go to work at a job they dislike, and they do everything they can to procrastinate, avoid tedious errands, and get out of work early in order to find time for things that make them happier. Conversely, most of us ended up in research because we have (or at least had!) an interest in our subject area and wanted to work on our own project to advance understanding in that area. How many people work a job in which they are able to read literature and collect data on a topic they love? (This is, of course, with the exception of the nausea that follows reading/data overload…).

What’s intriguing to me about this is that, when you’re a researcher, work and play often become enmeshed, entangled, and intertwined. The same aspects of our work both frustrate and inspire us. We are fascinated by whatever branch of science or art we study, yet at times we come to despise it. We get cranky, and incredulous, and we slink around the lab looking gloomy and sighing a lot.

I for one, sigh a lot.

There’s a thin line between work and play in research. Often it disappears altogether. There are all sorts of perks and downsides. Today a colleague who’s supposed to be at home writing up walked into the office and handed me a box of Belgian chocolates. Now, I am faced with the dilemma of eating the whole box in celebration of all I’ve achieved this semester, or rationing them out over the next few months in reward of each new milestone I reach with my own writing. Decisions, decisions!

Looking back over the last few years, I see I delved into something I essentially enjoy, but I’ve come to have a love-hate relationship with my work. I love Belgian chocolates and the rush of creating new and exciting projects. I hate coming to the end of the box and feeling a sense of stagnation as I near the end of my work, and transition to write-up.

Ideally, I’d like to have a love-hate-love relationship with my thesis.

I want to end this thing on a high.

 

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.”

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.

Yesterday I did absolutely no work on my PhD.

At all.

I mean, usually I’ll at least make the effort to open one of my draft documents and stare at it for a while, willing myself to write something, even if it’s just a sentence or two, or I’ll read some papers from my literature folder and will myself to come up with some amazing new research idea. But yesterday I did nothing at all. I spent the morning bumming around on the internet, wandering aimlessly from one site to another, just looking at different things out of curiosity. Then I had lunch. After lunch I was exhausted from doing so much nothing all morning, so I napped for about 4 hours. Then I spent a couple hours reading a humorous self-help book (I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me!, by Stuart Smalley, but really by Al Franken – a brilliant collection of pick-me-up diary entries). Then I had dinner. After dinner, I watched Ellen, Jay Leno, and Conan. Then I went to bed.

And all through the day I couldn’t believe how exhausted I felt by having done nothing. It’s like I’ve been without inspiration for my PhD for so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have that get-up-and-go attitude towards my work. Right now I’m in a place that’s eerily quiet, except for my own inner voice telling me that hope seems to be fading, and misty that I cannot even see what’s around me.

And the one thing that’s constantly in my mind, day and night, is that I want to, have to, submit in May; that there is so much work still to be done; and that I have absolutely no idea how to do it.

Yes, this is me, the one who used to work 85-hour weeks on my PhD, enthusiastically planning studies, writing up papers, and dreaming about the next conference in my diary. Well, OK, I still work 85-hour weeks, but most of those hours are spent worrying about my PhD rather than actually doing anything productive.

Where O where did that energetic young lass go!? I feel like I’m a decade older than I am. I guess PhDs age you, like wine. I’m just not sure the result is as sought-after. Hmm…

Yes. Today I blog from the quiet, misty depths of complete, unadultered inspirationlessness.

I have an ideal ‘me’ in my mind I’d like to be. In those inspirational Hollywood films where a protagonist struggles and struggles, and then finally finds a way to succeed. In those time-lapse montages they have, of the protagonist working away, diligently, with intense concentration, we get lost in the soundtrack of slow, yet fast-forwarded progress. In Misery, the trapped Paul Sheldon sits at his typewriter, tapping away tirelessly at the keys, churning out page after page of work, stretching, grimacing, straining his neck, churning out more pages. Eventually, he finishes the book.

Mine is still hopelessly at its beginning.

I guess I’m blogging about this because I feel better blogging than not doing anything at all. At least this gives me half a chance to reflect on how I feel and what I think, and maybe, how I could find a way to get out of this annoying ditch.

I really just want to get out!

Here are some of the strategies I’ve tried:

  • Constructing those tables that list every section and subsection of a given thesis chapter, their main argument, the lesser points within that argument, and the evidence to be cited there in;
  • Just free writing without any planning;
  • Writing in a casual style as if I were explaining the material to an interested lay person;
  • Typing on the computer;
  • Writing with pen and paper, old school;
  • Writing at my desk;
  • Writing on the balcony with a sea view;
  • Writing in my journal randomly, alternating at will between my PhD, life, and my PhD again.

Annoyingly, none of the above has worked lastingly, and I just don’t feel I have produced as much work to as high a standard as I could or should have. I feel I’ve been mucking around, without a clear goal in mind, except that I want to finish my PhD, and that I haven’t really been doing much to achieve that.

Just like the grass always looks greener on the neighbour’s side of the fence, I guess everyone else’s PhD looks better from here compared to mine. And as much as I know it’s a misconception, it really does seem like everyone else has better ideas, is doing better research, has published more papers, is writing more words, paragraphs, and chapters, and is just generally more worthwhile than I am as a researcher.

So there.

Now, I know that’s not true. I know, and believe, that we – all PhD students – are about as good as each other. That’s why there are generally fewer classification systems for doctorates than there are for, say, undergraduate or Masters degrees: Because it’s generally accepted that whoever is smart enough to start a PhD in the first place, be fired with enthusiasm for it, keep working on it diligently even after that enthusiasm fades, endure the late nights, early mornings, all-nighters, cracked knuckles, sprained spines, throbbing eyeballs, splitting migraines, and aching wrists that come with the job, take the criticism, defy the marking-undergraduate-papers-induced insanity, write the thesis, and somehow make it to the viva alive, will get their PhD, and there isn’t really much point in classifying different levels of PhDs.

So where am I going with all of this?

Well, I have no idea. That’s what I love about blogging – it’s perfectly acceptable to have no idea what you’re trying to say. Unlike writing your thesis. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

From the quiet misty depths of inspirationlessness, signing off now.

Peace.

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!